My Father’s Eye’s: A New Poem

Hello, all. I wrote this poem recently. It may be difficult to read, but that’s kind of the point. It’s meant to reflect the dissonance between the what I was taught about myself by my biological father and what I know to be true about myself through God. As always, thank you for reading!

CW: sexual assault

 

7/29/17

 

My Father’s Eyes

 

In my father’s eyes

I was a burden

Something taking money from his pocket

Food from his mouth

 

In my father’s eyes

I was a toy

If he couldn’t lose me, he’d use me

To fondle and fuck

And torture to his heart’s delight

 

In my father’s eyes

I was a whore

A little red light district to visit

I did owe him, after all

For allowing me to exist

 

In my father’s eyes

I was less than human

And I knew that

When I asked him to kill me

He refused even that kindness

 

Turn the page

Next chapter

 

Now I know he was full of lies

The truth is with my real Father

My Father in Heaven

 

In my Father’s eyes

I am beloved

I am a flawless, raw diamond

Formed out of years of darkness and oppression

 

In my Father’s eyes

I am more than a conqueror

I am His workmanship

I am holy and blameless

 

In my Father’s eyes

I am a new creation

I have a heavenly calling

I am the salt of the earth

And the light of the world

 

In my Father’s eyes

I am a daughter

I am healed

I am free

 

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2017

 

 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works,which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10

 

Ripping Down the Walls: Our Stories Are What Heal Us (Part 1)

The walls we build around us to keep out sadness, also keeps out joy

 

A couple of days ago, my BFF Deede wrote this incredible facebook post, and I asked her to let me share it here as a beginning for this post:

“How many of my friends have been to jail?
I have – and that’s a scary answer to give.
I’m not perfect, I’ve come from a rocky past and I’ve worked really hard to change my life.
There were some very low points in my life, and while I’m not proud of them, those were my choices – and I learned from them.
I’m willing to speak about those moments – to let others know they’re not alone. When we talk about these things, the walls built up around a person’s vulnerability are ripped away – and it’s scary; but that allows room for healing.

I actually love the fact that I have come from such a dark place.
I’ve turned my past into a lesson.
I’ve done a lot of self work in the past years, and one thing that has always stuck with me? How important it is to share our experience, strength and hope.

Every single person on the face of the planet has demons they have to battle.
There is no shame in battling your demons – but what if I battled the same demon you are currently fighting, and I didn’t give you my fighting tips?

It would be like holding the antidote to your poison in my pocket, and not saying anything – and I just can’t do that.”

This made me think about my own rocky past; the dark places I have been, the low points to which I’ve descended. This made me remember the poor choices I’ve made and the demons I’ve fought.

It also made me remember how hard I have worked to change my life, how I’ve turned my past into a lesson. How important it is to share our experience, strength and hope. And most of all, why I speak about these things: as Deede said, “to let others know they’re not alone. When we talk about these things, the walls built up around a person’s vulnerability are ripped away – and it’s scary; but that allows room for healing.”

Like my friend, I actually love that I’ve come from such a dark place. And like her, I believe that to keep to myself the ways that I’ve fought, survived, and healed would be, in her beautiful words, “like holding the antidote to your poison in my pocket, and not saying anything – and I just can’t do that.”

I just can’t do that.

 

To preface, you need to know that I’ve had many trials in my life. You probably know most of them. A childhood of violence: watching my mother as a battered woman, being verbally/emotionally abused and physically and sexually tortured by my father from 3-9, being sexually abused by my gymnastics coach from 8-12, being raped by a stranger at 16, nearly date raped at 19, sexually assaulted by a professor at 21. Other trauma: several serious car wrecks, a surgery at 23 where my chest was cracked open, I lost part of my lung, died in surgery, and was in a coma. Mental health issues: Bipolar, anorexia, bulimia, complex PTSD, self-harm, drug abuse, suicide attempts (several serious), executive dysfunction. Physical health issues: too numerous to name, but mainly autoimmune disease (x3), heart arrhythmia, polycystic ovarian syndrome, infertility, chronic pain and fatigue, etc, etc.

