Please don’t make me a hero

There’s this thing that happens when I tell people my story. Even just pieces of it. As soon as I say the words “I spent 10 years in a cult” people begin to ask questions. They want to know how I ended up there and why I stayed for so long. The answers to those questions are found in a darker history. One in which patterns of abuse were my comfort zones. The abuse I endured at the hands of a sexual predator was relatively minimal by comparison to the systemic psychological abuse I witnessed and experienced in my childhood home.

I don’t hide my history when people ask. I gloss over the details, sure. But it’s therapeutic to admit the truth of what I come from. However, in doing so, I also acknowledge the magnitude of what I have overcome. It is not a small thing.

When I reflect on the health and success I’ve found, I really don’t know that I can attribute it to any one thing. I’m tempted to just call it maturity, based off of how long it took me to get here. I’m 28 years old and I’m making my dreams come true. I have healthy relationships, a healthy lifestyle, a therapist. I am starting a new career that I adore, one that makes me a better human being and improves the lives of the people I come in contact with every day. It’s pretty incredible. I know this because I’ve had enough objective observers tell me so.

I’m glad I’ve had the voices in my life that have encouraged me when I’m down by reminding me how far I’ve come. Because of them I have learned to believe myself capable and strong. I know precisely who I can turn to when I need to remember how strong I am.

But I’m learning something about myself. I don’t need to hear those affirming words constantly. Every time I tell my story, I steel myself for the onslaught of praise. I acknowledge it, I accept it politely. And I build walls against it. I try to put it out of my mind. Because for some reason those repeated words of praise make the hard days that much harder. They elevate me, legitimately, as those kind of words are intended to do.

But… when I get triggered or struggle with latent symptoms of PTSD, I fall that much farther from  the pedestal it feels I’ve been placed on. I feel as though the hard days betray the trophied image of the overcomer. It’s a lot to live up to. When I wake up terrified from nightmares I can’t control or some circumstance sends me back to the days in the cult, those shitty feelings are compounded by shame that I am not the strong, brave individual I am purported to be.

Logically, I know that the occasional bad day does not nullify the strength I possess. But when you are in that headspace, logic is not relevant. I feel like a little child again. I feel all kinds of self-blame for not having conquered these demons. I feel angry with myself that I can’t just snap out of it.

I want to keep telling my story. I need to. Each time I speak the story loses a little more of the weight it once held. But I want to find a way to tell it where my audience sees me as a human rather than a hero. If they find that difficult, I want to find a way to ask them to change their perspective. Because making me into a hero is counterproductive for both of us.

I need to be reminded of how far I’ve come. That is worthwhile in my recovery. Equally, I need permission to not be okay. To cry. To admit that this is still a difficult journey some days., especially now when I’m in therapy, when I’m in a state of transition.

Maybe for a while I just need to say that. Please don’t make me a hero. And if you feel you must offer praise, temper it with permission.

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Waking up swinging

I’ve been reading “The Courage to Heal” at my therapists direction and been writing and processing from it as I feel inspired. It’s been helpful in the sense that it’s getting me to think through and process components of my abuse I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

I read a little portion of what I’ve written to my therapist in our last session, mentioning in passing that I’ve been having nightmares about the cult. I thought it was strange that I would dream about the cult I was in for 10 years while I’m dealing with the issues of childhood sexual abuse. They are 2 separate issues, right? Maybe not so much.

My therapist suggested we stop and think about how the nightmares are making me feel. I often don’t remember them unless I write them down, so it was difficult to pinpoint the emotions without the context of the dreams. She said that she’s not so interested in interpreting the content of the dreams, as much as knowing how they make me feel. So, that’s what I’ve decided to turn my attention to when waking from these dreams.

A couple of days ago I was dreaming about the cult again. This time I woke up from a clattering noise near my head. I was punching my side table, rattling all the things on top of it. I woke up startled, my heart beating faster. To my knowledge I’ve never acted out a dream like that before. In the dream, I was told to do something for the cult and my response was to punch the person instructing me. I was simultaneously trying to breathe my way out of having a panic attack in the dream.

I had a friend staying with me that night/morning and all I could really do at the time was laugh. It was so bizarre and it woke us both up early, unable to go back to sleep. I reflected on the dream all morning (can you blame me?) and realized after about an hour that the prominent emotion was that of anger. Duh. Hence the punching. But anger is not an emotion I’m very familiar with these days. It’s something I feel in only the rarest times. Something I learned to shut down in myself quite a long time ago.

I tell people today that I was a very angry child/teen and they are typically very surprised. I raged at the people closest to me. Yelling matches with my sister and mother. I threw things. Much to my chagrin, I was even known to be violent, to hit or seek to wound the people I loved. Primarily my little sister…. Until she began taking the response of non-violence, making me look so much worse in contrast.

I had all of these intense emotions that I didn’t know what to do with. It wasn’t safe to express them in any way. I was being emotionally abused at home, but I didn’t know that. I thought I deserved it. I thought I brought it on myself with my rebellious behavior (rebellion = “talking back.” I was a straight-laced, church going, honor roll kid who did her chores, other than that. My biggest downfall was defending myself to my abusive mother.)

When I started going to the cult at age 14, they made it very clear, very quickly that my greatest sin was that of rebellion towards my parents. Forget the suicidal ideation. Forget the same-gender attraction. Forget addiction to masturbation. The worst thing I confessed was disrespect to my parents. I must submit to authority. I was compelled to subdue my will. I was threatened with excommunication if I failed in this endeavor. So, I fell in line. The angry outbursts ceased. I learned to keep my mouth shut when I was being accused. I learned to obey when I was uncomfortable. I learned to numb all inappropriate emotions, the primary one being anger.

That emotion has never quite re-awakened. Not consistently. It ekes out at random times that seem entirely inappropriate. Like in my dreams. Or in conversations with friends where I suddenly become a petulant child, stomping my feet or slapping a table and making them jump back in surprise at the outburst. Most often, my anger is self-directed. I don’t know how to be “safely” angry at anyone else.

I started to feel angry towards my parents the week before I went home. I started to acknowledge their role, or lack thereof, in my abuse. I was getting angry at the fact that there have never been boundaries with them. My father has always required that we walk on eggshells with my mother to “keep the peace”… we were required to live by his boundaries, accommodating their codependency at all times. It’s a toxic environment, one I did not look forward to going into.

But, I did it. In some ways it went better than I anticipated. I managed to not inspire my mothers anger. We got through a full week without her threatening to kick me out. It helped that I spent the majority of the week in the hospital with my father (recovering from knee replacement surgery). But it was difficult in ways I didn’t anticipate. My anxiety levels were high, despite being medicated. Being back in the city where the cult is made me feel like I was walking around in the setting of my nightmares of late. When I slept (very little) the nightmares were terrible. I woke myself up talking in my sleep, woke up with my heart pounding more times than I can count. By the end of my week at home I was exhausted and desperate to get out of there. It no longer feels like home. It is not a safe place. For so many reasons.

I never thought I would be so grateful to be back in Texas. But I am. Home is becoming the hearts of the people I love, who love me.

This is just a bunch of rambling. But it’s helped me to write it and I suppose that’s the point.

 

Dear God – a lamentation

I wrote this on December 4, 2015. This date and this letter is known to me now as the last time I prayed to a god I no longer believe in. 

Dear God,

I’m mad at you. I imagine this comes as no surprise. I’ve been told all my life that you are all-knowing. You know my thoughts. You see everything. Not even a tiny bird falls to the ground out of your sight. Isn’t that true? I don’t find that comforting. If that is true and you see it all, I don’t understand why the world is not flooded with your tears. How can you watch all the suffering? How can you stand the way we harm and steal from one another? If you are all-powerful, orchestrating the details of our lives, then why do you allow senseless things?

A few months ago it brought me comfort to think you arranged things perfectly so I can be where I am. I thought I saw your hand everywhere, evidence of your love. But now, if I apply that logic to other areas of my life {I’m afraid to say this} I can’t believe your power is only limited to the good without acknowledging that you have some involvement in my suffering. How can you have power over one part but not the other? Is it a matter of consciously yielding to you or asking for your intervention? Because that’s hardly fair to a 6 year old little girl. Is it a matter of your approval or allowance? Because I’m not sure I can imagine a good god putting a stamp of approval on the rape of a child.

Is it about your glory, perhaps? That the sustainment of my life is supposed to be some kind of trophy in a hall of heaven I don’t know about. Am I surviving and learning to live just so you can add another point to the scoreboard in your triumph over evil? Am I just a pawn? Or is it more personal than that?

I don’t understand you. If you are unlimited in your power, why. If you limit yourself, why. If this is all about redemption, okay. What is that and what does it look like? How do I recognize it when I see it?

God, I’m angry at you because it’s easier than being hurt! I was told you would comfort me, shield me, protect me. None of those things have been a reality for me. I don’t feel comforted! Religion tells me I should feel guilty for that because you’re apparently not enough. The problem is with me, not The Perfect One, right? Who am I to question you? My expectations are too high. But who set them? Your damn people. Your “word” which is apparently valued above your name. I don’t buy it anymore.

Who the hell are you? I don’t know who to trust or which image of you to give credit to. If it’s the image painted by most American church people and even the scriptures then I am frightened by how severely I want to distance myself from you. If it’s the image of you I see in some of the people around me now, then I’m alarmed by how quickly my heart melts.

I don’t know what else to say. Your turn.

My Questions for God

I spent the first 10 weeks of my time at L’Abri allowing my questions to surface. One of my last days there I sat down and wrote them out. These are the questions that surfaced and the answers I found in myself before I even got up from the table. I know I am not alone in asking them.

Is God just? Is he good? Is he holy?

How valuable is his glory? Is he all powerful? Does he limit himself? Do we have free will or has he pre-determined everything and is he just pulling on our puppet strings?

Do I think I can do a better job at being god?

Who is in control? Am I fighting for it? Is he in control?

What does it mean when it says he is redeemer? Is that only regarding our redemption from permanent death? Or is there redemption in this life that he has a hand in?

{I answer some of these questions even as I ask them.}

Can I ask any question that is not self-centered? Am I even capable? If he is the center of my universe, if that is even possible to cognitively achieve, then am I allowed to ask questions?

Does making him the center rob me of my humanity?

Why was I raped in a church at 6 years old? Why was I molested after that? Is this all part of a cosmic lesson I’m supposed to learn? How does that make any sense? I was so little.


There will never be a satisfying answer to that question. There is nothing that could ever make it okay. There is no theology that makes sense of it. I don’t really want to know why. I don’t care why, no answer would be enough. I don’t want to know when it will feel okay. I don’t want revenge or even redemption. I don’t care if my abusers got to heaven or suffer in hell. That doesn’t make things any better for me. What I really want is for it to have never happened at all. Total obliteration. I want the acts to be reversed. Or at the very least, I want the messages in my nerve endings to be completely re-written, for my body to be a safe place to dwell.

Death is a part of life I have come to accept with some amount of peace. Is evil and violation just something I have to accept in the same way? Death seems a kinder alternative than living with some of this at times.

But, DAMN IT! No, really, DAMN the violation! I am living the hell out, out of my life in spite of it. My life, joy, vitality, is smacking the hell out. Eradicating it. Little shards of light in every choice to hold on to a hand or accept a hug or calm my startled heart when I would rather run away.

