Pain is fickle, apt to lurch forward like an all-consuming wildfire that laps at your heels and chokes your throat. It can sneak up on you, despite your awareness of potential triggers or risky situations.
A recent tsunami of pain for me started with a deep conversation with a friend over burgers and beer. We spoke vulnerably about love and lust, loss and longing, commitment and fidelity, recovery and the choices that can derail it. We talked about joy and redemption and surrender to God’s best, even when we want something different in the moment. Whether my friend sensed it or not, I was keenly aware of God’s presence beside me on that bar stool and what God was showing me about the long haul of life. As I listened, I was also reminded of what trauma and addiction had cost me, and I saw in front of me what price they could exact again.
From that vulnerable exchange, I entered a workshop for adolescent females who are struggling with problematic sexual behavior. For years God had invited me to start this program, and I had always refused. I was a deeply troubled teenage girl with nowhere to turn for help. My unidentified trauma of sexual abuse – which was ongoing at that time but unrecognizable within its frame of a “loving” relationship with a 35-year-old man who began grooming me when I was five – left me ripe for exploitation by multiple others. By 17, I was a full-blown sex and love addict. Even within the context of helping others, I didn’t want to revisit the pain of my adolescence. God, though, eventually won my yes, and a program for struggling teens was born.
Three precious 16-year-olds, each from a separate family, came to Bethesda Workshops for our first offering for adolescent girls. Beneath their self-protective walls, they were scared and lonely and desperate for hope. They also knew that their acting out wasn’t meeting their hearts’ deepest longings, yet they had no other vehicles at their disposal. The girls’ parents were equally amazing: Though saddled with their own issues, all three sets came to be part of the solution, including one pair who were divorced, but cooperated beautifully for their daughter’s well-being.
At the same time, the workshop was even more difficult personally than I had feared. I discovered it’s one thing to do clinical work about family of origin issues and trauma as part of the recovery process, and it’s something completely different to see all that pain displayed in real people right in front of me. Deep though my healing work had been, including powerful family sculpts and experiential work with the wounded 3-year-old, 5-year-old and 16-year-old, I felt myself breaking open inside to see these courageous families doing their work. The questions kept piercing me, “What if…? How would my life have been different if I’d gotten help at 16 instead of at 35? Those years of intervening addiction – of all the pursuits of lesser loves – haunted me.
An amazing staff of certified sex addiction therapists and adolescent specialists worked with the families, and I got to observe the process from a distance, which was a gift considering how acutely I was triggered. With that strong team, I was able to get away to attend a baby shower for our son and daughter-in-law, who are expecting their first child in a few weeks – a baby girl. For the first time, I put my hand on my daughter-in-law’s belly and felt the new life move within her. Unexpectedly, standing in a stranger’s kitchen, I wept. I cried for my mother, who wouldn’t live to see her daughter grow past age three. I cried for myself who had to engage difficult circumstances without a mom and with a loving but impaired dad.
That evening when the teens and parents’ workshop was over, instead of going home I found myself standing in the near dark on the windy hillside that holds my parents’ graves. From the only place where I feel connected to them, I screamed at God: Where were you? Why didn’t you get help for my parents so they were able to help me? Where are you now?
The juxtaposition of my personal need for healing with my role as a healer was jarring. For days I felt unhinged, unglued. As waves of pain washed over me, I doubted if God was really enough, which is a notion I hadn’t questioned this deeply in nearly 20 years.
As I wrestled with God through many long days, I discovered some important truths. The reality is that during some moments God isn’t enough for the pain of abandoned, lonely children, the chaos of family dysfunction, or the fear of an adult who sees a dozen little losses in her life every week – if “enough” means easing those aches. That realization, which flies in the face of many pious messages about God’s sufficiency, helped me adjust my expectations and take away some of the panic when I felt so alone. More importantly, I saw that God is present in the big picture, even when I don’t feel it. God clearly showed up for me in sometimes tiny, but consistent, ways during this struggle, and a loving Father gave me the grace to see them.
God reminded me of the things I teach, especially the importance of diligent self-care. I embraced every healthy nurturing practice I could think of, from engaging with professional helpers to getting extra rest when I felt myself crumbling. I went to the indoor pool, got a massage, and journaled. Yes, I did some unnecessary shopping and even more restless driving, but in the scheme of things, I didn’t betray myself by pursuing false solutions.
Most significantly, I practiced what I’ve learned for years in spiritual direction, and I begged Jesus to enter the painful chambers of my heart. I must admit that to my surprise, Jesus responded to my cries for presence. He didn’t insult me with slick, stupid answers. He didn’t erase the pain or change my circumstances. He simply showed up and did it with skin on. I texted my brothers from our parents’ gravesites, and both immediately responded with love and compassion. I asked for help from safe friends, and they held my hands and my hair when my spirit wretched with the hangover of longing for a different past and a different future. At some point I realized that not one, not two or three, but four dear souls were walking closely with me, each offering a unique gift. What an extravagance to be visited by God’s multiple angels!
I’m sharing this very personal dark night of the soul because I expect I’m not the only one who sometimes feels alone and without comfort …. who questions God, who doubts God could ever be enough, who finds that even after long-term solid recovery, the pain can feel so fresh.
Take heart, dear one. These times are God’s windows into deeper healing. You are never alone.
Marnie C. Ferree