“That would never happen to me” is a saying that has crossed the lips of almost every person at one point. If not said out loud, it has most certainly been a thought.
Had I known about parental alienation before my marriage took a severe nose-dive, "that would never happen to me" would have easily escaped my lips.
The man I had been married to for 15 years was not a vindictive person, until he was. He was a kind and reasonable man, until he wasn't. He took responsibility more than he blamed others, until he didn't. Or perhaps I had chosen not to see those qualities in him until I had no choice.
No matter which way the wind blows on how or why this happened, the painful truth is that it did happen. It's been seven years without my oldest daughter in my life. It hasn't gotten any easier over time, but I have gotten stronger. My faith has grown exponentially, as well as my level of peace.
I grew up in a single-parent home with my mom and younger sister. Our small family unit was not religious, but my mom believed in God.
Her church was not in a building, it was out in the world while trying to be a good person, and if you needed a little extra luck, you could always rub Buddha's belly, which took up residence on a nearby shelf in our home.
I only went to church when a friend invited me, usually for an all-nighter or some other event. I remember hopping on the church bus once or twice as it came around to gather anyone wanting to attend Sunday service. However, most of the time, my mom would wave the bus along.
It wasn't until I was in junior college that I came across a table near the main walkway, where the banner read, Warrior Christian Fellowship. I remember feeling very welcomed as I approached the table, which gave me the courage to continue coming back each time I was on campus. Friendships quickly grew, and my place at the table became comfortable and easy. I even started attending church regularly. Within several months I got baptized in the Pacific Ocean.
This table is also where I met my now ex-husband.
I will fast-forward through a lot of the mess that occurred between the time we were married and the time we divorced, and simply say that we were that ‘cookie-cutter couple living as good Christians who served our church in any capacity’.
He was on the worship team and led a young adult bible class. I was President of the Women's Fellowship and rotated between teaching Sunday school and working in the nursery. We were deacons and sat on the general board, hoping to contribute something worthwhile at each meeting. He and I rarely fought but when we did, it was quietly swept under the rug so we could quickly return to our perfect life.
And it was perfect to anyone looking in who didn't know how to focus the distorted lens pointing through our front window.
Of course, the truth is we were not perfect. Not by a long shot. There were so many red flags surrounding us from the moment we met, but we had chosen to ignore them. We loved each other to the best of our ability, but we were so focused on looking ‘the part’ that we failed to actually live it.
Meanwhile as a woman of faith, I knew there was something I was missing and until I found it, I would just have to go through the motions. I thought that was what one did until the lightbulb finally went on, and you somehow magically understood what everyone else already knew.
I figured it was just a waiting game and the more I made cookies for the church bake sales, fell to my knees with eyes closed and hands folded while I prayed, sang hymns, shot my hand up when asked if anyone had a blessing or prayer request, made homemade birthday invitations for my daughters, clipped coupons, didn't use curse words, and was a submissive wife and dutiful mother, the faster I would find my connection to God.
Can I tell you a secret? That didn't work.
I didn't find Jesus when I had a broom in my hand or when my apron was covered in flour. I didn't find Jesus when I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning making scrapbook calendars of our family to be given as Christmas gifts to the grandparents. I didn't even find Jesus in the annual hoedown dances I would help organize at church every Fall. To be honest, I never found Jesus at all. He found me.
Jesus had been there the entire time, but I was always too busy or worried to look up. I'm reminded of Luke 10:38-42, which tells the story of Martha and Mary: "Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me. But the Lord answered her, Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her."
When my marriage ended 15 years later due to my husband's extramarital affair, it was all I could do to survive. I continued staying busy as I spiraled downward at an accelerated speed. Two years later, the constant battle with my husband and his girlfriend over our beautiful daughters left me feeling depleted and exhausted (it would take four years before he would legally become my ex-husband). The amount of gaslighting he bestowed upon me tortured my spirit to near insanity.
What occurred during those two years left me broken spiritually and financially. The day I received an eviction notice on my front door, from my father no less (another story for another time), was the day I finally hit rock bottom. I felt I had no choice but to allow our daughters to live more with their father and his girlfriend, as I envisioned myself living in my car.
The night I dropped them off at his apartment was the worst night of my life. The drive home is a blur to me now, but I know when I walked through the front door, I went straight for the wine and didn't bother pouring it into a glass. I drank, cried, and screamed in agony. Hatred for my husband was palpable. That night I blamed him for everything. For all of my poor choices, insecurities, and weaknesses. For my jealousy and bitterness.
