It is June of 2015.
I made it. And, it’s a miracle. I can hardly believe it.
This past 3 years have been the hardest of my life.
The past year especially has been relentless in ways that I never could have anticipated. My character has been tested, my endurance called in question, my beliefs challenged on a regular basis. I am still in disbelief that I even survived.
Bearing the weight of life on my shoulders was more difficult than I ever could have imagined, and it felt like a long, arduous uphill climb. Tears have poured down my face on more than one occasion. Often, I considered giving up. . . every fiber of my being aches even remembering.
I was asked to surrender before God everything that I knew, all that I loved, knowing that there was no way I could emerge on the other side unscathed.
And I haven’t.
Are you familiar with olive oil?
I have a glass bottle in my house, and it comes in handy often. Particularly when I’m making rice or pasta.
Olive oil has a long-standing history of being valuable, particularly in Mediterranean regions. Its thick, golden goodness was often used in cooking, but also had symbolic uses in religious and medicinal contexts. In the era of ancient Greece, it was used for athletes in the games. And, there is strong reason to believe that even the labeling of the word “olive” was derived from a root word meaning “superior,” indicating that the fruit was better than any other.
I am inclined to believe that part of the incredible value of olive oil comes from the process by which it is made.
First, the olives have to be harvested. Selected for use. Then they are washed, milled, and crushed. They are changed so that they appear unrecognizable from their initial form. Then, gathered in mesh, they are pressed to separate the pulp from the oil. The pulp, now worthless, is discarded.
Olive oil presses are huge. Don’t believe me? Check out this picture:
I mean, that’s intimidating. And those presses would not take it easy on a batch of olives. Bearing down upon them with all of it’s weight, an olive oil press would relentlessly squeeze every ounce of liquid out of those olives.
But once complete, the oil would be collected and stored. And great value was bestowed upon it.
After all, it had been changed. Purified. It was now golden and rich and worth a lot.
I feel like my life has been under pressure. As if all the weight of the world has been pressing down upon me, creating this unbelievable pain that causes my eyes to water and my fists to ball. I want to fight back, but it’s just too strong.
This past year, I had a full-time job as a social worker, attended classes, completed assignments, worked two days a week as an unpaid intern. While surviving this, I realized my family was battling a force that left them empty and ended in tragedy. And I could do nothing. In the light of what I had lost, as my family struggled and wavered, everything I was doing paled in comparison. If I could not save the ones I loved most, my efforts were in vain. I contemplated quitting it all.
Somehow, endurance created within me a sense of strength unlike anything I have ever known, and I truly hope, with all of my heart, that the end result may be worth something. Perhaps even something valuable, like pure olive oil.
But experiencing that kind of pressure, that kind of pain. It changes a person. I’m not who I was before.
Because the truth of being pressed is that you are not the same afterwards.
And sometimes, that hurts.
These days, I feel somewhat dazed, unable to successfully process the experiences of my life. Somebody casually asked me the other day, “So, are you all recovered from grad school?” I was legitimately confused by this.
“No,” I said honestly. “That might take a year.”
It seemed ridiculous to say that, but it might also be true. It wasn’t just school. It was life.
Which then led me to seriously ponder: How much more so would it be true for those who experience trauma? I am thinking of abusive/destructive relationships, unexpected loss of security, assault of both physical and emotional safety.
How long will it take those people to recover? And even if they do, is it truly realistic to expect that they will be be the same as they were before?
Today I was having a conversation with somebody who I love, and I knew that she had spent the last 5 years of her life trying desperately to keep from being crushed under the weight of a difficult relationship. Now, on the other side of it and taking an honest look at her life, she posed this question to me: “How long do you think it will take for me to bounce back? To recover, to stop feeling stressed and sad and guilty?” In a practical sense, we both knew that the answer could not be concrete. There was no formula for how many hours, days, weeks, years. . . before the wounds were healed and she felt whole again.
I have had to look at myself in the mirror and trace the lines of tears falling down my face, being truly honest with myself. No, I am not the same as I was before.
The past several years have changed me. I am irrevocably different and that doesn’t feel okay right now. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be okay at some point in the future.
When I first started working with patients at the hospital who were suicidal, my supervisor would train me about words and phrases that I should use, versus those that I probably shouldn’t. One of the things that I heard her say a LOT while I was first shadowing her was this reassurance, soft and sincere: “It’s okay to not be okay.”
At first I found it overly simplistic, cheesy even. But as I finished learning from her and eventually went forward on my own efforts with hurting people, I found myself saying it without realizing it. While huddled in a dark room with a patient who looked at me with empty eyes and confessed that they had never felt this low before, I gently encouraged their honesty and truthfully agreed with them: They were not okay.
