Fear Of The Dark

door

When I was a little boy, I was afraid of the dark – VERY AFRAID.

The thing is: I’m not sure whether, like most children, my fear was born of the dangers I imagined existed on the bedroom side of the door – the monsters hiding in my closet, under my bed, or just outside my window – or the ones I knew existed on the other side of it – the iron, albeit often shaky hand of a dictator, the alcohol-fueled arguments between people who professed to “love” each other (and me), the sound of splintering plate glass and stemware in the middle of the night – or both. All I know for sure is that the fear was real, palpable, at times even paralyzing, suffocating and that it hung like a guillotine blade in the air above my bed, which is why, night after night, as soon as I heard her footsteps cross the threshold that led from the bedroom hallway to the family room, I hurried to the door, stealthily opened it just a crack, raced back to my bed – and hoped. I knew the futility of it all. I knew that the sliver of light would only be mine for a moment. That it would disappear just as quickly – often with an aggressive and emphatic slam to reinforce the message, to remind me (and my siblings) who was in charge.

You see, my mother had long since befriended the dark and (I think) in her own misguided way was intent on my learning to do the same even if it meant force feeding it. It was her way (one of her ways) of toughening me up, of preparing me for a world that, I only later learned, for her, had been a dark and scary place for a very long time. Regrettably, tragically it was the only thing she knew – but the last thing on earth a came-into-this-world-too-sensitive me wanted to know. She escaped to it, sought refuge for her shame and guilt-ridden soul in it, but I wanted none of it. I wanted a mom. I wanted to be held. I wanted to be checked on. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be reassured that light was just around the corner – available whenever I needed it. And so our evening dance continued – me seeking the light, her dispelling it. Eventually, it stopped. I got a transistor radio that substituted for a mom. Depending on the season, I listened to play-by-play announcers broadcast baseball, basketball, even hockey games from all around the country. They kept me company and their metronomic, dulcet tones rocked me to sleep.

If I’m to be honest, however, my fear of the dark never completely went away. I still find myself preferring to have at least some light on somewhere when I go to bed at night. It’s also why I’m careful to leave a light on if I know it’ll be dark when I come home and fumble first for the foyer light switch when I walk through the door of a darkened hotel room. It’s not that I still worry that an imaginary boogeyman is lurking somewhere nearby. Like most childhood wounds of its kind, it’s much more complicated, insidious, and deep-seated than that. For me, the darkness is a daily dredging up of R-rated emotions seared into my soul, emotions that no young child should ever be exposed to (loneliness, fear of abandonment, a sense of invisibility, unworthiness, unlovability) – scars that easily could’ve (and should’ve) been avoided by an occasional hug, a moment of empathy and compassion, a word of comfort and reassurance, a recognition of the responsibility that comes with parenting a heart that sees and feels it all – and that you have one of those – a moment’s curiosity about the seemingly insatiable need for just a glimpse of light. But, here’s the irony of it all:  In her eagerness to dispel the light, what my mom actually “taught” me was the criticality of rooting out and dispelling darkness – in all of its forms – and for that I am eternally grateful.

Last weekend, I passed a playground on my morning walk and saw a young mom laughing and bouncing on a rickety wooden bridge with her two little boys as if she were 4 years old again. “She will never close the door on them,” I thought to myself as I walked by – that and how incredibly lucky they are!

https://tinyurl.com/y9xu528d

 

The Darkness Is A Jealous Mistress

“I once asked my mentor what was the most powerful advice he’d given or received in his thirty plus years of practice. ‘That’s an easy one,’ he replied. ‘Let love in’.” Stephanie May Camacho

Despite what I likely told you at the time, I realize now that I didn’t step into this space searching for answers about myself – how it was that I could’ve done so much for so many for so long and yet still felt (and been) so all alone; how it could be that my heart seemingly knew no limits when it came to giving to other hearts in need and yet was so incredibly inept when it came to receiving love for itself; why my best – my absolute best – routinely elicited accolades from and, on occasion, even the envy of others, but never registered with me as being even marginally good enough; how someone could appear so put together, so in control of his world and his emotions on the outside and yet be so broken (shattered really) on the inside. No, I came in looking for a fight, hell-bent on finding out what was wrong with everyone else – why they didn’t get it (get me) – how they could be so oblivious, so indifferent to my pain – and when what I found instead was love, compassion, open arms, grace, empathy, and the prospect (however remote) of hope and healing, I started one.

