A life

Greetings to everyone who reads this short article, which describes some of the life experiences underpinning the prayers I post each day on this website.

I was born in the UK, soon after the end of the Second World War, and was the youngest of 3 children. My mother was unpredictable, given to destructive outbursts of rage, emotionally abusive and controlling. Throughout my childhood and teenage years I lived with constant anxiety and fear, and had very little sense of who I was.

When I left home to go to university, I was ill-prepared to cope with independence. I began having panic attacks, though at the time I had no idea what they were. At the beginning of the third year I had a breakdown, abandoned my studies, and returned home. 

After a period of unemployment, I worked in an office, then in a day centre, where I helped to care for people with physical and learning disabilities. One day a client accidentally set fire to the cushion of his wheelchair with a dropped cigarette. In lifting him up, I tore a tendon in my back, leaving me in constant pain.

The only treatment for back pain in those days was bed-rest. After about 18 months of this, I decided to try walking to the shops. Just a short distance from home I had a major panic attack. Although I didn’t understand this at the time, I had become agoraphobic. As with all phobias, the more I tried to avoid my fears, the worse they became.

Despite my constant pack pain and mental illness, my partner and I got married, and I became pregnant. When I went into labour, serious complications necessitated an emergency admission to hospital. The whole experience was traumatic. Afterwards, I developed multiple phobias, and found it hard to cope with the normal stresses of caring for my baby. 

A year later I became pregnant again, but had a miscarriage at about fifteen weeks, leading to emergency surgery. Afterwards, I developed severe anxiety and depression, so my toddler had to go into daycare. 

At this point, I learned that I was agoraphobic. From the local library, I borrowed a copy of “Agoraphobia – simple effective treatment”, by Claire Weekes. Slowly, I began to fight back, despite my mental and physical fragility.

There were further breakdowns along the way, and endless struggles with depression, anxiety, panic and dread. When my son was about seven, I began studying for a degree in psychology, but this time only managed the first year, before the panic attacks became so intense that I was forced to give up.

Along the way, though this seems astonishing as I look back, I did my best to contribute to my family’s finances whenever I was well enough. Without any qualifications, I did the best I could with the skills I had picked up earlier in my life. Over the years I worked as a student landlady, cleaner, and barmaid. I organised children’s parties, ran a dance band, and taught music informally.

Later, I joined a five-piece band, travelling to gigs all around the UK. I quickly learned never to mention my fears, and somehow got through. It was hard, but I did the best I could to have a life. I suppose I unconsciously assumed it was the same for everyone.

Throughout this time, I read all I could about anxiety, depression, panic disorders and the factors underpinning them. I made daily efforts to face my fears in a graded way, building up my tolerance until I could walk to the centre of my home-town, visit a supermarket, and drive a few miles alone.

Realising I would never be able to cope with the stresses of full-time study, I began attending an adult education centre. Slowly, over a period of seven years, I  worked to gain a certificate in counselling, an advanced certificate, then a diploma. During this time I also entered therapy, worked as a volunteer counsellor, and tried to gain insight until the origins of my mental issues. Meanwhile, I continued to push against my boundaries by starting to travel on trains. Essentially, I managed to live with my fears through dogged efforts to confront them.

Once qualified, I began work in the National Health Service as a counsellor, later beginning a part-time master’s degree. My academic results were good, but the stress of achieving them was very high. 

Unfortunately, half-way through the two-year course, I developed Grave’s Disease. Too ill to work, and deteriorating rapidly, I had emergency surgery to remove my thyroid. It took me a year to recover enough to go back to work, and to continue my degree, but somehow I managed it, even coming top in my year-group. However, the illness left me dependent on medication for the rest of my life, and with the collateral damage of daily headaches and frequent migraines.

The migraines eventually made work impossible, so I retired. Not long afterwards, a bout of influenza left me with chronic fatigue (M.E.). For the first few years, I was unable to walk more than a few paces around the house, and relied on a mobility scooter. Eventually, I learned about pacing as a possible way forwards. It took me a year of building up through slow, daily practice to be able to walk about five hundred yards up a gentle slope. Despite this improvement, I have lived with chronic fatigue ever since. The limitations it imposes have increased with each illness, and as I’ve got older.

