Breaking Down Strongholds

I wrote the following piece, thinking, this is just going to be for me. And now I have sat here for some time, wondering if I should share it on my blog. It’s personal. Not G-rated. Not particularly something I feel like chatting with someone about later. Maybe posting this will be a help to someone though. So here goes. 

 

I’m thinking about strongholds. How we get stuck in them. How we get free from them. 

 

When I was a small child, I was assaulted by a group of older boys. I was young. My memories are pretty hazy. I remember laying on the ground sans clothing. I remember their faces above mine. 

 

I always thought it was some kind of recurring nightmare that I just remembered from early childhood. But then, when I was twenty years old and struggling with panic attacks, a young man at our church talked to me about how our past wounds can cause present day anxiety. He suggested that I pray and ask God to show me things from the past that were unresolved issues in my life. I took time, prayed, and God started downloading a list of memories that still caused me to have an emotional reaction. I wrote them all down. I was really surprised that the memory of being attacked by these boys was on the list. I hadn’t thought of it since I was a child, and I really thought it must have just been a nightmare. I wrote it down anyway. Later, I met with this young man and a couple others and we talked about each thing on the list. And he spoke truth over those memories. And as he did, something loosened inside of me. Later I took that list and burned it in a symbolic act of no longer having to think about these things. 

 

Fast forward to my late, late thirties. I was again doing Story Work. This time in a bit more formalized setting.  I had a friend who had been trained in Story Work. The premise being that each of us has a handful of stories from our childhood that have shaped how we see and interact with the world. When we can write those stories down, and then discuss them in a safe group setting, we are able to unravel some of the lies we have believed and perhaps in that way, bring healing to some of the wounds. 

 

My first story session was at a retreat. A lot of prayer had been poured into the retreat before we even got there. Early on, we were sent to our rooms to pray and ask God to show us what story we should write down. God gave me a story from my early childhood and I was really surprised by it. Again, it was something that I hadn’t thought of in years, and on the surface, it seemed pretty tame. Not much happening here. But, during the group time, when it was my turn to share my story and have a group discussion, I was blown away by how much debris got kicked up from a simple story. Some of the things that were brought up actually took me a whole year to process through and come to peace with. 

 

I signed up for another story group, maybe a year later. And as I prayed about what story I should do, again the story of when I was very young and attacked by a group of boys, came back to me. This again? I can barely remember this time, why is this so important? I decided to write the story down. As I did, more details came back to me and a larger overarching story came into place. 

 

I took the story to the group meeting. We discussed it. Nothing super magical happened that I could tell. I did get some better understanding of myself and how I approach life. 

 

But then, something really surprising happened over the next couple months with my thought life. Stuff I wasn’t expecting at all. 

 

Since I was a young child I have had an active fantasy life. Nothing super-sexual, just stories running through my head with me as the main character. There was a major theme though, that ran through all my fantasies. In a nutshell, I was always being attacked or hurt by a group of people, and then a Savior-like figure would come and rescue me. A king, a Lord, a Chief…something along those lines. My relationship with this Savior was never sexual. It was more like Master and Servant.\

I had realized, when I was a young adult, before I even got married, that my fantasies were very much a Salvation kind of replay. I am trapped, hurt, stuck, considered unworthy, and then the King arrives and says, You Are Worthy. I am going to save you. And I pledge undying fealty to my new Lord. But, despite the fact that I had analyzed and could see the good story line in these fantasies, I was still drawn to them. It was kind of like being stuck in an ever-repeating loop. 

 

And then I did my story group where we discussed my story from my early childhood. And by habit, I went back to revisit my old fantasies, and suddenly they had no pull on me. No attraction. They just seemed like a worn out shoe that I no longer wanted. These fantasies were a habit that I had never broken free from, and suddenly, they had no appeal. 

 

I realized that those fantasies had been playing a role for me. They had been an attempt to fix something broken inside of me. But, it never quite worked. No matter how many times I was rescued in my fantasy life, the next day, I needed rescuing again. 

 

But somehow, taking that old story from my childhood, discussing it in a safe setting with people who could help me understand it, and see it through the eyes of truth, somehow, that set me free. 

 

And the stronghold was broken. 

