Monthly Archives: February 2019

Lessons from Keith #7. The Relationship Potluck

Mustard Potato Salad:
When I was younger, I always had a knack for inviting trouble to myself. Drama. Gossip. Meanness.
Until I was in my mid-thirties, it seemed that in every relationship I had, even if it started right, it always took a turn and eventually turned toxic.
Like most people probably would, I assumed that this was always the fault of my friend. Often, it’s only when you’re looking backward that you notice your own trends. And even then, it’s still hard to be completely honest with yourself about it and take the responsibility that is yours.
When I first started getting counseling from Keith, my original cause was Brian’s alcoholism. This was overtaking our lives, and I literally feared that he would die.
The secondary reason I decided to get help was that, once again, a relationship that had begun healthy had now gone awry, and I was being walked all over. Or so it seemed to me anyway.
I anticipated that he would give me a bunch of lines to practice.
“Please don’t do this.”
“When you say that, I feel like ____.”
You know. Typical “beginner boundaries” sort of things.
We did practice little lines. He said it would help to have pre-loaded answers ready to go. I’d spent so much of my life unable to stand up for myself, that sometimes, I sincerely didn’t know how to think on my feet when “situations” arose.
The lines helped, but they didn’t actually fix the problem. They were more like damage control. The lines helped me fix problems after they happened, but I was hoping for an answer that would help me avoid the problems altogether.
We didn’t get to the real heart of the matter for a few months.
“Heather, do you think your friend is trying to hurt you?”
“Well, no. I honestly don’t. But it’s such basic relationship stuff that it seems nearly impossible that I should have to spell it out for her.”
“Yes, but if these things happen and you continue your friendship as though nothing has gone wrong, how will she ever know that your experience of the relationship has begun to shift?”
He was right, ya know. The most powerful way to influence another person’s behavior toward you – whether it’s good behavior or bad – is to simply tell them. They only know what they know. If we don’t tell them, we can only fault ourselves when the pain continues.
Sometimes we tell them in words. “Please stop doing this ____.”
Other times we tell them in facial expressions.
And, other times, it is simply done by creating space. If the space prompts communication and the opportunity to express your “ouch”, then that relationship might have a fighting chance. But if the space turns into more space, you were probably metamorphizing out of that compatibility anyway.
“Heather, when I was young, my family went to an annual church potluck. It was a time when everyone brought their best dish and shared it with everyone else. The unspoken expectation was that we should all sample everything from one another. Of course, this wasn’t really real, but I felt that way about it. I felt that if I didn’t take some of Mrs. Johnson’s apple pie – even though I already had a serving of Mrs. Jones’ pie – she might be offended.
“I remember that there were often more than one offering of potato salad. And I do love a good potato salad. So, dutifully, I would take small bits of each kind. I noticed right away that I greatly disliked Judy’s potato salad because she made it with mustard and mustard kind of makes my stomach hurt. In short, I guess you could say that I didn’t like what she was bringing to the table. But because I didn’t know yet that one of the best ways to help others know what I *do* like is to tell them what I *don’t* like, I just kept scooping Judy’s potato salad onto my plate year after year.
“So, whose fault is it that my stomach kept hurting after eating her potato salad? Mine or hers?”
“I guess it was yours.”
“Yes, it was. And I had to discover that at some point. I learned that if I just kept scooping things onto my plate that made me sick, it was indeed my fault when I was feeling bad.
“You aren’t a child anymore. You no longer have a parent or a teacher who will intercede for you when relationship trouble comes your way. It is now *your* job to evaluate what your friends bring to the table and decide if you like it and want to continue to take heaping scoops of it onto your plate or if, perhaps, what they bring to the table actually makes you sick and in order to not feel unwell, it’s you that needs to cease partaking.”
About two years later after Keith told me the story of the Relationship Potluck, I found myself yet again in another relationship that started out great but was starting to turn toxic.
We’d been friends since our early teens. She was a great source of help and inspiration for me for my divorce. She was kind and generous and willing to listen. She had good advice.
But as I began to change, it was as though our relationship – a relationship that had very certain rules about who was the victim and who was the rescuer – couldn’t handle the strain of my new growth.
For years, she’d helped me think because I was truly not able to think for myself. But now that I was learning to do that, it only took a few months for my autonomy to cause enough discord that she revolted.
Looking back, I can see it plainly, though it was anything but plain at the time. In fact, it was wild and crazy and mystifying. Why would my friend who has watched me suffer and suffer and suffer suddenly turn on me now that I’m beginning to find such staggering relief?
Our very relationship was formed during the many years of my life that I was unwell. That I was sick. I needed constant assistance and guidance. I needed the heavy-lifting sort of support.
And for mostly all the right reasons, some people are drawn to those needs. They are caretakers. They see pain and confusion and rush in to save. This act of saving and being a part of a controlled rescue is their very lifeblood.
But when the victim ceases being one, it can easily turn these sorts of arrangements inside out. Without knowing, both parties can suddenly be incompatible. There is room for change, of course, but if you don’t know what’s happening and all you are experiencing is a sudden realization that there is some mustard in the potato salad and this mustard is making you sick, it can feel like betrayal and malice. Like jealousy and hatred.
For years, she and I tried to work it out. Even though I believe we had both become tired of what each other was bringing to the table in this post-metamorphosis relationship, it was as though memories of “how it used to be” were enough to keep us at work trying to find it again.
So, we would have coffee, or meet for dinner, or visit each other in our homes. And every time, there it was again. Mustard! Yuck!
At that time that this relationship was hitting the fan, my metamorphosis was still in its very early stages, and it took me years further to fully grasp the way the Mustard Potato Salad Potluck integrated with what was going on. But eventually it did click with me. I was able to see that the pain I would find myself in when I engaged with this particular friend was due to the fact that I’d already discovered that what she brought to the table was no longer compatible with me. With my tastes. But because I was afraid of offending her, I kept scooping it on. Just like Keith used to eat Miss Judy’s mustard potato salad.
It’s ok to tell someone that you don’t like mustard in your potato salad. That you don’t like what they bring to the table.
In fact, I’d say that this ability is probably a huge determining factor to the longevity of any relationship. I mean, we all change. We all grow or shrink from time to time. So every relationship will feel these pressures tugging at its seams from time to time. Communication is the elastic that keeps the fabric of the relationship from finally giving way and tearing straight down the middle.
But if the person has been made aware that their actions are causing you pain, and they just refuse to change. Or they say, “This is just my personality.” Then it might be time for you to take a clue and move along.
Always try to fix the problem. After all, friendships are so important. The good ones only come along so many times in your whole life. They’re worth fighting for. They’re worth communicating for.
But if the efforts have been made with no fruit, move on to the next bowl on the table and stop scooping the stuff onto your plate.
Life is short. Don’t just let yourself be harmed over and over by anyone.
And be intentional about filling your plate with the things you love. The things that nourish you. I find that when I am good about keeping my plate filled with people who treat me as I feel I ought to be treated, I am less likely to fall prey to those old kinds of arrangements where I was in relationships that sorta made me sick.

