Damn oxygen tank. You first showed up in my last journaling workshop. An image to explain Jim’s condition and when we visited them after that weekend, we saw the man hooking Jim up to it in their living room. You hid behind Jim’s bed. But we could see your clear tubing coil around the head of the bed and meet at his hairy nostrils. The tubes. The green tank. The fear you brought. Heavy, like your tank. You were there to help, but we all feared you – fear of running out of you, not knowing how to operate you…explosion, and fear of what you represented. Jim hated you. You turned from nostril tubings to a face mask. One more thing to keep Jim from speaking. You were life giving but represented death coming. At times, I feel like I need you now. Weird. Thinking about you causes me to breathe in deeply. When I feel like I am drowning. I feel like I caused your manifestation. You are cold and condescending in our need for you. Metal, plastic, black knob. False hope. Real fear. You’re choking me and you know it. You are my guilt.
Have any of you seen a dying person on oxygen?
There’s this weird hope that comes when they bring in an oxygen tank to a dying person. “Oh! Oxygen…great! He can breathe…” but he can’t speak or move his cancer ridden body and “it’s any time now….” But THANK JESUS FOR OXYGEN! Maybe that tank will buy us a few more days or months. Maybe it will be just what he needs to miraculously get up and walk! A good dose of oxygen will cure that cancer.
The oxygen tank was supposed to fill us with hope, but it’s this false hope. It’s real oxygen, but the reality is, Geoff’s dad was dying, regardless of how much air we pumped into him. False hope, given by a very real and necessary thing.
We do this to ourselves. There are times where we are grasping for air – we can’t breathe because whatever we are facing seems to be choking the life out of us and if only we could just get some oxygen everything will be just fine. We will have the life pumped back into us. So we grab whatever we can to give us this sense of hope and feel better momentarily…because we all know as soon as we turn the knob off, we won’t be able to breathe on our own.
Most recently, for me, avoiding the guilt that had settled in me over Jim’s death was consuming me. I felt guilty because we had spent a weekend up at Mt Hood with our intensive journaling group while he was lying in a hospital bed at home, without need for help in breathing. This is where I first had a vision of the oxygen tank. We immediately drove to my in-law’s home the Sunday after journaling was complete and they were installing the oxygen tank. I thought I had done this to Jim, because of my writing. The day before Jim died, he was pulling at something as he was uncomfortable. I knew it was his catheter and I tried to tell the hospice worker and Geoff’s sister what was happening. They rushed to his side and instead of dealing with the catheter, they positioned him in a really weird, had-to- be uncomfortable position and instead of standing up for him, I just let them do it because I didn’t want to embarrass him or myself if I was wrong about the catheter. In the middle of the night, he pulled out the catheter in a fit of rage and the next afternoon, he died. This was my fault. The third thing was in the selling of the cabin on Mt. Hood. If I had only worked harder to save my money, I could have saved the cabin. If only I had been more responsible or fought with my mother-in-law, instead of using the excuse that it wasn’t my place to step in, we would still have that piece of family legacy and not all would have been lost. In the midst of my grief the past year and a half, I was also carrying this huge cement block of guilt. Except it wasn’t really a cement block…it was more like wet cement had been poured into my lungs and I was trying to breathe but couldn’t. Instead of taking a moment to pause and take a look at what was happening, I had to show well – I am brave. I am an intelligent person. I need to strive harder at work so I can provide for my family like Jim did and prove to my mother-in-law I am financially trustworthy. I had to suck it up and show support of something (the sale of the cabin) that I really wasn’t supportive of and smile through it because it just wasn’t my place and I needed to stay on her “good side”. I held the guilt because I thought I deserved it. I gained and lost weight and gained weight. But, if I just hold myself high, suck in my gut, get promoted and show just how I can spin all these plates and balance on a rubber ball like a Cirque du Soleil act, I will survive! I’m a survivor dammit! I will show well and I will prove myself and I will…be choked out. I need to show well. I need to save face. I need to….HOLD MY BREATH THROUGH THIS MOMENT AND EVERYTHING WILL BE JUST FINE….GASP! PUUUH!…The guilt will go away, right?
I was placing this oxygen mask of “if I don’t bring it up, there will be peace for everyone and that’s good” over my face and the tubes that pump the lie of what showing well does for a person into my nostrils. I need to show well. Showing well means I am well, right?
I realized the oxygen I was giving myself was actually just sustaining my condition and not healing me. It was sustaining my condition. I was choking on wet cement and fixing it by covering my mouth. I needed to voice my pain to someone I trusted and needed the ok to not be ok with what happened. I also needed someone to give me permission to be hurt. I needed permission to voice what I had done. I needed someone to tell me I couldn’t control those things. I needed a surgical procedure to pull out what was killing me, instead of sustaining my illness.
