Digging Up My Buried Shame

Our group of six women sat around the conference room table of Waverly Hematololgy and Oncology, the place where I’d received my chemo years before and now participated in the first Expressive Writing Group. Mary Barnard, Office Manager and poet, was our group leader and was certified in teaching the Write to Heal program created by James Pennebaker. Based on thirty-three years of research, the program had proven to transform the emotional lives of trauma survivors. We were provided the opportunity to participate in the group through the Waverly Survivors’ Community.

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Writing to Heal

We had an inital go-round of introducing ourselves and sharing some of our hopes for being in the group. Then Mary gave us an overview, discussed confidentiality, assigned a brief warm-up writing exercise, then led us to the first writing session.

“I want you to write about one of your most traumatic experiences,” she instructed us. Mary had set up the group, with the safety of boundaries and optional sharing that are essential for a trusting environment.

We had fifteen minutes and I had no problem writing continuously for the entire time. The traumatic event for me was my experience of working in that toxic research job at the same time as going through cancer treatment. While the breast cancer experience was difficult, the impact of the job that ended with being fired, had been much more damaging to my self-esteem and my professional confidence.

I wrote rapidly, with penmanship only legible to me, as I tapped into a deep reservoir of shame that had remained inside for fifteen years. Blaming the three people who made that work environment so pernicious, I recounted ways they’d misled me about the job, as well as their unprofessional behaviors at that ‘Mom and Pop’ clinical trials company. I’d written about that experience in the past, so it surprised me how much anger I still carred after so many years.

When our writing time was up, Mary asked, “How did it feel to write about the traumatic event?” Some of the participants shared about their emotions, their physical sensations, and pulling up forgotten memories. For most of the women, they had not written about their cancer experience but another trauma in their lives.

We completed a questionaire ranking to what degree we expressed our deepest thoughts and feelings, currently felt sad or upset, felt happy, found the writing exercise meaningful or valuable. Then we wrote reflections for five minutes about the experience of writing YOUR words in YOUR uninhibited language.

I’d signed up for the Expressive Writing Group, partly to support Mary’s efforts, since we were on the planning committee for the Survivors’ Clinic.  I thought because I’m a writer and have journaled most of my life, that I already knew the benefits of putting my feelings on the page.

Mary moved on to the second session.

“Now I want you to write about the same traumatic experience for fifteen minutes,” she told us.

I continued to put down my angry feelings about the company, but gradually I exhausted that well of resentment and transitioned to writing with more control, less intensity. Tired of my harsh judgements, I moved on with how that traumatic experience, simultaneous with my cancer, had forged a new courage inside me. I’d been more honest in that final confrontation with that company than I’d ever been in my life. That dysfunctional work family had fueled my writing and had allowed for that serendipitous trip to Sedona that was the seed that gave birth to my solo journeys.

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We completed the fifteen minute session as we had the first with answering the self-reflective questionniare and writing for five minutes.

While previous writings about that trauma had been solitary journal entries, the third session in this writing community, was about to move me forward from where I’d been stuck.

“Now I want you to write about the same traumatic event, but from a different person’s point of view,” Mary told us. “It can be anyone– for example your friend’s, God’s, or even an imaginary person.”

I wrote from what I imagined as God’s POV. In my scribble I said, “He loves me and knows my heart. I trust his omnipotent point of view in being fair.” Gradually, I brought up ways that I had contributed to the problems– something I couldn’t concede to before. Feeling the love of God who knows my weaknesses, allowed me to let go and acknowledge my part, to gain a more objective, less-victimized perspective.

I ended with, “God’s point of view is merciful. While he didn’t cause the trauma of being fired after I’d just been through cancer treatment, he is omnipotent and allowed what transpired. All of that became a ‘Refiner’s Fire’ that ultimately helped to make me who I am.”

That first group meeting ended with all of us feeling a sense of shared relief, walking out to our cars a bit lighter than when we arrived.

I didn’t realize then that those writing sessions would help prepare me for that year’s solo journey that was four days later. I traveled to Kentucky for a two-week stay at a writer’s residency. My goal was to rewrite my memoir.

