Sunday, October 20, 2013

Life Outside the Church Walls

Spiritually I'm struggling.

Growing up I've been the granddaughter and a niece of two great pastors.  I'm even a deacon's kid.  I've helped run the powerpoint at church since I was about 7-years-old (or, back then, I helped run the overhead projector with transparencies).  When I was 12-years-old, I became interested and involved in missions - going on my first mission trip when I was 15...going on one almost every year since.  In 2012, I even spent 6 months overseas helping a mission organization.  In between all these activities, I have done other things, such as write articles for Christian magazines, been involved in different leadership activities, and I like hanging out with the youth group when I have the free time.  I've even attended the same church since all my life, minus my time at Bible College and my time overseas...and that's only a portion of my church resume.  (Please note - I am not saying all of this to brag in any way at all.  I'm just wanting to give you a history and background of my life so you have a better understanding, and so you can see that even those who grew up in church and those who have done many church activities can still struggle spiritually.)

In the midst of all of that "churchy" type of stuff, life outside of the church walls has taken place.  If you've been following my blog or my Facebook page, you know my story, at least, the part of my story that has taken place in the last 3 years.  Between the death of my baby niece, the near-death of my father (3 times in one year) and his poor health, and many other family emergencies, life has not been easy...Not to mention the things I haven't, and can't, Facebook or blog about.

Being a "church girl", I know my hope shouldn't be based on my circumstances.  But, when circumstance after circumstance is one bad thing after another - it's becomes harder and harder not to lose hope.  Mentally I know my hope ought to be in God alone.  Emotionally and human wise, sometimes my hope becomes divided.

I think my spiritual struggle first started a little bit when I was 15, when my dad became really sick for the first time.  Then, I think I was okay for a while, until 2011 --- when everywhere I would look my life seemed to be turning upside down.  I went to London in 2012, even after a rather traumatic year, and was incredibly blessed.  There is no doubt in my mind that I was suppose to be in London when I was - and I thank God for my time there, the spiritual growth I experienced, and for the amazing team I was blessed to work with.

Then I came home from Germany after this most recent summer.  Coming home from Deutschland, I was not in a good place.  At all.  (I even posted a blog about struggling after my return.)  I wasn't, and am still not, the same girl I was when I left.   I figured after a month or so of being home, I'd snap out of the funk I was in and would get back to "normal".  But I haven't.   I've dealt with anxiety, depression, the desire to isolate myself, and self conflict...and my relationship with God hasn't gone unaffected.

I've been home for a little over two months now...Yet, I know I'm still not myself.  I am still struggling spiritually and emotionally.  I came home totally and completely broken.  And although I've been home for 2 1/2 months, it wasn't until about two weeks ago when for the first time, I verbally admitted to someone that I was, and am not, okay spiritually.

I feel extremely tired, worn down, weary, and spiritually dry.

Many Sundays I haven't even wanted to go to church.  I've gone for the service, but I've just about completely stopped going to Sunday School...and that's not a normalcy for me.  The thing is, it's not that I don't believe in God - because I definitely believe in Him still.  I've just been struggling.

The other week I told someone that I would pray for them.  Then it hit me, "When was the last time I even prayed?"  Then I wondered, "Have I stopped praying because I've lost hope through the last few years of hardships?"  Sometimes it seems as though all that comes my way, and my family's way, are hardships...and that's a tiring process to go through time and time again.

But why did it take me so long to admit to someone that I was struggling spiritually?  I've told people with ease that emotionally I've struggled in the last few years.  That, for me, is an easy thing to admit to.  But when it comes to telling people that spiritually something just isn't right in my life?  That's hard to share.  Oddly enough, I find it easier to tell people that I've been in and out of counseling and therapy than it is for me to tell them that my relationship with God isn't where it should be.  When I opened up to someone for the first time about my deep and personal struggle, it wasn't even to anyone I am close to.  It was to a retreat speaker that  spoke at a retreat in September during a drive to take her to the airport...I talked to someone who barely knows me, my story, and someone I barely know myself.

