Smells are the worst…and the best!

woman wearing sun hat smelling yellow rose

Airplanes, buses, crowded waiting rooms, and other places where I might have to sit close enough to people to smell the garlic in their teeth from the salad dressing they ate for lunch (sometimes the day prior), yes–those confined public places are the worst for me. Because half a lifetime of traumatic experiences left me with a sense of smell so heightened my husband teases me that if things go south at our business, I could always get a job working alongside police dogs.

I frequently need to open windows at work, in car rides, or at home, to get rid of smells which are overwhelming me. My husband once came home from a Bible study event smelling like strange cologne that I knew was deifnitely NOT his cologne. He’d simply sat next to a man who was wearing cologne that evening, hadn’t hugged him, just sat there beside him…which is why “How in the world did you smell that?” is a frequent expression around our house.

This super-sniffer-power of mine makes life interesting. I’ve learned to travel with several scarves, and I spray them with a scent that I find calming before traveling, particularly on airplanes. If it gets too bad, I just wrap a scarf around my neck and breathe into it and go somewhere else in my mind. The scarf trick has saved me a few times. A flight from LA to Minneapolis once had me beside a musician (his carry-on was a guitar) with an exploding human head tattooed on his forearm, a green army jacket with grime on the sleeves, and the smell of hangover-vomit and weed on his skin. When he fell asleep with his mouth open I noticed, from the air drifts finding my nose, that he hadn’t brushed his teeth either that morning–after clearly vomiting bad food and booze from the prior day. And there was even a seat between us.

That was a long flight.

Thankfully, I had a scarf wrapped around my face to mitigate some of it.

When the PTSD was at its worst, smells were also the worst. They triggered such horrific memories. The smell of pickles on someone’s breath. The smell of hard boiled eggs, after a few days in the fridge.

On the flip side: as with a few things ‘anxiety disorder related’, there are some really great benefits to this super-power-nose of mine. Certain smells are instantly calming for me. Lavender. Bananas. Roses (but NOT rose-water: ICK). Lemons. Grapefruit. Peonies. A tiny bit of fresh eucalyptus (but not dried and not too much fresh or that has the opposite effect). The smell after it rains. Basil. Bread baking, cake baking, (anything baking really), cinnamon, apples, and all sorts of bath products (except the ones I can’t stand). Bitter cold winter days, when my nostrils nearly freeze shut and the line is so hidden on the thermometer that nothing harmful, or beneficial, could still live in the air.

That kind of sterile cold is the cleanest and best smell ever. It’s something only northerly dwellers might understand. Though I dislike being cold, when the temperature dips like that, the scent of that frigid air is divine. Almost as good as when a cultivated field starts to thaw in farm country and you can literally smell ‘earth’ floating on particles in the air. And so while scents can be triggers–they can also be great grounding and calming tools. The right ones instantly lift my mood and bring me peace. Smells add a richness to my life, and writing, that I am not sure others (who haven’t had trauma heighten their senses) experience.

A good nose is even quite beneficial at times.

I have smelled cooking fires before they started. Propane leaking from tanks before anyone else. Smelled rotten meat and other foods before eating it or feeding it to others…known exactly how many drinks my rebellious teenaged children, or younger mentees at work, had the night prior, (before they could dare lie to me).

Which is the point of it all. When the body is in heightened response to a threat, the senses are all heightened as well, to keep you alive and out of danger. So you may not see the danger yet but you can sure smell something being ‘off’.

Even though my stress levels have come down and I’m not being triggered into fight, flight, (or freeze) responses as much anymore, the heightened sense of smell is there. I’m accepting that it is just part of what makes me, me.

I took a walk with a girlfriend the other day. She has elevated stress symptoms due to a lot of traumatic things happening to her in recent years. She was told by her doctor that she has ‘anxiety’. After we took off from the parking lot, the first thing I did was insist that we slow down and go for a stroll instead of a power walk. She responded almost immediately to the slower pace as I saw her facial features relax into a beautiful smile. And I asked her what she smelled; because I smelled such a strong scent from the pine trees that surely must be up ahead around the corner we were about to make on the park’s path.