As I dispassionately type this list I realize no one should have to live with this much pain. I also realize that I did, and I am, and I’m doing ok. More than ok.

For my brothers and sisters who are suffering from trauma: I can tell you that there is hope. I can tell you that it does not have to feel like this forever. It takes being willing to forge a new relationship with your trauma in order to learn to live with it. It takes being willing to see things from new perspectives and have enormous compassion for yourself and others. It takes recognizing your own inherent worth, and really, really getting that whatever happened was not your fault. Healing is letting go of the idea that you could have done anything different, that you could have changed the outcome of your trauma. You couldn’t. You didn’t. It happened the way it happened and healing is letting it be. It is grieving your trauma: what happened, what you lost because of what happened, what should have happened, what you did to survive, what you lost because of what you did to survive. It is acknowledging your anger while knowing that you can’t live angry. It is loving yourself for being courageous enough to face this at all. It is letting go of shame, guilt, blame, and fear. Healing is remembering your trauma and feeling peace.

Tomorrow I’d like to say a word to my fellow fighters of mental illness, self-harm, and eating disorders. For now, I hope this is helpful to some of you.

 

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death,
    and burst their bonds apart.
 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wondrous works to the children of man!

Psalm 107:13-16

Revictimization: What It Is and Why It Happens

Content Warning: Sexual Violence

 

First, let’s define “revictimization”: the idea that people who have experienced sexual violence once, particularly in childhood, may be at increased risk of experiencing sexual violence again in the future.

Now, let’s look at some stats. (“CSA” here means “child sexual abuse.”):

  • Women who experienced CSA were twice as
    likely to report adult sexual victimization as
    women who did not experience CSA.
  •  Women who experienced both CSA and
    childhood physical victimization were three
    times more likely to report physical or sexual
    victimization in adulthood.
  • Women who experienced CSA were twice as
    likely to experience intimate partner physical
    victimization. However, women who experienced
    CSA were not more likely to have experienced
    sexual violence by an intimate partner in adulthood than women who had not
    experienced CSA.
  • Men who experienced CSA were almost six
    times more likely to experience adult sexual
    victimization than men who did not
    experience CSA.
  • Men who experienced both physical and sexual
    victimization in childhood were six times more
    likely to experience sexual victimization.
  • Men who experienced CSA were thirteen times
    more likely to experience adult intimate partner
    sexual victimization. Men who reported both
    CSA and physical victimization during childhood
    were 10 times more likely to report adult intimate
    partner sexual victimization

So we can see that the rates of revictimization for people who experience sexual abuse in childhood are extremely high, and crazy high for men.

I am one of those people that was victimized over and over again. First, the physical abuse, the neglect, and the psychological and sexual torture from my father was really at it’s worst from ages 3-9. From ages 8-12 I had a gymnastics coach who was your generic perv, flashing the girls, making lewd comments, borderline inappropriate touching, etc. There were rumors that he molested some girls, and a few years later he was arrested, I had to speak to a detective, a DA, it was a a mess. When I was 16, I was raped at Abilene General Hospital when a Shades of Hope counselor dropped me off there and left me alone. He was a radiology tech, and when he took me upstairs for a chest x-ray, he locked the door, got on top of me, and said, “I won’t hurt you as long as you shut up and don’t move.” I had been given a drug down in the ER, and I couldn’t move, so he raped me, and I never said a word about it until three years later. When I was 19, I was on a date, and the guy attacked me in his car. I managed to escape before he actually raped me. When I was 20, my college professor called me into his office, smashed his mouth against mine, and shoved his hands up my shirt. I didn’t even consider this sexual assault until my therapist said so ten years later. When I was 29, another professor sexually harassed me so badly that I had to report it to the dean. (The only time I’ve ever reported anything.)

I used to believe that life was an endless cycle of trauma. That, like a girl in a therapy group I was in once said, “What, do I have the words ‘FUCK ME’ stamped on my forehead?” It really feels like that. Like there is something inherently wrong with you that attracts this violence, and you believe what you’ve been told: you are a slut, a whore, worthless, just a fuckable object for men to use and abuse.