 

If you are interested in learning more about story work, here is a link to my friend’s website.   Click to Look Inside

The Art of Mental Health

I’ve been thinking some about mental health. Our family has been going through a lot of big transitions these last couple weeks as my kids have all started back to school. My oldest son is getting ready to head off to Montana for a year, my oldest daughter is home for a quick visit after her summer in Alaska and then she heads back to Alaska for another year. 

Trying to adjust to a new schedule, new routines, new family dynamics, has been exhausting. My body’s response to lots of stress and change is to kick in the insomnia. So, lately, somewhere around 3am, I wake up and can’t go back to sleep for hours. I think I probably could go back to sleep easier if my thoughts would just stop. Racing thoughts. Anxious thoughts. Little worries that quickly turn into life-threatening tragedies. And I’m laying there just wishing my brain would shut up and go to sleep. 

I have been fighting anxiety and panic attacks since I was nineteen years old. I’ve learned some things over the years. When I’m in a full-blown panic attack I find that reciting my Creed of Beliefs out loud helps things to calm down. Writing down all the things I’m afraid of and then writing on top of those things scriptures where God has promised to take care of these particular worries is also a big thing I can do. But usually my anxiety doesn’t reach those levels. Usually I can keep it under control. 

It was only this week that I connected some dots with my behavior. I suddenly realized that some of my life-long habits are actually ways of controlling anxiety. This week I have been carrying around a book of Sudoku puzzles (very fun math puzzles!). When I’m sitting in a room with all my kids clamoring around me, telling me about their days at school, playing with each other, asking for me to watch them do a trick or look at this picture they colored, I sit there and work on my Sudoku puzzles. Whenever they want my attention I look up and give it to them, but as soon as they’ve moved on, I go back to my puzzle. So, this week, I suddenly realized that when I’m doing Sudoku all my racing thoughts go on pause. It’s like, somehow, doing Sudoku uses enough brain power that it distracts those thoughts, but I can still listen to the conversations around me. 

After this major AH-HAH moment, I started wondering what else I do that has the same effect. Playing the piano definitely does that, though it takes too much brain power to be able to still listen to other people in the room. But playing Bach is kind of like pouring soothing oil on a raw wound. It creates order out of chaos. 

Reading books is also a huge one. I have been a bookworm since I was in Second Grade. But, I can read a book in the room with my family and still hear what’s going on around me, and stop reading and engage and then go back to reading. 

Then there are the times when I can’t do these activities because I’m driving or in a meeting or some other place where those things would be frowned upon. Well, then I usually have some story that I’m creating in my head and I run the story in my mind, kind of like a movie, making it up as I go along. 

I’ve always thought I was a little weird. Why do I do these things? I have to admit, realizing that these habits are actually ways that I manage anxiety is actually a bit of a relief. I feel like instead of being a bit weird and anti-social, I have actually just stumbled on ways of being a bit more mentally healthy. And it didn’t involve any illegal substances or harmful practices. Yay! 

Of course, it would be nice if those racing thoughts would just stop. And I find that I engage less in my Habits when I’m doing well spiritually, physically, mentally. But, I’ve also discovered that I can’t control everything that happens in life. Sometimes I have lots of time and energy to focus on being healthy. But other times life starts throwing a bunch of curve balls and instead of “living victoriously” it’s more like holding on to the roller coaster with an icy grip and just waiting for those big flips and turns to be over before you hit another straight stretch. 

I thank God for his mercy and grace that helps me to soar high, living the Great Life. And I thank God for his mercy and grace that helps me to just hang on and survive when life is hard. And I’m thankful for the coping mechanisms he’s helped me to find without my even realizing it. 

 

 

Anxiety and the Gospel

Have you ever noticed how quickly your mood and attitude toward life can change? One minute you’re walking around and everyone you meet reminds you of Mr. Rogers (of Neighborhood fame), there are rainbows on the horizon, and you feel like you could do and be anything you want. And then one of your kids makes a bad choice and you suddenly feel like the worst parent ever: I’ve failed my child! Something happens at your kids school that makes you mad: I’m going to withdraw my kids from school and we’re all going to live in a commune in the wilderness and home school! Someone is rude to you at the store: I hate this town, why can’t we move! You have a sick day and get behind in your chores: I can’t do this, there is no way I can survive unless we hire a maid! And everything just feels like it’s unraveling right before your eyes.

