Christianity · Family · God · Grief · Jesus · Mourning

When God’s Punishments Are Gifts

Trigger warning: bullying, animal cruelty

About a year ago an emotional interview between Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert went viral. It was shortly after the death of Cooper’s mother, famous fashion designer and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt. The two men bonded over their losses, and Colbert is quoted as having said, “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Those words rang so true for so many hurting people, and it recently became poignant for me as well.

About a week ago, a random Twitter exchange with my brother-in-law turned into a mini therapy session where I ended up spilling my guts about a lot of hard things I endured as a kid.

I may forget a lot of things in my life, but I will never forget the times I made my mother cry. At the end of it, with raw emotions, I went out for a run, my mind spinning from confessing my childhood hardships online.

I hadn’t realized how much of my youth I had been repressing. I have a bad habit of shoving down my feelings rather than dealing with them. It’s a trauma response that aids in temporary survival but is detrimental in the long run. As my therapist says, “When you bury your feelings you bury them alive, and they inevitably come back up.”

I grew up in a middle class, blended family and for the most part I had a pretty happy childhood. However, my Dad lost his job when I was in 5th grade, and it took him a year to find a new one. When he did, it was in Houston, which meant we had to move from South Texas to the Gulf Coast. That wasn’t the hard part though. The hard part was trying to sell our house in Victoria. It took us three years to finally sell it, and during those three years my parents were paying rent on a really slummy trailer as well as the mortgage on the house we couldn’t live in. Money was tight. My folks must have been doing some real fancy financial footwork to be able to pay the bills. I know my parents used Palmolive instead of shampoo. I also remember that most of our dinners consisted of a chicken breast cut up into a Lipton rice pouch shared with four people. Looking back, I was massively ungrateful, the blame for which I can only lay on the myopia of youth, and the memory of which still makes me cringe.

“If money can solve your problems then you don’t have problems,” my Dad used to tell me. Not having money was about the worst thing I could imagine at the time though. I hadn’t yet experienced real problems. I was so embarrassed by so many aspects of our situation. When we first moved to Pearland, we still hadn’t secured a place to stay. So on the first day of school my mom woke me up before 5 AM in Victoria and shuffled me into the car where she drove two and a half hours to Houston and dropped me off at the junior high at dawn’s early light. We spent the night that night at a Super 8 motel in south Houston, and went back to Victoria for the weekend. When we did get a place to stay it was a falling apart old roach-infested trailer. It was all we could afford though. We couldn’t stay in an apartment because we had two dogs and a cat. The dogs had to remain in Victoria, looked after by neighbors for the first month or so until we could buy a chain link dog kennel since the trailer didn’t have a fenced yard.

Junior high isn’t an easy time for most people, but being the new kid, and poor, and tall, and pale and nerdy was basically a recipe for how to make a loser. In Victoria I’d had friends, hobbies, and extracurricular activities. All that went away in Pearland. No one ever suggested I was depressed, but my grades started slipping, and I spent a large part of every day crying in misery. I remember repeatedly asking God why He allowed these things to happen to my family. Why couldn’t I be a rich kid? A pretty girl? Tan? A normal height? Live in a house? I never got an answer, but every day the kids at my school reminded me what a pariah I was. A lot of them were kind, truly, but the mean ones, sadly, made a bigger impression.

7th grade beanpole Liz in the trailer with the 1970’s wood paneling. Practicing xylophone because I was a band nerd.

My school had its share of mean girls, and they could be pretty horrid, but my real bully was on the bus. For the first week or so that we lived there, the trailer didn’t have any hot water. The first time that I rode the bus to school, I got on with all the rest of the trailer park kids, my hair still wet from the cold shower I took that morning, and I sat down in an empty seat. Apparently this was a problem for the kid behind me. “Ugh. She smells like shit, doesn’t she?” He said to his seat mate, who muttered a half-hearted response, obviously less into verbal cruelty than his friend. I had no idea what I had done to offend that guy, but he harassed me the entire time I rode the bus with him. For three years. I found out later that though all the bus stops near my house were other trailer parks, this kid lived in a new house in a nice neighborhood that happened to be right near the slums. It was not teasing, it was rampant, unrelenting bullying. About my clothes, my hair, my sunglasses, my alleged stench, just everything about me offended his sensibilities. We didn’t have enough money to do any proper school clothes shopping that year and I had filled out over the summer so I had exactly one pair of jeans that still fit me and they were super tight. I wore them to school every day until Christmas, when I got a new pair of jeans and then wore those every day until summer.

My mom has always been really into sheepdogs, so we had a sheltie named Sam and a border collie mix named Jenny. Some time after we moved the dogs into their new dog run the landlord of the trailer park sent out a notice that we had to start keeping the lawns mowed. Why it mattered I have no idea. I have seen nice trailer parks. Some have wide streets, paved driveways, large yards and lots of brand new double wides. The one I lived in wasn’t like that. The “street” was a narrow loop of crumbling asphalt with speed bumps so big they would bottom out any car that wasn’t a pickup. Most of the trailers were old and junky, some had spray paint on the outside, and loud music pumped from cars and homes at all days and times of the night. We didn’t have a lawn mower, but the landlord had already made accommodations for such a situation. Turns out his brother ran a convenient landscaping business and would mow our tiny lawns for only $10 a month. We had no other choice, so we paid it. One day I came home and Jenny was in her kennel, but Sam wasn’t. My mom said the lawn mower guy told her the dog must have run off. “I don’t know what happened to your other dog,” he said. We knew it was fishy from the beginning, because the kennel gate was closed and the latch was down. Sam was a smart boy, but I have never owned a dog who could open the latch and the gate, escape, and close the gate and latch behind him.

