Beauty in the Broken

I have often struggled with feeling broken and betrayed by my body.

It began with our struggle with infertility and my anxiety, when I felt that because my body would not carry a child, that not only was I broken, that I wasn’t fulfilling my vocation as a woman and spouse.

When I became a mother, during my pregnancy I thought to myself, “now, finally, I am healed.” As I passed each milestone, and birth came closer and closer, I let go of those feelings of brokenness and rejoiced in my body. My body was creating life, and I rejoiced in the pains and struggles of pregnancy, because I no longer felt betrayed by my body.

I thought that feeling of brokenness and betrayal by my body would change definitively with my daughter’s birth. I thought her birth would heal that wound, the feeling that my body had betrayed me.

And yet, after Madeleine’s birth, that wound remained.

I was a mother now. Everything we had prayed for had happened. Her birth was beautiful. Madeleine was even born on her due date, the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel after I’d prayed a novena to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel that she would arrive on time.

And yet, in all that joy, I was drowning.

My body was a stranger to me. Nothing prepared me for how different my body felt to me after Madeleine’s birth. And then on top of that, Madeleine would scream when I tried to feed her. It sometimes took an hour and a half just to feed her.

It was then that I started to notice my hands.

I remember a reflection during our marriage prep that asked you to hold your betrothed’s hands. It asked you think about how these hands, the hands holding your own, would be the hands to care for you when you were sick, to comfort you in times of difficulty, to hold and love your children.

After Madeleine’s birth, my hands ached. They were constantly stiff and sore. I blamed having to take hours to nurse Madeleine and constantly hold her in the same position. But it kept getting worse. I thought perhaps my De Quervains Syndrome (like carpal tunnel) was returning and was sure that after a time it would get better.

Then my shoulders started to ache. I blamed my ring sling, and stopped wearing it. But the pain remained. I couldn’t lift my hands above my head without pain. I blamed having to sit in the same position for hours to feed Madeleine.

But then one night, Madeleine woke up crying. She needed to be fed. And I struggled to get to her.

I struggled to move myself out of bed. My whole body was stiff and sore. Madeleine’s crying became louder and louder. I felt terrible. And then, when I finally got to her, I realized I couldn’t pick my baby up out of her crib.

I woke up Nicholas, who brought Madeleine to me in the rocking chair. I could barely hold her, even with my nursing pillow. It was that night that I realized something was terribly wrong.

About two months after that night when my hands refused to work (this past November), I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

The doctor explained that my immune system had started to attack my joints. I would need to be on an immunosuppressant indefinitely. She explained that it was probably my pregnancy that had triggered the autoimmune disease.

And once again, I felt betrayed by my body.

My pregnancy and Madeleine’s birth had started to heal the wounds of betrayal I had felt after almost two years of infertility. Suddenly, those wounds were cut open again. My body was literally attacking itself. It wasn’t functioning as it should, again, and it was affecting my ability to care for my daughter. I was angry, I was hurt, I was broken.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from infertility, it is that there is beauty in brokenness.

My body had betrayed me again, but I decided that wouldn’t stop me from being a good mother, from being a good wife, from being a daughter of God. Instead, I tried to turn to the Cross. I repeated to myself in times of weakness, “this is my body, given up for you.” I repeated it when it was difficult to pick up my daughter. I repeated it when I struggled to feed my daughter because my hands ached. I repeated it when I woke in the middle of the night to Madeleine crying, needing me, and my body was stiff again. I repeated it when I looked in the mirror and was unhappy with my body because my arthritis had prevented me from exercising until my medication started working.

I decided that my RA would not change how I parent, would not change my fitness goals, would not change my vocation, would not change my faith. I began researching ways to heal my body through diet and exercise. I have set a goal for myself to run a Spartan race either this summer or fall. I have decided to show my daughter that having a chronic illness does not mean that you cannot be active, that you cannot do extraordinary things, that you cannot lead a life of adventure and faith.

I started trying to take care of myself. I began a new diet about two months ago to help with inflammation. I purchased an exercise program to help heal and strengthen my core from pregnancy. I’m going to be blogging more often as part of self care and posting updates about my progress with training and treatment of RA. I’ve been trying to pray more often and focus on joy and acceptance.

We cannot choose our crosses. I do not know yet what purpose this cross carries, but I know that when we received news of my diagnosis and told my husband, that he had a profound sense of peace. “We need this,” he said.

I remember the reflection given during our marriage preparation now whenever I look at my hands and the hands of my husband. For although my hands are sometimes inflamed and in pain, I know that Christ has gifted me my husband to be my hands and feet when my own will not work. Before I was a mother, I felt broken because of our struggles to have a child. I felt betrayed by my own body, angry that my body wasn’t working as it ought, crippled by my body’s brokenness. Now, I feel broken because there are some days when my whole body aches. And yet, I know that I need this. I need to remember that I am broken, that I am weak, that I am wounded. Because in my brokenness, I am reminded to look at Christ on the Cross.

