Do you sometimes feel broken? Or have you been told you are? And how does that make your feel? The definition of broken includes “reduced to fragments; fragmented; ruptured; torn; fractured; not functioning properly; out of working order”. The word broken presumes the existence of a whole. And the expectation that a whole is far better than fragments, or pieces of things. If something no longer works, it may be rendered useless, but if you look at it from another perspective, it may be able to be mended, fixed, altered, upcycled or created into something better.
We talk about “broken hearts”and being pushed to “breaking point” in a negative way. Yet we also talk about “breakthroughs”, “breaking” something in until it works how we want it to, and “breaking out in song”. So really the thing is the way you see and use the idea of brokenness is the key here, not the actual broken parts. You may not always be able to change something that is broken, but you can change the way you approach it, use it and see it.
I can’t remember the first time that I knew I was broken. Perhaps it was in year 5, when we moved to a small country town in rural South Australia, my bohemian, strong willed parents, blazing trails for so many issues that rubbed up against the conservative faces that greeted us. Perhaps following the inevitable bullying that then started, relentless in its force, making me ill and putting me in the sick bay with stomach aches and worry. I remember telling my parents that I would never go to school again. That they would teach me from home and begging them not to send me back to those jeering mouths and small minds. But of course that didn’t happen.
As I ended my time in primary school, despite the bullies – a straight A student, bright, creative, interested in the world, my body decided to let me know that it was most certainly broken, with a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. Slowly, over time, it began to break down on me…first the nighttime leg cramps and trips to the toilet, followed by a thirst you can never understand unless you have diabetes, and later infections, exhaustion, weight loss….as my body attacked my pancreas, breaking little pieces of it until it could no longer work, and the outside of me began to wither too. Entering high school with this on my shoulders was extraordinarily hard to bear. I battled through both the dealing with type 1 diabetes and the high school bullying that became even more vicious. Somehow, I went on at 16 into a relationship with an abusive violent partner that broke me in many ways and lasted until I was around 20 years old.
Through all of these experiences of bullying I worked out ways to get through those moments, without completely breaking. I worked out survival strategies. I knew that little pieces of my heart and mind were broken by those bullies, but they also contributed to my resilience and ability to weather the hard things.
Even without all of those bullies, the diagnosis of a life changing, chronic disease, one in which you are told you are broken and can never be fixed, also brings with it a breaking of other things – your heart, your emotions, your normalcy. In one moment of peeing on a stick, one moment of a doctor speaking words that you don’t really hear – your entire existence changes.
Time then takes over, and as you take one slow step, one foot in front of the other, as we humans are apt to do, life just changes. You arrive in a new place, where having a broken body is something you must live with. Some people call it acceptance. I like to call it adjusting, adapting or “getting used to it”. This does not mean you like it. It does not mean suddenly it is easy. It means you get used to it. That is all.
Getting used to something means you work around it, you come up with ways to manage, to deal. Take for example a door with a broken catch, a door that is an original, one off, not something you can easily mend. If you can’t fix it, you may choose to replace it, or you may try to fix it well enough to work in a unique way. or you may just get used to the fact that it bangs in the wind a little more than usual and that you need 2 hands to open it, because you love it. A broken body is a little different, but the same. If you can not fix it, you work out how to manage it, how to work around things, how to deal. You might prefer a door that works, but you get used to it because it is yours, and perhaps it is even more beautiful than before.
I have 2 little wooden monkeys that are apparently made by a famous Danish designer. I found them in the back of a dusty op shop and I love them. They are broken. One is missing a hand, the other a foot and a hand. People have commented on seeing pictures of them on social media, where I can get replacement parts, or sympathised with these poor broken monkeys. But to me, they are perfect the way they are because they are mine and I like their brokenness. They speak to me of the adventures they have been on and I want to love them even more because of their missing parts and their quirky beauty.
Over time, with the weariness of living with diabetes, and the challenges that came as I grew – puberty, relationships, growing up, having babies, working in a field which exposed me to violence and an absolute lack of hope – other parts of me started to break. In particular my emotions and my mind. Depression and anxiety became regular visitors, and after post traumatic stress from my work hit my life, it eventually lead to me wanting to throw myself away. End my life because it was so broken and there was no fixing me.
Yet I didn’t.
The faces of the people who loved me, despite my brokenness, held me to the world, and words. Writing poetry, journals, stories – all of those words that poured of of me helped me to see all the parts of my story and recognise that being broken was not about throwing life away. That there were so many things I had done, experienced and achieved, despite being broken – that were staring me in the face, my beautiful first son being the biggest of these. That there were more reasons to be here than there were to leave.
Something I found, as I traveled further in my life, was that these broken parts were actually the reason for many parts of my joy. Starting an online counselling service for people with diabetes, forging out on my own to do something with this experience of brokenness, took me into helping others who were also suffering. If I had not been broken in this way, I would never have had this journey.
I was put back together, better and more resilient than ever, yet my mental health remained delicate, affected by things, easily swayed. I suffered with post-natal depression again after my second child, and despite being well under control, the anxiety still visits me often. The thing about these hidden conditions, is that others may not even know that you are broken. Is that a good thing or a bad? I think perhaps a bit of both.
Living a full, active and high achieving life when you also live with hidden physical and mental health conditions is a funny thing. On the outside people may have no idea that you are suffering. That you swing from days where your impulsivity leads to greatness, to others where it leads to utter failure. You doubt yourself and spend hours ruminating on things that others may not worry about. You may be up all night with your health. I set an alarm each night to wake and check my blood glucose, pump site failures are a regular frustration, diabetes has wrecked other parts of my body that make it hard to leave my own house some days…..but these are not the things people see about me when I strike out into the world.
They can not know that I must have days where I close my doors, can not deal with people, turn away from the outside world, because on other days, I fling my heart wide open and share all. The feeling that I am on full speed ahead can be invigorating and I can get an almost inhumane amount of stuff done, but it can also result in uncertainty, guilt, exhaustion and anxiety.
Yet in all that brokenness lies the wonderfulness.
Just like the different ways we use the word “broken” and place different values on it, you can change the way you see and tell your stories about you. If you have diabetes and/or other chronic health conditions, mental health conditions, or illnesses – try to shift the way you see these in your life and see your life. In all of its glory. I live with type 1 diabetes, chronic stomach conditions, anxiety and a tendency to creep towards depression at times, although that definitely has less hold. I also think I am perhaps a little bit on the autism spectrum, or at least ADHD (never diagnosed but the feeling of being on speed and my impulsivity say it all). Yet the ways I choose to describe myself could be that I am a creative, gentle hearted, funny, highly intelligent, highly empathic woman, who feels deeply and achieves more than the average person in her life. That I am a deeply devoted wife and mother, winner of awards, a highly successful, funny, musical person, passionate about the world and wanting to make a difference every day, full of energy and intensely feeling.
Try it for yourself. Find your story and place it fully in the parts that are wonderful. You may be surprised about how much of that sits within or alongside the brokenness.
We have been told that our 8 year old son lives with high functioning autism and I remember one of the support people saying to us ” I hope you are not going to try and take the autism out of him. Because that is who he is” and he surely is one of the most wonderful people I have ever known. His wonderfulness grows brighter every day, despite clashing against systems and expectations as we push children through the institutional funnels we have created for them which tends to value standards and sameness. That comment really struck us, and was a stark reminder that the parts of us that stand out, that are unique or different, that make life harder when we are expected to fit into a square box and we are a multi shaped, ever changing, kaleidoscope of colours and movement – they are usually the parts some would call broken.
But as far as I can see, that is some kind of wonderful.