Growing Pains

I don certain perspectives with ease. They’re like sunglasses in the sense that they block out certain spectrums of light. Like that one pair of sunglasses that you hate that makes everything look brown.

It’s easy to see life as shit-colored.

Sometimes I wear my sunglasses at night.

That makes it even more difficult.

I was driving home from work one day about 2 weeks ago. Frustrated with myself, upset for feeling so constantly negative. A song came on that reminds me of my sisters, from The Holiday’s movie soundtrack. With tears in my eyes I wished my sisters were here, that things weren’t so hard for me all the time. I was talking to Rachel in my head as I usually do; she was my confidante sister who heard my inner life.

And suddenly I had an image of her, smilingly showing me a picture of myself. I was freaking out, WITH MY OWN HAND OVER MY EYES.

I was covering the light myself.

And I felt like she gently said, “Happiness is not as far away as you think.”

I’m still absorbing that message. Because as Brene Brown talks about, I hustle for worthiness. I hustle for love. I hustle for happiness, and I think that doing things just perfectly will get me there. In fact, one of my favorite perspectives is that IF I JUST DO THINGS PERFECTLY I won’t lose.

I won’t lose the things I desire. I won’t lose happiness. I won’t lose someone I love.

I begged Rachel, in the Critical Care Unit at Penrose Hospital, to stay with me. To be here. I repeated almost word for word the scene from Sense and Sensibility where Elinor begs Marianne not to leave her here alone. I did everything that I could possibly think of. I quoted all her favorite movies, from Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings to the aforementioned Sense and Sensibility. I sang to her. And in the end, she still left. I couldn’t make her stay for me even though I tried so hard. Even though she was the only person in my family who truly understood me, the only one in my family that I actually felt deeply connected to.

Before that, I begged my dad not to leave. I was 10 years old or so, my dad was very angry one night and threatened to go live on his own, without us. He had threatened this in the past while we had all silently frozen in the face of his rage. I changed my mind that night. I was tired of staying silent. Maybe my feelings would change something. So I hurled myself into his arms crying. “Don’t go Daddy. I love you.”

He put me away from him, moved me away… “Stop all that nonsense.”

I shrouded my heart to keep it safe. Maybe if I had held on tighter. Maybe if I had said the right words instead of “nonsense”.

I have tried ever since to hold on tighter and to do all the right things. I lost my grandpa when I was 15, and that shattered me. 6 months after that, I lost my first love, which I blamed my dad for. I lost my sisters. I got divorced. All these things, I tried so hard to hold them all together and they fell apart. About 6 months after I got divorced, I stopped drinking alcohol. A lot of my drinking had been to release myself from the vice of perfection I was holding myself in.

When I took away that crutch, my perfectionism transferred to school and to alcohol/love addiction recovery. I tried to be the perfect person in recovery. I tried to be perfect with my grades at school. This escalated and escalated until last May when I started to see what I was doing to myself. I stopped running. The instant I did, I was overcome by the deepest depression I’ve ever experienced. I’m still not clear on why… maybe because I finally stopped running from falling apart.

I’ve been unraveling it all ever since. I see it as a huge ball. I pull all sorts of strands in, but I have this huge overarching narrative that I like to believe about myself and my life.

“If I can just be perfect I will not lose.” But I can’t be perfect, so I will inevitably lose all I love.

I wish that just seeing that this is going on would eliminate it totally, but that’s not how it works. It’s helpful to be aware that this story is ruling my life, but, then I get to take action.

Which I have been, but change is slow. Especially when there are so many intertwining stories that are connected to this overarching one. And courage is hard to come by sometimes. When I don my usual perspectacles (as dear Glennon Melton calls them) and see only loss in my future, everything gets really black. I lose so much motivation to even go forward.

And so some days it takes all I have to just have the courage to believe what Source/the Universe/my Higher Power (you know, whatever I call that thing these days) seems to be telling me. To just let go and know that It has good things in store for me. Truly good things. And seriously that does take a lot of courage some days to believe. I fight myself, trying to be perfect, until I’m tuckered out and I finally give in. Then I have a cry about my losses because I need to purge the grief, and usually after that purging the world looks a little brighter again. I can see the light again just enough to find strength move forward.

I’m grateful right now for the support I have – a wonderful boyfriend who has persisted in staying by my side, my RootEd satsang who are more precious to me than I could ever put in words, and my new therapist who has valiantly gotten down in the muck with me.

After our immersion weekend for my teacher training last week, something really cool happened. I had brought a plant for the altar as an offering. As I was leaving on Sunday, my teacher asked, “Do you like plants?” and handed me an amaryllis flower, explaining that it needed some TLC. I was thrilled to take it home and put it in my sunroom/altar area. “I’m good at resurrecting things,” I said. Like I was reminding myself.

Then I walked out to my car. Tucked under my wiper blades was a bright, beautiful, colorful bouquet from my boyfriend. I offered a flower. I went home with 3.

These words sprang to mind:

“You are so full of rain,
there is so much that is growing,
hallelujah to your weathervanes,
hallelujah to the ache
hallelujah to your full, to the fall,
hallelujah to the grace,
and every body
and every cell
of us all.”
-Andrea Gibson, I Sing the Body Electric (Even When the Power’s Out)

 

Seeds grow in the dark. Even in the dark where it’s my own hand over my eyes, when it’s my own old stories that hold me back. But that also presumes they are dirt. Which presumes they provide what is needed for that seed to grow.

“You make beautiful things out of dust…” – Gungor, Beautiful Things.

There is so much that is growing. Hallelujah to the ache. To my own precious growing pains. To the sunglasses over my eyes that reveal my need to unveil myself to the world. Hallelujah to it all.

