Tag Archives: abuse

Discovering my path

Ever since I was eight years old, I knew that God had called me in some special way. I didn’t know how the “call” happened. I just knew that God had chosen me, and I could see that I was different from my brothers and friends in certain ways—mostly in my desire to spend time in church and to talk to God.

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I felt a closeness to Jesus, and I knew instinctively that he was with me. I thought of him as a brother who “got me,” who related to my vulnerability and my feelings of helplessness.

When he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I heard an echo of my own cry. Like me, Jesus was an innocent victim. And even though I felt chosen by God and closely connected to God, I still went through my life experiences on my own.

Knowing that God was with me was a comfort, but I understood that God was not going to take away the difficulties of my life. God was not going to make my dad stop drinking or make my mom protect me. God was not going to change my “bad-touch” uncle or prevent my being abused.

Yes, God was with me, Jesus was with me, and I was also on my own. It was a mystery.

Why God had chosen me was a mystery, too. Why me? A poor girl from the east side of Detroit who had no special talents or skills.

At one point, I thought I could escape to a convent, but I have a lousy singing voice and I thought being able to sing was a requirement of being a nun. (I did not go to Catholic school, so I had no first-hand experience with nuns.) I was stuck living the life I had, playing the hand I had been dealt.

I envied Jesus because he had a clear sense of his mission, of why God had sent him. Me? I had no sense of my mission.

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Finding the path I was meant to walk has been a life-long quest.

When I read St. Paul’s letters about our different gifts (Romans 12:6) I could hardly relate. What gifts did I have that could help build God’s kingdom? I wasn’t a teacher, a healer, a prophet or a preacher. What was my gift? Another mystery.

Now, here I am at seventy years old, looking back on the path I have walked. Over time, my gifts and talents revealed themselves through the events of everyday life. Over time, I have been able to let go of unrealistic expectations, the “shoulds” and “oughts,” and accepted what is.

I am now comfortable in my own skin and grateful for my life.

I recently completed an Internship in Ignatian Spirituality and hope to help others discern the path God is inviting them to walk, to help identify their gifts and to affirm that God can be found in all things.

We are only as sick as our secrets

Secrets have been on my mind for the past year, ever since my mother revealed a secret she had been keeping for almost fifty years—which sparked my own awareness of a secret I had been keeping even longer.

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Since then, I seem to be very aware of others’ secrets and how often people shade the truth or tell half-truths to frame things in a different light.

For example, I recently attended a talk about Etty Hillesum, a woman who lived in Amsterdam during World War II. The speaker talked of Etty’s affair with her professor but failed to mention that Etty had had an abortion. I wondered why. Etty wrote about the abortion; it was not a secret, yet this person recalling Etty’s life left out this detail.

Was she trying to protect Etty by not talking about the abortion? Did she have feelings of shame around abortion that led her to omit it? This presentation was at a Catholic retreat center, and I wondered if the setting and the audience prompted this omission. But why did she include the details of the affair? It was all a mystery to me.  

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Secrets abound in the British detective tv shows I watch. Often, some secret is being kept which is key to solving the mystery.  “Why didn’t you tell us?” the detective asks in exasperation when the secret finally comes out. The detective doesn’t care that the grandfather had a child with the maid or that the mother had a wild past or that the children have squandered their inheritance. The detective just wants the facts and not an edited version of history.

It seems that we can be our own worst judges when it comes to our secrets, believing that the worst will happen if our secrets are revealed.

The truth is that we are the same people we were before our secrets were revealed, and those who love us will continue to love us once they know our secrets.

People may be surprised or even shocked to learn of some traumatic event in our past. They may have to adjust their image of us. They may review the relationship in light of new information, but if they really love us, they will get over their shock and adjust their image. They will remember that we are the same person we were before they knew our secrets.

I have always been open about being a rape survivor, but not everyone in my life knows about it, mostly because it does not come up in everyday conversation and because I have moved around a lot. The “getting to know you” phase of new friendships don’t usually include talk of rape or other traumas, so while my history is not a secret for me, it usually doesn’t come up until a relationship is established.

My goal is to have nothing to fear, nothing to prove and nothing to hide. I desire to live transparently, holding nothing back and keeping no secrets.

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Be seen and heard

Shh.

Be quiet.

Don’t speak.

Be seen and not heard.

Make yourself small.

Cower in the corner.

Become invisible.

Keep the little girl inside you little.