And so, for the better part of the next three months, we butted heads you and me. Actually, I was the one who did most of the butting. Week after week, I came in not with humility and a heart open to change, but with another story, another compelling example of how I had been wronged, misunderstood, disrespected, underappreciated, overlooked, taken advantage of – unseen. In my mind, I had more than enough evidence (ammunition) in my stockpile to prove every point, a rock-solid case for why none of it had anything to do with what was wrong with me and everything to do with what was wrong with the rest of the world. I was on a mission and, for weeks on end, you just sat there – mostly in silence – never taking a note, absorbing every verbal body shot I delivered, saying just enough to make it clear you were listening (carefully) to every word, that not a single one of the thousands of tears I shed fell unnoticed, and that, in spite of my often offensive and angry words, I was welcome to come back. I’m sure more than once you wondered, as I did, if I would … if I could see that your lack of engagement had less to do with you not getting it, than with you not buying it … but, come back I did.

And then, one day it happened.

I don’t even remember what it was we were arguing about, all I remember is that I’d had enough – enough of you finally pushing back against a misguided narrative I’d been telling myself for a lifetime and grown quite comfortable with; enough of you calling bullshit on my tired tales of woe – no matter how compelling my side of the story presented; enough of you insisting that I entertain the possibility that there was another, less self-victimizing side to those stories that told a very different tale – one grounded in a deeply wounded little boy; enough of you trying to convince me there was a better, less defensive, more open-hearted way to live; enough of you chipping away at the walls of my heart that I’d spent so much time building and reinforcing and took much pride in. And so, as had become my go-to move whenever I’d had enough, I got up to leave – without a word – and you in mid-sentence. And I would’ve left had I not seen the tears spontaneously streaming down the sides of your face – and known they were of my making. “I wonder if you realize how much that hurts,” you said simply. Sitting back down was the best decision I ever made.

I’m not sure what it is about the darkness that causes those lost or trapped in it to push the light of love away, when love is offered and what’s needed most, but the phenomenon is real. I know, because I’ve experienced it in my own life and in the lives of those I love (dearly) more often than I care to think about, let alone admit. And, I was about to do it again that day, a drowning man all but scoffing at a life preserver – a hand and heart repeatedly, unconditionally, non-judgmentally outstretched in love, offering a moment of grace, of peace, of respite from a storm that, truth be told, had been raging around and inside of me for far too long. Yet, the darkness would have none of it and, true to where I was in that moment, neither would I. Fortunately, this time around the light won! It’s part of the reason my go-to move now is to stay, lean in a little closer, and love harder. It’s also why I refuse to give up – on the wounded, the lost, and the lonely – no matter how many times they pull away or how effusive they are in insisting they’re “fine”, that “they’ve got this!” There’s simply too much hanging in the balance to let the darkness win!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3SYcCLGAoE

 

547 Square Feet

Apartment (003)

547 square feet …

the emptiest of nests.

Room enough

for a bed to sleep in,

a small love(less) seat to collapse on at the end of another too long day,

a TV for the occasional binge watch,

a tiny kitchen to cook a simple meal,

a shower,

a closet barely built for one,

and a small desk for writing – lots of writing.

1 year …

that seemed like eternity.

Time enough

to catch your breath,

to start from scratch,

to find and then piece a broken “you” back together one misshapen shard at a time,

to take an honest inventory,

to shed a tear or two (thousand) at what you see,

to glimpse an occasional sunrise,

to surrender to the true longing of your heart

to learn to be love – and (finally) let love in.

Sometimes we need to go back to the scene of the crime – to the wounds, the scars, the pain – with the eyes of an Overcomer.

Not for the purpose of heaping more hurt on ourselves, but to appreciate

how far we’ve come,

how much resilience, courage and perseverance it took to get here,

how radically different the light is from the darkness and we are from the person who was at the beginning of the journey,

the non-linear and inescapably individual nature of all paths to recovery,

to remember all the times the sun did come up, despite our Inner Bully’s relentless insistence that we were undeserving of it’s warm invitation to begin again,

to be awash in gratitude for those who refused to give up on us in our darkest hours,

who, time and time again, offered outstretched (non-judgmental) hearts and hands to help us up when we slipped (or fell),

who held loneliness at bay, when we were certain it would overwhelm us,

and, if you’re a person of faith, to see God’s hand, faithfulness, and steadfast love at work in it – ALL of it.