Finding Ground

54866c8b8841c9cb610e68be

Back in February/March, I went to Sayulita, Mexico, and found myself as I have never done before. I went alone. As such, I was required to make my own self care an absolute priority, down to what I ate. While there, I encountered regular thoughts of self-hatred, regular condemnation for the lack of yoga I was doing (I’d planned on going daily while there), and general depressiveness. In spite of all this, I allowed and accepted these feelings with an equanimity that surprised even me. My big “S” Self stepped into the picture and held all the shifting in her great arms.

On the way home, I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t want to go to school for counseling, not now. This was groundbreaking, since I’d been wanting to go to school for counseling since I was 15 (so, for 10 years). What I did not realize is that this was the first of many shifts in my life this year.

I held onto my equanimity for about a month, and then my world began to tilt and I could feel my Self falling back under the influence of my scared ego. I became smaller again.

I started a supervisor position at work, which was much more difficult than I expected considering I have never been a supervisor. It was also difficult in the sense that I was officially dropping my dream of going to school.

I met a boy. We talked for a little while, then I shut him out, from fear. But this experience made me realize that I lacked spontaneity in my life generally, and that my program for love addiction was hindering me, rather than helping me. Instead of forming my own ideals about love and relationships, I was looking to others to do so for me. I decided to step away from my love addiction program, which I had participated in for almost 2 years, and in which I had completed all 12 steps required and a dating plan.

The same week I decided to do this, I moved to a new apartment. This was a mere 2 weeks after another incident at my old apartment, where someone broke into the basement below my apartment. This was the SECOND such incident I’d had in a year and a half of living there. I didn’t find out until last month (via my dad) that the 2nd guy also had a gun and fired at police. I had thankfully left the apartment by that time.

But it didn’t end there. In stepping away from my love addiction program, I also shifted my alcohol recovery. I’m not regularly attending 12 step recovery right now, though I continue to stay sober and in touch with my sponsor. I am choosing sobriety right now for this reason: I use alcohol to numb. In general in my life, what I am attempting to do is eliminate all things which I use to avoid the present and my true Self. As such I choose to continue to stay sober from alcohol at this time.

And then on June 29th, I started dating Kevin.

This completely ungrounded me. I had already had so much shifting happening in my life. From the very beginning of our relationship, I’ve struggled with massive fear. I’m not talking about the usual relationship worries and nervousness. I’m talking about flat out panic.

I am ashamed to say that it has taken me 5 months to regain myself. And there are prices to pay for not being yourself in a relationship. I am not at all proud of my behavior. I caused a lot of pain and have had to beg forgiveness. Yet on the other hand, I look at myself with compassion.

So much of this year has been about finding who I am, and not living others-defined. My entire life, I have lived defined by what others want of me. Growing up, if we didn’t fall in line with my dad’s dream of God giving us 1.7 billion dollars, we were verbally harangued. I went straight from that into a marriage that I felt like “GOD” was telling me to be in, with a dysfunctional man who was sadly a pornography addict. I finally stepped out of this, and straight into recovery programs that were very structured and I continued living by others’ ideas. I am not saying that my recovery programs were unhelpful. What I am saying is that my perception of how to “work” them caused me to again base my life on what others told me to do, when what I needed was empowerment. Truly, the biggest reason I have not returned to meetings is that I am still unable to change my perception on it, and know that I won’t until I have gained enough ground in myself.

Beginning with my decision to not go to school this year, it has been the year of unraveling living the life I was “supposed” to live, or told to live, or felt like I HAD to live… for the life that I want to live. Not in a selfish “I want to do this and fuck everyone else” sort of way, rather, in a healthy, skillful, heart-centered way. To do this I’ve had to find who it is that I am, without all the structures I’ve made myself up of.

So I suppose it was somewhat natural to go into a relationship and struggle with this very thing. Not allowing myself to feel whatever it was that I felt, out of fear that I would a) screw the whole thing up and be in another unhealthy relationship and b) cause great harm to someone else.

Ironically and very unfortunately, I caused great harm to my boyfriend, while trying to avoid it. Lesson learned. Do not abandon self, no matter what. No matter how much your feelings are scaring you, do not abandon self. Do not abandon feelings.

Thankfully, I found my yoga program just at the right time. The entire program is about becoming a teacher from the foundation of becoming your true Self. And the whole program EMPOWERS you to become your true Self instead of giving rules to follow. Through my yoga program, I’ve come back to myself.

I’ve written here about Patanjali’s sutra I.23 – Ishvara Pranidhana Dva. The sutra of surrender. The theme of the past 5 months has entirely been surrender, since the very start of my relationship. My relationship really began with the movie The Fountain, a story that I see as one of surrender, ultimately.

On Friday, I looked up at the sky and asked the Universe, please let me know I am on the right path. Make it clear, startlingly clear for me, what I need to do. Within fast succession, BOTH things occurred (I should not have been surprised). Later that day at work, I found a poem in an old notebook, one I wrote before my boyfriend and I really even started talking much, about the terror of living in an overwrought mind, and the way past it (death/surrender), that used symbolism of an exploding star (a theme in The Fountain). I took this instantly as knowing “I am in the right place.”

On Saturday, I was standing in my work breakroom and I read yet another graphic on Facebook about surrender and grace. With tears in my eyes I fell to my knees and said, “Okay. Fine. I hear you. I’m done. I will feel whatever I feel.” That night, I went to our local poetry open mic. I saw a woman walk in, and as soon as I saw her, I knew that whatever she spoke would be for me. Her poem? It was on surrender and releasing, healing wounds to heal karmic patterns. I was floored.

And Sunday, my yoga training met again. We have been doing root chakra work, lots of it, and yesterday learned a set of asana poses specifically targeted for the root chakra. We spent 2.5 hours on these poses, which was grueling and exhausting. I felt somewhat resentful that we spent so much time in them, that the teacher was pushing us so much and so quickly. But I had a series of questions that came to me as we worked together Sunday. As these questions came up, I started to feel a stronger sense of Self.

