This was the kind of book that surprised me because it wasn’t at all how I expected it to be. Most of the book is set in the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific, where Kay Bruner, her husband Andy, and their four children lived, as missionaries involved in translating the New Testament into the local language of Arosi. So I expected it to be like other books I’d read about missionaries – chock-a-block full of details about the place and culture they had been living in, vivid sketches of all the people they encountered, a detailed depiction of what the mission involved and what it achieved. But, as the book zoomed by, the missionary angle still remained quite two-dimensional, and so did the other people, even Andy and the children. What was 3D were Kay’s emotions and mental world. Eventually, three-quarters of the way through, (when the book did – for me at least – its Grand Reveal) I realised this wasn’t really a missionary autobiography primarily. It was first and foremost an emotional autobiography. It takes us through Kay’s feelings, emotions, attitudes, and how they change and the way she deals with the changes. And, by the end of the book, I appreciated that angle as insightful and interesting.
I was also reading the book in some suspense. I bought it after reading the blurb, which begins: ‘What happens when being radical for God brings you to the edge of disaster? When Kay Bruner and her husband, Andy, took their young family to live on an island in the South Pacific, she found the purposeful, adventurous life she’d hoped for—along with isolated living, dangerous sea travel, tropical illnesses, and a floundering marriage. As they worked on a Bible translation project with a local language group, Kay sank into burnout and depression while Andy medicated his stress with a pornography addiction.’ And the book also begins with Kay at crisis point, walking down the road from her house,
‘Out of nowhere. The only words I had. I said, “I can’t do this anymore.” Then I stopped in the middle of the road and stood there. Done.’
And reading about their life on the Solomon Islands, I just couldn’t see how this crisis point was going to happen. The book is clever in that the reader’s perspective mirrors Kay’s perspective. The crisis does appear to arrive somewhat out of nowhere. Only when she explains things in the final quarter of the book do you realise that the image you’d had for the first three-quarters – her image of things at that time – is a mirage.
I was puzzled while reading as Andy came across as a self-possessed man who never lost control, even when their eldest daughter developed seizures while they were on the tropical island (though, in retrospect, perhaps his rather uncanny continual mute button on his emotions was a flag that something wasn’t right with him), and someone who was clearly dedicated to his translation mission: how could he develop an addiction to pornography? And how was that even physically possible when they were on a remote complex of islands in the south Pacific with very little modern technology? The final quarter of the book pulls back the curtain which had hidden the real Andy, and he finally steps forwards as a 3D person too; one who is not longer anywhere near perfect in the reader’s eye but does evoke some sympathy. You realise that under the strain of work he wasn’t suited to, a pressurised translation project, a strained marriage, the difficulties of life on a remote South Pacific island, and unresolved childhood issues, he fell into an addiction which he felt too ashamed to share and that he believed God just wouldn’t heal from his life, and the ensuing pain only fed it further. And you realise that his wife had known about it for a while, but had held back that knowledge from the narrative, just as she bottled it up inside herself during that period, until everything in their lives exploded and they had to unpick the mess and rebuild something stronger.
Kay learns to understand herself and her husband better, and to have better and more authentic attitudes and approaches to herself, others, and what life throws at her. She moves from being a passive and anxious personality to being more honest, resourceful, reflective, and resilient. I don’t completely agree with her change of outlook, at least as it’s presented in the book, as it appears at times to go too far. She presents a couple of illustrations of how she has changed for the better. One story concerns the time a barista gave her a chai latte with an espresso shot in it (because that Starbucks cafe made their espressos that way) and she kept complaining (politely but insistently) until the barista made her another one without the espresso shot. Another is a story of a troubled family in their neighbourhood whom she initially invited around so that their two sons could play with her three sons, but then the visiting boys kept breaking her sons’ things, and so although their mother was very keen to keep up the family friendship Kay said to the mother “I’m sorry. This just doesn’t work for us.” In neither of the stories, as she presents them at least, does her approach seem to be entirely loving. Baristas are usually underpaid, over-worked, and do a stressful job – it doesn’t seem fair to me to have created trouble for the poor lady for such a small thing. And why not explain to the mother in the second story what the problem was and see if there was a solution they could work through, or at least the mother would go away understanding the root of the problem and could work through it with her sons so they could develop more healthy friendships in future?
Overall, though, the book makes a lot of very helpful psychological points and striking insights. Kay now works as a counsellor, and so there are some really discerning evaulations of emotions and attitudes – positive, negative, and why – in this book. She also includes at the end of the book a few ways to work through difficult emotions and situations in a healthy way, based on her experience as a counsellor.
For me, at least, it was worth its £5.00 kindle price, as it helped me to understand myself better. I found her Porn and your boyfriend really insightful as well (which makes the point that the vast majority of Christian young men have been exposed to pornography, so we need to understand what effect that has and how to deal with it), both on the specific issue of pornography, but also in its wider approach to relationships. From both these works, my biggest take-away was that feelings are worth examining. In her autobiography she explains that she used to bury her feelings, until she realised they were telling her something meaningful and she needed to examine and work through them instead. I likewise used to stifle negative feelings, but I am beginning to understand that it’s better for me to examine what I’m feeling, why (i.e. unpick the layers – what lies underneath these feelings?), and what is the right way to proceed now I understand the situation better. (Maybe I’ll do a separate post on that sometime).
I’ll leave you with some quotations which encapsulate many of the helpful insights in this book:
About the change of mindset in Kay herself:
‘My capacity to stand up for myself was practically non-existent. I might make some noise, but over and over and over I’d go along with things that I knew were wrong for me. I kept hoping other people would notice and take care of me, and I was hurt and angry when nobody did that. The months went on and on and on… I finally, finally understood. I was responsible for myself. I didn’t have to lie there and choke. I could get up and speak… I had other options.’