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Lessons from Keith #1. Better Days Ahead

The Crocuses of 2011:
I met Missy at church. Our kids were similar age, and we both attended ladies Bible study. Sometimes our families hung out with each other. Other times we talked on the phone.
She was a soft-spoken woman. Gentle. Poised. Full of good advice. Meek. Exceedingly well mannered. A lovely soul.
One time, we met for coffee. I can’t really recall what lead me to be open that night. It wasn’t like me to do so. I mean, in some ways, I was “open”. I was already into the writing thing. I had a blog. I shared a lot. In fact I overshared. But I also under-shared.
Admitting that your husband is a raging alcoholic doesn’t exactly bring a badge of honor. It might bring on some enjoyable things like pity and adulation for being such a strong woman. But it also brought on the lesser enjoyable things such as difficult advice and the inconvenient bit about not being able to unsay it all. Not being able to take it back the next day and return to your cloud of secrecy.
People often have a hard time believing stories of abuse because, to a healthy person, it doesn’t make sense why someone would keep that secret. It doesn’t seem possible that someone would want to protect their abuser. It doesn’t add up that they would want to be seen differently than they truly are.
But to a victim, this is as real as it gets. You can wish to be known – truly known – but there is no way around the bad parts of the deal, so you forego the good parts that would come from such open confession.
And so, you hide. You lie. You make excuses. You brush it off and minimize. You protect yourself from backlash and judgement, but you also protect yourself from help.
It’s a hard spot to be in. If you’ve never been in it, please try to avoid judging those who are. Please try to be patient. We’re really pretty miserable, and it’s a compassionate thing to not heap misery on top of misery.
Anyway, for some reason, that night, I felt safe. And so I told her.
“Missy, not a lot of people know what I’m going to tell you…”
She sat and listened. She squeezed my hand and offered help. She was kind and didn’t judge. I felt instant relief for having told someone. But I was also afraid that I’d regret it the next day.
She took a slip of paper and put down her dad’s name and phone number. She folded it in half and put it in my hands.
“My dad is a psychologist. He’s really good at this. You need to call him. I know he will help you. Tell him I sent you.”
I promised I would call, but I didn’t.
Like so many people, I was drowning in the ocean but when someone finally came along and tossed a life preserver within arm’s reach, I stopped short of grabbing it right away. I continued to tread. I continued to sink. Help was being offered, but the stakes were so high. I wasn’t ready yet to reach out and grab the buoyant thing.
On the way home, I slid the paper into my coat pocket.
Winter came and went. Spring arrived and that coat got put into my closet for the warm months.
With summer’s arrival, our problems at home ignited to a level they had not yet been. Brian was talking of suicide. He vomited every day. Occasionally there was blood in it. And at the same time, I was experiencing some pretty painful friendship fallout due to my utter inability to have boundaries even with my closest friends.
I sat on the porch one hot afternoon and poured out my troubles to Missy again.
“Have you tried using humor, Heather? Can you just tell her that you don’t like what she’s doing in a way that is lighthearted? If you aren’t comfortable yet with being super direct, maybe you can still accomplish what you need to in a different way. Eventually you’ll get good at it and be able to be more straightforward. You could think of it as practice.
“Also, did you ever call my dad? He is so good at helping people with this very sort of thing.”
I hadn’t called yet, but I was getting ready by now.
Later that week, I dug through my closet and found that coat. The one with the paper in the pocket. The name and the phone number.
I laid it on my desk and looked at it for a few more days before I finally found the courage.
The first time I met Keith and Toni, they seemed to me to be as normal as two people could be. Warm, kind, inviting. Wise, gentle, kind. But just ordinary people.
We think that extraordinary people must look extraordinary, so when they come to us in common skin, we have a hard time seeing them as the angels of mercy that they are. God sends them to us to help us if only we are brave enough to reach out and grab onto them like life preservers.
Keith and Toni were my life jacket during the most brutal moments of my life. Moments on a high and raging sea.
Toni was often in a different room doing her own thing during my sessions with Keith. Or so I thought. I found out later that she would go to another room and pray for us during those hours. She would wage spiritual warfare on my behalf as I sat in the presence of the person who was creating a road map for me. A way out of my Great Trouble.
Why is it that we are afraid to latch onto these angels when they show up in our lives?
We’re afraid to show up at that coffee date, and we’re afraid to pick up that phone. Help sits disturbingly close by, but for some reason, we keep flapping our arms and legs under water. Treading, rather than grasping the outstretched hand.
Do not be afraid to receive the help that is being offered to you in your time of desperate need.
Do not be afraid to accept new ideas and be taught new truths.
And do not fail to see the connection between your most desperate lonely prayers and sighs for help cried in darkness and privacy and the showing up of such a person in your life.
“God help me,” we say.
And He says, “Ok. I will. And I’ve got just the person to do it.”
Keith’s truths were sometimes easy to hear. Like water to a thirsty soul.
But sometimes they were terribly distasteful and went down like jagged and bitter pills.
Week after week, month after month, we would dissect parts of my life. Truthfully, I thought I’d come to him to learn how to save my alcoholic husband’s life and to have better relationships with people by learning how to have boundaries, but he – well, and God – had other plans.
It was time for me to come face to face with my desperate sickness, not Brian’s.
It was time for me to address my great level of brokenness, not Brian’s.
In fact, over time, I learned that Brian’s sickness was deeply connected to my sickness. That, to the same degree that he was unwell, I was unwell.
“This is more than I can bear, Keith. I’m in too much pain. I can’t keep doing this. I’m tired. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. The rejection is so harsh. The questions are so haunting. I can’t find rest. Anywhere. Everything in my life feels like razors and broken glass. I feel like I’m being dragged across it without any mercy.”
“I know honey. But you’re doing it now. You’re doing the hard things and making progress. I know it hurts, but you must not lay back down now that you’re finally standing.”
We had been working together for over six months now. His lessons had begun to permeate not just my conscious self, but also my unconscious self – which is a much harder beast to accomplish.
