For those who are counting, yes, we made this trip four days before my upcoming spine surgery, and yes, we just finished two other major trips in the past month.
As we drove, we discussed the puzzling levels of tension, exhaustion, and even anger we’ve both been feeling.
We’re together again, we have a place to live and food to eat, so why are we struggling? Why do we feel like pressure cookers with no valves?
Then we took some time to examine the stresses and life changes we’re facing now, and those we’ve faced over the past year.
- We’ve both been diagnosed with rheumatic diseases, mine incurable and requiring long-term, chemo level drugs. In addition, Dennis has permanent hearing loss and ringing in the ears from his last job.
- We’ve been separated by his recall and deployment for many, many months, some without any contact at all, which means we must now rebuild our communication rhythm and teamwork as a couple.
- We’ve moved multiple times, including internationally to a completely new culture.
- We’ve faced the illness, struggle, and death of our beloved Maile, which gutted us in ways we’re still discovering.
- We’ve both experienced dramatic job changes (like building manager to pirate chaser off the coast of Somalia, for example), and faced heavy financial blows.
- We’ve wrestled with our faith in God, and with the actions of His followers.
- We’re in the process of renovating our current house so we can rent it out, all while juggling the time and legal negotiations of a second mortgage on a house (which also needs to be renovated) in a new city.
- We’re living out of suitcases (or trying) while every room in our in-renovation house is full of the boxes we packed prior to Dennis’s deployment last year.
- Dennis has begun a very challenging work position, and is trying to find time to prep for the placement tests he must take prior to returning to College in our new city in a couple months, all while facing the reality of reenlistment so I can have continued medical coverage.
- In a couple days, I’m going in for another spine surgery, while simultaneously battling this wretched rheumatic disease that steals my eyesight, curls my hands into claws, and generally makes life miserable.
- I’m doing this in the midst of heavy drug withdrawal symptoms, because the surgery requires me to immediately stop all the immune-system-destroying rheumatic disease medication that helped me function.
And this list is not quite half of the stressors we’re facing.
So, what’s my point? I promise, this isn’t a feel-sorry-for-us post. We would rather live challenged than bored. We would rather live raw than numb. We would rather experience things that force us to be brave than to never need courage.
My point, is that life can be tough. And unexpected. It can hammer you. And like a tricky boxer in a prize fight, it doesn’t always give you time for another breath before the next knock-out blow.
But see, this is what got me thinking about pressure cookers.
Pressure cookers are pretty amazing. Their extreme heat and pressure can create in mere minutes what normally would take many hours to accomplish.
That part makes the process effective. What makes the process SAFE is proper valving. A pressure cooker without an escape valve is just a bomb waiting to happen.
And the same is true for us. We don’t get to choose most of the external pressures in our lives. But we DO get to choose whether our pressure cooker experiences make a nice batch of jam, or the next Boston bombing.
So how do we do this?
1.) Get a clear picture of the pressure levels
As we drove the long stretch cross-country (at seventy-five miles an hour because Texas speed limits are AWESOME), we each took this Life Changes Stress Test individually, then compared our results.
It was a massive eye-opener to have a number to assign to each other’s struggles. And a huge help in giving each other grace.
Now, every time he does something that makes me crazy, I just think, “968, Kelli. He’s living under the weight of 968.” And every time I nag him about his driving because I’m feeling out of control, he reminds himself, “1235, Dennis. She’s trying to function at 1235.” In this way, we are able to put those little annoyances in perspective, and see the bigger picture.
2.) Take a close look at what we’re holding inside
What we keep inside is going to be accelerated by pressure and heat. So if it is good stuff (honest pain, real questions, hunger for growth, sincere love) it is going to be compounded and refined. If it is toxic stuff (unhealed wounds, offense, anger, self-pity, pride, selfish ambition), it is going to puff up, expand, and consume that space, leaving no room for anything else. Nothing exposes the contents of our Inner Mason Jars like a pressure cooker season. And we can use this season for self examination, prayer, and transformative change like no other season in our lives.
3.) Practice safe valving
Whether we’re keeping good stuff or bad stuff inside, an explosion is an explosion. Without proper valving, and wise self-management in these really intense seasons, we can be a bomb waiting to happen. So it’s really important to be strategic and make sure we have a fully operational pressure valve, and USE it.
The other day, someone suggested I’m “detached from reality” because I constantly use humor about the stresses I’m facing. What this person didn’t comprehend is that for me, humor is my pressure valve. My way to focus on the good and keep smiling. My way to allow a little of the pressure to escape without damaging anyone. Other valve actions for me are taking time for a cup of tea, baking for friends, visiting Maile’s grave, reading a good book, spending time with our other kitties, or listening to a song that moves me.
For Dennis, a quick ride on his motorcycle, time in prayer over a good cup of coffee, or a few quiet minutes watering the yard help him find his center and re-focus.
Whatever your valve is, as long as it’s healthy, USE IT. Take a walk on the beach, paint a sunrise, serve someone else, crank your favorite ColdPlay song and do a war dance in your living room… whatever. Give yourself permission, and recognize that the use of smart valving isn’t selfish. It is a strategic way to protect yourself and others from shrapnel during seasons of extreme stress.
4.) Anticipate the end result
I’m not gonna lie. I think jam is yummy. It’s good on bread. It’s good on scones. It’s good inside cookies. It’s even good on ice cream. Jam is versatile, and helpful, and an improvement to many of life’s basic food groups. And you know what? The good stuff that’s cooking inside you and me during these horrible times? Just like jam, it’s going to be even better after the pressure cooker’s done. I truly believe that.
One of the best things I discovered, as I was researching life stress this past week, was a another test. This one is from Dr. Richard Rahe, called the Post Traumatic GROWTH Test
I love what he says at the beginning of the test: “The after-effects of trauma are not entirely negative. Over the course of recovery, a person may experience life areas of positive psychological growth.”
Isn’t that hopeful and encouraging? As I took this test, I was really inspired to see the new areas of strength I’ve developed during this horrid, pressure cooker season. I hope you’ll take it, and be encouraged too.
Until then, keep on cooking…and practice safe valving!!