Sam (as a puppy) and me in the back yard of our house in Victoria, probably in 1994.
Jenny at our house in Victoria, she was a year or two older than Sam.

After a few days, a terrible smell started to permeate our yard and the surrounding area. Finally one day my mom went around looking for the source of the smell, and that’s where she found Sam. We never had any proof about what happened, but my mom said he looked like he had been kicked to death and then hidden in the bushes behind the house. We think the lawn guy was irritated with Sam’s barking, and kicked him to try to make him stop, then hid his body when he realized he had killed him. My sister and I were distraught, and my mom was angry enough to kill. She wanted to take Sam’s body and leave it on the landlord’s doorstep, but my Dad wouldn’t allow it, prudently realizing it would likely turn into a fist fight and jail time. We had no proof, so the police could do nothing. Mom tried to bury him, but couldn’t. The ground was too hard and she didn’t have a proper shovel. She was just crying and desperately trying to dig a hole with a spade she had. In the end, my Dad wrapped Sam in a trash bag and left him in the dumpster. My mom couldn’t bring herself to get another sheltie until 2018, roughly 20 years after Sam was murdered. I got one in 2019, my sweet Chewie pup, and for the first couple of days I kept accidentally calling him Sam. Getting Chewie and taking good care of him, making sure he never knows the cruelty Sam endured, has helped me heal.

Sam and I at the house in Victoria.
Chewie, Christmas 2019

Back to the present day. I ran, my chest aching with pain from two decades past, just thinking and praying. I asked God to help me forgive my bus bully, the mean kids at school, and Sam’s murderer. I asked for forgiveness for all the pain I put my parents through with my ingratitude. And as I ran, I thought about all the blessings God gave me since then. In the back of my mind I heard God’s voice say, “This is why.” I started crying. It was an answer to the question I had asked so many times back then. He didn’t tell me, he showed me. I suddenly realized that I became the person I am now because of the struggles I experienced as a child. Those “punishments” were God’s gifts to me and to my family. They were gifts of resilience, gifts of perspective. Because of that pain, I would never be cruel to animals, to poor people, or to new kids. Because of those experiences I am forever grateful for what I have. I can be satisfied with less if it means someone in greater need can have more. God blessed me with those hardships. My 13 year old self would be so fixated on the things I have now that I don’t think she would see the blessings I have. My wonderful husband, my three incredible children, my sweet dog (and my old, crotchety dog). My amazing neighbors, my lifesaver of a church, full bellies, and health.

God gave me a husband who has had some shockingly similar experiences to me. We both lost our best friend. His died at age 20 from an electrical accident, and mine at 35 from colon cancer. We both grew up poor in trailer parks. His neighbor drove drunk often, and once ran over and killed Eric’s dog. It is mind boggling to realize that we might have been enduring such similar circumstances never knowing our future spouse was going through the same ordeal.

The essay I wrote to get into college was all about how I would use an education from the University of Texas to improve my circumstances, without realizing that my circumstances had been vastly improved already by my past experiences.

There is a cavernous hole inside every human heart that we try our whole lives to fill. We fill it with relationships, experiences, possessions, substances, and accomplishments, but no matter how much we throw in there, it’s never enough to fill the hole of want in our hearts. It’s a bottomless pit of selfishness and dissatisfaction. The only thing big enough to fill that hole is Jesus. We think we can get what we need from the world, but we can’t. In fact, you could shove the whole world into that pit and the void would only get bigger.

My life honestly doesn’t make sense. I am not personally successful. In my heart I am still somewhat that loser kid with the greasy hair and dirty jeans. I made so many bad decisions. It doesn’t make sense for me to have all the blessings I do. I definitely don’t deserve them. I am so grateful that, in His mercy, God knew that I would need the lessons of poverty and cruelty at an impressionable age. I shudder to think of who I might have become without them.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
James 1:2-3 NIV

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
‭‭Ephesians‬ ‭3:20-21‬ ‭NIV‬‬

6 thoughts on “When God’s Punishments Are Gifts

  1. Cried all the way through this – we wanted so much more for you all than we could provide at the time. But you’re right, it built character that we otherwise would not have had – for all of us. It helped us focus on what we did have that could never have been bought with money. It helped you and Katie know what real friendship was – not based on what cool things there were to do at your house, or what neat clothes friends could borrow, or what cool cars people could ask for rides in. One of Steven’s school associates told him that being an athlete and an honor student and a rich kid just proved to him that he didn’t have a real friend in the world. Everybody wanted something from him, if only to prove that they were “friends with the rich, smart athlete.” People who like you when you live in a trailer park and are outgrowing your jeans and can’t afford more aren’t trying to get anything out of you. And Ms. Johns is right. You are a very good writer, and you have learned a lot that will help other people who struggle. I love you very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You gave us all you had. I remember the year you and Dad didn’t give each other Christmas presents so Katie and I could have gifts. You went through so much too. Thank you for raising me and loving me and teaching me about Jesus ❤️

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  2. I wish I could be as brave as you, by putting my experiences on something like this. If anyone had just a tiny view of what my entire childhood and entire teenage years looked like, they wouldn’t believe i actually survived. But you’re right, all those punishments were gifts from God. If I had gone through my life any other way, would I have the life I have now? My life story lies so heavily on me still because I don’t understand why it had to happen to me and maybe because I’m too embarrassed to tell it. But I still try to make sense of it. You’re such an amazing person and you’ve always been so nice to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are braver than you think, but your story is yours to tell or to keep. I’m sorry I didn’t ever realize what you were going through. God has shown me many times over that there are a great many worse things than growing up without money, despite what any snot-nosed kids might say to you about it.

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