Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Brighter Place

My favorite holiday movie is A Christmas Carol. I think I love it so much because it is such a redemptive story. I love watching the hardened old man become a boy again, acknowledging the power of his past hurts and the harm he has done to others, and yet finding forgiveness - and giving it - because of Christmas and what it means for the world. But the biggest, best reason I love the story is because I have my own life-version of it. I've been struggling with how to write about this for a while now, but I think the best way is just to do it. Some stories just need to be shared.

In the dark days of December 2009, I was in a dangerously abusive relationship with a man whose mental and emotional instability increased exponentially as the weeks passed. His rage was constant and his capacity for blaming me for everything wrong with his life seemed limitless. He would go from hating me, calling me names, and throwing things at me to crying on his knees with his head in my lap, begging me not to leave him, threatening to kill himself if I did. These mood swings were swift and violent - sometimes lasting only hours so that the kind, understanding man I saw in the morning was a punch-throwing, knife-brandishing maniac by the time darkness fell.

The abuses grew apace with his rage. His screaming-shouting-sobbing spells increased in frequency and though I cared deeply for him, even at that time, I knew I could not stay in the relationship without serious risk to my own life and sanity. There came a day when he threatened to burn down the house we sometimes shared, to burn down my church, to kill me and himself. I came home that evening to find some of my belongings damaged and destroyed, and partially burned pages from a Bible on top of the kitchen stove. Fear crawled over me like ants skittering over my skin. As I was rushing to leave before he turned up, he came in the door and pulled me down the hall to his bedroom - to "talk", he said. The discussion ended up with me dodging heavy books and anything else he could get his hands on to throw and him shrieking obscenities and threats at me. You would think I would have had the sense to leave him then - and it isn't that I didn't want to. But he ended the discussion by threatening to harm himself and others and leaving me feeling responsible for the damage he might cause. That was December 8th, two days after my grandmother passed away; it was ten more days before I was able to leave the relationship.

All through the summer that we were together, he had chipped away at my belief in God. At the time I thought he was questioning and doubting because of his painful past and the hurts of two failed marriages. He was a pastor - my pastor, actually - and he held a lot of authority as such. He kept introducing questions about God's reality; believe me, a seminary-educated person has a lot of knowledge that can easily be turned from building up faith to tearing it down. By that December, I didn't know if I believed in God anymore. My abuser had used my faith to draw me into the relationship in the first place; it was what had brought us together. I was exploring a call to ministry and he was helping me to discern that; he was also my marriage counselor. I had absolute trust in him in the beginning and because of that, I did not believe that he would lie to me or do anything to hurt me. Later on, when the emotional and verbal abuse began I started to question the things he had told me, but the questioning only brought more rage and repercussions. My faith withered - by that December, it was reduced to ashes. I had no functioning belief in God. I felt more alone at that time of my life than I ever had before.

My grandmother died on December 6th. When I was a child, she was instrumental in bringing me to church and helping me to find my way into belief in God. Though I had long since turned away from the fundamentalist structure to which she had introduced me, I had always honored her place in my journey toward faith. Her death rocked me. I knew she had passed on in complete belief even though her life had been difficult at best, and she had spent her last years nearly blind and with a host of health problems. Her faith never wavered. In the days after her death, I found myself dreaming about her each night and waking with images of her careworn face very clear in my mind. I felt she was trying to tell me something important, but I couldn't discern what it might be. I awoke from them feeling frustrated and frightened, as though I was missing some vital point she was trying to make.

During the early morning hours of December 18th I had one last dream about my grandmother. That week had been particularly awful; my partner and I had met with his District Superintendent about his possible return to ministry in the face of our relationship, which had begun during my divorce, and was inappropriate on many levels due to the fact that he was my pastor, adviser, and counselor. The meeting was a fiasco. I didn't want to go in the first place - I wanted out of the relationship and away from him. He lost his temper and yelled, calling his superior a "pharisee" and comparing himself to a persecuted Christ. Driving home that night, he threatened to murder his DS, blamed me for the position he was in, and said he would commit suicide after he "took care" of the people who had hurt him. By that Friday morning, I was unable to sleep more than a few moments at a time because the tension was so great, even though it had been months since I'd had more than five hours of sleep at a time. During one of those short naps, I dreamed that I was walking into a funeral parlor. It resembled the church I had attended as a child, and at the altar was a casket surrounded by yellow roses. I knew my grandmother was there though I couldn't yet see her; I could feel her presence both physically in the casket and spiritually around me, where I stood. Beneath this was a layer of awareness of the dream state, the fact that I was lying in bed in a darkened room with a man I feared - I felt her presence there, too; a tingling warmth that at once saw, comprehended, and still forgave all the wrong decisions I had made that had led me to this place. In my dream I approached the altar and a red light in the ceiling cast a rosy glow onto her body; her skin looked healthy and warm. On her forehead, filled with red light, were the words God is real. Though she was dead in my dream, I could feel her spirit standing with me, imparting to me everything those three words meant and all their implications for my future. God is real. God is Real.