This is my beloved Son; listen to him, God said of Jesus.

Did God say of me, This is my beloved daughter; listen to her?

But who can hear me when I am being quiet?

How can you listen to me when I am not speaking?

If I remain tucked in the corner, trying to be invisible,

how can I spread God’s message of love and forgiveness?

God whispers to me.

Think big thoughts.

Speak up.

Make yourself seen and heard.

Give us joy

Give us joy to balance our affliction, for the years when we knew misfortune. Psalm 90:15

A few months ago, I was talking with a man who had lived a charmed life. He had grown up in a loving home with parents who cared deeply for him and desired the best for him. He had a wonderful education and excelled in his career. He had good friends, got married, had children, travelled and basically did all the things he wanted to do. Everything was going so well—until he was diagnosed with an illness that ended his career and eventually his marriage. As the disease progressed, he became more physically incapacitated and had to hire aides to help him at home.

He told me about one of his aides, a woman whose life had the opposite trajectory from his. Her early life was full of affliction and misfortune. She had grown up in a home without love where she was abused in every way imaginable. She lacked education and family support. Eventually, she ended up in prison. After leaving prison, she entered a treatment program that enabled her to turn her life around and move in a different direction. Now she supports herself by taking care of vulnerable people. She has found love and is engaged to be married.

This man, with his Job-like challenges, has a wonderful attitude and outlook on life. When his career ended, he went back to school so he could begin a second career, one that was not dependent on his physical abilities. His body is failing, but his mind is still thriving.

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As he and I talked, I thought about how some of us know affliction and misfortune early in life, while others face them later.

This man told me he and his aide talk about how their lives have intersected because of his illness, how they would never have gotten to know one another in the way they do if he had not become sick. He believes that her story is the more amazing because she has overcome so much; he is in awe of her.

I stand in awe of both of them. He, for his positive attitude in the face of a debilitating disease; she, for her determination to overcome her past and create a new life for herself.

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Not anywhere as extreme as his aide’s, but my early life was marked by chaos and trauma. I was a shy child and very anxious. School was a nightmare to me socially, although I loved learning, and being in school felt safe. My unresolved childhood trauma made me vulnerable to abuse as a young adult.

Like his aide, I finally feel I have come into my own. I am confident in what I learned from my career, pursuing things that interest me, comfortable in my own skin and living in joy.

How about you? Did you know misfortune early in life or later? Do you know joy now which balances out past afflictions?

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My mother’s secret revealed

I got married when I was eighteen and moved to Virginia because my husband had two years left in the Navy. He was at sea more than he was home, so it was a mystery why I could not live with my family. But he wanted me in Virginia, so I obeyed.

Another Navy wife befriended me and helped me acclimate. I joined a church and got a job.

My father had been against my getting married and had predicted troubles; his predictions came true.

After two years, I saw clearly what my life would be if I stayed married, and I told my husband I wanted a divorce.

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He was shocked because I never stood up for myself. I had been timid, fearful and compliant.

After he left, I started thinking about moving home.

Then my father called and told me I was not welcome at home. He was angry with me.

Now it was my turn to be shocked because I did not understand his anger. I could not argue with him, though, because what he said was true—I had only been married two years, and I was the one who asked for the divorce.

My dad, with his dry sense of humor, claimed he had bought a billboard on I-94 that said, “I am still paying for the god damn wedding, and she is already divorced.” He told me I had made my bed, so….

There I was, stuck in Virginia with no family support. I felt I was being punished for breaking the rules.

I didn’t go home that Thanksgiving or Christmas, and by the new year, I was in a deep depression.

In February, my older brother cleared the way for me to come home for a weekend, and I jumped at the chance.

Frosty is how I described my dad toward me. He allowed me to enter his house, but he was unhappy about it. I was mystified by his anger. I knew he was disappointed about my not staying married, but this seemed so extreme.

When I got on the plane to fly back to Virginia, I was even deeper in despair. I remember thinking, “I hope my seatmate does not ask me who I am because I don’t even know my name anymore.” Then I started to cry.

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Fifty years later and just days before my mother died, she told me that after he left Virginia, my ex-husband had come to talk to my dad. She did not know what was said, but I could imagine because I knew that my ex-husband had dished dirt about me to our friends.

Suddenly, my dad’s anger from fifty years ago made sense. He had believed whatever lies my ex had told him; he had thought the worst about me.

I was furious because I knew that my ex had not told him the whole story, he had blamed me and not admitted his part in the breakdown of our marriage.