“What if I am desperately craving connection with myself?”
“How do I bring growth to that way of being?”
“In what ways can I support my heart opening?” – this, as I realized that I have to find security and strength in root chakra before I can open up through my heart.

After our asana practice (mostly thigh/leg work) and these musings, I went and hiked the Incline with my boyfriend. I was finally just there, breathing, feeling whatever I felt with him, surrendered to what is. It was a great hike, and despite all the leg work I’d already done, I had a huge endorphin high. We got to the top just as dusk fell, so we headed back down Barr Trail as it got dark. For about half the trail, I was behind him, and we alternated running and hiking steadily. And as we hiked, something hit me.

“No matter what happens with us, I will be okay.” And I knew it all the way through myself, to the very marrow of my bones. I felt like I was snapped back into my body and was instantly flooded with an intense joy, at the reunion with myself. Something about feeling the ground underneath my feet, and the burning in my thighs and legs from the hike and the root chakra asana practice (which I am convinced brought on a lot of this transformation), brought me back to myself.

I am supported. Not because someone else holds me up, but because I am enough and I hold myself. This is surrender, to myself, to the knowledge that I have what it takes to hold the world within me.

This return to myself feels like touching the solid ground after being at sea for months. There is a sense of great relief, and bliss at reunion with my true Self. I remember the woman I was from Sayulita, the one who I truly am. The one who allows and lets life unfold and is not afraid to feel it all, because I am expansive, strong, resilient.

I can’t stop the glimmer of fear that I will lose myself again. But, I will breathe, and allow the fear, and keep surrendering. I know this truth: as long as I continue to surrender, I will always find Her.

It’s been a long journey over the sea of my ego-driven self, but I am finding ground. I am finally home.

Final Note: I don’t think it is a coincidence that I am writing this on December 8th, and scheduling it to post on the 7th anniversary of the death of my sisters. This year has been one of transformation – and every 7 years, a person’s body sheds all their skin cells and gains a completely new set of them. I am in a new skin now, 7 years later, truly transformed on a physical and spiritual level. And I would not be who I am without my sisters. Deep bow to you, my dear hearts, and two of my greatest teachers.

Wolves

I’ve been absolutely outraged by Ferguson and the events there, and this is what came out tonight. I felt compelled to share it with you. Excuse my stumbling words; please know that I don’t know how to write about this. But I’m trying. I recognize my own privilege and the role that it plays in this situation and it breaks my heart. I want to be part of a change.

When Anders Breivik
dressed up as a policeman
on July 22, 2012
and took the lives of 77 people
we were horrified
that someone could be such a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Could not believe that someone
took on the clothing
symbolizing safety
and used it to disguise
attack.
Yet when officers who
every day wear the uniform
“accidentally” take a
minority’s life
the news doesn’t talk about it.
everyone goes about their day like
sheep aren’t sometimes
wolves
and sometimes it’s hard
to tell the difference between the 2.
This is a poem
I’m not even supposed to write
because my skin has spoken enough
I have a wolf
hiding under lily white
there are no words
that I can say that
do less damage
because I come from a long line of people
who appear safe in society
until they show their teeth.

But for what it’s worth
(and it may not be much)
my two sisters were gunned down
in a church parking lot
a paragon of what is perceived by
society as safe
(nevermind what they say about
gays and gun rights and women)
and ABC, CBS, NBC begged me
to put myself on display
it was a “tragic loss of innocence
in a place you’d least expect.”
Every day
there are people just as young
as my sisters were
terrified to walk down the sidewalk
or through the grocery store
or anywhere really
and honestly I’m just sorry
that this society deems my story
as more “worthwhile”
more “horrifying”
because of the color of my skin
when the very ones who swore
to protect and defend
instead, take innocence
steal it in the places you’d least expect
so please
from me
keep telling your stories
and I will sit down
I’ve had more than enough airplay
I’m just sorry, and broken
that instead of a one-time occurrence
you face this every day
hundreds of Anders Breiviks
hunting you down and they don’t stop coming
and honestly…
I could be one of them.

Late Have I Loved You – 100th post

(My twin sister loved this painting.)

I miss my twin.

I’ve missed her like hot, searing fire lately… right down to the bone. My skin melting off, charred ash… and the bones still ache, and the ash still smokes from the ground, sending up aching like incense to the sky. These times come without warning, and I don’t know why. I just know that everything in me hurts, especially the empty little space that nests just beneath my rib cage.

I was reading a book this morning, just starting out. One by Richard Rohr; two friends have recommended him to me. So I finally picked up one of his books. And in the first few pages of the first chapter, came a quote by St. Augustine:

“Late have I loved you,
O Beauty so ancient and so new,
late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside,
and it was there that I searched for you.”

Stephanie loved this quote. And when I read it, I almost felt like she resurrected from it, right in front of me. Spiralling up like a genie out of the Nag Champa I was burning. Suddenly, she was present.

I hate and I love those moments, the ones where I can feel my twin sister’s presence. I love it, because then I know she is not truly gone. But I hate it, because though I feel her, I just cannot see her. I squeeze my eyes shut, tighter…tighter… just hoping. Maybe she’ll be there when I open them. Maybe I’ll smell her, maybe I’ll feel her arms and the sweat-softened, ugly red velour sweater she always wore. Maybe if I just wait long enough there with her, in the silence, she’ll step out from behind the hologram of our existence and be there. I can see her behind my eyes…  maybe, just maybe, she’ll still be there if I open them.

She never is.

And the ache grows. Tears prick my eyes. I just want her back most days. These days, where I grow like a tree split from our same root, my mother’s womb. The womb we shared. And I branched off some time ago, and we were so different back as girls. I didn’t want to be like her, because too many times she stayed in her roots and never dared to touch the sky. But sometimes, oh sometimes… leaves danced with blue like the magical feet of a flamenco dancer. It took my breath away. Her obstinate stillness, though, put me off. Her black and white ways.  So I never grew towards the parts that reached for freedom-blue-sky, because those other parts that held her back were still too present.