I woke up with my faith restored, like an ember glowing in the darkness. I knew that I had to end the relationship I was in and I had to seek and offer forgiveness where I had hurt others, and where I had been hurt. That day was one of the worst I have lived through - and anyone who's read this blog knows I've lived through some dark days. But the light was there, sustaining me, giving me the strength to end the relationship even though he hit me, hurt me, threatened to wreck his car and kill both of us, and then later, tried to overdose and kill himself. The light was there, showing me the path out of that hellish place, though he cried and begged and pleaded with me not to leave him, and even though my mouth was bloody and my shoulder was bruised from his fists, it was still hard to go. The light was there, steeling my resolve during the weeks afterward when he put himself into a suicide-watch program and finally sought treatment for his mental disorders and continued to try to talk me into coming back - I stayed strong because the light that had been kindled in me as a child but had burned to ashes, that same light that my grandmother had coaxed and nurtured, the light that had rekindled upon her final visitation to me - the light was there. The light was all the proof I needed that God is real.

This year, as I watched A Christmas Carol and saw Scrooge's ghostly visitors, I was reminded of that spiritual visitation I had received, the redemption and restoration I experienced because of the deep love that my grandmother had for me. Was she really there? Honestly, it doesn't matter. What matters is the truth she worked so hard to make sure I learned - that God is real. Because of her I was reminded of that truth in all the most vital ways, and I received the strength I needed and could not seek for myself. That visitation was my ghost-of-Christmas moment and it led me out of the darkness and into a brighter place. Heaven and the Christmas-time be praised for it.



Friday, December 2, 2011

Reconciliation - Redemption - Peace

December is here with all the stress of the approaching holiday. All through the year I think of December and reassure myself there's plenty of time to deal with all the extra work and concerns it brings. But now it is too late in the season to deny the reality of Christmas. Not that I really want to deny it - I love Christmas. There is a warmth and coziness in this season that no other time of year brings. Part of it is the warm-fuzzy of the holiday, part is the cold weather keeping us indoors and in each other's company, part is the long tradition of deep, nurturing love that my mother put into Christmas when I was a child - we might have lacked money, but there was no shortage of joy during the holidays. I have continued that tradition as an adult. I don't rely on the gifts for our Christmas happiness (though I do give and receive some presents) but on the meaning of Christmas itself with its bright flame of pure love, modeled in God becoming flesh in Jesus' birth and beginning to walk the path that would bring humanity to the realization that God is not far away, but is imminent: Emmanuel. God-with-us.

But even with all those wonderful, joy-inducing things, I guess I should confess that I have had a deep dread of the holiday since my divorce. There are so many memories wrapped up in Christmas as a family: putting up the tree with my ex-husband, buying a keepsake ornament each year (these are the ornaments it hurts me to hang up now), the tradition of listening to Christmas music as we decorated, the obligatory silly photo of the dog with a Santa hat on...these are memories that make me smile with tears in my eyes. But those memories aren't an accurate portrayal. The reality is that my ex thoroughly disliked Christmas. His job required him to decorate a huge space and put up half a dozen trees; by the time we got around to decorating the house he was exhausted and the very sight of an ornament made him angry. His participation in our family preparations was forced and it put both of us on edge. And of course there is the fact that he's an unbeliever and so Christmas felt like a slap in the face to him. We would find ourselves at odds over the secularism of the holiday and its religious connotations, and after a while those disagreements bled over into our everyday lives until the tension became unbearable. No one saw that, though. They only saw the decorated house, the happy kids, the smiling parents, the Christmas cookies and the gifts and the glowing lights.

I have been thinking about that a lot this year. On the surface everything about our lives together seemed ideal, but underneath - where currents run deepest and strongest - everything was wrong. I have spent a lot of time berating myself for ending my 18-year marriage and causing so much pain and readjustment for my former husband, myself, and for our two daughters. But for the past six months I have also begun to acknowledge what I could not see before - that the foundation of our union was weak, that we made a lifetime commitment when we were both too young to really understand the concept, that deep friendship is not enough to build your conjugal relationship on, and that there are some things I just can't fix.