There are many theories as to why revictimization occurs, but mine is actually that the above line of thinking has a lot to do with it. When you think of yourself this way- I’m worthless, I’m nothing, etc.- that is a victim mentality. You are thinking of yourself as a victim, and you expect to be abused. You walk around with the expectation that any man could be your next rapist. Which means that you act like prey.

And guess what? Predators pick up on that.

Now, let me be clear: I am not blaming victims. What I’m describing is completely unconscious behavior, that is a conditioned response to sexual abuse/violence. You act like a victim because you’ve been a victim. You act like prey because you’ve been preyed upon. The problem is that people who want to hurt others, people who commit sexual violence, are predators. And like any predator in the wild, they hunt by scanning for and attacking weakness. They recognize people who are hypervigilant, dissociated, depressed, anxious, people who lack self-worth, carry shame, or excessive guilt. Even if the predator’s general intelligence is low, they are highly skilled in seeing through to this victim mentality and hooking into it.

Why was I raped at 16? Because that guy was a predator, and he saw easy prey. Why did my date, my professors attack me? Because they could see the ability to get to me.

It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

There are many other factors I could describe, involving neurobiology, family templates, and a bunch of other things. But for me, this is the one that sticks out. And what I noticed was that when I really found my self-worth, when began to heal in earnest, and when I stopped carrying myself like a victim; well, I haven’t been sexually attacked or harassed since.

This is about a fundamentally changing a belief system that gets embedded when you’re abused as a child. The system that tells you that you’re worthless, you’re nothing, you’re responsible for the sexual abuse, you deserve harm to come to you, and all that bullshit. When you heal, you change that belief system to reflect reality: that you are worthy of life and love, that you were innocent, you were not responsible for any of the things that were done to you, and that you deserve every good thing just like anyone else. When you really come to reality, predators don’t have a chance, because you are strong in yourself, and they don’t attack the strong.

Because of the chronic nature of the violence I encountered, I still deal with Complex PTSD today. However, I don’t worry about getting attacked anymore, outside of normal caution. Because now I believe that while I was victimized, I am not fundamentally a victim, and I do not have to live my life as one. I hope people who have suffered similar things come to understand that changing that belief system is something that’s completely withing your control. You have the power to do this. With the right support, victimhood can become a thing of the past for you. And how amazing does that sound?

 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10

 

 

 

Poems for PTSD Awareness Month

June is PTSD Awareness Month, so all throughout June I will be posting poetry I’ve written related to that topic, several in a post. I hope you find them eye-opening, informative, inspiring, and hopeful. Thank you for reading.

Content Warning: Sexual Assault/Rape, Violent Language

3/10/14

 

Try to Remember

 

She asks me to remember

And I try, reluctantly

She asks questions for which I have no answers

No answers

Not even God has satisfied the curiosity here

 

Think back

 

When the young were meant to be innocent

And the cared-for not meant to be doing the caring

What did you daydream about?

Were you allowed to dream at all?

 

When you danced and twirled like the girl in your music box

When you lived two lives side by side

How did you manage your plentiful secrets?

How did you weave your lies?

 

When you lost your body so you could lose yourself

When you turned the pain inside out

What did you grab at the end of your rope?

Who introduced the concept of hope?

 

Think back for me, she said

These things

Are still important

 

© 2014 Sarah Ann Henderson

 

2/16/14

 

And Then

 

And then

 

I am hurtled slo-mo down the rabbit hole

My brain decides down is up, safe is dangerous

I am snowblind to comfort

 

Trauma is a form of time travel

An emotional Tardis

Triggers spin me back without warning

 

And then

 

I awake to find that I’m drowning

Disappointed in my brain for falling into this trap again

Though I understand the cause

 

It takes weeks to sort out

To stem the tide of trauma

To see the signs and symptoms

To get myself in line

 

And then

 

I may have a space of “normal”

Where no triggers happen to lurk

I get used to feeling ok

 

And then

 

© 2014 Sarah Ann Henderson

 

9/1/16

 

Beyond This

 

