My Grief Experienced

It’s been six months since Will and I left our school and home behind to move into a new life and a new home. Marriage has been wonderful and life has been hard. Both of us bear the scars of rejection. Both of us wonder when it will happen next.

In January, I suffered a collapse due to stress and a damaged, over-worked brain. Will and I spent the next month surviving and consulting concussion experts. Recovery has been slow but steady. I’ve crossed a bucket-list item off and discovered a talent for pottery. A ladies’ Bible study occupies some of my time. Will is in a new job and gearing up for a new master’s degree. It seems as though we’re drifting in a calm harbor.

Meanwhile, I have been inundated with God’s mercy and gentle tugging towards healing—emotional and spiritual. This week he is inviting me to grieve my losses. It makes me laugh, albeit sardonically. I’ve lost so much, where should I start? And if I do, will I ever stop?

Nevertheless, loss after loss has come to mind. And somehow, God is holding back my walls as I truly feel what I no longer have. Today was a difficult loss. Possibly the worst I’ve faced. I lost my health, which is difficult enough, but it cost me something precious. Several years ago, I discovered a love for martial arts. I practiced constantly, nearly lived at the dojo, and dedicated myself to it.

I excelled. I flourished. There is nothing else that I have ever experienced that gives me such a sense of life and purpose. It was as though I was made to kick, strike, throw, parry, and grapple. I felt the presence of God as I moved through forms of strikes, blocks, and throws. Stepping onto the mat was a haven—from the world, my struggles, and spiritual estrangement. I was home. I was in His presence. And I was the person He created me to be.

Now it’s all gone. With so many concussions and injuries, I don’t know if I will ever be able to find a safe dojo where I can train consistently. I will never be able to compete. And I will never be able to teach. I have to be extremely careful of how I train and with whom. One misplaced strike, one wrong fall and I will have another concussion. My brain can’t sustain another one.

The most heart-breaking question I have is why God would let me discover such life if He was just going to take it away? Is He punishing me?

Most will think I’m overdramatic or that I should be focusing on the miracle that my brain still functions at all. To focus on the short time I got to experience such life and freedom. To recognize the gift of being able to stand and walk, much less kick. Eventually perspective will win. I will see God’s hand or I’ll just trust it’s for and not against me. But right now, I’m grieving my loss—no more and no less, not my sister’s or a stranger’s, but mine. No one has to understand. No one has to care. Because God does.

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No Pain, No Glory

I hate when people offer “God has a plan” to assuage whatever pain, frustration, or struggle I am experiencing. In lieu of anything helpful to say in the face of profound misery, however, I also offer platitudes to somehow cover a person’s pain and move onto something pleasant or at least fathomable. What else is there to say when I can’t understand suffering—mine or anyone else’s?

In the book of Job, he has three friends who silently joined him in his misery in chapter two. I appreciate that. It takes guts and strength to sit quietly with someone who is hurting. Comfort is most eloquent in its silence. For the rest of the book, Job’s friends berate him in the name of love and righteousness. They want to redirect his path to God. But it is quite evident that they are also rather pleased with their wealth of wisdom and righteousness. They must be wise and righteous, otherwise they’d be decimated like Job.

When someone is hurting, I want to be the one who lightens his load. I want to be that ray of hope in their despair. How arrogant. The difficulty in keeping silent is I am admitting the deficiency of wisdom and words in the face of suffering. We are all powerless in the face of pain, grief, betrayal, and despair. Even the most devastated person knows in some dark corner of his being that the pain will end, he will adjust, life goes on, and there must be a reason. But in the moment? There is only pain.

Pain hurts. Suffering is difficult. Everyone tries to avoid suffering because it isn’t fun, no one likes it, it shreds the heart, and it feels never-ending.

So why do I gloss over that fact? Shouldn’t I get real and acknowledge that it hurts? For years I have swallowed my hurt, frustration, agony, grief, pain, and despair. I shrug, smile, and say “life goes on.” Recently I recounted a laundry list of trauma from the last seven years to a therapist. She stared at me when I finished and asked how I’m still functioning. I shrugged and told her I’m a survivor.