Oh...I wonder if anyone knows how much it cost me to write those last six words? Or ultimately, how freeing it is to finally acknowledge? It is hard to say "I couldn't fix my marriage" because it means I'm not perfect. It means that if I ever enter into another commitment of that type, I may not be able to fix or make it work either. But it is also freeing to admit because then the responsibility for my marriage's demise is an equal burden between me and my former husband, and not one that I need to carry on my own. Or maybe...maybe my thinking there is wrong. What if there is no burden to share? What if I look at it in a whole new way? Then...

Our ending is just something that happened as the natural extension of two very different people finally maturing enough to express what they really wanted from a relationship, and discovering together that they couldn't find it with each other after all. Having the strength to admit that - to cut our losses and move on - was an act of courage rather than cowardice. Our relationship now is based on mutual kindness and forgiveness, and it is a thing of grace, peace, and redemptive power that our marriage should have achieved but could not.

I think this changes everything. It relieves the guilt and regret I've been carrying for so long. It acknowledges the personal power of choice that we both exercised - me when I left, and him when he decided not to come back into the relationship when we re-examined that possibility. It honors the inner authority and truth that I ignored for so long - that truth which told me there had to be more to love than just tolerance and silence and disengagement. And it quiets the external referencing that has kept me wondering whether I did "the right thing".

It is a grace-filled answer to many questions, and it brings with it reconciliation, redemption, and peace.





Thursday, November 17, 2011

Who do you think you are?

How well do you know yourself? I was faced with this question last week. No one really asked it of me, but circumstances forced me to ask it of myself. I had started walking one path and then found myself faced with choosing between two different directions and I was surprised by the choice I made. Maybe it was the right one, maybe not - only time will tell. I didn't expect myself to choose what I chose. Did I make that choice for me or for someone else? I still don't know - that's the kind of thing I never really know - but I know that my heart was speaking to me that day, and it wasn't entirely at odds with my mental process. Sometimes, the voice of the heart must be heard.

My problem is that I have spent a large portion of my life making the choices others wanted me to make. This continual selling of my identity in order to gain momentary peace has left me indecisive and uninformed about the reasons why I do the things I do. It also leaves me second-guessing every single decision I make and wondering if I made it from my own identity or someone else's. So why is it so hard to assume my own identity and give power to my inner authority? And why is it so easy to give my personal power away?

I have some ideas about that. Being raised in a very authoritarian environment was not conducive to learning how to make healthy choices. I've spoken about that here before and don't need to enumerate the ways in which my ability to choose was co-opted during my childhood. I think I could have recovered from that in time and with the independence of adulthood, but then the sexual assault happened, and that made dissent a fearful thing. With the word "no" came great pain, both physical and emotional. This was reinforced much later on by my abuser, who inflicted emotional damage each time I dared to disagree with him. Though I know intellectually that I can't give away my own power, I still find it difficult to make decisions and hold to them in the face of someone else's desires when they are in conflict with my own.

So now that I have finally awakened and understand that I have sold myself and my identity for the price of short-term peace, what do I do about it? How do I recover? I recognize that with this behavior I am avoiding the pain of the moment but inflicting pain that may last a lifetime. I am forty years old - I can't continue to lie to myself about improving my situation "tomorrow" or "next year" or "when I'm more ready." Regardless of age, the truth is that none of us are guaranteed any amount of time. There may not be a next year, or even a tomorrow. I may never be more ready than I am right now.

I have spoken here about this process before and have never come to any conclusions about how to help myself. At this point, I realize that no one can tell me how to get better. I have to take responsibility for choosing what is right for me and not what others want me to choose. I can do it by not making snap decisions, by thinking things through even when it is hard. I can recognize that momentary peace or gratification do not compensate for hours of regret or pain later on, and act accordingly. I can do these things...but will I? Yes, I promise myself that I will - starting now.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

All Good Things...


Not so long ago, I made the mistake of believing that there were certain things I would never do. I believed I would never leave my husband or end my marriage. I proved myself wrong back in 2009. I believed I would never live anywhere except my hometown, but when my marriage ended I had to find full-time employment at a level that would support my family, so I packed my bags and moved seventy miles away. I also made the mistake of believing there were certain things that other people wouldn't do - I never believed that my husband would stop loving me, but he did. I never thought that the man I dated after my divorce would deliberately hurt me, but I was wrong. I never thought anything could alter the way I felt about the man I have loved for the last eighteen months, but here I am in the aftermath of that catastrophic change, and I feel hollow inside, as if some vital part of me is missing. There is more emptiness than pain. All good things must come to an end. I know this is true, but I do not approve, and I am not resigned...

