Yesterday was one of those days I can say, with complete confidence, was entirely orchestrated by God.
I’ve been struggling in so many ways these last few years, especially these last few months: my family’s finances have been severely impacted by my decision to quit teaching and start Giving Families, causing a significant strain on my marriage. This makes it difficult for me to parent from a positive place, and easier to fall back into old, unhealthy habits.
But yesterday I shared my struggles with depression and anxiety, as well as my history with substance abuse in an attempt to self-medicate, with teens at a local high school, reminding me that God is still on the throne… still shepherding my thoughts and my actions every step of the way.
I started sharing my story with students a little less than two years ago, in October 2014. After watching my TEDx talk, my friend Connie asked me to share my personal story with students in her high school classroom, explaining how and why my family’s history had contributed to my decision to leave the classroom and start my own business.
My initial reaction was, “No way…I’ve been trying to forget my past for as long as I can remember!” In fact, I’d participated in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing) therapy when I was pregnant with my son in 2011 hoping to – literally – erase some of my most traumatic memories before giving birth to my second child.
Knowing me better than I know myself however, God must have felt 2014 was the year for me to conquer my fears (i.e. my past) head-on because He spoke to me through Connie, prompting me to reflect on my life in a way I never had before.
For weeks, I prepared, pouring over my past by writing every experience I could remember on a large whiteboard in my children’s playroom. “Oh, the irony…” I thought, “Here I am reliving my life-long struggles in the very same room my children are developing their life-long memories.”
Prior to Connie’s request to share my story with her students, the thoughts and emotions surrounding my experiences were simply swirling around in my head, all jumbled up like the pieces of a puzzle someone had dumped onto a table and walked away from, never to complete. Having more control over me than I had over them, they wove in and out of my conscious and subconscious mind whenever they pleased, making me feel more like a puppet than a puppeteer.
As I worked to chronicle my experiences in chronological order, I grieved for my childhood. I wept for the younger version of myself who experienced the death of three family members in less than six months, one of which was a death by suicide; chronic medical conditions that swept through the family, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder; and daily attempts by everyone around me to ease the pain through self-medication. But I also wept for my family – my mom, my dad, my stepdad and my sister – who had suffered through the exact same traumatic events I had, as I’d never considered them previously.
Viewing all of my experiences from this different, 2-dimensional perspective somehow changed how I’d viewed my past, helping me realize my struggles weren’t – as I’d believed for so long – all about me, which created a HUGE sense of relief! Turns out I wasn’t the victim I’d always portrayed myself to be. Instead, I was the victim of my family’s circumstances – circumstances that also negatively impacted all the other members of my family.
Retrieving my memories and putting them to paper helped me feel – for the first time ever – that I was actually in control of my emotions. That I had the option, and the power, to forgive myself for the bad choices I’d made while trying to overcome my own obstacles. But it also helped me realize that I had the power, and the option, to have compassion for my parents…that I could choose to forgive them for being the perpetrators of my pain as I’d falsely believed they were for so many years prior.
While speaking to teens about my attempts to self-medicate during the deepest and darkest days of my life, and the temptation to return to those “remedies” when things get tough, my goal is to impress upon them the importance of reflecting on their past because “knowing where you’ve been makes it easier to understand where you’re headed”…who you want to be, but also you don’t.
Sharing that simple statement with students at McAuley High School yesterday was, without a doubt, completely and totally orchestrated by God. Why? Because all 543 powerpoint slides I’d created to visually represent my struggles AND my successes were shared (in under 45 minutes!) in the high school my own mother attended, of which she was in the first graduating class.
But that wasn’t the only “first.”
Yesterday’s presentation was the first presentation I’ve received compensation for as it was covered by a grant McAuley’s Fearless Initiative had received, reassuring me I’m on the right path. That I’m doing exactly what He’s called me to do…to share my story, and my mom’s, with young people who desperately need to hear that life is hard, but that it’s easier with Christ.
That He, and He alone, can heal our wounds and mend our hearts.
All we have to do is remember that Jesus didn’t come to earth to hang out with those who were healthy, He came to heal the sick. He is the ultimate Helper in times of need, keeping track of how many tears we’ve shed and how many hairs are on our head. He knows the depths of our pain and, rather than viewing our pain as a struggle like we often do, He wants us to view our struggles as opportunities to accept our brokenness… an opportunity to invite Him into our hearts so He can heal us from the inside out.
My mother wasn’t the first woman who struggled in our family – and she won’t be the last – because we are followers of Jesus and the bible tells us to rejoice in our sufferings, as explained in Romans 5:3-4: “…suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
There is a purpose for our pain; our suffering increases our hope. When we are weak, He is strong. And His power is perfected in our weakness.
Our struggles are what enable us to identify with Jesus (who endured the ultimate sacrifice) and they encourage us to connect with God (who had to orchestrate His death in order to save us).
His heart breaks when our hearts break. And, when we return the favor…when we allow our hearts to break for the many, many things that break God’s heart too… He’s able to turn our pain into a spark that’ll fuel our passion for making the world a better place.
When we have a passion for making the world a better place, but more importantly a passion for Christ, we bring others into the faith. We bring others into the faith like a moth to the flame. Don’t let your pain consume you. Instead, let it guide you towards Him and the wonderful life He has planned for you. Like a moth to the flame, flock to Him. It is there that you’ll find peace.
If interested in reflecting on where you’ve been so you can better understand where He’s taking you, click here to download a copy of the “life map” exercise I completed when preparing to speak with students. (If I’ve presented at your school, click here to access the version including the reflective questions and mnemonic tools I discussed during my presentation. Audio files coming soon!)
Beth Nowak is a believer, dreamer, wife and mother, former Kindergarten teacher, and founder of GivingFamilies.com where she helps parents and children (ages 4+) “make memories while making a difference.” She’s also a mental health activist, TEDx presenter and inspirational speaker promoting civic engagement as a holistic approach to healing. For more information on the many topics she presents on, please click here.