I suppose this past year could be described as a baptism of sorts. We all face times when life breaks us open, forcing us to do the deep questioning, the lonely journeying, and the intentional healing. This past year, it was my turn: My youngest sibling was diagnosed cancer. Pipes froze, broke and flooded our basement. Our dog died. Long, heartbreaking hospital shifts in Chicago. The computer hard-drive crashed. A tree tumbled unexpectedly and demolished our paddock fence. The furnace broke. In the hospital, my brother battled for his life. Bills piled up. Our water heater went on the fritz. My brother died. Excruciating heartbreak and grief. His funeral. His burial. Our first Thanksgiving and Christmas without him. Money was tight. Deeper waves of loss. My uncle died. Another funeral. My mother tripped, hit her head and tore her rotator cuff. Freelance work got slim. Dad called to say the doctor found a large growth on Mom’s thyroid that may be cancerous … and the story continues on. No doubt, the past year proved more challenging than I could have imagined, demanding more from me than I felt capable of giving. It was as if life unexpectedly accosted me, violently wrapping its arms around my neck and plummeting me deep under its raging current. As I struggled for freedom, it held me firmly under water.
We often think that if someone’s drowning, they’ll thrash their arms above their head and shout for help. But more often than not, the drowning one can’t call out as their mouth sinks below the water’s surface. They simply don’t have time to exhale, inhale and yell. When drowning, one usually becomes quiet, going down unnoticed as they silently sink. That’s how it felt for me. I fought for months to keep my head above water. But I was exhausted with a weariness that ached from deep within my bones. I was fragile, with no margins or reserves. My abilities were clearly insufficient compared to the heart-wrenching circumstances I faced. My faith was bruised. That’s what it took for me to give myself over to what was a simple yet profound “defining moment.” I came to a crossroads of choice, one of those brief blips that hugely impact your understanding of life going forward. We tend to think it’s the major catastrophes that form our essence—the adversity, the challenges and the pain. Certainly those things mold us, but I’m seeing that it’s really more about the choices we make in response to the suffering that matters most. How I choose to respond to the really big stuff is what ultimately alters my mindset, my direction, my way of being.
I made a clear and conscious choice in that moment when I felt as if I was drowning. I remember it distinctly because in that instance, I resolved to stop resisting the struggle and surrender to it instead. The decision went against the core of who I knew myself to be. I’ve always been a fighter, someone capable of pulling myself up by the bootstraps and marching forward. In fact, one of the highest compliments I’ve received in my life was, “Melissa, you’re a real trooper.” And I was. When the going got tough, giving up wasn’t an option. I dug down deep and did whatever it took. Yet in that one instance, when I could hardly breathe (or eat or sleep or speak), I somehow came to the end of myself as I made the life-giving decision to stop resisting and to finally wave my white flag. Strangely, when I gave in and stopped fighting, the powerful grip that held me down loosened just enough to allow me to free myself and swim up toward the light glistening on the water’s surface. Only then was I able to push through the ceiling and gasp deeply as life began to fill my lungs again. My baptism immersed me into the depths, and I emerged with a growing ability to no longer oppose and battle life, but to accept what is.
As a professional Life Coach, I’ve been trained to “read” the subtext hidden beneath the words my clients speak. Often, the underlying message is their “resistance”—to failure, to another person, to a challenge, to success—or even to life itself. It’s been said that “what we resist, persists.” That is, if we struggle against something, pushing it as far away as possible, that problem will only continue on. It will persist. I believe this is true. In my own life, much of my struggle and suffering has been connected to my unwillingness to accept what was really true. It was actually through being “coached” that I began to stop hiding from others—and more importantly, from myself. Throughout my life, I’ve been intrigued with (and a bit envious of) people who are able to be unabashedly open about their messes, hanging them out in full view for others to see. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about the ones who do it for the sake of pity, to get attention, to manipulate, or to create shock and unnecessary drama. Rather, I mean those rare few who authentically share, without shame and embarrassment, who they are—the good and the bad. They are genuine, open, real, unguarded and remarkably unafraid. They don’t feel the need to exaggerate accomplishments or cover up flaws. Who and what you see is who and what you get.