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My kitchen table that became my writer’s desk.

During those days of reworking my memoir while sitting at that farmhouse table, I realized that my first time writing it I’d focused on my cancer. Now I had to go back and tell the whole truth– the simultaneous struggle with the research company that ended with me being fired. Now, I could admit to that buried shame, and be honest with my readers about all of my life.

How About You?

What buried shame do you have that needs to be dug up?

How can you examine it from a new perspective, a different point of view, so that you may heal and move forward in your life?

Resources

If you’d like to read about the Write to Heal program by James Pennebaker see this article in Survivors’ Review at http://www.survivorsreview.org/writenow.php?v=2

Mary Barnard may be reached for questions at mbarnard@waverlyhemeonc.com

 

 

 

Forced Endings: Struggling in The Gap

When I was a child, I loved finding hiding places. Among them would be a ditch-like den between two hills where I could sink down into that spot, not able to see ahead or behind. The earthen floor and walls were protection from cold and wind, providing a cozy place to play. In last week’s post, “Afraid of the Next Chapter,” I talked about my retirement from school nursing in light of Bridges’ three phases of change: Endings, The Gap, New Beginnings. I left you in The Gap, to sit with the process, that now reminds me of that childhood hiding place where, by choice, I could sit for a while.

My retirement from School Nursing was an Ending that I’d anticipated for many years. It was a change that I’d chosen. But sometimes Endings are not our choice; they are forced upon us, unexpected and unwanted, like death, divorce, or relocation because another family member has a new job. The forced ending that impacted my life right after I’d completed cancer treatment, was being fired from a job.

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Back then, I was trying to navigate working in a clinical trials research company with treatment for triple-negative breast cancer. Within two weeks of starting with that small company, I realized there were problems: negative relationships among the staff, working for a private business trying to survive in a competitive market, operating without the safety net of publicly funded hospitals and schools with their procedures and protocols that protect the client and employee.

I decided to continue my work with the research company and hope that things improved as I became more skilled in my new area of nursing. I’d give it a year, and if things weren’t better, I’d pursue a new job. But right when I was approaching that one year mark, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and couldn’t leave. I had to keep working there to maintain my health insurance.

It was a real struggle through those eight months of treatment and working in the research company. Those experiences are at the center of my upcoming memoir, He Heard My Voice: A Midlife Mom’s Journey through Cancer and Stress and Her Unexpected Arrival at Healing and Wholeness. Things improved for a while after that eight months, but then there was a downward turn. One day I was called into the conference room for an unexpected meeting. The business manager and Tara, another nurse and my nemesis, sat down with me.

“Connie, things just aren’t working out for you here. We’ve all decided that today is your last day,” Tara told me.

What, just like that? You’re firing me?

 I was in shock, angry, stunned, indignant, shamed, and totally lost (I won’t go on now to tell you about the rest of that scene around the conference room table. You can read all the details in the book!).

While I had disliked a lot of things about working with that company, I wanted to leave when I chose to, not by their force.

The days after my firing, were filled with strong emotions, jags of crying, moments of relief, panicky uncertainty, and struggling with God. I walked the half-mile road of our rural neighborhood, what became my ‘track of travail’ and called out to God, “How could you allow this to happen to me?” “Haven’t I already been through enough with the cancer?”

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My sudden Ending at that company transitioned into The Gap, where I muddled through and often relived that scene around the table, feeling that anger, that rage, at Tara and the administrators that were behind the decision. Like the pit described in Psalm 40:2 (NIV), which I’d first experienced while working there and going through cancer, I felt like I’d fallen back in that dark hole after I was fired.

A pit. Kind of like a trench, a gap, a place deep in the earth.

With being fired from the job, it took a while in the pit of “mud and mire” to work through that loss and the attendant emotions. Gradually, God lifted me out and set my feet on a firm rock, a solid place to stand. It was then that I could see beyond the pit, from my secure position on the rock. I caught glimpses of what was ahead, of the promise of new beginnings.

