Precious

There have been many dark days in my life.  I understand the pain of betrayal.  I have lived where no child should have to live without some basic needs.  I know the fear of being on the wrong end of a gun.  I have been verbally, emotionally and physically beaten down.  

Yet, I now know I was never alone.  I could have been brought to an utter end but was not.  And this was before I knew Jesus.  Now that I know Him, He shows me his love for me over and over again.  And I have a new perspective looking back on those dark days.  Jesus has proven Himself faithful to me over and over again.  He has blessed my life.  Each day, He helps me to move closer to wholeness through Him.  There are no words to express my love and gratitude to Jesus for the peace and hope He has lavished on me.  

Why would He do this for me?  Because He loves me, and I am His.  I am precious in His eyes.

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you”        

Isaiah 43:1-4 ESV

Tender Heart

I learned early on that I could shut myself down physically and emotionally. I could build up a wall that separated me from what was happening to me outwardly and to any possible response within myself. By shutting down, I could hide from some of the abuse while it happened. Sort of. It enabled me to “protect” myself from the horrible things that were happening to me. And I could hide my despair in a heart of stone. All emotions could be locked away, and I would feel nothing.

This seems like a fairly marvelous survival mechanism; however, it came with a huge cost. Consider turning yourself off like a switch so you feel nothing, Nothing. That is no pain, no sorrow, no joy, not love. Nothing. If it is an emotion of any kind, it is buried deep within you. You truly become stone on the inside. I was thankful for this ability to shutdown while I was being abused. Unfortunately, it became how I lived even after I escaped the abusive situation.

This trick also effects memory. If you can remember, the memories can be clouded and almost as if you were more of an observer of a scene. Again, this can seem like a good thing when who wants to remember the bad stuff? Unfortunately, even though the memory is shadowed, it is still there. As long as we keep these bad memories locked within us, they tear at us emotionally and spiritually. And this inward tearing can eventually grow into physical issues.

By exposing our painful memories with someone we can trust, we start to shed light on the destructive memories, face them, let them go and find freedom. I found that I was afraid to face my memories. Having all that was buried inside of me bubbling up to the surface was overwhelming. I, instead, would recoil and continue hiding in my heart of stone not realizing I had become a slave to my own pain. It wasn’t until I met Jesus that I was able to move past my fear. He held me close as I faced my demons, and then He took them from me. He asked me to trust Him and to hand Him my pain, And through this process of facing my pain and handing it over, I have found healing and peace. This was a long process as it is not once and done. Each memory that surfaces requires these same steps; however, it does get easier as your trust for Jesus grows each time you feel His peace. Face it, share it, give it to Jesus, and live free of it.

It was difficult for me to start the journey of stepping out of my heart of stone, because I thought I was safe there. With every stressful situation, I would retreat within myself. In fact, I didn’t even know I was doing it. Hiding within myself had become a reflex. Jesus opened my eyes to my destructive pattern and started showing me what I was missing hidden in my fortress of despair. I was unable to love or grieve. Years ago, I traded my heart of stone for a heart of flesh. And now, I can love with all that I am. And I can truly live. I even welcome the tears of grief and allow myself to feel the love I had for the person and honor their memory. And Jesus, the God of Comfort, always meets me in those moments creating a bitter sweetness.

Having given up so much with my heart of stone, I refuse to hold back my tears now. I would much rather allow others to see my emotions instead of holding myself prisoner in a dark cell. I choose a tender heart. If you are concerned about exposing yourself to risk and are hesitant to move out of your own internal cell, consider all that you are losing. Don’t lose another moment to love and be loved.

Me too

It is great that people are taking a stand to speak up against sexual abuse. I hope that it actually does raise awareness of this horrible issue so that we can eliminate its destruction.

Did you know that the effects of childhood sexual abuse extend past the timeframe of abuse? In fact, they can linger for decades or even a lifetime. The effects can be psychological disorders such as depression, suicidal tendencies or suicide, multiple personality disorders and more. Abuse can also cause physical health issues like heart, lung and liver disease, chronic headaches, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.

All forms of abuse can lead to these long-term health and psychological issues, not just sexual abuse. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) website provides access to information related to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) studies. ACEs include childhood physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; witnessing domestic violence; growing up with household substance abuse, mental illness in the home, parental divorce, and/or an incarcerated household member. The more ACEs experienced by an individual increases their likelihood for lasting long-term impact.

While I am not counted in the studies above, my experience would add support to their numbers. My ACEs score is a 7 out of 10. I have suffered from depression and chronic headaches since I was a teenager. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in my thirties and still deal with these symptoms daily. My perpetrator has no idea how much suffering he created.

