Tag Archives: abuse

More than enough

During my morning prayer on Christmas day, I asked, what is being birthed in me? Where is God inviting me to grow? In what ways am I being called to live more fully alive?

I went through a list of new projects I am pondering for the future or already working on, of my dreams to visit distant friends and my hopes to travel in Europe for an extended time. I thought about my writing and considered attending a workshop on writing a memoir.

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As I let these ideas play out in my imagination, though, another thought popped into my head: Heal your need to please others.  

What? Is this the secret to my being able to live more fully? To give greater glory to God? Do I need to move past my fear of disappointing people and my need to please in order to give birth to my true calling?

Ugh, I sighed. It is so much easier to work on external projects than to deal with my old nemesis, that voice inside my head that tells me that I am bound to disappoint people, that I am not enough and that whatever I do is not enough.

It is a message I heard from early childhood through my teens, this idea that I am not enough. For many years, I have worked on erasing that message and replacing it with more affirming words, reassuring phrases that shift parenting from my mom to God or to my adult self, changing the messages in my head to ones that remind me that I am not only enough, but that I am more than enough—I am plenty.

But every once in a while, my you-are-not-enough button gets pushed. It happened just before Christmas when two people made demands on me that I could not meet.

Their needs were real, but I was already taxed by other responsibilities and could not do what they asked of me.

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My internal critic spoke up, telling me that I was not enough, because if I were enough, I would be able to do what these people want.

I was in a snit all day and night, feeling guilty and angry. The next day, after talking it out with a friend, I got a different perspective.

That is the thing about those old messages—they are powerful and can take control in a blink of an eye.

Maybe it is time to tape up affirmations around my house and read them multiple times a day to remind myself that I am enough. Things like:

I am good enough.

I am loved.

I respect myself.

I honor my own needs and desires.

And perhaps it is time to return to Scripture passages that affirm that I am precious to God, that remind me that I am wonderfully made (Psalm 139) and a royal diadem (Isaiah 62:3).

Maybe I need to create a screen saver that says, I am an exquisite gem, and God delights in me.

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The path to gratitude

At the end of my talk on gratitude at a women’s retreat, one of the retreatants ask, Did you grow up in a house full of love, where you never wanted for anything? Is that why you can be so grateful?

My spiritual director, who had invited me to speak and was sitting in the back row, laughed out loud, because she knew my backstory.

I grew up in a house that was chaotic. I was an anxious, fearful child. Any glimmerings of self-confidence were swiftly smashed by reminders of how useless I was, incapable of correctly performing even the most mundane tasks. Everything I did was an opportunity for criticism, and nothing I did was good enough. My take-away was that I was not good enough.

So how did I become so grateful? How could I grow up believing that I had nothing to offer and expecting very little from life—and still be full of gratitude for what life brings me?

It is a mystery.

I don’t know why some people face difficulties and come through them strengthened, while others are so broken that they despair, or how it is that I can hold onto hope no matter what challenges life brings.

The grace of God is my usual answer when asked how I can be so grateful. It is the only response that makes sense to me.

From a young age, I believe God has been inviting me to focus on gratitude, hope and forgiveness—and giving me the grace to be open. Even when it seemed I had nothing to hold onto, I could look at Jesus, hear his words, and see a glimmer of light and the potential for goodness.

The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) shows me how forgiving God is, and Matthew 18:21-22 tells me how forgiving I am to be. How many times must I forgive? Seventy times seven.

God’s forgiveness is unlimited, and I am called to imitate God in forgiving—both myself and anyone who has harmed me.

When I have been hurt and am holding onto anger, I remind myself that my unwillingness to forgive is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. I tell myself that whoever has hurt me has probably forgotten it and moved on, and that the time and energy I invest in holding onto anger and resentment does nothing to anyone else, but can destroy me—I am feeding myself poison, and I am the one who will suffer.

As difficult as it may be, it seems to me that forgiveness is a necessary step toward gratitude. Holding a grudge, blaming and seeking revenge are not the path to gratitude; forgiveness and letting go lead to compassion, gratitude and peace.

Forgiveness is a process, and I often become aware of old wounds that reappear, needing deeper forgiveness and more letting go. Forgiveness is not a one-and-done proposition.

