My poem, defamation, is live in issue IX of High Shelf Press today. This is one of my favorite poems and I’m grateful to share it with some new readers. Go take a look!
In high school, I had no concept of self care. I woke up at 5:52am every day, like literal clockwork. I left my house at 7, got to school at 7:20, got coffee from the cafeteria, and met my friends in the back of the theater to finish homework or talk. I went to class, went to cross country practice, and got home at 6. I did homework, and went to bed by 10:00.
Why am I telling you my daily schedule from 2004-2008? To point out that there was no time for doing what felt good. I enjoyed being on the cross country team, going to school, and spending time with my friends, but I didn’t do anything just for me. I did what I had to do and what was required of me by others. No one ever asked me what it would mean to do what felt good to me. The first time I heard that question, I was 24 years old and having an emotional breakdown in graduate school. It never occurred to me before then that I could do things for no other reason but to care for myself. In high school, I was focused on what needed to be done to succeed in life after high school. Studying, taking standardized tests, being captain of the cross country team, leading worship at youth group, and applying for colleges – there was no time for rest. Rest wouldn’t help me in the future.
What I didn’t realize was that taking care of myself at the age of 16 would’ve made things much less painful 12 years later. I never dealt with my depression and harmful behaviors in high school, so I never healed properly. I went to a therapist in high school, but after a year of meeting, she concluded that there was nothing wrong with me and that there was no reason for me to feel so depressed. She branded herself as a Christian therapist and told me that if I only prayed enough and tried harder, I wouldn’t feel this way anymore. I believed her and tried to move forward. But, because I was never given any real tools to cope with what was actually a chronic mental illness, old patterns continue to resurface.
During the past five years, most of my mental illness has surfaced in the form of anxiety and panic attacks. Medication, therapy, and learning proper self care have helped me move through the hard days. But I was surprised when, this past September, I began to feel familiar symptoms I hadn’t felt in over a decade. My anxiety and depression started an exhausting tug of war of apathy vs perfection. I was paralyzed by the two extremes. I didn’t know how to deal with both of these illness at the same time.
The only thing I know to do now is to listen to my body. I recently heard poet and healer Jamie Lee Finch refer to her body as “She” in a podcast. I’ve adopted that same practice, trying to personify my body in a way that gives her more value. I try to listen to what she tells me, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. I let her rest so she is free to cry. I take her on walks so she can breathe fresh air and absorb the sunshine. I ask her, “what would feel good to you right now?” because, for decades, no one had asked her that before.
I recently had the pleasure of getting to know Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass through the magic of Twitter. A friend of mine asked if anyone she knew was doing work around #metoo and #churchtoo, and I immediately responded that I had done some writing on #metoo. She connected me to Chrisie, who is doing some wonderful truth-telling, empowering work. Chrisie and I immediately connected over being type 1’s on the Enneagram as well as our spirit animal, Leslie Knope. We immediately decided to guest blog for each other. You can find my post on her blog here. Enjoy these words from Chrisie on the paradoxes of identity, realizing trauma, and self-discovery.
Growing up I thought that I would have life figured out by age 30. I would have a job, family, and know who I am and who I want to be. As I approach yet another birthday in my thirties, I now think that who I am and who I want to be is a fluid concept. Recently I have been reflecting on Psalm 139 and realized that I don’t really know myself as well as God does. In fact, in the last few months I haven’t been sure I even know myself at all. I find myself in a similar time of rebirth and discovery that I experienced in my early 20s.
I’m a 31-year-old pastor, mother, survivor, wife, advocate, and redhead. But am I more than those labels? Less? Confused? Lost? Can I accept the aspects of myself that I love and ignore the parts that I dislike or make me feel vulnerable? Is this how I want God to love me?
In the winter I discerned that God was calling me to embrace parts of my person that I have hid or shied away from. Most of life I have felt confused by who I am. I seem like mismatched pieces, incongruent and paradoxical parts smashed into one body. I love Star Wars but hate science fiction and fantasy, with the exception of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I can ride roller coasters all day, but I am afraid of fast cars. I am an extreme extrovert, but I can read quietly for days at a time. I am ethically against divorce, but I have been divorced. I love pretty things, but I hate clothes shopping. I’m an incredibly strong and independent woman, but I ask my husband to fill up my gas tank.
I thought I had myself all figured out prior to this year and prided myself on my self-awareness and introspection. And maybe I did know myself, and simply grew and changed in the last year. It’s entirely possible as I had a baby and changed churches and roles from associate to solo pastor. God’s sudden call for me to expand my ministry and identity felt like I lost myself at best, a betrayal by God at worst. I argued with God and cried in the middle of the night. I didn’t know who I was outside of my call to ministry and I narrowly defined what ministry was. God did not. I wasn’t ashamed of my past, but I didn’t really share it for a variety of reasons. I didn’t want people to look at me with pity, I hated how people would see me differently knowing I had been a ‘victim’ of domestic violence and sexual assault, and I never wanted to hear “God is going to do amazing things with you, because of your past.” Why that statement made me crazy is a whole other blog post for another day, but I separated my ministry from my story, and I wanted it that way.