Why Me?

All of us will at some point have an experience that causes us to question God. In fact, life may be filled with one challenge after another. We could lose a spouse, be raised in an abusive home, have an abusive spouse, have a chronic or terminal disease, lose a child. The list of horrible things that can happen to us goes on and on. So the question that comes up is “why would God allow this to happen to me?”

I struggled with this question for decades. If God is love and supposedly loves me, why did he allow such horrible things to happen to me? First of all, no matter what happens in fairy tales with people living happily ever after, our world is not safe. In fact, our world is messy and can be down right dangerous. And God has allowed us to live as independent creatures with free will. As people, we get to make our own choices. God does not want mindless followers who are programmed to obedience. He wants followers who seek after Him as He has sought after us. Followers who long to know Him and are willing to obey His rules. (BTW, His rules are designed for our own benefit.)

Unfortunately, in a world of free will, people are going to follow their own desires regardless of the impact on others. They will live to achieve personal pleasure at the expense, and sometimes, even the destruction of others. Sometimes, their wake of destruction is completely unknown to them; and sadly, some people find pleasure in the destruction and are quite intentional about hurting others.

While God allows the consequences of free will, He is not absent from your life. You may not know He is there or even want Him there, but there He is all the same. God is the God of comfort. He will never leave us to suffer on our own. He will not forsake us especially if we seek Him. I experienced this in a very tangible way as a child. And with the perspective of age and time, I can see His hand of protection over me even while I was suffering. And He has been my strength and guide through the healing process. Yes, I may have suffered, but He did not leave me there. Nor did He leave me trapped in the hell of memories.

John Mark McMillan has a song that expresses this truth along with a beautiful melody, “When all of a sudden I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory and I realize just how beautiful You are and how great Your affections are for me.” He loves us with an immense love and does not leave us in a state of suffering. He is our hope and our rescuer.

This video shares the song and John Mark McMillan’s story behind the song. I hope you find the same peace in it that I do.

Sunflower with blue sky

Hard to Hear

Even though my childhood abuse is decades behind me, it is still difficult for me to share with others. Some of that is from reliving horrible memories and emotions created by my past; however, my fear in sharing has more to do with rejection. I have been rejected by family members, friends, members of support groups and even people from church.

My story is difficult to hear, and it makes most people uncomfortable. This is a natural and appropriate reaction. We should be uncomfortable with people sexually assaulting children; but we should not be uncomfortable with the person who was the child. What happened to me as a child was horrible, yes. But we shouldn’t shut down and run away from it. It should outrage us that stuff like this happens. It should create a desire in us to help others – to stop this kind of behavior and protect our children.

Sadly, my story is not unique. If you are in a room with 8 people, statistically two women and one man in that group have been sexually assaulted as a child. With so many people affected by this crime, you would think we would do more to stop it. Instead, we cover it up and hope no one finds out. Imagine how many lives are impacted by abuse. It would be a different world if our children could grow up in homes of love instead of darkness and despair. The effects of abuse are far reaching.

Above I used the phrase “sexually assaulted” to try to help drive home a truth. Saying someone was sexually abused lessons the reality of their experience. If someone is attacked and raped on the street, it is sexual assault. If the same thing happens in the home, suddenly we label it as abuse or incest. It is still rape. The only difference between being raped by a complete stranger and a family member is, with the family member, you mix in emotions of betrayal and have the destruction of trust. It is devastating to have the person who is supposed to be your protector be your assailant.

Sunflower with blue sky

Hard Conversations

I know many people have had bad experiences with churches over the years. Sadly, many people walk away from the church due to those experiences. And not only do they walk away from the church, they end up walking away fromJesus believing that their experience is a reflection of Jesus. The truth is Jesus is about love and saving people from their brokenness. His goal is restoration of mankind’s hearts and the restoration of all nations to God.

The tough reality of the church is that it is filled with all kinds of people. There are people that truly understand God’s message to the opposite end of the spectrum with people who really don’t understand. There are people that follow God’s guidance and live out of His grace and truth. And there are others who live out of their own truth; and frequently, they extend their judgement rather than God’s grace.

So why bring this up in a blog about overcoming the destruction of abuse? Well, while I love my church and understand that the church is supposed to be full of people who can walk the road of life with us, some times the church fails. One area that is tough for the church family is interacting with hurting people. I’m not talking about mild hurts. These are people who feel like their souls are crushed,and they struggle with the basics of life because of their overwhelming emotional pain. There are many reasons why people struggle with other people’s pain. Some times they just don’t understand and have no idea how to react. Some times it reminds them of their own pain. I think church leaders understand this tension so they try to steer clear. Unfortunately, this leaves a significant portion of their congregations with no biblical guidance on dealing with their deep hurt. It also builds on to an already existing shame. “My experience was so awful, we can’t even talk about it.” Or worse, “it really is just me or wouldn’t our pastor address this?” And again even worse, the people inflicting the abuse lose another opportunity to hear about the destruction they are leaving in their wake.

