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Tuesday, March 15th, 2016 | Author:

Over the next few months I’ll be working on a small e-book project about the things no one talks about when they talk about grief. Obviously, I write about grief a lot, and I wish when I was first experiencing grief that I could’ve found some pretty brutally honest, but maybe slightly funny book about the different aspects about the grief journey. I didn’t find such a book. So I decided to have a go at trying to write it. It’ll be pretty short, because I, at least, when I’m in grief, don’t have a lot of energy to consume or process outside information.

That being said, this is the intro chapter to the book project…

THINGS NO ONE TELLS YOU ABOUT GRIEF:

You May Vomit

What I remember most about the car ride to the hospital where my sister, Julie, would die is that I wanted to puke. Want is the wrong word, I guess. I needed to puke.

We’d just left the Carl’s Jr. in Grass Valley, California, and we had to make our way to a hospital a couple of hours away. My mom had gotten the call that changed our lives on her cell phone. My brother-in-law’s name, Chris, came across the screen of the cell phone that still had an antennae she had to pull up before answering.

I saw her face as I watched her through the glass doors that she had exited to take the call in a quieter place. Something about her face told me and my body that grief was on its way. That’s the moment — the moment my stomach dropped and started tying in knots, telling me it didn’t want anything in it anymore.

I poured out my drink and held my empty cup in my hands as we drove, sure that I would need it at any moment.

When we arrived at the hospital a couple hours later, my mom asked me how I was doing. “I feel like I need to throw up,” I said blankly.

“That’s ok if you do. That’s a normal reaction,” I remember her saying.

It wasn’t normal to me, though.

 

I was 14, and I’d experienced one death prior. A girl a year older than I, who had cerebral palsy, had died a few years before. I’d always had a soft spot for her and been kind to her. She couldn’t say any words, and her mouth was permanently open with drool streaming out, but man. I could make her laugh. Cackle, actually. Her name was Julie, also. I’d known her my whole life. She died on a summer day, and I was swimming at my best friend’s house when my sister showed up, walked down the path to the pool at the end of the yard and told us the news.

I was sad, really sad, but not nauseous.

Julie (my sister) played piano at the other Julie’s funeral. It was the first time I’d heard the church song “Better is one day.” The chorus says, “better is one day in your courts, better is one day in your house, better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere.”

I watched my sister play and sing this beautiful song about a promise of hope and newness, and I thought of this younger Julie, who had never been able to walk or run or play, who had never been able to speak, or argue, or do anything except laugh or cry, and I saw her in those courts, in that house, being free and running and talking and I was glad for her.

But a few years later, as I walked into the hospital where my siblings and I were all born, and where Julie would soon die, I wanted to throw up. The thoughts of the courts and house of God being better than a thousand days here had no consolation. I wanted to puke all over that hopeful song.

I didn’t though. I went to the bathroom several times thinking I would. At one point I shoved a finger down my throat because the nausea was so painful. Still nothing.

I didn’t realize that this was not just an isolated incident, but rather how my body handles the blows of grief until nine years later when I found myself in my apartment, alone, collapsed and dry-heaving in the hallway in another instance of knowing my life would never be the same.

Literal dry heaves. The only time I’d experienced that before was when I had an ugly, ugly bout with the norovirus (the very violent and contagious cruise ship stomach flu) and I’d thought I really might die, because I was so weak and so violently ill. I’ll spare you more details.

After I got to a point where I could get up from the floor and get to the bathroom, I remember thinking, “I guess this is what I do when life breaks. I want to throw up and I can’t.” I showered and laid in bed, my body reeling in a way that doesn’t make sense from an emotional blow.

I was nauseous for the next 3 weeks that time.

And every instance of forceful grief since, I find myself jealous of those of you who do actually vomit with grief. Which is a very odd and petty thing to be jealous about. But that’s what this project is — admitting the odd, petty, and other things that no one talks about when they talk about grief.

So just know, you may vomit. Or, you may not. And that’s OK.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Wednesday, October 07th, 2015 | Author:
photo credit: Daydream via photopin (license)

photo credit: Daydream via photopin (license)

The dress is white, sleeveless, summery. The fabric is decorated with large, orangish flowers — daisies maybe — flowers painted in a way to give the dress more a sense of womanhood than girlhood.  It falls just below my knees, or at least it did the last time I wore it. I was 14, and I wore it to my sister’s funeral.

It was one of my favorite dresses in a time when 1) I hated dresses still and 2) I was expected to wear dresses still to church every sunday. This one felt like me, where all other dresses failed to. It was beautiful but not too cliche “girly.” I was a hardcore tomboy at the time, and struggling to find ways to express my femininity in my style. This simple, beautiful dress had colors that were bold, but not pink, had a short length (for the time), but was still allowed in my conservative household, and was lightweight, feeling like summer.

When I was preparing for the funeral, I couldn’t figure out what to wear. The only black dress I owned was a little more formal, more of a “Little Black Dress,” and I’d only worn it to ceremonies and celebrations like my 8th grade graduation. That felt all wrong.

I could wear pants, my mom said. It didn’t have to be a dress. That felt wrong, too, though.

So I looked at my clothes and I saw the dress with bright flowers that felt like me, and I thought, I wonder if this is OK. It was bright like me. It was fiery like Julie. And I was comfortable in it during a week that I desperately needed comfort. My mom said that would be fine.

I wore the dress as I stood at the pulpit on the lower stage of the church, looking out over a sea of black clothes and sad eyes and I read a poem I had written for her.

And I went home and took off the dress and replaced them with my tomboy clothes, which would shortly thereafter be replaced in life by clothes I’d inherited from my sister, which wouldn’t be replaced with my own clothes and my own struggling style for many years.

That day, the dress got put away in the closet, and stayed there. I have purged my life innumerable times by now. Every time I move, or every time I get sick of digging through my closet, I get rid of things. But I’ve always kept that dress. Because years later I still looked at it and saw something of me in it.

“I could still wear that again,” I told myself when I left for college and took the dress with all my other clothes down to San Diego. I’ve told myself that same thing with every move since then.

But yesterday, a donation truck was coming by our house here in Wichita and I was getting things ready for it the night before, and I saw the dress. The dress that I have never worn again. And I put it in the pile.

I think that dress was proof that I knew who I was then. I knew myself at 14. And I lost myself in the tumultuousness of grief and life change and influential people and more grief and more life change and through all of that I’ve been trying to emerge as someone who knows myself and lets others get to know me.

And while it’s taken 12 years, I think I’m there. Not in an “arrived” sense. But even in the little things. Like the fact that I often will post something on pinterest and one of my friends will see it, not realizing I’m the one who posted it, and send it back to me. It shows how well they know me.

Having been sure I’d found myself again, I was able to let go of the dress that had served as a lamp post, a guiding light all these years.

“I’ll never wear it again,” I finally admitted to myself, “it’s the funeral dress. Let’s be real.”

But that wasn’t the point all these years — the point was I was trying to find the girl who’d worn it the last time. The girl who, in a sea of black, wore white and orange. The girl who wrote about grief, and shared it. The girl who was herself in the face of the storm.

I found her. It’s taken over a decade, but she’s back. I’m back. I’m back.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015 | Author:

I don’t see very many writers who even try to write about the hard things, so the fact that I do it at all seems to set me apart somewhat. The writers that do, do it incredibly, and I learn from them regularly.

But that’s something I often hear as feedback: You write so raw, your words are vulnerable. Some people ask, even, “How do you write so candidly?”

The answer is that I stopped writing for you.

I put the words out there for you, but I write them for myself to read. There are whole folders of word documents and journals (literally, journals – plural and full) that will never reach your eyes. They don’t need to. I was the only one who needed to read them.

