Dear Unitarian Universalist Church West,
While it is much too early in our relationship to be writing a love letter, I would like to write a “Hope for Love” letter. In the early phases of any promising relationship, a great many hopes and dreams begin to sprout. And, I really like the analogy of marriage with respect to considering a UUCW membership. See, I’m just recovering from a recent divorce, from my second marriage, And I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what a marriage really means to me at this junction in my life. As a recovering addict, I need to give very serious consideration to the idea of entering into a commitment like marriage again in the future.
In my estimation, marriage is intended to be a long-lasting, mutually beneficial, partnership. One that is fueled by love, built on trust, and bonded by the intention of continuously growing together as we co-create truer, more beautiful versions of ourselves in the world. Traditionally a marriage builds on this intention by expanding into a family through the co-creation of children. But, I’m learning that marriage is not fully defined by, nor limited to tradition. Many things can be co-created in a committed union such as marriage, and it’s not only our children and ourselves that we can focus on growing into truer, more beautiful versions of ourselves in the world.
Chatting after a service a few weeks ago, a wise person shared her knowledge of ancient Celtic traditions on marriage. They recognized that all marriages were not meant to last, and marriages could be seen as active commitments to be examined and renewed regularly. This represents an ongoing choice to remain in the partnership or dissolve the union. In this tradition, marriage was not an inescapable and unbreakable bond. Having been divorced twice, I can see the wisdom in such a practice.
I’ve learned that as life ebbs and flows, sometimes we grow together, and sometimes we grow apart. I really love the idea of marriages as active commitments, and if I ever do embark on a marriage again in the future, I would incorporate a regular ritual like this. I no longer believe in “until death do us part.” I also believe that even death does not really part us, only lack of love can keep us apart.
Being new to UUCW, and using this marriage analogy, I’d say we’re in the dating phase. My experience so far is very encouraging, and I am looking forward to exploring this relationship further. I can see how considering membership in UUCW is like considering moving forward in a relationship with prospective life partners. As such, it seems fitting that we explore each other’s histories, and understand what brought us to consider this relationship.
I understand from talking with some members that this will be a part of the orientation I plan to attend in May, but I would like to share my history with you now: Humbly, openly, and honestly. And, I will look forward to better understanding the history of UUCW, and getting to know the staff and members’ individual histories as well.
I swore off religion almost 30 years ago, after a confusing and conflicting childhood experience within a strict 7th Day Adventist church. Only recently have my life events culminated in the inspiration to look for spiritual connections with others in a church setting again.
I was born to parents with disabilities who were very committed to their church. At their direction, I spent hours listening to sermons and lectures in services each week, and also through television broadcasts. We were told that as members of this church, we were God’s chosen people. We were the few who had found the one and only truth. Our church was the only safe haven from a sinful, evil, awful world.
We listened to sermons and studied The Bible to learn what we needed to do to earn God’s love, how we’d need to repent for our inevitable human failings in order to gain forgiveness, and how there was a lake of fire waiting for us if we did not do exactly as God instructed. The ministers in the church were revered and treated like celebrities. They were about as close to God as it got, and my parents heeded their advice dogmatically, as did most members of the church.
Old Testament rules were strict, and we followed almost every one of them, including not eating unclean meats, observing traditional Jewish holidays, and observing the 7th day as holy and reserved for God and church. From sundown on Friday night until sundown on Saturday night, we were forbidden to work or engage in any “worldly” activities. This served to cut my family off from forming deep relationships or getting involved in many activities outside of our church.
I was “blanket trained” from a young age like all the kids were in that church. This meant from infancy we were taught to be very still on blankets, spread out on the floor at our parent’s feet, for over two hours each week while the sermon was delivered. We were taught to occupy ourselves silently with books, quiet toys, or games while our parents focused on receiving God’s word. There was a spanking room at the back for kids who misbehaved, and it was encouraged that parents start using corporal punishment as soon as babies started to crawl.
As I grew older, my honest questions and curiosity about the church’s beliefs became more and more difficult, and my parents did not like that. I questioned the abuses I witnessed within the church and challenged what I read in the Bible when contradictions arose.