God gives us what we need. He challenges us, and allows us suffering so that we might realize our littleness. So that we might turn to the Cross, see Christ bloody, bruised, and beaten, and know in our hearts the great sacrificial love of Christ for us. Christ on the Cross shows us the profound depths of God’s love for us, and will always stand as a reminder to us all that there is immense beauty in the broken.

The Power of a Label

Reposted from my blog Fourteen White Lilies

I am many things. I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, a future wife, a godmother, a student, a writer, a musician, a Catholic, a child of God.  All of these things are an essential part of my identity.  When faced with the question, “Who are you?” we use  labels most often to answer.

Labels are powerful.  They communicate our identity.  We use them to make ourselves known to another. We use them to understand ourselves.  They make sense out of chaos, and give a feeling of order.  We use them to understand others.  They tell us about a person’s occupation, passions, political identity, past, role in a family, role in society.  Labels can be used to hurt others through calling others names, stereotyping them, boxing them in, controlling them.  Labels can be used to heal though, as well, through praise, compliments, applying a kind label to another.

For the past two years, there has been one label that has absolutely terrified me.  It is something about me that while objectively true, I didn’t want to admit to myself.  I didn’t want to identify myself with this label, because the label would make my pain too real.  So long as I was able to avoid consciously identifying myself with this label, I could pass my pain off as a distant dream.

I am a survivor of sexual assault.

The thing that is so scary about this label, is that it reveals a part of myself so deep, an experience so intimate and painful, that using this label requires me to be deeply vulnerable.  It requires me to open myself up, to make one of my most horrible and intimate experiences known, and it terrifies me.  It terrifies me, because I wonder what others will think.  I wonder how this label will affect others’ view of me. And I am still struggling to understand what this label means for myself, my fiancé, my friends, my family, and eventually my children.  How do I incorporate such a violating experience into my identity? How can I use that experience to help others? How will this experience potentially inadvertently cause me to hurt others in my life? What does it mean to be a survivor of sexual assault?

Two years ago I finally broke out of a two and a half year relationship in which my boundaries were pushed and manipulated.  I felt broken, abused, and shamed for much of the time in that relationship, but I continued on with a smile for fear of what would happen to me if I broke up with him.  I didn’t know how to talk to anyone about it, because I felt that things were my fault.  That I wasn’t loving him enough.  That I was the one that kept making the mistakes.  And for the longest time, I didn’t want to call what happened to me “sexual assault” because it was easier.  It made it less real.  It made it more distant, because to say that “I am a survivor of sexual assault” is to say “this is a part of who I am” and I wasn’t ready for that.  Sometimes I wonder if I’m ready even now, because I am still working through this.  I am still coming to terms with what happened to me, and through the help of my counselor, I am now bravely able to say, “I am a survivor of sexual assault, and what happened to me was not my fault.”

As I have started working through this more deeply, I find myself asking “What does this label mean for me?  How is this a part of my identity?  How do I deal with that violation and make it a positive part of my identity?”  Because by definition, “survivor” is a word that evokes some experience of pain or trauma.  A google search for the definition of survivor will return this result “a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died” and “a person who copes well with difficulties in their life.” Both of these definitions have deep meaning for me.  Where others may have seen their former selves “die” after what I experienced, I fought.  I fought to find myself and to regain my innocence.  I fought to find my faith and to find healing in Christ. And I strive to unite my difficulties to Christ each day.

As I continue to deal with my pain, and the pain and strength associated with being a survivor of sexual assault, I have learned this: I need my pain.  I need my pain, because my pain helps me to never forget, and though sometimes it would be so much easier to forget, I don’t want to.  I don’t want to forget, though I want to forgive, because to forget this experience would be to lose a part of myself.  I need my pain, because pain is part of what makes us human, and part of being a survivor is being able to know your pain and see the beauty in it, the beauty that comes from it.  Because without this pain, I would never have grown so deeply in my faith.  I would not have the knowledge to minister to others who have experienced similar pain.  Being a survivor is using your pain for the good of yourself and of others.  It is turning your pain into healing through turning always to Christ and relying first on him. Being a survivor is a process of searching, a process of rediscovering oneself, a process of forgiving.  Being a survivor is being strong enough to admit that you are weak, that you cannot walk this alone, that you need others to walk with you, and that you need Christ.  Because at the end of the day, even though “survivor of sexual assault” is a label that describes my identity, the most powerful label of all is “I am a daughter of God.” That is a label that dispels all sin and all pain with love, mercy, healing, and forgiveness.  So when asked, “Who am I?”, no matter my pain, no matter my passions, my response will always be,

“I am a daughter of God who seeks first the Heart of Christ.”