God knows every thought and every part of who we are. I believe that God is calling us as disciples to be on a constant journey to know ourselves. The good and the bad. The good so we can embrace it and the bad so that God can redeem it. A strange thing happened with I started to write and reclaim my WHOLE story. I felt more like myself than I had in a very long time. I found myself, when I didn’t even know that I had been missing. I found that if I went too many days without writing I felt anxious and separated from the Divine. Once I started rediscovering myself, I couldn’t stop. I got new glasses, launched a website, wrote a book, and dyed my red hair blonde. I joked that I was going through a quarter-life crisis, but I was lovingly reminded that I’m a little too old for it to be a quarter-life crisis.
In my self-discovery, I rediscovered the beauty of God. I fell in love with my Creator in a deeper way, because I had a deeper understanding of my own heart and life and who I am created to be. God already knows all that I am, have been, will be, and could be. The beautiful and the ugly. In my teens I thought I would know who I was in my 30s and in my 30s, I now believe that I will never fully know myself, and that’s a good thing, because I am evolving and learning. The good news is that God knows and loves me, even when I don’t know who I am, because God is the I Am.
About Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass:
Chrisie grew up in Eastern New Mexico and West Texas and is the daughter of a minister and schoolteacher. She went to college at the University of Texas at El Paso and studied Clinical Health Psychology and English and American Literature, where she graduated in 2011. Throughout her college years, Chrisie worked at various churches as and served as everything from an intern to a youth director to a children’s director.
Chrisie then attended Duke Divinity School from 2011-2014 where she received her Master’s of Divinity. She is currently an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church serving in the South Carolina Annual Conference as the pastor at Gilbert United Methodist Church. In 2012 she married Rev. Weston Pendergrass, who is also a United Methodist minister in South Carolina. They adopted a beautiful and curious baby boy in 2016.
Chrisie is a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault and suffered from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during her seminary career. She is now a fierce advocate for women and women’s issues in the church and understanding of mental health and better mental health care available for all persons. Chrisie Reeves-Pendergrass is available to come and speak at churches and events on these topics.
I was floating in a pool, my eyes rising above and then below the water line. I remember a figure looming over the side of the pool, stooping down to look at me. Next, I was in an ambulance, being told to keep my eyes open, but wanting more than anything to close them as I squinted against the sun. I felt tired. I was two years old and just wanted to go to sleep. I remember being hooked up to all sorts of monitors in the hospital. My first memory. Nearly drowning.
For a long time, I thought I wasn’t afraid of death, that it didn’t affect me. I thought because I had experienced so much loss at such a young age, I was immune to grief. My mother died when I was five years old, my gradfather when I was six. Both of my grandmothers died when I was in middle school. At some point in my coming of age, I began to take pride in my ability to absorb death and keep moving forward. Funerals did not make me sad. I was fine.
Simultaneously, though, my fear of my own death ran wild. I developed nighttime anxiety. I had trouble falling asleep and experienced what I can now identify as panic attacks. I was convinced that I was going to be murdered. Any sound in the house startled me. I developed strange obsessive rituals to protect myself. I pulled my blankets all the way up to my chin, reasoning that a murderer couldn’t get to me if I was covered up. I made elaborate plans to hide in my closet or escape out the window if needed. I also developed a fear of flying. I first got on an airplane at 8 months old, so air travel wasn’t new to me. Sometime in my teenage years, though, I became convinced that the planes I traveled on would fall out of the sky to a firey death. I was also afraid of swallowing pills – afraid I would choke on them. I hid the vitamins I was supposed to take in a container in my bathroom so I wouldn’t risk suffocation.
My indifference toward grief was somehow counter-balanced by my obsession with keeping myself alive. For the past decade or more, I felt shame for these obsessions. I had never experienced anything life threatening, I thought, so why was I so afraid? I lived in a safe area. We had never had a break-in. I had never so much as been in a bad car accident. Why was it that I was experiencing such paralyzing fear of scenarios with which I had never come into contact?
Two weeks ago, my grandfather died. He was sick for a long time and hadn’t been verbal for around a year, so in some ways I had been mourning him for a while. I was asked to give a eulogy at his service, and I was glad to write and speak about him for my family. However, as I looked around at my grieving family, I realized I was the only one not overcome with emotion. Maybe part of it had to do with my need to keep it together in order to speak, but I know it was more than that. Somehow, I had come to compartmentalize my relationship with death. I could deal with the loss of others, but I had never learned to reconcile my own mortality. And how could I, if my first memory is nearly drowning in a pool?
I am still learning to hold these things together. I feel more sadness about leaving the ones I love behind when I die than I do about losing them. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to love them well while I can. If loss has taught me one thing, it’s that living with secrets only brings about regret. I am still frightened of my own mortality and pain, but the only way I have managed to release the fear is to know that I have no control. I can try as hard as I want, but I still won’t always be able to protect myself or the ones I love. So, all I can do is love them well, so that when I’m gone, they’ll know they were cared for.
why did you stay?
and told me
he liked my lip ring,
and then kissed it.
just come lay with me.”
I wore a white comforter,
and we held hands
on the couch
on a Sunday morning.
A train when by
and he ordered me
around the bedroom
in a way that
I mistook for
granola out on the table
me in his lap
and I touched
his sweaty neck
while he exhaled
and told me his secrets.
He told me
reminded him of
a certain British philosopher.
“I know we
let this go, but I
want to kiss
I saw a
pink hair tie
on his nightstand
excused it for
The man before him
told me that I couldn’t
wear tight pants
or make up
because other men
would look at me,
so this kind of violence
seemed more romantic.
I am used to
and his, at least, came with
honey on his hands when
he held me down,
sticky sweetness on his lips when
“No wonder this is so hard for you.”