When I was 11 years old, I set out to read The Bible from cover to cover and began noting all the discrepancies I found. I voiced my confusion with pointed questions for the leaders of the church in our youth groups. The ministers did not like that either, and to my parent’s great dismay and shame, I was expelled from the youth group for having a bad attitude. Obedience, submission, and service with a smile is what was expected of all members, but most especially from women and girls.
As an adolescent, I began to secretly outright reject God, religion, and the whole concept that anyone really knows what lies beyond this life. I waited for the wrath of God to strike me dead as those thoughts entered my mind. I waited for something terrible to happen, but nothing out of the ordinary happened. By my mid-20s, I tried to see if maybe other faiths might work for me, and I dabbled in various other Christian churches and even considered Mormonism. But, in the end, I decided there was no evidence for God, and I was comfortable living my life from the perspective of agnostic atheism.
Through early childhood traumas and abuses, and being raised by two parents with disabilities, I had learned to cope in life by pursuing perfection and shining like a star. I prided myself not only in my intelligence and ability to accomplish things but also in my capacity to help others who could not help themselves.
I became an achievement-obsessed perfectionist, what I now call “a human-doing” rather than a human being. I overachieved, overworked, and formed codependent relationships where I over-functioned. I worked hard, played hard, and began to use drugs and alcohol to “unwind” and “let go” when I could find the time.
In my 30s I attempted to settle down. I got married and had three children. My husband and I made it through the recession, but with major setbacks on investments we’d made in real estate. We were just rebuilding from that as we had our third child. Then my husband lost his job when his company left the country.
Our struggles in real estate after the recession left a really bitter taste in my mouth for that type of work or investment. But, my husband decided to start his own business in the real estate sector anyway, despite my request that he try to find a more stable corporate position, or even be a stay-at-home father since I made enough money to comfortably support the family if we didn’t have daycare costs.
He was not open to those ideas and did not appear to appreciate my suggestions at all. He silently made the decision to do things his own way, to follow his own dreams, and disregard anything I had said. This effectively forced me into the role of “single parent” to an infant and two toddlers. I managed to hold down the fort while he was off starting his business. I did the best I could as I saw him doing his own thing, no longer consulting me or communicating with me about big decisions, and he began to disappear from our lives.
By all outward measures of success, our family appeared to be doing very well, and we were financially stable. But, I was deeply unhappy with the role I was forced to play. I resented the move he’d made in his career without my explicit support and felt taken for granted and unappreciated. Any expression of pain, suffering, or complaints that I had about the situation was met with his justifications and accusations that I only noticed the negatives and never the positives. I learned to stop talking and tried to just “grin and bear it.”
I began trying to find ways to ease my pain and suffering, I knew I was not taking care of myself. All of my energy was going into bringing home the bacon and caring for the children. I tried to implement self-care practices. I started by simply taking time to get my hair cut regularly, which was a good first step. I exercised with a group of moms, and with my kids, and tried to fill my own cup when and where I could as I also cared for the children.
I had stopped drinking and drugs when I had the kids. Sadly, around this time I started up again, having a glass of wine at the end of the day as a form of self-care. One glass turned into two or three…or more. I began reaching for other solutions, too. I started fantasizing about divorce, but I still didn’t really want one. As I spoke less and less to my husband about my stress and my needs, because it never seemed to resolve anything, I began to think more and more about divorce. I started obsessively looking at houses that I could afford on my own, and slowly started to seriously contemplate if I’d really be able to do it all on my own.
Then I found it. A dream home, one I could qualify for a mortgage on my income alone! But, it would not have been a wise financial move, as it would have stretched my income too far, and I really didn’t want a divorce, I just wanted to find happiness and a true partnership with my husband again. I began to imagine how we all could live there happily if my husband and I could just figure out a way to get both of our needs met. It began to represent new beginnings for me. A chance to start all over.
The state of my husband’s new business disqualified me for that mortgage, even though my income alone was sufficient. In my frustration, I told my husband I felt trapped by his business decisions, and to my surprise, he proposed that I divorce him. I had been contemplating divorce for so long that it didn’t really surprise me or phase me. I’d actually even contemplated suggesting we get divorced on paper myself but never mentioned it for fear of hurting him.