Almost exactly three years ago now, I was out of college and had been for a year. School was starting up again as we made our way into fall, and I was nostalgic for that “I’m about to learn new things” time right at the beginning when classes are fresh and assignments are only on syllabi not in your calendar yet.

I bought a book of memoir writing prompts called “Old Friend From Far Away,” and I resolved to work my way diligently through the book to keep me writing — a year out of college had gotten me out of practice.

I bought a new journal and pen, and started in on the book’s prompts, working for the suggested “write on _____ for 10 minutes,” and good stuff was starting to come forth on the first couple prompts.

Then, about two weeks later I was at the eleventh prompt, and some of the prompts, like that one, have a chapter that goes with it to help you learn and become a better writer as well.

The prompt was to write about what you don’t remember. I read the chapter and knew that I had many dark parts of life that I’d rather not remember, so I wrote about all of them except the big one, the darkest one, the secret one that I thought I’d carry to my grave.

I wrote things like “I don’t remember Julie before she was tired and angry. I don’t remember the smell of the hospital or the way the doctor looked… I don’t remember the day after the day after the worst day… I don’t remember what —— looked like the last day I saw her. It was the day of high school graduation and she had a black eye from her dad, and her mom wanted her to move in with her boyfriend…”

I was just grasping for straws that sounded true and vulnerable while I danced around the real thing I didn’t want to remember.

I swallowed my own B.S. for one day and went on to the next prompt and wrote about it. But when I went back the day after that, I couldn’t swallow it anymore. The chapter on “I don’t remember” said this:

“Worry later about your fears — what your mother, brother, partner, co-workers, father, priest, even your angel will think. For now get it out on the page. Discover what you are so fiercely hiding and not remembering or blanking out on…

If what you write is frightening to you, tear it up, burn it, after you are done.

Then write it again. Destroy it.

Then write it again. And chew it up and swallow.

Build a tolerance for what you cannot bear.

This is the beginning: to let out what you have held hidden. Otherwise you will always be writing around your secrets, like the elephant no one notices in the living room. Get it out and down on the page. If you don’t, you’ll keep tripping over it.”

Those words haunted me and I knew they were right. One day of pretending they weren’t was too much. But I also felt like the risk was too great. I couldn’t write it even if I burned it. And if I didn’t write it, I’d keep tripping over it.

So that was the day I stopped writing.

It was four months later that my secret was exposed. In the midst of the shock and trauma, in a quiet moment, the thought came to me like a fatal silver lining — “Well, I guess I can write again, because now I can write about it.

I didn’t write about it publicly for a year. Even then it was in very vague terms so that people who knew would know what I was talking about, and people who didn’t know my story could just know that I’d gone through severe life altering events and knew the struggle of starting over.

It was over two years when I started to tell that story for real this spring. But in the meantime, I’ve been writing about it for myself with the candor that my previous life never afforded me. And as I’ve practiced being honest with myself, I find myself sometimes reading a piece I’ve written and thinking, this might have value to share with the world. They can have this one.

That’s how I write so candidly about the ugly, hard stuff of life. I’m not writing for you. I’m practicing being honest with myself, and sometimes I let the world peak in.

There’s a Hemingway quote I found last year that I hold close to my chest and my desk: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

If it hurts, I write hard and clear. Sometimes I still have to burn it. Then I write it again. I’m practicing putting my pain on the page. For me, and sometimes for you, too.

If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015 | Author:

Note: These are just in the order I wrote them. I’m including all 12 for posterity, but 1, 4, 5, 10, and 12 are my favorites.

#1 10.26.14 Fear of Fragile

All of us are dying,

that’s the crux of life

Life weights you down

like a child on your knee

ticking off the beat of time.

The living are the breathing

and with our breaths

we cry “too few.”

 

Too few are the breaths and the minutes

and the life that’s spent with you.

For when your breaths are done —

done permanent and final —

we are left with the real

test of grief’s bereft confinement.

Too small will be our breaths

our lungs suddenly too shallow

to take in air to fill our chests

because death hurts our vitals.

 

Fragile is the life of men

where bones break

and flesh is scraped

and hearts stop

in one quick moment.

 

I fear the life that breaks us

the news that knocks on doors,

“Ma’am, your son is dead,”

“Sir, the cancer’s spread,” or the

“I just don’t love you anymore.”

 

I fear the things that shatters worlds

in one swift-kick moment.

It’s hard to live not knowing

how to handle it.

 

The grief that comes and straps you down

like a straight jacket in an asylum.

It holds you, molds you,

then leaves you stripped and done.

 

This fragility is an assault on our senses.

To watch the life leave a body

is to see the flower wither in the sun

to see the short transition

from life to death is so heavy

like watching your own eulogy.

 

Where does the life go? It just fades?

Does it wither or run away?

Does it just cease? How can we know?

How can we ease ourselves

away from this fear of being mortal?

 

Does it ever hurt less, to have

worlds shatter in an instant?

 

#2 12.11.14 Dear Death

(Written after reading an update on my old college chaplain’s wife’s cancer. She passed away soon after.)

Death, go away.

You’ve got the wrong doors.

Death, pack your bags.

You take what isn’t yours.

Death, leave us be.

What are you looking for?

 

Death, you bastard.

You rape us, leave us bleeding.

You take us, no retreating.

You beat us despite our pleading.

What are you looking for?

 

Death, you merciless villain.

You invade common places like the kitchen.

You flip the switch in the prison.

You take the shooter to classrooms with children.

What are you looking for?

 

Death, leave us be.

You strip our joy and bend our knee.

You knock us down, make us scream.

You leave a hole where wholeness should be.

What are you looking for?

 

Death, please, go away.

 

#3 May 4, 2015 Again Alone Written in flight to start a month of travel for the story project

Another airport

another city

another day of traveling alone.

Wandering, wading deeper into the unknown

where I am unknown, without a home.

My heart is a vagabond, a knapsack

to hold its pain, tied to a stick of hope

slung over my shoulder as I trail along.

I am adrift, tossed in the waves,

propelled by the wind, weathered by

the raging sun. And I am searching

for the shores of a home,

but the best I find are islands.

And it’s just not enough.

So I set sail again,

I wash away again,

and I tell myself maybe this will be the time

I’ll find what I’m searching for.

Maybe this time I’ll run aground.

Maybe this will be the time I am found.

Maybe this time I’ll find myself,

and find myself being known.

Maybe my feet will find fertile ground

and roots will shoot down

from the soles of my feet

planting me firmly in a new

somewhere.

 

But until then, it’s another airport.

Another road.

Another city where I will get

to hear the stories of the people.

And I’ll move on,

again alone.

 

#4 JessicaWritten for my sweet, unassuming friend who asked me to make one of my 12 poems about her and who would never normally ask for such a thing, but thought that I would appreciate the bold request. She was right. 

She is the silliness of a four year old

housed in an aging soul.

Her beauty is pure, not boastful

her blue eyes shine like gold.

 

Her heart — oh her heart! —

Her heart is where she lives.

She’s made a home in that

space in her chest.

She invites you to come in.

Her life says, “Come sit,

feel for a while,

Your pain can come in with you.

I’ll yell with your anger

I’ll shout with your joy

your sadness is welcome here, too.

Tell me, is the temperature ok in this room?”

 

Her friendship is lunar,

always present, even in distance.

Always beautiful, even in darkness.

She participates in life like an event.

Everything is to be remembered,

even this very moment.

 

Her words are soft,

her squeals are loud.

Her life is loving.

Her parents are proud.

 

She is a well of life

smiling at the world from behind sweet freckles.

