Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Guest Post: Picking Up The Pieces

Earlier this year Chup and I had the opportunity to visit Youth Village, a home for severely abused children. After I posted about our visit here, Lynsey commented about her time as a "family teacher" in a Youth Village home. I asked her if she would be interested in writing about her experience--specifically how she found and maintains personal boundaries. This essay has been very enlightening to read for both Chup and me, I hope it will help you too. Thank you Lynsey!

Picking up the Pieces: 
A Story About Boundaries and Love
by Lynsey Steadman Strader

In 2007 I was living in North Carolina with my husband Ben and our two-year old son, managing a Group Home for teenagers with various mental health diagnoses.  We spent 2 weeks being trained and warned about what we would encounter during our year as “Family Teachers.”

We were not prepared.

Two weeks into the job, I watched as a raging 16-year-old boy stood on the kitchen counter and sent every glass dish crashing to the floor.  He moved through the house, throwing books off the shelves, overturning couches, yelling and cursing.  Then he picked up a fork and scraped it down his arm repeatedly until blood was drawn while sitting on the couch as I taught our Family Home Evening lesson to the other kids.

That night ended with over $5,000 of damage. In addition to the shattered glassware, several holes were punched in walls, glass doors were broken and the company van had half of a large expletive scratched in it before my husband finally had to restrain him while the police were called.  When he threatened to kill Ben in front of them, he was handcuffed and taken to jail.  

He returned to the home the next day.

To say I struggled in this job would be an understatement.  I was born a peacemaker who shied away from confrontation. Living inside this home triggered my anxiety that manifested as insomnia, constantly feeling on-edge, and terrifying nightmares.  I felt like I was suffocating in the chaos of screaming kids, broken walls, and shattered dishes.

Though the first few months at the group home were traumatic, they were integral in altering the course of my life. It was the first time I realized the importance of having boundaries in relationships.  

Learning how to simultaneously keep boundaries and show love was challenging.  I felt I was given a gift from God that allowed me to strip away the troubled layers, seeing them as His wounded and broken sons and daughters, but it left my heart open -- raw and easily accessible for them to continually break it.  It was difficult to not internalize their tragic beginnings and not allow it to excuse their present behavior.  

To protect myself, I needed to share only pieces of my heart but, at the time, I didn’t know how. I vacillated between loving them so much it hurt and forcing myself to shut down, watching their self-destruction from the sidelines. 

Through trial, error, and time spent on my knees conversing with God, I learned with each "no" I said and each boundary I set, my skin grew thicker.  The kids knew what to expect, and the boundaries set up the ability for me to emotionally remove myself when needed. 

When our contract ended, the choice to leave was both heart wrenching and exhilarating.  As we settled into our post-group home life, I could breathe deeply and found sleep again.  Yet, my struggles with boundaries were not over.  I noticed parallels between relationships in my life and relationships with the teenagers.  I kept many people at arms-length because when I truly loved someone, it didn’t matter whether they were in a healthy place or not, I gave them my whole heart and they often took advantage of it.  When I had had enough, I walked myself through the doors of therapy.  I knew what was wrong; I just didn’t know how to fix it.  

In therapy I was taught this truth:  Boundaries = Self-Worth.

I had previously lived in a world of relationships without boundaries.  I avoided confrontation because I was afraid of hurting others, or worse, making them angry, convincing myself that I was being humble and Christ-like by "keeping the peace". I apologized for my emotions, for things I had or hadn't done.  The truth is, by allowing others to treat me in ways that were damaging, I wasn’t only telling them I deserved it, I was telling myself I deserved it.  The treatment I accepted was equivalent to what I thought I was worth.  These patterns were all I had known.  How was I going to start over from scratch? Who was I without them? 

In therapy, I learned to recognize and create healthy relationships.  It was not an easy process, and at times it felt like I was extracting a limb from my body.  I wrote lists of characteristics I imagined existed in healthy relationships... things I was learning I deserved... things I needed to not only receive, but would also be willing to give.  I wrote the steps I would take when someone crossed the line from healthy behaviors to unhealthy. 

My therapist warned me that as I started putting these boundaries into practice, the unhealthy relationships in my life would struggle.   She was right.  The individuals with whom I shared these sorts of relationships reacted with swift anger, cruel words and a constant questioning of my intentions.  I had to remind myself that allowing others to encroach on these boundaries was not showing love for them, it was showing a lack of love for myself.

My goal was to be able to live a life of emotional integrity and to truly know who I was deep down inside. I wanted to find and master the ability to stand in a room with any individual, set my own boundaries, and not allow their choices, actions or words to sway my opinion of myself. It was also important, in learning to set boundaries, that I retain the gift I felt I had been given to see past someone's troubled layers and love them unconditionally…to be able to stand up for myself while continuing to hold on to the soft parts I possessed. I wanted to find the balance.

As part of this process, I needed to clarify my personal spiritual beliefs. I had been born into a religion that was integrated and sewn into every aspect of my life. I needed to understand where religion ended and God began.  For several months I focused solely on finding my personal relationship to Divinity.

I discovered there is a fine line between guilt and shame. When I made a mistake, I felt unforgivable.  My relationship with God mirrored the relationships in my life, based on fear and guilt, feeling that I would never be able to measure up to His standards.  I realized I was taking my own feelings of self-loathing and projecting them onto God.  If I didn’t love myself or feel worthy of forgiveness, how could I expect those things from Him?

I gave myself a challenge, saying the same prayer for 30 days.  ‘Please help me to know your love, to feel it, see it and recognize it.  Help me to see me the way you see me.’  I knew I would have to work to find an answer to this prayer.  I committed to taking time to care for myself every day.  I did affirmations daily and somewhere along the way, I began to believe them.

And I promised God that I would make a conscious effort to seek Him.  

I began to see how much He loves me, and how much He always has. It became clear when I opened my eyes and finally focused on the good of His love. The good in the times I was offered friendship, kindness, forgiveness, understanding and mercy.  The good when I discovered that His love for me was reflected in the unconditional love from my children, and in the way that I loved them.  I began to see how my feelings for them paralleled His for me. Their weaknesses, strengths, perfections and imperfections became more acute and my heart was full of adoration for them, not in spite of their shortcomings, but because of them.  In those sacred moments, I could see my children for who they really are and my spirit resonated with this whispered truth: “This is exactly how He feels about you."

One step at a time, one day at a time, the broken cracks in my soul began to heal.  Fear and shame were relinquished from my relationship with God.  Spirituality and religion came together, merging easily.  As I implemented new boundaries, the unhealthy relationships in my life fell away, while the relationships that were based on love were strengthened. 

I think back on those frightening, life-changing moments, living among broken furniture and shattered glass in the Group Home and I now feel grateful. That year led me to seek out and claim a measure of peace and love for myself that had not existed before. While I’m not finished, I know I’m now on the right path.  And that, for me, is enough.