Forgiveness: Defining and Deciding

Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Incest

When victims of violence, particularly sexual violence, are on their healing journeys, the topic of forgiveness often comes up– and it can be a very touchy subject.

Forgiveness means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some, it means the total absolution of any wrongdoing on the part of the person who hurt them. For some, it goes so far as reconciliation with one’s assailant. For some, it has absolutely nothing to do with the other person, and it’s solely focused on the victim; forgiveness simply means letting go of the guilt, shame, pain and other feelings associated with the trauma. For some forgiveness simply means moving on. I know a lot of people who have been told, to their detriment, that they cannot “move past” their trauma until they “forgive.” Most of these comments come from people of a religious persuasion. Don’t get me wrong, I am a woman of deep faith and forgiveness has been part of my healing journey. However, I do not believe that it needs to be part of everyone’s journey, or that it is necessary in order for someone to heal and move past their trauma. Deciding whether or not to approach forgiveness is a very personal choice, and no one should be forced into it based on other people’s beliefs.

For me, forgiveness was definitely a spiritual process, and one that had nothing really to do with my father or other perpetrators. It had everything to do with me and my own healing. And I never really made a conscious decision to approach this; it honestly felt more like God led me down this path and I had to try to keep up.

It began with praying. I began praying for my father, for the man that raped me when I was sixteen, for all the people who had hurt me. I wasn’t ready to pray for anything good for them, so I started out praying for one thing only: that I would be their last victim. That they would never hurt anyone else.

It was a start.

After a while I was able to pray that their hearts would be turned to Christ and they would repent of their actions. I prayed that Jesus would forgive them (because I wouldn’t.)

Things really began to shift in June of 2016. When the shootings occurred in that Orlando nightclub, my priest Beth+ preached an incredible sermon. She said that it’s easy for us to be Christ-like towards the victims of mass shootings like this. It’s easy for us to be Christ-like to the families. It is not easy to be Christ-like, to love as we love ourselves, the perpetrators of these mass shootings. But what if, at some point in their lives, someone had been Christ-like towards them? Someone had loved them, helped them, supported them, taught them, the way Christ did? Would these events have occurred then?

As Beth+ was asking these questions, I found myself sobbing in the pew. At first I didn’t know why I was crying and then I realized: I was feeling empathy. Empathy for my perpetrators. For my father. For the man who raped me. For all of them. Because somewhere in their lives, they had been broken. They had been lost. Somewhere in their lives, they became gripped by sin and death. How horrible a life they must have led, to have ended up people that would commit such evil acts. How much pain they must be in.

And I didn’t know what in the hell to do with that.

I was terribly confused by this feeling of empathy. Normally, I would have gone to Katie+, the priest I had been seeing for pastoral counseling on and off for the past two years. However, she had just left for a new parish, and I was kind of feeling at loose ends. God works, though, because a priest from our sister church came to visit St. Mary’s in Katie’s+ absence. And just a few weeks later, when these feelings arose, I called on him.

Now, why did I call on a virtual stranger to help me with this? Um…good question. I still have very little information on that. All I know is that I felt God nudging me. So I heeded that, and tried not to wonder about it too much.

Going to him turned out to be an excellent decision. Through a few months of counseling with him I managed to do a huge amount of spiritual work, not just around my father, but around my grief over my infertility and my trauma in general. I accepted things that I had never accepted before, certain memories I had kept secret, even from myself; shoved into a back corner, unacknowledged, deemed unnecessary to my narrative. What I discovered is that it’s those unacknowledged things that end up controlling the narrative until you give them exposure, and dispel the shame.

As for the forgiveness part, what I had to do was really develop not only empathy, but compassion. First, compassion for myself. For myself as a child, as a teenager, for everything I endured and everything I did to survive what I endured. I completely forgave myself for everything I did to survive, everyone I hurt or lied to during my eating disorders, my self-harm, my drug abuse. I recognized the fact that those things wouldn’t have even existed had it not been for the trauma. I take responsibility for my actions, but I refuse to blame myself for developing those conditions.

Then, I developed compassion for my perpetrators, especially my father. I had to find the reasons why he did what he did. I’ll never understand (who can?) but I can gain enough insight to feel compassion. My father was also abused as a child. He was sexually abused by his mother, and physically and verbally abused by his father. He had mental illnesses, clinically diagnosed with bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder (aka sociopathy), and substance abuse. (Please note: none of these things are excuses for his behavior, and it is highly unusual for victims of sexual abuse to become perpetrators themselves, or for people with mental illness to become violent.) Even his own history of abuse and mental illness did not explain to me what he did though. Because I can’t quite explain it, but what I saw in his eyes when his face was above mine and he was sexually assaulting me, his own daughter, was evil. Just evil.