She replied, “Ooh, ooh, I smell chickens, like the fall air is lifting up the scent of chicken feathers into my nose… but there’s something else too, mixed in…”

I prodded, “Do you smell the pine trees?”

“Yes, that’s what it was, I knew there was something else!!”

We rounded the corner and saw several free-range chickens coming out of the shade of three pine trees.

Yup. She’s had her share of fight, flight, and freeze responses. Unfortunately, her nose may be elevating her stress levels even more, for the time being.

But I assured her, that if she starts listening to her self and uses scents to calm and heal as well: then her nose is going to help get her out of it, too.

Songs, Psalms, George Jones & Sister Sinead (O’Connor)

The buried truth was so strong and it needed air so badly that it was music which snuck behind all my defenses and fed it.

silver colored microphone
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Each morning I (try to) read the daily Oswald Chambers devotion, which is a classic Christian devotion book and is also found online (utmost.org). This year my husband and I both decided to (try to) read through the Bible in a year, by using the reading plan found at the bottom of the utmost.org daily devotion. Having it online and laid out so concisely makes it easier to (try to) stay devoted.

In accordance to that plan, I’ve been reading through The Book of Psalms since July 11th. And today, again, September 3rd, there were more: Psalm 140-142. I knew that psalms had to do with singing/songs/worship. But I hadn’t known how long it would take to read through The Book of Psalms on a reading plan, or how doing so might affect me. I am starting to understand how big of a role music plays in our relationship with God, and in healing the brokenness of that relationship.

If you have been following along, here, you will see that I reference songs often. I think reading Psalms each morning has had a lot to do with this focus.

My husband is a Country Music fan. The old school stuff. Not necessarily the newer artists (although he finds some he likes there too). George Jones. Johnny Cash. Kris Kristofferson. When we first met I was leery of his taste in music. My peer group at the time liked  80’s rock music. Skid Row. White Snake. Def Leppard.

Still stuck in an abusive home at the time; I didn’t know how to have my own likes and dislikes. I liked what my friends liked, thinking that would make them like me. After quickly falling in love, I switched loyalties and started to like the style of music my husband (boyfriend at the time) liked.

Things changed as I aged. I started deciding on things for myself. Like music. Hairstyles. Clothing choices. And how I wanted to worship God.

Then I got sick from PTSD and things changed further. Crawling back out of that hole was nearly impossible. Being told by therapists that I was choosing to feel anxious ticked me off further. Who would CHOOSE this? When I am flared, in fight or flight, I do not feel like I have those (choices). It feels like everything is just happening on its own and like my life is completely out of my own control.

“You are choosing to feel shame.”

“You are choosing to get angry.”

“You are choosing not to trust your husband.”

These were things I heard in therapy. I wanted to scream back, “Well where was my choice when I was molested by so many family members?”

But I also wanted to be able to go to the grocery store by myself again; without sitting in the car beforehand in a panic.

And so I listened to my therapists and started changing the way I was thinking. What choice did I have at that point? Not many.

In time I saw the truth in what they were saying. I started to listen, and put it into action. My mind was filled with a back and forth between my therapists voice: You are choosing to feel shame. You are choosing to get angry. That was compounded by the melancholy twain of George Jones lamenting, “I’m living and dying with the choices I made.” (My husband loves the George Jones song, choices, and so that song has played on repeat in my head during my recovery.)

OK. I get it. I make my own choices. But that’s scary, as I was never allowed that as a child; when most people learn how to do that for themselves in the safety of a loving environment. And I’m still mad about what happened to me.

Then things started to click. And change.

I ‘got’ why I had been drawn to certain songs in my years of outright denial of past abuse.

Certain songs had spoken to my inner angst.

The song Amen by Kid Rock was one that I used to listen to over and over; volume on high. That was years before I ‘owned’ that I was a victim of clergy sexual abuse myself. The lines ‘wolves in sheep clothes pastors’ and ‘I’m scared to send my children to church‘ sent oxygen to the fire, which needed to rage, inside of me.

After I’d reverted to being a teenager, listening to music for hours on end, at way too loud of a volume, I tried to be an adult again. And I kept trying to put that fire out and do the expected things with my life.

