I grew up in a conspicuous family. I know now that not every head could have turned when we entered a restaurant or school event. But when I was the self-conscious age of twelve, it sure felt like it.
My parents were brave, tenacious, intelligent, generous, compassionate, God-fearing, and physically disabled. They both had cerebral palsy (CP).
My dad had a more spastic version of CP, due to a lack of oxygen to his brain during birth. Eight minutes, I believe. His every appendage was seized up, every joint pulled too taut as if he were strung together by rubber bands that were too short. Before he was wheelchair bound, he walked with great difficulty, an awkward cockeyed gait, and a four-footed cane.
My mom’s CP was caused by blood incompatibility (the Rh factor) between her and her mother. She had some involuntary muscle movement, but she could walk unaided and even drive a car. She also suffered from severe hearing loss caused by an illness and the oil “remedy,” poured into her ears when she was twelve.
My parents met when they both attended the Dowling School for Crippled Children on a bank of the Mississippi. They later rode in the same carpool to Marshall High School and attended the same homeroom for students with special needs. They both graduated from the University of Minnesota—my dad with an accounting degree, my mom with a degree in sociology and library science.
Mom and Dad continued their acquaintance after college, together attending meetings of the Christian League for the Handicapped. My mom went to these gatherings because she loved God and enjoyed the fellowship of other people who understood her struggles. My dad agreed to join her, just because he wanted to get out of the house. Mom picked up Dad, then, on Saturday nights in her blue ’57 Chevy and drove him to the Christian League meetings. My dad loved that car and Mom’s red shoes and talked about both for the rest of his life. He gladly accepted her rides but didn’t accept her faith or make a romantic move. For years. Not until he was thirty-two and she was thirty. But even then, he didn’t really.
My mom finally confronted Dad, explaining that she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life alone, that he was cruel for leading her on as he had, and that she was going to disappear if he didn’t do something quick. Mom also asked her Baptist pastor to talk to Dad about Jesus. Dad converted to Christianity just days before their wedding. Maybe it was initially to appease my mom. But my dad was a man of commitment. And once he gave his life to Jesus, he was going to be a dedicated follower.
Mom and Dad were married at Grace Baptist Church in 1966. They didn’t plan to have one child, let alone two, and they were shocked (terrified?) when I came along in 1969, and even more so when my brother arrived three years later.
They certainly did the best they could though. We were always fed and clothed and cared for. Dad woke up every morning at 5 a.m. to get himself ready for his carpool that took him to his accounting job. We went as a family to Grace Baptist Church every Sunday, where—at the age of eight—I watched A Thief in the Night with the rest of the church. This movie about the Rapture and the End Times terrified me. I had nightmares about being left behind when my parents were taken up in the air to meet Jesus. And for several months I cried and asked Jesus to forgive me and come into my heart—whatever that meant—every single night.
I know now that I was one of the fortunate ones. So many, many children endure far greater stress and pain and loss than I. (My own precious littles included. More about their stories another time.) And many, many children are not given any picture of God—even an inaccurate one.
But I also know that I was raised by broken people in a broken environment. I know now that we all are, of course. Some brokenness, like my parents’ physical limitations, is barefaced. Other brokenness is more covert. But it all has the potential to scar.
Being the daughter and oldest child of two disabled parents meant assuming big responsibilities at a little age. Whether it was vacuuming behind the sofa or coordinating a family holiday event or pulling my little brother’s smoldering mattress (the electric blanket had a short) from his smoke-filled upstairs bedroom and out onto the front yard where my parents watched and the firemen tore it to pieces and extinguished the fire, I had to do anything that Mom and Dad could not.
My dad’s speech was thick and slurred, so—though he was a constant presence in our home—he rarely spoke. I didn’t doubt that he loved me. I just doubted his ability to do much about it. And I never really knew him. I don’t think anyone did.
My mom lived weary and burdened. The world was a challenging place for her to navigate. And life was always too hard. Caring for a more-disabled husband, two busy children, and a house that was always “falling down around her ears” routinely drove her to collapse on our brown plaid sofa, throw her arm over her eyes, and weep. When I found her there each time, my need to fix her and her world was visceral. Her life—and mine—depended on it.
Dr. Karl Lehman (Outsmarting Yourself: Catching Your Past Invading the Present and What to Do about It) defines “trauma” as any painful experience—even fairly minor—if, as a child, you are without anyone who can help you process it successfully. He says, “The resulting toxic content carried in the memories for these experiences [can cause] trouble for many years.”
I know now that this is true. And I continue to uncover just how true it is for me. For instance, when I was twelve, my parents took me out of the small and safe Lutheran school where I had attended since Kindergarten. And I began riding a school bus for over an hour each morning to a much bigger Christian school in north Minneapolis. Our bus route took us by a home for disabled individuals. The residents were often lined up in their wheelchairs or were pacing up and down on the front patio. One afternoon as we passed by, an older, popular boy seized the opportunity to get a laugh. He stumbled down the bus aisle, both hands drawn up in a crippled fashion, his speech slurred, sounding for all the world like my dad. “Look, I’m a spaz!” The kids on the bus roared with laughter, fueling his performance. And my cheeks burned with shame.
Moments like these are hard for every kid. But, according to Lehman, what makes them truly problematic is when the memory goes underground. I couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about the boy on the bus with anyone. I couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about how it felt every time my dad fell. I couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about how I was too much for my mom. And because these incidents were not processed and healed at the time, they seared my soul. And now the healing is harder.
I know now that the following beliefs are not true. Yet I still live so often as if they are.
I believe that I am not safe. The world is not safe. The people I love are not safe. And I live scared.
I believe that no one else will take care of me and mine. When as a child you can’t trust that your parents can, you learn to take care of yourself. You learn to take matters into your own hands. And so I live for control.
I believe that I am not good enough. And I believe that I need to be. I live with shame about where I’ve come from, who I am, and I live striving to be more.
The bottom line, I live unloved.
In chapter five of his book, Dr. Lehman explains how our trauma and our toxic memory content can affect—not only our relationships with other people—but also our relationship with God. In my case, God usually seems distant and silent. He can’t really be known. And though he may say he loves me, I don’t trust him to do much about it.
It makes more and more sense to me how our trauma and the resulting false beliefs can handicap us. That is what I want to unpack in this space.
A few months ago a trusted friend and trained therapist offered to pray with me, using what Dr. Lehman calls the “Immanuel Approach.” She invited Jesus to speak to us and she encouraged me to just listen and receive. And as we sat in his presence, clear as day, I saw myself as a little girl—a scared and lonely little girl stuck behind a thick brick wall. But then I saw Jesus. A strong, powerful, son of a carpenter Jesus—he strode to the wall with a sledge hammer and with one blow knocked it right down. Laugh if you like. I did.
Then he offered me his hand. He pulled me out from behind that demolished wall, and we walked hand-in-hand to a park, where he lifted me onto the swing—like my earthly father never could—and began to push me. High and free. We played without a care in the world. (I don’t remember ever feeling that way.) And his smile was all I could see. He enjoyed me. He cared for me. All I needed to do was bask in his love.
And that’s the part I still marvel at the most. In all of Lehman’s accounts of his Immanuel Prayer sessions, in my own experience, and in the experience of my friends and students, when Jesus makes himself evident, he always leads with love. It’s the first verse most of us learned from the Bible. “For God so loved…” But it’s the first thing we seem to forget.
So unresolved trauma and all, he’s teaching me to live loved.