I don’t really believe in Satan, as in the cloven-hooved personification of evil who lives in hell, etc. But I do believe in evil as an entity itself, because I have seen it. I saw it in my father: in his dead soulless eyes, in his voice as he growled unrepeatably cruel and disgusting words in my ear, as he did unspeakably violent and dehumanizing things to my little girl body. I experienced evil in a way that no one should ever experience it, up close and extremely personal. And I carried with me a fear I didn’t even know until the priest I was working with said it out loud to me: that this evil was somehow inherent to him, and because I was his daughter, it was somehow inherent in me too.

What I eventually discovered as invited God into these traumas is that, unlike I had previously thought, He was always there, protecting me. Not in the ways I imagined, but He was there. He protected my mind and my spirit. He kept me sane and kept my soul from being touched by the evil inches away from me. He sheltered those parts of me until I was out from under that tyranny, and it was safe for them to come out again.

I also eventually discovered something else, that was maybe the most important thing in the whole process: that I had to stop mythologizing my father. I had always called him things like monster, viper, etc. But he wasn’t. He was simply a man. A human being, weakened by abuse, illness, and a lack of any spiritual beliefs or morality or conscience, which left him vulnerable to the evil entity that took over. When I saw him like that– as a  weak, pathetic person overcome by evil– I had compassion. I had compassion for the little boy that was abused, and the man who suffered from mental illness, who had no one to teach him about God or bring him to Christ. And when that happened, all my shame, guilt, and anger fell away.

When this happened, my priest said something revolutionary to me: “You now know that this evil was not inherent to your father. So it’s not inherent to you. So now you can stop hating and fearing yourself for being your father’s daughter.”

Whoa.

He also told me this: “You faced down a demon as a child. One who looked you in the eye and told you you were unlovable, unworthy even to live. And you survived and grew into a place where you know you are loved and worthy. That makes you a total badass.”

He said a lot of cool stuff.

When my priest and I ended our time in counseling, I wrote down all of the terrible things I wanted to give to God, as well as all of the things I wanted for my future, on magician’s flash paper, and burned them on the Paschal candle in the nave. Then he anointed me for healing.

I can’t say that I have never struggled since then, because I still do. What I will say is that going through the process of finding empathy, compassion, and ultimately what my personal definition of forgiveness is for my father (end everyone else, though I didn’t focus on my process with them) was a giant step in my healing and finding peace and acceptance with what happened. And I will also say that it changed the tenor of my struggle; when my PTSD does flare up, it feels less chaotic, less out-of-control frightening than it used to. Maybe because I know that no matter what, I am anchored in God, in hope. I have a peace that passes understanding in Christ Jesus and all things are possible through Him who gives me strength. So though I struggle, I am held.

This is the story of my process, and my process only. I hope it is helpful to someone in explaining how a victim might end up forgiving, because there have been some that have said to me that they can’t understand how I could. This is how. Maybe it will show other victims that it’s possible. I just want every victim to approach the idea of forgiveness carefully and thoughtfully, and with support. Because it may be helpful, or it may not be. It’s totally up to you.

 

But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven.

Luke 6:27, 36-37

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39

How Did Survivor Take the Title?

Recently I was watching a rerun of Law & Order: SVU and I saw a “rape advocate” actively discourage the police from using the term victim to refer to a woman who had been raped. She emphatically insisted that the word survivor be used instead— as if victim was a curse. This whole scene struck me as odd and raised a question in my mind: When did victim become a dirty word?

As a person who has healing from years of sexual violence, I have some perspective on this. I used the term survivor for a time. For a time, I felt it fit where I was in my process. I think that’s because that’s all I was doing— surviving. I was suffering from a severe eating disorder, cutting myself, and abusing pills. I did those things to help me through the PTSD, through the grueling work I was doing in therapy surrounding the rape and sexual abuse. Through this work, I became stronger. Those self-destructive behaviors abated. At a certain point I was strong enough to understand something that I hadn’t before: that I was, in fact, a victim. Holding on to the identity of survivor had been a defense mechanism. As long as I was a survivor, I could hang onto the idea that I had some control or power during the sexual violence committed against me. I could hold onto the thought that I might have been able to change something, to do something to stop the perpetrators, to have told someone what was happening. Those thoughts kept me believing in some corner of my mind that I had been partially responsible. It was not until I understood that I was a victim— that I had, in fact, been completely powerless and had all control taken away— that I understood that it was truly not my fault. It wasn’t until I understood my victimization that I let go of the illusion that I could have changed anything, stopped the perpetrators, fought any harder. Because the truth is this: I was a child. Children can neither consent to sexual acts nor prevent adults who are determined to commit them against them. Children are always victims. The last time I was raped was by a stranger when I was sixteen; I was not responsible then either. I did not ask to be raped. I did not consent. The fact that I laid there without physically fighting him is not the same as consent, which I used to believe. I was a victim.

