Tag Archives: abuse

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Fortunate

You shall bear no hatred for your brother or sister in your heart….Take no revenge and cherish no grudge…                                                                                                                               ~Leviticus 19:17-18

On my first trip to Swaziland, Southern Africa, I met a girl named Fortunate. She was twelve years old and I couldn’t decide if her name was apt or not.

She had grown up in a homestead in rural Swaziland with no running water or electricity. She, her parents and her five siblings had lived in a one-room hut until both of her parents died from AIDS.blessing-forgiveness-love

After that, she and her siblings moved to St. Philips’ Mission where she lived in a large dormitory with fifty-some other girls.

The Mission provided food, clothing and education. There was electricity, running water and flush toilets. All good things. But losing her parents and leaving her homestead must have been incredibly difficult.

Fortunate was curious and bold enough to ask questions. She had a trusting nature and a beautiful smile; she stole my heart.blessing-forgiveness-love

I wonder what happened to her since I last saw her in 2005.

Fortunate came to mind on the feast of St. Josephine Bakihta last week.

Josephine Bakihta grew up in Sudan and was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. Her kidnappers gave her the name Bakihta, which means Fortunate.

After being sold and traded a number of times, Bakihta eventually ended up in Italy. Her owners once left her temporarily with the Canossian Sisters, and while with the Sisters, Bakihta had a religious conversion and decided to stay there. Italian law allowed her to secure her freedom, which she did. She converted to Catholicism, took the name Josephine and eventually became a Sister.

Was she fortunate? She had been taken from her homeland and endured years of abuse and mistreatment as a slave. But, in the end, she overcame these tragedies and, by all accounts, had a blessed life.

In her own words: If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today… The Lord has loved me so much: we must love everyone… we must be compassionate!blessing-forgiveness-love

Despite her horrible history, Josephine Bakhita became a loving, forgiving person.

She inspires me. Here was a woman who had every reason to be bitter and vengeful. She had lost so much and endured terrible suffering. Yet she chose to overcome her history. She chose to love, forgive and look for the blessing.
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I wonder if my Swaziland Fortunate was able to face her history and rise above it. Was she able to find blessings in the hand she had been dealt?

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Not everyone has such dramatic histories to overcome, but I believe most of us have something in our past that we need to overcome, some person we need to forgive or some event we are invited to rise above. Only then will we be at peace.

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Moving beyond trauma

In the mid-1980’s, I participated in a clinical trial conducted by the Women’s Hospital in Philadelphia; the goal was to see if the treatment used with Vietnam Veterans to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would be effective for women who were survivors of sexual assault.

I was recently reminded of this clinical trial when I was cleaning out my file cabinet and found four dog-eared index cards.

Each three-by-five card had a heading, written in someone else’s cursive.

  1. Preparing for a stressor
  2. Confronting and handling a stressor
  3. Coping with feelings of being overwhelmed
  4. Reinforcing self-statements

Beneath each heading, in my own writing, are prompts and personal messages.

I don’t remember much about the program—how many weeks or months it lasted, if sessions were once or twice a week—but I do remember driving to North Philadelphia and meeting one-to-one with a therapist.

Reading these messages that I had written to my younger self, I realized that I have internalized many of the practices I was taught in this program.

The treatment focused on modifying behaviors, and one exercise I have practiced over the years is interrupting negative thoughts. The idea is to notice when my thoughts are spiraling downward and I am starting to feel overwhelmed; then I shout STOP.stop sign

It does not matter if I shout out loud or in just in my mind, the shouting interrupts the negative thought process and gives me a chance to change direction and regain control. For me, this has been an effective thought-changing process that has helped steer me away from negativity.

On the first card, under the heading Preparing for a stressor, I wrote three questions:

  1. What is it I have to do?
  2. What am I afraid of?
  3. What is the likelihood of anything bad happening?

Beneath those questions, I instructed myself to “get beyond my feelings to do the work that has to be done.” And then I affirmed myself: “I’ve made a lot of progress; I’ve come this far; I can keep going.”

Some of the notes to myself on the other cards include:

“Other people can do this; so can I.”

“Focus on plan of action.”

“There are people involved whom I can trust.”

“It will be over soon.”

“The anxiety (fear) will slow me down but I will not be incapacitated by it.”

The fourth card is a list of affirmations, including:

“Nothing succeeds like success.”

“Good job—pat yourself on the back.”

I don’t know the outcome of that clinical trial, but for me, the treatment was helpful, and over the years, I can see how I have built on what I learned. For example, after accomplishing a task that is particularly stressful, I now say, “Bask in the glow of success” which, to me, is a step beyond patting myself on the back.

I know that my faith was primarily what got me through that trauma, and the clinical trial at Women’s Hospital was a gift. I am grateful.

 

 

 

 

Reshaped by God

Now there was a man full of leprosy….and the leprosy left him immediately. (Luke 5:12-13)

The words full of leprosy caught my attention as I read this Scripture passage. I think of leprosy as being an external condition affecting the skin, but the words full of made me think of something deeper, some kind of cavity or open space which had been filled.

As I pondered this man’s healing, I wondered if leprosy had become a part of his identity and self-understanding. Had he become accustomed to being shunned? Did he find solace in his solitude? I wondered what filled the open space where the leprosy had been.

This man, full of leprosy, reminds me of when I was younger and full of shame. I thought of myself that way—full of shame. I blamed myself for the bad things that had happened to me and internalized them into a message that I was bad. Bad things happen to bad people, I told myself.

But, I hoped for something different; I hoped that I could be healed. Just as the leprosy left the man immediately, I hoped my shame would be removed in an instant.