When I first started working through this topic, I was surprised at how deep the church had hurt me. Again, it was not intentional. The outcome for me was another level of shame and rejection. It was so upsetting to me that I couldn’t write about it. So, I started with the following fictional story that touches on several experiences I encountered at church in, again, a fictional setting. I hope it helps open eyes to why we can’t just ignore the hard conversations especially in our churches.


The Baptism

The auditorium was filled with smiling faces. Friends and family members came to join in celebrating God’s glorious works in the lives of those there to be baptized. Celebrating broken souls that had accepted God’s grace and would publicly announce their trust and gratitude and the work He had already done to transform their lives from old to new.

The first gentleman stepped forward with a mix of timidity and anticipation. He began his story of moving in a different way than his parents’ faith. Sharing his story of a life of drugs and sex that led him to a place of ruin. He was left with nothing – fired from his job, divorced, and basically living in the streets. Then at the mission, he encountered Jesus. He was beyond words to explain his experience as tears rolled down his cheeks. He shared how the mission staff accepted him and loved him even in his darkest moment. He gave his heart to Jesus, and he had seen blessing after blessing ever since. While the consequences of his past remained, he had a new hope and a fresh start.

The room filled with the sounds of applause and a few cheers as all celebrated the glory of God.

After his baptism was complete, the next person stepped up to the microphone. She was an obviously shy young woman of about thirty. The notes in her hand were already mangled due to her nervous folding and twisting. The pastor looked at her with a reassuring smile and encouraged her to speak. She looked out at the sea of faces and then quickly back at her notes. Her eyes fixed on the page, she began to read with a faltering voice. She told of her childhood and how her father raped her repeatedly for years. She also shared how she lived in hopelessness and complete despair for years to follow.

It was good that she kept her head down to read. Looking over the crowd, many shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. Some stopped listening at the word “raped” and retreated within themselves not wanting to hear. Others were horrified at her story. “No one should ever share such things.” “The shame of her poor family!” “She must have brought this on herself. The tramp!” “Oh, that she would do that to her poor mother.” Then still others who shared the same nightmare tried desperately to sink within themselves terrified that others might notice the truth on their own faces – that they might be exposed. Desperate to leave the room, they were frozen in their seats.

The young woman finished her story with tears mixed with shame and gratitude. She looked out at the room of grave faces. There was no applause – no cheers. Her story of God’s glory had been completely missed. She could see their judgement. She could hear the labels that they would mark her with for as long as they knew her. She saw friends who refused to look at her. She thought some of these friends might share a similar past as her, but she was always afraid to ask. Now she knew for certain; and from now on, they would try to avoid her in order to avoid their own pain. Their friendships would be no more.

She looked down at her chest expecting to see a giant scarlet “I”. Oh, the things she would say if her spirit wasn’t crushed. “I was only a child. I did not ask for this. My father was supposed to be my hero and my protector – not my tormentor. I was innocent before all of this happened. And I begged over and over again for it to stop. Instead, I was threatened into submission. This was not my choice. Children do not ask to be raped. I do not deserve your condemnation.”  Rather than defending herself, she moved solemnly through the remainder of her baptism. And while she still knew she loved Jesus with all that she was, the wound of her past cut even deeper.

Raising Awareness

In the business world when leaders are struggling with how to motivate or guide their staff, one of the major hurtles that comes up over and over again is trust. Without trust, people will never follow you. You need to develop trust, which can take years, and one false step can destroy everything you have worked towards.

Trust issues start in our homes, in our families. We are broken people, and we mess each other up with our brokenness. Whether it is living with a bipolar mom who is as changeable as the wind, a drunken father who takes his failures out on his wife and kids, the father who has never been loved so he doesn’t know how to love, the resentful sibling that strives to destroy everyone else’s joy, or the parent who betrays their spouse and/or their children, we start learning at a young age that life is not all roses and sunshine and not to trust. Seriously, if your family is supposed to love you and you can’t trust them, who can you trust?

To show some statistics about families and abuse, following are some statistics from a report, Child Maltreatment, 2014 – 25 Years of Reporting, from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families Administration on Children, Youth and Families Children’s Bureau (1).

