Note to Self: Write MORE that’s Real in 2018

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More of Everything in 2018

I need to write, but haven’t in a while.

I got a little bogged down trying to create neat, unoffensive packages of psychotherapy. I sort of lost myself, and writing became a chore.

But I’m writing my way back home, thanks to a little rest and time with writerly friends. Now, my true self wants to say something . . .

  • more interesting,
  • more hilarious,
  • more gut-wrenching,
  • more real . . .

The stuff I’d want to read, that enlivens me and pushes me toward the edges of my comfort and into a new way to think.

Stuff that makes me want to get up early and write it.

Idea Garden II, Deborah Cox, Flowers Reborn

For years, I’ve flirted with more candid writing, but reined it in, choosing a safer, more clinical voice. In the therapist’s chair, I listen to your stories, all the while knowing we’re alike in ways that blow my mind. Almost nothing truly separates us.

More Honesty = Less Separation Between Us

. . . and less separation sounds great to me.

My last post, about dealing with a narcissistic mother, brought me closer to what’s real. It felt risky and imperative at the same time. Some of you said, “Oh my God, that’s me too.” We both struggle with how to handle people we love who bring us down. There it is. Just like you, I need help with my boundaries and I need to know that I’m not a bad person for protecting myself.

There’s a censor in my head who says, “Shut up and act like a proper psychologist.” But another voice says, “Trust yourself. Write what you know. Share what’s real for you. Trust the universe. Allow yourself to be known.”

Even though I sit in the therapist’s chair, I’m a work in progress. And although our sessions are about you, sometimes I need to write about me. That feels more balanced, more genuine, more honest . . .

 . . . and scary as hell.

(which is probably a sign I need to do it).

More Spiritual Growth

A few years ago, I wrote a novel about growing up and escaping fundamentalism. It’s fiction – but it hews closely to my emotional truth. Now, more than ever, I think you need to read my story. It’s part of your story too . . . Though you may not realize it yet.

We are spiritual beings who change constantly. We’re all moving toward more mindful spirituality, higher levels of consciousness, less restricted thinking, more love, more connection . . . whether we realize it or not.

I plan to share Wife Material in my 2018 blog, starting with this little scene of the 22-year-old bride, Elizabeth, straight from her Church of Christ wedding reception (Think receiving line, sherbet punch, mixed nuts, and pastel-colored mints.) Elizabeth is me. She’s the reason I’m for you getting free.

As always, I love hearing from you.

 

1988, from Wife Material: A Novel of Misbehavior and Freedom

The wedding night. My new husband looked like a mound of biscuit dough. He had a surprising lack of body hair and a pale form that slumped when standing or sitting. He had his mother’s hips. Unless you actually saw his private parts, you might not realize he was, in fact, a man. He waited for me under the hotel blanket as I tiptoed out of the small Vanderbilt bathroom in my white chenille robe, reluctantly exposing my skin to conditioned air as I slipped it off.

He smiled like a dimpled three-year-old about to eat pudding. The lights were out except for the fluorescent shafts that wound around the partially open bathroom door. I thanked God for darkness as I hurried into the stiff, clean sheets with him, a bit of moonlight misting in through a crack in the heavy sixth-floor drapes. The clock on the polished nightstand said 1:15 a.m. I missed my mother.

An hour ago, somebody else’s wedding party reveled in the lobby as we arrived at the hotel. The other bride still wore her finery, her updo falling in a sexy droop, and her friends laughed and glistened with perspiration in their cocktail dresses, like they’d been dancing for hours. They looked breezy and comedic, in the way of Eddie Bauer models. A hunky groom stood by her, joking with tuxedoed friends. Her gaiety gagged me—I had no idea why. At this moment in the sheets with Ted, I thought of that bride downstairs. She was happier than me.

Contact Deborah

Dis-Fellowshipping: When People get Shunned

QUALCUNO HA PRESO IL PACCO, Luca Barberini, 2015

QUALCUNO HA PRESO IL PACCO, Luca Barberini, 2015

I have shunned and been shunned.

What leads me to turn my back? Repeated bullying or toxic behavior that takes a mental or physical toll. Abuse toward me or others, without acknowledgement of impact. It makes me sad, but out of self-preservation, I’ve sometimes hit the eject button.

On an individual level, we need to, mindfully, cut people out when they seem unwilling to stop hurting us. But what happens when a person is dis-fellowshipped or ostracized by their church? Rejected by an entire faith community? What dynamics call for excommunication? And what’s the impact?

I grew up in a fundamentalist church, the Church of Christ, that shunned or dis-fellowshipped people for a variety of perceived sins or doctrinal differences (disagreement meant heresy). The whole group refused to socialize with the person and they were officially “kicked out.” Most of the “sins” that got people thrown out of church were sexual in nature: divorce without the approval of the elders, an affair, sex outside marriage, being gay, and marrying after a divorce. The elders and deacons concerned themselves, in a big way, with our mating behavior, a big part of the story in my novel, Wife Material.

