Two Men and a Gun
When I was twenty, I got mugged by two thugs in Boston.
I was walking home alone from a friend’s apartment when I noticed two guys approaching me on the dark sidewalk. One of them had a gun in his hand. Before I could think, they grabbed me and shoved me into an apartment building doorway, took my purse, then pulled me back down along the sidewalk.
I realized they were moving me toward the top of a stairway that led down into a dark passage between two buildings.
In shock, I began singing the 23rd Psalm. They called me nasty names and told me to shut up. Soon, we reached the top of the steps, but, before they could drag me down, I threw myself back on the concrete sidewalk and began to shake as if having a seizure.
“My medicine, my medicine, I need my medicine,” I cried, clinging to the stair rail as one of them smacked me in the head with the gun and the other yanked my feet toward the stairs.
Just then, a taxi cab came swinging by with its headlights sweeping. The two guys decided I wasn’t worth it, and they disappeared into the dark place to which they’d meant to drag me. Honestly, God gets all the credit, no question. I jumped up, pumped my fist in the air, and shouted, “We won!”
Now, where did that victory fist come from? Like the singing and the feigned seizure, the answer is a mystery to me. All I knew was that God had saved me!
That’s the version of the story I have been telling for thirty years. However, my memory of that night is like the memory of a photograph rather than the memory of the event itself. Some details are missing, and there’s a sheen of unreality on the face of it.
When my old college friend Bob contacted me recently, I asked him his recollection of that time period. He happens to have an amazing memory, and he told me things I had forgotten about that night and about myself.
Here’s how the story should go:
When I was twenty, I was assaulted and robbed at gunpoint and came close to being raped and murdered. I had left a friend’s house in the heart of a dangerous city at 11 PM, refusing his pleas to let him walk me home. I told him, “God will take care of me.” How naive I was, full of pride and risking so much for nothing.
Certainly, the parts about singing, pretending to have a seizure, and then jumping up in victory when my attackers ran are true. They happened without forethought. And I believe God did save me.
Nevertheless, after the fact, I failed to face the weight of what actually had happened, could have happened.
In the following days, with my black eye and bloody chin and scalp, I did not–would not–absorb the impact. I held on to the parts of the story that suited me. A few weeks after the incident, as Bob reminded me, I began walking alone again at night.
Here’s the weirdest part: I forgot most of the second story’s details. I did not remember my refusals of help, my pride and stupidity, or the black eye. Also, Bob informed me about some of our friends who thought I must have been crazy before and after because of my behavior and attitude.
I was shocked by how little of myself I recognized. Truthfully, it was over 30 years ago, but there are some things you just don’t forget. And yet, I do. I did. A lot. It sounds like someone in denial.
Out of Denial
Did I know I was in denial?
Of course not! How can you know you’re in denial if you’re in denial?
What is it exactly?
According to one definition: Denial is a coping mechanism that gives you time to adjust to distressing situations — but staying in denial can interfere with … your ability to tackle challenges.*
The Mayo clinic online staff says: “If you’re in denial, you’re trying to protect yourself by refusing to accept the truth about something that’s happening in your life.” **
My definition is: “Bearing false witness against yourself; being unable or unwilling to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion.”
The shoe fit. I began to wear it.
Even so, how does one begin to come out of denial? How did I move in that direction?
Signs of Denial
Obviously, it’s taken me a long time to face facts about that attack in Boston and about myself as a young woman, to get a true picture of the person I was before I began to come out of denial.
As I look back again at what should have been a pivotal point in my life, I recognize some signs of my denial:
- I didn’t want to burden others with my problems, wanted independence
- I isolated myself, preferring aloneness to interaction
- My isolation created in me a lack of perspective and outward objectivity
- I thought I had to display a perfect, pure picture of myself to be a good Christian, not comprehending that my honesty and authentic brokenness would draw people to me and to God
- The pedestal suited me because, at a distance, I could control people’s perceptions
- I had a lot of answers and not enough questions
- I had a secret, destructive habit which NO-ONE knew about
My first step in facing the truth about myself was telling a secret which no-one knew:
When I was in my twenties, I had an eating disorder called bulimia. It was a destructive habit of bingeing and purging but I told myself it was my way of managing my weight. In fact, it was my way of managing emotions and memories too painful to let surface.
In retrospect, I wonder at how much of my story I kept stuffed inside, rarely sharing the hidden parts of myself. Fresh out of childhood, my feelings were trying to surface, but I didn’t have an escape hatch for them. This disorder kept me from dealing with the story of my past.
Then I met Scott, who later became my husband. He helped me take an honest look at my life and begin to tell my story. When I told him about my bingeing and purging, it was as though a tiny shaft of light broke into my cellar. My heart felt less heavy and I began to let the truth about my childhood come out. I began to let go of damaging emotions roiling around inside my gut.