Those traumas I listed are gut-wrenching, soul-shredding, agonizing events that shattered my world, my identity, and my perception of God. But when I recounted them, my eyes were dry. I chuckled.

Suffering necessitates pain. Without pain—emotional, psychological, physical, or spiritual—we wouldn’t suffer. So if suffering is supposed to count for something, why am I so afraid to admit that I’m hurting? That I have feelings that aren’t positive?

My life is hard. I am hurting. Hundreds of people may look at my life and wish they could exchange their struggles for mine. Hundreds of other people may look at my life in horror and suddenly appreciate their own struggles. It doesn’t matter. I am hurting. My life is hard. It is my perspective on my life.

And God met me in my suffering. He spoke to me. He reminded me of his promises, assurances, and comfort. My God sat down next to me and showed me that he is working, he does have a plan, and he loves me.

I can’t say that x, y, and z happened for reasons a, b, and c, but I know that he sees and feels my pain. I know that he is refining me for a future that will make all of my suffering worth it. I can join Job in saying “I know my Redeemer lives” (19:25). He will exchange my suffering for steadfastness, completion, and the crown of life (Jas 1:3, 4, and 12).

Until I acknowledged my pain, saying, “this hurts,” I could not say with conviction that there is a purpose to suffering. Why would I need to acknowledge some special purpose that would turn the broken, black, pulsing pain of my life into a radiant, life-giving shower of steadfastness if I never acknowledged that what I was experiencing was painful? I have been given a difficult life. It hurts. But I know that I can trust that God has a plan for my good and his glory. How? Because He says so:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans for wholeness and not for evil, plans to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

The Mountain’s Shadow

It’s frightening, really, how easily we stuff trauma under our proverbial mattresses, put on a smile, and move on with life. Even the darkest, most difficult experiences we have ever experienced can be whittled down into a “phase” that we went through. How terrifying.

Will and I obviously had a difficult summer. We are reminded of it almost every day, since we are newly relocated, working jobs that just pay the bills, and cut off from our family and friends of the past three years. Our struggles this summer are never too far from our minds.

But, since we’re trying to avoid being pariahs here in our new place, we have watered down our story, focusing on the high points and explaining away inconsistencies with vague references to illness and “bad experiences.” Will and I don’t like editing the truth. But what choice have we had? I left my teaching job in October for my fiancé. My fiancé is a teacher as well. Why did we relocate since it obviously wasn’t job-related?

So far we’ve been able to tell two people the truth in our new home. And one was a psychologist. Will is seeking counseling for the first time, hoping to deal with the trauma he has sustained from years of life and bipolar. I went with him to his first appointment, so the psychologist could grasp the context of our relationship as well as the story of the summer.

As we shared our story, anxiety constricted my chest and tears filled my eyes. I was sad and silent (truly a miraculous occurrence) for several hours. The trauma was overwhelming. The hurt and confusion, fear and anger, uncertainty and stubbornness. As we left the appointment, Will noticed my distress and as we discussed it, he suggested that I also begin counseling. Fear and anxiety spiked even higher.

We are newly married—happily married. What if we discover some deep, horrible issue that takes years to overcome? I know dealing with issues is crucial to having a healthy, functioning life, but I also know that psychology often unearths mountains of pain and trauma before it can level the ground again. My mother spent decades faithfully chipping away at her mountain. I respect her courage and determination. But, if I’m honest, I don’t want the challenge.

Suffering has been a constant theme in my life for the last few months. Everywhere I look, whether in the Bible, sermons, books, articles, life in general, suffering is discussed, dissected, and lived. The last two weeks have been downright depressing as I have dealt with a new round of therapy to recover from my multiple concussions and a recent car accident. Will’s support has encouraged and strengthened me but many days, all I want to do is curl up in bed and pretend the world no longer exists.