But now, my branches grow back towards hers, reaching for her limbs, but coming up empty always. I only find her inside the dark, secret places… like Neruda says, between the shadow and the soul.

“Late have I loved you,
Oh Beauty so ancient and so new,
late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside,
and it was there that I searched for you.

——

This just so happens to be my 100th post on this blog… I think it’s fitting that I wrote about my twin. Love you, Stephanie.
For the story of what happened to my sisters, start here.

The Patron Saint of Lost Causes (The Day My Sisters Died, Part 3)

If you are just joining in, I invite you to read Part 1 and Part 2, here and here.

——-

st. jude
(St. Jude – The Patron Saint of Desperate Cases and Lost Causes)

“If this is salvation, I can show you the trembling.
You’ll just have to trust me. I’m scared.
I am the patron saint of lost causes…

…We’re not questioning God.
Just those he chose to carry on His cross.”

-Anberlin, *Fin

I was a lost cause walking into the Emergency Room that day. The whole world was swirling around me, like a tornado. I sat in a plastic chair in a daze. The news was droning our story above me, but I was in so much shock I couldn’t process it. I heard my mom, as if from a distance, asking the ER nurse where Stephanie was. The nurse was repeating details of where Rachel was, but not Stephanie. Even knowing the truth, I didn’t want to admit it. I felt sick to my stomach.

After a few minutes, a detective from the police department came and found us. He led us through the hospital in what seemed to me like a maze. I could barely focus. Suddenly we were in a quiet conference room. My friend G– had followed, but wasn’t allowed into the conference room with my mom and I. I am not sure where Grace, my youngest sister, was. I can’t remember if she was there or not.

The only questions I remember from the detective were where we thought the shots had been coming from, and whether we knew anything about why the shooter had attacked us. I explained where I thought the shots had come from, later on finding out they had come from the exact opposite direction. That’s just how confusing it was. I also told the policeman that I knew the shooter had come from the YWAM base in Arvada down to where we were. Honestly, I had no logical reason for that. I just absolutely knew (and was correct). I thought at the time that maybe it was because I’d also been involved with YWAM.

After the questioning, we were taken upstairs to a huge waiting room. I walked in and saw one of my boyfriend’s friends there. I went right over to him and he hugged me, tears sparkling in his eyes. I sat down with him and my other friends who’d arrived. My mom and sister went into a smaller room off of the waiting room.

Another detective arrived and they called me into the room. I knew what this was going to be. I saw the look on the detective’s face, the agony in his eyes. “I’m so sorry. I have to tell you that your daughter Stephanie is dead.” My sister Grace let out a loud cry. My mom had tears streaming down her face. I remember feeling numb, not crying. My friend G– looked at me and grabbed my hands. “I need to tell you something important,” he said. “You need to remember this.” Yet today for the life of me I can’t remember what he said just then. I just remember his desperation. “We’ll pray for resurrection,” he said a moment later. “All is not lost.” I knew it was.

We waited.

My dad was in surgery. They were trying to take Rachel into surgery, but were having a hard time because she kept losing blood. My boyfriend arrived in the middle of this. I took him to a side room and that was where I told him that I loved him for the first time. He tried to stop me, but I wouldn’t be stopped. “No, you need to know. I love you.” I was desperate.

His mom was there, trying to find out what we needed. Scores of other people showed up. My friend Sarah, who had tried to get to the church but couldn’t get through the police barricade, kept trying to get me to eat. I wasn’t hungry; how could I be? She and my boyfriend insisted I should eat. When I told them the only thing I felt like eating was dark chocolate and Mountain Dew, they went to the gift store and bought me a bar of Cadbury’s dark chocolate. Someone handed me a bottle of Mountain Dew.

It’s so odd the little details you remember. Friends. Chocolate. Mountain Dew.

My dad came out of surgery and was in the recovery room. They asked if we wanted to go see him, and of course we did. We were escorted through two sets of double doors. My mom, Grace, and I huddled together as we walked through the doorway. My dad looked only semi-conscious, laying there on a white hospital bed with tubes everywhere. My stomach was dropping lower by the minute. We gathered around the bed.

“Where’s Stephanie?” my dad asked.

We looked at each other – my mom, Grace, and me. No one was speaking! Why wasn’t anyone saying anything? A resigned sort of feeling came over me and inside, I bucked myself up a little.

“She’s… she’s gone,” I said.

I have never said any words in my life that were worse than those three. Out of all of the horrible moments in this horrible day, this one was among the most awful. I watched as my dad’s face contorted in pain, and my heart seized.

After a couple of minutes we went back out to the waiting room. I felt like I’d been tackled by a 200-lb linebacker, and I was laying in the middle of the field with a concussion. Friends came and went. I sat with them, trying to distract myself. My mom came and got me when the doctors said we could go see Rachel. They couldn’t get her body warmed up enough to go into surgery, and she was losing blood fast.

So my mom and I, my friend G–, and two of the pastors went in to her room to pray. My boyfriend sat outside the door.

I think I lost my mind when I walked into that room. This was my baby sister. I’d always, always looked after her. When she was in the hospital a year before due to an ovarian cyst, I was the one that stayed with her longest and didn’t want to leave. When we were little and under the care of some sadly misled babysitters, I was the one who snuck into a dark bathroom to check on her as she was in time out for 25 minutes. She was MY baby sister. I may not have always been the best oldest sister, but Rachel was so special to me. Only 2 months before, I’d become weirdly overcome by sudden emotion and told her, “I just don’t know what I’d do without you. I just want you to know that, I don’t know what I would do without you.”