Unable to make music  any more, I slowly developed other methods of creative expression, including textile art, writing, and editing. In 2013 I began a website (www.ruthkirk.org), and have posted a daily, original, spiritual poem there ever since. I also enjoyed helping in a charity shop for a few hours each week until three and a half years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This was swiftly followed by a mastectomy, then by lengthy attempts to cope with various drugs, whose side effects eventually proved intolerable. This time, the collateral damage was losing the ability to regulate my temperature, so I now cycle constantly between sweating and shivering, day and night. There is no treatment for this condition, which doesn’t even seem to have a name, though it has a significant impact on my quality of life. 

Nowadays, my limited energy is spent on hospital appointments, occasional short walks, and a few social contacts. Church is too hard to manage, but I have made a shrine in my bedroom, which I find very helpful.

As I slowly become more accepting of my overall condition, my faith grows ever stronger. When I was confirmed, very recently, I took the name of Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux. Her “little way” of doing everything, however small, with love, has become my daily aim. Accordingly, I would like to finish this article with a prayer I wrote some years ago. Each morning, I say it soon after waking up:

Your little way 

Thank you, Lord,
For this new day.
Please keep me
On your little way,

Then I will feel, think,
Say, and do
Everything with love,
For you.

No matter what
You give or take,
May I accept it
For your sake,

And strive to feel, think,
Say, and do
Everything with love –
Like you.

To those who have read this brief summary of my life-story, I send my thanks, praying that one day it will help someone, somewhere. May God bless you all.

✝️ Ruth Kirk (22.2.22.)


 

Stand up to fear and panic

* At the bottom of this page there is an acknowledgement, and a short commentary. Please don’t miss these, especially if you, or someone you love, suffers from anxiety, dread, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or any other way of trying to avoid fear.

My heart pounds in my chest. The terror of death assaults me.
Fear and trembling overwhelm me, and I can’t stop shaking.
(Psalm 55:4-5; NLT).

Stand up to fear and panic,
And here’s the reason why:
Avoidance makes them stronger –
Confrontation makes them die.

No one finds this easy:
It’s heroic, hard, and slow,
But confrontation shrinks our fears –
Avoidance makes them grow.

Let panic come, and welcome it:
Yes, practice every day.
Pause to let it do its worst –
Tremble, weep, or pray,

But don’t let terror stop you
From doing what you dread,
For confrontation shortens fear –
Avoidance makes it spread.

And if you have a seed of faith,
Hold fast to Christ, our Guide,
Who faced the cross despite his dread –
He did not run, or hide.

With practice, you’ll get braver,
Your doggedness is key,
So face your fears courageously –
For this will set you free.

🖤

Be brave and courageous (Psalm 27:14; NLT). 


References 

Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible” (Matthew 17:20; NLT).

The father instantly cried out, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24; NLT).

The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you” (Psalm 32:8; NLT). 

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do (Hebrews 4:15; NLT).

They came to a place called Gethsemane, and he saith to his disciples, Sit ye here whilst I shall pray. And he taketh Peter, and James, and John, with him; and he began to be filled with horrible dread, and to be sunk under dejection of spirit: and he saith to them, My soul is deeply afflicted even to death: abide here, and watch. And he went a little farther forward, and fell on the earth, and prayed, that if it were possible the hour might pass from him (Mark 14:32-5; HNT).

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42; NIV).

He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood (Luke 22:44; NLT). 

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you (Psalm 56:3; NIV).

Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me (Psalm 23:4; NLT).

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10; NLT).


* Acknowledgement and commentary 

I am deeply grateful for, and indebted to, the work of Claire Weekes, whose books on depression, anxiety, fear, dread, phobias, panic and mental breakdown laid the foundation for how I’ve handled my own emotional health for the last 45 years.

As an example, when I was completely housebound and broken by agoraphobia, it was her writing that showed me how to start facing my fears, by setting tiny, realistic goals and repeatedly confronting them, day after day.

At that time, in England (1978), there was no treatment for agoraphobia – indeed, it was considered to be untreatable. However, through Claire’s books, I was able to put together a few short, simple principles for how to tackle my fears. I wrote them down, and always kept them with me on a card in case I couldn’t remember them when I was panicking. I learned them by heart, used them during my practice sessions, and clung to them throughout every panic attack.

Over the years, I have had many set-backs, and still need anti-depressants every day to stay as coping as possible. Even now, though I’m much better, I automatically remember to use these principles as soon as panic starts to rise within me, and whenever I’m tempted to avoid something that makes me anxious. This is because I fully understand that avoidance underpins, maintains, and drives the development of phobias. There is a very good reason for this, as I will now explain.

