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

Loving My Body: How Trauma Stole That From Me and How I’m Reclaiming It

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Yesterday, I shared this photo collage on Instagram with the following message:

“What would happen if you allowed yourself to love your body? Not as it could be 10 lbs from now, not as it was 10 years ago, but as it is right now, today. What would you do of you didn’t care what other people thought of your body? What would happen of you embraced with compassion everything your body has been through: all the traumas, the scars, the tattoos, the marks that tell its story. How much more space and time would you have if you weren’t worried about how your body looked to others?

Imagine being free from caring what anyone thinks about your body, and instead living in it with love, honoring it as the precious vehicle that houses your mind and your spirit. Imagine fully accepting where you are, so if you want to make a healthy change you can move from a place of empowerment. Imagine knowing that you can have peace within your body.

I invite you to think about those questions, and look back at your own photos. Stop editing, cropping, filtering. Be as you are. And imagine where you can go from there.”

This was also shared on Facebook, and a friend encouraged me to expand on this and share it here on my blog. So here you are!

Each of the above photos represent an important moment when I gave up self-consciousness and judgment and let myself live in my body with love.

In the first image, I am being Confirmed in the Episcopal Church. The guys next to me is our Bishop Suffragan, the one who actually confirmed me. For the non-Episcopalians out there, Confirmation is like taking a repeat of the promises made for you at your Baptism, only now taking them intentionally for yourself as an adult. We call it our Baptismal Covenant. Anyway, this was a big moment for me, and I was incredibly excited and happy. I was being Confirmed on St. Mary’s Day, which is our patron saint’s (the Virgin Mary’s) feast day, and sort of like a parish festival. For a couple of weeks leading up to this, I was searching for a nice dress and was having shit luck, because I hated how I looked in everything. Finally I settled on the purple one I’m wearing in the photo (thanks, Dress Barn). The great thing was, during the service and the ceremony and reception, I forgot all about the damn dress and how I looked. I was filled with the Holy Spirit and was just happy and thrilled to be a Confirmed member of my church.

In the second photo, I am sitting by our community pool. I’m wearing a swimsuit for the first time since I was 16; in the photo I am 32. This was a big moment for obvious reasons. I experienced a lot of trauma in our swimming pool growing up; my father molested me in the pool a lot. I became very frightened of them, and of water in general. I never wore a swimsuit because the anorexia told me I looked like a humpback whale in every single one. But last summer, I decided to just fucking get over it. I’d lived just blocks away from this pool for nearly ten years, and I was going to fucking go and swim like a person who lives in Houston in the summer. I wore a basic black tank suit and felt a little uncomfortable but whatever. I swam! And people saw me! And I didn’t shrivel in shame under their judgmental gazes! Big moment.

The third photo is a picture of my left side, three weeks post-surgery. I was 23 years old and had managed to develop a rare pneumonia that led to doctors needing to crack open my chest and remove part of my left lung. The other scars are from chest tubes. That surgery was an extremely traumatic experience, as it all happened very fast, and I nearly died four different times. (Actually, I did die once, in surgery, when my heart stopped for over a minute.) This photo was taken just after I had the last of my chest tubes removed. I still have the scars, of course, but they and this photo remind me just how much a body can survive. I developed a lot of respect and affection for my body after this experience.

The fourth photo is of me and my brother Bryan’s family. His wife Cristina, my other sister, and their kids Caleb and Abby. I was 25, and I was visiting them in Austin. I felt really fat during this whole trip. But in this moment I was just a sister and an aunt, being with my family.

The middle photo is of me at the gym, about a week ago. First time since last summer, huge deal!

The next photo is of me and part of my nursing school class. I was 29, and even though I was struggling with my eating disorder then, I have to say, when I had my scrubs and stethoscope and badge on, the last thing I thought about was how my body looked. I felt a sense of purpose and pride in the work I was doing and the skills I was learning that couldn’t be touched by my disease. I still feel that way every time I wear scrubs.