Maybe it was easier to talk to someone I hardly knew because she was someone who doesn't know my history, who looks at me as just me and not as the girl in leadership, or as the "girl who goes on mission trips".  I felt less pressure to hold up to a standard that I feel I sometimes have to reach - whether that's just a standard I've given myself, or a standard other people expect me to meet.

Overall, I think I've kept quiet for so long because because I have felt incredibly embarrassed about the issue.  Here I am, the granddaughter and niece of pastors...A girl who has attended church all her life, has always been involved in multiple church activities, has been a short-term missionary, and leadership positions...You get the idea.

I should have it all together, even through the hardships...Right??  Well, I haven't...and I don't....and I've put a lot of pressure on myself to be "that Christian girl" who continues to play all the same parts, not wanting to clue anyone in on my ongoing battle.  And truth be told - pretending I have it all together when I don't...Well, it's exhausting...and sometimes I feel as though I'm just going through the motions with a weary and frustrated spirit.

It's not that I enjoy struggling with my relationship with God.  In fact, I hate that this has been a big struggle of mine for the last several months.  More specifically, I hate that it has gotten worse in the last couple of months.  But more importantly, I really dislike that I've let it gotten to this point, not knowing what to do, and not telling others sooner.

I really miss feeling refreshed, and my passion and zeal for God.  Even more so, I miss having the relationship with God that I use to have.

If anyone has noticed my struggle - I'm unaware.  No one has said a thing to me about it, although I wish someone would have if they took notice to my internal battle.  It's a hard thing to go through alone, not knowing what to do.  I've noticed red flags and changes in my own behavior (such as not attending Sunday School), and I can't imagine no one else noticing.  Then again, maybe I'm a better actress than I thought when it comes to hiding what I've been ashamed about.

Do I feel ashamed to admit to a spiritual battle because of pressure I put on myself, or because it comes across as a taboo subject??  Why, as Christians, do we have a hard time admitting to one another that we don't always have it together spiritually?  That our relationship with God isn't always at it best?   Why do we find the need to hide this part of our life, when what we need is to be open about it so that others know how to better pray for and help us?  To keep us accountable?  After all, our church family and Christian friends have all probably been here/there themselves, and (hopefully) want what is best for us - physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

So, here I am being honest, once again.

In the last few months especially, and even throughout the last few years (on and off), I have struggled.  I've been in and out of depression after many hard life circumstances...And I've never really healed from anything that has happened in the last few years.

Although I firmly believe that recent events have a lot to do with my current struggles, I know they aren't the only cause.  In my heart, I know that the struggle is the result of an accumulation from the last few years and recent life experiences.  The most recent issues just seem to be the cherry on top of it all, and I'm just tired.

If you're struggling emotionally and/or spiritually - I encourage you to tell someone you trust.  (Although, I've noticed if you struggle with one, more than likely you also struggle with the other.)  Once you open up to one person, and once you say it aloud for the first time, it is easier to be honest about it and face it.  By opening up with just one person, it instantly took a lot of pressure off of myself - and now I've even found myself opening up to you here in my blog - even though I'm not sure how any of this will be taken by those who read this.

Once you open up with someone - make a plan.  I'm still working on a plan to get myself in a better place with my relationship with God.  I'm working on healing, and not running and ignoring things that I know I need to deal with.  I'm trying to be proactive by talking to a couple of mentors I know on the phone (as sadly, they live out of the state of California), and I'm seeing a local counselor for a few issues - my spiritual battle being one of them.

I've also been learning to tell others that for now, I can't take on any jobs at the church because I know I need to focus on me and God before I can take on any responsibilities.  If I were to take on any jobs right now, I would be cheating God and the church because I'm not where I need to be to take anything on.

Ironically, I'm 22 and have grown up in church, and yet, I still am lost as to the best way to get to where I need to be...But I know that admitting to where I am currently at and knowing where I want to be is definitely a good start.