With your hand over my face

You told me to keep my whore mouth shut

 

With a gun to my head

You told me no one would listen

 

With a knife to my throat

You reminded me that it wouldn’t matter if I talked

 

Because I was nothing

Because I was no one

And my words were worthless

 

You didn’t need weapons to terrify me into deathly silence

Just the look in your eyes was enough to do that

A black beyond black

 

Yet they gleamed when I cried

When I bled

When I begged

 

Evil enjoys cruelty for cruelty’s sake

 

Pretty soon I went quiet

Not wanting to give you the satisfaction

At that you became more violent

And I, more silent

 

Until you were essentially raping a corpse

My soul having long fled the scene

 

By the time you had sunk to torture,

I was existing in a tomb of silence

 

I kept your secret so well and so long

That I eventually kept it from myself

 

Wrapped in so many layers of terror and shame

Of guilt and disgust

Degradation and pain

This secret stayed secret

 

It took unlearning every word you ever said to me

Every lie your evil tongue spat

To unwrap those layers and speak the truth:

I never deserved any of that

 

I was an innocent child

Completely blameless

Every bit of that shame belongs to you

 

I won’t carry that now

I won’t die or stay silent

Your secret is no longer my burden

 

You called me slut, whore, worthless, unloveable

But all that is meaningless now

Because God calls me His:

Daughter, beloved

What you should have called me but chose not to

 

I’m beyond that now

Whatever evil facilitated your sadism belongs to you alone

I will not hate myself for being your child

 

And I will forgive you

Not because you deserve it

But because I do

 

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2016

 

 

 

Being In My Body: PTSD and Exercise

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Gym selfie: no makeup, no filter, no problem!

Today I went to the gym for the first time since last August. It was good. I did twenty minutes of cardio (walking on an incline on the treadmill) and some core strength exercises. I’m starting small.

Exercise is an issue for me for a number of reasons. A former eating disorder is obviously one of them. My chronic pain is another. One that I don’t really talk about, though, is my PTSD.

The way that PTSD makes exercise difficult for me is a little difficult to explain. I suppose first I have to explain something about how I survived my original trauma.

One of the most common survival mechanisms in sexual and physical abuse is called dissociation. Dissociation occurs along a spectrum, but in its most simplistic terms, it’s a way for the mind to kind of separate itself from the body during a trauma so that it’s not experiencing it. For example, a good portion of my traumatic memories are remembered not from my perspective as I was there, but as if I were viewing them from above. This is one aspect of dissociation; the sensation as if one were floating outside one’s body. Another aspect, for me, is feeling detached from my body, even now. I’d say that, in order to function with the level of pain I live with, I have to live at about 2% dissociation all the time. I keep things pretty cognitive, focus on what’s going on in my mind and keep my body an afterthought. It’s the only way I can get up and do the stuff I have to do without taking major painkillers or crying some days.

As a trauma victim, I grew up dissociating from my body. I had to, to survive. As an anorexic, I dissociated from my body in order not to feel hunger or pain as I starved and abused myself. When I cut and beat myself, I was again dissociating from my body. I avoided touch. I abused pills. I did everything I could to basically not even have a body. 

As I’ve grown and healed, I have become better friends with my body. Even so, I have a hard time feeling present in it. When I decided to start exercising again I had some significant anxiety, and when I really explored that I realized that some of it was because I didn’t want to feel my body.

Exercising means moving, feeling, existing in the physical presence of yourself. I fear doing this because when I’m in my body, I open myself up to the presence of the traumas that still live in it. Being in my body makes me aware of my physical self, the self that was beaten, raped, choked, tortured. My body holds so many memories, and when I’m really in it I’m vulnerable to feeling those things. When it comes to PTSD, body memories are really the fucking worst. It’s not seeing what happened, it’s feeling what happened; as if his hands are still on you, as if he’s still forcing himself inside you, as if you still can’t breathe, in this moment.

The worst.

