Witness, With-ness, and Open Wounds that Welcome
This week’s post is a personal one and comes with a content warning about suicide. I initially wrote it for my own benefit, but in the spirit ofwhose writing I am reflecting on, I hope others will benefit from personal reflections on my story. I had also initially thought about publishing this last week, closer to the 8 year anniversary of my mom’s suicide on January 25, 2016, but that plan got hijacked by a piece of dominionist propaganda. I’m glad, though, because it gave me a chance to reflect further after this latest post from by K.J. Ramsey. I have been so moved by her reflections on pain, suffering, hope, setbacks, confusion, and her raw psalmic honesty. If you aren’t reading her Substack, go there now and subscribe!
When I read about’s health crisis last summer, it led me to wonder about how my mom handled her own health crisis around the same age. It seems strange to say, but ever since her June 23 post Sadness is the Soul’s Way of Saying, “This Matters”, the similar age connected to some early memories and has led me to revisit my story.
My mom, Nan Hann, suffered from severe chronic health issues which worsened when she was around 35 and I was 5. Her illnesses and difficulties included fibromyalgia, Addison’s disease, and related chronic pain as well as weight gain from steroids and, by her admission, disordered eating.
I wrote that my mom “suffered” in the past tense because she committed suicide in 2016 at age 60; I was 30 when she died, and she was 30 when I was born.
In contrast to the picture above, during childhood I mostly remember Mom being in varying degrees of despair, depression, doubt, and overall emotional dysregulation. She followed Jesus, but hope and healing were illusive, and I know she would have resonated deeply with K.J.’s description of words of hope in her most recent post “Suffering well” is bullshit:
“Somewhere deep inside, I still believe those words. But those words are no longer forming a boat that can carry me through this choppy sea. Instead, they feel like the cries of bystanders on a beach, yelling out instructions to make it back to the dock, unaware that the sound of this storm drowns out every word.”
The storm imagery is very meaningful to me, which I’ll explain below, as was her post on woundedness in The Way is Through the Wounds. After reading that piece, I found myself wondering what life would have looked like had Mom been able to believe that, as K.J. put it, “wholeness includes our wounds.” Maybe I would have learned how to better digest and metabolize my own emotional pain if she had been able to tell her story of childhood sexual abuse, if she had compassion for herself and her many layers of unhealed wounds. K.J.’s story is allowing me to better name what I lost because Mom could not be compassionately present to her own pain, and thus also not compassionately present to me.
“I have a growing conviction that many of you also need to see someone else’s wounds in order to trust that even when you remain wounded, you are still on the way into wholeness.”
This reminded me of a quote from Jerome Miller shared with me by my seminary counseling supervisor Dan Zink:
“But I see no way to get around what seems to be the harshest, most merciless truth about the human heart—the fact that, to keep it open, once it has been pierced, one must allow it to remain an open wound.”1
My mother hated her wounds, to the point that the only solution was the final wound of death. K.J.’s willingness to keep her heart an open wound and share that with others helps me grieve not only my own wounds but even the wounds that my mom was unable and unwilling to grieve herself. I can’t change anything about her story or mine, but K.J. is giving me a different way of telling it. And that is a great gift.
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She also wrote something the other day that means a great deal to me:
“But I am not in the boat, braving all of this brokenness, alone…I hope you’ll let your storms strip away every last belief in self-sufficiency as the storyline of success. I hope you’ll let someone carry you home.”
This called to mind a purpose statement I wrote for a prior counseling practice I started in a South Carolina beach town. Because of the location and my growing love of the ocean (I grew up in landlocked Kansas), it seemed appropriate to use a marine image for that statement. This is what I came up with:
““Do you find yourself adrift at sea, assailed by storms, or about to sink into the deep? At Surfside Christian Counseling we will get into the lifeboat with you—where Jesus already is—and lead you back to shore.”