For the first time in my life, I was saying the things and doing the things that were leading to my freedom. It was as though, he turned a light on for me. And once the light was on, I could see where I was. I could see all the black and death surrounding me. All the spidery cob-webs that filled my every corner. How much fear had overtaken every inch of me. I could see that I was in a terrible, terrible place and that I desperately wanted to get out of it.
“It’s a hard road, my dear. And it’s fair that you should know that. Everything will get shaken up and everything you hold dear will probably be lost in the journey. You need to keep moving, but it’s important that you know how bad it will get. Because I want you to be ready. I want you to *get* ready. Build support around yourself. You’ve gotten caught up in wondering how you will support yourself and the kids and you’ve fooled yourself into thinking that money (or the lack thereof) is the great difficulty ahead. But it’s not. The money will work itself out. People will show up and help you. God will provide. But you are ill-prepared from a support standpoint. You need to build a support network for yourself if you’re going to survive this.
“Start testing the waters. Ask people for help. Let them show their true colors now. You really, really need to know. Be bold, be brave. Ask.”
I did ask. And one of the pastors at my church responded to my request by emailing me a list of other churches that might be better suited to help me in my situation.
It was one more brick added to an enormous wall of injury by the church. This email exchange would stay with me and haunt me for a full decade before I finally set it free and let it be absolved into God’s greater good for me.
But it was hard. It was hard to be faced with the real reality that the people I assumed would be there, were indeed not going to be.
And it wasn’t just my church.
I asked for someone to help me get Cody to school.
“Sure, I charge fifty cents per mile. That covers gas plus wear and tear.”
“I honestly don’t have any money at all.”
“Oh, I understand. I will pray that God will provide for this need then. I wish I could help.”
Weeks of these sorts of harsh realities left me ready for a meltdown at my next session with Keith. I had only very recently cried for the first time at his house. I remember that he actually clapped for me.
“Well, there you have it, ladies and gentleman. She’s a human. And all this time, I thought maybe she was a robot.”
I remember that he hoisted himself from his chair and came across the family room to where I was sitting to sit beside me and comfort me. He was a mountain of a man with a fused leg. The gesture was like medicine to me.
To watch someone be willing to physically struggle to come to my aid but still be willing to do it was balm to my soul. Especially after the brutality of the past couple of weeks as I “asked” my way through friends and family and came up short. So very short.
“Heather, it will pass. One day, it will be over. You must persevere. You must not lay down. If you lay down now, I believe you will die. And there will be no one to save your children. To raise them. To get them out of here. You must stand up even though you are hurting. You must choose to be brave every day even though all you want is to return to the safety of what was familiar. Don’t do it. If you can suffer long enough, you will get to the other side. I promise.”
“But when?” I cried. “HOW LONG? Keith, I don’t have more months of this in me. I’m wasting away because I can’t hold food down and I feel nauseous 24/7. I’m having trouble sleeping and I feel like I’m losing my marbles. How long will it last? How long till the worst is over?”
It was early 2008.
He looked off and counted with his fingers. As though there was a specific formula he was using to calculate how much misery was left for me.
“By the time the crocuses come up in 2011, the worst will be past. You will be at peace. Whatever is going to happen will have happened. You will be on the other side by then.”
“TWO THOUSAND AND ELEVEN?!?!? But that’s three years! I don’t think I can make it through this month, much less three more years.”
“You will survive. You will get stronger. You’re already stronger. But you don’t have a choice. If you don’t do this, your kids will pay the price. And this will all pass to them. If you do this now, you will spare them decades of pain as they will be all that less likely to repeat these patterns.
“Be strong, Heather. Be brave. Keep putting one foot in front of each other. And when it hurts, remember why you’re doing it. It’s for them. Keep them in front of your eyes. At all times.”
He was right.
The crocuses of 2011 came just as he said it would.
I had long since put a mental sticky note on that date, and I would dream ahead of what might be. What would it look like when I made it to the other side? Where would I be? What state would I be living in? Would Brian be sober? Would we be back together? Would we be apart? Would he marry Melissa? Would the kids be strong and healthy?
One day in April 2011, I was out exploring my new yard in Sartell, MN. Five hundred miles away from where my journey started, I landed here. Winter was releasing its hold on the world up here ,and I was investigating the spring landscape of the house I’d bought and moved into the fall before.
I used my rake to pull back wet, brown leaves. And there they were.
Little bits of green, pushing through the mud.
I crouched down beside them and remembered words spoken to me in my darkest places. I recalled the promise of this day and how I clung to it with all of my might as my life whipped me around and tore me to bits for another eighteen months before I found even the slightest relief.
As I tenderly pushed the rest of the leaves away from this proof of life, it hit me. Everything comes from the ground. It comes from the dirt. Death and darkness and dormancy are what precede life.
This isn’t something new or surprising. I’m not the first person to wrap words around the beautiful reality that our most glorious life is brought forth from our most painful and dark nights. But it’s worth remembering if indeed you are the one in your Black Night right now.
If you are the tiny helpless seed being shoved forcefully underground…
If you are the one drowning in the water that comes to bring germination…
If you are the one desperately struggling to break through the earth to breathe again…
You will.
One day, this will be over.
But you must keep pressing on. This isn’t the time to nap or rest.
It is the time to be brave. And strong. And to take action.
One day, your sprouts will press through the dirt, and your spring will come.
Your new life will abound.
And you will be hardly able to remember how bad it was here, all these months in the suffocating ground.
Hang in there.
Do not choose the easy path.
Build up your support network.
Seek out advice and help.
Ask for what you need but be steady even when people fall away from you. Especially the ones you thought you’d be able to depend on.
New people will come.
Let them in.
When you see a life-preserver, reach for it. Don’t look at it for a few months. Just reach out and grab it.
And be patient. New life takes time.
But it will come.
It will.