All this must have rushed through me when I saw her laying there, eyes closed, tubes everywhere, ribs bruised. I prayed. I don’t even know if prayer is a good technical term for it. What I did was to say everything in my power, to beg with all the words I had that she would stay with me. I used my words like swords to fight off evil; Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings, facing the Witch King.

I quoted all of her favorite movies; she loved movies. Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. I told her that she was my Marianne, and I was Elinor, and please, please don’t leave me here alone. I called desperately on God to save her life. I asked her to please come back from the darkness. And I sang.

“Everybody wants to be understood
Well I can hear you
Everybody wants to be loved
Don’t give up.

Because you are loved.”
Josh Groban – Don’t Give Up (Because You are Loved)

Finally, I’d said everything. I’d prayed everything. I’d sang everything. I knew it was time to give her to God. My friend G– disagreed with me. I stayed in the room to go along with him, but it was clear. It was time for me to let God do whatever He decided. Soon after, we all left and went back to the waiting room.

Grace and I sat building a puzzle in one corner with a friend of hers. It was late; 10 or 11 o’clock at night. I tried to distract myself by just looking for pieces to the puzzle in front of me. Some minutes later, one of the pastors appeared. The look on his face told me everything. I sucked in a deep breath.

“I’m sorry. Rachel has gone to be with Jesus.”

I started crying then. It hurt, oh it hurt more anything I could imagine. Grace started crying too. I was afraid I’d make her cry even harder, so I stifled my tears, to be strong, for her. We sat huddled together, Grace, my mom, and I. Trying to hold ourselves together somehow. The pastors prayed, as a sort of benediction.

The nurses came and asked if we wanted to see Rachel one last time. My mom, Grace, and I walked in to the quiet dark room that only minutes before had been bustling with light and activity. Rachel lay on the bed as if she were asleep. Her eyes were closed. She looked peaceful. I could feel her, still in the room with us. The nurses had mentioned that she could, as an organ donor, donate her eyes. As we stood there with her, we softly discussed. “No, we can’t,” we decided. She was the only one in the family besides my dad who had gorgeous blue eyes, and they were one of her trademark features. We couldn’t do it, it was still too close, the pain too sharp.

There were many other defining moments over the next few days. Planning a funeral. Visiting my dad in the hospital. Finding pictures of my sisters for the press and for the funeral pamphlet. Meeting Rachel’s best friend, Aimee, for the first time. The viewing. The service. Hearing stories… one of the most amazing being from the paramedic who took Rachel to the hospital.

He said she’d died in the ambulance. And suddenly she came back, and light filled the ambulance and even her skin color changed. I can only imagine; her blue-gray skin is tattooed on the walls of my mind. How breathtaking that must have been. Even in the darkness – light.

Just as it was in life after.

——

Life After

“This is the correlation
of salvation and love
Don’t drop your arms
I’ll guard your heart
With quiet words I’ll lead you in.”
Anberlin – The Unwinding Cable Car

In obvious ways, this event radically altered my life.

But what I wasn’t prepared for was the beauty it would bring me. In fact, a part of me still recoils to think of calling something so ugly a place of beauty. And yet. Darkness births light.

I learned resiliency.

I am so grateful and blessed today to have a life that is actually beautiful. But lest you think this is one of those stories with a pat ending; it’s not. I didn’t snap my fingers and recover. It’s taken a lot of hard work. Grueling days. Countless tears, screaming and raging as I drive down the highway. Falling apart in my therapist’s office.

Now, I often feel that my sisters repeat the refrain back to me that I sang to Rachel in the hospital: “Don’t give up, because you are loved.” It’s tattooed on my rib cage, in memory. There’s some days I need those words every five minutes.

Even now, the sting of loss doesn’t fully fade. I’m 25 years old and every day, I become more like my twin, who I thought was so unlike me. Beautiful, but so bittersweet. And oh so many days I wonder what they would think of me now. Who we would be together. We never got the chance to become adult sisters. I lost the ones who shared my childhood; Grace is 8 years younger than me and has grown up differently. I lost partners in crime. It hurts, every day.

Rachel, though, wrote something beautiful in her journal a few months before she died. She talked about how you can let sadness overcome you and live in that sadness, or find the courage to carry it with you, but to no longer let it define all of your life.

I’ve learned how to survive dark days. What it means to be supported unconditionally, even from beyond. The sacred beauty of God as I now understand It – not the God of fantasaical youth, or the God of limiting cages, but the God who favored freedom, grace and wild love.

Maybe most of all… I learned how to feel. Not to drop my arms to life, but to hold them up to where salvation and love come in. Light comes in.

Feeling all the pain, all the horror and sadness and maelstrom. That’s the important thing. See, I kept my arms crossed in front of my chest for years, through a marriage, divorce, and addiction. Trying to hold it all back. Caging myself in. When I finally peeled my arms down and asked for help, that was the correlation of salvation and love, rushing in. If only I could just keep showing up, every day, and have the courage to not drop my arms.

That’s what it’s about today; that’s what I want to share with you. That’s what it took to make it through and finally learn resilience. To just show up, every day, and not drop my arms across my chest but to spread them wide to the world. It’s grueling work, and sometimes it takes all I’ve got. My Higher Power, my sisters… they’ve all supported me through to this point, just whispering, “Don’t give up. You’re loved.” And I’ve learned though that it’s really amazing what happens when you give yourself to the work: It gives itself to you. The light shines in the darkness.

And the darkness does not overcome it.

—-

I wanted to graciously thank all of my readers for accompanying me on this journey of telling my story. Your presence, as I have said to you over and over again, has meant the world to me. Sometimes, healing comes to a greater degree through being witnessed. Thank you for witnessing me. I am grateful to all of you. Especially to those of you from The Rebels Project – an amazing community of survivors that I am so privileged to be a part of. You guys are in many ways like family to me; thank you for existing. You’ve been a light in my darkness. If anyone reading has been affected by senseless tragedy, I encourage you to get involved with The Rebels Project, a place where you can find understanding community and support.

