I’ve been on the edge of tears all day. Here in Savannah, something inside me has changed. It’s shifted in ways that I didn’t expect. Even now as I type, my heart swells up into a lump in my throat and I fight back the water in my eyes. The last few days have been emotional, inspiring, harrowing, and lovely. I didn’t know I needed this moment as much as I did until it came upon me. I didn’t know how much I needed to say until the words already slipped out. I don’t like to label this feeling, but it’s the closest to the Holy Spirit I can think of.
I’ve been at the Episcopal Communicators Conference since Monday and I leave tomorrow with a fresh perspective. I leave with some healing for something that I didn’t even know was wrong. Earlier this year, I went to see an orthopedic doctor because my right knee has been bothering me and I finally have stable enough health insurance to address it. While I was there, they took x-rays of my knee and leg and as I laid on the x-ray table, the technician casually asked me “When did you break your leg?” I was perplexed, and I chuckled. “You tell me. When did I break my leg?” See I’ve grown up my whole life without breaking a single bone in my body. It’s one of those trivial facts about me, something you tell people in corporate seminars so they can get to know you. But here I was, laying in this darkened room, as a random person, whom I will probably never see again, tells me, “Yeah, you broke your leg.” Huh. I asked “like fractured it? Like there was a hairline crack?” Nope. It was broken clean through and had healed at some point which showed him that there was even a break at all.
My mind raced, when could I have done this? When did I break my leg? How did I break my leg? How did I not know that I broke it? Did I break it when I was little, or was it more recent? Shouldn’t I have been in tremendous pain? The orthopedic doctor looked at my x-ray and asked me the same question. “When did you break your leg?” to which I shrugged. I have no clue. But here I am now, a person who broke their leg at some point in their life, and carried on as it was forced to heal itself.
This week, just like then, I found out that there was something broken inside me. There was a wound in my soul that had been pierced deeply and was just left to heal on its own. It took, being in a place with people like me, without judgment and without fear, for me to realize that I was broken at all. Unlike when I found out I broke my leg, and just went, “huh, that’s funny.” this realization knocked the wind out of me. It shook me to my core. Dr. Bertice Berry, one of our keynote speakers put what I have been feeling my whole life into tangible words. I have a deep wound because I have a deep urge to feel like I belong.
This “ah-hah” moment, this epiphany that I have been chasing this urge my whole life cut me deeply. And I cried. I ugly cried. I sat there in a conference room full of people who I didn’t know, and I could not fight back the tears that flowed down my face. I cried before I even met Dr. Berry, I cried the night before. Our first keynote speaker, Ryan Casey Waller, spoke on Wednesday about tragic optimism and toxic positivity. He spoke about mental health in the Christian faith and how stigmatized and divisive it is. There is no such thing as being 100% mentally healthy. It lives on a spectrum, with complex layers and connections. He talked about supporting someone with mental health issues. Ask, and listen. That is the first step to support. That we as people metabolize our emotions by letting them out.
I sat in his workshop and in his keynote speech, nodding along, but there was this fire kindling inside of me. I stood up to speak, I was compelled to voice my opinion. The fire that burned inside of me could not be ignored. I stood on my soapbox for a moment and said my piece. And then I left went up to my hotel room and crumpled. I had an email newsletter to send out and I was racing against the clock to finish it before I met my new communicator friends for dinner. But it was taking too long, and my anxiety swelled up and I could not stop thinking about something that was happening at my work while I wasn’t there. I broke down. I ugly cried. I called my husband as I typed up an email to my boss expressing my displeasure over something I felt so strongly about and I HAD to send her that email immediately. But I was sobbing, I was hyperventilating. Each time I thought I had it under control, the wave of emotion would wash over me again.
I talked to my husband, shouting at times, that I was struggling to control my emotions, that I felt deeply wounded and I could not stop the electricity that was flowing through my body at that moment. He listened. He listened as I said I felt like I give so much to everyone else, but I never feel like people give back to me. That I felt left out at my office because they were doing something without me. That I felt so strongly in this moment, that the words could not fall from my mouth fast enough to satisfy my heart. For the first time in years, I felt the unfathomably deep urge to speak. And I cried. Deep tears. Blubbering tears. Tears that somehow I could not suppress, nor did I want to.
So, I had my moment. I talked through it with my husband, and I calmed down. I sent off my email in the calmest, most diplomatic, communicator voice I could muster. I got dressed and grabbed some Himalayan food and went on a cheesy ghost tour. I came back exhausted, all the while, not understanding why I broke down so hard before.
And then Dr. Bertice spoke the next morning. And just like the x-ray technician, there was a stranger showing me that something inside me was broken. Dr. Berry talked about her personal experience coming to the Episcopal church, and how it took years of someone consistently inviting her before she finally broke down and went. Bertice is a very Afro-centric and incredibly powerful Black woman. And there she was attending a Southern Georgia Sunday service with a bunch of old white people. There she was, praying in a building that was built on the backs of slaves. She explained that she didn’t know what it was that moved her so deeply at that service. She couldn’t articulate why she suddenly felt like she had to go back to this church. Until one day, she realized, that the reason she kept going back, is because in that church, she had an incredible sense of belonging.
Her story parallels mine in many ways. I didn’t grow up Episcopalian, I grew up areligious, with no sense of community on a spiritual plane. I bounced from church to church with my friends, and while they were all welcoming, I still felt like an outsider. When I met my husband and I first learned that he was an Episcopal priest’s son, at first I was like “what the fuck is Episcopalian?” I still struggle to pronounce the word. But he explained it to me, and I attended services, and suddenly, I found a religion that aligned with my views. They believed in women’s rights, in LGBTQ+ rights, in racial reconciliation, in serving the community, and in changing the world through action. So, 9 years ago I got married to my husband by an Episcopal priest. A woman priest. But even after that, the Episcopal Church was just a background in my life. Another group I was a part of but didn’t fully understand.
When Bertice said that she finally felt like she belonged, my heart jumped into my throat and the light bulb went off in my head. I have found a place here where I can belong. No, not just a place where I COULD belong, but where I actually belonged. And when suddenly confronted with that epiphany, the flood gates opened and I could not hold back my joy.
Dr. Berry talked about the power of telling stories in her workshop, and how we instinctively want to share our own stories when we are told another person’s story. Story begets story. And telling your story, allows someone else to connect with you and allows them to hear the story within themselves. As I see it, my job as a communicator is to lift up the voices of other people, to amplify their voices so that they can be heard. But storytelling is a two-way street. It’s not just about sharing their voice, it is about taking their voice and connecting it with my own. And here’s where I shattered.
My career up to this point has been telling other people’s stories, all while suppressing my own story deep within me. I would say to myself, “I’m a middle-aged middle-class white woman, no one needs to hear my story.” But when Bertice said that listening to others’ stories starts by listening to ourselves first, it’s like she shined a light on what was broken within me. Her words were like the X-ray that illuminated that broken soul and how it’s been forced to try to heal on its own.
So, I’m writing this now. I’m intentionally typing these words and these emotions, and I am sharing them with you. In order to heal myself, I need to share my story, and I need to set my fear aside and just allow myself to be me. To be my authentic self. To be the person I say I am. I’m sharing these words with you all in the hopes that something within them resonates within you. And you can find hope and comfort, and laughter, and anguish, and joy, and connection. I share these words with you all so that you can have that feeling that you belong too.