The lower left photo is of the last tattoo I got. It’s called the Miraculous Medal of the Virgin Mary. Each of my tattoos represents Mary: this, a blue rose, and a gold and blue Fleur-de-Lis. I plan to get more tattoos. For me, they are a way of taking my body back. My whole life, people marked it without my permission: rapists, surgeons, even me when I cut myself. I don’t consider myself-harm scars to be consensual, because they are born purely of trauma. I live with other’s marks on my body, but tattoos are a way to reclaim markings, and make my own. Make conscious choices about what story I want to tell with my body; what’s meaningful to me, and leave positive markings alongside the negative ones. This is an act of body love.

The bottom middle picture is of me being silly at our church Halloween fest.I came as a feminist cat; my shirt says “Cats Against Catcalling.” This was a moment of pure whimsy where I didn’t care what I looked like or if I was being foolish and I was just having fun.

The last photo is of me serving as a worship leader and Eucharistic minister at the Great Vigil of Easter this year. I was in a cassock and wearing a cross that belonged to my grandmother. It was my first time serving in a large service where we wear vestments and everything, and I was a bit nervous. But as soon as I put that cassock on, I felt something like awe; like nothing was important but being in the moment and loving what I was doing. I felt filled with the Holy Spirit and so privileged and honored to be part of this holy service. I just felt love.

These photos represent my growth over the years as I have come to love and trust my body more than I distance myself from it and distrust it. When you grow up abused, trauma teaches you that the one place you are not safe is in your body. Why? Because the body can be attacked. The body is what’s weak and vulnerable. In your mind, you can go elsewhere, but your body is stuck in the situation, left to be battered, raped, choked, tortured. When you return to it mentally you find it bleeding or bruised, physical evidence of its weakness. So you separate from your body. You dissociate your mind and your soul from it in order to stay protected so that when your body, which cannot escape, is being abused, at least your mind is safe.

You grow up deliberately trying to erase your body’s existence. Anorexia is pretty efficient at this, but cutting and beating yourself make their point, too. It never occurs to you that this is abnormal or a problem. It never occurs to you that one of the reasons you’re being revictimized is because you are so disconnected from your body’s basic instincts that you can’t determine a dangerous person from a safe one. It never occurs to you that hating and destroying your body means that you’re also hating and destroying your mind and your soul, because your body is not just a part of you, it is you.

Trauma, especially in early childhood, damages or destroys the basic trust and love we have in our physical existence. It delvers the clear message that the physical world is not safe and therefore the body is not safe. That loss of innate trust disturbs basic concepts of survival such as, do I deserve to live? Do I deserve to have good things? Do I deserve to be loved?

Do I have the right to even be here?

I still struggle with that question sometimes. Do I have the right to exist? To take up space, to need things, to be loved, to ask for help? Losing that innate trust in your body makes you question things such as, am I worthy of a decent home, of food, of sleep, of self-care? And often leads to guilt and/or shame when you receive what you believe is “too much.” But depending on where you are in your healing, “too much” could mean a 20 minute nap, or a tablespoon of fat free yogurt instead of a teaspoon (that’s a real example from my life).

Healing requires answering those questions with the reality that grounds you in truth: You are worthy. You are loved. You deserve good things. You have the right to be here. Everyone should know that simply by virtue of the fact that they were born and they are a child of God that they have the right to be here, to be loved, to have good things. Not everyone does.

Relearning those concepts and loving my body again go hand-in-hand. Because as I recognize my right to be here, I feel my body become more present in the world. As I recognize my right to have food, shelter, sleep, and other things, I am able to take better care of my body and develop respect for its needs, as opposed to contempt. As I recognize that I am worthy to be loved, I feel less of the need to control what other people think of my body and instead focus on developing my self, and on receiving love that is offered.

I still have a lot of healing to do. But like I said in the beginning, I invite you to look back at your photos. Ask yourself some of these questions. Stop editing your body out of your life, because you’re editing yourself. And you have the right to be seen– to have your whole self be seen.

 

I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

Philippians 1:19-20

 

 

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

 

 

 

Tears from Fears

Having PTSD is weird.

Having Complex PTSD is weirder. You know, I have needed to cry for a while now. After a year of grief, death, loss, stress, excitement, pain, hard truths, and very little time to process, I have needed to cry. Really cry. The kind of crying that leaves you a red-faced, snotty, puffy-eyed mess. The kind of crying that comes from your gut. Loud, ugly, soul-cleansing crying.