That is simply therapy for my body. What will therapy for my soul and psyche uncover? I’m afraid. For me and for Will. But I want to be like my mother. I want to possess the strength and perseverance to get out of bed each morning, bless the Lord for life, and confront my suffering. I don’t want to wait for trauma to sneak up on me and debilitate me with its unexpectedness. I want to be healthy for Will and for myself. I want Will to be healthy for Will and for me. I want to experience true, soul-level freedom and peace.

Limits to Love

I was stringently warned not to marry Will in light of his disorder. Disaster was all that would come of moving the wedding up nine months. They worried that Will would be in the hospital the following day; or he’d turn into an abusive monster; or I’d be forever stuck picking up his pieces.

All of them insisted that they loved Will dearly, but they wouldn’t wish his disorder on anyone—particularly me. That is how this whole situation has been—“We love Will, but….” I thought love was supposed to be unconditional? Maybe unconditional love is reserved for that certain brand of perceived perfection—you know the ones: talented, charismatic, flawlessly groomed, dynamic, inspirational….

Newsflash: that was—and still is—Will.

I’ve always feared inescapable abusive relationships. When Will was manic this summer, saying and doing things that were so contrary to his character, I was afraid. Would the man I loved become abusive? Was that the horror that awaited me if I stayed with him? I hoped not.

Despite the uncertainty, I was reminded that God went out of his way to bring us together, despite our bullheadedness, and that I loved him. He was—and is—my choice.

I have entrusted my life, safety, and well-being into Will’s hands in many ways in our two-year friendship. Saying “yes” and marrying him was the most forceful, tangible way to show Will and everyone else that I trust God and, by extension, Will.

I didn’t want to be like everyone who said, “I love Will, but….” The people who have forgotten that Will has been the most compassionate, influential person in his communities. That he has defended the weak and small, challenged the strong, encouraged the frustrated, and inspired the young.

That is the man I married. Not the bipolar guy. Did I marry him because he needs me? No. Because I’m a saint? Hardly.

I am one of the weak, hurt, frustrated people he has loved. Yes, I am strong, determined, stubborn, and intelligent. But I am chronically injured and have CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).

Since we wed, Will has taken care of me. He has half-carried me up and down mountains, held my hand during doctors’ appointments, comforted me as I cried, made me breakfast, and done the dishes. Yes, he still has bi-polar. Yes, one day our roles will reverse and I will take him to the doctor. But that’s what marriage—what love—is: being present, selfless, and unconditional.

Sometimes, when I read books like Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Twilight, Wizard’s First Rule and I am nauseated by the over-used idea that love conquers all. Gag me. I haven’t suddenly become a hopeless romantic. In fact, I just quit reading two of those books yesterday because I couldn’t handle the lovey-doveyness. But I have seen the power of true love:

  • Will and I met a guy for coffee yesterday. We told him our story and his response was, “Wow. That must have been really hard for you. I’m sorry.” A man we barely know loves us enough to accept us unconditionally. He didn’t shy away. Will and I couldn’t wipe our ridiculous grins off our faces. We were euphoric! We were known and loved and accepted!
  • My chronic pain ruined three climbing dates in a row—Will is an avid and occasionally obsessive climber—while I was disgusted with myself and feeling worthless, Will smiled at me, kissed my tears away, and helped make me more comfortable.
  • I refused to reject Will, even when he—and everyone else—was hoping and adamant that I go. His wonder and confidence grew, gradually replacing the shame and regret that had clouded his mien.
  • Jesus, Son of God, became a weak human to live a sucky, hot, sweaty, uncomfortable life that ended in an undeserved, torturous death and defeated death—humanity’s implacable foe—by coming back to life. Why? Because he loved us, even when he knew our every flaw and disgrace.