In the short term, avoiding whatever we fear brings great relief. However, this relief acts as a powerful reward, strengthening the probability that we will avoid the same situation, and others like it, in future. This is the mechanism by which phobias grow and spread, until they come to dominate our lives, even affecting those with whom we live.

Unfortunately, when others kindly make allowance for our fears, they unwittingly encourage our avoidance, making the situation even more difficult to tackle. Forcing, teasing, bullying and punishing are of no help, either: they simply distress us even more, further damaging our already fragile coping abilities, confidence and self-esteem.

However, this wretched situation can be turned around, once we accept that the way forward lies in our own hands. When we begin to tackle our fears head-on, we can ask others to encourage and support us by rewarding confrontation, rather than avoidance. Praise, pleasure, smiles and hugs are very effective rewards for the heroic work of standing up to our fears and slowly overcoming them.

My heart goes out to everyone who is in the grip of phobic avoidance, and to those who are facing their fears with all the courage they can muster. Believe me: I know what you are going through. May God bless, strengthen and help every one of us.

✝️  With much love from Ruth xxxxxx

 


 

A letter (with thanks to M.R.)

Image: Ulrike Mai, Pixabay

Trigger alert
Today’s blog is about emotional abuse, and its consequences.

Introduction
The following quotation sets the scene, though its relevance might not be clear until you have read the whole article:

Turn your steps towards these everlasting ruins, all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary. Your foes roared in the places where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs. They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. They smashed all the carved panelling with their axes and hatchets. They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name. They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!” They burned every place where God was worshipped in the land (Psalm 74:3-8; NIV).

An open letter to my mother
Mother, despite claiming to love me, you established control over me from my early childhood onwards. You did this through scorn, criticism, bullying, condemnation, rage, and bouts of violent destructiveness. These behaviours made me fear you deeply. I lived in dread of your next outburst.

You continued to maintain control over me during my teenage years and adulthood, too, using intrusion, disapproval, and anger when I dared to express personal feelings, thoughts or beliefs you didn’t like. Similarly, you reacted with fury and threats of coercion if I tried to make my own decisions about what I wanted to do with my life. When I made mistakes, or got things wrong, you never forgave me, or forgot it. All this made me dread seeing you and spending time with you. I particularly hated the sound of your voice, and loathed you touching me, but was afraid to stand up to you, or to say “no”.

Your ways of controlling me have had severe, pervasive, long-term consequences for my mental health, in the form of low self-esteem, anxiety, dread, panic attacks and agoraphobia. I have also had to cope with a constant sense of not wanting to be alive, with chronic depression, and with episodes of acute depression. Furthermore, one question has always preyed on my mind:

How could you say you loved me, yet behave as you did towards me?

It didn’t make sense. I just couldn’t square what you said with what I experienced.

Then, on the 24th of May, 2020, a friend sent me a message she had seen on a Facebook site about domestic abuse. It read:

It’s not CONSENT if you make me afraid to say no.

I stared at these words, instantly electrified by their brevity, clarity and profound truth. Within seconds, a personal variation flashed into my mind:

It’s not LOVE if you make me afraid to say no.

Deeply stirred by this insight, further phrases began tumbling out of my unconscious mind. Here are just a few examples:

It’s not love if you make me afraid to disagree.

It’s not love if you criticise me all the time.

It’s not love if you make me afraid to be myself.

It’s not love if you make me afraid to choose for myself.

It’s not love if you belittle my achievements.

It’s not love if you only approve of me when I behave like you.

At last, in my late sixties, my friend’s message had given me the answer to my question: your behaviour towards me shows clearly that you did not, in fact, love me in any meaningful way at all.

This shocking realisation made me consider what kinds of behaviour do, in fact, reflect and express genuine love. Here are the best answers I’ve found so far:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous, or boastful, or proud, or rude. It does not demand its own way (1 Corinthians 13:4-5; NLT).

It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5; NIV).

I know that none of us is perfect, mother, but when I confronted you, you could at least have admitted what you did to me, and said you were sorry. Over the years, I managed to raise the subject of your behaviour with you several times, always at huge personal cost. However, you never responded with genuine understanding or honesty, instead always trying to justify, minimise, or deny what you had done.

For many years now, I have worked hard to forgive you. Sometimes I even think I’ve succeeded. Fortunately, God understands and accepts the intense anger and bitterness that can still occasionally emerge from my mind, heart and soul. Slowly, gently, he gives me the insights I need in order to be healed, for which I am profoundly thankful.