While my forced ending was being fired from a job, you may have experienced another type of forced ending and landed in your unique pit of mud and mire. For all of us, it takes working through that muddy place, gradually being able to climb out, through the strength within us, through the support of others, through the mighty lifting by the hands of God.

 

 

And once we’re out of that pit, moving up from The Gap, we catch a glimpse of our New Beginnings.  We’ll wash off the caked mud and mire and step forward toward that place which we didn’t anticipate, we didn’t choose, but awaits us with fresh possibilities.

 

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Posts related to Research Job and Breast Cancer Treatment:

July 19, 2017 Into a Life

July 23, 2017 Navigating a Rough Road

July 30, 2017 Toxic Takeaway

 

How About You?

What Forced Endings have you experienced in your life?

How did you deal with that time in The Gap?

What did you learn during that time that has served you ever since?

 

 

Enlarge My Territory

The day after I was fired from The Research Company, I packed my suitcase for our family vacation at Kiawah Island, South Carolina.  I was in a state of shock, thinking that for the first time in my adult life, I had no job to return to.  My husband, David came in and handed me a little book, The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson.  David said our friend had sent it to me.  Guess I’ll have plenty of time to read now, I thought, and tucked the book in between pairs of shorts.

The next day, I walked with my family along the beach, wanting to enjoy the wide smooth shoreline underneath a cool blue sky.  The final scene at The Research Company kept pushing to the surface, stealing my sunshine.  On most occasions, I totally relaxed at the coast, but this time it was hard to release my despair.

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We came in for a break from the afternoon heat.  I pulled out my book, an unexpected gift from someone who knew I was in pain.  It reminded me of many such offerings I’d received during cancer treatment.  Somehow the book would be used to help me through this.

I read the prayer that’s found in the Bible in Chronicles 4:10 (KJV):

And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause Pain!”  So God granted him what he requested.

How does this relate to me, I thought as I read the first chapters, then put the book down to take a nap.  Over that week and the ones that followed, I prayed the prayer many times, inserting my name in place of Jabez.  The portion of the verse that stayed with me was the enlarge my territory.  I started applying for positions with research companies and wondered if I might land a job that would take me to interesting places.

Eventually, I received an offer from Duke University.  When I clarified the ‘must be able to travel’ portion of the job description, I learned the study would require me to spend 70% of the time in Canada.  Not that I didn’t like Canada, but I didn’t want to be away from home that much with my boys now entering 10th and 11th grades.

As I explored other research jobs, there were similar travel requirements.  I was surprised when the door opened for me to return to school nursing.  No travel beyond the sixteen miles to my school.  How could God enlarge my territory if I was going back to a familiar place?

I was received into the opening arms of McDougle Middle School, a healing center after being torn down by The Research Company while in cancer treatment.  One gift that came out of that was my serendipitous journey to Sedona that became a pilgrimage.  Within a few years of returning to the school system, I benefitted from our two-month summer break by taking my first intentional journey to Jekyll Island.  After that, I made it a practice to take time for a pilgrimage every summer.

 

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Tibbett’s Point Lighthouse Hostel, Cape Vincent, NY

As my confidence grew, I casted a wider net, going from the familiarity of the South to the Northeast, Northwest, and recently, Scotland.  Thinking back to the Jabez prayer, I see how God has enlarged my territory through my yearly pilgrimages.  My travel came through a vehicle that I was totally unaware of when I walked that shoreline at Kiawah Island.  God had surprised me once again.

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Summit of Mt. Constitutions overlooking Puget Sound, Washington State

How about you?

Have you been surprised by unexpected turns in your life?

How did you see good things come out of what seemed like destruction?

Are there ways that you saw a greater good in how things turned out than how you’d imagined?

 

 

 

 

Looking Back Looking Forward

I study the photograph from four years ago with me standing next to a tall red rock in the Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs.  It was unusual for me to take my solo journey in April, but that trip was planned around the Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference.  On that Monday afternoon, I was full of anticipation about pitching my memoir, Saved by Sedona to a literary agent.  I didn’t know that the next day I’d develop acute altitude sickness.