So here I am, examining the bits and pieces of another relationship that is ending. In sifting through these ashes, I wonder where we went wrong. Didn't we love each other enough? Weren't we there for each other? Was there something we could have done differently, something that would have saved us? How do we re-vision our lives without each other as a part of the picture?

I have some answers, but not enough. Sure we love each other, but love isn't the only important thing in a relationship. There must be respect and trust - love without these fundamentals is a house built on sand. Were we there for each other? Mostly - in some ways, neither of us was able to give enough of what the other needed. It wasn't because we didn't care or didn't try - we both put a lot of effort into making things work out. Was there something we could have done differently? That's the hardest question to answer. In the end, something happened between us that created a gulf that could not be bridged. Sometimes, relationships are just too broken to be repaired. Sometimes it is better just to leave the pieces behind and move forward.

Now we are both tasked with recreating our lives without the other. His absence leaves a hole in my heart. Will I always be empty? No...as much as aching hearts and wounded souls like to believe that the pain of lost love is permanent, I know from experience that eventually the emptiness gets filled. If we are lucky and purposeful, we fill it with things that are right and good and true. Sometimes we treat our emptiness like a landfill and pour in toxic things that end up causing us even more pain. My intention is to just let the emptiness be for a while and fill it with nothing. Rather than rush on toward something new, I'm going to take my time and give myself to the transition. I want to see where it takes me.

In the meanwhile, I'll work, spend time with the kids, and go hiking. I'll finish up my degree, and maybe have time to read something besides my accounting textbook. Eventually the numbness will fade and maybe then I'll actually feel something. Maybe there will come a time when the two of us revisit the relationship; when old wounds have healed and even the scars have faded. One thing I know is true - there is no certainty in life, and we should never say "never".

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Restoration

"...your restoration is what we pray for." ~ 2 Corinthians, 13:9
Recently, I have been at odds with myself and with my life. There are multiple causes - difficulties in relationships, in setting healthy boundaries, stress brought on by the significant life changes I've engendered and endured in the past three years...all these things have had me feeling as if I am out of balance, as if there is some fundamental inconsistency inside me that I cannot seem to reconcile.

Today, I realized something about the malaise I've been feeling. I came to understand that at our core, we are truth, innocence, and power; we carry the likeness of the Creator of the Universe. If we are out of balance with ourselves, then we are indeed out of balance with God, since we have within us as an inner truth the animating spirit of God breathed into us at our creation. We must seek to be in balance or to find harmony with our core in order to be the people God would have us be. I have always known that going to the woods was healing for me when I felt out of step with who I was. Now I believe I know why.

Wilderness is healing for this condition because it is in nature that we see the beauty and wonder that lies hidden inside each of us. God's loving creativity is revealed in nature - it is an external representation of our own internal truth. When something is out of place in our lives - an addiction, a fear, old wounds that won't seem to heal, or just burdens from our past - we should look for ways to balance ourselves with God. Nature is a good vehicle for achieving that kind of balance. There are other ways that are effective too - I experienced one a few weeks ago when I participated in a community service event known as ImpactJC. I'll write more about that another time. Creating art, writing, the self-discipline of Yoga or martial arts - all these are ways to restore harmony and balance within ourselves. How incredible that we can be in tune with God simply by coming into harmonic resonance with who we truly are!

I stood on ancient stones today with the sun directly overhead and looked out over a blue sea of mountains and mist. I felt the peace of God wash over me. The burdens from the past that I have carried for so long felt a little lighter. Nothing about the difficulties I've been facing lately changed. Instead, I changed; I recognized the inner truth of who I am - a human made and nurtured and loved by the Creator of the Universe with the power to create and sustain a life that is pleasing and harmonious - and I felt restored into my rightful place as a child of God.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Miles and Years

Ah, could I lay me down in this long grass
And close my eyes, and let the quiet wind
Blow over me--I am so tired, so tired...

~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

This morning, the tallest tree in my back yard stretched its naked branches skyward and swayed in the wind. The last amber fragments of leaves spun free and swirled over the still-green grass before coming to rest in a drift of red-gold-brown piled against the fence. The dance of the leaves was beautiful, but now they just look weary and faded like the rest of the foliage that has fallen over the past few days. Today I feel about as substantial as those leaves - dry and wispy, as if a stiff breeze could carry me away.