We Write Our Own Medicine
Telling the truth has been an essential element in my spiritual and emotional health and recovery. Actually, it’s essential for physical and mental health, too. When my heart and mind were clogged, my body felt sick and looked for relief.
To keep the flow of freedom going, I began to write songs and stories. When I let my thoughts and feelings escape the jumbled places inside me, they’d untangle on the way out and take shape in creativity.
I also began to say out loud in safe places things I had never voiced. Over these many decades of my life, I have been part of recovery groups, prayer groups, and sharing groups. Counseling and all kinds of therapy have helped in my healing.
The hardest part of finding life for me has been the slowness of the pace.
The saying goes, “Don’t push the river,” but all I want to do is push.
Get with the program, River, and show me some results!
Problem is, the program is all about trusting the process, no matter how meandering and slow it feels.
Take my physical pain, for example. The list of methods I’ve used to relieve my chronic back, hip, shoulder, and neck pain is too long to share. My saying became, ”nothing works.”
Currently, I’m trying a new kind of yoga which is all about letting go. Instead of finding the balance between effort and surrender like my other yoga practices, this one is all about zero effort and 100% surrender.
Gravity does all the work as I lie on the floor breathing. And paying attention to how my muscles slowly let go of tension. While I do NOTHING. The poses are supposed to do the protracted work of releasing and easing the pain.
So far, I have noticed only a little bit of change. I’m tempted to go negative and declare that this process is not working. But those are old thought patterns.
Instead, I’ve decided to stick with it and trust that the long haul could be the ticket. This may take years of practice in letting go. I’m hoping for the best.
Three Tiers for Life!
What is life in the bigger story?
It’s like a puzzle. We admire the beauty of the cover on the box before we dump the contents and begin the sorting of the pieces. The pile of tiny, jumbled shapes is daunting, but we know there’s a big picture in there somewhere. We just have to begin with one connection, two pieces that make a perfect fit. From there, with diligence and patience, we begin to see small patches of the picture take shape.
Sometimes we swear the designer of this thing left out important pieces. Or someone has lost a few border pieces before us. Or we have dropped a few under the table without knowing, never to be recovered. And yet, we persevere, and the puzzle begins to make sense and emerge as a thing of beauty.
My “formula for finding life,” in a nutshell:
First, Come Out of Denial
You must look for signs of denial. Then you can begin to come out of that dank and dark cave.
Ask yourself: Are you, deep down, a wreck in some way?
In some hidden corner of your life, is there a bruised and broken part of you about to explode from the conflict?
The conflict between what should be and what actually is.
Is there a destructive habit or addiction in your life, even a damaging thought process, that keeps you from facing fears, feelings, or memories?
Second, Tell Your Story
We are wonderfully made creatures. Our parts are all connected and meant to flow together freely. When we turn our insides out, we connect to others’ stories, which reminds us of the big picture, the thing bigger than us. The whole that is much more than the sum of its parts.
When you tell your truths, be as honest as you can. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I face the truth about this?” You will probably find that your answer is manageable. Then, do the next right thing to move in a healthy direction.
Here’s a related article I wrote: Get Out of Your Head and Into Health.
I thought no one could handle all my deep secrets. My worst fear was to be abandoned.
But I found someone who could handle my reality.
As I began to share my hardest facts with Scott, some weight began to lift off of my chest. He heard my confession about the bingeing and purging, which I’d done since my senior year of high school, and he didn’t run for the nearest exit. He stayed and carried some of the weight and has been doing so for over 30 years.
Third, Trust the Process
There are many ways to process the pain and suffering of our lives.
You can find safe places, people, and programs that will help you on your journey.
As I came out of denial and started facing and telling the truth about myself, I looked around for more help. The resources I found included a community of friends who were telling their truths, too. I was part of formal and informal groups of women and men intentionally working on their life stories. One of these groups was a 12-step recovery meeting called Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA). Here was a safe place to say hard things about myself and my life. We listened to one another without comment or judgment. We began to trust the slow process of healing and recovery.
Have compassion for yourself as you would with someone else you love.
Remember, Jesus said the second greatest commandment was to love others as you love yourself. This implies that YOU SHOULD LOVE YOURSELF.
If you do not love yourself, how will you be able to love others?
So grab the oxygen mask dangling in front of your face and breathe deeply! Let the life-giving flow do its work. Trust the process.
Those are my three essentials for finding life in the bigger story.
The beautiful scene on the front of the puzzle box reminds me that each annoying little piece really does connect somewhere and can somehow add to my life.
Therefore, I will keep sorting through the pile and finding parts that fit the bigger picture. I will keep sharing my thoughts and discoveries in my bigger story blog.
Thanks for reading, and happy journeying!