During this past year I’ve been keenly aware of my internal resisting, my wanting to make things better than they are, my desire to hide and cover up. When life brings calamity, things don’t just go back to the norm before the crises hit. There are consequences that wreaked havoc, an aftermath that must be dealt with. I had survived the storms, but returning to normalcy would take time, and lots of it. And let’s face it: “Getting back to normal” is an illusion. “Normal” doesn’t happen after disaster, death, major loss and deep grieving. It doesn’t. Life as we once knew it will not be the same. Rather, as healing comes, a “new normal” begins to emerge. That’s exactly where I am, learning to function in my new normal, in a foreign place where the landscape is unfamiliar. Here it feels difficult to make progress, get traction, or create order. It’s a place where God feels a lot like Jackson Pollock, flinging His paintbrush and spattering His artistic disarray onto the canvas of my life.
Recently, I read a book that talked about the importance of confronting our “shadow sides”—those contradictions and failures we’ve intentionally kept unexposed. Isn’t it odd how long we allow ourselves to live with unhealthy patterns of resistance? And sometimes, it’s a seemingly minor incident that creates the tipping point that ultimately catapults us into action. That’s how it happened for me, anyway. I had fallen behind in making an appointment to have our farrier out to trim and shoe our horse’s hooves. One horse had actually developed a case of thrush, a common bacterial infection that occurs in the horse’s hoof. I was mortified. In the midst of dialing our farrier’s number, I became almost paralyzed with shame and fear and failure. I was embarrassed that I was overdue in scheduling this appointment. A wave of humiliation washed over me for being disorganized, unfocused and neglectful. And, as crazy as it sounds, I went behind closed doors and cried. I wept and wallowed and scolded myself for what an awful person I was. And then I coerced my husband into making the call and meeting with the farrier when he arrived at our barn!
Shame … shame was my shadow side that I continually pushed down and kept hidden behind a locked, tightly shut closet in the deepest corner of my soul. “What we resist, persists.” The dictionary defines “shame” as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Obviously, my reaction to calling the farrier was extreme; it was, however, an overarching “metaphor” that opened me up to what I’d been holding at bay and resisting all these years. My pattern had been that anytime shame showed up, I resisted, hid, denied it, or sometimes even white-lied my way around what was really true. However, this time was different as I decided once again not to struggle and fight but to surrender. I chose to unlock the real truth deep within in order to reveal and expose the secrets I’d kept hidden. That choice was a turning point for me.
That afternoon, I took out my notebook, shut myself in my bedroom and made a list of every possible realm of my life that somehow got tangled up by shame. For me, it seemed to be those icky, messy areas that have the tendency to paralyze me. I was surprised how long my list was as I penned my thoughts! Not only did I unlock the hidden closet, I tromped right on in and flung open every dresser drawer, rummaging around to see what had been stuffed down deep, hidden and forgotten. What a mess! And what an overwhelming and exhilarating relief! Interestingly, most of the items I discovered had nothing to do with moral flaws or sinful ways. Most were things I’d neglected or put off—getting my annual physical, paying back money I owed a friend, carving out time to commit to a regular exercise routine, getting my kids in for teeth cleanings, tackling the unpacked boxes in the basement, clearing through and organizing the disarray of bills, getting the spring cleanup done in the yard, plunging into the laundry that was overflowing into the hallway, reconciling with a friend over a misunderstanding, getting the cars detailed so they weren’t such garbage heaps, ordering a new prescription for my glasses, scheduling a mammogram, etc. These—these were the things that had continually “hooked” me. Time and again, I had given myself over to them and allowed them to become powerful enough to paralyze me and plunge me into shame.
Walter Anderson says, “Our lives improve only when we take chances and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.” I agree. There’s something extraordinarily freeing in facing your shadow side. Instead of struggling against the exhaustion of overwhelm, I surrendered to the truth. Choosing to “see” my shadow side actually took away much of its power. By writing down a list, I unknowingly designed a game plan for growth, empowerment, and living more fully. Sure, shame still tries to hook me, but when I feel the pangs to hide, I remind myself instead to move ahead with action. Make an appointment for my annual physical. Check. Get the pickup truck detailed. Check. Pay the electric bill. Check. Oil changed in the Jeep. Check.
It’s been said that integrity is telling yourself the truth, and honesty is telling the truth to others. I’m trying to do both. In fact, one of my new mantras is, “It is what it is.” It sounds simple, but it has deep meaning for me. I’m owning the essence of that phrase—speaking it forth, not denying what is, not apologizing or making excuses, and most importantly, not being overpowered by shame. This past year immersed me into deep, shadowy waters. I made a choice to stop struggling and resisting. Certainly I came to the surface spewing and gasping. However, I experienced baptism—the sacred ritual of transformational change. And perhaps even more importantly, this act of surrender then enabled me to take a truthful inventory of my life unlocking my bondage to shame. I’m not completely shame free, but I’m on the road to getting there. It is what it is.