But the buried truth was so strong and it needed air so badly that it was music which snuck behind all my defenses and fed it.

Now I don’t feel as much connection to the song Amen by Kid Rock. Because he uses God’s name in vain. At the time, it felt good to let myself vicariously blast out anger by using God’s name in vain too. It doesn’t anymore. It’s the opposite for me these days.

Other songs still mean a lot to me though. Even they, are now fading as I recover further.

Kris Kristofferson put out an album a few years back that I ended up outright stealing from my husbands stack of beloved cd’s.  I would spend hours listening to it and I especially loved the song Sister Sinead. The song is in reference to the infamous moment when Sinead O’Connor ripped up the picture of the pope (on live TV).

“…She told them her truth just as hard as she could..her message profoundly was misunderstood…and humans responded all over the world, condemning that bald-headed, brave little girl.”

“Maybe she’s crazy and maybe she ain’t. But so was Picasso and so were the saints.”

I related to that song on such a deep level. Hearing Sinead O’Connor share recently about her own childhood abuse breaks my heart and I pray that she is finding healing for her own past traumas. It is also sobering to know that when people are given a public platform, before they have healed from their own past, it often doesn’t end well.

After I opened up about being a victim of sexual abuse (and that one abuser was a minister), I understood why I had always connected with the Sister Sinead song. The song honors the rage that victims feel over their own child abuse. She stood on a very public stage and spoke out against the sexual abuse of children in a church setting. Long before the big movements have made such things a bit easier. Except her public venting of that rage just seemed to make everything worse for her. And she still doesn’t seem to have coped with her own past very successfully.

In contrast, I am thankful that God allowed me to rage, through music and to private mentors and people who showed great patience with me, so that any public outbursts which tempted me didn’t lead to even further destruction of…me. I pray it may be that way for others. That we may avoid the public stages which beckon us to shout, and instead find quieter but still effective ways to deal with our rage, on our journey toward forgiveness and healing.

For me: music helped. Even before I realized it was helping!

Just like you can flip the Bible open and will likely land on a psalm (song)…if you flipped open my life, you would see that music and words and lyrics, of many stripes and styles, is also right there in the middle of my journey… of making choices; and choosing truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caribou & Creativity

white ceramic cup with brown liquid on brown wooden table
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I like to write in public; sometimes. Writing at Caribou (not the animal: the coffee shop) is my favorite. Here in Middle America we can be territorial about our Caribou Coffee shops. This tribal quality can be heard in expressions like : “Their coffee isn’t bitter; like Starbucks.” “Their mints and mugs and drink-ware are waaaay better than Starbucks.” “The atmosphere is superior to Starbucks.” And… “They were founded in Minnah-Sota! Don-cha know!?”

We are suspicious of coastal trends. However, if Minnesotans want to over charge us for hot water over dried beans, we are not only good with it–we gladly support our own. As for me I am still avoiding caffeine and stick to their peppermint tea. So coffee aside, Caribou Coffee had me at their chalkboards.

Each day an employee writes a new question, like ‘what motivates you?’ Or ‘who is someone you find inspiring’? Or ‘what do you like most about school starting up again?’ and they invite their customers to write out their thoughts in colored chalk all around the question. I love to read what others have written while waiting for my tea. I love to see when someone gets creative with the chalk and lettering, making the entire board into a work of art. I love to respond myself (if my reply isn’t already taken). And my phone has snapped photos of some memorable responses. There are even Caribou Coffee Chalkboards on Pinterest. You come in alone but you read the chalkboard and become part of a community with everyone who bothered to pick up the chalk that day. It doesn’t get more hometown than that.

On a typical afternoon there are the regulars. (A group of retired men who huddle for hours on the leather chairs by the fireplace). There are people conducting business transactions or launching new ventures. There are women meeting to visit and pray. There is a familiar man in a scruffy sweatshirt who might be homeless. I once watched an employee bring him free food samples. I’ve even seen young men studying the Bible and preparing sermon notes.

