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Features

The tribe of the scarred

Sheridan Voysey

When you gather the courage to share your pain, the resultcan be unexpected community, writes Sheridan Voysey.

'We were missionaries in Africa,' a woman tells me. 'Then our daughter Becky started experiencing depression. That led to drug use, then to self-harm. Then Becky took her life.'1

I am talking with attendees after speaking at a Christian conference. An hour ago this same woman had spoken from the stage, and done so confidently. Now her voice is hushed, uncertain, and she's careful not to be overheard. 'I couldn't tell anyone what happened to Becky,' she says. 'We had to look "successful" back then, and losing a child to suicide wasn't a mark of spiritual success. Even now, very few people know what happened.'

Later, a professional man in his fifties pulls me aside. 'My wife and I adopted two children from the Philippines, one of whom we discovered has autism. He gets violent and reduces my wife to tears by screaming his hatred of her. Our marriage is under pressure because we have different views on how to deal with him.' The man looks over his shoulder and lowers his voice. 'We've served God all our lives. Weren't we being faithful, looking after orphans? What did we do to deserve a child who kicks in our walls?'

I'm stopped again in the afternoon by someone else wanting a private word. 'I used to be an evangelist,' the man says. 'I travelled the country sharing the good news. Then my four-month old son died.' The man points to his head: 'I say I trust God.' Then he points to his heart: 'But I don't really trust God. I can't tell many people that.'

A SECRET CIRCLE

Experiences like this have become remarkably common for me recently. People pull me aside at events and share their deepest disappointments. They email me in the hundreds and share their hidden pain. They cry in our living room, telling my wife and me of lost marriages, lost careers, shaken faith, broken dreams. We've been entrusted with many untold stories.

It feels like being granted access to a room where everyone's secrets are kept, like being ushered into a new circle, like being welcomed into a new tribe.

Somehow I've found myself inside the Tribe of the Scarred.

What had I done at that conference to attract this sharing of secrets? I'd simply told the story of an experience my wife and I had shared, from a book I'd never wanted to write1, about an experience we'd never expected to have.

That story revolves around a phone call to my wife on Christmas Eve, 2010. 'Hi Merryn,' the voice said, 'it's Emily, from the clinic.'

HOPE DEFERRED

That Christmas had been shaping up to be a Christmas like no other. Just a few days earlier we had been given some news we never thought we would receive. After ten years spent trying almost every means possible to start a family-including special diets, courses of fertility- boosting supplements, chiropractic sessions (you'll try anything), prayers for healing, numerous rounds of costly In Vitro Fertilisation treatment, a two-year wait on the Australian adoption list, followed by even more rounds of IVF-we had been told we were pregnant.

Pregnant!

After a decade waiting, we were finally going to have a baby. We could hardly believe it.

As any couple trying for a child knows, every twenty-eight days you are looking for signs of success. For many couples this expectation is met with disappointment for a few months until conception happens. But for others, this monthly cycle of raised and dashed hopes can last for years and become destructive. Proverbs 13:12 says it well: 'Hope deferred makes the heart sickā€¦' After a decade of deferred hope, Merryn had become emotionally and spiritually sick, her life marked by tears and her faith in tatters. And my own life was marked with a sense of guilt and failure: guilt at being the cause of Merryn not getting what she wanted; failure in not feeling 'spiritual' enough to have my prayers make a difference to our situation. So the news of our pregnancy meant more than just a baby. It meant healing too.

A DREAM SHATTERED

Merryn had been expecting Emily's call that day. It was a routine call with the results of the latest blood test. She'd pressed the phone to her ear.

'I'm afraid,' Emily said quietly, 'things have changed.' 'What do you mean?' Merryn said. 'Your pregnancy hormone levels have dropped significantly.' 'But, you told us we were preg...' 'I am so sorry.'

An ultrasound a few days later revealed there had never been a baby inside Merryn. A gestational sac had been responsible for the pregnancy-like symptoms, but it had been empty. Even the doctors had been fooled.

At that cruel news Merryn had put down the phone, walked into our bedroom and curled up in a foetal position. Our ten year dream of having a baby had come to an end.

That's the story I had told at the conference, complete with our feelings of sadness, exhaustion, loneliness and anger at God, and the steps we'd taken to have a 'resurrection year'-a year spent starting again-which had brought us to Britain. The story had brought many tears from the audience. It had also inadvertently effected an initiation.

INITIATED IN PAIN

In many primitive tribes, membership of a community is granted only after an initiate has endured a series of painful trials. They are taken into the wilderness, told the tribe's stories and laws, ushered into some demanding rituals, then often have their bodies scarred with symbols of maturity or the brand of the tribe. Initiation to a tribe requires pain. There is no entrance without wounds, no inclusion without scars.