I don’t always enjoy the conclusion that love conquers all. And I am sure that marriage will be tough. Will and I are only human. But I have seen the confidence, worth, purpose, and life-changing outlook love inspires in my life. I love Will, and I believe he is just as deserving of that love today as he was yesterday, this summer, the five years prior, every day before then, and is every day after this one. And I know he would say the same about me.

Let’s not love someone, but…. Let’s love someone, and….

Our world could change.

 

 

Surrender

I want to fight for Will. I want to scream and claw and thrash and shake. I want to force people to listen to me. To hear the truth.

But the truth is I don’t have all the facts. I have been present for most of the manic episode highlights and I’ve been the one getting him treatment and meds when I can. But I sleep at night. Will doesn’t.

I don’t know what goes on while I’m stealing a few hours of rest. I don’t know what is going on in Will’s head or heart or brain chemistry. He’s manipulative. How do I know that what I see is what is real?

I don’t.

God does. He knows our hearts. He knows we’ve been abandoned and neglected. He knows our hurt and confusion. He knows that somehow this will work out for Will’s best interest. And mine. He knows what to do to make that best case scenario happen. And he can do it.

My favorite Psalm says that God trains my hands for war so I can bend a bow of bronze (Psalm 18). He never says he puts me in control of the battle. Basically he trains me to be a foot soldier in his army, fighting, retreating, or resting at his command. Whether or not I like it. Whether or not I understand it. Whether or not I agree with it.

Will’s doctors aren’t fighting for him. Neither are his meds. Neither is he sometimes. I am. His family is. But we are annoying in the face of overworked psychiatrists and psychologists. Mute in the face of apathy. Powerless in the mental health machine.

I want to be fierce. I want to be heard. I want to subvert the system and get help. I can’t.

God, however, is the definition of awesome. He is powerful beyond my understanding. He is not cowed by apathy. He is not daunted by the overworked system. He is not caught in a box or machine. He is above it all. And though He is NOT doing what I tell him to do or want him to do, He is in control. He has all the facts. And He loves Will so much more than I can ever hope to.

Today I had to speak in chapel, a weekly tradition at our Christian school, to the young children. I was telling them about all of God’s miracles. How he stopped the sun for two days. He created the earth and holds time, the universe, and me in his hand. He confused armies into killing themselves. He dried up the sea to let his people cross safely. Then he used the water that he held back to destroy the most powerful army on the earth at the time.

He is the one I want fighting for Will. Because the battle belongs to the Lord and he will win.

The Wasteland

I don’t think I realized the complete and utter wasteland of destruction mania can wreak.

Will and I are teachers. Fantastic teachers, if I’m completely honest. We were the darlings of the school, the two teachers who were so cool they obviously had to get married. No one else would do. After two years of protest against the possibility of that ever happening, Will and I were engaged this summer and that, along with many other things, amped Will up to the longest manic period in his life. It’s been three months and counting.

We did what we could: called his doctors, changed his meds, called his doctors, checked into hospitals, called his doctors, changed his meds, checked into hospitals, called his doctors, ….

Nothing worked.

A month or so into mania he had asked our principal for a sabbatical to regain his footing before going back to teach. It was granted and we all had hope that he would be involved in school and return as the coolest, most beloved teacher at the school.

Then Will, a facebook addict, posted the unthinkable on his wall. The bridge was burned, and he is no longer allowed on campus.

The horror of watching Will destroy his life is so consuming I’m starting to numb at the edges. I didn’t think it was possible to feel such grief and anger—both for the man I love and the authorities who have to ban him from campus.

I understand the need for a school to exercise extreme caution in order to protect its students. I am an intelligent, analytic person. I know that there are children involved. That is why social media has to be highly regulated in a teacher’s (or any public figure’s) life. You can’t have a single spot of instability or darkness on your avatar.

Regardless of the veracity or fallaciousness of the claims in social media, we now live in a society that believes the veneer over the physical, interpersonal interaction with people. Maybe what Will posted online is true. Maybe it’s not. Either way, it doesn’t matter that he would NEVER say or do anything like that on campus or in his classroom. He posted it on his wall where he is NOT friends with anyone at school. Where he is expressing himself in the “privacy” of his own wall. But no: Will is anathema. He is branded as “unsafe” and damned for his disorder.