I realized I had been keeping a secret, too—the secret of what my husband had done to me.

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Shh, it’s a secret

Just days before my mother died last year, she revealed a secret to me, a secret she had kept for almost fifty years, a secret that flipped a light switch in my brain. Suddenly, I could look at events from fifty years ago and see them in a different light.

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The clarity was almost blinding, and I wanted to explore the implications of what I had learned, but my mother was dying, and I needed to pay attention to what was happening right in front of me instead of examining events from the past. So, I tucked her secret away.

And then one day last fall, her secret came rushing back to me like a tidal wave.

I was overwhelmed with a truth I had never even considered, a truth that explained my father’s attitude toward me after I got divorced. I realized that my life could have gone in an entirely different direction had I known then what my mother had revealed before her death.

I was hurt and angry.

Moreover, my mother’s secret dislodged a secret that I had been keeping for more than fifty years, a secret I was not consciously aware I was keeping.

Suddenly, disparate pieces of my early twenties fell into place like cogs on a gear. I had great clarity about my early life and things that had happened to me that had shaped the rest of my life.

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At family gatherings, my younger brother liked to point to my mother and then to me and say, “Tree, apple.”

My mother was great at denial and at keeping secrets. She denied anything bad that happened to her and would not risk disclosing an unattractive (or downright ugly) truth about someone, in case it might be embarrassing (or possibly illegal). She protected people who were not worthy of protection, and she taught me to do the same.

Like my mother, I am a great secret keeper, a steel trap for people’s confidences, and I have held sacred the secrets people have shared with me over the years.

What I know about secrets, though, is that the shame attached to them can turn something innocent into something sinister, and I know how shame can paralyze.  

A few years ago, when I finally said the name of the man who raped me, I realized I had been protecting him by not saying his name; I was keeping it secret.

Saying his name—revealing the secret—broke the power of shame over me.

Back to the tree…apple scenario.

I have spent my adult life trying to unlearn my mother’s lessons, trying to be more honest and forthcoming. I have gone to ACOA meetings and worked the steps. I know that we are only as sick as our secrets, and I have tried to live transparently, without secrets.

And yet now I am faced with two new secrets from my past.

But those events are no longer buried, and I have begun talking about what happened to me.

A mother’s love

My mother died in June. She was ninety-five years old and died at home—her one wish—after only two days in bed. She had an indomitable spirit.

A friend recently asked if I ever wished for the kind of mother I needed. She knew the complicated relationship I had with my mother and of my years in therapy to overcome my low self-esteem and body dysmorphia.

This friend asked if I ever wished for a mother who would have given me what I would have needed to live a healthier life?

The truth is that God gave me that mother in the form of my friend, Dorothy. We met after I graduated from college and started teaching Sunday school at Dorothy’s church—two of her teen-aged children were in my class.

Our friendship seemed unlikely to me because Dorothy was a proper Southern lady who lived temperately, while I was still in my wild times, trying to find my way in life. We met just a few years after I had been sexually assaulted, and I was still healing from that experience. In that healing process, issues from my childhood had come to light, revealing the depth of my wounds.

Even though I was in intensive therapy, I was still living out of my pain and trying to figure out a path forward.

Dorothy entered my life at the exact moment when I was open to see how a mother could be.

At first, she did not know my mother-history or my self-esteem issues. She only knew what her children told her, and they thought highly of me because I invited them to engage in conversations about their faith. They thought it was amazing that I allowed them to share without censure or judgment, that I gave them space to explore who God was for them at that time in their lives, to question church teachings, to wonder about their faith and to challenge the status quo.

From them, Dorothy learned that I was a good teacher who listened to them and valued their opinions.

As our friendship grew and Dorothy came to understand how damaged my self-image was, she acknowledged what I believed about myself, and then she gently painted a different picture—the image she saw of me. Dorothy affirmed and encouraged me; she did not criticize me or judge me.

Over time, my relationship with Dorothy helped me gain perspective and understanding on my relationship with my mom. Dorothy showed me a mother’s love in a way my own mom was not able to do.

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Knowing how complicated and conflicted my relationship was with my mom, Dorothy often commented on how lucky my mom was to have my help in her last years. I don’t know that Dorothy realized that it was her love that had healed what was broken in my mother relationship and made it possible for me to care for my mom at the end of her life. I was twice blessed.

Being healed

Do you want to be healed? Jesus asked the man sitting near the pool (John 5:5-15).