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I could barely make it back to the guesthouse from the Cog Railroad that had traveled up Pike’s Peak to 11,500 feet, the summit for that day due to high winds.  Finally nestled under the covers of my bed, my body ached with fever and chills.  Why does this have to happen to me now, God, I muttered.  Will I be well enough to participate in the conference?  I slept that day and most of the next, sitting up for brief periods to finish writing that had been put off until the last minute.

Early Thursday morning, I managed to drive across town to the opening session.  I was exhausted but determined to go through with the seven-minute pitch.  When I finished, I was stunned when the agent asked me to send my entire book proposal.  It seemed that everything had worked out and my goal had been reached.  That must be why I was led to come here, I thought and felt like one of the winners when I sat at the agent’s table that night at dinner.

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I floated on that feeling when I returned to North Carolina.  Two months later when dealing with my mother’s sudden illness, I received a rejection letter from the agent.  While I knew that wasn’t unusual, that disappointment came at a difficult time.  I comforted myself by saying if it hadn’t been for the April conference, I wouldn’t have been able to take my solo journey.  My summer break was spent with Mama in hospitals and rehab facilities.  I tried to rest in God’s timing for when my memoir would be published.

Three years later, when my summer journey took me to Kentucky for a two-week writer’s residency, I immersed myself in studying memoirs.  It came to me in that little house in the country, that I’d only told half of the truth.  While I’d been honest about my cancer experience, I’d not shared about being fired from my job at The Research Company.  My shame had prevented me from telling everything, from acknowledging that some days the job was harder than cancer treatment.

Looking at the red rocks in the picture takes me back to that first pilgrimage to Sedona.  There I felt God’s presence, the still small voice inside leading me, healing from my cancer and the struggles at work.  I didn’t know then that I was also being prepared for the valley ahead.

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At my recent conference of the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers’, a publisher spoke about memoirs.

“Your book’s not ready until you’re on the healing side of the journey,” she said.  She gave examples of rejected manuscripts that described the pain of the life-changing event but stopped short of the healing resolution.

Since Kentucky, I’ve gone back and slowly worked through the scenes at The Research Company — both on paper and in my heart.  I’ve grappled with what part I played in those struggles, and where I needed to let go of my anger.  Looking back over the years, I see a path that has been forged toward the healing side of the journey.  Now I’ve rewritten my memoir, this time with the whole truth.

I look forward to the future when that manuscript will be a book on the shelf.

(Additional pictures posted on Author Facebook page–  Saved by Sedona)

 

How About You?

What experiences have you had that made you feel you’d reached your goal only to be disappointed that you weren’t there yet?

Were you able to look back and see why it wasn’t the right timing for what you desired?

As you look forward, how can you use these experiences to help you rest in the timing of how things progress in your life?

Sinners and Saints

Pilgrims have traveled to Iona, Scotland for centuries to the Abbey founded by Saint Columba.  But before he was seen as a saint, he was recognized as a sinner for leading his Irish clan in a battle where three thousand died.  He is every man and every woman; all of us with our shadow side that our public self tries to hide.  I think of this as Halloween is followed by All Saints’ Day.

Columba got into problems partly because of his love for books.  He made a copy of St. Jerome’s Psalter that had been brought to Ireland by a man named Finnian.  This was back in the day when there were no printing presses and books had to be reproduced by hand– painstaking work resulting in a precious copy.  Columba thought the book was his, but a king ruled against him and so Columba had to give the copy he’d made to Finnian.  But it didn’t end there.  Columba harbored a grudge at that injustice.  Later, when a man who’d taken sanctuary with Columba was killed by the king, war broke out.  Columba led and won the battle in which three thousand died.  He got his Psalter back.

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Eventually, Columba’s grief over what he’d done led him to a self-inflicted punishment, one most severe for a Celt: he banished himself from Ireland.  On Iona, he established a monastery that was a classic center of learning, where monks came from near and far.  Iona’s scholars copied thousands of books– just like Columba had copied that Psalter.  He grew from being a gruff and rigid young man to a mellow and venerated Saint.