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1996: Excommunication Day

The next day at lunch, after I finished eating, someone stopped me in the halls and said that BG wanted me to come to the head table immediately. When I arrived, he was eating, so I stood there and waited patiently until he was done. He called me over and began grilling me again. Then he asked me if I’d given my heart away to anyone. This was IBLP code for “do you like a boy?”. And that sort of thing was forbidden, so… ya know. It was like being caught with your hand in the cookie jar when you were asked this dreaded question and your eyes and expression betrayed you even if your mouth tried to absolve you.

I knew better than to lie about it. I knew he’d be able to see right through me.

“Well, ok. There is someone. But we just like each other. That is all. We’ve never been alone. We’ve never even touched each other. We just like each other. And we won’t do anything about that until we’re both gone.”

“Gone? Are you planning on leaving?”

“Well, I guess I was hoping that as soon as I was done with EQUIP you’d let me go home. I don’t want to be here. I’m lonely and homesick.”

“That depends on your behavior, young lady. You were giving your mom trouble at home.”

“No I wasn’t. My mom bounced a check in my own bank account, and I got mad. As punishment, she took my whole paycheck and my debit card. That’s why we were fighting.”

“So, you think she’s going to let you come back to her? I don’t think she will. And I know she won’t if I don’t let her. She lives in one of my houses, ya know. And I don’t think you want to go live with your dad. Sounds like your options are pretty limited.”

“Who is this boy?”

“His name is Brian.” I pointed across the room to where he was.

“Isn’t he an LIT? A Leader In Training? Isn’t he here because he is in trouble?”

“I’m here because I’m in trouble.”

“He isn’t who I want for you. I won’t allow that relationship or give my blessing to it.”

“Well, we haven’t done anything, so you don’t really need to worry.”

“I need to hear from your mouth that you are done with him.”

I was silent. For the first time, I couldn’t get myself to say it. The words he wanted to hear. I was so tired. Just so tired. Tired of appeasing. Tired of pleasing. Tired of having everything I loved taken away just so I could try harder and harder to not be in trouble all the flipping time.

I had already experienced the fun of the “prayer room” – a lovely little place where kids were locked by themselves overnight or for a day or two. We were sent there for doing particularly bad things. A big hitter was the offense of liking a boy or liking a girl. I mean, we all did it, but some of us were more on BG’s radar, so we got in more trouble for it.

The prayer room was an awful place. No people. No food. No comfy sleeping space. Just an empty hotel room. And unlike all the other rooms of this thirteen story hotel, the locks on this room were on the outside of the door rather than the inside making it a prison and not a safe bedroom. The camera in the hallway aimed right at the door made certain that no one would dare venture to our part of the hotel and try to talk to us through the door.

It was tough. Those were dark moments.

Being part of IBLP was such a strange mix of good and bad. I had been a victim of the most thorough form of brainwashing, so to me, other than IBLP, there really was nothing left in the world to be wanted. Not finding success there was not finding success at all. So, in a weird way, even though I was treated like garbage, I desperately wanted to be there. Even though I didn’t. If you can understand that.

It’s very much like battered wife’s syndrome. You desperately want help and freedom and rescue. But when it shows up at your door at midnight because someone heard the fiasco and called the cops, you just send them home and stay in your misery. Because familiarity is the only good thing an abused person understands. Freedom is actually far too terrifying. Rescue is actually unwelcome when it tries to show up.

All the years that preceded my final year in the cult were just as bad. How many times was I mistreated? Berated? Called names? Had food withheld? How many times was I “sent home” and then brought back when my attitude was finally beaten into submission? How many times was I disallowed to be a normal human being? It was bad enough that I wasn’t allowed something as normal as being attracted to the opposite sex, I wasn’t even really allowed to have close friends. Once a deep bond was formed, they were taken away. Every single time. Jackie. Peggy. Cara. Stephanie. Christi. And now Brian. I knew that I wouldn’t even be allowed to be seen near him now. And honestly, he was what was getting me through the days at this point.

We would write notes to each other and tape them to the bottom of our dinner plate. Then, when no one was looking and the throng of people were in line for lunch or dinner, we would, ever so carefully, trade plates. He would end up with my note, and I would end up with his.

This is how we got to know each other.


Sometimes they were poems. Sometimes sweet love notes. Sometimes sad confessions of deep, deep depression.

We were each other’s life rafts.

The thought of no longer being able to communicate with him or even see him was unbearable. It was so much worse than “first love” gone awry. It was like having my flotation device taken away and then being tossed into the ocean.

The day after the meeting at the head table was bad. I knew something was stirring. My friends all knew it too. They looked at me across the dining hall, not daring to come close. Whispers in the elevator on the way back to our rooms at curfew.

“Do they know?”


“About BRIAN?!”


“Oh Heather. What is going to happen to you guys? What are they going to do to you?”

“I don’t know. I’m just scared, and I’m so tired. I can’t keep living this way.”

The next morning, I found out that Brian was put into a prayer room, and that he was going to stay there until they decided what to do with us. I was supposed to keep working. My EQUIP program was over now, and I worked on the remodeling crew. The hard manual labor was nice as it kept me distracted, but it was not nice because it made me so hungry. And because I was so terrified of being under the harsh and watchful eye of the leadership, I was regularly skipping meals in order to avoid it.

My friend Stephanie brought me a whole wheat roll that evening. I was hiding on the 9th floor “working overtime”. She hugged me and kissed my cheek before disappearing. We all knew what happened to the people who tried to help those who were in trouble. Aiding and abetting. As bad as it was to be the person in trouble, sometimes things were even worse for the people who tried to help us.

Two days passed like this. On the evening of the second day, there was a knock at my bedroom door. It was a few of the ladies who were on staff. They went through my things and took a lot of it. They took any food I had in my room. I knew they were looking for evidence of a relationship with Brian, but they didn’t find anything because I had put the letters in my bed sheets, and I was sitting on them.