The parking lot is overflowing. The drive-thru never lets up. The blender mixing frappes is just loud and frequent enough to prevent constant eavesdropping, fostering a feeling of public privacy.

It is popular, faith-filled, and creative. It smells lovely. People are very friendly. It is Middle America and so we do nice very well here. Yet when I catch the eye of someone I think I might know, or who thinks they might know me — their eye goes to my open laptop just as mine return there too. They might nod but they rarely invade with a brief hello. Boundaries are respected when they perceive you are working. (We have a strong work ethic here).

However…When I’m meeting a girlfriend for a visit we are quite likely to be interrupted several times by people we know. Or by someone who knows someone whom one of us might know in order to talk about another person entirely; who is related to that other person… as see, the poor soul just had a cancer diagnoses…or what have you. It isn’t really gossip. It’s passing along information for prayer and other purposes.

Caribou has become the small town cafe of years gone by. Oh we still have some of those little cafes around town as well. I guess, where I live, a lot of people just like gathering places. And we keep them going by actually gathering there. Often.

I’ve recognized through research and sharing my story, that many people who are abuse survivors are extremely creative. We are also very sensitive to smells and outside stimuli; hence our environments are quite important to us. We waver between periods of reclusiveness and lots of social activity.

I fit all those descriptions.  Usually I like to create and write things alone. With bed head and a bathrobe and strong chamomile tea (which they do not sell at Caribou, but I’m hoping they might start soon). There are other times that I find it necessary to make myself fancy and head to a place where the buzz of energy puts me into a writing zone faster than anything.

And there is definitely a buzz of energy in a room filled with people who are working or surfing or who-knows-what on laptops, amidst a whole bunch of others who appreciate good conversation, religious debates, and/or entrepreneurial ideas (I’ve overheard many business pitches). It is also one of the places that helps me overcome my lingering social anxiety and my great hunger for love and acceptance. I have always felt safe there, even though it is very busy and very public.

As someone who survived many forms of familial abuse, including incest, it goes a bit deeper too. I think that what I appreciate most about taking my computer to Caribou, or meeting a friend there for a leisurely visit and cup of something sweet– is the feeling of ‘place’. It is a welcome feeling after so many years of feeling dis-placed.

“You’re gonna leave a scar on my daughter permanently!”

woman holding baby above head
Photo by Elias de Carvalho on Pexels.com

So this happened recently. A young girl was victimized by a perverted voyeur in a dressing room. Her protective mother then chased him down, made sure he was detained as someone called the cops, and then turned her own camera on the man she had just caught trying to video tape her daughter in a Rue 21 dressing room.

In the video the mom’s shaky voice is pitched high and filled with justified anger. As he sat on the ground awaiting arrest, her words to him are scattered and traumatized but all the more powerful as a result. One of the things she said to the man was, “You’re gonna leave a scar on my daughter permanently!” She lamented (paraphrasing and going by memory) that they were birthday shopping for clothing as her daughter’s twelfth birthday was in two days…and now this. “Now this, is this what she deserves for her twelfth birthday, a pervert trying to grab her legs and film her in a dressing room?!”

The video I linked is not the entire video this mother took. I watched the full length video earlier today. In that video the mom eventually scanned the camera back onto her own face as she asked someone where her cigarettes were, “I really need one.” She is then shown lighting up and smoking.

I was a little surprised as the image in my head (of a protective mother chasing down a pervert) didn’t match this woman’s actual appearance. I was not expecting to see someone with a neck tattoo lighting up a cigarette.

You know how sometimes the ‘radio voice’ doesn’t match the appearance you had imagined in your head?

I know from personal experience that sexual abusers rarely look like the deviant creatures they are inside. Yet I still think I might be able to ‘spot one’ easily enough.  It makes me feel safer, more in control. But I never pondered, until today, the fact that I have a clear notion in my head of what a ‘good’ or protective ‘mom’ looks like. I am embarrassed to admit I harbor such deep presumptions.

And I feel like this is a pivotal moment in my own healing journey. God has done this before. He has used some viral video or story, even popular movies and TV shows, to spur me into deeper layers of onion peeling. I recognized He was trying to show me something key today.