I’m wondering now about the audacity of that final phrase: “lead you back to shore.” As a counselor, and also in my experience as a counseling client, I know the pressure for results: the cure, the fix, the resolution, the managed care idols of controlled outcomes, objectives and goals. But so much of my work with clients feels more like simply sitting in the boat with them while the sea does its savage work. As I wrote in my first Substack two years ago,
“Our training, experience, and calling [as counselors] enables us to swim out to the boat, climb in, and endure the wind, rain, rocking, thunder, and waves that the person has been facing alone. Sadly, it often takes many, many weeks of bailing water and bracing crashing waves with people before they really feel and accept our presence with them.”
Re-reading that now, I wonder to what degree people climbed in the boat with my mom. I don’t know if or to what degree she could really accept presence from others. I don’t know to what degree people could handle her despair. I wasn’t able to as a child. Only in recent years, after her suicide, have I realized that I shut down the sympathetic branch (fight/flight) of my nervous system to adapt. Freezing, dorsal vagal shutdown, became my dominant response to danger. I avoided feeling her pain by avoiding feeling anything at all. To mix metaphors, I refused to keep my wounded heart open by feigning sleep at the bottom of the boat and pretending like the storms weren’t real.
But the storms are real, just as real as the storm that struck Jesus’ disciples in the gospels. John’s version of that storm ends in a striking way:
“Then they were willing to take him on board, and at once the boat was at the shore where they were heading.” (John 6:21 CSB)
This sounds so strange: rather than calming the storm, Jesus’ presence in the boat acts like a magical propeller. Matthew and Mark write that the sea “became” stormy and then “became” calm, but John writes that the boat “became” (same word) upon the land where they were heading, and that that happened “at once” or “immediately.”
Isn’t that what we all want? Isn’t that what my mom spent 60 years seeking? To immediately arrive at shore where there is safety.
And yet, I like John’s version of this story, because the storm doesn’t calm down. While scholars debate whether or not this immediate arrival at shore was a miracle, maybe it was a different kind of miracle. Maybe it was a miracle of the heart, for the “at once” arrival happened once the disciples “were willing to take [Jesus] on board.” The word for “take” is somewhat of a technical term in John, almost always used with reference to receiving Jesus (or refusing to), receiving his word, and receiving the Holy Spirit.2 For John, the difference between the storm and the shore is the difference between being alone and being with. While Jesus does offer words of reassurance, those words don’t calm the storm. The miracle happens when he gets into the boat with them.
The storm doesn’t go away, the boat might not even seem to be moving, but the waiting is different. The fear doesn’t go away, but the fear changes. It is the difference between freezing alone at the door before entering that first day of kindergarten, and walking through the door with mom or dad holding your hand. Both are very fearful. Both feel impossible. Both provoke the impulse to flee or freeze or freak out. But only one of those is truly traumatic, as Bonnie Badenoch puts it:
“The essence of trauma isn’t events, but aloneness within them.”3
That aloneness is what I feel was mostly present during my early years, and what I feel is illuminated by the contrast with K.J.’s story. Walking alone vs walking with. I don’t know if my mom was really able to receive presence from others. Part of what makes me say that is that I myself have such a hard time receiving presence from others. Whether I simply received this from mom, or I adapted to her own lack of presence, the result was the same.
This connects to one of my earliest [little t] traumatic memories. I must have been 4 or so, around the time I guess mom’s health deteriorated and put her in the hospital; how long she was hospitalized I don’t know, but long enough for me to remember it. Around the same time I remember sleeping outside my parents’ door in the middle of the night. Just me, a pillow, and a blanket, on the floor of our upstairs hallway. That’s all I explicitly remember; why I did that, did my parents know, did I cry, did I knock or beat on their door, or did I just lie down in silence, is a mystery. But I slept. And I learned to be alone.
I learned to live in dorsal vagal shutdown, because it shut out the pain.
But that also shut out presence, and there must have been trauma, because I was alone.