 

#5 Let me hurt. (written after hearing Abandon Kansas’ Jeremy Spring describe their new album saying “I’m just gonna let it hurt for a while”)

Just let me hurt for a while.

Don’t choke me out

trying to tie a bow around it.

It’s a wound,

not a present.

I’m broken,

not wrapped.

I’m bleeding out and you

used a ribbon as a tourniquet.

Don’t do it.

Please, let me hurt for a while —

it’s all that I have left.

 

F*cks, hells, and shits

punctuate my language.

Pain leaks

into my sentences.

Because when I’m honest, sometimes

my brokenness still feels fresh.

I didn’t know grief could be

so violent without death.

Don’t demand a positive spin.

A silver lining won’t fix it.

So please, let me hurt for a while —

it’s all that I have left.

 

I wonder how long it will be

before I can breathe through the memory.

Because right now, to remember

still feels like drowning.

Because right now, in my hometown

I still feel like an enemy.

Someday there will be more, but

for now this is my story.

So just let me hurt for a while — I’m sorry.

It’s all that I have left.

 

I’ve barely started

to trust again.

But I’m afraid of myself

in the end.

I don’t totally know

how to get around this bend.

I don’t totally know

if I’m good at being a friend.

When I tell the truth,

I’m afraid I will offend.

I want vulnerability.

I want to mend.

But just let me hurt for a while —

it’s all that I have left.

 

#6 Close

Don’t get too close.

Don’t hold me tight.

My fear will lead me

straight to flight.

 

I’ll stay right here,

you stay right there,

or you’ll look for me and

I’ll disappear into thin air.

 

If you approach, do it slow.

Don’t try to take control.

If you do,

I’ll up and go.

 

But if you find your way,

If you become near, you see,

know that you’re dear to me.

 

If you ebb and flow

slowly gaining ground

don’t say it too loud.

 

It scares me when people know

that they are in my heart

it’s a power that could tear me apart.

 

#7 I Lie To Me

“I can’t do this”

I’ve breathed too many times.

I am quick to admit defeat to me,

But outwardly I claw and gnaw

at the challenge threatening to stop me.

I lie to myself

but it feels like the truth.

My words battle my will —

with each failure admission

I take a breath and try again.

“I can’t do this” is the mantra

on the way to my success.

Somehow my stubborn will

ignores my cries and tries and tries

until it is finished.

I am always surprised at

myself in the end.

Why do I still believe

I cannot do this?

Maybe some day I’ll believe in myself

the way my spirit does again.

 

#8 As It Happens (written upon moving to Wichita, June, 2015)

By happenstance I met a band,

their name: Abandon Kansas.

Once upon a time

they stopped through where I lived.

 

By happenstance I saw a band photo,

after many years had passed.

Facebook let us

become friends fast.

 

By happenstance I went on a road trip

and I stopped where the band lives.

I wandered downtown,

saw where the river splits.

 

By happenstance I fell in love

with the town on the plains and

I thought — “This feels like

what a hometown is.”

 

Two years later, on purpose,

I actually live in Kansas.

 

#9 — Our Father Who Art In Heaven

Our Father

Our. The peoples of the earth,

of all shapes and sizes

Our. The people from the dirt,

our colors pre-decided.

Our. Those around the town

neighbors to one another.

Our. Those spread apart who

don’t care about each other.

Our. The slave and the owner.

Our. The president and the lawn mower.

Our. The world that God so loved.

 

Who is

Is. Is there in our brokenness and weakness.

Is. Is Immanuel — God with us.

Is. Is familiar with our pain.

Is. Is the love that will not stain.

Is. Is the heart that won’t grow cold.

 

In heaven

Heaven. Where there’s no more pain.

Heaven. Where the racist is forced to change.

Heaven. Where the lightness reigns.

Heaven. Where death is illegal.

Heaven. Where we’re all equal people.

Heaven. Where brokenness is made whole.

Heaven. Where we are all loved and known.

Heaven. Here now when we bring love home.

 

#10 Break and Fall (written because it was the last day and I needed more poems)

Day break

When my heart breaks when I wake

I know thats a day break.

The day I break,

A day that acts

Just like you.

 

And heart break,

What does that mean?

My heart burns

But this isn’t heart burn

It’s heart break,

Like an earth quake,

It makes my chest shake,

But I’m from California,

I’ve done this before.

 

These walls are too thick

To let your pain score,

They won’t crack,

I’ll just be sore.

I know the drill,

Even if I don’t live there anymore.

 

Night fall.

When I fall into bed at

The end of the day

I know that I’ve failed again,

Fallen again into that trap

of routine where my days start

with breaking, end with falling

and its just you in between.

Grief, you dirty bastard,

you won’t ruin me.

 

#11 Just a day

Early morning dew rises and gives way

to the heat of the day.

The grass dries,

my eyelids rise,

my heart is full.

 

Coffee cup is emptied with the dawn long gone,

the day draws on.

My hunger paces,

my mind races,

my fingers type away.

 

Afternoon slinks in without warning

of the exit of the morning.

My thoughts slow,

heart rate low,

creativity’s around the corner.

 

Three o’clock comes and I don’t mind the sitting

now that it’s productivity city.

Here we go.

Here we go.

My brain chants silently.

 

Happy hour is just an hour

when happiness is a regular prowler.

The dusk dawns,

fireflies turn on,

I walk down by the river.

 

Evening brings the close of a day

normal in most ways.

I worked away,

played in spades,

and my heart is still full.

 

#12 “26.” (written on the back porch in the eve of my last day of being 25)

Tomorrow marks the anniversary

of 26 years spent here.

26 years since that August morning

that I came home gift baring,

as my eyes held newborn tears.

A slip and slide was my peace offering

to the boy and the girl — my siblings.

That’s the story I’ve been told.

 

26 years is long enough to hold enough pain,

and not nearly enough life.

My appetite for life is voracious,

so hand me my fork and my knife.

When I get to the end of it all,

I want to still hunger,

content, but not satisfied.

For as long as I live,

there’s always more that I want out of life.


If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, July 07th, 2015 | Author:

storyofjo Joanna O'Hanlon Mt Quandary Peak, CO

I wanted to climb another 14er. And I wanted to climb it alone.

Colorado calls mountains above 14,000 feet in elevation “14ers” and they have many of them in the state.

The previous fall I had climbed my first — Mt. Bierstadt, 14,060’ at the summit, 2840’ elevation gain from the trailhead, and a 7-ish mile trail. I say “ish” because Kate and I climbed it in the first weekend of Nov. 2013, and snow covered the entire mountain. There were many times where we had no idea where the trail was, let alone if we were near it.

A mountain that normally has thousands of hikers ascending and descending at a time in its summer days sat solitary and snow covered. We saw 6 other hikers on the mountain the entire day.

But we made it to the top, and back down again, despite very serious thoughts from Kate on how I was going to have to cut her frostbitten toes off. And despite the fact that my lips were literally blue by the time we got back to the car, and took about an hour of full-blast heat to get them to purple. All in all though, the trail was manageable for us (because we were in good shape to prepare for it), but the snow had made it difficult.

It had been a year since then and I’d wanted to hike another 14er, but had been told I shouldn’t go by myself. So I’d waited and tried to find times when Kate or someone else could go with me when there wasn’t snow on the roads and wasn’t too much snow on the mountains. But the season winded down and I still hadn’t gone, so I decided I wanted to go it alone.

I’d read “Wild” (which I would highly recommend, both the book and the movie) where she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail alone and it’s a soul journey for her as she works through her grief, through her brokkenness, and does hard things with her body as she processes the hard things of her heart. I’d thought about it and I really wanted that physical hardness to accompany the hard stuff I was wrestling through.