Thanks to PTSD, I have not been able to do this. In order to cry like that, you need to relax. When your body stays in stressed-out survival mode the way mine does, your sympathetic nervous system does not allow your brain the luxury of feeling safe enough to feel emotions deeply. So they get shoved away, stuck on a psychological shelf somewhere. They wait. The weirdest triggers can bring about the crying, though, and it happened last night.

It was nearly two in the morning. I was about to try to settle down to sleep when I got a message from a dear friend: her cat, who is like her baby and her best friend, had unexpectedly died that day.

Suddenly, it happened. I was crying, and I couldn’t stop. The crying got loud. I didn’t want to have any attention or talk about anything with anyone in my house, so I crept downstairs, grabbed my keys, and went and sat in my car in the driveway. I just sat in the silence of my sealed car, like my own soundproof booth, and wailed.

And wailed.

I’m really not sure how long I stayed out there. I was messaging with my friend for part of that time, when I was able to stop and gather myself for a few seconds.

Here’s the thing about this type of crying: while it’s uncomfortable, I find it to be an incredible relief, almost like a prayer of supplication through my body: God, please take these things which have been weighing on me. As I express them through my tears, please take them from me and by your compassion replace them with your grace. Amen.

You want to know something weird? I almost enjoy crying. I’ve done a lot of it since September. That’s when I figured out how to cry.

See, when I was a child, I literally never cried. Ever. Not when I was being abused. Not when I broke my arm. Not when I smashed my finger in a heavy wooden door and my fingernail came off. I just. Didn’t. Cry. And I thought that was like, just an “abused child” thing. Like I was just super tough, because I had to be. But it wasn’t.

Through counseling I figured out that when I was being abused, it was my father’s specific goal to make me cry, to make me react in pain. He wanted to see me hurting and terrified; he got off on that. I must’ve intuited that, and as a way to defend myself, to hold some control, I stopped crying. I stopped reacting at all. I refused to give him what he wanted. Which meant that he became more and more violent to try to elicit the reaction he wanted from me. Which meant I withdrew deeper and deeper into myself to survive, until I didn’t know how to feel anything.

When I realized this, it was huge. I was able to see my inability to cry not as a fault but as an act of heroism on the part of the child that I was, who refused to feed the evil energy attacking her. And therefore, I was able to redeem my tears as something safe, something holy. Withholding them once protected me. Now, every time I’m able to cry it’s like spitting on my father, and saying: you won’t take this from me. Every tear is like a tiny baptism, a birth by water into the newness of life beyond that trauma.

So you can see how, even though crying is painful, for me, it’s an experience I’ve only really been fully having for a few months, and so in many ways I almost relish it. It’s a release most people take for granted that I never really had. I’m grateful because, even thought crying is usually seen as something negative, to me it has made me more whole, more human. How could I be anything but glad about that?

So yeah, PTSD is weird, and you never know what will set you off crying. I’m just grateful that at this point, that’s something I can do.

 

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Revelation 21:4-5

 

 

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

For Mental Health Awareness Month

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This photo was taken when I was 20 years old. I look pale, sick, and miserable because I was. At this point I was diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia, bipolar disorder with psychotic features, dissociative disorder not otherwise specified, and complex posttraumatic stress disorder. I was being treated as an outpatient, the last time I was in inpatient treatment being a monumental failure. I was severely underweight at this time, severely malnourished, sleep-deprived. I had flashbacks, nightmares, and sometimes hallucinations. I starved myself during the day and often binged and purged at night. I cut myself with razor blades. My medications did not work well because my brain was so starved, and I was resisting the idea of inpatient treatment again.

This is what mental illness looked like for me at one of the worst points.

I was extremely fortunate though. I was one of the lucky ones who had the resources to go to inpatient treatment another two times. But really, I healed and recovered afterward, with a great therapist, clergy, family, and friends. With God’s grace, I am stable today.

To help someone with mental health issues or to learn more, please visit these websites:
National Mental Health Alliance
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Trauma Institute at JRI

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