All my life I have always been drawn to stories of sexual abuse. For a long time I would think to myself how tragic they were and how glad I am that such things had never happened to me. The denial of my own story was that strong.

When the PTSD flared, I couldn’t handle seeing those stories. I had to avoid them. Particularly stories like this one wherein mothers had openly defended their daughters. Such accounts triggered a pile of emotions too powerful for me to handle.

Today I was able to view this video and reflect upon it without a rise in any stress symptoms. PRAISE GOD. That’s progress!

My own mother looked the part (that I had created in my head) of a protective mother. She dressed carefully in public and could put on a smile, but it rarely extended to her eyes. She was a career woman and volunteer children’s minister director for thirty plus years at her church. She had a closet full of kitten heel pumps and drawers full of nylons to match her modest church dresses.

She did smoke; though. She hid that fact in bathroom stalls while traveling with other people, (to avoid filling the vehicle with smoke). But she smoked openly in front of me either at home or when we were alone in the car. Something which annoyed me to no end as I hated the smoke and resulting plugged nose. I also saw the tattered clothes and constant scowl mom wore freely around the house. When company came; she changed.

There were two moms. I think the private Mom was a far more intimate glimpse into who she really was than the public one. Privately, mom was checked out. Assuming a posture and attitude which I call ‘playing dead’.

In public Mom tried to teach me to play the same games she did. At an appointment, a doctor turned to Mom and said what a pretty daughter she had. I felt yucky inside. But before my next appointment, Mom advised me to wink and smile extra big at him. Still quite young and not knowing any better, I did just that. On the ride home from the clinic she didn’t light up a cigarette (that was rare) and she kept repeating what the doctor had said to her about me. “Oh, those eyes, that smile, and did you know she actually winked at me today. My heart melted. Such a pretty girl you have!” Mom smiled the rest of the day. A real one that reached her eyes.

I was so confused. Mom was happy, but I felt so weird inside. It had scared me to no end to see that doctor react to my wink and smile as he had. I regretted doing it as soon as it had happened. Thankfully, that was the last appointment I had with him. He moved away and a female doctor replaced him.

When I was nearly twelve, I witnessed a visiting uncle (in his thirties at the time) toss my cousin onto the guest bed and then forcibly remove her clothing. I started screaming, telling him to stop and beating on his back with my fists. I don’t know what he would have done to her had I not walked in. I ran to tell mom what had just happened. My voice was scattered and traumatized, my chest was heaving from trying to catch my breath. I told her that her brother had just taken off all my cousin’s clothes. Mom was standing at the sink, peeling potatoes. She turned to look at me, the familiar dead look in her half-lidded eyes. Her lips scowled. “I told you to just ignore him when he starts teasing you girls.” She turned back to the pile of potatoes.

I believe that in that moment God cried out in horror at my uncle, using similar words that the mother in the linked video did, “You are going to leave a scar on my daughter permanently!”

My uncle had a choice. And Mom had a choice. She could have chosen outrage. She could have taken God’s side. She could have shown the same courtesy she did with strangers and not plugged her own daughter’s nose with the stink of her bad habit. By choosing to ‘play dead’–Mom joined the perpetrators of abuse. She also left a permanent scar on her own daughter.

The scar is fading a bit now. But I still can’t stand being around cigarette smoke.

Feasting in the Presence of Enemies

The 23rdPsalm has been a lifeline for me in my recovery from PTSD and anxiety disorder.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Inevitably the things which make me anxious or fearful are the very things I want to change, as if I were God and knew exactly what needed to go in my life.

I wish my family relationships were healthy; I wish this pain in my neck would go away; I wish I didn’t feel so much fear simply going into the grocery store.

Wishes are basically wants. Saying aloud: the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want prompted me to replace the thoughts above with acceptance, trust, and hope.

I accept that many of my family relationships are not able to be healthy. I have told the truth about past inter-family abuses and those responsible have not responded with truths of their own. That is not my fault, nor something I can control. I accept that I still have trauma effects, some body pain and various symptoms of elevated stress. This is how it is right now. I don’t like it. Yet, I do want to be in this present circumstance because it is what my Lord Jesus has led me to, in this moment. I shall not want it to be any different than it presently is, for I am not God and do not know all the reasons why I am where I am right now.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.