So I decided to climb Quandary Peak, 14,265’ summit, 3450’ elevation gain, and 6.75 mile trail. I thought, OK this mountain looks like it doesn’t have too much snow on it right now (which it didn’t for much of the trail, thankfully), and it looks like a similar kind of climb to Bierstadt, so I should be fine.

I knew I wasn’t in as great of shape as I had been. I’d been running much less since arriving in Colorado and I knew my lungs had still not really adjusted to exercising at the higher altitudes. But I had to have acclimated somewhat, right? And I’m a generally fit person. So I decided one night the next day was it. I packed myself some snacks, some warm clothes (which I didn’t need), and I went.

The parking lot had one other car in it, as it was again, one of, if not the last week of the season. That car had 2 hikers in it that I passed back and forth, leap frogging one another for the first mile or so, and then I said, “I’m gonna sit and take a break,” and they went on ahead. I wanted to be alone.

IMG_2717I saw one other hiker, a woman photographer who I passed about 2/3 of the way up the trail. She was distracted and hanging out photographing these beautiful mountain goats that were right there next to her. She stayed there the entire time it took me to summit and come back down.

Which was a long time. The last mile or so was extremely difficult. The trail up until that point had been fine, I’d even say easy. But the last mile is where you gain the majority of that elevation. Steep rocky step after steep rocky step led to me having to stop for breath every 15 or 20 steps. The last half mile was downright suffocating. That last bit felt like I was just going straight up. At that point I was stopping every 3-5 steps to bend over briefly trying to catch my breath. I hadn’t eaten since leaving the car and my plan was to eat my lunch at the summit, and then eat a snack on the way down.

This part being as difficult as it was, was taxing me though. Thoughts of “I don’t know if I can do this,” started to crawl into my brain as my throat began to feel swollen from all the wheezing I was doing. Soon I began to cough, and my throat went raw. Each breathe was laborious and painful. I finally compromised, I’d stop there where I was, near to the top, and I would eat my lunch there, take a bit of a break, and allow myself to get some energy to get the rest of the way up.

But when I opened my backpack and started rummaging around, I realized there was not a single ounce of food to be found. Before I had left the car I had taken my bag of food out to remove some of the excess warm layers I’d stored in the bag underneath the food. I knew I wouldn’t need those layers, but somehow I’d managed to accidentally not put the food back in.

I was most of the way up a mountain, exhausted, wheezing, starting to shake from hunger and low oxygen, and I didn’t have any food. And like I had set out to be — I was alone. No one was there to offer a part of a power bar or a stick of sugar-filled gum.

Despair and a bit of panic started to rise in my hurting throat. My raw, red nose ran as I was now in the snowy part of the mountain, and my head pounded from the cold. A single tear rolled down my cheek as I thought, “OK. I guess I’m not going to do this.”

I took a couple minutes sitting there on a snowy rock, watching a couple of mountain goats on a ridge farther down, and decided I’d at least take in the view before admitting defeat and beginning my shaky decent.

But somewhere in those moments, I started to think of the hard life journey I’d been on over the past 2 years. About the nights where breathing under the weight of grief was harder even than it was now. When I was alone for days on end, feeling shaky. Feeling dizzy. Feeling defeated. And I thought about the long, hard, arduous task of pulling myself out of the hole of brokenness and starting to rebuild. And how much of that — most of that — I had had to do alone.

And I looked up at the rest of that mountain, all the way to the summit, and I said out loud, “I have done harder things alone than this. I can handle a little mountain.”

Which was probably not wise. Emotionally, it was true. I had handled harder. But I may have been a little more driven than I ought to have been.

Either way though, I found a piece of sugarless gum and hoped maybe it would trick my mind into thinking that it was some sort of food and have it summon some energy. I took one treacherous step after another. By the end of the ascent I was taking a short pause after every single step to breathe. And then All of the sudden, I was there. At the top of the mountain. It was done.

It was also freezing, and my body was still wanting to shut down, so I only stayed a few moments. There was nowhere un-snowed-on to sit, so I crouched for a minute by the summit placard, I looked around at the 360 degree view, and let my breath finally, finally catch up with me, and then I did what you have to do in life — I got up, took another deep breath (as deep as I could) and I put one shaking step after another and started walking again.

The way down the mountain was much easier, but still not easy. I ended up rolling my ankle on a large rock and spraining it pretty badly about a half a mile down. That slowed me quite a bit.

By the time I had gotten back to the car, I was down at a warmer elevation and had been moving briskly enough that I was hot. I got to the car and stripped down to nothing and just sat there for a second. No one else was nearby and the one other car in the parking from earlier had left already. I took a drink of water. I ate a bite of salami. And then I redressed in fresh clothes I had brought along.

I was still shaking, but I felt good. My body had caught up to my heart, and together, they had proved that I somehow, deep down in the places you don’t want to have to summon strength, I have the strength to do hard things alone.

People may pass you or leap frog with you on the journey. They may even walk with you for a while. But there are some paths in life that you are forced to walk alone. It is those paths that reveal our deep guttural reserves of strength and resilience.

Should I have climbed that mountain alone? Maybe not. Was I in good enough shape and prepared for it? Definitely not.

Physically, nothing had changed, other than my throat being sore and having to cough often for a few days after. I walked with a slight limp for about a week. But it got my heart and my body back on the same, resilient page. It changed me. It reminded me that when I have to, I can climb the hard mountains of life, even if I have to do it alone.

Jo O'Hanlon storyofjo.com


If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, June 09th, 2015 | Author:

6248742474_997d54ee34photo credit: Lower Floor. via photopin (license)

I met a man in Seattle recently. His name was Sean.

He was in Pike’s Place market, his worn backpack and layers the only things suggesting he was without a place to stay. I may have taken him for a wary tourist if he had not been asking loudly, in the general direction of the crowds passing by, “Can anyone spare enough money for a cold drink?”

I passed right by him, and when I looked up to meet his face, he was looking elsewhere. My eyes didn’t linger, didn’t spend any extra energy trying to meet his gaze. I passed on, and his tone got louder, his voice hoarse and raspy. “Can anyone spare some change? Please! Does anyone have enough money for a cold drink?”

I sauntered by another flower stand. Then by a produce section. Then by a small fish stand, not the famous one. Then by another artisan’s table.

All the while I could hear him. He was shouting now. Not an angry shout, but a sad, desperate shout. By the time I got back to him, his dry voice was shaking and begging the crowds that just kept passing by.

Regardless of my issues with the church, my wounds and my past, my distrust of people, and my serious questions about the Bible, I still would call myself a Christian. A God lover. And there is one thing I don’t have questions about from the Bible and the character of God. He says clearly, “I will say to you, you saw me naked and you clothed me, when I was thirsty you gave me a drink…as you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”

And I know I’m undoing any karma or glory or whatever by telling you this, so believe me, I know it — it’s not to brag, and I’m fine with not getting anything from this. That’s not why I did it.

I did it because I had those words pop into my head, and I had this vision of this thirsty man, yelling with his parched voice, and no one, myself included taking the time to even acknowledge his humanity. Even if they didn’t give him anything, he was literally yelling for help and everyone was walking by ignoring him. He was thirsty, a basic human need that hits very, very close to my heart, and I hadn’t paused as I had walked by.

I’m telling you this because I’m ashamed of it. I’m pained that my first response was to ignore that tug in my chest, that churn of my gut, and to keep walking. To keep ignoring the yells for help right in front of me.

How will I ever pay attention to the yells for help that I can’t hear around the world — the “Please, I need something to drink” pleas around the world — if I blatantly and heartlessly walk past the one shouting in my ear at the Pike’s Place market in Seattle?

I don’t know.

