I was telling my priest friend almost a week ago how I feel like I’m in a desert looking for water, and always going for the poison water in my flask instead of waiting for a oasis.
It’s almost been two months, and I still haven’t found a job to pay the bills. I’d get help from charities and whatnot, but while I do appreciate God providing for me, it mostly just makes me feel very ashamed of myself. I was raised to believe it was extremely shameful, even unfaithful to God, to rely on the kindness of others. Meanwhile, I’d approach what seemed like good choices, good opportunities, good people…only to find it was an mirage.
One of the things I like about our friendship is that he also liked to use imagery to convey an idea or feeling, so he was always able to immediately catch on. “Of course you’d go back to the poison water; you know what it tastes like.” In a moment, he went to the desert with me, explaining how hard it is to change and choose something unfamiliar, to patiently look for the illusive oasis, trust it’s real, trust it’s there somewhere in this dry place. This applied to the unhealthy thoughts and habits in my life, but I can say it applies to the healing journey, too.
When I was little, I’d get really mad at the Israelites in Exodus who, while in the desert for 40 years after escaping slavery in Egypt, complained against God, built the gold calf, and always just seemed to find something to be upset about. Now though, I can understand their frustration and fragile trust.
Slavery is one of the most traumatic things someone could endure, and most of them were slaves all their lives. While they were being beaten and treated like animals, they still did have their basic physical needs of food and shelter fulfilled by their masters. Now they were away from the abuse, away from the whips and back-breaking work, but without a home, and with limited food and water. The masters were their gods, standing over them and providing for them. They held absolute power, could kill them if the mood called for it, and yet kept them alive. Then, when the real God saved them, they had to convert from their abusive “gods” and what they taught them to believing that there was an invisible Father who loved them, and will take care of them, even in a barren desert.
As abusive as my parents were, they did provide for us well materially. We always had a big house (almost every year moving to a brand new one) full of expensive things, and never really had want for anything like food or clothes. When my peers talk about struggling with things like student loans, I feel that familiar embarrassment of not having any of those to pay off, the same feeling I get when I try to figure out finances, or just doing things for myself. I’m really not sure how exactly they got all that money (dad’s business was/is largely a mystery to me, and mother would often have fits about going bankrupt to her “expensive” children, so I don’t know what to think about it), but they did.
This sounds pretty good to most people. It’s the type of life anyone would want, right? I do sometimes miss not having to worry about bills and finances, especially as I worry about how to pay for this new life I’ve been given…but then, I’d remember how they even used this material wealth as another way to manipulate me, what I understand now was financial abuse.
They’d point to the house, the lack of material want, and say I was just being ungrateful and spoiled when I’d cry or get angry. Mother liked to say that I should go work in a soup kitchen to see “real suffering” (which I have, and many were happier than I was when I had all those things). She (and to a lesser extent, dad) would even use gifts as a way to manipulate me for being guilty for getting angry at the mean things she’d say and do. I remember when I was about 15, angry at my mother over things she was yelling at me for. She said, with angry tears, “You’re a you-know-what, you know that?” “I know,” I replied. Around this point, dad gave me his rare glare said, “Teenagers are just hateful, and don’t care.” Later on, he made sure to tell me that mother was buying me a very pretty soft blue coat as a gift, and was now crying at how mean I was when she was doing something so nice for me. I felt like a monster. I wore the coat she got me for a time until it eventually stayed in the closet with all the other things with bad feelings.
Especially as a teenager, I did everything to distance myself from the identity of a “rich kid”. I dressed in clothes I knew had holes in them, hid under hoodies, coats, and jackets, and long bangs to hide at least one of my soul-windows. Many times I’d literally hide in the yard, or in the closet or bathroom, the only place in the house I was allowed to lock the door. I’d avoid inviting friends over so they didn’t see our house. This seemed to suit my parents: they’d always tell me about how dangerous and horrible “the outsiders” are, went into very enthusiastic panics when I left their sight, so having me home probably was preferred, in spite of what they’d say with others present, to have more friends and invite them over.
It was a gilded cage, but a cage nonetheless. Many a time, I’d think of my mother like one of those vengeful gods from the old myths, temperamental and powerful, worshipped and feared, always right no matter what. Needless to say, I had a very broken image of who God was for a long time, just like the Israelites.
Now I’m here, in my own apartment, have people I love and who love me, trying to make sense of my life. So many good things have happened since I decided to listen to what others told me God was, the type who would go to whatever lengths to give me this home, these loving people, this new sense of sanity…and yet, I still reach for the poison flask, and chase after mirages. I still listen to the angry mother that screams at me in my head whenever I make a mistake or take a chance, telling me I’m unworthy, I’m ugly, I’m unloveable.
It’s hard to know where to go from here. I’ve come so far, and yet I still have so much more to go. What’s more, these are all new surroundings, new circumstances, new challenges. I’d just want to give up sometimes, and pick up my old unhealthy habits, like refusing to eat, getting lost in a daydream or imaginary conversation, thinking about some very dark and permanent thing else, etc…
“Of course you go back to the poison water; you know what it tastes like.”
I don’t have the means to immediately solve my problems, but I do have some power over the present, at the very least how I choose to react to it. Emotions are something we can’t help, but we don’t have to listen to them. Just because I feel hopeless doesn’t mean I am hopeless, that my life is hopeless. Just because it feels like it’s never going to be okay doesn’t mean it actually isn’t going to be okay somehow. Just because I feel unloveable and pathetic doesn’t mean that I’m either of those things.
I’ve come this far. I can stand to keep going a little longer.
There’s got to be water somewhere.