From my perspective, at that moment, all I could feel was my husband's foot on the back of my neck, smashing my face into the ground while hoisting himself up to a higher level than he deserved.
Finishing off the last drop of red wine, I closed my eyes and felt the room start to spin. I stumbled down the hallway to the master bedroom I shared with no one, stripped off my yoga pants, and crawled under the covers. Bloodshot and tear-stained, the emptiness dug its claws in deep, and before passing out, I made a plan. The following day I would drive my life of pain, heartache, suffering, tears, despair, and loneliness off the nearest cliff. "Lord, I'm coming home. I'll see you soon. Please don't turn me away."
This is the mess where Jesus found me. My defenses were down, my heart lay open and bleeding, and I had no more fight.
As my mind stirred into consciousness the next morning, I was too afraid to open my eyes for fear reality would sink its mangled teeth into my flesh and crush every bone underneath. Lying there, I had that
thought so many of us do; how did I end up here? How did my life spiral so far down that death would be a welcomed reprieve?
I braved the task of tenderly opening one eye. I dared just a sliver and waited for the flying daggers to penetrate my heart. After a beat and all was well, I braved both eyes wide open. I held my breath, waiting to be so overwhelmed with grief that I would vomit all over my bedroom floor. Nothing happened. I waited a moment more; still nothing. I gently gave in to my lung's need for oxygen but willed the rest of my body to remain perfectly still, only allowing my eyes to roam freely. I don't know how long I lay there, probably no more than a minute or two, but I eventually trusted the situation enough to sit upright. The moment I did, I felt a whoosh of serenity flood my body, and I immediately recognized God's presence.
In all my years as a Christian, I had never come face-to- face with my beloved Father, but I instantly knew He was with me in that room. An indescribable peace and calmness surrounded me, and I felt Him whisper in my ear the promise I had made to my daughters the night before . . . everything is going to be okay.
Tears began to flow freely, and I could feel them cleansing my soul. As cliche as that may sound, I have no other words to describe it. I had to stay; that is what God pressed upon my heart that morning. It would not be easy. At times it would be almost unbearable. But if I trusted Him enough and kept myself alive, He would help me climb the cold and windy mountains, swim the dark and wretched cesspools, and carry me across the vast unknown when I needed to catch my breath. My daughters needed me.
I wish I could tell you that things got better within our family dynamic after that night, but the reality is it did not. I haven't spent any time with my oldest daughter outside of a courtroom or therapy room since the night I dropped her off at her father's seven years ago. And although I believe in therapy, it is useless when a child's brain has already been hijacked by one parent and is manipulated against the other parent. I'm sure there are exceptions, but our story is not one of them.
What I can tell you is that my relationship with God has strengthened. Jesus dove head-first into my mess with such tenderness, grace, patience, love, and compassion that I couldn't help but put my faith and hope in Him. There are days I miss my daughter so much that all I can muster is to fall at His feet and sob. This is where my head is stroked, my tears gently acknowledged, and my weary soul embraced. The days I feel stronger, Jesus meets me with even more strength. He allows me to stand tall on my own but is never too far away in case I stumble and need His loving arms to catch me.
I still have a very loving relationship with my youngest daughter, and thankfully Jesus has helped me accept that I can still have joy in my life. Something I grappled with for years was feeling guilty both when I experienced joy and when I didn't. How could I possibly be happy without my oldest, yet how could I possibly be sad with my youngest? Sitting with Jesus most mornings in prayer and meditation has helped that inner war tremendously. Journaling has become another huge tool to help me sort out where I've been, where I am, and where I'm going.
I can't begin to tell you the difference Jesus has made in my life once I looked up. Even so, I still struggle with wanting to do things my way. It is not until my feet become unstable and my inner walls begin to crumble that I finally realize I'm holding on too tightly to my "stuff" and must trust God enough to hand it all over. Only then does my spirit calm and my perspective becomes clear.
Please let me take a moment to state the obvious, this is my story. Tragedy nor trauma need to occur for God to reach one's heart and soul. But vulnerability seems to be a common thread where we can see our Creator slip in and finally get to work in someone's life.
Although things are not as I would have them be between my oldest daughter and me, our story is far from over. I have given this catastrophe to the Lord and found solace in the following scripture: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose" ~ Romans 8:28.
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