However, since he suggested it, I immediately saw the silver lining. I thought maybe he was finally at a point where he would listen, and we could turn this partnership around and make it work. I told him yes, let’s do that. Let’s get a divorce.
I immediately followed that statement with the fact that I didn’t really want a divorce, I just wanted to reinvent our relationship. A divorce “on paper” would solve a lot of things, because without being legally tied to his business decisions, I could qualify for this house on my own! He was taken aback, but he agreed, and we went through the motions of getting the divorce.
We made it as simple as possible legally, no lawyers or anything was needed because it was just a divorce on paper, and we were still going to make things work. After all, who cared about a piece of paper, if you had trust, that’s what really mattered, right?
I remember the judge at the hearing telling me she could rule to have me pay marital support to my husband, because my income was so much greater than his, and I just about had a heart attack. I’d sacrificed so much, without even agreeing to do so, and she was going to make me pay him?!
My husband who was sitting next to me gently elbowed me and whispered that she was only saying she could rule that way, not that she was ruling that way. I sighed with tentative relief and told the judge I understood. I took another bated breath and waited to exhale fully as she granted the divorce exactly as requested.
Fortunately for me, the dream home didn’t sell during that whole process, and the sellers took it off the market for the Winter. I planned to make an offer when it was relisted in the Spring. I made some more financial sacrifices to make very sure I’d qualify for that mortgage. I downgraded my vehicle, made a job change, and saved up more money.
I also began to spend more time with friends, as an ongoing part of my developing self-care practices. I was hoping to fill my cup with more emotional connections outside of my immediate family. Sadly, I ended up in a friendship with a woman from work who pursued me romantically.
I tried to come clean with my husband about her friendship turning romantic. To my surprise, he laughed and told me he didn’t care if I had an affair with a woman. Though that hurt a bit, I decided to explore the option further, thinking maybe it would be fun. But, it still felt wrong. It always felt like an affair. I broke it off and started it back up again many times. She and I kept our romance a secret from her husband and the rest of our family and friends. I felt like a fake, a fraud, and an imposter in so many social situations we went to as “friends”.
By the time I reached my early 40s, my family was in the dream house and I still hadn’t found happiness. I finally hit my limit. I admitted to myself consciously that I was just not happy, and I started therapy. I soon began to dig into my childhood and started reading some books my therapist recommended for me about children who were raised by emotionally immature and narcissistic parents.
As I read, I identified with the stories, and deeply repressed traumatic memories began to surface. I also started to realize I was repeating patterns of dysfunction in my own family that I swore I never would. As that realization hit, I had a mental health crisis. I ended up being hospitalized for two weeks and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. At first, I was glad to have a word for “what was wrong with me.” I thought the diagnosis would bring about much-needed treatment and relief in the form of medications that would balance out my “broken” brain.
I spent three years looking for the right medications to treat that condition while changing very little with respect to my lifestyle. I figured it was my broken brain stubbornly refusing to cooperate. I continued to be deeply unhappy, and sank into a long depression, even experiencing suicidal ideation for the first time since I had been a teen. I ate too much, slept too much, drank and drugged too much, and barely made it through my workday with any energy left for my kids or husband. My whole family suffered.
I started to realize the medications weren’t going to fix me. And, I made my first decision to take a significant risk in an effort to better my mental health. I made a brave choice to do something I’d never given myself permission to do before. I decided to do less. On purpose! To underachieve. To take a step back in my career, take less pay.
I suffered a self-inflicted blow to my own ego as I updated my resume and LinkedIn profile with a significantly lower-status job title. My husband reluctantly supported this decision, advising me to refinance the house for a lower mortgage payment to offset the difference, which I did. He also chipped in a little more each week, since his business had become quite successful.
To my surprise, instead of judgment, shame, or disappointment, I was met with support and admiration for my decision by many of my mentors and colleagues. They saw me daring to take a step back despite the pressures of the world that drive us ever upward and onward. They saw that as brave! I clung to those words of encouragement and tried to see myself that way, too. I slowly remembered that I am brave, I’d always been brave, just never been brave in this way before! It felt so strange.
