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.
 
Crocuses.
 
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.
 
Persist.
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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