In the past, I have literally tried to rid myself of even having a body through starvation and self-mutilation. I’ll never do that again, but my connection to my body is still not what I’d like it to be. I think being grounded and comfortable in your body is something you have to learn as a child. It’s something I never had the chance to learn; after all, I was only three when the sexual abuse began. When you start dissociating from yourself at that young of an age, it probably takes a lifetime to build the connections that never formed. I’m continuing to try, through therapy and energy work, and now, through physical exercise. I hope that by being more present in my body more often, I can begin to heal the disconnect that’s still the norm. I hope that I can process that trauma energy out, so I no longer have to feel like the ghosts of the past are haunting my body.

Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.

Mark 5:38

 

 

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

Joy Comes in the Mourning

Content Warning: Rape

Today was a holy day. I went to ACF (Adult Christian Formation, aka “Sunday School for Grownups”) and the discussion was incredible. The fact that our church (and our Church) deliberately takes time to wrestle with questions of faith such as, “Why did Jesus have to die?” is so wonderful to me. When we question faith in community we become seekers instead of heretics, people on journey to understanding. Rev. Beth preached a beautiful sermon about a life of abundance in Christ. I got to experience that abundance in community with this amazing group of women just afterwards at the Daughters of the King luncheon. I adore being surrounded by these women, doing what Anne Lamott says are two of the most holy activities: overeating together and creating art. After that, I had to spend some time studying chemistry, but at least I got to do it in my favorite Starbucks with my sister. And after my memory and my laptop gave out, we sat in the sun and read for awhile, just enjoying the day.

It really was a beautiful day.

Which is why it was so difficult to be having intrusive trauma-related thoughts and images flashing through my head at random times. Which is why it’s hard to feel the old impulses to self-harm, and not act on them. Which is why it’s so, so hard to explain to people how I can have such a wonderful day, and still come home exhausted and wanting to cry.

Because inside I’ve been fighting a battle that you’ll never see, and I don’t ever talk about. I could be in the middle of singing a hymn when the image of semen in my hair comes back to mind, and I feel sick. Things like that, they happen at the worst and weirdest times. Mostly, I just shake my head, shove the image away, and get on with things. But let me tell you, that takes a tremendous amount of energy. And I end up with this feeling like I need to cry, and I literally can’t. It’s strange, this duality.

The joy I experience in my day is real and lasting and I truly appreciate every second of it. But feeling joy does not negate struggle, and I do still struggle. Right now, in particular, with my C-PTSD. At another time it will be something else, but today, this is what it is. And I just want people to know how possible it is- and how common it is- for people to look totally “OK” and still be struggling on the inside.

Part of the grief I’ve gone through is accepting that the traumas I experienced carry a lifetime of echoing consequences. I have to accept the fact that there may be no “full recovery” or “complete healing” from what was done to me. I can only pray for that, and I do. I also have to grieve for the loss of what one might deem a “normal” life. A “normal” childhood. The ability to go through a day without flashing back to suffocating under a body that’s on top of you, raping you.

I grieve normalcy. I grieve health. At times, I grieve sanity.

While I do though, God has given me plenty of other things: joy, grace, sacred beauty, hope, resurrection, creation, prayer, and so, so much love.

Today was a holy day.

For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

Psalm 30:5

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

 

This Poem Gets Real, Quick

This poem has in it real things people have said to me when they find out my story, especially some of the more violent aspects. I’ve gotten some weird responses over the years. The things that are said to me are real. My responses, except for the very last one, are things I wish I had said.

11/16

Strange Things People Have Said To Me When They Find Out I have Been Raped

 

You ask me,

How are you even standing up right?

 

I say,

I was raped, not murdered

I’m still alive

 

You ask me,

How are you even forming coherent sentences?

 

I say,

He put a knife to my throat

But he didn’t cut

I still have a voice

 

You seem amazed that I’m not more broken

Would you feel better if I were still bleeding?

Still screaming?

Still sobbing?

Would that help you make sense of the evil people commit against each other?

 

You say,

Your story is one of redemption

 

I say,

You must be talking about the perpetrators

Because only sinners need redemption

And in this case

I didn’t do anything wrong

 

You say,

I didn’t know the depths of grace until I knew your story

 

I say,

I didn’t either

 

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2016

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