As I was in front of the artisan’s table several shops down and I could still hear his soft, but urgent yelling, desperation in his voice, I had a serious moment with myself where I said “What the F— do you think you are doing??”

I’ve had moments like this before. Where I feel the urge to help, the nudge to engage, and I walk by. And I still feel it as I walk farther and farther and I’m too embarrassed to turn back, so I continue to ignore it. I still think about several of those moments years later.

This time, I was more disgusted with myself than ashamed, and I had to fix it.

“Hi,” I said, as he stopped his pleading to the crowd when he saw me approaching.  “I don’t hand out money,” I said apologetically.

“No, no, that’s ok,” he cut me off. “I just need a cold drink.”

“Sure. So, let’s go somewhere, and I’ll get you whatever you want,” I finished my first thought.

I again reiterated he could have anything he wanted. He literally got a $2.50 fountain drink. He filled his glass with cold water first and downed it, and then filled the second with ice and soda.

We did not have any significant interaction as we got his drink. I learned a little bit of his story. He a little bit of mine. We’re both from near Sacramento, and we’re both on journeys that we didn’t want to have to begin. We’ve both missed what we thought we’d find, and are trying to figure out what’s next.

My life right now is asking people to talk to me, to share their stories. It is my life to listen and then write and validate.  But I passed by a man literally crying out to be heard and helped.

It cost me $2.50 to fix someone’s thirst. But more importantly, it cost me nothing to look him in the eye, speak to him, and validate his existence.

When I think about it, I’m still extremely frustrated with my reactions. I still have a long, long way to go on this journey. And if I get thirsty along the way, I hope there will be people quicker to hear than I was.

Sometimes the people or circumstances around us are mirrors, and this moment was a mirror in which I saw that what’s in there is still kind of ugly. That I still have a good deal more work to do to be the person I want to be in the world. They’re not fun moments — those mirrors — but they’re necessary.


 

If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 | Author:

Dear Denver,

I came to you 8 months ago with my life packed into my Toyota Camry.

It was a long drive. 18 hours of leaving my past behind. My own tears surprised me as I drove away from my family standing on the porch of my parent’s house, waving as they watched me go. That’s become our tradition. And I’m always the one on the leaving end.

I was ready for you, for this new, temporary chapter of life. I was excited to leave the past.

But while it was a new town, I wasn’t a new me. I quickly realized that by changing states I was not changing stories. My past was mine to own. My story was mine to tell. My life was mine to live.

So I came to you, and I told you who I am and where I have been. I told it to church members in diners. I told it to distant family members in the mountains. I told it to dates in bars. I told it to neighbors in hot tubs and living rooms. I told my story to you, and you didn’t grimace. You didn’t run away. You listened and you welcomed me.

You let me play on your trails, exploring your mountain peaks and your forests and your waters. You let me make friends in fun restaurants and pubs and venues. You let me sit in peace, overlooking a lake with the mountains beyond, and the setting sun beyond that.

You have given me the space and time to become more myself. And while I’ve always known you would be a temporary dwelling place, you’ve been a good one. Most importantly, you’ve given me an atmosphere to learn how to be at home within myself.

Aside from your horrible drivers, you’ve been nothing but lovely to me. Thank you for being such a big playground for life. Thank you for housing me while I felt at home here. I’ll come back to visit.

-Jo

(I’ll be on the go for the Story Project for all of May and then moving to Wichita, KS Beginning of June)

Favorite Denver/CO things:

– Hiking

  • Mt. Bierstadt
  • Mt. Quandary
  • Colorado Trail
  • Hanging Lake Trail
  • All of the trails during fall
  • Paddle boarding on our lake and slack lining in our “yard”
  • Food/Drink
  • The fries and cocktails at Williams & Graham
  • The atmosphere at Linger
  • The atmosphere at Crema cafe
  • The chocolate at Dietrichs
  • The eggs benedict and the beignets at Lucilles Creole cafe
  • Blackeye coffee
  • Pie and cocktails at the Green Russell
  • Cheap movies at the Century Aurora 16 Theater
  • Eggs benedict and sweet potato pancakes at Snooze Eatery
  • Burgers & Brews deals during MNF at Stoney’s bar & grill
  • Atmosphere & coffee at Roostercat
  • The view from outside the dome on the Capitol building
  • Being at Redrocks/ the view from Redrocks
  • The river in golden
  • Stranahan’s whiskey (both the product and the free tour & tasting)
  • The Denver German Christmas Market on 16th St. mall
  • Even though it’s not just a Denver thing, I discovered & fell in love with it here: Waffle House

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If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015 | Author:

Story continued from last week’s Part 1 post. (read here) 

Some names and identifying circumstances may have been changed for the sake of those involved. (If you don’t read it all, scroll to bottom for the most impactful photo project I’ve ever been a part of.)

Three: Uncovering more debt

In the middle of the week, we had this morning where we worked with a horse for equine therapy. (For the record, I felt like it was B.S. I still do.) You go into a corral with a horse, and based on how you interact with the horse, your group – it’s group therapy – and a couple of therapists kind of pry and make suggestions about “oh, do you ever respond to your wife/husband/father/etc the way you just did to the horse?” I didn’t want to do it because it felt fake, like a fortune teller.  Before I stepped into the ring, I knew they were going to conclude that the horse was John. I was extremely closed off and defensive before I even began.

At the end of my time in the ring, I was facing the horse, petting him with one hand and had my other hand on him as a “boundary hand” as the trainer had shown those who’d gone before me.  You’re supposed to use it when the horse starts to lean into your space — you push him back to show him that this is your space.

So I was petting him, and quickly he started to step toward me. I pushed back with my boundary hand, but before I knew it, someone had grabbed me and yanked me backward. I looked at the trainer and yelled “what the heck!?”

“You were about to be trampled because you wouldn’t let go!” She said in a harsh, scared way. I could tell she was shaken.

But I was pissed because I hadn’t been trying to pet him, I was trying to use my boundary hand to push him back. And I told her so. She was still flustered, and I was defensive and emotionally absent, so she had me be done. I went to the edge of the ring, and there my therapist and group members were waiting, watching.

“Would you be willing to hear some observations your group has?” My therapist, Jim, asked. I didn’t want to hear what they had to say because I already knew it would be B.S. stuff about John… but I said “sure.” So I listened, and that’s exactly what it was. The only response I could feign was: “Thanks. So am I done now?”

Jim said, “Sure,” and as I was turning to leave the ring, he just said, “You sure looked small there standing next to that horse.”

And without missing a beat I said, defensively, “I don’t feel small!” and I threw up my hands in a kind of “bring it’ way like I was going to fight him.

And I’ll never forget this. He said, “Wow, maybe that’s the problem. Let me rephrase. You sure are small next to that horse.”

And then the tears came as the full weight of that realization settled onto me.

It was later that afternoon that I recalled the first time John had later told me he’d first thought, “I’d like to kiss Jo.” I was 16 and we were on a mission trip. I’d remembered this admission a couple months before. But it was in group room 4 in a small town in Tennessee that I realized that the night he thought “I’d like to kiss Jo” was the day before he changed the dynamic of our relationship forever. We’d been talking about love languages, and he’d said he thought mine was touch.

“Yeah, I could see that, but it’s never come out as my top one on the test,” I said. He was convinced it was touch — “that’s what we’re doing the rest of the week!” He said proudly in front of my friends, “guys, we’re gonna help Jo embrace her touch love language.”