‘Once I stopped expecting some nebulous “them” to take care of me, I was okay with taking responsibility for myself in the future. I had learned how to say “no” to others, to say “yes” to myself, and mean it.’
‘As I talked to my friends about how depressed and anxious and sad and angry I was, and how much I wanted to get well, people started to give me books. These books became a new community for me, a community of people who knew who to feel, how to grieve, how to be courageous with loss and experience it, rather than locking the emotions away and hoping never to see them again.’
‘When I accept my feelings, I find that they are telling me some kind of truth. When I start with my feelings, I can follow them down deep into my soul, where Love lives and moves and has its being inside me. My feelings are valuable, because they are attached to that deep understanding.’
‘The constant buzz of anxiety thrashed my brain chemistry almost to death and set me up for major depression when stress kept happening.’
‘My lack of boundaries, on the surface, perhaps made me seem like a spiritual servant, always caring for others, but in fact it was a lie. My lack of boundaries was based on what I thought would make me more perfect and acceptable to others, rather than what was real and true and honest… I was lying, most of the time, about how I felt and why I did what I did, so that other people would think I was a good person and approve of me. There was very little truth in me.’
‘I was naturally attuned to my own emotions and the emotions of others, which made me highly susceptible to codependency.’
‘Having stood on the edge of the abyss, I knew I had to change. I had, for years, ignored the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when somebody said or did something that was just not okay with me. I’d try to pacify, but after any number of emotional black eyes, it didn’t feel so good any more. People would tromp over my boundaries a million time until I finally got up the courage to say, “No?” I would say no with my question mark, and they’d shout me down, and we’d be back where we started, me with my bruised and beaten emotions, all over again. Only I got more and more angry, which turned into deeper and deeper depression.’
‘My new mantra was, “Do the right thing…” In the past, I would feel guilty if I didn’t do what I knew other people wanted me to do. I thought that the guilt was the truth, so I would listen to it. … I had to learn to listen to Love instead.’
‘I could trust that God was the source and supply for others, not me. When I said no to someone’s request, I trusted that God would meet that person’s needs, even though I could not. God’s love was perfect for me, and for others as well.
Somebody asked me, “When will you be back to normal?” And by that time, I knew. I knew it would be NEVER. I would never be back to normal, because my old normal was bad for me, it was bad for our marriage, and it was bad for our family. Andy didn’t want to be the old normal, shut-down, lonely person he had been, either. Neither of us wanted to go back there again, but that was hard for some people to hear and understand. Our life had looked fine on the outside to them. They had no idea how deathly ill it had been on the inside. Letting others be uncomfortable with the new us was just another way to practice good boundaries. In the past, we would have changed or at least hidden what made others uncomfortable. Now we could just let them feel how they felt. We knew, together, that we were getting healthy.’
‘I’m going to walk in the cool of the evening and know that it’s not all up to me. God is in control. I am not. It is good.’
‘As soon as I fell, He caught me.’
Her relationship with Andy, including the impact of his addiction and pornography use
‘He’d spent years using pornography to stave off stress and pain, and now he had to figure out a whole new way of life’
‘Andy is naturally a sweet, caring guy, and the porn world with its objectification of women was the farthest thing from the real Andy, but it was as if he’d been trapped in a small room with heavy pot smokers, and he emerged with a contact high. Sadly for him, I wasn’t airbrushed, and I wasn’t living in the world to wait on his every whim, unlike the online babes. When we began to confront the entitlement he had inhaled in that environment, it was messy and ugly…
One of the big issues that surfaced right away was body image… [Andy] had deep-seated body-image issues of his own… One of the ways he dealt with his own insecurities was to project anxiety onto me. He would observe that my stomach seemed to be a little rounder, right after Thanksgiving. Or he would observe that I hadn’t gone to the gym in a couple of days. He felt perfectly entitled to say these things to me, as if I needed this information.
For a while, I listened and felt bad and tried to be skinnier and more toned. But I could only do so much, and it never seemed to really make him happy anyway. After a while, I started to see a pattern between his dipping back into porn, and then telling me I needed to change. Once I realized that connection, I knew it was boundary time. I told him that every time he commented on my weight or body shape, I would assume that he had been looking at pornography again, because that’s when the entitlement would be most prevalent.’
‘I remember one night we were having one of our worst fights ever, after he’d confessed to looking at porn again… As the argument escalated, I realized I had to stop myself. I said to Andy, “Okay, I’m just going to listen now. I just want to understand what you’re trying to say.” I didn’t agree with what he had to say, but I wanted to understand, and I wanted to get us working on the same team.’
‘Eventually, we agreed to this. He had to own his issues and work on them himself, while turning toward the relationship emotionally. I had to own my own issues and work on them, while turning toward the relationship emotionally.’
‘He always felt young and foolish, ignored and overlooked. The stress of the translation project and the distance that developed in our marriage evoked similar emotions. Pornography provided an enticing place to escape all that pain. Once he started looking at pornography, he was ashamed of what he had done, which made him feel worse about himself. When he felt worse about himself, he wanted to feel better, and pornography filled that need. With the cone of silence around sexuality in our conservative Christian world, he felt that there was no way he could talk to anyone about his struggle without causing wide-spread panic. The silence and hiding and pretending added another layer of stress, which in turn caused more need for the pornography use.’
‘The more we experienced the value of each other, the more confident we became in ourselves as a couple. We brought completely different perspectives to any situation that we faced… The more we respected and treasured those differences, the stronger we grew, and the better our decisions became.’
‘Slowly, we all started living again, instead of just surviving from one disaster to the next.’