Reading that passage, I thought, “What kind of question is that?” Who doesn’t want to be healed?

Can you imagine someone asking you if you want to be healed and you would say, “Hmm, let me think about that.” Rather, I think most of us would answer without hesitation, “Yes, I want to be healed.”

So why does Jesus ask that question?

Perhaps because we may want to be healed in theory, but in reality, we get some benefit from being unhealed. Maybe it is sympathy for our suffering or a familiarity and comfort in our identity as one who suffers. Perhaps it is just that we don’t even know that we are holding onto something that needs healing, let alone how to let go and be healed.

The answer to Jesus’ question might often be a “Yes, but…”

Yes, I want to be healed, but I also want to hold onto some of the identity associated with what ails me, to stick with what feels comfortable.

Yes, I want to be healed, but I do not want let go of all of my anger, resentments and fears.

All kinds of things can cripple us or bind us—old hurts, low self-esteem, insecurity, grief—things we need to work on or through.

That work can be challenging, and the changes might not be evident for a long time. Not every healing happens the immediate way it did with Jesus.

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I have wounds that go way back to my childhood—and then additional wounds on top of those. Some are more traumatic than others, and some have been healed just as new hurts occurred. It seems to me that healing is the work of a lifetime.

Jesus desires that we be healed. He showed that many times throughout the Gospels, from healing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (Luke 4:38-41) to the paralyzed man lowered through the roof (Luke 5:17-20) to the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years (Mark 5:25-29). He healed people of all ages and from different backgrounds. He brought Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:22-42) and Lazarus (John 11:1-44) back from the dead.

He wants us to be healed and live full lives. He wants us to leap up like the man healed by Peter in Acts 3 so that we, too, are “jumping and praising God.”

Oh such joy! Who wouldn’t want that?

Maybe Jesus would ask follow-up questions like, What is stopping you from receiving healing love? What is blocking the path to living more joyfully? What is one thing you can let go of that will make you freer to give and receive forgiveness?

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I have been thinking a lot lately about seeing people as God sees them, and I believe God sees each of us as our best self, and God’s desire is that we grow into that image, to become the person that God created us to be.

Should I stay or should I go?

A reflection in my daily prayer book on Mark 1:18 (“Then they abandoned their nets and followed him,”) pointed out how Jesus called some people to leave everything behind and follow him. But at other times, Jesus turns people away, telling them instead to stay where they are and show themselves to the priests (Mark 1:44).

As I pondered these scriptures and Jesus’ invitations, the words from Should I Stay or Should I Go? by The Clash popped into my mind and cycled there all day.

The invitation of Mark 1:18 has always resonated with me—that idea of dropping everything and following Jesus somewhere else. If I put pushpins on a map and tied a string to indicate dates and places I have lived, it would look like this:

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Ok, maybe not that bad, but my resume was once described as a “patchwork quilt.” I took it as a compliment (because I love patchwork quilts) but I am not sure the interviewer meant it that way. Going has been my default setting.

The more I reflected on Mark 1:44, I realized two things:

One is that for most of my life, I found it easier to abandon my nets and leave, rather than risk staying and showing that I had been healed. I didn’t trust my own healing (I’d been known to backslide) nor those to whom I might have said, “Look, I am better.” After people had seen me at my worst, how could they believe I had been healed and was changed?

The second is that I didn’t see a way to show my healing—no council of priests who would check out my story and declare me “clean.” Most of the people Jesus healed showed a marked, physical difference—leprosy and then no leprosy; mute and then speaking; blind and then seeing, etc.

The woman who touched Jesus’ hem and her bleeding stopped (Mark 5:29) is one story where the malady was unseen but even she was probably physically different after she was healed.

All of this led me to reflect on my own healing, which was not a one-and-done event but has been a life-long journey. The healing Jesus performed on me wasn’t physical; I still look pretty much as I always have (except now with gray hair and wrinkles). The healing in me is internal, a healing of my heart, mind and soul. So how do I show that healing?

Someone recently suggested that I could become a “survivor speaker” with our local domestic abuse shelter and tell my story of overcoming the trauma of sexual assault.

I signed up.

I want to share the good news that healing from trauma is possible; that life can be good; and that no matter the difficulties/abuse/trauma one has endured, there is still hope of healing. I am fortunate to have a wonderful support system, people who believe in my healing, and I am deeply grateful.

After years of going, I am now staying and showing myself.  

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