So, I’ve had a week like that, or rather, that has been this past week. I found myself feeling anxious and unsettled this morning and I started doing some self-talk. It’s going to be ok. You’re going to be ok. You are ok. And suddenly that phrase that our pastors are always preaching at my church came back to me, “Preach the gospel to yourself.” And my self talk changed. I am ok because I have been saved. Everything is ok because Jesus already paid for all my sins. Everything is going to be alright because Jesus cares about me and he is in control and I don’t have to worry. He cares for me. He also cares about my kids, even more than I do. He’s got this. He’s going to help me figure out each one of these situations. I am not alone.

The anxiety rolled off my shoulders. Some of the tension eased. I put on some worship music later as I trudged through the chores. Took a nap because my worry has been keeping me from resting well. Felt better about life.

This is not the first time I’ve “preached the gospel to myself”. When I was 19 yrs old I started having panic attacks. Looking back I can see that I was very over-extended, sleep deprived, pursuing a career that really didn’t suit my personality. All of these were prime ingredients for inducing anxiety. I found panic attacks to be the most terrifying experience I had ever had. Mostly because I felt like I was going crazy and I didn’t know what to do with my racing thoughts. My very brain itself seemed out of order. During this time I dropped out of college and went overseas, spending 4 months in Haiti and then 5 months in Chile. While I was in Chile I attended a Spirit-filled Baptist Church where I had a lot of people pray for me, minister to me, teach me things about church life that I hadn’t learned yet. It was a time of spiritual awakening for me. I can’t remember if anyone specifically told me what to do or if God just helped me figure it out, but I remember I started having a panic attack one night and instead of completely melting down, I started preaching the Gospel to myself. I recited my entire creed of faith out loud. I believe in God. I believe he created the heavens and the earth. I believe in his son Jesus who came to earth. I believe that he died on the cross for my sins. I believe that he rose and died again. I believe that he forgave my sins. I believe that when I die I will be with him. I believe he has has sent his Holy Spirit, I believe his Holy Spirit lives in me.

By the time I was finished, the panic attack had eased off. I was still feeling shaky, but I had something to cling to and I clung hard. I was able to fall asleep and when I woke up, the anxiety had passed. Over the years I have struggled off and on with anxiety. For me, it has usually been a symptom of something deeper going on. Extreme stress, extreme fatigue, a need for some serious changes in my life. I have found that if I want the anxiety to really go away, I have to deal with these deeper issues. Make changes. But through it all, preaching the gospel to myself has kept me sane.

I in no way am going to claim that this is how you heal panic attacks. I have family members who have struggled with anxiety for years and they have had to come up with their own ways of coping, but having an anchor to hold on to while you figure it out is invaluable. Having a certainty that you are not alone and that someone a lot bigger than you is holding you even while you go through the storm, that is something I long for everyone to have. Preach the Gospel to yourself. Every day. It is life.

Keep It Simple Stupid

My life motto has been, for quite some time now, KISS or Keep It Simple Stupid. In a world that is full of mixed up complicated advice, I am looking for that one simple instruction that is doable, attainable, simple. I don’t do well with complicated. When I make decisions, you can bet money that one of the top priorities for me is which solution is going to be simple. As I have recently been struggling with a problem and needing some simple advice, I found myself remembering the birth of my last child.

The part about the birth that I remember the most was the very end. Everything had gone in a rush. I had shown up at the labor and delivery floor at 7:30, contractions coming every 2 minutes. The baby was 3 weeks early and so I hadn’t even had time to preregister. I made my way to the nurse’s station and started talking quickly, trying to say as much as I could in between contractions. Hi, I’m Esther Heneise, this is my 10th pregnancy, all natural births, Contractions started at 5 pm……pant breathe pant breathe………..Ok, I have gestational diabetes, I’m taking insulin, the baby is really big……pant breathe pant breathe……..umm. Last ultrasound said the baby was 13 pounds, doctors wanted to induce early, they’re worried about shoulder dystocia……pant breathe pant breathe…………………The doctors suggested a C-section but we want to try natural first……….pant breathe pant breathe…………………..My labors are really fast so you don’t have much time……….

