Thursday, September 18, 2014

"How can we begin to face the many injustices and strife in our world if we are unwilling or unable to face the anxieties in our own selves? Each of us, young and old, meek or bold, can be harbingers of light and a force for positive change in our world; first, though, comes the inner work of understanding, then releasing fear wherever it may cripple us. For the sake of our planet, and for the sake of our evolution, it must be done."

~ Mark Andrew Nouwen

Monday, September 8, 2014

Taking The Little Boy's Hand

Several years ago, in a different city and with a different therapist, I found myself laying on a cushioned table. I had seen many therapists over many years as I attempted to deal with my depression and anxiety, as I attempted to know what it felt like to actually live rather than merely survive. I grew up being neglected as well as being abused verbally and emotionally by my father; the result was a 30-something year old stumbling his way through life, disabled mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Back to the cushioned table. My therapist specialized in "integrative body psychotherapy;" Basically, the main goal was to "get me back into my body" after spending almost my entire life feeling cut off from the neck down. It simply wasn't  safe to "feel" anything when I was in the abusive situation, so I simply shut my body, my emotions off. As many therapists will point out, this serves as a very effective coping strategy when one is enduring the abuse, but it can continue to cripple you for many years to come and negatively affect your life unless you deal with the initial abuse or trauma and then make steps forward into the present and future. By cutting off almost all of my emotions during childhood, I was affected in the following ways (this list is not comprehensive):


- Chronic to Major Depression
- A lack of confidence
- A lack of sense of self/identity
- Racing thoughts
- Lack of memory
- Thinking/expecting everything to eventually turn out badly
- Consistently thinking of myself as a victim (which I indeed was, but in the past)
- Not being confident in friendships and relationships


As much as a person may try to "not feel" and as much as it may work for years, eventually the emotions spill over. These have included:

- A constant mild feeling that something is wrong or will inevitably go wrong
- Intense anxiety, even for no apparent reason
- Feeling withdrawn from others or different/not as valuable as others
- Mild to intense anger, often misdirected towards yourself
- Shame
- Guilt
- Feeling numb


- Tightness in chest or other areas of body
- Numbness
- Holding your breath
- Mild to severe anxiety
- Depression
- Lethargic/not wanting to get out of bed
- Overeating
- Skipping or racing heart
- Generally not being able to "be in the present," or feeling like time is merely passing you by and you're not accomplishing anything

Let's go back to that therapist now. We would do breathing exercises regularly, trying to get me "back into my body." She would also have me look at myself directly in the mirror. And there was the cushioned table. I remember that on one or two occasions she would ask me to imagine myself as a little boy, and then to say something to him now that I was no longer in the abusive situation.

I just couldn't do it at the time. I felt awkward, part of me thought it was corny psychotherapy. The truth, though, was that I had not talked enough or processed enough about the abuse I had experienced. I didn't feel comfort, so how could I comfort my 8-year-old self? However, as I wrote earlier, that was years ago, in a different city, with a different therapist.

Today things are almost completely different. I am in a different city and am hooked in with a different therapist whose approach just "fits." I am also in a weekly therapy group. While I may have a long way to go (sometimes we just tell ourselves that) I have come a long way. Today I feel like I can say a few words to the grinning boy in his Grade 4 picture; at least I'll give it a shot:

"Mark, do you hear me? Do you see me? Can you recognize me?"

"I am you, all grown up, 30 years later. Ya, see? You're gonna grow up to be a handsome son of a gun!" ("Did I just see you crack a smile?")
"Mark, I know that you may not even know what you're feeling these days, other than being really afraid most of the time. I know this because I am you, only older now. I know about all the nights when you can't sleep; instead you're standing behind your bedroom door listening to your father yelling. I know about the countless dinnertimes when you and your family sit around the table in complete silence. You just want to yell, but you're just a kid. You have no power, and you know that if you yelled or even showed any displeasure, he would erupt. Yes, Mark, I know how it feels when you're all in the car on the weekly trip to get groceries, and the stress is so high that you can feel it in your chest. I know that when you went fishing or many other activities, it was primarily with your mother. I know that you were often neglected by your father. I know that when you're in Grade 7 you will feel your heart skipping and you'll often feel that you're having a heart attack. The doctor will have you wear a heart monitor a couple different times, but it will show nothing out of the ordinary. Mark, it's just stress, but I know it is really scary. Mark, I know about the times when your Mom packs you and your pajamas into the car and drives to the pastor's house, and you stay overnight there until your father cools down. I also know that when you're a teenager, you will have had enough and you will go into the washroom, turn the light off, and sit down at the bottom of the locked door until reluctantly coming out half an hour later. Mark, I know all of this, and I see you. I am looking at you and I am not judging you whatsoever. Can you understand that? It is ok to feel the anger that you feel. I am feeling angry with you. You see, we are - you are - all grown up now, and guess what? You made it! You survived! And guess what? You didn't just survive, but you are finally coming alive and the future is looking bright! Mark, do you know who you are and what kind of person you are other than being afraid? You are the funny kid, the one with the great smile who has a great laugh. You are so smart, near the top of your class. You know how it feels to not be the most popular, so you make friends with other kids who are being made fun of. And though you may not be the most popular, at your Grade 8 graduation, your classmates will give you the biggest cheer ever when you unexpectedly win the Top English Award (you make one heck of a sports announcer each morning)."

"Mark, can you start to see it? Can you begin to see that you will make it? It will not be easy. There will be many times when you will think that you can't go further. But with help, you will make it, and you'll grow up and be able to make your own decisions (if you don't quite recognize my/your last name yet, that'll come. And you'll grow to really like your middle name too!)"

"Mark, be proud of the young man that you are: funny, kind, compassionate, smart. Those are deeply a part of you and they will remain. How do I know? Because I am you, just 30 years give or take down the line. Please know this and try to hold onto it until you are me: MARK, I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, I BELIEVE IN YOU, AND YOU WILL MAKE IT. I'll see you in 30 years."


Mark Andrew Nouwen

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

God's Religion

"God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don't think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God."

~ Bishop John Shelby Spong