Make no mistake: Life is hard and it’s way harder for some (and in some seasons) than others.

But, if you stay with it long enough – if you keep your heart (wide) open – chances are you’ll find Life’s fullness (or its fullness will find you) and yours will never be the same again.

https://tinyurl.com/y3lowj4u

“It’s All About The Bounce”

bounce

Those of you who read my blog with any regularity (c’mon, admit it, I know there are at least two of you!) likely would find it hard to believe that, not so long ago, I was a dyed-in-the-wool introvert who found the idea of sharing my innermost thoughts and longings with my closest of friends, let alone on social media TERRIFYING. But, it’s true, which is why it wasn’t at all surprising to me that, several years ago – moments before I was to speak to a standing room only audience at the launch of my book, “Dear Ashley . . .” – A Father’s Letters and Reflections to His Daughter on Life, Love and Hope (https://tinyurl.com/y63wrj3f) – I found myself sweating profusely in the men’s room of Books & Books (Coral Gables). What WAS surprising was HOW INCREDIBLY SMALL that men’s room is (think broom closet) and the runaway sense of awkwardness and embarrassment I felt in having to share it (and my personal crisis) with a man nearly twice my age. To make matters worse, as I shimmied along the wall trying to avoid physical contact on the way to the stall, he actually started to speak.

“Hey, aren’t you the guy who’s speaking tonight,” he said far too enthusiastically, having no doubt seen my likeness displayed in the window next to John Grisham’s latest release. “I am,” I responded, hoping against hope that would be the end of our conversation. “What’s the book and the talk about?” he inquired. “It’s about being a dad,” I said (almost in a whisper), “about my wishing I’d done better, and about our daughter, who nearly lost her life to an insidious and wildly misunderstood disease. And the talk? It’s about what I believe are the keys to realizing the desires of your heart.” He paused, as he dried his hands, breezed past everything else I’d said (almost as if I’d missed the point entirely), and asked simply, “How’s she doing now – your daughter?” “Much better, thanks,” I said, suddenly glad for the droplets of sweat that were masking my tears. He smiled, turning towards the door, “Well, it’s like my grandma always said: ‘It’s not about the goin’ down. We all gonna do that.  It’s about the bounce!’ Good luck.” And with that, he was gone …

The 35 minutes between “Before I begin, I’d like you to take the pad and pencil in front of you and jot down 5 Desires of Your Heart” and “Thank you for coming tonight” is mostly a blur to me now – a vague sea of “This Is Your Life” faces, frayed nerves, frenetic heartbeats, fear of failure, and futile efforts to avoid eye contact with my daughter lest the flood gates open. But, I’ll never forget what happened as those in attendance collected their things and headed for the exit. A colleague and friend I’d known for nearly 20 years approached with hand extended and a sheen of tears in his eyes. “Thank you”, he managed as I reached to take his hand and he pressed a small folded square of paper in mine.  He quickly turned and walked away and, as he did, I opened the gift he’d left behind to find 5 gut-wrenchingly personal “Desires” on one side and this note on the other: “Your willingness to share your heart has given me the courage to share these shame-filled pieces of mine for the first time. I know I have a lot of hard work ahead of me, but now, thanks to you, I can do it with hope.”

The weeks, months, and years since that pivotal moment in my life have only served to reinforce the power and magnetism of vulnerability, as one heart – ravaged by abuse, addiction, eating disorders, neglect, shame, guilt, loneliness, misplaced trust, etc. – after another have found their way to my actual or virtual doorstep. None has come asking to be fixed – a task well beyond my paygrade. They come instead to be seen, to be heard, to share the broken and shameful pieces of themselves without fear of judgment, to be reminded that they’re not alone, that we all fall down, that there’s someone in the world who cares, that they are no less worthy, that there’s a reason to hold on, to fight on, and for assurances that the sun will come up (and shine on them) tomorrow. My gift in return? I get the privilege to be that voice for a moment and along the way to share “Grandma’s” wisdom: It doesn’t matter why or how far you’ve fallen or what it looks (or looked) like when you hit the bottom. At one time or another (in one form or another) we’ve all been (or will be) there. It’s all about the bounce!