How are you doing with forgiveness? Can you let go of old hurts?

Backstory

I am the same person I was

before you knew my backstory,

when you thought of me as fun-loving and free,

the woman who danced with abandon and

lived with passion,

the person who loved a challenge and

stayed with a problem until it was solved.

Now you know my history,

my brokenness,

my trauma.

It was never a secret,

just hidden in plain sight.

I am the same person I was,

but now that you know more of my story

how do you see me?

Unspoken

I put an empty glass jar on my kitchen table,

like the cuss jar we used to have at work.

Every time someone swore,

she put a quarter into the jar, and

on Friday, we used the money for donuts.

Instead of paying when I cuss, though,

I pay when I refuse to speak out,

when I swallow the words

forming inside me

in reaction to what someone said or did

or events in the day’s news.

Words that question,

challenge,

contradict.

Words that would tell my side of the story.

Instead of quarters,

I put a pebble in the jar

each time I keep silent,

afraid to voice my thoughts,

fearful of being told to keep my opinions to myself,

to just shut up.

Soon the jar fills with rocks, and

my throat fills with unspoken words,

choking me.           

When there is room for no more stones,

I shatter the jar and let the pebbles roll out,

spilling out onto the world my unspoken pain.

Unpacking the shadow side

One of my earliest memories is from a day when I was four years old and I found a dime in my back yard. A dime in those days was a lot of money; it could buy ten pieces of candy. In my excitement, I shouted my good news, at which point my older brother claimed the dime was his.

I probably chanted, “Finders keepers; losers weepers,” which was something we said to proclaim ownership of found items.

My brother was not easily dissuaded when he wanted something, though, and he came toward me to grab the dime, claiming, “Its mine.” And so I swallowed it. Yep, I just swallowed the dime to make sure my brother could not get it and I could keep it. (Not the smartest move, perhaps, but I was four.)

Twenty-four years later, I was in therapy, and when asked for my earliest memory, I shared this story.

My therapist said, “And you have been swallowing every painful incident ever since.”

What?

His response was unexpected. I thought I had just been sharing an early memory. I had no idea of the significance of that encounter with my brother and the dime, but I could see that it was true.

Every bad thing that had happened to me had been submerged deep inside me, swallowed like the dime, to stop the pain of whatever painful thing was happening.

At twenty-eight, this was my first experience with therapy, and I had not previously examined much from my past, the relationships and events that had shaped me.

We did not go in for therapy in my family, preferring to believe that no one needed help or had any issues. Therapy was for sissies or “crazy” people, and we could be neither. We just kept moving forward, and my way of moving forward was to swallow everything bad in my life.

I suppose all this has resurfaced now because I have been thinking about resiliency and how resiliency has helped me survive the traumatic events of my life.

From therapy, I learned about what Carl Jung called our shadow side, that place inside where I had shoved every painful experience. At twenty-eight, I started to unpack that overstuffed bag, to look at what was there, and to see what I could learn from those experiences that could help me more forward with my life in a healthier way.

Even though my way of coping as a child was not particularly effective for mental health, it was effective for survival. And when I began to unpack what was stored in the darkness, I began to see myself as a survivor and to understand how all those events had shaped me into the person I had become.

Once I brought each event from my past into the light, I could see the lessons I had learned—how they taught me to be more understanding of what others had experienced and more accepting, and how they had made me more resilient.

Speak up

How could I tell my mother

the things I saw and heard and felt?

What words could I use to

convince her I was telling the truth

and not making up a story?

You always exaggerate, she would say.

Stop lying.

Stop saying those things.

Why would I lie?

Why would I make up stories?

What kind of imagination would dream up

men who hurt girls?

I tried to speak up and

learned to keep silent.

Praying for courage

Rachel Mankowitz is a blogger and author who inspires me. Rachel openly shares her history, current struggles and vulnerabilities. I faithfully read her blog, and I have read her book, Yeshiva Girl, a story that gave me insight into growing up in a religious Jewish household and also challenged some of my preconceived ideas about Jewish people (Before reading her book, I did not know that I believed Jewish men did not abuse children, but as I read Yeshiva Girl, that fact kept catching me. “Oh yeah,” I would think, “Jewish men abuse, too.” It sounds naïve, I know, but there it is.).