I only know this, consciously at least, because of the only dream I remember from childhood. Today it feels like a memory of a memory. In shadow, details obscured, feeling rather than seeing the scene, I see myself on one side of the Nile river, which is the color of tomato soup and boiling (surely some Sunday school flannel graph influence there), and my mom is on the other side of the river. Me, mom, and a red river keeping me away from her. And that’s it. That’s all I remember. But I know I dreamt it often.
On the outside, during the day, I was a shy, quiet kid, comfortable being alone.
On the inside, at night, I was uncomfortably alone and afraid.
The darkness of night was too similar to the darkness inside, and the implicit sea of my subconscious registered my terror in this recurring dream. Being alone is truly terrible.
So when K.J. witnesses to with-ness in her storm, it helps me name my wounds. She writes, “But I am not in the boat, braving all of this brokenness, alone.”
That helps me imagine what life would have been like had I received greater comforting presence as a young child.
It also makes me wonder whether I was truly alone on that hallway floor. Was I truly alone when the red waters of the Nile river boiled in defiance of my desperation to reach my mom on that other shore? On the one hand, I was certainly alone, both physically and emotionally. But I survived. How? Was Jesus with me? Even though the stormy waters raged in my dreams, on that hallway floor I slept. Perhaps Jesus was asleep with me in the boat all along. Not bringing me to the shore, but keeping the terror at bay, from overwhelming me entirely.
K.J.’s story has helped and is helping me reconnect with that part of my story. That part of me that still pushes away presence, because then I’m in control. Self-sufficient. Safe. Or so I think.
But like K.J., I have needed tangible, this-worldly presence to help me believe that Jesus can be with me when storms rage. Words have not been enough, and God knew that by bringing my wife Kristen into my life. Kristen lovingly defies my demand to be alone. That’s actually how we met. I was wearing headphones, probably listening to Muse, and studying Greek vocabulary in our Bible college coffee shop. Kristen, who was on our newly paired bro-sis floor (Christian college students, you get this), sat next to me, pulled out my headphones, and simply said, “We’re going to be friends.” I looked at her and said “Ok.” Then I took my headphones back, returned them to my ears, and returned to studying.
With time, and oh so begrudgingly, I’ve realized just how much I need that insistent presence. Like Jesus, she shows up when I’m in the boat at night and doesn’t wait for me to call.
But like the disciples in that boat on the Sea of Galilee, whether I let her in is still up to me. Jesus is no different. He knocks, daily and surely in a myriad of ways I only half hear. But I have to open the door. And there is still a part of me that feels more comfortable with the (supposed) safety of separation. Sometimes I still choose to stay on the bank of that red Nile river. I choose to stay on the outside of that door and keep it closed.
But seeing K.J. choose a different path than my mom is helping me see I have choices today. There are many things I can’t change about my life. But I can become “willing to take [Jesus] on board.” And that starts with being human. Being needy. Feeling the neediness I needed to feel as a boy but could not. Letting my heart break. Letting it be an open wound.
I am so thankful to K.J. Ramsey for showing the world her open wounds and for keeping her heart open as it breaks.
Open wounds point out the winding way to the wounded side of the Crucified.
Quote from K.J. Ramsey4
God of Moses and Miriam, who brought your people through the wilderness: lead us through the wilderness of our wounds by the light of the Wounded One. For though our anxiety leaves us lost, alone, and ashamed and we curse the chaos in our very selves, the only way out of the country of our wounds is through, and Christ’s courage to let chaos nail him through can make these wounds the path back to our promised land. Amen.
Who is with you in your woundedness? What does it look like for you to receive Jesus into your storm-tossed boat?
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Jerome Miller, “The Way of Suffering: A Reasoning of the Heart,” Second Opinion, April 1992, 21-33.
See John 1:12, 1:16, 3:11, 3:32-33, 5:43, 7:39, 12:48, 13:20, 14:17, 17:8, 20:22.
Bonnie Badenoch, The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), p. 25.
K.J. Ramsey, The Book of Common Courage: Prayers and Poems to Find Strength in Small Moments, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2023), p. 98.