https://tinyurl.com/y5wxov94

An Invitation To Redemption

The Prodigal Son 1888 by John Macallan Swan 1847-1910

“Maybe redemption has stories to tell. Maybe forgiveness is right where you fell.” Dare You to Move (Switchfoot)

I assure you

when, despite decades of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, you delusionally remain chained to the belief (conviction) that yours is the right way – the only way – that you have it all figured out;

when your best intentions and tireless efforts to micro-manage your and others lives – because, after all, you know better – leaves you (and them) mired in the very chaos, uncertainty and pain you sought to avoid;

when the unrelenting voices of perfectionism, loneliness, and depression are on the verge of convincing your battered and weary soul that there’s no way out of their death grip;

when the love of a lifetime is perilously, perhaps even understandably close to deciding that a lifetime should be measured in years – not breaths;

when the darkness becomes so impenetrable – the heart walls so high and well-armored – that even the brightest of lights and the strongest of loves can’t find their way in;

the last thing on your mind is the possibility of redemption,

let alone that it will happen when you’re standing at an ATM machine on the corner of Douglas Road and Giralda Avenue – filled with anger and fear after the latest in a series of sleepless nights – and all hope seems lost.

I suppose the same likely was true (in a myriad of different ways) for the adulterous woman groveling in the dirt before an angry mob – stones in hand – intent on ending her life; the crucified thief convinced that all that awaited his lifetime of missteps was the finality of death; the prodigal son longing to fill his belly with the husks he fed to the pigs; the paralyzed man as he was being lowered through the thatched roof of a stranger’s home by faithful friends; Peter, in the courtyard when the rooster finally stopped crowing; the ten lepers; the underprepared host of the wedding feast; David, after serially violating the Ten Commandments in the span of 72 hours; Gomer, Hosea’s adulterous wife, after returning to her roots; Ruth; the woman at the well; Rahab the prostitute; Saul of Tarsus on the Road to Damascus; to name just a few of the more notable Biblical examples – not to mention any number of more modern day characters – some of whom no doubt are our workmates, roommates, classmates, housemates, friends, and churchmates.

And yet, if our collective experiences are fairly representative that’s precisely when the invitation to redemption arrives – when we least expect and most desperately need it … like a soft breeze on a stiflingly hot summer day; the thirst quenching refreshment of a cool, clear mountain stream in the middle of an exhausting climb; the smile of an old friend when you feel alone, if not abandoned; a sunrise you weren’t at all sure you’d ever see again; the arrival of a beautiful bouquet of roses sent in spite of a hurt you carelessly inflicted; the gentle, inviting rhythm of the waves lapping the sand on the first day of a long overdue vacation; the eye of a hurricane; a hand extended in peace or forgiveness after decades of discord and separation; an impeccably timed word of encouragement, affirmation, or empathy; a safe harbor; a warm lasting embrace; whispered reassurances that love is unconditional when we were certain disillusionment, disappointment and rejection would be the order of the day – a sight, sound, or smell that reminds us of childhood (or home), when both seem hopelessly far away.

What awaits your acceptance of that invitation?  I suppose that part is different for everyone, but for me it was an immediate and overwhelming sense of calm and peace in the midst of what only moments before were the depths of despair; a sense that reconciliation, which just a breath before seemed impossible, was possible; a vision of a previously indiscernible path to take in pursuing it and a clarity of purpose for the journey; a breaking through and tearing down of walls; a fundamental, no-turning-back change of heart and perspective; a profound sense of forgiveness (of self and others); freedom from a lifetime of bondage to stress and anxiety; an acute self-awareness of mistakes and missteps made over a lifetime and an almost simultaneous release of the guilt and shame they carried with them; an outpouring of gratitude and a compelling desire to share it all – even though, in the moment and for days, weeks and months to follow I could scarcely comprehend or adequately explain any of it. But, I know this with certainty: I’m eternally grateful the invitation arrived – and that I opened it!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zI7HMGFAQBg