When she was done, she told me that I was to stay in my room until I was called. It might be a few days. If I would just stay put, they wouldn’t put me in a prayer room. But if I was caught out of my room or being visited, they’d put me in a prayer room with 24/7 surveillance.

I stayed in my room.

No actual lock imprisoning me this time except my own fear. My own dread.

Christi snuck a slice of leftover cheesecake to me that evening when the halls were full because everyone was coming to bed by curfew. She was crying. She squeezed my hand. She handed me the plate and scurried away.

The next morning, I was summoned to BG’s office. Numb by now, I walked like a robot off the elevator and to his office. I saw Brian leaving his office at just that moment. He was crying.

“Oh no. What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?” I wondered to myself as my heart beat fast and hard.

He asked for a confession. He asked me to repent in front of the staff of 300+ people. He wanted me to tell Brian to his face that we were done.

For once, I was frozen. My insides were too bruised to do it one more time. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t pacify. I couldn’t let myself be bullied into not loving the one person I truly loved. I couldn’t find the gumption to suck it up and do it again.

“What happens if I don’t?”

“Then you’re done here. You will leave immediately.”

“To go home?”

“Your mom won’t allow that.”

“Then where will I go? I have nowhere else to go.”

“That’s not my problem.”

“What did I do wrong? What did I do that I would deserve to be excommunicated from the only life I’ve known since I was like ten or eleven years old? I’m twenty years old, and I don’t know how to live anywhere but here. Anywhere away from here. I don’t even know how to dress away from here.”

“What is your choice? Are you going to make a confession to the staff at dinner, or are you leaving.”

“First, tell me. Tell me what I did wrong.”

“You gave your heart away without permission. Without my permission.”

It’s been twenty-two years since he said those words, and I still feel the sting of them as I write. I still feel the finality. The death. The inescapable trouble.

There was no way out.

I was simply unable to find it in me to do it one more time. To do whatever he told me to do. And I honestly had nowhere in the world to go.

A decade of isolation left me ripe for needing desperate measures if desperate times showed up. And this was a desperate time.

I walked out of his office and directly to the phone bank in the hallway. I dialed my brother collect.

“Mike, it’s Heather. Remember when you told me that if I needed you, all I needed to do was to call? I’m calling. I need you. Come now. Come as fast as you can get here.”

He assured me he was on his way immediately.

I hung up the phone and knew that I would have to survive whatever the leadership had for me for the three hours it was going to take for him to get from home to Indianapolis.

I went to the elevator. It opened.

There stood Brian.


No one in the lobby to notice.

I cautiously got on the elevator with him. I figured there wasn’t much they could do to me now. After all, I was being excommunicated. What else was worse? If they yelled at me now, at least my relief was on its way. At least the longest they could go at it was three hours.

For the first time ever, we hugged. We both cried. I told him that I was being excommunicated. He cried more.

“How will I find you? I don’t even know your parent’s names. I don’t know where you live. How will I find you?”

“My parents are Ron and Theresa. I live in Marietta, Georgia. And I will find you. Even if it takes me years, I will find you.”

The elevator dinged. We dropped our hug. The doors opened. I walked out and turned around for one last look. It was eighteen months before I looked into the cool blue of his eyes again. Eighteen months till I heard his voice again.

“I love you,” he mouthed.

“I love you too,” I mouthed back.

The doors slid shut and a part of me died instantly.

My brother came. He put my things in boxes and used as many swear words as he could think of when the leadership ladies came to try to stop him. My friends, suddenly emboldened by the realization that I was being excommunicated and that they would probably never see me again, came for their good byes.

It was a thing most of us had experienced at least once before. Watching someone get excommunicated.

But it’s always different when it’s you.

We cried till we shook. We hugged till we hurt. We held hands and gently sang “Friends are Friends Forever”, the sad ritual carried out when these forced separations happened.

Mike practically carried me to his car.

I laid down in the back seat to keep from fainting. To keep from vomiting.

Why is it so hard to leave abuse? I really don’t know. Even to this day I don’t know. But it is. And to anyone who has been forced to leave it, you can know how terrified I was that day. Driving away from everything I knew. Everyone I knew. Utterly unready for life. Utterly unable to do anything. I didn’t know how to buy pants or get a job. I didn’t even really know how to speak in the real world away from the pseudo safety of the cult.

I sat up as we drove away. I looked one last time. He was standing in his bedroom window on the 6th floor. Both hands pressed against the glass.

We waved.

Then the car turned.

That was the last glimpse for so long.

The car drove and carried me home. I stayed with my dad just a few days until I left to go be with my cousins in South Dakota. But then the depression caught up to me there, and I needed to move again just to keep my pain from overtaking me. I moved to Colorado to be with my friend from the cult. But then she was in a terrible accident, so I could not stay. I came back home but in between accusations of apostacy because I was now wearing jeans and heathenism because I had cut my long flowing curls off in favor of a short blond bob, I needed to leave again.

As many times as I have replayed the events of my excommunication in the twenty two years since it took place, I have still never been able to answer some questions.

Why so harsh? All I did was like a boy?

Why no help? No follow up? No one called to be sure I didn’t hang myself in the bathroom that night. No one checked in on me in the weeks that followed to be sure that I didn’t swallow everything in the medicine cabinet just to make the loud screams of pain in my heart a little quieter.


Why, why, why?

So many why’s and no answers.

And the answers that did come only came after more years of pain.

The biggest answer came to me in 2005 when I was 29 years old and in another hard spot. The God I had known since age nine was suddenly losing his false identity. All the errors of the cult that were cast over Him were now being made known. All these many years later, He was coming for me. God. My Heavenly Father. He was coming to finally tell me who he was. Who He is.

And when the mystery of grace finally crashed onto me as I poured over the pages of The Ragamuffin Gospel, when ten million stored up tears finally made their way out when I first heard the words of His ferocious love for me, suddenly I knew. I knew that all the sadness of those last days, all the loss and all the depression and all the agony was for the purpose of setting me free. Getting me out.

I’d seen so many people come and then go. Most of them had a wonderful time. They considered their time “at headquarters” to be some of the best days of their life. But when they left, they never had to ask the hard questions. They never had to poke all the holes and shake the teachings out of their brain. They never had to sift and sift and sift.