It is October 31st, Halloween and also the end of domestic violence awareness month. I had intended to post at least five articles about intimate partner violence this month, but personal issues have intruded and I am left struggling to stay level. The difficulties I've been facing have forced me to take a long look at how far I've come in the past two years. I am not displeased at the progress I have made, but I still find myself at risk of sacrificing too much for other people. Love often demands sacrifice, and I am not adverse to reaching compromises, but all too often I find myself laying my desire for consistency and stability down on the altar of another's needs and wants. It is constant struggle to find some semblance of peace between the tension of the lives of others and my own. I don't think relationships should be this difficult, but it is all I have ever known; how do I find my footing on sinking sand?

If I had distance and perspective it would be easier. I could look at this situation from the outside like a stranger peeking in through a window, seeing life in snapshots and glimpses and making decisions with the comfortable surety that they could not really affect me. From the outside the choice is simple - I determine what I can and cannot live with and I act accordingly. But on the inside, I agonize over what those choices will do to people - real flesh-and-blood people whom I love.

Still...how many times have I said that in order to love others we must love ourselves? It is finally time for me to think first about what my own unwillingness or inability to choose will do to me. I cannot afford to let my core be destroyed on someone else's altar. We are adjured to love others, to put others first - those of us who have been abused have not only been told to do so, we have been forced to, in the most painful of ways and because of this, acting in my own self-interest is well-nigh impossible for me. I have been preconditioned to feel selfish and evil when I even consider it. I have been taught to deny myself, to sacrifice all that I am so that others can have what they want in the moment, whatever that might be. The question is no longer "should I put myself first?" but has become "how can I reconcile a lifetime of learned behavior with this voice crying from my own inner wilderness that a straighter, better path must be made?"

Oh, but I am tired. My mind swirls like the early morning mist. My heart is withered and wasted with the struggle to find balance between myself and another. I know the journey is worthwhile but I am so tired; there may be miles and years ahead, but I can't bring myself to care. Like the leaves, I want to let go and just be carried away, to drift, and float, and fall...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Courage to Change