I am also very grateful to the band Anberlin, whose songs I quoted because their CD, “Cities”, was the only thing I specifically requested after December 9. The Unwinding Cable Car was on repeat in my CD player for months. That CD got me through the darkest days of my life and I’m forever thankful it existed. Thank you, Anberlin – thank you for the impact you’ve made. I’m looking forward to seeing you on your last tour this year.

Alexithymia (The Day My Sisters Died – Part 2)

Trigger Warning: I know several people are reading who have also been through a similar experience to mine. In light of this, please know that some of this post may be disturbing to you. Please monitor yourself if you wish to keep reading and don’t read more than will unnecessarily disturb you. I am going to try to write this in a clear way, on a line between giving details without being overly graphic. However I know that each person’s triggers are different, so I just ask that you are very gentle with yourself as you read.

Click here to read part 1.

sisters
(L to R: Rachel, Stephanie (my twin), me, Grace. September, 2007 – 3 months before)

Alexithymia, the name of my sister Rachel’s favorite Anberlin song, has a strange meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, it is “the inability to express one’s feelings.” Psychologically, it can mean “deficiency or complete inability in assessing and describing one’s own emotional state.”

How can one describe their emotional state during a trauma? It’s impossible. Even after, looking back, I have no words that can fully express what I felt. I can only shape my words to form somewhat of a container for the feelings that occurred.

This is the hardest part to write for me because of so many things. As I write, in my head I hear so much noise. That is what is most present for me as I remember December 9. The noise was unbearable. Noise is still my biggest trigger. I hear it all in my head when I write and it’s excruciatingly painful.

I think maybe the silence I’ve had, though, is even more painful.

——

“It’s alarming how loud the silence screams
No warn, no warn, no warning…”
Anberlin

There was no warning. There was silence, and then there was chaos.

My mom was in the driver’s seat, my dad in the passenger. My twin was behind my mom, and behind her was my youngest sister Grace. Behind my dad, the seat was down and the door was open as we waited for my sister Rachel to get in. Behind that open seat, was me.

After the sound like a balloon popping, there was another pop, and another. And then the window next to my twin sister shattered.

My dad yelled, “Get down! Somebody is shooting at us!” My little sister screamed. My twin sister, just behind my mom, moved to get down. As I slid down in my seat in the very back of the van, everything suddenly became very still and slow. My thoughts came in slow motion. My dad yelled for someone to call 911, so I automatically grabbed the phone that was in my purse and dialed.

Though my mind was slow, my words weren’t. As soon as the dispatcher answered, I was spitting words at her in absolute panic. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something like, “Someone’s shooting at us, someone’s shooting at my family!” I felt like I was suspended in time. Thoughts floated through my head almost slowly enough so that I could see words appearing.

I’m going to need counseling after this.

I forgive this guy, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

This is the same person who shot up YWAM last night.

We’re going to be home by tonight, we have to… God said we’re going to go around the world, that we’re going to get this money,  so we have to survive.

Short, staccato noises kept coming without fail. They echoed, bouncing off the buildings, loud as all hell. Two dots appeared in the windshield as my parents cowered in the front seat, trying to stay out of sight. Glass was shattering everywhere.

I could feel the hate this person was directing at us; not really at us though, at some inner demon that tortured him. I felt as if, though I couldn’t see him, I was looking into the eyes of pure evil.

“I’ve been hit,” said my sister Rachel, outside the car. The screaming escalated. “Oh my god!” my dad yelled, jumping out of the car without thought to get to my sister. He was shot and fell on his stomach about 10 feet from the car (if I recollect correctly and that’s a big if).

My little sister had rushed past me at the same time, somehow miraculously escaping the gunman’s notice. I remember her as a blur, going past me. I clutched the phone in my hand.

My sister’s been shot!” I screamed at the dispatcher.

My dad was yelling “oh my god, oh my god.”

Screaming and loud popping alternately traded off, echoing, echoing, echoing.

I was babbling to the dispatcher. My mind wanted to fly into the stratosphere, and I was hysterical. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” I said. But she had asked me where I was, so I pulled myself into the moment and described clear directions to our location.

The sounds started moving away, blessedly away. A silence that was not silent drifted down on us. Screaming was still coming from all directions, but everything felt chillingly, disturbingly still.

In the silence I heard my dad saying to Rachel, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you honey, I’m so sorry.”

It was then I saw my twin sister, Stephanie, in front of me. She wasn’t moving. She was face down on the carpet in front of the seat.

“Both of my sisters have been shot!” I screamed at the dispatcher.

Suddenly my mom was in front of me, sitting with my twin, cradling her head.

“Can you find an exit wound?” the dispatcher asked. “You need to stop the bleeding.”

There wasn’t any blood, though, except on her face. She’d hit her nose when she fell to the floor. That image is seared into my brain – my twin’s face, as if she were asleep, peaceful. But blood ran down from her nose. I wished to God she was just sleeping.

There was a small hole in the back of her yellow coat but that was all we could find. The dispatcher kept telling me, “You need to find an exit wound.”

My mom was saying, “I can’t find an exit wound, I can’t find an exit wound.” She was crying, hysterical as I was. We looked and looked, not finding anything. My mom carefully turned my sister over. Still nothing. My twin’s brown hair flopped around her face, limp.

I got frustrated. “Here,” I shoved my scarf at her. “Put this on the wound!” I yelled at her. There was no wound to put it on but I had to do something for God’s sake. I felt helpless, standing by on the phone with hands full.