Anyway, Rachel’s bravery inspired me to pray for courage. “I want to be like Rachel,” I would often say to myself after reading something she wrote. And then I would pray, “God, give me courage.” Rachel might demur, but in my opinion, she is one of the bravest women I have ever known.

I want to be less concerned about protecting others and more able to just speak my truth and share my experiences. I had learned from reading Rachel that her honesty helped me, and if I could speak honestly, maybe I could help someone else (and help myself in the process to heal from the shame of what happened to me).

When I last spoke with my spiritual director and told her some of the things that had been happening in my life, she asked, “Have you been asking for something? Maybe courage?” I told her I had been, and then I could see what she saw.

Over the past few weeks, I had begun to speak up and to speak out. The stories I was telling my spiritual director were examples of me being courageous. God had answered my prayer.

I am feeling less fearful and less protective of those who have done something harmful. Let the chips fall… is what I have begun to think.

New clichés are replacing the old messages I used to tell myself that left me powerless and paralyzed. It is utterly freeing to speak of my past without fear of judgment or recrimination.

Some topics don’t come up in polite conversation, I used to tell myself as a reason I never told anyone my abuse history. Now, I just bring them up.

When I was twenty-seven, I was raped, I said to my neighbor as we walked in the park yesterday. Was she shocked? Maybe. But I had to impart that knowledge to explain why I had contacted the local domestic abuse organization to volunteer for their Survivor Speaker’s Bureau. In the past, I would have said nothing. Truthfully, in the past I would not have contacted the organization at all but would have kept my history to myself.

All my life experiences have shaped me and made me who I am today. I want to shed all shame and walk freely into the future. Thanks, Rachel, for being so brave and inspiring me to pray for courage.

Misplaced loyalty

When we were in our mid-thirties, my cousin wrote me and asked if we could get together for dinner the next time I came home for a visit.

We grew up more like sisters than cousins, and as children, she knew me better than anyone else.

Her request to meet seemed a bit odd, though, because we had drifted apart after high school.

Now she was in therapy and had some questions for me. Her childhood memories were fuzzy and had some blank spaces; she hoped I would be able to bring clarity to her murkiness and fill in some of the blanks.

At dinner, she asked about one of our uncles. I shuddered.

“If we had known of ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch,’” she said, “he would have been a bad-touch uncle.” I agreed.

As far back as I could remember, I had tried to avoid this uncle, who liked to bounce me on his lap and “tickle” my still-undeveloped breasts. She confided that she, too, had learned to give him a wide berth.

Even at a young age we both knew that other adults saw anything wrong in what he did to us, and no one would stop him.

“What about us?” my cousin asked. “Why didn’t anyone protect us? Why were we left to feel shame for something he did?”

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The memory of that dinner with my cousin thirty years ago resurfaced recently.

Lately, I seem to be tuned into the secrets people keep. In novels—where more is left unsaid than shared—and television detective stories—where people withhold facts from the police—what goes unsaid has been catching my attention.

Why the hesitation? The resistance? Why not tell all? 

The answer frequently is the desire to protect someone.

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Perhaps novelists and screenwriters are emphasizing the things people don’t say as a way of pointing out how common the practice is. Perhaps they are using their craft to nudge people into greater honesty because they know how harmful secrets can be, how damaging it is to protect people who are abusing their power.

Maybe I am more aware of the destructiveness of keeping secrets and protecting people because of what is happening in my church. Those in power seem to be willing to do anything to hold onto their power, covering up egregious acts and maintaining a code of silence. Or maybe it is because of politicians and celebrities demanding loyalty or paying hush money to keep their secrets.

Other than that dinner with my cousin, I have not talked about my uncle and the impact his actions had on me.

One thing I can see clearly, though, is how this early lesson helped shape my sense of “loyalty” and my understanding of the need to protect people who have something to lose—be it their reputation, job or family.  

In the end, the truth usually comes out. And it often turns out that people already knew, or at least had an inkling, of the truth.

See my wounds

While praying with the resurrection stories this week—scripture passages I have read dozens of times, heard preached about every year and thought I knew so well—I had an “aha” moment.

The idea that Jesus’ suffering was not in vain, that his death had a redemptive quality is not new.

This year, though, the image of Jesus showing his wounds to the disciples after his resurrection took on a different meaning for me.