I don’t know how to address God in this. Can I bring myself to level the accusations that have been bubbling up for weeks? They have fueled my questions. I feel them close, within reach.

I have permission to be angry.

If I don’t really want to know why, then I want to know who he is and what position he takes in light of this. Does he only have the power to heal what is already broken? why then would he not have the power to prevent? Who are you?

 

Resurrection redefined

It’s been over a year since I’ve written in this space. A lot has happened in that time. I quit my cozy full time, high-stress job, cashed in my retirement and went to Europe for 10 months. I came home, enrolled in massage therapy school and moved to a new city. Later on today I take my licensing exam to become a full-time massage therapist.

Also, I started therapy last week. Thanks to an incredible organization called Speak Your Silence, I received a counseling grant. They have something called “The Stitch” representing the voice frequency of survivors of child sexual abuse. I began supporting them over a year ago, before I left my job. Before I left for Switzerland I put the stitch on several of my favorite items of clothing. I did it, shaking. At that point the number of people who knew my story were few and far between. I was afraid of being ostracized. Having something on my clothing that could potentially identify me as having been abused was terrifying. But I’m so glad I did it.

I won’t ever forget the first time someone asked me what The Stitch was. I explained what it was without identifying myself as a survivor. But then they asked, “Were you abused?” and I said, “Yes.” with my pulse racing. But then the most beautiful thing happened. My friends sympathized, expressed their sorrow, briefly. But they didn’t ask a million questions. The subject changed and we moved on. There was no spotlight aimed at me. They just continued to love me like a normal person.

It took me several weeks to open up to anyone there. But once I did, it became much easier to stay. I was dying to be known. I shared my story with a few people, I didn’t hide. And no one rejected me. No one treated me like I was broken. Rather, they loved me. And I think, more importantly, they let me love them in return. They shared their stories with me, too. They didn’t sound the same. But pain is pain and we all need to know we are not alone in it. I proved to myself that I could build new, healthy relationships.

I learned to ask for support when I needed it. Instead of waiting until I was in an emergency or crisis stage, I asked for help when I was simply anxious or sad. I chose to talk instead of bury what I was thinking about, feeling, or experiencing in my body. It was scary at first, but the more I practiced, the easier it became. I felt growth happening.

But, at the same time, my faith was unraveling in the most beautiful way.

I did a lot of writing while at L’Abri. Technology is not allowed there apart from days off, so most of it was done by hand. I want to share now some of the things I wrote then. The things I was given permission to express became transformative and are pivotal to where I am today.

I have been resurrected. My voice has been resurrected. But it doesn’t look anything like how I thought it would.

Disowning the Shame

I had shingles when I was 14 years old. Physically, it was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced. The nerves near the surface of your skin become inflamed and develop a blistering rash. It hurts for anything to brush against it at all. Even when you’re careful not to touch it sometimes the pain shoots fireworks through the surface of your skin without warning. I remember it waking me from a medicated sleep, bolting upright and crying.

I feel like my soul is infected with shingles right now. My emotions and even my body felt jangled and raw for most of the day, probably from lack of sleep. The anxiety from the nightmares didn’t dissipate until late in the afternoon. I was texting a friend for a little bit earlier, briefly catching up on each others lives.  I told her that I’m aggressively seeking healing right now and I feel like I’m in a crucible. I’m keeping myself here, wrestling with myself and with God until the work is done. Even if I walk away with a limp, I won’t let go until He blesses me.

I have hinted at my story of abuse in past conversations with her, but always glossed over it feeling it would require a complete retelling that I’m not prepared to give. I only realized a short time ago that I don’t owe anyone the whole story and I’m not obligated to provide details in the telling just to satisfy someone’s morbid curiosity. So I just told her in a text message that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and I’m tired of being ashamed of it. She was sympathetic in response, letting me know she would be praying for me, and said she was glad I was quitting the shame.