And so, they have carried on, completely unaware that so much of what they believe is lies. So much of their foundation is faulty. So much of their doctrine is “off”.

Year after year, one by one by one, I’ve watched so many fall away. I’ve watched them reach points of such utter disillusionment that they were no longer able to stand. I’ve watched them be pulled under.

In their mind, they were pulled up out of the water. Rescued, in fact. Enlightened.

They threw the Most Important Baby Ever straight out with that filthy bathwater.

They lost their way because the way that they were told was the wrong way. It was a lie. All of it.

But for some reason, He had pity on me. Maybe it was the times I cried in the shower. Maybe it was the times in the prayer room when my belly twisted in pain from hunger. Maybe it was all the prayerful words trapped inside of me that I simply did not know how to release. Maybe he saw those words and knew them even before I did. And maybe that was what caused such deep pity for me.

Maybe that was why He let them crucify me. So I could get out. So I could dust the dirty doctrine off. And stand up. And live.

I was one of the lucky ones. It took so many years to see it that way. To recognize that he dragged me from that burning hotel to save me.

The ones left behind were the ones less fortunate. The myriad who went down with that ship were the ones less favored.

A thousand children lost for every one who survived.

A thousand souls left in permanent trauma for every one that found their way out.

And a thousand millstones prepared for the neck of a lonely man named Bill Gothard who ekes out his existence in LaGrange, Illinois.

Heaven help you for what you did to us.


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The Arduous In-Between…

The day of my divorce came and went.

Life moved on at an annoyingly quick speed. It seemed fair that everything would come to a halt at least for a few weeks or days. That we should be allowed to lay in our beds all day to process or cry. That we should be allowed to skip work and school.

While my kids sank deeper into their sadness, for the first time in almost two years, I started feeling the first bits of relief. I had already worked through so much of the loss of my marriage before it actually happened. I had been stretched so thin in that last year. I had forgiven so many nights with other women. So many major infractions of marital vows. So much abandonment. So many insanities such as homelessness and desperation, all while he looked on and did nothing to help. And now, I had done what I needed to do so that I could survive. So that I could parent as a well person and not someone who was constantly puking up her dinner because I was so heartsick that I could not hold it down.

And in many ways, I knew that this is what Brian needed as well. Brian needed to deal with the absolute and final loss of me. He needed to know that unless he hit bottom and reached up for help, that none of his messes would be magically cleaned up by someone else. That his next DUI’s would be his to deal with, not mine. That his next girlfriends would not injure me, they would only injure him. That the full weight of his actions would fall one hundred percent on him, not on me. I would no longer be his savior. And if saving is what he decided that he wanted, this time, it was him who would have to cry out for it. It was him who would have to turn himself inside out to find it.

I find that this is something you can’t fake, ya know. You can’t pretend that you’re really at that point and that you’re finally going to stop being codependent and that you’re going to stop rescuing them. It’s too strong of an impulse. Well, it’s an addiction really. And until the pain of creating a new life is less than the pain of staying where you are, no amount of willpower will help you stop doing the things that perpetuate your pain.

But when you do get there, you’re really there. The train starts rolling and hell can’t stop it.

Back when I was seeing Keith for our weekly counseling sessions, he told me this would happen eventually. When I was unwilling to make some major change or consider some big task, he would say, “Well, I guess you’re not in enough pain yet. Don’t worry. It will come.”

It made me upset, but deep down, I knew he was right.

“One day, Heather, you will wake up and realize that you’ve had enough. I can’t get you there any quicker. It’s totally up to you. So until you are in enough pain, you’re going to stay right where you are, and you’re going to keep giving chances. But one day, yes, you will say ‘enough’s enough’, and you’ll do what you need to do to create a new life.”

I reached “enough’s enough” that day when we were admitting him to rehab and he kept Melissa’s number as an emergency contact. After that, I no longer had to fake it. When I said, “I’m not doing this anymore”, that’s exactly what I meant.

People had their own ideas. Their own narratives. Their own version of how things went down and how they wanted it to go down. They didn’t like my timeline, and they didn’t like my decision. But I was in enough pain to say, “You know what, I’m the one living this hellish nightmare. So unless you’re going to step in and live it for me, it will be me making the decisions, not you or you or you.”

There were times when I would simply put my head down and charge through. No matter what obstacle I was facing, no matter what sort of rejection or harshness, I would just press through it. It was almost as though I had to shove my fingers into my ears.

I knew what I had to do and no tears, no anger, no rejection, no opinions… nothing was going to stop me.

Living in that little Section 8 house in the bad part of St. Cloud was the first time in my life that I truly owned my life. I was broke as heck and living on food stamps and welfare, but I was not afraid. I was happy. And I cried when I needed to cry. No one’s actions dictated my life but my own. No one was out there drinking away entire paychecks and making it impossible to pay the mortgage. My electricity and phone service would not be randomly shut off because of non-payment. I was not dealing with monthly traffic/DUI court for the first time in seven years. I was not afraid of Brian killing himself behind the wheel on a daily basis.

I believe that when you are in the process of moving from a terribly toxic life to one that is healthy, there is a void that you must pass in the middle. You are not yet who you are going to be, and the old you hasn’t yet completely passed away. It’s like leaving one room and entering a long hallway that will lead you to the next. And in the hallway, you might make some of the errors that you used to make, but thankfully, the hallway is long enough that by the time you make it to the other end, a beautiful metamorphosis will have taken place.

You might drag boxes and furniture from the old place into the first few yards of the hallway as you desperately try to hang onto what you held so dear. But soon, you discard the heavy things and only keep the knick-knacks of that life.

The further you travel, you start to notice other things lying on the floor. No longer is it the baggage of your old life, but it is the first glimpses of your new life. It’s not the spillage from the Old Room but the spillage from the New Room. It is the outcroppings of a new and healthy life. And when something catches your eye and you lean down to pick it up, you realize that you must set down the things you are still entangled with from the old place in order to free your hand to hold something new.

A lot of the time in your in-between is spent sitting. Contemplating. Releasing. Letting go. Setting down. It’s not something that happens in a moment. In fact, it takes years.

Relationships that you clung to from the old place might make it into the hallway, but most of them won’t make it to the new place. They were formed and forged in the old place. The way those relationships work and exist is now something that is passing away. It was a part of you that is being done away with – being made new and being reborn.