There is a price that is too great to pay for peace…. One cannot pay the price of self-respect.” ~Woodrow Wilson
Those of you who read this blog know that I have been on a journey toward recovery, self-acceptance, and healing for the past year. In the process of that work, I have come across several valuable written resources. Some of them were given to me by friends, some I found through exploring the ideas of others, and some I just happened upon by chance. A small publication by Al-Anon which I recently read falls into the last category. I have never been to an Al-Anon meeting, though I would likely benefit from attending. I have been in relationships with alcoholics on and off for more than half my life, and my patterns of behavior, coping, and living have all been affected by alcoholism. While I was not specifically seeking assistance in dealing with those issues, something about the title of this book – Courage to Change – caught my eye. That spoke to me because it seems I sometimes lack the courage to make necessary changes in my life. The book is a collection of daily meditations or devotionals for use throughout the year. Some of the writings were meaningless to me, but others reached into my heart and brought comfort or challenge, like the following passage:
One of the first things I heard in Al-Anon was that we didn’t have to accept unacceptable behavior. This idea helped me to see that I need not tolerate violence or abuse, and that I had choices I hadn’t even recognized before. I set some limits, not to control others, but to offer myself guidelines so that I would know what was and was not acceptable and what to do about it.” (Courage to Change, 1992; p. 51)
This goes along with something that I learned while reading Boundaries by Drs Henry Cloud and John Townsend. You can love someone without loving his behaviors, and this love cannot be allowed to prevent you from having healthy boundaries that protect you and enrich your life. Setting limits is not a way to force others to change. It is not a refusal to share or show love. It is a means by which you keep you keep your identity and your sanity intact. Healthy people seem to do this without effort. I have never been able to set limits or boundaries in my relationships until now – and it is still extremely difficult.
The author of this particular meditation goes on to state that though she considered herself healthy these days, there was one person from whom she still accepted unacceptable behavior – herself. She berated and blamed herself for everything that went wrong and never gave herself credit for her efforts. She told herself how ugly, lazy, and stupid she was. Then she realized that those were things she would not say to someone she cared about and that she would not accept those words from anyone else. She learned to start treating herself as though she were a treasured friend. Only then was she assured that she was truly in recovery.
I have spoken before about how Christ’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is a double-edged one; it assumes that before we love our neighbor, we love ourselves. This is still the most difficult hurdle for me to cross. It is so much easier for me to love others, to give myself completely to someone else’s wants, and to forgive them for the most painful hurts while continually castigating myself for the least little imperfections that I often feel as though I have spent my life binding up the wounds of others while I slowly bleed to death. It is not enough to say that I won’t continue to do it – despite my best intentions, I still find myself falling back into the pattern of giving people what I know they want, even when it hurts me to do so.
What is the solution? There are plenty of days when I feel that it would be easier to withdraw from every relationship until I am healthy enough to set my boundaries and hold to them. Then I wonder if I will ever be that healthy. Will it simply be that I hold firm until I am faced by the challenge of someone else’s needs? In the face of someone else’s desire will I just collapse into the old habit of saying, “Do whatever you want, it doesn’t matter”? There is a part of me that knows that withdrawal is not the answer and that I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life. Another part of me is so damned tired of the struggle to maintain my sense of self that it frankly doesn’t care if I have relationships or not. That part of me says it’s better to be alone than to feel used, hurt, and resentful. For a long time I seemed to be divided this way, with two modes of thought and no way to choose between them. But lately, as I’ve been working to heal, there is another way of thinking that is emerging. This other part of me recognizes that I have the right and the power to determine what goes on in my life, and if someone else’s behaviors are unacceptable then I do not have to accept them. I can draw a clear boundary that says, “You have the right to choose what you do, and I have the right to choose what I will tolerate. I will not tolerate this behavior.” This feels healthy to me, and yet it also frightens me terribly.
The fear stems from several sources, but the strongest is the abusive relationship I was in two years ago. In the beginning, my partner often said that he appreciated my independence and my desire for autonomy. Later on, he told me I had no rights in our relationship and that I was the most selfish person he had ever known. When I did try to assert myself in that relationship, the emotional abuse was immediate and horrific – diatribes and alcohol-fueled rants lasted for hours and at the end of the eight months I spent with him, the screaming sessions were interspersed with physical and sexual assaults. Now when I even think about saying “I choose not to tolerate this” my heart races and I tremble all over. Panic attacks and flashbacks threaten and in order to keep peace, I end up saying nothing at all. This is a kind of self-protection that is detrimental because it leaves me in anxiety over the things that I did not have the courage to change.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the Serenity Prayer and how it asks for the courage to change what can be changed along with the serenity to accept what cannot be altered. I know that I can't change what others choose to do - they are free to exercise their will in their own lives. Their choices are their own, just as my responses are mine to determine. Where they are unhealthy I must change them – now I just need to find the courage to do it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Stop Ignoring - Start Acting

Domestic violence isn’t easy to understand. From the outsiders' point of view, it just makes no sense that someone would stay with and continue to love and protect an abusive partner. From the insider's point of view, there's a whole host of fears interlaced with shame, hurt, and longing which keep us enmeshed in a web of deceit and pain. It is possible to love someone when you do not love their behaviors or actions, and love doesn't just go away because someone is cruel or abusive. For these reasons a culture of myth and secrecy has grown around domestic violence and society perpetuates these secrets and lies with comments like:
   “It’s none of my business.”
   “That’s between the two of them – it has nothing to do with me.”
   “A man has the right to keep the peace in his own home.”
   “It only happens every now and then, and only in lower class families.”
   “She must like it, or she’d leave.”
   “He says she provokes him.”

What would the world be like if we told the truth about domestic violence?
   “I’m afraid for her safety.”
   “I could do something to help.”
   “No one has the right to harm someone else.”
   “It can happen to anyone.”
   “She doesn’t leave because there’s no one to help her, no one to keep her safe.”
   “He should practice self-control instead of hitting when he’s angry.”

This October, commit to looking at domestic violence in a different way. Don’t turn a blind eye to the victims. Don’t ignore what you witness. Domestic violence happens to one in three women, and one in fifteen men. Chances are that you know someone right now who is suffering or has suffered. Ask what you can do to help. Here are some ways to start:
   “I’m afraid for your safety, and for your kids.”
   “It’s only going to get worse.”
   “I’m here for you. What can I do to make this better?”
   “I can help you find somewhere to stay.”
   “You deserve better treatment than this.”
   “Let’s make a safety plan for you.”