*Image Credit: The Prodigal Son by John Macallan Swan

A Few Thoughts About Mothers

MotherAndSon

I’ve been thinking A LOT about mothers lately.*

Maybe it’s because Mother’s Day is just around the corner and it’s always been an emotionally challenging day for me. Maybe it’s because I recently happened upon the eye-opening viral video from a few years back soliciting and interviewing applicants for a job whose duties and responsibilities seem incomprehensibly difficult, if not wholly unachievable (mothering) – that I just can’t stop watching (https://tinyurl.com/y4g9w7cy). Maybe it’s because the internet has given me access to the wisdom of extraordinary moms whose children I often envy for reasons that likely are evident to those who know me or are long time readers of my blog (https://tinyurl.com/nxauc7s). Maybe it’s because, while I haven’t acknowledged it nearly often enough, for 33 years I’ve been blessed to have a front row seat to a living, breathing example of what it really takes to be an EXCEPTIONAL mom – to struggle, comfort, sacrifice, love (unconditionally), hurt, rejoice, pray, fear, and hope as only a mother can. Or maybe it was a message exchange I had with a young, single working mom last week, who, in the midst of her own considerable personal struggles and a day-before-trip to an emergency room for her youngest, said simply: “When it rains . . . I’ve been up all night with (my oldest) – fever and throwing up. Finally kept Motrin down at 4:00 a.m.”

Likely, it’s a combination of all the above, but it was the last message (and the messages that followed) that landed hardest on my heart, because they made me realize that mothers seldom, if ever receive the credit they (and their often-weary hearts) truly deserve from the person they most need to hear it from: Themselves! Maybe they (my friend included) just don’t see it. Maybe great moms are “wired” in a way that makes the enormity and difficulty of all that they do for their children, often before or after an exhausting and stressful day at work (usually both), seem like just another task, as reflexive as their next breath – as no big deal. Maybe, unbeknownst to us, God implanted a gene in moms that “diminishes” the magnitude of it all in the mind of the doer because He understood how undoable it would be without it – the giving birth, the diapers, the pumping, the midnight feedings, the countless trips to the doctors, the spitting (let’s call it what it really is – “throwing”) up, the constant cleaning up after (does that always continue into high school?!?), the dressing (of bodies and “boo boos”), the laundry, the shopping, the homework help, the birthday parties, not to mention the drying of countless tears, the compassion, the empathy, the worry, the fears, (and for those of faith) the endless hours spent in prayer – to name just a little of the “all”!

Or maybe it takes the heart of a “little boy” that longed for so many of those things (especially the emotional pieces) to help them see it. Maybe that’s the gift I can give this Mother’s Day (i.e., a Word Mirror), not unlike the one I tried to give to my friend last week: “You’re a good mom,” I responded to her initial note. “Hardest job there is! Get some rest. You earned it.” “I wish I could,” she said. “I have to take him to the doctor and I’m incredibly far behind at work. Plus, my anxiety’s through the roof and I’m exhausted.” That’s when it hit me. “You and your heart might benefit from a slightly different perspective,” I offered. “Try this: ‘You know, my friend is right. I AM a good mom – a GREAT mom! My boys are very lucky. Because of me, because of days and nights like this, they’ll know what sacrificial love looks and feels like and, hopefully, want to pass that gift on to their children. Work will just have to wait, because that gift is invaluable – and I’m the only one who can give it’.” “I wish work cared about all that,” she quickly shot back. “There are just SO many challenges. I feel like I’m doing something wrong. Work is building. There’s just not enough of me . . .”

“Give me a minute to type,” I pleaded (in the midst of feverishly trying to play catch up to a flurry of follow-up messages headed in the wrong self-talk direction) “and then I gotta go.” “I can only imagine how overwhelmed you must feel in this moment,” I began, “and I’m sure it’s not the first time. But, in a quieter one, this morning is worth reflecting on. What you instinctively framed as another opportunity to beat yourself up, to heap more abuse and hurt on a heart that already is supersaturated with anxiety, guilt, shame, and ‘not enoughs’ was anything but. It was (and still is!) an opportunity to affirm yourself, to catch a glimpse of something you’re doing (and for the past decade (!) have been doing) VERY RIGHT, giving your boys a PRICELESS gift – a gift I never got: The comfort, security, self-confidence, and warmth that comes from knowing that they are truly, unabashedly, and unconditionally loved by their mom. While you defaulted to it feeling anything but, where your boys are concerned it’s Christmas morning and you, my friend are one of the best Santa’s ever! Please start seeing the truth about you. It was there to be seen this morning. I saw it – and I suspect two very impressionable hearts did as well!”