Behaviors that were commonplace to you in the old place suddenly feel ill fitting. They don’t serve you, and suddenly, you are aware of it, for perhaps the first time. You might notice a new and shiny behavior lying on the floor of that hallway that is right outside your new place and want to try it on for size. But in order to do that, you must release your grasp on the behaviors of before.

And so, it is a process of a thousand, nay a million, replacements. This friend for that friend. This behavior for that behavior. A “no” where a “yes” was the only thing allowed to exist. A boundary where a free pass used to be. A moment of bravery where only cowardice used to exist.

Pretty soon, you’ve made it all the way through the middle. In your rearview, a life’s worth of decisions and friends and trinkets lie strewn on the pathway. Ahead, the floor is cleaner. Brighter. Safer.

The old is becoming new. It is being washed away like dirty tar stuck on your heart.

The new place is hard work too. Nothing is familiar. Constant adaptation is necessary. You might even run out of the new room a few times and sit by your old crap in the in-between. You might toy around with the old things lying around and might even nurse a secret nostalgia for What Was, but it only takes a few memories to bring you back inside What Is Now.

There is no pass on the hallway either. No warp speed or fast forward. Everyone who truly transforms must walk it. Many start the journey and change their mind halfway through because it is simply too hard.

The middle – the in-between – is painful. In a way, it is like a fire. It burns off the things that did not serve you in your life before. In that way, it prevents you from bringing those things into your new life. And if you can endure the burn long enough, it will eventually cease because the work is done. The bad stuff will be thoroughly burned off. But truthfully, there aren’t many that can’t endure it. And so, they wring their hands and run back to the dark place and continue to live there forever. Not knowing that their metamorphosis is incomplete. Not knowing that they are now doomed to repeat their sad story lines because the lessons were not learned.

One of the best indicators that you’ve made it to the new place is that huge parts of your old life will begin to fall away. Like a worn-out garment, they will fall off. Sometimes, in a moment of relapse, you’ll grab them and try to hang on, but you are no longer fitted for those things. And so they refuse to stick. They fall to the floor.

And when that day comes, you’ll be so far into the new room that you can barely believe you ever lived anywhere but here. You’ll be so healthy that you’ll be in awe over the fact that you were ever lame. Disabled. Broken. You’ll remember the process that was necessary to get you from there to here, but you will remember it with a certain sort of fondness, knowing that, without the mercy of that pain, you would still live in the old place with all of its machinations of sadness and despondency.

The hallway – the pain – is your friend. It is your teacher. It is the Great Place of Unlearning.

Like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, it is the struggle that gives you life. Cutting it short brings certain death, for all the strength you will build there will be necessary to hold you up in your new atmosphere. As if some cosmic weight is added in the new place, you will require the muscles grown in the hallway.

So don’t run from it. Don’t hide from it. Don’t wring your hands and run away.

Sit still in your pain. In your metamorphosis. Turn the pieces of your old life around in your hands until you’ve studied them enough that you no longer need them. Then set them down with gusto and intention.

Become a master at releasing. Anger, bitterness, fear. Self-loathing, fear of what others think of you, control over anyone’s life but your own.

Say new words and try on new behaviors.

Get new friends. A few of the old ones will stick, but not many, and it’s fair for you to know that. In fact, some of those closest to you will be the ones to slide their sharpest daggers into your back for they will simply not be able to abide with so much newness abounding in you.

Do not fear the in-between. You will get past it one day. But there is no getting There without a time Here.

Stop fighting it.

You are being remade.

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My ex-husband’s ex-girlfriend…