“I think she’s gone, I think she’s gone,” my mom said, half weeping. I blocked it away. I couldn’t deal with that yet. She asked me to get her keys and anointing oil from the front seat, so I got out and leaned in the passenger door to get it from her purse. I cut my left palm on the glass that lay on the passenger seat from the shattered windshield.

The dispatcher told me “Emergency crews are on the way. You need to look for them, let me know when they arrive.” I saw a white truck from the fire department driving towards us and as I went to wave him down, I passed Rachel laying on the pavement.

I can’t describe to you anything worse than what her face looked like at that moment. I felt like all the breath had been ripped out of my body. She was mumbling something as I walked by. She wore a shirt that had a sunset on it; I didn’t remember this until 4 years later. It’s oddly ironic to me now. Her face was gray and blue as twilight, horrific death was there. Everything inside of me was sinking like an iron ball in the ocean. There are not enough metaphors in the world to describe to you the depth of agony and despair that I felt.

My arms waved slowly at the rescue truck. “Over here! Over here!” I called. My voice sounded reedy and thin, even to me… hopeless, because hope was draining out of my body. “Emergency crews are here now,” I told the dispatcher. “Okay,” she said, and we disconnected. The man pulled his truck over with a screech and ran toward us. He ran past me, not realizing how intimately I was connected to the situation, focused on getting to the van where my sisters were.

At that moment other people showed up and someone grabbed me. “The shooter is coming back!” he yelled, and my sister Grace and I were dragged to a nearby black pickup truck, where we cowered in the front seat. Two boys sat in the back seat, staring at us. One said something to me, I don’t remember what. “Those are my sisters,” I babbled at him. I had lost myself by this point. I dialed my boyfriend’s number on the cell phone still in my hand. Voicemail. Unintelligible words spilled out onto the blank message. I disconnected the call. “Breathe,” I told myself, out loud. “Just breathe.” I tried. I rocked back and forth, trying to calm myself. My teeth were chattering. My little sister Grace sat across from me, dazed and in a similar condition to mine.

I dialed again, this time my boyfriend’s dad’s number. His mom answered. Words rushed out of my mouth. “My sisters have been shot!” I screamed into the phone. “Oh my god. Are you okay? What hospital are they taking them to?” I had no idea. There was an ambulance there now but I was disconnected from them, hiding in this truck. “I don’t know. I’ll call you when I know.” She agreed. I disconnected the call.

We realized the shooter wasn’t coming back and got out of the truck. I started wandering back towards the van, feeling detached, out of my body. An ambulance was there, and EMTs were everywhere. With my dad. With Rachel. They loaded her up into the ambulance. The siren blasted loud and eerie through the parking lot.

A police officer grabbed me and said, “Go into the Tent.” (This was the nearest building to our location, a tent-like structure used by the church for smaller events) My then-best friend had called me to see if I was okay. I told her what was going on. The police officer, frustrated, grabbed me by the collar and dragged me toward the building, intent on getting me out of harm’s way. My mom was next to me again, crying hysterically. My sister Grace was a shadow beside me.

My call with my best friend was interrupted when my boyfriend called. I told her goodbye and spoke to my boyfriend. We were in the lobby, near a collection of standing tables. Someone threw a pile of coats underneath and I crawled up on the coats and curled into a fetal position. I didn’t want to move. My mom was saying, “I think she’s gone, I think she’s gone…” and crying. “Ugh,” I thought. “SHUT UP.”

On the phone with my boyfriend, I was pleading, pleading, pleading. “Please come now. I need you,” I said.

“I don’t know if anyone is going down yet,” he said. I could feel his hesitation. A part of me thought, “What? This isn’t supposed to be how it works. He’s supposed to say I love you. I’ll be there right away.” But he didn’t. He kept stalling. I kept begging. “Please J—-, I need you. Please come now.”

Finally the words came through the phone. “Okay. I’m coming. R– is going to drive me down to meet my dad.”

Somehow, we moved into the tiny auditorium in the building. People still thought the shooter would return and police tried to shuffle everyone into the auditorium to be safe. (I don’t know how they thought this was safe) My mom, my sister Grace and I all sat down at a table. I was on the phone. My mom, a coat draped around her shoulders, was talking to a woman who had appeared. Grace was crying and talking to another woman who had come to the table and knelt down next to her. I crouched, bent in half, on the phone with my boyfriend. My mom was explaining to the woman what had happened. “I think she’s dead, I think she’s dead,” my mom babbled. I turned away and plugged my ears so I couldn’t hear those awful words.

“My mom keeps saying my sister is dead and I can’t deal with that right now,” I told my boyfriend. “You need a Bible,” he said to me. “Get someone to give you a Bible.” I lifted my head and asked for a Bible. Someone brought me one, and I turned to Psalm 91, the only thing I could think of to read. I read it out loud, twice, because I couldn’t concentrate on it if I read it silently. After I finished the last verse, I suddenly began singing.

Jesus loves me, this I know…

I was terrified and hysterical. It was the only truth I could think of to hold onto.

Just after I’d stopped singing, I got another phone call, from the man who’d led my DTS team the year before. I answered and he asked if I was okay, if my family was ok. I could barely force out the words, “No, it’s us.”

“Oh my god. I’m coming right now,” he said.

Right around then, someone found us and realized who we were. The pastor came up. Another friend I’d known since the summer, J—, saw me at just the moment when the pastor pulled everyone in to pray. He came up to me and wrapped me in a big hug, and I didn’t want to move. I’ll never forget his face; the sadness, the pain. The pastor prayed. And when he finished, finally someone went to find out which hospital my sisters had gone to. My boyfriend still waited on the phone.

Someone told us that the shooter had committed suicide. I felt an extreme relief. All I had wanted was for someone to STOP HIM. My body relaxed just a little in overwhelming gratitude.