Get a list of the shelters and helping organizations in your area. The information is readily available with a quick Internet search. Get a list of phone numbers for crisis lines – 1-800-799-SAFE is a good place to start. Be willing to listen and be supportive, not judgmental. You don’t know what kind of hell the victim is living with – she may have been hearing for years that she isn’t worth helping, isn’t worth saving. She may believe it. Yours may be the voice of reason that cuts through the destruction in her life and makes her know that she is worthwhile and that someone cares. Stop ignoring. Start acting. Someone's life may depend on it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Be the Change

"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."
~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
~ Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our culture is one that promotes violence. Turn on network TV at any point during prime-time and you're bound to see half a dozen murders, beatings, muggings, or rapes before the 11:00 news comes on. We are enured to violence. Once we have become desensitized, it is hard to care about the neighbor in the apartment next door, even when we hear her crying at one in the morning because her boyfriend just punched her in the mouth. We may see the bruises but until we feel them, the pain we witness is remote and doesn't have any impact. In the same way we are able to sit comfortably at home with a bowl of chips and salsa and watch news reports about the starving people in Somalia. Their pain is miles away - it is meaningless because it cannot affect us. It cannot touch us.

Our society happily enslaves millions of people just so we can have conveniences like ready-made clothing, designer-knock-off purses, and discount stores where we can pick up a case of beer anytime, day or night. If we stop to give thought to the plight of the ten year old workers in Indonesia who made our fake Prada bags, we often smugly state that they must be grateful for the money they earn. Never mind the fact that in some factories in some parts of the world, children whose thigh-bones are broken so they can't run away are forced to sit and sew those purses that we paid $30 for. Never mind the fact that workers the world over go home to starving families subsisting in tar-paper and tin shacks and know that even the money they earn with their eighteen hour work-days can't feed their kids and their aging parents too. We live as if it is only our comfort and needs that matter.

So what does this have to do with violence against women? After all, that's my usual subject. Well, in a word - everything. When we refuse to fight oppression, we give license to the oppressors. When we turn a blind eye to evil, we are propagating evil. When we ignore the neighbor who sits on her porch, staring blankly out through swollen, bruised eyelids because it isn't our place to say or do anything about her suffering, then we might as well throw the next punch.

October is domestic violence awareness month. I've thought for a while now about what I should post to help raise awareness, make my readers think about intimate partner abuse and what it does to people, but I confess that until this afternoon, I've had trouble deciding what to say. Not because I have run out of words; not because everything that there is to say has been said, but because it seems like an uphill battle and just now, I am really tired of fighting and climbing. I'm tired of trying to make a difference in a world that doesn't seem to give a damn. I'm tired of working to change attitudes and then watching commercials where women in bikinis are used to sell everything from cars to cheeseburgers as if their bodies were just another commodity to be bought, sold, or traded. But if those of us who have suffered do not use our experiences to bring light into the darkness, then who will? The media? The government? The church?

No - it is individual voices that begin to affect change. It is up to us - to me and to you - to raise our voices in solidarity until society can no longer ignore what we are saying. In every situation of injustice, if those of us who see and understand choose to remain silent, then we join the oppressors and the enemies of humanity. Your cause may not be the same as mine, but whatever you believe in, don't make the mistake of staying silent because it "isn't your place" to speak up. Speak up! Be heard! Do not be silent about the things that matter. Victims of all kinds need you, because their voices and their choices have been taken away. We must live the change we look for - if we don't, then who will?

Friday, September 9, 2011

To Thine Own Self Be True


This morning, I received a link to an article in the August 2 Huffington Post – “Women Show Deep Drop in Church Attendance.” The newsletter from which I gleaned the link spoke about the problem of declining church attendance in general and wondered if this was related to a decline of spirituality, or if attending church was truly reflective of belief, faith, and spiritual engagement.

Those issues aside, reading the article and the newsletter led me to do some deep thinking about women, our changing role in society, and what statistics such as the 11 percentage-point drop mentioned above might truly reflect. I also acknowledged my inner struggle as I work to find a way to be true to myself without compromising my beliefs, needs, or boundaries, and I can see a correlation between my current state and the state of women in general. The newsletter suggested that fewer women attend church because women have learned that they have the right to eschew the standards that the religious systems have imposed upon them for centuries. The statement is valid. As women become better educated, we resent always being relegated to the roles of care-taker (can you clean these classrooms, please?), nursery attendant (I know you’d like to lead the adult class, but we really need ladies to watch these two-year-olds), and cook (ladies, it’s time for our annual pot-luck). Within the church roles with decision-making power have traditionally gone to men while the roles with mind-numbing, repetitive tasks have gone to women, and until recently, both men and women have been complicit in keeping it that way. Many denominations have not yet begun to change, but others have, and those denominations are experiencing increased vitality because of it.