I distinctly remember sitting in the middle seat of a front bench seat in the truck, with John on my left driving, and one of my younger guy friends to my right. John grabbed my hand, laced his fingers through mine and instructed my friend to do the same with my right hand. I squirmed incredibly uncomfortable, but everyone in the truck was laughing like it was a funny joke, so I laughed, too. “I’m not going to let go until you like it,” John said. While my friend let go of my hand as soon as we got out of the car, John continued to hold mine tightly as we went into Starbucks, as we drove to the next stop, as we went into a store. And that was it. The beginning of it all. He didn’t stop until I liked it. One night he thought, “I’d like to kiss Jo,” and the next day he changed the entire dynamic of our relationship.

When I realized this, I was livid. It was the first time I could see how clear the answer was to the question I had asked myself over and over through the years “How did this happen? How did I get here?” The multiple therapists from multiple places were right in what they’d told me all along. I could finally see it. I was groomed.

For some reason, I have never realized that I am small. I was 16 when this started with John. And I look at other 16 year old girls now, and I think, there’s no way I would hold them responsible for this. I look at other 23 year old girls and think the same.

But I’ve always carried myself like I was big and strong. I’m sorry to myself, to his family, to everyone that’s been hurt in this that I didn’t recognize my weakness and vulnerability.

As a result, I played the part I did in allowing for this to continue for as long as it did.  I am endlessly sorry for that.

I never thought to run away or yell for help. I thought I was big enough to use my boundary hand and push back.

I was not.

_____________

To admit that I had been taken advantage of, that I was a victim, it deflated me. It made me so angry, and so full of grief to accept this reality. But it wasn’t until I could do that that I began to make significant steps forward in my healing journey, and also in my forgiveness journey.

I went into Onsite feeling like my life had shattered and that I’d lost all of the broken pieces so I had nothing to rebuild with. I came out of Onsite feeling like I had found enough shards to start rebuilding something new.

But first, I had to get angry. Really angry. And distrusting. As I was healing and moving forward in many ways, I was also uncovering more and more of the ways that John had hurt me, duped me, manipulated me over the years, and the more I demonized him. This commenced months of nightmares with him as the star villain.

Come the fall of that year, people started to ask me if I had forgiven him. “No,” I’d always reply bluntly. I was not willing to be challenged on the matter. I’d forgive the mother-fucker on my time frame. Not theirs. And I refused to play the “Ok, I forgive him, Oh wait I’m so hurt and mad again, ok I forgive him again” dance for ages. I would be firm in my un-forgiveness until I was certain that it had arrived, that I had summited that large mountain I’d decided to climb.

Then came the “You need to forgive him,” comments once in a while, “if not for him, than for yourself,” which I respected, but still disagreed with. “I’m not ready,” remained my answer.

I’d talked with God a lot over the course of the year, especially as I was alone much of the year. God and I, we have really honest conversations. I talk to Him like I talk to anyone. And I’d asked Him to be gentle with me, to help me, but that ultimately, I knew I’d need to forgive John at some point, but that I just wasn’t ready.

But one day in October (10 months after confession sunday), I was out running and I had thought about seeing if one of my friends wanted to hang out when I came into town the next afternoon, which led to me thinking, “Wait, maybe she’s busy because of helping with the youth group.”

Which led to, “Wait, does she even help with the youth group any more?”

Which was a thought that hit me like an arrow to the chest. I used to be the pastor of that middle school youth group and I didn’t even know if one of my old best friends helped there any more. I sat down right on the paved path and hung my head. “This is so hard, God,” I breathed heavily.

And then it hit me out of nowhere: “I bet John doesn’t know what’s going on in the youth group either.” And that thought broke my heart for him. I’d been demonizing him and hating him for months, and out of nowhere I had this pang of sadness for him and his probable disconnectedness from the youth group he’d pastored for a decade. After a moment, I realized that I was sad for him, and I brushed the thought away, and looked up to the sky, and thought, “God. Stop it. Step back. I’m not ready for this.”

But it was too late, with that one surprise moment, I felt my heart start to soften for him as a human again.

And then, two days before Christmas, he wrote me a letter that absolutely ruined me. It opened up new chasms of grief that I didn’t even know were there. For a man who had only ever written me one Christmas card, and one sticky note in the 12 years of knowing him, I received an 8-page typed letter.

And it said everything that I had written in my version of the letter I’d written through tears at Onsite — the letter I had accepted that I’d never receive.

To be completely honest, when I first read through it it both pained me and outraged me. I won’t share all the details of why, or what all it entailed. But I was bitter and ready to spew my pain back at him.

I sat down on Christmas eve for a couple hours with the intention of trying to just get down my scattered thoughts onto a page to organize later into a letter. But what emerged was a long, unrelenting letter. Along with apologizing and asking for forgiveness for all of the things, he had extended an offer to give a window into my life those days. I was not going to spare him the details, because my life was still very dark, very lonely, very muddled by the fuckedupness, even a year after confession sunday.

“I’m hesitant to write to you for many reasons. 1. I don’t forgive you…” I began.

And I went off on him in bitterness at first. But what ended up coming out of me was sharing what I’ve shared here: what happened at Onsite. How I first found myself mad at him, hating him. How I first realized and admitted that I’d been taken advantage of. And what I’d learned about forgiveness, and the way we’re prone to want to do it too quickly, without adding up the debt we’re canceling.

And in the process of writing all of that out, I found my heart softening in mounds toward a man I had once considered family. Once I had gotten to the end, I let it sit for a few more days.

Then Sunday, January 5, 2014 after church one day short of the exact one year mark from confession Sunday, I sat at a Starbucks in Rocklin, California, and I added an addendum to the letter:

And true forgiveness has to involve adding up the debt so that we can know what we’re agreeing to cancel.

This past year I’ve been becoming more and more aware of the debt of pain you’ve cost me.  And as new parts have been uncovered, I’ve added it to the ledger. I have been consistently forgiving you for new parts, but discovering others.

With this letter, though, I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of the debt out onto the ledger.  And I’ve found forgiveness for you for the things I’ve listed here.  I don’t trust you. And forgiveness doesn’t erase the pain or the cost in my life. But it means I’m releasing the fact that you owe me anything for them.

I am hesitant to say I forgive you, because I am certain I will continue to discover new parts of your debt.  As I am in relationships with men and sorting through my dysfunctions and insecurities. In my marriage as I struggle with trust. In the church if I ever get to return to ministry.  I’m sure I will continue to stumble upon undiscovered corners of pain for years to come.

And knowing this is the case, this was the reason I planned to write to you telling you that I forgive you for the things so far, and I’ll continue to work on forgiving you as I know more in the future.

But as I sat there writing it, I just had a wave wash over me, a wave of visions of years from now, all the times I’ll stumble on new parts of the debt, and I realized I didn’t want to think of him in those times. I didn’t want him to owe me for those times. I was ready to move on and accept whatever pain I find later without any ties to him. And just like that, while the barista was walking by with the dust pan to go clean the bathroom, I let go. I forgave him for it all. Because that’s how forgiveness happens in my experience — in the un-monumental moments in the midst of real life. The decision may happen at an altar in a church service, or in front of the perpetrator. But the realization that forgiveness has come — that, wow, I’m finally at the top of this large mountain I’ve been climbing — it comes when it comes, it comes when its ready.

I forgive you for any future pain and discomfort or closed doors or lost relationships. I release you.

And for the first time, I think I know exactly the weight of those words, and I know that I mean them.

___

As I was telling a friend about the letter, and about the way I’d found myself unexpectedly forgiving John before I thought I’d be ready, I heard myself say this: “I’d been hating him for a long time, but I felt God start to soften me before I wanted him to. It’s been a year, and I’ve come full circle. Which is weird, because I thought I was just moving forward.”