I think about the times in my life where God has humbled me and I finally recognize my shadow side.  Most of the time I’ve pushed away my weaknesses by defending myself from any hint of culpability, never letting accusations permeate my well-developed armor.  But God works from the inside, and when that gentle voice with the clear message comes, I recognize it as truth.  Like Columba, I hang on to hurts and injustices.  One of the hardest for me to let go of was my anger at The Research Company.

All I could see was how wrong they were for the way they’d treated me, what seemed almost cruel since, at the same time, I was going through cancer.  Others saw the problems with The Research Company and knew they’d treated me in an unprofessional and damaging way.  They supported me and believed I was right.  But what I realized over time that couldn’t be justified, was the hate I’d hidden in my heart against them.  It became an obsessive thing, wondering what was happening to them after they forced me out, hoping they were having problems– individually and as a company.

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For years I held on to my anger at The Research Company

At times, I attempted to follow the Biblical directive; pray for your enemies.  But it was half-hearted and usually ended with asking for them to see how wrong they were and how right I’d been.  Years later, when I finally stood back and looked at the situation without my harsh judgements, I let go of that anger.  I saw how that hate had kept me from joy.  My harbored injustice had not resulted in a battle that killed three thousand.  But I didn’t know what might have been accomplished if I’d let go of it sooner, more concerned with grace than with being right.

I think of the legacy left by Saint Columba and how lives, including mine, have been enriched at that place of his exile.  Beauty came out of the ashes he left behind on a battlefield in Ireland.  For me, beauty has come from the ashes left behind at The Research Company, just one stop on my journey through life.

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How About You?

How have you harbored injustices that you’ve experience in your life?

What has resulted from hanging on to them?

How have you resolved those feelings of injustice?  If you haven’t, what steps could you take towards that?

Reference:

Bert Ghezzi, Voices of the Saints: A Year of Readings (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 150 – 151. 

 

It’s About the Future

I sat on a rock overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains on that Sunday morning in September.  In the stillness that was shrouded in fog, I felt the burden of trudging through cancer treatment and my toxic job.  I prayed for God to lift me out of that pit, and waited for some sign that God was listening.  Eventually, the answer came in that ‘still small voice’ in the words, “It’s About the Future.”

I continued sitting there, wondering what this message meant for me.  I thought about the future when I was first diagnosed, asking God to spare my life.  With my aggressive treatment regimen, my oncologist was confident that I’d be okay—and I believed him.  But where I mired down, was in feeling that my future would continue as daily struggle with my health and my career.  It was hard to look beyond my present.  How could I see the future when I was consumed with dread?

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How could I see the future when I was consumed with dread?

The answer didn’t come that morning on the mountain.  In fact, that message became a question that stayed with me; what is it you want me to see in the future, God?  There was a sense that I wasn’t to stay in my present state of anxiety.  While that conversation with God didn’t change the fact that I had to return home to chemo and work, I did feel lighter—like God was starting to pull me up from the pit.

I continued to look for the meaning to be revealed.  It seemed that God was showing me to avoid getting bogged down in the negative climate at work.   It was a temporary place. I was to do my best while I was there, but eventually I’d move on.  With my cancer regimen, I should focus on the treatment in front of me, engaging with the infusion staff and the family and friends who accompanied me.  I would be present to the moment but moving toward the future.

By April I’d finished treatment.  I was tired from the radiation, but now I could fly to a research meeting in Arizona.  Afterwards I took my journey to Sedona then traveled on to the Grand Canyon.  That evening, I watched the sun setting over the South Rim and was reminded of that morning in the Smokies.

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Watching a hawk flying near the canyon walls, I remembered the message, It’s about the Future, and this time there was more:  Don’t be weighed down by what’s happening now.  Get through today but look ahead to the future I’m providing for you.

I remembered Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Hope and a Future.  This was a promise of God’s faithfulness to see me through, to pull me from the pit and place my feet on a solid rock.  I couldn’t see the future God had for me, but I did feel assured with that promise.

