I remarried and added the challenge of blending a family to the mix of life, in yet another new city, St. Louis. I felt that I was making more deliberate life choices to create a world and situation where my family and I could not just survive, but thrive. I had started seeing a therapist and got medication, which helped. I had finally found a path for healing the chronic pain, anxiety and depression I dealt with.
I had a good, new life and marriage, but was still being followed by shame for the failing of my first marriage, and guilt for my children growing up with divorced parents. That caused me to feel further separated from God than ever before. I knew I was out of alignment in my relationship with Him because of that divide, even as I was building a better life. I was so giddy about making my choices, I did it without listening. I didn't realize then that the definition of sin IS separation from God. What I did know was that I had to find my way back.
Shame and guilt are shapeshifters like the monster in a nightmare where we can't run from the faceless thing gaining from behind . The monster will follow us until we deal with it head on and stop running scared. Acceptance of our circumstances, and being forgiven for our past is the only way to expose the monster- I know that now. I had been running from it for so long. I needed to look my personal monster and shapeshifter in the eyes and let him know I was not running, from anything, anymore.
We all know the mind and body are intricately and delicately connected, that even our cells have the capacity to hold onto trauma, sadness, violence, betrayal, shame, guilt and anger. But sometimes we forget that we have the choice to calm our physiological stress through prayer, creativity, exercise, therapy, etc. - every single day. First we have to stop running, turn on the light, and face the monster chasing us so that we don't stay trapped in the nightmare, paralyzed.
We can do this the hard way by exhausting ourselves from running too long, or the easy way, deciding to make better choices for our mind and bodies . I was going to learn this one the hard way.
On Friday, February 21st 2013, a snow day, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, I had just turned 41. My first mammogram at 39.5 was clear. I had noticed getting out of the shower one day that my nipple was turned in a tiny bit. I went in had a mammogram, got called back, they did a biopsy of my breast cells and lymph notes and found cancer in both. 1.8 centimenters, estrogen positive.
I actually wanted to kill the messenger. I argued with the nurse practitioner who called me, telling her it had to be a mistake, no one in my family had it, I had turned 41 a month before, no risk factors- NO! What??? She just repeated that it was treatable and to make myself a hot cup of tea and call the doctor Monday.
I told her I would need something stronger than that, but thanks a lot.
After my first visit with the oncologist, hearing about hair, chemo, radiation, lumpectomy or mastectomy, etc., I sat in my car sobbing talking to God out loud and telling him that I understood that this was punishment for the life I had taken for granted, messed up, and tried to control without him. It had been years of not acknowledging my truth and not understanding how God could come into my life in a real way to help or guide me. It was almost a relief that I was being punished for all of the things I saw as stupidity and recklessness in my life.
But then there is that moment. The moment when everything- past present and future- in your life crystalizes in front of your eyes. I had some enormous cracks in my shell going into that moment, but they weren't enough.
I had to break, and break hard. I had so many layers of defenses built up to protect me that no matter how many cracks I had from running into the same walls over and over, I wasn't going to break until the moment I was supposed to.
So I watched as my life seemed to shatter in front of me, and I had no choice but to let my grip loosen and allow the pieces to fall. Something in that was almost as liberating as it was terrifying.
I had been holding my little wobbly world full of cracks together- frantically gluing the pieces that fell off- until my cancer diagnosis. Strangely, in that moment, after years of not being able to hear God's voice or feel worthy of his love, I heard him in a real way.
I broke open and and released it all right smack in front of Him, gripping the steering wheel, allowing the pent up stuff of my soul to flow out then and there behind fogged up windows as life went on around me.
As I was trying to catch my breath in the car on that cold, February day, He let me know very clearly one thing- that this was NOT his divine punishment.
That he LOVED me, - with a love I didn't understand until that moment- in my most broken, sick, ruined and ugly state; and that he would hold me and help me piece myself back together... and that I was forgiven. Even though I was just starting treatment, It was over, he had this, and I could rest in that knowledge.
I was the prodigal daughter who didn't deserve forgiveness, but my father welcomed me home with open arms.
Jesus gave me a talking to that day and let me in on what real, living Grace looks like. A profound lesson that has never left my heart and every day since then, I have known that my truest, most intimate longing is to know him more fully.
I got through a year of treatment, radiation, surgery, and all of it's mental and physical battering. I realized how to accept help from my friends, feeling immense gratitude instead of guilt like I once would have. I learned to appreciate each day, each bit of strength, each hair, and even my scars. Inside and out, my scars tell my story, and I wouldn't be who I am without them. I will be 8 years out in February.
I am most definitely a work in progress, still a hot mess, but I try to look at my life like painting- attempting not to judge when I screw up, but observing that I, as well as the people around me have room for growth. I would say I am at peace with who I am now and I am listening to God and writing the narrative for my own life with him. He gave me grace and I owe him everything. Whatever I do from here for whatever length of time, is because of that.
Painting for me is prayer. It is the place I connect with God and know myself the best. What spills out onto the paper are the depths of my soul's struggles, the height of it's peaks and everything in between. The beauty and tragedy of life gives, and takes, from all of us.
I feel that connection between us when I am painting.
The wish for my painting and for my life is that I can be used to capture a glimpse of the human spirit and beauty that exists all around us. That I can help others to get in touch with what they love- to see a painting, or make a painting, that speaks to them and helps them create a sacred space all their own.. And always, always, to extend to others the Grace that saved me from myself.
With Love and Gratitude- Gretchen