We moved to Utah in January of 2005 and I have been making visits back to my home in northeast Nebraska once or twice a year since we left sixteen years ago. As much as I loved my life there and as much as my brain is full of so many great memories, very painful circumstances took me away and every return brings memories of the kind of terror that only another mother with a seriously ill and/or dying child can comprehend. Every visit forces me to respond to the reality of those experiences in the middle of the joy of seeing my family and good friends again. Every year, I process the trauma because I really cannot avoid it. Trauma is a nasty beast that holds its loaded gun in the holster waiting to pull its trigger. The slightest thing can make that happen. A drive by a familiar place, an innocent word from someone who knew me before and my heart is pounding in reaction. Thankfully, after 16 years of return visits I’ve processed it, strategized for it and most of all healed so much that this time, I was able to feel the pull of the triggers and let the bullets go right on through and out into space. It was the first visit where I did not fall into a heap of tears or have to take a long fast walk to release the energy in order to return to “normal”. I have been patting myself on the back and allowing myself to feel the joy upon my return. I.am.so.grateful.
One of the most amazing things took place after running into an acquaintance at a softball field. I hadn’t seen this friend since 2004 when her family departed for a mission in Africa. She is a beautiful, resilient woman I enjoyed chatting with as her daughter’s teacher but never really got to know. We exchanged updates and went on our way. The next day a message on Facebook Messenger arrived from her and though I wanted to reply, I knew that if I did it would have be with a true account of myself and real honestly, that can be just too much for many people. Nonetheless, I have worked to damn hard for a pretentious response indicating that I’m equal to the devoted Evangelical Christian school teacher she once knew so I replied with a very short update about my life to which she replied with a question. As I set out to reply the reality of the last time I saw her and what I was actually dealing with at the time was a clear as it has ever been. I just started writing and this is what came to me. I’ve edited out specifics but the gist is still here. I write for my own self as much as for anyone else on a similar journey who might be encouraged to hang in there.
When I was acquainted with you as your child’s second grade teacher, I was on my way out of the worldview that one has to accept Christ in a personal way to be saved (from Hell). I didn’t realize it then, but when H’s eating disorder was killing her and we started seeing the professionals in Omaha, the layers of our lives up to that point started to be addressed in ways that we never imagined would be necessary. At the same time they were layers of dysfunction that we ached to deal with. It was incredible to have a safe place away from home to do just that. H would talk about something that was happening in her life and often we would sit there with our chins dropped and mouths open trying to grasp how we got to that place. The therapists were so full of compassion and nonjudgmental that we found it very easy to open up and deal with things.
H was born 3 months early after my water broke at 13 weeks, resealed and broke 3 more times. It remains a profound miracle that she is here with us. A local OB/gyn told us that we had a less than 1% chance of having a baby after the water breaks that early. It was a profound experience. It was simultaneously an experience of intense suffering for me and for my baby. Suffering that we didn’t know was actual trauma. Trauma altering the developing brain and body of my unborn baby, trauma impacting my sense of safety in the world, trauma that made our bond very difficult because it was so often interrupted by a medical crisis that would separate us and trauma that couldn’t not be dealt with by scripture or prayer alone. H had spent the first month of her life without being held…I had spent that month without holding her. I bond easily with babies and kids but the reality is that what happens in the brain to bond children to their mothers and gives them a basic sense of safety in the world was missed for H and my sense of being her mother was almost entirely a spiritual/intellectual experience instead of a human one. Her eating disorder’s genesis was in this reality.
Even though the psychiatrist told us from the very first appointment that her eating disorder was rooted in this trauma, as I would return home and answer people’s questions about how she was doing etc. the exchanges would too often be very difficult and add to our pain. I stopped going to morning prayer with the teachers before school because trying to pray what they were praying about evil spirits and demons was so unhelpful and shaming, not to mention so far removed from my experience that I couldn’t begin to handle it. Thankfully the administrator let me out of that or I would have had to leave the job altogether. It was the most difficult time of my life. As Dean and I were being given so much grace at Children’s Hospital in Omaha, as H’s literal life was being saved and she was given back to us in a healthier place, I would come home and face incredible opposition to the truth of our situation.
I began to shift away from church and the Christian school beyond teaching my class of students because it became a very unsafe place for me. That said, life in Conservative, pull up your boot straps and get to work Nebraska was full of obstacles in terms of ever healing from the trauma that my family needed to heal from. One reality that caused no small amount of grief was that the world was not as black and white as our faith community and home culture said it was. At face value it would seem that we could have different opinions about things but underneath there was always the search for the exact truth. Unfortunately when the only answer you want is the one right one, it becomes an overwhelming commitment to perfection. When I would share what I was learning about life being much more gray than that, it would create a lot of fear and uncertainty in those hearing me. I struggled to deal with my own growth along the way and found it increasingly problematic to discuss any of it with those in my world back in Nebraska.
