Chronic illness is trauma. In 2020, it’s as if we’ve all been living through a shared illness, a drawn-out series of traumas. My own pain, which started over a decade ago, was an ongoing, low-level trauma that wore a rut into my body, my brain, my very sense of self. The fact that it had no foreseeable end added to my suffering. The nonstop pain made me want to jump out of my skin and away from my inflamed muscles and joints. But there was no escape. I could not run away from my own body.
Still, God met me here. I was at Lincoln Marsh one fall, hashing the whole chronic pain thing out with God for the hundredth time. In the waning light, as the air got nippy, I looked over the cattails and reeds. The vision I had for my life was in pieces. I approached God with the pieces in my hands, wanting him to put them back into their original shape. Every piece was a pet project or dream I didn’t know if I’d be able to do with my ongoing pain, or an important aspect of my identity that I couldn’t part with: being able to dance, keeping my house clean on my own, going on a walking pilgrimage through Spain. Nothing—who I thought I was, who I thought God was—fit with my reality.
My part of the dialogue involved me desperately sorting through the pieces and trying to line them up so there were no gaping holes or cracks and so that they formed the same picture as before. In my frantic sorting, though, I started to sense God doing something else. He was not interested in lining all the pieces up in a coherent whole—at least not a whole that I could understand. God was holding out his hands underneath mine, even as I clung to the shards.
Let go, he said. I will hold them for you. It’s okay that your life is in pieces. Be okay with the pieces.
I heard this, and my heart tightened. Still, I wanted to let go and trust, so I tried to act out in my body what I couldn’t do quite yet in my soul. Sitting on a bench overlooking the marsh, I extended both fists with my palms downward and then unclenched my fingers one by one, opening them wide to the ground. I pictured God’s hands catching my pieces. I cried. I breathed. And I went home.
Trauma researchers note that survivors are often stuck in the moment of the traumatic event, unable to reconcile past and present. The fragments of their experience—the smells, the horror and paralysis, the lighting—are replayed again and again in a never-changing present. What trauma patients need is the ability to integrate the traumatic memories into their current life in a way that gives them a sense of completion. Then the experience “stops having a life of its own.”
As I clutched the fragments of my life, I was trying to find that sense of integration. But I wanted it to be a wholeness that I knew, a wholeness not formed out of brokenness.
That fall afternoon at Lincoln Marsh, I felt God nudging me toward a different wholeness. A true wholeness that accounts for the pain and accepts the pieces without trying to force them back into a pre-broken state. Wholeness must embrace our current brokenness, or it is not wholeness, but nostalgia.
We’ve internalized from so many sources that to be whole means to go back to some previous state of purity. Today, we so want to return to our “pre-pandemic normal.” But it’s impossible to go back. Those who have survived sexual trauma know this. They live with the flashbacks and nagging question of, “What did I do to invite this?” Those of us who grew up in evangelical purity culture get the message that once we screw up—or once life screws us up—we can’t be “pure” and “whole” any longer. Being sexually intimate before marriage is like being a piece of duct tape that gets stuck to a surface and then peeled off, my high school youth pastor said. The more times you do it, the less sticky you become. Once you’re broken, like Humpty Dumpty, you just can’t be put back together again.
The idea bleeds into other areas of our embodied lives, including our experiences of illness. We think our bodies are forever faulty, dysfunctional, no longer “blessed.” But we are not pieces of duct tape. Or Humpty Dumpty. We are living beings with God’s breath in us. Morsels from the Creator and Redeemer of human life, who gave his body to join himself to us, are coursing through our veins. Instead of trying to go back to the way we were before, we can let our brokenness be transformed.
In his work with trauma survivors, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk discovered a technique called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which involves having a patient revisit a traumatic memory while tracking the therapist’s moving finger. He surmises that the rapid eye movements bring the mind to a state similar to REM sleep, where it is able to make distant associations and connect fragments of traumatic memories with other, more recent memories.
In one very successful case, he noted, “the process freed something in her mind/brain to activate new images, feelings and thoughts; it was as if her life force emerged to create new possibilities for her future.”
When I embodied the act of letting go, releasing the fragments of my life into God’s hands, I was—symbolically, at least—stepping out of the never-ending present of my pain and allowing new possibilities to emerge. I was trusting God to hold the pieces of who I was, to make use of the brokenness.
Now, looking back, I can see how the pieces are coming back together in a new way, forming a different, but equally meaningful, picture. But that afternoon at Lincoln Marsh, I first needed to free my imagination away from the fixation on escaping my current reality and “going back to normal” (and maybe I needed a few good nights of busy REM sleep; I was not sleeping well then). Van der Kolk writes, “Seeing novel connections is the cardinal feature of creativity; as we’ve seen, it’s also essential to healing.”
We recently made our first mosaic as a family. We used glass clippers and broke several amber, green, and black wine bottles into little pieces. We scraped the edges of each piece on a sanding block to smooth the too-sharp edges and stuck them to a piece of plywood around a mirror in a wave-like design. Our mosaic mirror hangs over an old wine barrel that my husband turned into a sink. It is more beautiful, I think, than the wine bottles themselves. It speaks to our human creativity in turning broken shards into a different whole. This, in turn, points to our creative God, who partners with us in doing the same thing with our lives. If we can first let go of the pieces.