Effects of Shunning

Borders, Luca Barberini, 2016, http://lucabarberini.com/en/works/view/79/borders

Effects of Being Shunned

And the people who got dis-fellowshipped? I hope they spoke their minds to someone . . . or that they were having so much fun fornicating that they didn’t care two flips about the church. But I think most of them were deeply wounded and silenced by the experience. I know some of these people, personally. Their stories are trauma stories. They felt a kind of helpless, muted rage that had no resolution. They stopped trusting people – even themselves. They experienced condemned isolation.

Today, we know more than ever about the effects of being cut out, dis-fellowshipped, or ostracized – and they’re devastating. The effects of exclusion bear remarkable similarity to the effects of physical pain. Long-term impact of humiliation and loss of community includes hopelessness, rage, depression, inability to make decisions, loss of self-care, and even suicidal feelings. We humans need connection like we need water and air.

In their research compilation, Lowell Gaernter and Jonathan Iuzzini make the case that if a person feels extremely ostracized by a community or society, they are more at risk for violent behavior, even mass violence. Evidence suggests ostracism affects young brains by limiting cognitive ability. And even just recalling a past social shunning event creates extreme distress, affecting hormonal balance and the entire nervous system.

Think about this for a moment. I think the massive human brutality we’ve seen recently stems directly from social exclusion on a grand scale. Not just “mental health issues.” Not just “weapons in the wrong hands.” Not just religious differences or poverty or racial intolerance. Not just poor parenting or untreated PTSD. It comes from all those things. And all those things come from dis-fellowshipping, ostracism, and the shutting out of people at the margins. We can no longer afford to guard our borders as if they were real points of separation. When we reject and ignore the needs of people, send them packing if they see the world differently, we contribute to widespread despair that has no outlet, no solution, no hope.

So, here’s a challenge: LET’S PUT AN END TO DISFELLOWSHIPPING OF ALL KINDS. Are you in?

Wherever you are, consider the people in your orbit who are not well embraced by the group. What do they look like? How do they annoy or confuse? What happens to you in their presence? Can you make meaningful eye contact? Consider who they are and how they could be suffering at the edges of the community. Reach out to them. Look for areas of common interest and start there.

It matters how we treat each other.

Read Wife Material

Book Review – Wife Material

The Cover of Deborah L Cox's Book - Wife MaterialSome in the 70s missed ERA and the end of Vietnam. Among them was Elizabeth Campbell, the heroine of Wife Material: A Novel of Misbehavior and Freedom. Cocooned from the larger world of feminism and anti-government rallies, Elizabeth was well-prepared for domestic rather than political action. Growing up in a small town and attending the church-related Waltham Academy and then the college, moving to Texas and through marriage, divorce and professional development, Elizabeth finds her way in life’s journey. Although drawn from one person’s experiences in the Church of Christ, Deborah Cox’s autobiographical fiction speaks to many who came of age in conservative communities and church life.

Readers will come alive with remembrances of the familiar – or with shock at the strange. Whichever it may be, their feelings should also include gratitude that Cox has rendered an account which needed to be told, with all its unsettling surprises about family, school and church; authority, marriage and independence; curiosity, wounds and caring. In short, Wife Material is about what it means to be human and living in the midst of challenging, overbearing, and sometimes abusive relationships. Cox tells the tale with neither anger nor shame—just poignant insights. Brava!

Etta Madden, author of “Damanhur: Sustaining Changes in an Intentional Community,” in Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World (Ashgate 2013).

Leaving Home to Find My Higher (Grownup) Self

Growing Up Paisley from Flowers Reborn, Deborah Cox, 2016

Growing Up Paisley from Flowers Reborn, Deborah Cox, 2016

I Write to Grow Up

I struggle to differentiate, as we all do. Leaving home is a lifelong process, as described by Murray Bowen, the father of family systems theory. But writing my novel, Wife Material, about the process of leaving home, catapulted me forward. That’s why I so recommend life-writing as part of trauma recovery. If I can create story around the invisible problems of fundamentalist Christian culture, I understand myself better and pull myself further out of that mindset.

And it makes me wonder: why do fundamentalist Christians have such a hard time letting their children grow up and leave home? Take Christian home-schooling for example (I have numerous lovely friends who home-school their children, so please, if you’re one of them, I can imagine circumstances in which home-school makes sense). Take “Christian College” for example (and again, if your kid goes to Harding or Evangel or Liberty, read this with one eye closed). Some of this may be true of your family – but perhaps not. We are so complex.