I believe the way we use to word victim right now has become extremely detrimental to those trying to recover from sexual violence. It’s treated a lesser status, something ugly one needs to get past on the way to reaching survivor status. We say victim as if it equates with weakness: only people who are weak can be victimized, while the strong survive. It seems there’s a stigma around the word victim and people shy away from using it because in our culture it connotes frailty, helplessness, shame. I propose that the word victim connotes having suffered an attack or trauma through no fault of one’s own. And one can be a victim or have been victimized and still be empowered, still come from a place of strength to say, “This wasn’t my fault. I’m rebuilding from here.” This impulse to use the word survivor over victim moves us away from the essential truth that in that moment of the trauma the person was powerless, was helpless. And we don’t like to think about that. Because if we know someone to whom that happened, then we ourselves are vulnerable to becoming victims of violence. And that terrifies us.

So why do we need a special status post-sexual violence? Why is this crime different? We don’t hear about people being “robbery survivors” or “car-jacking survivors.” People who experience other crimes have no problem calling themselves victims. Why is sexual violence different?

Obviously, it is different. The way sexual violence is treated as a crime in this country is unavoidably divergent. Sexual violence is less reported, less prosecuted, and has a lower conviction rate than any other crime. More than two-thirds of sexual assaults go unreported, and ninety-seven percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail. There’s a shame and a stigma surrounding sexual violence that keep those numbers in a holding pattern, preventing people from speaking up when it happens to them. There’s also rape culture, which exists not only on social media and college campuses but in the police departments, hospitals, and prosecutors’ offices that have first contact with victims of sexual violence. It is not at all an uncommon experience for a victim to be blamed and questioned in inappropriate ways by the police, to be re-traumatized by the rape-kit examination, or to be battered by a district attorney who wants to get the details of testimony perfect. With the way victims are treated in those environments— the ones that are supposed to be delivering “justice”—  it’s no wonder people choose not to report. It’s no wonder we feel like we need a new name after all of this, to distance ourselves from the horror. In some ways, I think we created the survivor moniker as a psychological barrier, a way to say look: I’m past all of that. In other ways I think we did it to distinguish sexual violence as the particular kind of trauma it is; much different than having your car or wallet stolen, rape is life-shattering betrayal. Perhaps we need the word survivor.

It’s also curious to me that we only use the word victim in the term “victim-blaming”; we never hear about someone “survivor-blaming.” Perhaps this is because, again, we associate victims with weakness, and therefore culpability. Or on the flipside, because being blamed is another way of being victimized. The way we talk about rape in this culture in general is pretty disturbing; terms like “nonconsensual sex” exist, which don’t even make sense. There’s sex and there’s rape. If sex is nonconsensual, it’s rape. I’m not sure where the confusion is with that. The media is one of the worst entities with this, still using words like “seduced” in items about sexual assault. We have a long way to go.

Language is powerful. Choosing how to refer to oneself after experiencing sexual violence is a personal decision, and it can change as the person goes through their healing process. For me, saying I am a survivor keeps it in the present as opposed to saying I was a victim, which puts it in the past. I was a victim. I’m not anymore. I don’t want the title of survivor because it keeps me tied to those experiences. They are part of my story but they are not the whole story. They’re part of who I am but they are not who I am. I am so, so much more than this. So is everyone who has lived through sexual violence, no matter how they choose to say it.

For more sexual assault statistics or to get help with issues surrounding sexual assault, please visit the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network or call 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)

 

She is clothed with strength and dignity,

and she laughs without fear of the future.

Proverbs 31:25

 

For Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention Month

 

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This is a photo of me, age four. Because April is both Child Abuse Awareness and Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, I want to take a minute and have you put yourself into this precious little girl’s story. At four years old she was being molested and sometimes raped by her father on a nearly nightly basis. She was being hit, choked, shoved. She was being threatened and abused with guns and knives. She was being called names like, “whore,” “slut,” and, “bitch” even though she didn’t know what those words meant. She was told that if she tried to tell someone what was happening, no one would believe her. That her father, her abuser, would kill her mother and her sister and her cats. He had weapons, after all. She believed him.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of what went on in that house, of what happened to that child. And you’d never have known it, because every day, though she vomited each morning before school, she pasted a smiled on her face and made sure that the only word that came out of her mouth when anyone asked her how things were was, “fine.”