Sure, I have two pastors in my family, have been a leader, been involved in many church things, and have gone on many mission trips. But I am human.  I have emotions and I experience life.  I'm not immune to possible struggles, physical, emotional, or spiritual...and I shouldn't feel ashamed, embarrassed, or even guilty about these struggles - as I've allowed myself to feel.

When I get responses from people about my blog, I always like hearing that people love how I am open and honest through my writing.  I figure, the more open and honest I am, the more I can truly connect with you, my readers.  Maybe through my writing, you'll know you're not alone in an experience, or maybe you leave my blog feeling encouraged or hopeful.  Sometimes the opposite happens as well.  Sometimes, when I hear from you (which I LOVE comments left, or emails I receive), and I hear your stories, I sometimes realize and learn that I'm not alone, and I often am encouraged by your responses.

By hiding this from you all, I have felt like a lying impostor posing as "that chick", seeming to come across as having it all together - even when I don't.  But here I am...Telling you, being honest with myself, and owning up to the fact that I don't always have it together - and right now I definitely don't.  Right now, I'm just trying process and attempting to figure some things out.

I've spent the last few weeks debating on posting a blog entry like this one...Not knowing how it will be received by others.  As I have gone back and forth on the idea of posting this entry, I've wondered, "Will people judge me for my struggle?  Will they think my struggle is stupid?  Will people see me in a different and negative light?  Will anyone even understand??"

Truth is, it doesn't really matter what others think about where I'm at in life - and I shouldn't worry about it.  It's a real battle and it's my life story.  Why should I hide where I am at?  I'm now less concerned about what others think about my struggle, and more concerned about getting back to where I know I should me…Where I know I want to be with God.

No matter how it's received by strangers, family, or friends, I can't hide the truth any longer.  I have to be honest...and really I feel like it needs to be posted.  I want to continue to stay open and honest through my entries - because odds are, realistically...I'm probably not alone.

The Travelin' Chick,

Friday, October 18, 2013

Breaking Down the Box

I have a cool story to share from my week working at the elementary school.

A few days ago, I was out at recess monitoring some kids from the 3rd and 4th grade classes.  Overall, the children were mostly behaving - and that was enjoyable for me!  As I was scanning the playground, a young, worried looking boy ran up to me and said, "Ms. Crystal, my friend is making fun of you!"  I asked him, "Why is that?"  He replied, "He's making fun of you because of your birthmark!"  

Woah!!...What??  How much courage did it take for that young boy to tell me that his own friend was making fun of me?  Again - this is a boy in the 3rd or 4th grade!  I can't even begin to explain how impressed I was by his courage and maturity.

Not really sure how to handle the situation - especially since I didn't hear his friend making fun of me myself - I just asked the boy the name of his friend, their room number, and teacher's name.

Thankfully, it was a teacher that I have known for a few years now and have seen on and off during my campus visits before being hired as an NTA (noontime assistant).  It made it easier for me to talk comfortably with her about the issue, since I didn't know how that kind of situation should be handled.  

When I spoke with her, I told her about the boy who talked to me at recess.  She apparently was already made aware of the situation by some of her other students.  But, I told her, "I don't really know how to handle this, but as the boy's teacher, I wanted you to be aware that it was said.  I'm not upset - I didn't even hear what was said...And I know that kids do this kind of thing.  Kids will be kids!  But, if you ever want me to come to your classroom to share about it and to let them ask any questions they may have - just let me know!  I'd be happy to do so."  She made sure to let me know that she would talk with the child and make sure it was handled on her end.

Usually at recess, kids are asking me questions almost everyday.  Because of the many questions I receive, knowing I'm going to have another laser treatment in November (which  really encourages more questions), and now knowing that there was an issue of a child making fun of me, I sent the principal of the school (who is actually my former 4th grade teacher) a message.