But to me, home-schooling and Christian college really show the gravitational pull of the fundamentalist family . . . the frightened family. Well-intentioned parents in fundie traditions fear the process of leaving home. They dread letting their kids out into the world where differentiation happens. Because differentiation can be scary.

What if they encounter drugs? Sex? Bad attitudes?

        What if their faith gets diluted?

            What if they develop nasty habits or vulgar language?

What if they stop believing in God?

The Vital Mess of Growing Up and Leaving Home

Fear of differentiation creates the need for schools like Waltham Academy, where my protagonist, Elizabeth Campbell, grew up. At Christian schools, children are sheltered from outside influences, thus restricting their thoughts to a prescribed area that’s been deemed appropriate or familiar. Fear of differentiation creates the need for home-school. Fear of differentiation creates depression and anxiety.

Typically, when you go off to school for the first time, you step into a foreign environment. You make friends with different types of backgrounds, orientations, and lifestyles. You see contrasts with your own family values and you start to question the rules and rituals with which you’re being raised. This is normal, healthy. This is how we leave home. Birthing is painful . . . and so is launching: uncomfortable, necessary, bloody, messy, and real.

When I left Christian college for a liberal (and feminist) state university environment, I made friends with Muslims and atheists and Jews, gay men, lesbians, and transgendered individuals, and people from other spots on the globe. This triggered my realization that my parents did not know everything . . . (nor should they have) which liberated my mind and allowed me to keep growing up. Growing past them.

If I’d stayed loyal to the churched educational system in which I was raised, I’d be dead now (at least mentally). I’d have compressed myself into a small intellectual space and blocked my mind from reaching out for more new information. Root bound. Enclosed. Strangled.

Differentiation is Growing Up

Differentiation is Growing Up

Every parent is limited. I know this like never before, raising a 15-year-old whose vocabulary and imagination surge ahead of mine and leave me feeling like a dusty old relic with my relational theology. But limits are normal. We don’t know everything. Our kids will know more than us. They’re supposed to, at some point. We grow beyond our parents’ abilities to imagine . . . and that is the stuff of this beautiful world.

At its base, Wife Material describes getting free to grow up.

We all desperately need to pull and scrape and claw our way to freedom so that we can leave behind our parents’ ideologies and grow into our fullest, brightest, wisest selves.

Read Wife Material

Writing as Healthy Rebellion

Rebellion is good for you.

Rebellion is good for you.

Julia Cameron says we all have the right to write, even if someone has told us we’re no good at it. Writing is a birthright that cannot be denied. It brings what’s inside to the outside, a very basic human need.

I’m working on a sequel to Wife Material, the novel I published last fall. If you’ve not read it, it’s a story about escaping religious abuse – and it’s based on my earlier life. Ten years in the making, Wife Material deals with dangerous dogma. Dogma that separates people. Dogma that makes them scared to reveal their inner selves. Dogma that keeps them afraid of hell and each other’s judgment.

The sequel (yet unnamed) has a handful of lifelong Church of Christ women emerging from deep and isolating emotional stupor and coming together to produce change. They discover the power of confession and truth-telling. They uncover secrets that have fostered the abuse of women and children for generations. They transform their relationships into more mutual, sustaining connections and they demand change. The women disobey. And as they disobey, they shine light on the path to healing for a whole community.

This is the change I want to see in the world.

Life Story Re-Write

Changing the story changes the brain. A new idea literally causes different neuronal firing, which leads to new cooperation between neurons and groups of neurons. When you get fresh information or use your imagination to see a different outcome, you create new connections in your nervous system.

People often say: I’m not a good writer. I don’t even know where to start. I have nothing important to say. My story would bore people to death…

To which, I say: That’s okay. You know things. Write what you know. Nobody has to see it but you.

And that’s where it starts. Here’s a set of exercises to help you get things onto the page that can change the world. For each exercise, observe the time limit.

  1. Set a timer for three minutes. Make a list of five issues you care deeply about (e.g., child abuse, poverty, mental health treatment, nutrition).
  2. Set a timer for three minutes. Write a few short sentences about one of the items on your list above. What should we be doing to address it in the world?
  3. Set a timer for ten minutes. Write a short scene from your life. Absolutely any scene. Add description. Add dialogue.
  4. Set a timer for ten minutes. Make a list: ten events from your life that stand out in memory (positive or negative).
  5. Set a timer for ten minutes. Write a scene from one of the events above. Add description. Add dialogue.
  6. Get a cup of coffee. Stretch. Set a timer for twenty minutes. Make up a short scene about a person living one of the issues from list number one.

Notice that when you’ve done these exercises, you have the beginnings of a book or a blog. You have a collection of your deepest observations. You even have a piece of fiction. You have the words of your higher self, recorded on the page, staring you in the face. You have been documented.

Check out my book and get inspired to make up your own story.

Read Wife Material