I think forgiveness, like grief, is a path, a journey with many stages, and we have to walk them all, even if where we end up — at forgiveness — is where we tried to start. We have to walk through it all. We have to not simply decide to climb the mountain, we have to climb the whole damn thing.

*I asked a photographer friend of mine to take photos of me last year while I read parts of my letter to John aloud. Since I couldn’t deliver the letter in person, I wanted something to help me remember what it was like to be in that space – something other than a letter in the mail to capture the moments I found myself at the sad mountain summit where I both forgave and said goodbye.

012-140216-Joanna-LetterReading-©AndrewBurnsPhotography

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If you’d be willing to donate to support Stories By Jo: The Story Project where I will be writing people’s stories for them as I have done here for myself, please click the donate button below. Thank you so much for your support and for reading.



Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com
Tuesday, February 03rd, 2015 | Author:

Some names and identifying circumstances may have been changed for the sake of those involved.

“I don’t forgive you.” Those were the words I wrote near the beginning of the letter.

He’d written me a letter apologizing for a mountain of pains and wounds, and asking me to forgive them. “I’m hesitant to write this letter to you for many reasons. 1: I don’t forgive you…” I began.

Let me rewind:

(If you didn’t read the nutshell version of “what happened” that was on the blog last week, you can catch up here.)

After confession Sunday, my life went dark for a long time.

It took me several months of therapy to finally get to a point where I didn’t feel like the situation was all my fault. I sat in my therapist’s office, afraid to admit dates and put an accurate timeline on how things unfolded because I saw her doing the math, I heard her mention “illegal” in her wonderings of what happened. She and other therapists had told me since the beginning what they thought: This was abuse. This was not my fault. That this is what they call a “trauma bond” and it’s the same bond that kidnappers and pimps have with their victims and girls. That I had been groomed.

But I fought them on that. “I am not a victim,” was my mantra, and I was defensive, trying to explain our situation away — to make them understand that I was not a victim, I was a very broken, but very real culprit.

I was afraid to reveal things because I still believed my old youth pastor this had happened with, John (not his real name), was just a good guy who just spent too much time with me. That it was an innocent “slipping up” mistake of a situation. “I had all these boundaries in place for everyone. To make sure I led a good life. It’s like you just slipped in the back door,” he said several times in the course of the secret becoming public.

I was still conditioned by the years of not telling. Because I had always seen that it was his secret to tell or not tell. It was always his family, whom I loved deeply, who would be so hurt by it. It was always his ministry and job that would be lost — his ministry that had taught me everything I knew about God and the ways to love and care about the world and to live life well. And the decision was always not to tell, because it would hurt all those people. “It would be selfish to tell,” were the actual words he used one time as he told me about this painful decision he’d come to one of the myriad of times we were trying to figure out what to do, how to stop this from happening again throughout the 7 years of on and off fucked-up-ness. (That’s my term — please, pardon my french, but there is not a kosher term that is also accurate.)

Somewhere in those first months, I think my pastor or someone had asked me to start thinking about forgiving John. I don’t think I responded really, but as I thought about it then, I didn’t have much to hold against him. I thought that we were equal culprits in this, and I wasn’t mad at him, I was just devastated by the amount of pain we’d inflicted on those we loved, and I was devastated by the loss — his family were my closest people. The loss of other close friends that I had who either chose to step out of my life, or who wanted to be in my life still but were so pained by it that it would never be the same. The loss of my calling on my life to do ministry in the church. The loss of feeling at home in the church I literally grew up in. The loss of feeling at home in my hometown. The loss — I was just so broken over the loss. But I wasn’t mad at John.

And people told me I would be, someday. That I would realize his role as being so much bigger than I could see then. That I would someday need to see it for what it was — abuse of power. That I had been taken advantage of. I said, “No. You don’t understand.”

But I couldn’t move forward in my healing. I was devastated and I was stuck. I never hit that “numb” phase people tell you will come. It was just brokenness. Complete, vast, heart-decimating brokenness. Every day. And every night. Which led me to finally pursue something I’d heard about — Onsite’s Intensive Therapy Workshop.

There’s a place in small town Tennessee called Onsite Workshops, and they do these 8 day long Intensive Therapy workshops utilizing experiential therapy (which sounds like “experimental” therapy, but it’s not).

The intensives like this are supposed to be similar to a year or two of therapy in a week’s time, and for me, it was.

Then came Onsite.

“The problem we have with forgiveness is this,” my Onsite therapist, Jim, began addressing my group of 9 broken people in group room 4. “Forgiveness means to cancel a debt. But so often in our culture, we decide to forgive someone, but then later we feel that same anger or pain creep up again and we’re confused. ‘I thought I got rid of this! Why is this back?’ we ask. And the reason that happens when we just decide to forgive someone, is that we haven’t added up the debt we’re forgiving. And then as we discover more of the debt, we’re confronted with the pain or anger again. That’s part of what some of you may have to work on this week. Learning how to work through adding up the debt so you can really forgive.”

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I had never heard of forgiveness in these terms.

But it made so much sense to me. I’d always been reluctant to just decide to forgive someone and declare it done in the same breath. It seemed equivalent with deciding to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and saying I’d done it in the same breath. I’d always seen myself decide to forgive someone and then once I’d worked through the crap of it in my heart, I’d realize at some point that forgiveness was there. I couldn’t coax it out of myself before it was ready. This definition of forgiveness as wiping clean a debt, it gave me permission to take the time to count the debt, to take the pains to climb the mountain.

I want to tell you about three things that happened there that week.

One: Getting mad

Within the first two days, I had a realization that broke me. The very first time John outright proposed something explicitly across the line (“You touch mine, I’ll touch yours?” proposition  when I was 18) I was outraged at the thought, said “No,” left, and came back to confront him later. He smoothed it over, made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal and that it didn’t change everything. He apologized and promised it would never happen again. So I trusted him. I so, so, wish I had thought to tell someone right then. But I didn’t even think of that option. I don’t know why. I just didn’t.

The realization that literally left me breathless, though, was this: At that point, had I gone screaming for help, or had I done what I did — he set me up to lose him and his family and to watch him lose his ministry and regular life right then. When I realized the fact that he set me up to lose right there — that’s the first time I ever truly hated John. And I hated my abuse-shaped self that didn’t even think to tell someone.

I still wasn’t mad at what he’d done to me. I was mad at what he’d set me up to lose — who he’d set me up to lose in the process. I had grieved the death of my sister when I was 14, which was largely what landed me in John’s family as a surrogate member. But the grief I had over the people I’d lost in my life after confession sunday, that was more grief than I’d ever known or experienced to date. It was like a massacre. And in an instant, I was enraged because it was the first time that I realized that he had chosen me. That it could’ve been anyone, but it was me. And he left me with no way to not lose people I loved.

Two: Accepting no apology

The next morning at Onsite, when everyone was together (40 people are in each workshop week), we had a seminar on forgiveness. “I want you to think of a person you need to forgive,” the director of the program started.

“Think of them, and think of the ways they’ve hurt you. Think of all of the ways. Now, imagine you go out to the mailbox one day, and in it you find a letter — a letter from that person — apologizing for everything, for every way they’ve hurt you. You got it? Can you read the letter in your mind?”

He paused for a moment. I was sitting in the front row and already silent tears were falling down onto my lap as I thought about it.

“Now, take this piece of paper, and write that letter to yourself from them.”

I knelt down on the carpet and used my chair as a desk to write this painful epistle. I wept while I wrote, finally starting to acknowledge the pain that he had caused me. I’d been able to see the pain the situation had caused for everyone else, but it was the first admittance on paper of the fact that he had caused me pain. That he had something to be sorry to me for.