“The majority (78.1%) of perpetrators were a parent of their victim, 6.3 percent of perpetrators were a relative other than a parent, and 4.1 percent had a multiple relationship to either multiple victims in the same report or multiple victims across reports.

  • Nearly 4 percent (3.7%) of perpetrators were an unmarried partner to the victim’s parent.
  • The national estimates of children who received an investigation or alternative response increased 7.4 percent from 2010 (3,023,000) to 2014 (3,248,000).
  • The number and rate of victims of maltreatment have fluctuated during the past 5 years. Comparing the national estimate of victims from 2010 (698,000) to 2014 (702,000) show an increase of less than 1 percent.
  • Three-quarters (75.0%) of victims were neglected, 17.0 percent were physically abused, and 8.3 percent were sexually abused.
  • For 2014, a nationally estimated 1,580 children died of abuse and neglect at a rate of 2.13 per 100,000 is children in the national population.”

These numbers are based on submitted reports. I know many women who suffered in silence and were never counted. Broken arms and death are hard to hide, but emotional and sexual abuse are a different story.

Let’s look at the long list of issues within a family from another angle. All of the issues cause pain and shame. So, what do we do? We hide them! “No one can know or they may discover that my life is really messed up.” But remember, we are not alone. It isn’t just us. There is help out there; but if we are always hiding, we cannot get help. We have lived too long in a world that tells us to just suck it up and keep going. Instead, we should say this is messed up, let’s fix it so our kids don’t have to live like this.

My family yelled, “don’t tell anyone!” Nothing was discussed. I was left alone in my nightmare, and no one knows the extent of the damage. They don’t want to know. It is painful. It is stressful. It is ugly and nasty. True. But ignoring it won’t make it go away. It will only keep growing. I hope that thought makes you want to vomit. I understand that this is uncomfortable. My stomach is churning just writing this. But we can not keep ignoring that there is a serious problem. There is a hard truth that must be acknowledged. Consider, for a moment, a six year old child who is raped. The perpetrator experiences several moments of pleasure. The child will be scarred for the rest of their life. If we hide the negative consequences to the child, the perpetrator can easily convince themselves that the child enjoyed it too. We have to kill this lie. In my instance, I was told that “Everyone is doing it; they just don’t talk about. It is fine.” It is not fine. The effects are devastating for the child and impact all future life relationships and experiences.

References
1. Child Maltreatment, 2014, https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2014.pdf

It’s Not Just Me?

Have you ever been surprised when someone shares a struggle that you also have? A moment when you find yourself thinking, “I thought it was just me.” This thought is usually followed by a feeling of relief. The realization that your response could be normal. Sometimes you even have the opportunity to connect with the other person and share feelings and possibly even help each other.

Feeling like you are the only one is a dark and lonely place to be. It is usually a place of no hope – a place of shame. I do not know why we tend to believe we are the only ones. Maybe it is a condition of being young? As I get older, the more I realize there is nothing new under the sun. Not sure about that? Try thinking of something crazy, off- the-wall, then search for it on the internet. Anyway, I do not know why, but I definitely thought I was the only one. Maybe this is because people are so good at hiding their dark places. Sure, people can be temperamental, moody and dark, but that could just be their personality, right? Or is there something else there. When we always put on our happy faces, other people tend to think that we really are happy all of the time – that we somehow have better lives with no challenges or adversities. Social media is chocked full with pictures of our friends at parties, with family, at the beach – lovely, beautiful places and many smiling faces. Of course their life must be better than mine! They get to go to Bermuda or Saint Thomas! Who gets to do that?!? Vacations on the beach? Not me! But this is just an illusion. Most people are not going to post about the argument they had with their spouse. They are not going to share how that trip to Bermuda led to a second mortgage on their home and the unending financial stress.

So what causes us to hide behind our fake smiles? Pride. We are afraid of anyone knowing that we have weaknesses. Shame. We are afraid of how people would judge us and find us wanting if they really knew us or our prior life experiences. Rejection. People are so quick to reject others that remind them of their own struggles and failures.

When I was a freshman in high school, I was verbally attacked by another student during lunch one day. We did not know each other. We had no classes together. We never spoke to one another. She just started yelling at me about how my life was so perfect. She made this assumption based on my nice clothes and the group of students with me at the table. The reality was that my aunt had bought me knew clothes because when I came to live with her, just months before, all I had were basically rags. This girl didn’t know that earlier that year I lost everything, and I was completely broken inside. And what about the other students? They were an amazingly nice group of kids who took in the new girl even though she was dreadfully shy. They were great friends, and I was blessed to have them. The angry girl made an assumption about me, and she was completely wrong. Though, her out-lashing at me led to a conversation where she learned the truth about me. She also discovered that she was not alone. As it would turn out, our struggles were very similar. My hope since that day is that she found the help she needed.