Yes, even in this present circumstance of lingering physical and emotional pain and discomfort; I have been led to green pastures, led to refreshing waters. They are there before me; and they do soothe me.

In the past few years of ongoing recovery I have recited the entire psalm often, to center myself back in Christ. It has been so helpful, for me. Yet, I confess that this was so comforting that sometimes it became more palliative than truly heartfelt. So I have recited the psalm without fully realizing what I was declaring. Particularly this portion:

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Last week it finally hit me; hard.

A long wooden table spread with so many good things. Surrounded by loved ones. Laughter. Gaiety. Openly living. Freely sharing what is in my heart. Not hiding the truth. Not being ashamed of my past; nor my present failures. Because Jesus blood has washed me clean and there I sit white robed at a public place of honor. God’s table.

God’s table.

That He prepared just for me.

That table was not hidden away in an upper room or lit by candles in a darkened cave. It was out in the open; where anyone could view it. The giftings God had poured out for me were in full access to the very people whom the enemy had used to try and destroy them all.

All of which made it ok to live life in the wide open again. To feel joy. To laugh. And to trust.

These days, I’m rarely scared to go to the grocery store. I’ve returned to doing daily living things without even thinking about the fears which once overwhelmed me. But, in other ways, I still want to hide. That revelation about feasting before my enemies changed things. Inside things. Dark crevices of the heart things. It made me want to start sharing my writing again. It made it ok to live life again. To answer the doorbell every time instead of ignoring it sometimes because I have a bit of a headache. To feel joy. To laugh.

To know that all of this is by God’s design is staggering to me. For He is the one who sets the table and overflows it; right there in the presence of our enemies. Openly. In public. Like an original ‘internet’; thousands of years before electricity. It is His pleasure–to put the feast He prepares for us on public display.

Were it by my design, I would have just set the table up right there in the cave, and carefully selected the guest list, and kept near everyone who I didn’t fully trust away from even viewing any of it, let alone being within grabbing distance.

Thankfully; although my pride and fearful need to be in total control sometimes still acts like it— I’m not God.

For more on the subject of feasting before enemies, David Wilkerson has a great essay.

What’s in this?

Ever eaten a gourmet meal which is expertly done, yet something is still missing?  After a bite or two you find yourself desperately looking for a salt shaker? Inevitably, those white-cloth-tables lack salt. And you don’t want to insult the chef by asking.

The truth is complicated for me. I dig into things deeply. I dislike subterfuge and being fooled. Yet I garnished my own story. Denial. It’s how I survived; at first. It was too painful to deconstruct my life. Someone once said : the truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable. I have lived that.

I am a writer. I love the quirky and unique. I am a finder of beauty. A creative soul who adores picking basil from the garden; setting it just-so on top of a platter.

I eat my watermelon sprinkled with salt. Sweet things taste even better, to me, sprinkled in truth. As a writer I want to make sure I’m honoring the simplicity of story. As a servant of Christ I want to make sure I am sharing both grace and truth. That I am being the salt of the earth, and not losing my own saltiness either; just as Jesus commanded. Like sea salt on fresh- sliced, homegrown tomatoes. With or without basil garnish.

I am a survivor of sexual, emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse. I am overcoming the anxiety disorder and PTSD which resulted. I guard my privacy as I continue to heal. I also crave connection, and a place to create and share.

I am watching my grown sons adjust to life on their own as I adjust to life in a quiet house. The refrigerator slowly empties. I cook simply. The other night my husband asked me ‘what’s in this?’ as he scooped a second helping of potatoes onto the serving spoon.

“Just salt.”

“It is really, really good.”

Umm hmm.

Pretense. Overdoing it. For too long, I tried too hard. The unadorned truth-applied with love-is what most of us crave. Like salt on food. Like Jesus preserves His own and His own preserve the world. In an age that’s garnishing everything–pretending evil is good and good is evil–I just want to be a little salt. That’s it.

Just salt.