The nurse jumped into action, asking a bunch of questions that I could barely answer. Some important, when did you last take insulin? Others not so important, do you have a working refrigerator and stove at your house? (huh?) There was a flurry of getting into a gown, getting blood work drawn, and in the meantime they were still trying to get an idea of how big the baby was and how important was it for me to get a C-section? They did an ultrasound while I sat on the bed almost delirious with pain. I asked if I could get an epidural and they said, sure, as soon as the blood work comes back. I was doomed. I knew there was no way I would still be in labor by the time the blood work came back. I was already at the end of this process. No one else seemed to understand. They checked me and told me I was dilated to 7. I told them that the baby was going to be born within the next half hour. They all nodded and smiled and patted me reassuringly, don’t worry, as soon as that blood work comes back we’ll get you your epidural. By this time I was in transition and basically retreated from the world, just trying to focus on not dying from the pain.  At one point in time they came up to me and asked if I just wanted to go ahead and get a C-section. All I could think was, If I get a C-section will they knock me out so I don’t feel this any more? At least one logical part of my brain spoke up and said, I’m in so much pain I can’t make any decisions, ask my husband. Andy looked up, startled, but fortunately we had talked about this beforehand and so he gave our agreed upon answer which was that we were going to try natural first. I groaned. I had really hoped that I could just get knocked out. Suddenly, I knew, it was time to push. I started pushing. The nurse looked startled and asked if I was pushing. Yes. Stop pushing! You can’t push till the doctor checks you, it might not be time! I looked at her, felt the urge to push, and pushed again. She shook her head, announced to the room at large that I was no longer listening to her and I had started pushing. Total chaos broke out. The room was suddenly filled with people, the bed was being taken apart and 2 nurses came up and pushed me flat on my back, grabbing my legs. I was in a fog and was not tracking with anything but the pain. Suddenly a man’s voice broke through all the commotion. Ok, breathe! Breathe it out, contraction is coming, get ready,, Ok Push! I turned my focus on him, a big tall guy in scrubs and a mask. I have no idea who he was. He might have been a doctor, a nurse, an aide, or some random observer off the street. All I knew was that finally someone was actually helping me. He became my focal point as he coached me through a couple more pushes and then, without any complications, the baby was there. No problems, only weighing 9 pounds 12 ounces instead of the predicted 13. (pretty much 30 mins after they told me I was dilated to 7!) Everyone was healthy and well.People started leaving the room till I was left with just a couple nurses. I survived my last birth.

Looking back, I don’t know if I can emphasize enough how important the man in the scrubs was in the whole process. I was so caught up in my pain and the confusion that I could no longer help myself. I desperately needed one person to break through and just give me some simple instructions. Something I could handle and latch on to. He was a life saver.

I had this happen another time. When I was pregnant with my fourth child, that summer I had a real struggle with panic attacks and anxiety. I didn’t want to leave my house and I felt like I was barely holding my sanity together. Life was so overwhelming and I hadn’t learned yet some of the basics of self-care. I was pouring everything in to my 3 children, expecting another child, and felt like I wasn’t succeeding at anything.  My husband finally asked if I’d be willing to go and speak to our pastor. I made an appointment and we met and talked. I can’t really remember much of what we said but I do remember that he wrote down on a piece of paper 3 things to do. They were very simple. One was to establish a quiet time every day where all my kids were in their beds either napping or looking at books and I could have an hour to myself. The next one was to make it a priority to have a time to just talk to my husband every day with no interruptions, adult conversation. I can’t remember what the third was, but I do know it was equally as simple. It was a voice speaking through the fog of my anxiety, just giving me a couple basic instructions to help me establish some good practices of self-care. Even though it was simple, it really helped.

Sometimes I’ve had an actual person who shows up to speak some life into my situations. Other times, it’s the Holy Spirit just speaking a simple idea into my mind. I have been dithering around for a couple days now. I want/need to start eating healthier. I’m ready to do it. But how to go about it? I’ve read so many books and heard about so many different methods that now I’m completely stalled out and I don’t know what to do. This plan says no animal products, this other says, mostly only animal products. This plan says no fat, this other plans says all the fat you want, just don’t eat it at the same time as Carbs. This plan says one cup of grain a day, this other plan says all the grain you want as long as you don’t eat fat. ACCKK!!! What do I do? I finally made it a matter of prayer, Ok Lord, I need some guidance here. And an idea came to me. No sugar. Every single plan agrees on that one, no sugar. Just keep it simple. Tackle one bad habit at a time.  A still, small voice breaking through the confusion, giving me some simple advice. It’s exactly what I needed. Just keeping it simple….stupid.