Recently, I have been pondering sharing more of my wounds. I have written pieces that expose parts of my story that have been long kept secret. Although I have been through years of therapy to help me get past the shame, I can still be crippled by it. Don’t tell are two words that reverberate in my mind and prevent me from full disclosure.

I admire others who get past shame and tell all and am amazed by those who seem to have escaped shame all together.

But I have not been able to shake off shame. I still cringe whenever I reveal a detail of my past, when I speak of something I have been warned not to tell.

Reading the resurrection stories this year and imagining the scene of Jesus standing with his fearful disciples sparked a new insight.

Jesus got his wounds in a shameful fashion. He was mistreated by his own religious leaders and crucified as a common criminal.

The disciples scattered rather than stand at the foot of the cross and watch the man they respected be humiliated and disgraced. He had been their leader, but now he was broken—not powerful at all, but humbly submitting to ridicule, abuse and death.  

And yet, just days later, there he was, standing in their midst and inviting them to look at his wounds.

For Jesus, they were not marks of shame, but rather signs of victory. He was proud to show the marks of his suffering.

The disciples had been cowering in a locked room when Jesus appeared and invited them to look at his wounds.

What was clearer to me this year is that if Jesus could endure humiliation and overcome shame, so could his disciples. He was inviting them (and me) to shake off shame, to convert what looked like weakness into power, to break free of the bonds that kept them in hiding, behind locked doors.

Jesus broke through their fears and invited them to spread the word that humiliating treatment did not define or limit him, but rather he converted that treatment into true freedom.

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Fear drives people to abuse power and victimize vulnerable people.

By showing his wounds as signs of triumph over the fears of others, Jesus was offering the ultimate freedom. He did not let what had happened to him to limit or define him, and he invites me to do the same.

Showing his wounds was the exclamation point on his message that fear is useless and that trust in God leads to freedom.     

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Turning loss into gain

vulnerability-God-healingMy young life was chaotic, to put it politely. I survived it, though, by creating a shield around myself. I was a living papier-mache project, and each chaotic event added a layer to my armor until my coat was so thick that it was almost impenetrable.

All along, though, God kept trying to break through my protective shield, kept trying to prevent me from walling myself in. But I was resistant. Closing myself in felt safe; opening myself up created anxiety.

During my twenties and early thirties, I came to understand the disconnect between my tough exterior and fragile interior. Good manipulators saw my weakness and took advantage; what felt to me like a true connection and perhaps even love was really exploitation.

My coat of armor was not really protecting me from further harm; it was just keeping out the healing love of God.

Through all those years, though, God did not give up on me.

In my twenties, I kept getting invitations to attend retreats and workshops where I would hear about God’s desire to love and heal me. I collected buttons with slogans like “God doesn’t make mistakes” and “God don’t make junk.”

I memorized Scripture verses that reminded me of Jesus’ desire to love and heal me. I commiserated with St. Paul and the thorn in his side. My past was always with me, a thorn in my side reminding me of my shame.

Mary Magdalene became my soul sister—if Jesus could drive seven demons from her and she could come to know herself as loveable, surely he could do the same for me. I was desperate to escape the self-loathing I felt, that certainty that I was damaged goods and good for nothing.

But after a childhood spent creating a thick protective shell, breaking it down was neither easy nor quick. Messages on buttons could not effectively undo my deeply-held belief that I was broken, unfixable and unlovable.

Over time, though, Jesus was able to break through my defenses. As a child, I had seen Jesus as another innocent victim. Every Palm Sunday, I cried out with him, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Poor Jesus; poor me.

At some point, though, the connection clicked—Jesus was an innocent victim, and he did understand my brokenness. I realized that what I had told myself was self-protection was really fear—fear of being overwhelmed by sadness or fear that what had happened to me in the past could happen again.

I came to see that unless I peeled off those layers of protective armor and touched my brokenness, I was just setting myself up to be re-victimized. I also saw that what I considered thorns were actually invitations to growth.

St. Teresa of Avila’s Prayer to Redeem Lost Time rings true for me:

While recalling the wasted years that are past, I believe that you, Lord, can in an instant turn this loss to gain.

With God, nothing is lost; everything is possible.vulnerability-God-healing