As I made some space for myself to assess my life I began to realize I’d had enough of living unhappy and depressed. This wasn’t who I was. Being labeled “bipolar” ultimately left me feeling broken, damaged, and incapable of healing. Bipolar was offered to me as a diagnosis, a disease I’d have to struggle through for life. I was warned that I’d never be the same again. But, I decided to challenge my diagnosis.
There had to be more to mental health than just managing symptoms. Healing had to be possible. I set out to find answers. In doing so, I had to go back to my work on processing my childhood traumas again and finish working through what I had started years before. I thought that maybe I just wasn’t ready back then, but I was determined to be ready, now.
There were many traumas that I thought I had processed already, and many that I came to realize I had minimized, or outright repressed. Having been raised to be “perfect” I had never learned to hold myself with compassion for my mistakes, and that was the first place I had to start. Instead of blaming myself for my brokenness, I started to consider how it was that I had become broken. Maybe there wasn’t something inherently wrong with me.
I stopped thinking, “What is wrong with me?” And, I started thinking, “What happened to me?” In doing so, I began to realize that I had been spiritually, physically, emotionally, and sexually abused from a very young age. Nothing was actually wrong with me, what was wrong was what happened to me.
I also had to come to terms with the coping strategies I formed to survive in my early environment. Those maladaptive coping strategies led me to make many poor choices in adulthood that brought me to my current state. And, despite outward appearances, secretly I was living a very toxic lifestyle.
My primary relationships with my girlfriend and my husband, two people I thought I trusted and depended on, were actually very toxic for me. My relationship with work, drugs, and alcohol had gotten to be toxic as well. And, last but not least, my toxic lifestyle was affecting my parenting and I had to come to terms with how poorly I was showing up for my children.
Wow, that last thing was unbelievably difficult. To hold myself accountable, compassionately, for hurting my children. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But, once done, it made my commitment to change amazingly easy.
I began to read again, something I love to do but rarely made time for. I devoured self-help books. As I ramped down on the drugs (prescription and non-prescription) and alcohol, I ramped up my talk therapy. I began to set boundaries in my relationships and ultimately ended the affair, vowing to never have one again. I began to listen to music instead of the news. I learned to listen to my body, to eat only when I was hungry, and how to breathe intentionally. I stopped turning to drinking and drugs for stress relief. I started to enjoy taking regular nature walks, meditating, and practicing yoga.
I made apologies for past mistakes to my husband and children, and I began to set boundaries in my marriage. I put forth requirements for my husband to either move forward together or finally part ways. I began learning about positive, gentle, conscious parenting and started making big changes in how I parented my kids. I set more boundaries with my husband on behalf of the kids with respect to practices I began to see were neglectful or abusive. That caused the biggest problems in our marriage, and I ended up having to make that divorce on paper a reality, finally.
That was a lot of demons to wrestle with in the course of a year. But, I did it, and in the process, just as I thought I might have another mental health crisis while finalizing that divorce, just when I needed it the most, God showed up. When I was an atheist I used to tell people of faith that God and I had an agreement, if God wanted me to believe, then God would show up, and I would believe. I told them I could thank God that I was an atheist. And, I’d laugh. I think God was laughing, too.
Not laughing in a mean-spirited way but in a wise and knowing way. In a way that I’m learning to laugh at my tween when she stubbornly won’t believe things I tell her that I know to be true, but only experience can teach. When I know nothing I can say will convince her otherwise, I have to chuckle and bide my time, waiting for the right moment to intervene, if necessary as the experience of life and living plays out. The moment when she actually wants me to help her, to teach her, to guide her, that’s when I step in.
Actually, in all humble honesty, sometimes it turns out that she knows better than me, and I have to humble myself and let her share the wisdom that children possess, and she helps me grow. But, sometimes, my wisdom as an elder is needed, and then I get to share mine with her and help her grow. I’ve learned God sends us our children to help us learn and grow just as much as we are here to help them learn and grow!
God showed up in helping me realize that at the core of every human being is love and that we are all connected, every one of us, and everything in and on this planet is connected. That core and connection we all share is love. Love’s energetic flow can become blocked by the need to survive, but it’s always still there, waiting to be accessed again when the time is right.