I basically said the same to her as I told the teacher just moments earlier, but in a little more detail, "Hey! I meant to talk to you today but you seemed busy and I had to run to class. However, I was made aware today by one of the students that one of his friend was making fun of me because of my birthmark. No worries - I'm not upset or anything by it, I didn't even hear what was said. That's what kids do and I talked to his teacher about it.  But I just wanted to say - if any of the teachers want or need me to, I am always more then willing to go to their classrooms to teach the kids about it and to let them ask all their questions.  I'd rather help them understand it as curious children than to let them grow up to be rude adults. So, if the teachers ever want me to visit their classrooms for a few minutes - I can always come in early before my shift or on certain days I can visit after my shift is over. I'm more than willing, so they can just let me know."

She told me she would email all the teacher's about my offer.  About three hours later, she messaged me back saying she had 9 responses from teachers telling her that they would love for me to come share with their classes.  As of right now, I don't know the current count of all the teachers who want me to come in, but I was really amazed at at least 9 said yes.  It was unexpected for me - but it makes me happy and excited to have a chance to talk and share with the children.  I'm not really sure how much I am of "teacher material" - but to have the chance to try to impact children for just 10 or 20 minutes (or however long the teachers have me share and probably depending on how many questions I receive)...Wow.  What a cool opportunity!   

Today I had a few teachers tell me that they've emailed me to find out when I'm available to come and speak with their students.  (Teacher's I've never met even told me "hello" today by name...and I don't even wear a name badge, as I'm still waiting to get one.)  From the looks of it, I'll have the chance to share with children as young as 4-years-old to children in the 6th grade.  

In the last day, this whole thing had me wondering...Why doesn't the school system have a set up for people who are "different" from societies "normal"...Those who don't quite fit into that very stupid, small, and specific box that society wants people to fit into, come to speak to children?  You know...Those like me, with birthmarks on their faces...Or even those who are Deaf, blind, in wheel chairs, or amputees.  I can promise you that I'm not the only one who deal with issues from strangers...And I'm certainly not the only one willing to help teach others the beauty in being who I am, and to educate them about why I am the way I am.

In my personal experiences, I deal with a many rude adults...sometimes just once a week, but sometimes on a daily basis.  Between staring, stupid questions***, and rude comments...I have to deal with this a lot!

If we talk to people while they are still children, we can give them an easy way to teach them to be curious in a kind manner.  We can teach them appropriate ways to ask questions, and tell them it's not kind to stare.  More importantly, maybe we could tear down any possible future stereotypes that people have for those who physically look different, are in a wheel chair, are blind, or Deaf.

Here is an example of my own idea:  Yesterday evening, for a class assignment, I was able to interview a super sweet lady who happens to be Deaf.  One question that a friend and I asked her was, "What is one of your pet peeves of hearing people?"  Part of her reply was something along the lines of, "Hearing people often assume that because I'm Deaf, that means I am dumb and stupid.  I'm not."

Using this portion of the interview I had with the lady, let's say that later on, a child (let's call her Mary) hears their friend say something rude about a Deaf person, by calling them "dumb" or "stupid".  What if, instead of easily being able to laugh along at another person's expense because of influences of others who do the same, or accept the negative stereotypes and look down upon others for being Deaf, or someone else "different" in any other way...What if, when Mary hears their friends making fun of someone and can think, "Well, that's not true.  I remember when I was 8-years-old, and a Deaf man came into my classroom and shared with us about his life being Deaf...and he was far from being stupid!!  He's even a teacher at a university, is married, and has 3 or 4 children."

And then what if, from there, Mary can correct and influence her friend to think differently about others??

Maybe my idea is wrong.  Maybe it's right.  Either way, it's my two cents from a life time of 22-years of experiences.

Really, overall, I think people say and do things because they feel uncomfortable by situations and things that they aren't use to being around or seeing.  What if we made the children of today aware of other people and their really cool lives and unique experiences?   What if we taught them while they are young, how to act and treat others properly - regardless of they way they look, act, their race, if they can hear or not, if they can walk or use a wheel chair for assistance, or if they can see or can't see??  

