Taking Prisoners

Taking Prisoners

My mind is good at making connections. That comes in handy when assembling a story or trying to hunt down the cause of a bug in software, but it becomes a major hurdle when confronted with something that carries a lot of emotional baggage. The month of May is hard on me for that reason. I have so many bad memories during this month that hearing its name is liable to summon one of them. The anniversaries of these days are even harder.

My method of coping has almost entirely consisted of trying to keep myself distracted until the month blessedly comes to an end. When that fails, I might need to lock myself in a bathroom for a few minutes to compose myself. Some years, that's happened multiple times a day a few days in a row. I never tried to set these days up as anything special. Why would I purposely commemorate what I have long considered to be some of the worst days of my life?

Sometimes, not intending for something doesn't cut it. In this case, certainly, it wasn't enough. I have long waited and believed for May to not automatically carry copious amounts of pain with it. Year after year, I've braced myself and powered through. Over the past few days, I've been thinking that this might be a case of needing to be more active in taking certain thoughts captive instead of trying to ignore them, shoo them away, or otherwise attempt to avoid facing them head-on.

2 Corinthians 10:5 (ESV)
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ...

When I was younger and first making a real effort to serve God, I treated this more like a magic spell than a way of life. When I got angry, depressed, or experienced any other form of negative thought, I would say, "I command this thought to leave me in Jesus's name." I didn't care much whether the thought came from my own sinful subconscious or Satan himself whispered them in my ear: if the Bible told me to take the thought captive, that's what I was going to do.

If you caught a burglar in your house, you wouldn't throw them out onto your porch and expect them to walk away after getting a glimpse of the objects to be plundered. No, the thief will be back, most likely with new and more effective methods to avoid being noticed.

Likewise, consciously noticing and choosing to ignore these thoughts and memories is not the same as taking them captive. Like the burglar, they need to be taken into custody and removed from the premises.

Romans 12:9 (ESV)
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.

I'm going to take my thoughts about these dates captive by facing them head-on. I don't need to deny my bad memories. In fact, I don't believe for a second that doing so would be healthy. I can hate the evil that has come from them, but I need to look for the good and hold on for dear life.

Why do this publicly? Because I've learned that my thoughts, experiences, and reactions aren't nearly as strange as I once believed. That realization is at once comforting and disturbing. Maybe seeing me go through this process will help someone. Even the chance of that is worth opening a window into some of my immaturity and insecurity.

May 9, 1988

My oldest memory. I was crawling from our living room to the front entryway of the house. My mother and sisters were huddled together on the couch by the front door. They were all crying. I didn't understand why they were upset, but I was sad because they were sad. I crawled to my mom's feet. She picked me up and held me on her lap. We all cried together.

It was the day after mother's day. It was exactly a week before my second birthday. It was the day Joe, my father, was arrested for being a child molester.

On this day, my mind is flooded with memories of being branded as the son of a felon, as a child that was tainted and unclean. I came from trash and I would always be trash. People knew all they needed to know about me because they knew who my father was and, more importantly, what he had done.

My mother had lived with various forms of abuse that Joe had visited upon her, but she would not put up with anyone abusing her children. The day he was arrested made many things public, but some things need to be. Otherwise, they are like wounds left to fester and rot beneath bandages that are barely able to contain the puss.

We could have lived under his abuse for years to come, perhaps my entire childhood and beyond. Instead, he was taken to jail and later pled guilty.

May 9 is not a day to remember shame. It is a day to remember that my family was rescued from abuse. We bore the wounds and scars — perhaps more visibly than we would have liked — but no more would be inflicted.

May 16

My birthday. Don't get me wrong: I've always loved excuses to get presents. At the same time, I understood from a young age that many people — teachers, other kids, myself — would have preferred if I had never been born. They would have never had to deal with the annoying kid that tried too hard, and still failed, to be likable. I would have never been shackled with what I believed was my destiny: to grow up to be like Joe.

So when my birthday came around, I dreaded it. Why were people that ignored or rejected me all of a sudden wishing me a happy birthday? What, exactly, made it happy? I felt like I had to justify my existence. Until I had done that, any fondness shown to me on my birthday was somewhere between politeness and cruel irony.

As much as I don't want to admit it, I think that desire to prove my worth is still there, only buried much deeper. With it is the insecurity that a cheer of "Happy birthday!" might not be genuine, that I still don't — and may never — deserve the birth that is being celebrated.

To be blunt, what I "deserve" isn't a factor. I was born. I have lived. I have made mistakes. Many mistakes. But at the same time, I know that my paltry attempts to be obedient to God have been used to do his will in a number of situations.

God knew what he was doing when he created me, even if others — including me — have doubted that in the past. Why should I trust, "thank you for being there for my child," but doubt, "happy birthday," from the same person? What if I never hear specifics, only birthday wishes from someone that is genuinely happy that I was born and wishes me well? And what does it matter if it's "just" someone being polite? There are things much worse than simple politeness.

Partly just to type it and partly for when I read this in the future:

It was good for me to be born. Others know it. God knows it. I know it. I need to start believing it.

May 17, 2010

Joe died in December 2009. I found out the day after my 24th birthday. I've previously written about my ambivalence: initially feeling relieved, then guilty for feeling relieved, then confused about how to grieve him, etc. The anniversary of that day doesn't sting because it's a reminder of his death but because it reminds me of all the time he was absent when alive. His death was the period at the end of the statement, "My biological father was never there for me." It ended the story, at least on this side of eternity. But his death has also allowed me to move on without anxiously glancing over my shoulder, waiting for the day he shows up to hurt those I love.

Beyond my own peace of mind, it's possible that the day was joyous for him. Joe died of throat cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes and shoulder. I don't know what suffering he experienced at the end. If he finally did what he claimed so many times to have done — turn to God for forgiveness — his bodily death would have meant freedom from his suffering.

May 17, 2010 was also my 7th "Name Day," the day I celebrate the beginning of the surprisingly easy process to legally change my name from Joseph Edwin Wilkinson III to Michael Caleb Liam Garrett. The day I learned of my biological father's death fell on the same day I celebrate abandoning the identity he had given me and taking on a name I believe was placed in my heart by my heavenly father.

While my earthly father abused me, abandoned me, and branded me with a cursed name, my heavenly father healed me, adopted me, and gave me a new name and identity in him.

May probably isn't going to be my favorite month any time soon. Even still, facing these thoughts and emotions head on instead of trying to ignore them is a good and necessary step in the healing process. Many of the emotions tied up in these memories were nothing more than ghosts: the conscious thoughts and thought processes that led to them had long been put to rest.

I let these memories steal from me for so long because I was afraid of turning the lights on and facing them. Now that I've gotten a good look, saw them for what they are, I'll be ready for them if they return.

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Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash