I have killed more fish in my lifetime than most people even realize exist.
Growing up in the family business of commercial fishing and canning every summer in Alaska, I made my way in the world off the guts and gills of several million pounds of Sockeye, Coho, and Chinook salmon. But the one thing I never did in all those years was stop to think about exactly what I’d put them through. Well, God in His infinite . . . humor? . . . Irony? . . . Okay, fine, wisdom . . . showed me first-hand one pivotal night in 2007.
Now in order to understand the end (of this particular portion) of the story, there are a few not-so-minor and not-so-painless details that must be shared. To start with, you could definitely say that I grew up being a “Daddy’s girl” but, as is so often the case, the deepest wounds come from the ones we love the most.
Age five brought with it the threat of divorce (from an affair I learned about in my early 20s) – and plunged me headlong into some very stormy seas. I pulled a Davy Jones (a la Pirates of the Caribbean): I “cut out” my heart, placed it in a “chest,” and buried it on an “island” even I couldn’t find without the right compass.
Feeling that I wasn’t enough to keep him around (my five-year-old emotions placing the blame solely upon myself), I determined to do everything I could to become the perfect “son” so he might stay. The only problem is that he did stay – completely reinforcing the false assumptions I’d made.
Unfortunately, this dynamic just served to move me closer and closer to the edge of an abyss.
After two years of treading water just to stay afloat, the discovery of my dad’s pornography collection became the beginning of my end. It wrapped its powerful tentacles around me and pulled me under, into deeper and darker waters than I could ever describe. However, though I didn’t truly know Him yet, God was already at work in my life: while He never designed me to live the “underwater” life of a fish, in His grace He gave me “gills” so I could survive.
Now these gills kept me alive, but they certainly didn’t impart life. That process didn’t begin until I was 15, when Jesus caught me in His fishing net. The following 19 years were spent being gradually pulled to the surface; existing in the moment-by-moment tension between being trapped (in a bad way) by the dark waters and being trapped (in a good way) by God’s plan. Finally, in 2006, He fully delivered me from the depths and gave me the freedom I had so longed and prayed for – at a fascinating price.
Those next few years were so good and so hard at the same time; almost 30 years of being a certain person were turned completely upside down. Initially, the difference was all for the better: I was so thankful and joyful to finally be free that my spirit spent months doing cartwheels.
But in time that very freedom, from the obvious issue all my time and energy had been focused on, forced me to identify and come to grips with the complexities of so many underlying issues I hadn’t previously recognized. Slowly a specific impression that something substantial was missing from my life began to replace the vague notion I’d always had that there might be more to life than I was experiencing.
When these realities began to hit, it was so discouraging. My life had been “fixed” – I had freedom – everything was supposed to be amazing from that point on . . . right?
In His perfect timing, God revealed that my heart is what had been missing all along. Jesus then became the compass that guided me back to it, but I’d been operating in such a disconnected way for so long that I didn’t know how to handle deep feelings. My emotional maturity had to be relearned the right way, God’s way, practically from scratch.
During that process, fear, something I had little acquaintance with on the surface level of my life all those years, gradually came to characterize my life. Situations that used to be second nature to me – small talk in large social settings, for instance – became excruciatingly uncomfortable. What used to be my element had become my Achilles’ heel.
While I did not lament my newly growing depth of heart and spirit, I was very frustrated with the buildup of crippling fear they had apparently brought about. I just wanted the balance of being able to interact with others in whatever manner was appropriate to the circumstance of a given moment, but the pendulum had swung and was stuck in the opposite position from my comfort zone.
While mulling all this over one evening in the summer of 2008, after a particularly fear-filled day, I picked up The Sacred Romance by Brent Curtis and John Eldredge. It had been years since I’d read the book, but I had a sense that I needed to revisit it that evening. The first chapter “The Lost Life of the Heart” portrayed my existence perfectly – minus the Davy Jones reference. I couldn’t stop tearing up, but I also couldn’t put the book down.
In chapter 3, Brent shared an incident that took place in a school lunchroom in which he talked about, “. . . trying to pull the Arrows out or at least cover them over so [he] could enter into the banter that seemed to flow so easily from [his] friends.” At that moment, I dropped the book to the floor and sobbed with every shred of my soul. That sentence described exactly what I had experienced earlier that very day!
The reconnection with my heart had begun taking place and the hidden pain (what Brent and John referred to as “Arrows”) of all those years was starting to exact a toll on my day-to-day life. It had always been there, but the restoration process had caused me to feel it in ways that my gills (i.e., coping mechanisms) had never allowed. I was completely unfamiliar with feelings of that magnitude; I didn’t even recognize that pain as the source of both my fears and my frustrations.
It was during the hyperventilating sobs that God brought to mind the salmon analogy. I truly felt as if I were suffocating – a physical picture of the spiritual and emotional asphyxiation I’d been sensing for some time.
In those desperate moments, I realized that when Jesus lifted me into His sweet freedom, it not only fundamentally changed the way I related to my world, but it created a “fish out of water” situation that was still mostly unresolved. I knew God had allowed, not necessarily intended, the darkness of the life I’d lived – but there were obviously still remnants of it that needed to be purged.
It suddenly struck me that in a very real way I didn’t know who I was anymore . . . that being me was eerily unspecific. I was definitely not the person I used to be, but, at the same time, there was no new definition of me that I could cling to for reassurance of a concrete identity. Sitting there – between gasping for breath and grasping for consolation – fear, and then terror, gripped me as never before.
With every instinct I possessed screaming at me to escape from the situation, I chose to trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God and embrace the process He was working in me: to finally own every single speck of my pent-up pain.
Given that I’d spent my whole life running away from it, to turn into that intolerable ache and face it head-on was an intensely torturous experience – as much for it as for me. Another symbolic death, perhaps the most significant since my initial salvation, took place that evening as I once again died to myself, this time taking with me the traces of my old life that still lingered.
If I’d been created as an actual fish this might have been tragic, but that identity was just the guise God used to protect me from all that life had taken away. He’d always had bigger plans for me than that and I was finally starting to believe in the possibilities.
Fear from my old life, which had come to typify my freedom, needed to be slain before Jesus could begin my new life in earnest. I felt born-again-again: I’d had salvation, but not abundant life; I’d had freedom from my addiction, but not freedom from my fear.
At that point, the future became more of a mystery to me than ever before, but for the first time I can remember there was an unshakeable peace at the very core of my being. I still didn’t know exactly what God was transforming me into, and I was actually okay with that, but I knew beyond a doubt that it was time for the gills to go . . .
Image: One of our setnet sites in Alaska.