Whether the person be blind, an amputee, in a wheel chair, Deaf, or has a birthmark on their face...Let's teach children that these aren't people to look down on and treat like they are any less than themselves, but these are incredibly beautiful people we can look up to for inspiration and as great role models.

Let's break down that box that the world has made for all of us to fit into.  We're all unique and special people, and we definitely weren't put on this earth to be put into a box - no matter of who we are, or even for who we aren't. 

The Travelin' Chick,

***When I referred to an adult's questions being stupid, really, I don't think that any question is stupid.  People are curious and that's a natural part of being human, whether you're a child, teen, young adult, or older person.  I just feel as though the way adults usually handle seeing my birthmark for the first time handle it in a stupid manner.  They can ask about it, I'd love to help them learn about it!  But sadly, instead of maturely and kindly asking about my birthmark, they either stare, or usually ask about it in the weirdest or in a rude way...And that?  That's what I find to be stupid.  When kids ask me crazy questions?  Well, they're kids.  I've never viewed their ways of asking as stupid, as they are genuinely curious and really have the sweetest intentions as they learn how to properly ask questions.  They are, after all, children. ***

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Home to Return to

Recently I met at Starbucks with a couple of friends of mine.  One friend in particular was asking me how many more laser treatments I would need for my birthmark.  Responding, I told her something like, "I don't know.  I can stop when I want to stop or I can keep going.  I had them as a child but decided to stop when I was about 11-years-old, and my mom said, 'okay', and let me stop.  When I was about 18-years-old, I told my mom I wanted to continue - and she told me 'okay' again, and I continued."  She said something to the effect of, "You have a good mom who supports you and your decisions."

And that's the thing.  I do have a good mom.  In fact, I have a great mom who supports me and my decisions...and recently, I've realized how I sometimes take her - and my dad - for granted.

Lately I've been reminded more and more about how blessed I am to have my parents in my life.  During the last few weeks, I keep hearing stories of people who don't have such a great support system in their lives.

I have friends who don't want to go home, because if they do, they have to "deal with their family".  I have friends who's parents aren't kind to them with their words, who put their child (my friend) down.  My friends have parents who tell their children that they aren't pretty enough, thin enough, or that they deserve to become sick, they deserve to go through an emotional hard time, etc, etc.

In my ASL (American Sign Language) classes I learn of stories of children who are Deaf who have gone through horrendous medical experiments, therapies, and treatments - even when they requested that they stop.  (This happened/happens when parents are new to having a Deaf child and rely on doctors for advice.  The parents want what is best for their child, but what they are told to do by their doctors doesn't always end up being the best option.)  My teachers, friends, and classmates who are Deaf share what it is like to grow up Deaf in a hearing family...Being left out of conversations, social activities, and being left completely alone.  One friend even shared that his mother left the family when they found out he was deaf.

The other week, I was with a group that included 6 of my friends (two friends are Deaf, the other four are hearing).  We were trying to figure out who all wanted to go to Wal-Mart, so we asked both the hearing and Deaf friends in the group if they wanted to to to the store.  If we all went, we would take two cars, as we all wouldn't fit into one.  If some wanted to stay at the apartment until we got back, we only need to take one vehicle.  One of my Deaf friends responded, "I don't need to go.  I'm use to being alone.  I'm use to my family leaving me out."  Needless to say - we took two cars and made sure that all 6 of us went to the store together that night.

Two weekends ago I also went to see The Deafhood Monologues.  The monologues included many true stories based on experiences and the history of Deaf culture and people, but one story particular stood out to me...and has come to my mind everyday since the performance.

During the monologues, actress Shira Gravelsky presented a (true) story of a woman who went to an adoption agency.  The woman that Shira played met a young girl who loved to draw - regardless of the fact that she was missing fingers.  Shira's character spoke to someone in charge, asking if the little girl was born without her fingers.  To her character's surprise, the little girl's current condition was not to be faulted due to her development in the womb or due to a birth problem.  It was faulted by a recent, tragic, life event.