Merryn and I had spent ten years in the wilderness of infertility. The wounds we carried from it became our initiation marks into the Tribe of the Scarred.

But those wounds were deep-deeply personal, deeply private. When our dream of having a child died, Merryn and I had no intention of making the story public. I'd spent years speaking professionally, but had no plans of turning it into a keynote talk. I'd hosted a national radio show in Australia, but made no reference to the ordeal when announcing my departure. There was no desire to write a magazine article about it, or start a support group. Only close friends knew about our wilderness. Our scars were shown to few.

And so the unexpected words of a friend one day caught me by surprise.

'Have you considered writing your story into a book?' he said.

A CHALLENGE

The words came from the author and poet Adrian Plass as we chatted in his lounge room one evening. Adrian and his wife Bridget had invited Merryn and me to stay soon after we'd arrived in the UK, and amongst the laughter and tears of a memorable Saturday, our wilderness story had tumbled out in detail.

'What do you mean?' I said. 'Your story-everything you told us today.' 'You mean, write it into a memoir?' 'Yes. I think it could help a lot of people.'

A flurry of thoughts swirled at Adrian's suggestion, and my mind soon filled with objections: The story is too private; Merryn will never agree to it; I write apologetics books, not misery memoirs; I don't want to be known as the 'infertility guy'...

'I'm not sure I'm qualified to write a book about infertility,' I said finally.

'Your story isn't just about infertility,' Adrian said. 'It's about broken dreams, tested faith and the need for a new beginning. It's about taking a risk and starting again, and holding onto God when you don't understand him. I think many could benefit from reading about that.'

Our conversation drifted to other things but Adrian's idea wouldn't leave me.

BARING THE SCARS

A few weeks later, after discussion with Merryn, I sat down at my desk and began writing our story. A year later that little memoir was released into the world. Within days my inbox began filling with emails from readers who'd found hope through its pages, and within just a few weeks I would be standing at a conference podium and sharing the story in person. It would all prove pivotal to our initiation into the Tribe.

When I joined the Christian 'tribe' as a 19 year old, there were stories for me to learn (evangelism), a ritual to undergo (baptism), and words to publically profess (my allegiance to Christ). During initiation into a tribe, there comes a time for the initiate to speak. Their public profession completes their entrance into the community.

I see now that I wouldn't have entered the Tribe if I hadn't taken Adrian's advice. In writing the book and sharing our story, I had proverbially lifted up my shirt, bared my scars, and alerted other Tribe members that I was one of them.

SECRET & SCATTERED

The Tribe of the Scarred is a secret and scattered tribe. Its membership is at once hidden and all around you, made up of colleagues, acquaintances, strangers and friends. You may not realise you share an office with a member until you gather the courage to share your story, show your scars. Once you do, however, bonds form quickly.

Because the Tribe of the Scarred is a community of common stories. Once you're in, you have the liberating experience of finding others who understand what you've been through.

'My husband and I spent ten years trying for children, including nine failed IVF attempts,' Lynne told me. 'The questions we asked ourselves and God were exactly the ones you and Merryn ask in Resurrection Year. Through your story I've finally found a sense of peace that what my husband and I feel-the loneliness, the not fitting into the world, the wondering what we'll do with our lives now children won't be part of our future-is normal for people who have endured what we have.

' Only those who've experienced infertility know what having needles pushed into you to collect eggs for an IVF round feels like, or the indignity of providing a sperm sample, or the crushing disappointment when a period comes, or the threatened sense of masculinity, or the floating grief associated with it all. In the words of one reader, 'infertility feels like a death, but there are no flowers and no event to mark your loss.' Friends with kids just don't understand, but in the Tribe you find those who do. You're not alone. You share a common story. Your experience is validated. What blessed relief.

EMOTIONAL BONDS

But the people who pulled me aside at that Christian conference didn't share my experience of infertility. The former missionary talked about losing her daughter Becky, the evangelist spoke about his shaken faith. Others would tell me of their struggle with singleness, their chronic illness, or their lost careers. Infertility wasn't knitting us together in these cases, something else was. As I discovered, the stories of Tribe members aren't always common in fact, but common in emotion. The wilderness may be different, the scars unique, but what is common to each is a broken dream.

'On one December morning in 2010 my husband went off to work as usual,' Kylie told me. 'By that same afternoon he had been arrested for multiple offenses relating to child sexual abuse.