Whenever we’re ready and able to work through that blockage, love is there waiting to emerge. God helped me realize that there’s a lot we still don’t know about how the physical world and the spiritual world intersect, especially as it relates to mental health.
I learned that what the medical community might call a manic episode with psychotic features might also be called a spiritual awakening. I learned that what the medical community might call bipolar disorder could actually be misdiagnosed PTSD from a long childhood spent surviving abuse. I learned that what the medical community predicted for my mental health was not my fate and that I have the power to write my own story.
I proved many of the doctors wrong. I did it safely, over time, and with the support of the right doctors, therapists, family, and friends…and of course, God. The Source, Love, which makes all things possible. Reconnecting to a higher power, my own personal higher power, which most people simply call God, helped take me over the last leg of my journey to where I am today. I have never been in a better place with my mental health or physical health for that matter! Mental health is health.
So, as you can ascertain, I haven’t come to UUCW looking for God, per se. I’ve already found Them. Yes, I said Them, not Him, as in the Christian tradition. I have come to realize I am most comfortable with God’s pronouns expressed as they/them. Another thing my non-gender-specific kid is teaching me is about pronouns, and how they shape our behaviors with respect to how we experience and treat each other.
Her preferred pronouns are “any.” It took me a while to understand, but she explained that she doesn’t care if she is called she/her/hers, as I do since I birthed a genetically female child. She doesn’t care if someone on the street refers to her as he/him/his, because she often presents as masculine. And she’s not really interested in getting everyone accustomed to using they/them/theirs. It simply doesn’t matter to her, and that’s so beautiful to me. I just have to think that God must feel the same way.
God is in us all, and we are all in God. God is whatever we need, when we need it, even if that sometimes means not being there at all. And, that’s what I came to UUCW looking for. A community of people who understand and appreciate my experience of God. People who are curious about my experience and willing to share their experiences as well. People who are open-minded, curious, and passionate about creating space in this world for everyone to be able to find their peace. I hope it is true for all of you. I think it is. I’m looking for that kind of a connection.
I’m looking to feel that connection regularly, with others who believe as I do. Inside each and every one of us is a core fueled by love and a desire to do good in this world. Inside each and every one of us is The Source, God, Allah, a higher power, the divine light, whatever you wish to call it. And, I wish to use my energy to make the world a better place for all humans. To do that, I need to have a tribe, a community.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this letter, I am so very encouraged by what I am seeing on our first few “dates.” The sermons have been moving, the music and various stories, quotes, and ceremonies have been inspiring. I find myself wiping away tears over how lovely the experience is compared to the fear, shame and guilt that I experienced in churches growing up. The children here are allowed movement during the service, and when we sing them out with love, joy, and peace I find myself choking up, too. How I wish I’d had a beautiful, supportive, and loving experience like that in my church as a child. The people that I’ve had one on one conversations with so far have been lovely, generous, open-hearted, authentic, genuine, and curious.
I am passionate about giving back to the world and making a difference both within and beyond the UUCW community. I look forward to making a difference in outreach activities as well. I have so much energy and passion, taken directly from Source, from my newfound spirituality. I have lots of ideas that I’d like to share and explore, and I hope that my ideas inspire your ideas. In turn, I want to hear your ideas, to be inspired by them as well. I want to see how they might grow, shape and change my ideas.
By trade, I am a strategic change leader and project manager. My specialty is in leading efforts to plan and execute creative strategies that make big changes in culture through technology. I believe that our collective ideas for making positive change in the world, when carefully selected, prioritized, strategized, planned, and executed, can change the world for the better!
I look forward to being a part of something like that.
I tend to think big and dream big, yet also set expectations realistically. My hopes for our relationship as we move to the next stage are high, yet I know that partnerships take time to build. In time, I would like to offer my friendship, love, energy, skills, and service to you all, and will strive to put them to good use in this community. I know that each one of us alone can only do a little, but in a well-organized, energized, passionate community, together, we can do so very much.
Thank you for taking the time to read my novel of a letter. I look forward to future adventures.