What began to happen was that we would go to Omaha for a family session and be so encouraged at H’s growth and progress, have a great discussion on the way home as we processed what we’d learned and then I would go to work the next morning. Every day was a day to arm myself and exist with caution because when I would share something we had learned, it would so threaten this worldview in the hearer that they would have to counter it. Over and over this took place and it was excruciating. I had to hold up the pretense that I was okay with the advice, the strong and repeated suggestion that H was possessed by a demonic spirit and/or just spoiled. There was no other acceptable worldview even though many just watched from afar and supported us as people, it was a brutal existence.
I am solely responsible for Hannah’s admission to Children’s Hospital back then because I was literally watching the life inside her die. I knew before God that if I did not find her genuine help somewhere she would die. She went into their program on the verge of cardiac arrest. We were within hours of losing her. Two weeks later she bled out IN treatment. Her hemoglobin was a 3.9 when they called and told us they had to admit her to the Med/Surg Unit and start her on blood transfusions. They said that she was within minutes to hours of death again. No one had any possible explanation and she was in treatment where the environment was completely controlled. So twice in three weeks, our daughter was almost dead. Those events in themselves were traumatizing for me.
The reality is that because of my lived experiences at that time I was forced to question everything or retreat into some kind of spiritual fog that made no sense. I began to see certain people coming my way and physically turn around and walk away. A close friend gave me a book from some nut job in the deep south who had taken every illness and linked it to a spiritual cause. The author insisted that the reader use only the KJV when thinking through possible causes to an illness. It was literally the most dangerous book I’d read up to that point and ushered in no small amount of confusion. Because it came from a trusted friend I took it but that experience led to the drawing of many severe boundaries with most people because I simply could not sift through all of the nonsense, and there was A LOT of it.
H tried to come home 3 times before the psychiatrist told us that if she did not get long term treatment in a residential facility she would die. We looked at five places and let Hannah choose the one she felt most comfortable with. That was Avalon Hills in northern Utah. That program saved her life. We gulped a bit when she chose it because it was in Utah among Mormons. That said we both knew that we were desperate and she had to buy into the program or it would not work. We also had to make it clear that we did not go there to save Mormons or become Mormon but to find the help she needed to heal. The treatment program was secular and clients were there from all over the country. Because we did not demand that the program be Remuda Ranch in Arizona, an Evangelical treatment center, we chose to leave the pale of the Evangelical world and we have never been able to return.
After multiple failed attempts for Hannah to return to Norfolk the only choice we had was to leave. God opened up the way for us to do that and we do not regret a thing. That said, once you have allowed yourself to leave the pale, your family and community like we did, it’s not possible to go back.
This is the first visit since 2005 that I have been able to come to Norfolk and be entirely my own self. I have a lovely Utah wildflower tattoo on my left calf, I occasionally swear, I rarely read the Bible though much of it is stored in my brain and guides me continually, I pray in secret, I do not even consider someone unsaved or lost and I do my best to simply be fully present in the moment. I came on this trip with the intention of resisting nothing that came at me but just letting it be what it is and love people wherever they are.
As a deeply empathic person and someone who has always had a strong commitment to social justice, I see my growth as the result of the intense shadow work I had to do. Work that has allowed me to discard the beliefs that weren’t really my own to begin with. In other words, apart from abortion, I have always been a liberal-minded person and I am not living in any way inconsistent with the values that encouraged me to become an Evangelical in the first place. I’ve realized that I didn’t ever really believe in a literal or inerrant Bible but said I did because that’s what we say. I would even have said I believed it but as they say the proof is in the life we live. To live with integrity has been incredibly freeing and I can say with sincerity that few of my beliefs are fixed or set in a way that cannot be altered. My core values of love, justice and mercy are however, very fixed.
I am deeply aware of God, the Holy Spirit/Jesus in my life but have no thought that my experience or understanding is the one and only legitimate spiritual one. I have enjoyed deep connections with Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims and others in the places where I’ve lived. I now live in N. Austin with no desire or intent to convert people – trust me, there the Southern Baptists have that down 🙂 . My newest connection has been with a couple from India who are Jainist. Before we left Utah in 2019 we went for a bagel and coffee and met a Muslim couple who sought political asylum in the US from Turkey. Both were PhDs affiliated with Utah State University. We had just been through the bombing of an Islamic temple in Australia and the anti-muslim sentiment in Utah was significant. Dean and I did everything we could to counter that. We introduced ourselves and looked Mehmet in the eyes and said, “We are so glad you are here.” Gonca and he became instant friends. This is the world that I inhabit and I can’t ever go back to the one I knew when you knew me.
I know this is a long answer to your question. I really did genuinely love seeing you in person this week. I was so blessed by that evening because all of the relatives I was with have greatly struggled with my growth over the years and to be with them and be received was pure joy. Author Brene Brown says that people are harder to hate close up and I have used that as a path to stay connected to my family and some dear friends. We don’t agree on most things but love and connection at the core can’t easily be thrown out when we are present with each other. I’m so thankful. It’s been a long road.
Wishing you all the best!!