A policeman came over and I explained that a friend was coming to find me and they NEEDED to let him through. A few minutes later, G– appeared. “G– is here, hang on a minute,” I told my boyfriend, and G– wrapped me up in a huge hug and didn’t let go. I was wishing he wouldn’t, all I wanted to do was be held at that moment, because I was shattered into pieces inside.

I told my boyfriend I was going to get off the phone now because G– had arrived. So I disconnected. We sat for a few minutes waiting while they got a van to take us to the hospital. They told us where Rachel had been taken, but not where my twin, Stephanie, was. No one seemed to know, or they were keeping it to themselves. Finally, we all piled into a church van. G– came along in the van, and I was grateful, I needed someone there. I sat in the back next to my mom as we drove.

We were at the light at the Fillmore and I-25 exit, just before arriving at the hospital. I was looking at the sky, and it was in that golden hour just before sunset. And I saw Stephanie – my beloved twin sister – and she was with God. She was smiling.

I knew she was gone.

——

To continue reading, go to Part 3. 

The Unwinding Cable Car (Or – The Day My Sisters Died, Part 1)

I have told this story over and over, sometimes to an audience of one, and sometimes to the audience of the world. Although if you asked, I couldn’t tell you what words I stumbled over in the Good Morning America interview only 2 weeks after my sisters died. I remember I was wearing a yellow shirt and looked terribly unkempt. But that’s really about it. I got extremely used to telling the story but I haven’t told it in awhile now. I’ve tried to reconnect with the emotions, and to not just tell it as a line of events that happened.

So as I unfold this to you, I have an ache that sits in the center of my stomach.

“Emotive, unstable
You’re like an unwinding cable car…”
Anberlin

December 9, 2007 dawned clear, cold, and to the surprise of my family: sunny. We were living in Denver in a teeny tiny apartment, and were driving an hour away for church on Sunday mornings. This was a Sunday morning, but there had been a ferocious winter snow storm the night before. My dad debated making the drive. In the end, it was decided; we would go to church.

That week had been a rollercoaster for me. Two of my coworkers had asked me to cover shifts due to family emergencies. I had worked more than my normal amount of hours for the week and I was exhausted. Furthermore, my boyfriend had recently disclosed some distressing news to me that I was still grappling with. Due to this news, I had even asked my manager for extra work. I was trying to forget what my boyfriend had told me. I was angry, and I wasn’t sure if I should stay with him, or leave.

My sister Rachel, having overheard the conversation a few nights earlier, gave me a note when she came into my work one morning:

“Philippians 4:6-7: Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

She never told me how much or what she heard during my conversation with my boyfriend. But when she gave me that note, I knew that she knew. The note was so uncharacteristic of her. And I needed nothing more than those words at that moment.

So Sunday morning, after the snowstorm, us girls piled into our family van and we took off for church. We each did our various zone-out activities for the hour long ride. I am sure I was listening to my Ipod. That was my go-to activity. When we were about halfway there, I had a sudden idea and leaned forward. “Rach, there’s an Anberlin concert in Denver tonight. We should ask Mom to take us!”

She got excited. “Yeah we totally should!”

“Okay, we’ll talk to her after church,” I said. We were both excited at the impromptu idea of going to see one of our new favorite bands. We had different favorite songs, but the same taste in music. While she liked Set Fire to the Third Bar by Snow Patrol, I was a fan of It’s Beginning to Get to Me. While I liked The Unwinding Cable Car by Anberlin, she liked Alexithymia.

It was when we had arrived at church that I heard about the shooting. I overheard my parents talking about the news. “What are you talking about, Dad?”

“Oh, you didn’t hear? There was a shooting up at the YWAM base in Arvada.”

“WHAT? I have a friend there!!!” My dad looked shocked. I felt frantic. I immediately sent out texts and tried to call our mutual friends. Mutual friends of hers were calling me to try and find information. I ran out to the lobby for a few minutes trying to get ahold of people. In the middle of this I called my boyfriend who was snowboarding up in Breckenridge that day.

I just feel guilty, you know? Like I should have prayed more last night or something. I feel really bad. I was so selfish last night, so stuck in my own head.

He tried to reassure me but I couldn’t shake the idea that I could have prevented it somehow with my prayers. I went back into the service where worship was halfway through and joined Rachel up near the front, with the other young people who worshiped in front of the altar. Right about then, I received a message telling me that my friend was safe. Relieved, I tried to lose myself in the service.

Dr. Jack Hayford was preaching that day and he talked about the wise men and the gifts they brought Jesus. He talked about having an open heart to God during the Christmas season. About giving our most precious gift to Christ. Unaware that those words would become like hot cattle brands later, I jotted down notes furiously. I was always quite studious during Sunday sermons.

After the sermon, my dad went to talk to the missions pastor at our church. My dad is quite the talker, so we were in the huge sanctuary until it emptied out. It was almost 1pm when my dad finally said, “Okay, well, let’s go.”

We walked down the long hallway towards the end of the church, and our car. Looking back, that hallway is now reminiscent of another hallway… the hallway between the hospital and the hospice where my Grandpa died. It was a hallway I used to call to myself “the hallway of death” due to its stark white walls.

My mom usually stopped at the restroom, but today we were eager to leave after staying so long. We discussed where to go for lunch. To avoid a fight, I agreed with the decision to go to a local burger place. I didn’t feel like burgers, but our fights over where to eat were notorious in my family, and I didn’t feel like making a big deal out of it.

As we were heading out of the building, we saw a long-time friend whose car was parked near ours. We exchanged hellos. The sun was shining in a stark blue sky; snow and slush were still covering the huge parking lot. Everything was so quietly normal.

My sisters and I piled into the back of our white minivan. All of us were in except Rachel, who had stopped to get something out of her purse. At that moment, I thought I heard a balloon pop. Or maybe it was the tire exploding? “What was that?” I asked. That was when the screaming started.

To continue reading, go to Part 2 and Part 3.