The little girl was born deaf.  She learned to do some sign language, but then her parents took her to a doctor who dubbed signing and ASL as bad.  The doctor insisted that the parents push oralism and speech therapy on the child - and told them not to let their daughter sign or use ASL.

Her parents tried to get her to go oral, but she continued to sign.  Her dad became infuriated and one day yelled, "Is she signing again??  Is she?  Make her stop!  Make her speak!...Is she signing??  Make her put her hands out!"  So, the child was forced to lay out her hands - and bam!  Her father took a knife and cut off all his child's fingers.  (The child's parents went to jail.)

I listen to stories like this and my heart breaks.  I listen to my friends talk about their strained relationships with their parents who aren't very kind, and I become extremely saddened.  My heart has broken so many times during the last two months as I hear stories in class or through new friends.  All the people I've heard share about their poor home life are such beautiful people, and I can't imagine how their parents don't see the beauty in their own children, or how they don't accept their child as they are.  Hearing about all of these stories and experiences...I am reminded of how lucky and blessed I am to have the parents that I have.

When it comes to my health and to my body, my parents have never forced me to do anything I haven't wanted to do.  Like with my laser treatments.  If I want to have them, they're okay with it.  My mom even drives me to and from - 3 hours each direction.  If I want to stop the treatments, they are okay with that too.  And when I was diagnosed with chronic pain at the age of 12?  My parents made sure that I got the best treatment possible to help relieve as much of the pain as possible.

If I need help with friend situations or need advice of any kind, I know I can trust my parents.  I know they'll think rationally and not attempt to feel bad about any of the situations.  They try to encourage me through their advice.  They're not afraid to be honest with me if I'm in the wrong or need correcting, but they correct me in love and in a tender way in hopes of helping me grow as a person through the situation.

My parents have let me travel the world without them since I was 15-years-old.  They want me to travel, understanding that the world is a big and unique place.  They've encouraged me to spend 6 months in London, and supported me when I wanted to go to Japan to help with the disaster relief efforts after the tsunami hit.  Even though the tsunami and issues Japan was having with the nuclear plants and radiation made my parents a little nervous, they knew I felt like I need to go and they trusted in God to keep me safe.

When I decided to move to Germany for 6 months, my parents let me make my own decision and told me it was a good, once in a life time oppurtunity.  When I decided it was best for me to come home from Germany 4 months early, my parents were once again in full support.  They welcomed me home with wide-open arms and picked me up from the airport.

Whenever my parents see an area I become interested in, they encourage me to persue my new interest.  If I enjoy a new hobby, they support me.  My dad, after all, is the one who surprised me when I was 13-years-old as he bought me my first SLR camera - seeming completely at random at the time.  I remember coming home from school, seeing a Nikon D50 on the table, and asking my dad, "Who's is that??"  He told me, "It's yours."  I don't even remember asking for a camera.  Asking him tonight why he bought the camera for me, he recalled realizing my growing interest in creating videos and thought I needed a better camera to help me out in the new hobby.  Little did he know how much photography would become part of my life!

And in college...Even when I change my major for the 3rd or 4th time, my parents always insist that they want me to major in what I love, what I'm passionate about, and what makes me happy.

My parents have accepted that I am living my life and am trying to live it to the fullest.  They've stuck with me through the good times, and the most trying times.  They even try to give me experiences that they possibly didn't have themselves as a child or young adult.

I just can't imagine having parents who don't accept me for who I am.  I can't imagine having parents who ignore me, or force me to do things I don't want to do, or who make me feel ugly and awful about myself.  I've been blessed with parents who are patient, kind, encouraging, accepting, and who have instilled that beauty runs much deeper than skin deep.  They've taught me to be proud of who I am, even through my differences.

My life could have been extremely different had I been born into a different, less supportive family...And I just want to thank my parents.

Thanks, mom and dad.  Thank you for being great, supportive, encouraging, and loving parents.  Thank you for being parents that I enjoy spending time with.  I hope that if I ever become married, and have children, that I am half as great as you two.

Thank you for giving me a home that I want to return home to at night.

The Travelin' Chick,