Eventually, a way was provided from that job to one in a healthy environment.  The cancer treatment was successful and I’ve had years of being cancer free.  There have been times I’ve gotten bogged down again, but I hear that same message and know to keep moving.  Those steps forward have led me to solo journeys that have become pilgrimages for my soul.

Years later, in my future, I sat on the banks of Lake Champlain in Vermont and remembered that message.  The answer had now come to me fully;  Stay in God’s presence each moment and He will lead you to the Future, one that is filled with Hope.

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What about you?

Have you had times of being so weighed down in struggle you couldn’t see a hopeful future?

How could you find your way to greater hope?

What resources are available to help you when you feel overwhelmed?

 

Toxic Takeaway

He helped me pack up my office that afternoon, my last, at The Research Company.

“You know it’s not you, Connie,” he said and placed the last of my belongings in my trunk.  “Just be glad you’re getting out of here.”  He was the only co-worker I could trust.

Later, I wondered if I really did know it wasn’t my fault.  How could I land in a place, after twenty-three years as a professional nurse and things go so terribly wrong?  I was totally unprepared for dealing with that toxic work environment.  I’d never been in that situation.

The half-mile road through my neighborhood became my track of travail as I walked back and forth, attempting to process my emotions, thinking through the issues, reviewing the complaints they had against me.  It was hard to let go of my anger and to understand how God could allow me to go through cancer and that job at the same time.

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the road through my neighborhood became my track of travail

After a couple of months of job interviews, I decided to return to working as a school nurse.

 

While I thought that I’d left the negative impact of The Research Company behind, soon into my new job, I found I wasn’t as far along as I’d thought.

The Assistant Principal came to my door.

“Connie, could you come to my office?” she asked.  “I need to talk with you.”

I felt my heart race and was lightheaded with anxiety.  What did I do wrong, I thought and felt like I’d been called to that final meeting at The Research Company.

“You know the boy you saw this morning, the one in the fight?” she asked.

My mind raced through the students, trying to focus in spite of my panicky feelings.  Finally, I recalled the 7th grader she was referring to.

“Yes, I remember.”

“What’s your take on what happened with him and the other boy?” she asked.  “I have to call his mother.”

She just wants my opinion, I thought and felt so relieved.

That incident made me realize I’d been on edge, especially when I sensed my competence was being challenged.  It was more than my temperament of being sensitive, it was like my self-confidence was damaged.  I’d seen students who’d been abused and were always in a defensive posture, watching for potential danger.  While I tried to understand what it was like for them, I’d never been in that situation.

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my new workplace

Now I saw, that even as a grown woman, with a great work history, advanced degree, supportive family and friends, the two years I’d stayed in that toxic work environment had torn me down.  How insidious those undermining comments, favoritism, disrespect that were the daily norm at The Research Company.  While it wasn’t like the physical abuse of a student, it resembled that less-easy-to-identify emotional abuse that had just as harmful an effect.

When I wrote the first draft of my memoir, Saved by Sedona, I’d shared quite candidly about my struggle with breast cancer.  But there were only veiled references to my work at The Research Company.  I’d buried my shame of losing that job so deeply that it took years of healing before I could acknowledge it.  Now, I had to go back and tell the whole truth.

I’ve rewritten Saved by Sedona.  When I recently attended the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers’ Conference, we had to dress as the main character of our book.  For the first time, I publicly acknowledged that toxic job and cancer, dressing in my solo journey hiking attire and wearing a backpack with a toxic waste sticker of The Research Company and a Breast Cancer Ribbon.

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I proudly stood on stage in that huge auditorium and spoke into the microphone.

“My memoir is my story of leaving behind a toxic job and breast cancer and journeying toward a new life of solo journeys.”

Thankfully, after what I’d gone through at The Research Company, my return to the school system had landed me in a healthy work environment.  I would never take that for granted again.

 

How about you?

Have you ever buried a truth that was too difficult to face?

Were there ways that you continued to be impacted?

How could you tenderly work through this issue and fold it into a whole view of yourself?