AND IT WASN’T HIS FAULT. Where was his doctor this summer? The man who is supposed to regulate his ineffective medicine? I DON’T KNOW. Who met with him to help him and keep track of him so nothing like this happens? NO ONE. Did Will make stupid decisions? YES. Was he able to think clearly because his medication was working the way it should, regulating his brain chemistry so he would behave like a “normal” human being? NO.

School started without Will two weeks ago. Many people have expressed excitement over the engagement and sympathy over his illness. I am barely functioning on both levels: grief over my fiance’s illness and perky and invested at school. I am being “supported,” which is code for being observed so that I don’t become a danger to the students by drawing Will to me, regardless of the fact that he has no desire ever to set foot on campus again.

I talked to the school board. I set the record straight and told them the whole story: how his doctor was gone all summer and his meds weren’t working. I told them the good choices he made, despite the mania. I told them he is getting treatment in a hospital. They nodded in sympathy, asked questions, and took notes. Then enforced more rules to protect their children from some heinous monster who is currently five hours away. In a hospital. Getting treatment.

I am no longer trusted with the children. Yes, I’m still here and teaching. But with chaperones. Will can never teach his kids and invest in their lives and nickname them and inspire them and mentor them ever again. Yes, it’s devastating for him. But what about the kids?

Our lives and ministry here is over. There is nothing. It’s the Wasteland—no hope, no life, only resentment, regret, and fear. Sure, we can move and start over. And when mania strikes again, move someplace else. And again. And again. And again.

So what happens when every bridge is burned and there is nowhere to run?

“Crazy” in Love

It all started two years ago. We met climbing and were complacently okay with the other person’s existence. I moved to his town for a job and we embarked on a friendship marked with anti-small-talk agreements, music-only zones, suck-it-up injunctions, and just-let-me-vent compromises.

After two years, we fell for each other. Hard. Friendship turned into dating. Dating turned into engagement. Then all Hell broke loose.

Hi, my name is Alice and I’m in love with Will: he has bipolar disorder.

Will told me about his disorder a year ago when I had a beer and he didn’t. Kinda struck me as odd, since Will is easy-going and alcohol-savvy. When I asked why he doesn’t drink, he told me he avoids caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol because he has Type I Bipolar Disorder.

Honestly, it made sense. There were times when Will was outgoing and gregarious and other times when he was introverted and quiet. I felt better knowing he wasn’t avoiding me every few weeks because I’d become annoying or something.

Will told me he had a record of five years without a manic episode. The secret? Managing medication, fitness, diet, and stress.

As I listened, I heard his struggle to reconcile being “crazy” enough to be relegated to a psych ward several times and the “normal” Will I knew. I heard the desire not to be defined by his disorder but by his passion, creativity, intelligence, and personality.

Will is a good man. I haven’t met one person who doesn’t respect, love, and admire Will. He is involved in his community, makes a huge difference in his work place, mentors kids and young adults, and is a prominent member in his church.

My mother has a background of chronic depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I’ve spent a decent percent of my childhood in psychiatrists’ and psychologists’ offices, just in case. So when Will told me about the Bipolar, I shrugged and blithely continued our friendship.

It did occur to me, however, that it would be really hard for some woman to date or marry him. Bipolar scares a lot of people. So I began to pray for strength, insight, grace, and peace for whoever this mystery woman would be.

Little did I know I was praying for myself and that I would need every prayer I could get.

I wish I could say “And then God showed up and POOF! His Bipolar disappeared and we lived happily ever after.” But I can’t. I’m not at the end of our story. Not even close. I’m not even sure what that ending will be, how close it is, or how far. I don’t know if we’ll live happily ever after. I don’t even know if I’ll ever see him again.

What I do know is I’m not alone. And neither are you.