In order for me to stop choking, I had to be honest with people I trusted. This only happened recently in our grief journaling weekend. Thank God for Geoff, Jesse and Tiffany. They were there, in the operating room with me. I wasn’t alone. Their ability to just listen to me be honest about where I was and acknowledge my pain, without judgment or advice or saying I was silly for feeling guilt over those things….THAT is what allowed me to take off the oxygen mask and breathe on my own. Taking the tubes out of my nose and turning the black knob to “off” meant I had to trust the people around me. I had to pause and be still and address what was happening to me, both internally and physically. I needed permission to not be ok. I had to have someone say to me, “Crystal, Jim would have died with or without the tank. His cancer had consumed his body and that had nothing to do with oxygen and everything to do with cancer killing him.” I started breathing on my own. It wasn’t easy because I became accustomed to the false life-giving behaviors I had adopted. There were and still are times where I GASP for air because I forget that I can breathe on my own and control whether or not I am sustaining my condition or healing it.
There are things we all do to sustain our condition because we just can’t breathe and if we can JUST BREATHE for a moment, everything will be ok: Avoidance, Work, Eating, The Mask of Happiness, Gathering Friends to insure we are “Right”, Spending money (shopping therapy), Dieting, Over-exercising, Manipulating others, Spinning stories, Retreating into yourself – hermit, Retreating into legalism/religion, Sarcasm/Cynicism, things we do that we can control because we feel like we are dying and we can’t control that.
Those things don’t change our condition. The cancer that is eating us is still consuming us, even when wearing a mask.
So how do we learn to breathe on our own?
(reference) Exodus 14:1-30
Imagine you spent the majority of your life raising someone else’s children. You worked their land, built their houses, kept their property tidy. You built their cities. You fed, clothed and kept them well. Then, those children you raised, the men you helped thrive were out to kill you. They are chasing after you because they hate you.
Your friend says to follow him because he follows your God and your God will bring the rescue. You don’t really know what you are doing. Your scrambling. Terrified. You are exhausted, heartbroken and bewildered.
As you are running you come to a place where you are all about to be slaughtered. Instead of really assessing the situation and pausing for a moment you start yelling at the friend you were following. It was, after all, his fault for bringing you to this point. WHAT A DOUCHE! You start saying things like, (verse 11) “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
They would have rather stayed slaves because at the very least, they knew what they were doing. Being a slave was the safe choice. We do that. We are slaves to our unhealth, because, I at least know that eating this or drinking that or saying this or saying that will result in x-y-or z. I may feel like shit afterward and deal with guilt and self-hatred, but at least that is safe.
13 Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
The Israelites were scrambling and scared and in need of a rescue. They were in a situation where they were out of their league. This was war. A real life or death situation. The Egyptians were about to consume them and what they were doing was barely sustaining their situation, not fixing it. They needed to stop what they were doing and look for a real way out and were blaming Moses because he REALLY screwed up this time. Instead of making them feel stupid or belittling their fear, he said, “14 The Lord will fight for you; you only need to be still.”
There are times I don’t believe God will fight for me, or that others will, so I scramble or do things that SEEM like a good idea – I mean, we all have to eat…talking things through with friends can be good…laughing is fun. The reality is, when we create habits that become an oxygen mask for us, sustaining our situation, instead of walking through the healing process, we continue to slowly die. Oxygen is necessary for our survival. I get it. But when you are dying, all it does is sustain you. It doesn’t heal your condition.
Being still is not easy. Asking for help is not easy. Praying is not always easy. It is incredibly difficult and you feel naked and vulnerable and it is scary and you have to be brave and when you can’t be brave, you have to ask for others to stand with you and for you – others you TRUST. Others that won’t allow you to put back on the mask, because they love you. Others that will tell you the truth in kindness, because it IS lifesaving.
List the things that are currently consuming you.
What are the things you do that sustain your condition?
What steps can you take to start breathing on your own (bring true healing)?
How can you be still?
Who can you ask for help?
Close your eyes. Breathe in. Let the air fill your lungs to capacity. Let it out. Breathe. Picture what being well looks like for you. Envision you…well.
In your breathing, ask God where you need to be still. Ask for help. Be honest in your prayers. Ask God to step in and fight for you.
Even when we decide to place that mask back on, and there are times you will just need to do it to survive, we are still loved. You are still loved.
**If you were at church Sunday or are just reading this for the first time, I would love for you to share your discoveries here, if you are comfortable. This is not a place to attack others or criticize where people are in their journey, but to share your story and respect the stories of others.