I’m not sure if it was her choice of words, her intentions to pray, or if Jesus was responding to my veiled insistence on a blessing–perhaps all of the above–but something unlocked in my heart. I heard Him speak,

“The shame is not yours.” 

…and just like that, I believed it. I’ve read those words probably dozens of times. People have said them to me over and over in half a dozen ways. But for the first time today I understood that the shame I have been carrying does not belong to me. It belongs squarely on the shoulders of those who abused me. I don’t have to be ashamed of my story as though I am to blame. I don’t have to hide it in shadows and hope I won’t make anyone feel awkward. That may be an obvious truth to everyone else, but to a survivor it is not easily come by. No amount of rationalization or repetition could make it feel true. Only Jesus made it feel true.

I feel both overwhelmed and set free. For the first time I feel like I can tell my story simply, without the wall of defenses, excuses and explanations. For so long I have felt ashamed that I am still working towards healing, as though I’m not doing enough to just “get over it already.” That shame is gone. I feel more freedom to surrender to the process of healing, no matter what it looks like. I don’t have to worry about policing the story, either in the reporting of the past or the present outcome.

Take His Hand
Take His Hand

I can be proud of the fact that I am actively healing, even if the process is ugly and slow. It is what it is. Healing doesn’t have to fit anyone’s mold or timeline. “Let go and let God” does not apply here. There is no requirement to “forgive and forget.”

Jesus stands with me, holding out His hand and asking me to follow Him into deeper waters. He will not leave me alone to suffer. I know I have hard things to face but today He gave me a taste of the abundant freedom to come. This feeling is worth it all.

Shame, I disown you. We’re through.

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Note to my fellow survivors: I know so well how hard it is to believe the truth that the shame you feel over abuse is not yours. I know that reading these words alone may not make it true for you. I know it may feel like you deserve to carry the shame as though it’s just punishment. The ropes that hold those lies in place are often strong and countless in number. It is my fervent prayer that in sharing this story a few of those ties come unraveled in your heart. 

Chasing away nightmares.

Trigger warning for brief description of trafficking and abuse.

I was worried I might have nightmares so I took a warm aromatherapy bath before bed, I changed the sheets, took 2 doses of melatonin, drank some water and put lavender oil on my feet. Book before bed instead of phone. It still took me over an hour to fall asleep.

I’ve hardly been asleep for an hour when I realize I’m dreaming. I was seeing this older man in a foreign country trying to seduce little girls with very little success. So instead he seduced a woman and made her fall in love with him and used her to bring the girls in. She comforted and soothed and mothered them. Then she held them while he did his bidding to them. I have the graphic images burned into my head. Because I had the same dream about 3 times before I woke up. I would see him and the girls and I saw their olive skin and I kept pushing the images away, saying “no, that’s not my story. That’s not what happened to me. I’m not in there.” I saw it over and over until I realized I could open my eyes and make it go away.

As I was blinking the dream away I moved my legs and the pillow pressed against them suddenly felt like a warm human leg wedging between mine from behind. I threw it across the bed and sat up to calm the quickly rising panic. I turned on the light and steadied my breath. After 5 minutes I lay back down and reached for my phone to write it out and come fully awake. Because this pain WILL be useful to me. I’m done with it.

My alarm will ring in less than 3 hours. I am so tired. I want to sleep. I feel like it would help to cry and I want to, but I can’t.

Reading psalms to sleep.

———————————————-

I wrote this a couple of hours ago now. Reading psalms seems to have helped drain the adrenaline away. I’m exhausted and I desperately want to sleep. But every time I close my eyes the dream picks back up again. I try to pick something safe to think about and meditate on as I close my eyes. But within a matter of moments it becomes sinister and I wake myself up again. I called my sister and asked her to pray with me. She did, and once again I tried to go to sleep. But I didn’t get very far before I woke up, thrashing and yelling at the dreams, utterly frustrated. My alarm will go off in half an hour. It’s going to be a long, caffeinated day.