But it was okay to not be okay.
And you can realize that and recognize there are things that need to be healed in your life.
And that healing will take TIME.
It will take time to stop coping with difficult emotions in unhealthy ways, and it will take time to learn how to be comfortable with silence, rather than filling it with distractions to drown out unwanted thoughts. It will take time to rebuild that trust that somebody else broke with they really let you down when you needed them, and it will take time for me to look in the mirror and recognize the person that is staring back at me.
I guess there are a few things about “bouncing back” that I have learned.
1. Not everybody will understand.
It’s not their fault. They miss the way that you used to be, and might be in mourning. Or they might have written you off. Either way, some people can adapt to the new you that has to figure out how to merge the old you with the new you. Some can’t. Some try really hard to. Some don’t. It’s okay, learning how to give them grace is part of the healing process.
2. It always takes longer than I hope it will.
I remember after my last big breakup, one of my dear friends wisely told me this. She stated that I would want to be fine long before I actually was fine, and it would frustrate me. And she was right. Also, when I tried to be fine too soon, that’s when I ended up in a heap on my bedroom floor, crying. Let the time take it’s time. It sounds simple but it’s not so much.
3. The stuff that used to work might not anymore. Find new stuff.
Almost everybody in my life has now heard me make this statement: “I’m going to find a new hobby.” And I definitely plan to. [Although, at this point nothing has really stuck]. Because what I’ve found is that what used to be therapeutic or relaxing doesn’t always pack the punch that it once did. My interest in crocheting has almost entirely disappeared, much to my chagrin. But it makes sense, I guess. I’m different now. On to different things. If you have a suggestion, I’m open.
4. It’s okay to measure time by “before” and “after.”
I’ve noticed this in every big, life-changing event or circumstance. They become tools of measurement for me when chronicling this adventure called life. Before I went to grad school, I had spending money. After, I don’t. Obviously this is one simple example [which also happens to be very true], but it is indicative of many more significant ones just like it. It’s an interesting way of noticing areas of growth or change.
5. This vulnerable time forces me to draw near to God.
I need Him. Sometimes I am too stubborn to admit it. I feel foolish when I finally hit the end of myself and turn to God, recognizing that it would have been better for me if I had done it sooner. But I’m a human being with lots of issues and I make mistakes and in spite of all of that, God still has patience and love for me. It’s surprising and fantastic. In the past year, I have broken down many times to the point of tears, angrily screaming at God that I don’t understand Him and begging Him to fix everything, while threatening to stop believing in His existence if He didn’t. Fortunately, God was not intimidated by me. I truly believe that in those moments, I was being held close by a God who is not shaken by my rants and who does not cease to love me despite my being entirely unloveable.
I guess that’s really the most important thing, to me. Life will press all of us to the point of breaking down, and it is so very painful and exhausting. It doesn’t feel worth it to continue. But I have hope that after all of that, something valuable can come.
There was a guy named David who wrote a bunch of poems that ended up in the Bible. David went from being really popular to being hated and back again, it kind of just depended on the day. I mean, he made a lot of mistakes and he sometimes kind of deserved it when people didn’t like him, but not always. At one point, he was being chased around and folks were even trying to kill him.
David talked a lot about trusting in God when life sucked. He wrote some words that I thought were truly beautiful.
After saying that he was scared for his life and that he didn’t have much going for him, David wrote this:
I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord. Be strong, and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord.
[Psalm 27, verses 13 and 14]
I like the way he says, I WOULD have despaired. Like he considered it, and then decided not to.
Truthfully, I despaired. In the past few years, I despaired a LOT.
I guess I wasn’t quite as good as David at that. He believed better than I did. He believed, in spite of everything, that he would see “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
The first time I read those words, I wept. It was a few months ago, and I was desperate for some goodness. I needed life. And I wondered at what point I had stopped believing that I would see both of those things.
Now, I read those words and I still weep. [Apparently I just cry a lot]
But today I weep because I have found God to be faithful. I am experiencing His goodness, and it is slowly, steadily restoring me. And I know it will take time, but I am willing to give that.
Perhaps, throughout this entire process, I will prove to be valuable. Purified and worth great cost, like olive oil.
And here’s the last piece: Once the olive oil is made, it is meant for a purpose, like making pasta or other delicious foods. The olives do not go through such a rigorous and painful experience simply to sit on a shelf. Rather, now that the finished product gleams with purity, all pulp and stems removed, it is designed to be poured out.
I really can’t wait to see what God will use me to do.
And yes, I have my degree. Here’s proof.