On that day I lost my home, our business, friends, family, my husband, and my children lost their father as they knew him.

'Added to this was grief for the pain that had been inflicted on others. On Christmas Eve of 2010 I too curled up in a foetal position, like Merryn did, after seeing my husband for the first time following his arrest. We have different journeys, a different loss, but with the same theme of shattered dreams.'

SHARED DOUBTS

If the Tribe of the Scarred is a community of common stories, it is also a community of common doubts, where deep questions are faced.

Like the professional at the conference who wondered how he deserved a child that kicked in his walls, many Tribe members' doubts centre on God. 'If God loves me,' said Leonie, 'why doesn't he give me a child? I only want one.' There are often doubts about divine guidance. 'I've had people give me all kinds of "prophecies" telling me I'd have a miracle baby,' Jenny said. 'Instead, I've had nine miscarriages and the miracle has never come. As a result, my husband has left the church and I have little desire to serve God either.'

Believers aren't the only people to doubt in this way, though. 'My life has gone to shit after my partner's death,' said Denise, who is an agnostic, 'and there isn't a thing I can think of to make sense of his passing. Do you have any idea? I can't find an answer.'

Others turn their doubts on themselves. 'We never considered adoption,' Julie told me, 'because my husband believes God has withheld children from us because we aren't fit to be parents, either to our own children or someone else's.'

After his marriage breakdown Daniel confided, 'In trying to work out what happened these last few months, I've had every concept of who I thought I was, who I thought my wife and I were, and who I thought we'd become, shattered.' Broken dreams can leave us doubting our very identities.

INSIGHTS TRADED

While the Tribe may be a community of common doubts, it can also be a community of shared discoveries, where important lessons are learnt and insights traded.

'I'm starting to think we all have subplots going on in our lives,' Lisa said of her own wilderness experience, 'and it is one of these subplots that eventually becomes our life purpose, not the main plot we think.'

Others discover that their scars have equipped them for some unexpected task. 'Our baby was stillborn and would've been severely disabled had he lived,' Jane said. 'As a result of that experience, I now work with parents of severely disabled children. Without my experience, devastating though it was, I wouldn't have the wonderful opportunity to help these parents, who sometimes struggle just to get through the day.'

As Anna told me, 'Maybe there's a third option for us beyond fairytale happiness or broken-heartedness, which is serving others through our broken dreams instead.'

COMMUNITY OF HEALING

And ultimately, with doubts aired and discoveries shared, I've seen the Tribe become a community of healing, as members find new possibilities for their lives.

For some this healing comes just by hearing that others have survived their trials. 'My son has Asperger's Syndrome and my marriage is in tatters because of my husband's addiction,' Teresa told me. 'All my dreams are gone. But I've just read your book and now feel I can start again-and start finding God again.'

For others, it's come through the bold step of leaving their unfulfilled dream behind. 'I'm crying for the first time in a very long time-tears of healing,' wrote Wendy, who had struggled with being single. 'I'm learning now there's a time to let go of a dream, to grieve it, then actively pursue something new.'

And for almost all the people I've talked to, this healing includes making peace with a God they can't fully understand. 'Soon after my husband's arrest,' Kylie continued, 'I realised I had a choice: I either held on to God and all I professed to believe, or I walked away and blamed God. Somehow I instinctively knew that I wouldn't survive without him. At some level I also felt that God grieved our situation too.'

The resurrected Jesus retains the scars of his own trial (John 21:27). Many in the Tribe find comfort in this - in a God who experiences suffering too.

TAKE THE STEP

So there is a Tribe whose members are both hidden and everywhere around you. Initiation to this Tribe comes through suffering, inclusion comes through pain. If you have walked through what feels like a wilderness, and born wounds from it, you're an initiate. Take the vulnerable step of revealing your scars and you'll soon be welcomed in.

You don't need to blab your story through some book or conference, or share your pain with everyone you meet. Start with one person, then a second when it's time. Some won't reciprocate your brave vulnerability; others will collapse into your arms.

I didn't want to share our infertility story with others, but I'm glad now I did. As I take the risky step of sharing my pain with you, I get the privilege of having you entrust your pain with me.

And somehow we both heal through this newfound community.

Names and identifying details in these stories have been changed to protect privacy.

Sheridan Voysey is a writer, speaker and broadcaster, frequently contributing to BBC Radio 2's Pause for Thought. His latest book is Resurrection Year: Turning broken dreams into new beginnings (Thomas Nelson). www.sheridanvoysey.com

NOTE 1 Voysey, S: Resurrection Year: Turning broken dreams into new beginnings (Thomas Nelson).