My pastor encouraged me to pray for healing. I started attending daily Mass and praying fervently. Months passed with no apparent change. Then one day, at the end of Mass, the priest said, “Go now, cleansed in mind and body, to love and serve the Lord.”

“Cleansed?” Not me. I was dirty, broken, disgusting—in mind and body. Tears started pouring from my eyes and I crumpled to the kneeler, burying my face in my hands.

I wanted to be cleansed. “Please God,” I pleaded through sobs, “cleanse me.”

As I knelt in that pew, sobbing, I had a vision. I saw myself cleaved in two and all that was ugly and broken and shameful poured out of me. It was a veritable river of disgust spewing out. I watched until there was nothing left, until I was empty.

Was this what it meant to be healed? Had Jesus removed my shame the same way he had removed leprosy? I accepted this vision as a healing and floated out of the church on a spiritual high. God had heard my prayers and cleansed me.

Being healed presented a dilemma, though. The only me I had known was the shameful me. Without my shame, who was I?

St. Paul’s letters became my guide. The man who had persecuted the church became its biggest promoter. I wanted to be able to walk away from my past as St. Paul had, to be so strengthened by the Spirit that I could become a new person in Christ and never look back.

Forty-three years have passed since that day in church and I can look back and see how God has continued to heal me and reshape me. I am grateful.

Courage

When I was in my early thirties, I went on a healing retreat. I had been delving into my past and found some old wounds that were still open sores.

On the retreat, I met other people who also had open sores they wanted healed. I remember one man sharing childhood memories of his father’s drunken rages. He told stories about being taken to the ER with broken arms and legs after his father had thrown him against a wall or down stairs. Wow, I thought, my life was a picnic compared to this man’s life.

I was deeply moved by the stories I heard, and I began to wonder why no one intervened in abusive situations. Did no one know what was happening? Did neighbors not hear the screams? Did ER doctors really believe a child could be so clumsy that he repeatedly broke bones? How could people just look the other way? How could they pretend that nothing was wrong?

Those questions led me to a commitment: I would not stay silent when I saw something that indicated abuse.

Once I made that commitment, I started to see things I had previously overlooked—or perhaps I had looked the other way.

At first, I found it almost impossible to speak up. I realized I been taught not to see, and if I did see something, not to speak of it. Old tapes ran through my mind—“mind your own business” kinds of tapes. I realized they were messages of fear, the kind of messages that kept abusers safe. I started to tell myself that it is my business if someone, anyone, is being abused. I started to put myself in that person’s position and ask, “What would I want someone to do for me?” The answer was almost always, “Speak up.”

I understand why people don’t speak up, how they can see children and women with bruises and broken bones and say nothing—it is hard to speak up. My stomach gets butterflies and my palms sweat every time I do it. I know I am taking a risk, that I am sticking my nose into someone else’s business. I know I might make someone really angry. Every opportunity I have had to speak up has been a challenge. My anxiety almost always stops me.

And then I think of that man whose father threw him against the wall and I think of all the other people I have known who suffered at the hands of abusers. I can hear them asking, “Why didn’t someone do something?” So, if I see something or even sense something, I say something. It might not do any good, it may not improve the situation, but at least I know I have done what I could.

Hidden Girl

During Mass one day on retreat, the priest prayed for the kidnapped girls in Nigeria; afterward, I remembered a girl named Michelle.

Michelle was born to a single mother and until she was two years old, her life was fairly typical. She crawled, walked and went to the doctor for check-ups.

When Michelle was two years old, though, her mother’s new boyfriend moved in with them, and Michelle was not seen again for the next eleven years. She did not go to school or the doctor or, well, anywhere; she was kept locked in a closet.

Her mother went on to have two more children with this new boyfriend, and those children crawled, walked and went to the doctor for check-ups, too. They went to school and their lives seemed like other children’s lives, except that they carried the secret of their sister.

It is difficult to imagine that no one who knew of Michelle’s existence before the new boyfriend’s appearance did not ask about her or report that Michelle seemed to have disappeared. Perhaps her mother made up a convincing story about Michelle and no one questioned it. But her brother and sister knew and eventually one of them told a teacher and Michelle was rescued from the closet. By then, she was deeply scarred—emotionally and physically.

She was severely malnourished and looked more like a seven-year-old than a thirteen-year-old. Her body jerked and twitched as she adjusted to moving in open spaces. Her eyes were vacant and she was incapable of dialogue. One thing that animated her was food, and she made a beeline for anything edible within ten feet. Clearly she had been starved in every possible way.

To make matters worse, her mother’s boyfriend had beat and raped Michelle repeatedly over the years, and her tiny body bore the marks of that abuse. Sometimes she would drift back to an earlier time with a memory and a mantra: “Get off me,” the only three words I ever heard her string together. Once the memory surfaced, she would get stuck as if in a trance, “Get off me, get off me, get off me,” she would say over and over.

At a hearing to sever her mother’s parental rights, Michelle’s mom demanded to have her daughter back, claiming that Michelle was hers and she could do whatever she wanted with her. Fortunately, the court did not agree and Michelle was placed in a group home for people with developmental disabilities.

Neither Michelle’s mother nor her mother’s boyfriend was charged with any crime.

It is estimated that one in five girls in this country is sexually abused and that three-quarters of them are abused by someone they know. Michelle’s story may be extreme, but it is not unique.

So while it is good to pray for the kidnapped girls in Nigeria, we don’t have to look that far away to find girls trapped, imprisoned and abused, girls living nearby who also need our prayers.