“Now I want you to do something — I want you to accept the fact that you may never receive that apology. Let this letter, this one that you’ve written, be the invitation to forgive them. You don’t have to wait for them to be sorry for you to move on.”

I pulled myself up onto my chair, clutching my letter, the tears unwilling to stop. I sat between two men I’d met there, and they both put their arm around my shoulders and held me while I wept, letting the pain out in shutters, sadly accepting that there never may be as much as an acknowledgement from John. “Don’t hold back. Let yourself feel it, let yourself grieve it,” one of them whispered in my ear and then kissed the top of my head with an appropriate, fatherly affection.

It was then that I first saw that forgiveness is like grief — there are stages to both, and the stage of acceptance is the last in both cases. You can’t jump to that last stage on either path without first going through the other stages.

But, like grief, there are many mini-paths within the larger path, and that morning was the end of the small mini-path toward accepting that I may never receive an apology. John hadn’t apologized to me in his public confession. He may never. And I had with me now a letter with the things I needed to hear from him, regardless of the fact that it was written in my own handwriting. It acknowledged what I myself had taken months to acknowledge — that I was hurt by his actions, too. That I was left in the wake of great loss. And that my pain mattered.

And it was as I held that letter, one day after hating John for the first time, that I also decided to forgive him (which, remember, is different than having forgiven him). But the decision was made. I wasn’t ready. I’d need time. But I wanted to forgive him someday.

Read the rest of the story HERE.

If you’d be willing to donate to support Stories By Jo: The Story Project where I will be writing people’s stories for them as I have done here for myself, please click the donate button below. Thank you so much for your support and for reading.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com
Tuesday, January 27th, 2015 | Author:

Note: The juicy stuff you might want to gossip about or think about or message me about or just generally know starts at the break part-way down this page. If you’re short on time, just start there. I know this is a longer post and your time and attention are limited. 

Second Note: Feel free to share this with anyone who might be interested or who it may help. 

I’ve been putting off this blog post for a long time now. While I do take pains to make myself vulnerable here as I sort through the crap of my internal and external life, I’ve been beating around the bush now for over a year, and I was just outright selective and silent about this before then.

But this is the thing: I’m about to start a story project, where I’m asking people not just to trust me with their stories, but to pay me to write their stories for them (see posts in the next few weeks for more info about the story project — I’m really excited to share it with you guys!).

And in anticipation of that I’ve been doing a lot of research and prep work on writing real, true stories of real life people and I keep running up against this problem: How do I convince people that those ugly, dirty, shameful, painful parts of their story are truly an important part? That’s it’s worth the pain of digging up the past to talk about it?

People are quick to want me to write about their accomplishments or their fun adventures — which we need, too — but it’s harder to get people to be honest and open about those painful parts. If I’ve learned anything in writing and reading non-fiction, though, it’s this: The painful parts are the most powerful parts. 

They have power to connect with the broken, painful places inside the readers. They’re the moments when I read them, that I as a reader take sharp breaths in because, there before my eyes, I see that someone else knows pain like I know it. I know that I’m not the only one. That I’m not alone.

And that is the most powerful message I’ve ever read or ever written.

So all that to say, I have a story I haven’t put out there in writing yet. It’s the painful, shameful part of my story. And it’s not going to just be one blog post. But this post can usher in the era of freedom that I’m choosing to be ready for. I’m ready to start letting my story breathe on paper (or screens as it may be), not just in unrecorded moments in hushed tones at cafes and on couches in which I’ve previously chosen to share it.

So this is me, doing what I’m going to ask others to do. This is me letting the pain hit the page. Letting the image you have of me as a person be shaped as it may be by the truth, for better or worse. Because overall, I don’t think it matters what you think of me. I think it matters how my story makes you feel. And if it makes one person feel like they’re not alone, then it’s worth it. Consider this an era for that as well.


I’ve written vague things here before about “I lost everything.” About my distrust of people and of the church. And about deep grief. This is what happened.

1999

The first time I officially saw him, he was on the lower stage at the front of our sanctuary. (I assume this, I don’t actually remember it, but I’ve seen the pictures). It was his wedding day, and I was 9 years old.

The first time I technically saw him up close was the next day when they showed up at Carl’s Jr. for lunch in the next town over from ours. I was next to him at the fountain drinks and went back to my table to ask my mom, “Do we know those people?” pointing to their table.  “They were the ones who got married yesterday,” she said. And we awkwardly said “Hi” on our way out to the car, having committed the grave sin of seeing someone you know while they’re on their honeymoon.

January 6, 2013

The last time I officially saw him, he was standing on that same lower stage at the front of the same church sanctuary.

He got up in front of a crowd and read a confession and apology he’d written ahead of time. The crowd was our 900 person church. He was the pastor in charge of all of the ministries of the church. The confession was about how he’d been “inappropriately involved” with me for “a while now.” The apology was to his wife, his family, my family, and the church.

He sat on a stool and cried while he read it. Something I’d never seen him do before.

I sat in the congregation, tears and snot making a steady flow down my face while he spoke, and while our main Pastor (different man, just to be clear) took over and read an apology I’d written ahead of time. He’d had the foresight to not allow me to deliver it myself — something I’m endlessly grateful for now.

It felt like hell. Actual, living hell. I so wish there was a less cliche way to convey that. But those are the only words I’ve come up with in the two years since then. Hell. It-would-be-better-if-I-could-just-burn-to-death-and-let-this-end Hell.

This was my deepest darkest secret that had held me captive for years and years, and it had just been told to 900 people, including everyone I’d ever been close with. I thought in a surreal moment somewhere in one of those two church services that morning, “I’ll never be as free as I am right now. I have no other secrets.” But of course, those thoughts came in between the hyperventilation and the crushing grief of seeing my entire world collapse around me, seeing the people I was closest to in life filled with so much pain and betrayal.

This pastor of ministries and I, we’d been fully-fledged “inappropriately involved” since a couple months after I turned 18. But our relationship had begun to be inappropriate in nature since I was 16 and he was my youth pastor.

Let me say it as delicately as I can while also being accurate — What was happening when I was 16-18 would’ve gotten him fired in a heart beat, but not arrested. What was happening when I was 18 until I was 23 when someone found out would’ve been cause for arrest had I not been of age. (Not that it’s any of your business, by the way. But there was enough misunderstanding and misinformation that I feel it’s valuable to at least be accurate as I air out my dirty laundry here.)

2 weeks later

The last time I technically saw him up close, it was in the next town over again. It was 2 weeks after our public confessions. I was in a store walking down the main aisle when all of the sudden he popped out of one of the side aisles directly in front of me. There was no turning around unseen. So I took a breath and proceeded. “Jo.” He said. I felt ice and panic stall my heart. “Hi,” I managed, meeker than I ever am.

“See you later,” he said with a harshness in his voice that I was more than familiar with. Then he spun his cart around and fled in the opposite direction the way you do when you’ve committed the grave sin of seeing the girl you’ve been inappropriate with for years once the secret has come out.

His tone was the same one I’d heard in countless drawn-out arguments we’d had over the years from which I always emerged feeling smaller, and slightly trampled on and disregarded. This time was no different.

It is the only time where I’ve spent significant moments in the vitamin aisle. And it is the only time I’ve cried in the presence of gummy calcium chews.  The supplements as my silent witnesses, tears and snot acknowledging the years of pain from that tone and that twisted relationship, I hoped he was wrong – that I would in fact never see him later.

And eventually, one day short of one year after what I’ve taken to calling “confession sunday,” I found myself unexpectedly forgiving him.

That story comes next time.

If you’d be willing to donate to support Stories By Jo: The Story Project where I will be writing people’s stories for them as I have done here for myself, please click the donate button below. Thank you so much for your support and for reading.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com