When we read the book by the cover, we miss the entire story. We also miss the opportunity to grow through the experiences of the characters.

When I was first working through the idea of writing down my own experiences, to share my challenge and my path to healing and wholeness, one person recommended that I include a section on healthy sharing. I struggled with their recommendation for years. What did they mean by healthy sharing? The suggestion alone seems like good advice. This person was meeting with me as a mentor. Their recommendation was directly related to how uncomfortable they were with my level of sharing. There have been experiences in my life that have left deep marks on who I am and how I interact with others. I have a strong belief that if you want to have a deep relation with me, you will need to understand some of those marks in order to understand me and my reactions to certain circumstances. How can you mentor someone if you do not know them? To some, healthy sharing is keeping the dark challenges of your life between you and your counselor. Unfortunately, this helps no one else.

Once I knew a young lady who was obviously being wrecked inwardly by some stress in her life. Yet, each day she pasted a fake smile on her face and pretended that she was fine. One day, I gained the courage to gently challenge her smile. At first she resisted being honest with me. Then she said, “you wouldn’t understand.” This led to further discussion where she discovered that I did understand. She had that moment of discovering she was not alone. She also now had a resource – someone who could relate to her struggles. She also had hope knowing my smile was real. What if I hadn’t worked up the courage to approach her? What if I kept hidden my shared experiences?

When we are open about our experiences, it affords others facing the same struggles the opportunity to reach out to someone who would understand. We were never meant to do life alone. We grow through relationships. This is where I believe “healthy” plays a very important role. We will only have healthy growth in healthy relationships. A person filled with hate or lost in their own despair, who was not found healing, will never be able to help you talk through your struggles. They may be able to understand; but they cannot help you walk a road they have never traveled. Another element of “healthy” sharing is trust. If you are searching for someone that may be able to help you with your struggles, they must be someone you can trust.

Grateful Heart

Another reason to share my story and journey to healing is to give glory to my Rescuer who not only rescued me once but many times and stayed with me even in my anger.

I first met Him late in the evening and my spirit was tormented. There was no safe place, and there seemed to be no hope. I longed for death to rescue me – thinking that was my only hope. I was fourteen. All I knew was living with my parents. They were in complete control of me. I lived in the middle of no where – quite literally. I watched other girls at school drop out due to pregnancy and get married. Next time you see them, they have a kid on their hip and a black eye from their husband. If this is all life is, to trade one tormentor for another, then I don’t want any part of it. But death is scary too. My heart cried out and then my mind (so not to be heard), “Jesus please help me!” It was a cry of desperation to someone I didn’t even know. He was just that guy my parents fought about. Mom believed. Dad hated him. But almost as soon as the thought passed, I felt someone wrap their arms around me. There was no fear at being touched – only peace. Then I realized there wasn’t anyone there and sleep took me. The next morning on the school bus, the years of bottled tears started to flow. I tried desperately to stop and hide them. I needed to hide them – my life and my mom’s life depended on me keeping everything secret. But to no avail. The tears simply would not stop. My only friend cornered me and would not leave me alone. I finally gave in. “You must tell your mom.”

The story goes on from there and not with a “and they lived happily ever after.” More on that later. So why was my prayer answered? Was it because I was just a child? Was it because I called out to Jesus with every fiber of my being? Was it to save my life? I will never know this side of heaven. Maybe He saved me so He could heal me so I could help rescue others. Whatever the answer, I will forever be grateful. And I fought with Him over the next two decades, but He never let go of me. And for that, I love Him.

Breaking the Silence

My fear in sharing comes from past experiences.  Unfortunately, it can feel like the negative consequences outweigh the positive ones.  The biggest fear is rejection.  On the very first day of being rescued, the first question was, “Is she lying?”  That evening with a friend who took me and my mom in, “Did she ask for it?”  From relatives who came to support my mom, “Can we touch her?  Would she think we are trying to molest her if we gave her a hug?”  My earliest positive experience with sharing was with another girl at school.  For me, it was the day I first realized that good could come from evil.  Such elation!  Running back to my relative’s home bursting with excitement.  Angry eyes, “You can never tell anyone about this!”  My joy was shattered and my voice silenced.

Since then, my voice is slowly returning.  Evil wins if the silence is kept.  No lives are saved from despair.  No courage or hope is given to those living in a hell on earth.  No glory is given.  No one learns the devastation rampant in our families while our silence holds.  This is why I will share.

“For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”  2 Timothy 1:7