Ruth.


References

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honouring each other (Romans 12:9; NLT).

Do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them (Ephesians 6:4; NLT).

I am the Lord, who heals you (Exodus 15:27; NIV).

I’m agoraphobic

Lord,

1. I’m agoraphobic –
It’s a thorn within my flesh,
For I must face the threat of dread
Each day.

2. When I’m away from safety,
And panic strikes afresh,
My desperation urges me
To pray.

3. So I rely on you, Lord,
My Comforter and Guide:
No matter where I am
You’re always near;

4. And you understand completely,
As you walk, Lord, at my side,
For in the grove
You shared this wretched fear.

References

1. To keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh. […] Three times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9; NLT).

2. My heart pounds in my chest. The terror of death assaults me. Fear and trembling overwhelm me, and I can’t stop shaking (Psalm 55:4-5; NLT).

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you (Psalm 56:3; NIV).

3. Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me (Psalm 23:4; NLT).

4. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do (Hebrews 4:15; NLT).

They went to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and Jesus said, “Sit here while I go and pray.” He took Peter, James and John with him, and he became deeply troubled and distressed (Mark 14:32; NLT).

Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44; NIV).

Ash Wednesday 2019

On Ash Wednesday 2019, I had a very unusual experience. I’d been unwell with a virus for several days, although I had still been able to potter around the house.

At about 9.30 in the morning that day, I was suddenly overtaken by a sharp, stabbing pain in my right side, just below the ribcage. It came again and again, with growing intensity, until, within a minute or two, it was continuous, and I couldn’t speak or move. My breathing became very shallow, and my lips, face, hands and arms began to tingle.

My husband immediately phoned for an ambulance, while I wailed and panted. I wasn’t afraid, just utterly overwhelmed by the intensity of the pain. I was sitting down, bent over the kitchen table, and with my head turned to one side, so I could see the shopping bag he put beside me, into which he was quickly throwing everything I might need in hospital. I was fully aware that I could be dying, and saw vividly how my soul would simply slip away, leaving behind the bag, my husband, the room, and everything I had ever imagined would make me happy.

The ambulance arrived quickly, and the staff were wonderful. They helped me to slow my breathing, and ran through various tests. All my vital signs were completely normal, although my pulse and respiration rates had been very high when they first arrived.

Gradually, the pain retreated, and I could speak again. They said it was a panic attack, but this didn’t ring true for me at all, as I have had countless panic attacks, and none of them in any way resembled what happened that day. After some discussion, we all agreed I could stay at home, as long as I saw my doctor in the afternoon.

The GP diagnosed an acute attack of pleurodynia (also known as Bornholm Syndrome, or Devil’s Grip), a chronic condition I have had for the last 25 years. Acute attacks are generally triggered by respiratory infections. However, even at its very worst, it has never remotely resembled what happened that morning. A second doctor thought it sounded more like a pleural rub, highly characteristic of pleurisy.

After two weeks of rest, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and steroids, I slowly started to resume my normal activities. However, a troubling question persisted at the back of my mind, though I hardly dared to express it at the time. The strange attack, which lasted three hours, felt exactly as if I were experiencing the moment when the spear pierced Christ’s side to ensure he was dead. So, was it a symptom of a physical illness, a spiritual experience, or perhaps a combination of both?

References

The soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, so they didn’t break his legs. One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out (John 19:32-4; NLT).

If we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering (Romans 8:17; NLT).

Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often (Luke 2:19; NLT).


 

Dreams and nightmares

Like many people, when I’m dealing with significant emotional issues, I often have disturbing dreams.

Last night I dreamed I was walking along a street with my mother, saying firmly to her, “You usually yelled at someone on journeys.” She laughed heartily at this, as if I were joking. “That wasn’t a joke,” I continued, very seriously, “You did usually yell at someone on journeys.”

As I woke, still talking aloud, I was left wondering whether the fact that journeys with my mother were so incredibly tense and stressful had anything to do with the development of my agoraphobia.

Dreams and nightmares

Father,
Without dreams and nightmares,
Trauma would fester
In my unconscious mind,
Generating panic attacks
That seem to strike
Out of the blue.

Instead,
Through dreams and nightmares
You help me confront my demons one by one,
Learning new ways to handle them,
As I slowly come to terms
With my past.

 

References

A dream comes when there are many cares (Ecclesiastes 5:3; NIV).

I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means (Daniel 2:3; NIV).