Some (hopefully) helpful thoughts on the catastrophe and comfort of divorce.
Last week, I was looking online for my old friend Melissa. I couldn’t find her, so I wondered if maybe she got married and has a new last name. I wondered to myself who else might be friends with her on social media so that I could find her on their page.
Duh. My ex-husband would probably still be in touch with her.
So I found him and looked through his followers for “Melissa”. I wasn’t able to find the Melissa I was looking for, but I did find another. It was a Melissa I’d sorta forgotten about. I mean, I haven’t forgotten her, but she doesn’t matter anymore, so yeah, she doesn’t take any more of my emotional brain space.
I clicked on her profile. There she was. The only person in the world I’ve ever truly hated. Wished dead. Wanted to kill with my own bare hands. I could go on for a while to express how it felt to discover that my ex is still in touch with her, but I’ll spare you.
I found out about her in the spring of 2008. A white headband in my bed. It took months to finally discover the name of the girl it belonged to.
Twelve years into a thirteen year relationship. That’s where I was when I found that horrid hair piece. Four kids, two cars, a mortgage, and a decade old marriage.
I clicked through her photos.
She still wears her eye shadow the same. But then, so do I. So there’s that.
She recently had a new defibrillator put in her heart. I’d forgotten about the heart condition that Brian so often used as an excuse to not end his affair with her. “But I don’t know what it could do to her.”
“Believe me, it will be less messy than if I get to her first,” I would think to myself.
The toddler that my ex used to play daddy to is now 13. “Yeah, that’s about right,” I thought. “My Delaney was barely one the day I found the white headband.” Apparently, they’d been seeing each other since before I was even pregnant with her.
She also got married. To a really cute, seemingly nice guy. They live just down the road from the house I left in foreclosure as my marriage shattered and my impending homelessness loomed near. It sort of bothers me that she probably took her daughter to the same playground that we took our kids all those years. That she probably goes for walks past my old house.
It seems a cruel irony that she ended up happy. I mean, I sorta didn’t want that. Well, I REALLY didn’t want that, but that was so long ago. And somewhere along the way I realized that it was Brian who was unfaithful to me, not her. And I also realized that if we all got what we deserve, I wouldn’t have a happy life either. God knows I’ve made some seriously titanic mistakes and have hurt others just as badly as Melissa hurt me.
I’m glad that this much time has passed. I’m glad that I no longer feel the sense of nausea in my stomach and the clenching in my heart when I see her photos. I’m glad that I can click through them in mere curiosity and no longer in desperate homicidal dreamings.
Divorce is wretched, in case you don’t know. Complete and utter turbulence. Decimation.
I can tell you quite plainly that it does also bring relief, but it’s not quite what you think of when you say that word. It’s more like the relief that comes when you’re being disemboweled and it stops. Eventually, all the blood coagulates and scabs start to form from your many open wounds, but relief – in the way we think of relief – is far from what divorce is.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t miss my ex. I don’t wish I was still with him. I don’t feel sad about him anymore. I think I’ve healed pretty well from my divorce. But it’s taken eleven years of gut-wrenching work to be able to say that. I’ve left no leaf unmoved, no stone unturned. It’s been a lot of work. But yes, I’m over it now. Unfortunately, it broke my health and the manifestations of that like to pop up every now and then, but that’s life. Nothing is fair. I’m getting used to that.
So many of my friends are getting divorced right now. And then there are ones who haven’t made the announcement yet but are really ripe for it.
When I was a new divorcee, I wanted to stop every divorce. I wanted to spare everyone the ghastly torture of being slowly taken to pieces. It’s like an Edgar Allen Poe tale come to life.
You really don’t know how bad it is until you’re in it. Then you’re like, “Well holy shit. I want to die. This is worse than anything I could possibly imagine. I really and sincerely want to die.”
But when you’re past it, and all your nerve endings are burned off and you are stuck in I-think-I’m-a-robot-now-because-I-can’t-feel-anything stage of numbness, you do start to feel better.
Anyway, as the years have passed, I’ve come to realize that trying to talk someone out of divorce is really pretty pointless. Either they decided to do whatever the heck it will take to get to the other side, or they’ve decided that they will bleed to death without the tourniquet that divorce is.
My husband is divorced too. His story is eerily similar to mine. It’s one of the commonalities that sparked our friendship in the first place. So, he too can understand this weird dichotomy-place where you know that divorce is both perversely painful and also sometimes necessary. I know he is about as thankful for his divorce as I am mine. Maybe even more. But we both know that it’s total, total hell.
So, let me be frank.
If you’re thinking of divorcing because you’re bored with your spouse, don’t.
If you’re thinking of divorcing because you found someone new, don’t.
If you’re thinking of divorcing because your finances suck, don’t.
If you’re thinking of divorcing instead of forgiving, don’t.
If you’re thinking of divorcing because marriage is f’ing hard, don’t.
If you’re thinking of divorcing because ………………. ad infinitum…..
Just don’t.
If you’re thinking of divorcing because he/she is hitting you, then yes. You’re probably going to find relief. It matters not if those hits are the kind that come from a fist or from words or from other forms of bad behavior. The simple definition of abuse is to use something in a way that it was not intended. If that fits you, you should probably go.
If you’re thinking of divorcing because you’re being cheated on, yes, my friend, yes. Do not allow it. There are rare opportunities for reconciliation and healing, but in all my life, I have only seen ONE couple suffer an affair, work their pants off to make it to the other side, thoroughly forgive one another, rebuild trust, and make it. If you can be that couple, be the heck out of that couple. If not, wrap up in that tourniquet.
If you’re divorcing because someone is drinking their brains out every day or doing drugs or turning your life into a train that wrecks every other week, then yes, I totally get you. And I will hold your hand in court if you let me.
But be sure you NEED a divorce before you do it.
Be sure you went all the way to the ends of the earth to avoid it.
Be sure you had every knock-down/drag-out fight you could have.
Be sure that you will be able to live with it and that you won’t wish you’d taken some months off and thought it through first.
Because, in the end, you WILL recover from your divorce. You WILL reach the other side.
But your kids never will. Even if they say they have. Even if the books say they will. Even if they like their new stepmom or stepdad. Even if they think it’s cool to get Christmas and birthdays twice.
Every single kid that ever lived would put his or her parents back together if they could have their way. Yes, they’d get rid of the alcohol or the abuse or the girlfriend or the boyfriend or whatever it was that ruined their parents’ marriage in the first place. But mostly, what they would want more than anything in the world would be for Their Mom and Their Dad to have found a way.
So if you can’t, just be really darn sure you tried.
Be really darn sure you aren’t leaving when you really could have stayed.
For better and worse. Remember?
As many of you know, I’m on a ridiculous Jon Foreman kick right now. I’m gearing up for his concert in March and learning all his new stuff.
Every time the album reaches the point of this song, my hand automatically reaches up to press the “forward” button. I simply cannot bear it. Even after all these years, his words convey exactly everything. When I listen to the song all the way through, I can feel literal hot, searing pain in the space between my throat and my physical heart.
Even after eleven years of healing.
Even after finding a new and wonderful life.
Even after all the nostalgia has died away.
You were there at the door
You said “I don’t know how to say this
But I want more
I don’t know how you’re gonna take this.”
And my mind went sore
And my body went weightless
I couldn’t find the floor
I couldn’t find the floor
And you walked away
And I saw fireworks imploding
Frame by frame
Like watching a movie in slow motion
From miles away
Up like a rocket ship ascends
Drifting up into space
And I’m running out of oxygen
Can’t go back to the first
Losing stories like leap year
Fake smiles and worse
Just a ghost left to be near
I’m not sure how this works
What do you want me to say, dear?
All I know is it hurts
All I know is it hurts
I’m drifting out of the hemisphere
So far away
All of the memories disappear
And start to fade away
What to say when your friend announces that they are getting divorced…
Are you ok?
Are you safe?
Can I help you?
Can I listen?
Do you need to talk? Cry? Pray? Scream?
Period. End of sentence.
And if you can tell that your friend is headed straight for divorce if they stay on their current path, grow a pair and talk to them. Even if you lose your friendship with them because they are so eternally miffed with you, if your bravery in any way saves their marriage and their family, let me tell you, your noble sacrifice was worth it.
And if you’re someone who is thinking about it but hasn’t really decided yet, please talk to someone. We all know that the very worst time to make a huge decision is when you are emotionally out of sorts. And it stands to reason that pretty close to 100% of divorces are decided upon in such a state.
If you haven’t decided yet that you HAVE to divorce, talk to someone who has been there. Who has healed and found their way out. Who will help you without hating your spouse on your behalf. Who will listen and give solid advice not just help you puke on your partner.
If you don’t have anyone, my door is always open.
And I have coffee. Which is helpful for all of the things.


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