And, I “see” you, Cyndy – and all the moms out there. Now, all that’s left is for you to see “you” too! Happy Mother’s Day!

*Credit for this poignant and captivating image goes to Sarah West, who graciously gave permission for its use. Sarah’s other work can be found at https://www.captivatingbysarahwest.com

https://tinyurl.com/mbruafn

A Letter to a Weary Heart

file-1 (002)

Many of the eating disorder and addiction sufferers I’ve been privileged to interact with are adults who’ve been battling these illnesses for years.  Some are married.  Some are not. Some have boyfriends or partners. Others do not.  Some are in school, miles away from home.  Some have been forced by their illness to move back home.  Some have families and full-time jobs. Others work several jobs to try and make ends meet. Some have always been and remain close to their parents, while others come from broken or abusive homes and are, understandably, disconnected and distant ant from theirs.  Many have been in and out of treatment programs multiple times, have “blue chip” treatment teams and still find themselves in a constant tug-a-war between relapse and recovery. Others don’t have or have long since exhausted the resources needed to secure the treatment they long for/desperately need and, as a result, are forced to make due. Some, thankfully, are more firmly rooted in recovery.  But, at one time or another, all of them, sufferers, those in recovery, and loved ones alike, have shared the darkness and questioned whether their story would have a happy ending.

I was reminded of that a few weeks ago when one of those friends, a young woman I deeply admire and respect, wrote to share her sense of exhaustion and openly wondered if her most recent stumble will be the proverbial straw that breaks the will and the patience of those who, in her words, “up to this point have so heroically and patiently supported and encouraged” her. As I read her e-mail, I couldn’t help but wonder how often those same hurtful and fear-engendering thoughts entered our own daughter’s mind and found their way to a shame-filled, guilt-ridden heart already questioning its worthiness.  You see, try as we might – and believe me we tried mightily – my wife and I were far from perfect in responding to the daily and often all-consuming challenges that an eating disorder presents to both the sufferer and those who love them.  In fact, the tears littering the keyboard as I type these words have their birthplace in too many remembered moments when my response to various incendiary situations spawned by our daughter’s eating disorder only added fuel to an already raging emotional bonfire.  All of which brings me to this note:

Dear Loved One,

I know you’re weary.

I know you’re frustrated.

I know you’re angry.

I know you’re wondering what you did to “deserve” this.

I know you don’t think you can do this for even one more minute, let alone another day, week, month, or year.

I know you’re losing patience.

I know you want your life back.

I know you want your loved one back.

I know you’re asking yourself if/when this nightmare will end.

I know you feel like you’re running out of options.

I know you’re scared.

I know there are times when you feel helpless.

I know you are starting to lose hope.

But, here’s the thing: Despite how they may act or what they may say in the grip of these insidious diseases at any given moment, your loved one feels those things too (weariness, frustration, anger, guilt, shame, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, confusion, etc.) and would give anything to have their life back – and you yours.  The last thing they need is to feel more of it – to be given a reason to believe that the lies their eating disordered (or addicted) mind has been telling (screaming at) them all this time are true (e.g., that they are a “burden”, that they are “worthless”, that they are “unlovable”, that the world (even your world) would be a better place without them in, etc.).

You are the only truth that stands between your loved one and those lies.

The good news is: YOU ARE STRONGER THAN YOU THINK, more COURAGEOUS and RESILIENT than you realize, and have a greater capacity for PATIENCE and EMPATHY than you ever imagined.  More importantly, while in this moment it may not seem or feel like it, your ability to provide your loved one with LOVE and EMOTIONAL SUPPORT are actually LIMITLESS and their transformative power UNPARALLELED.  Rest in that TRUTH, draw strength from it – and if, as I suspect, you’ve already gone the “Extra Mile” pause for a minute (or two) to catch your breath – you’ve earned it – then keep going, keep loving, keep believing, keep the flame of hope alive. Because the magic may well be in the next one.

Wishing you peace and strength,

Don

https://tinyurl.com/y7x92nhp