I am lucky to have survived that life. I am blessed to be healing and recovering. Not every abused child is so fortunate, and there are children experiencing what I did and more every. Single. Day. You never know what goes on behind closed doors, even those of a “good” family. Please help me to stop the suffering of child sexual abuse by visiting the following websites. Thank you.

Darkness to Light

Erin’s Law

National Sexual Violence Resource Center: Child Sexual Assault Prevention

Introduction

This blog is simply a place for me to expound on topics that are too long for Facebook posts, and maybe for some of my poetry. I am a woman on a journey of faith, healing, discovery, and recovery. Currently I am in school, seeking my Associate’s of Science. I plan to use that as a bridge to finish my Bachelor’s of Nursing at the University of Texas Health Science Center (if I’m lucky enough to get in!) Ultimately, though, I feel called to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. What that looks like yet, I don’t know. My feeling is the priesthood, but it could be something else. Once my Bachelor’s is complete, I will apply to seminary.  Right now, I’m simply in prayer and discernment, taking things one step at a time. I have plenty of time and wonderful clerical guidance in my life to discern God’s plan for my place in the church, if indeed that is where He wants me.

I currently serve on several ministries at my home church, St. Mary’s, including Eucharistic minister, worship leader, and arranging altar flowers. I recently completed my postulancy to become a member of the order of the Daughters of the King. When I say this is my home church, I mean that in the truest sense of the word. There is nowhere in the world that I feel more comfortable or safe than the nave at St. Mary’s. The people there are my family. I feel loved, cherished, needed, and wanted there. Through the pastoral counseling I received there I’ve found so much healing, hope, compassion, and peace.

Despite all of the healing I’ve done, I still struggle with many things. Most of my issues now are with grief. I grew up in violence and chaos. I was physically, verbally, and emotionally abused, and sexually tortured. I am a child of domestic violence, a victim of rape and incest. Most of these things were committed by my father. I was also raped again as a teenager by a stranger, sexually harassed by my gymnastics coach and a college professor, nearly date-raped by a guy, and sexually assaulted by another college professor. Classic re-victimization; it happens. I had a major surgical trauma at 23, when I developed a rare pneumonia and was forced to have my chest cracked open to have part of my lung removed. I briefly coded on the table during surgery (read: died for minute) and was in a coma for several days. It took me nearly a year to fully heal from that surgery. I have some trauma from several car wrecks, as well as the sudden death of my young cousin, Tyler. Basically, I’m a walking case of Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

Along with those things, I have struggled and nearly died a few times from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, bipolar disorder, and self-harm (cutting myself mostly, hitting myself with blunt objects, at times until I broke bones, and rarely burning myself). I’ve had some issues with prescription pills at times.

You would, too.

I’m thirty three now, and I’ve been in therapy since I was fifteen. Basically, I’ve spent the second two thirds of my life trying to recover from the first. At the present I am also dealing with chronic illness: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Celiac disease, inflammatory arthritis, fibromyalgia, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and a number of gastrointestinal issues that need not be detailed. (To be noted: there has been resent research into the link between childhood trauma and the development of autoimmune disease later in life “Childhood trauma leads to lifelong chronic illness”). Last year, I found out that I am infertile, and unable to have my own biological children. (That has been brutal.) I take about twenty pills each day, which keep me stable, but have a number of really not-fun side effects.

So what’s the upshot of all of this? It sounds like a lot, right? It is. The only way I can claim any sanity in it all is God. I give all credit to Him. I am not just saved by Jesus through the waters of Baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Cross. Jesus saves me every day, in little ways, when I don’t have the strength to cope, to get out of bed, to tolerate the pain, the fatigue, the grief, the stress.  Jesus saves me. He gives me a peace that passes understanding. He sends me rescuers in the form of family, friends, my beautiful little Godson, trashy novels, Netflix binges, my cat Sophie, white chocolate mochas, thunderstorms or perfect sunny days, poetry and prayer, my church, my clergy, and scripture. He resurrects me from the ashes and reminds me that I am more than what was done to me, more than my failing health, more than the scars that cover my body.

Jesus had scars, too. And they were reminders, not just of the wounds inflicted, but of victory over the pain and death. I like to see my scars that way, too.

Thank you for joining me on this journey. At times it may be difficult, but I hope you see what I see: the beauty from the ashes.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me

because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
     and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
    that have been devastated for generations…
 Instead of your shame

    you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
    you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
    and everlasting joy will be yours.

 “For I, the Lord, love justice;
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
    and make an everlasting covenant with them…

I delight greatly in the Lord;
    my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation.

Isaiah 61