In my forty years, I’ve witnessed incredible changes in feminine roles and expectations. As a child, I was assured by my mother that women could aspire to a total of four functions in life – I could choose between being a teacher, a nurse, a secretary, or a housewife. It is a testament to the power of our parents over our lives when I admit that I have been or have been on-track to be each of these four things. As I grew up, I had the usual dreams about what career I might pursue; veterinarian, artist, designer, writer. My mother ridiculed these desires and told me that such ambitions were out of my reach. She did not do this out of cruelty. She sincerely hoped to cure me of daydreaming and cause me to choose a practical life path, one that would support me financially and help me to be less dependent on the man I would someday marry. I insisted that I could be whatever I wanted to be, but the reality was that even though I had better intentions, I ended up following the trail that my mother laid out for me in those early years.

These days, our daughters are told that they can be anything they want to be. I hear my own mother telling my girls that they can be doctors, attorneys, engineers, or meteorologists - anything, in fact, that they want to be. I am gratified by the fact that my mom has grown and changed so much, and that she has accepted and admitted that her ideas about my potential were too limiting and just plain wrong, and I am happy that she isn’t making the same mistake with my girls. I accept that she was speaking from what she knew and understood when I was a child, and that she truly believed that she was right. I forgive it, but I still struggle to find my footing and to accept that the limitations she placed on me are not real and that the weight of those chains only exists in my imagination.

The struggle I mentioned takes many forms, but right now it is mostly about relationship roles and expectations – what others want from and for me held in tension with what I want from and for myself. I have fought and am fighting to become a better person. Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus, rolling that boulder up the mountain only to chase it back down into the gulf again. I make progress and then I lose ground. I guess that can be said of most of us. Case in point – in 2007, I began working actively to be physically healthy and I lost 130 lbs. That was a wonderful change and I maintained that weight loss for more than a year before gaining 20 lbs back. That isn’t so bad and I shouldn’t kick myself for it, but the truth is that I am severely disappointed in myself. I hold myself to higher standards than that. And I know how fatally easy it is to gain weight and how frustratingly difficult to lose it. So now I’m halfway up the mountain, shoving that boulder and promising myself, “Never again.” I experience terrible pressure in my personal relationships and am at war with myself to find a way to balance my needs with my mate’s. This is incredibly exhausting and I question whether it is possible for me to stop being “his woman” and start being my own - when just eighteen months ago, I came out of a bad relationship and promised myself that "never again" would I abnegate myself in favor of a man. I will graduate college next year, but this is the third time I’ve attended and each time my intentions were good; I promised myself that I would finish my degree and keep my life and career on track. Life intruded, and those goals became secondary, but as I plow through Principles of Accounting, I can feel the weight of the boulder pressing down and I swear, “Never again.”

Never again will I allow someone else’s ideas about who I am or how I should be to inform my judgment. Never again will I allow someone else to tell me that I can only aspire to certain levels of success because I am female or for any other reason. Never again will I choose to continually meet my partner's needs and ignore my own boundaries in order to do so. Never again will I take as truth someone else’s opinions just because they are pushed on me, when my own opinions are just as intelligent and just as valid.  I will not allow anyone else to define my abilities or my life; I will define myself.



Saturday, August 27, 2011

Self-Empowerment

I’ve spent the past two and a half years searching for empowerment. I’ve looked everywhere – self-help books, religion, healthy habits, unhealthy habits, relationships, other people…you name it, I’ve tried it. It’s kind of like diets – I’ve tried just about every kind you could imagine, from cabbage soup to Scarsdale to Atkins to South Beach and everything in between. I’ve taken Dexatrim, fiber pills, Alli, and even Phen-Fen. Nothing worked, until I was ready to take responsibility for making the right choices. Once I admitted I had the power, losing weight was possible. Before that, I might as well have been trying to catch stars in a butterfly net.

So here I am, hanging out in a quiet house and enjoying the silence, reflecting on the fact that this is the two year anniversary of my divorce becoming final. Not to say that I got a divorce so I could be empowered – that is certainly not the case. But self-empowerment was a goal of mine as I left that relationship and entered life on my own. It was a dark time in my life and I was vulnerable, as those of you who read this blog already know. It was easy for me to be deceived and misled. I ended up in a bad relationship that took what self-esteem I had managed to gather and destroyed it just about completely. And that’s the problem with progress that comes from extraneous sources – it is given to us and can be taken from us very easily. It’s a cheap kind of empowerment, the kind that makes a mockery out of the amount of work it took for me to lose 130 pounds. But because I didn’t know what empowerment should look like, I didn’t recognize that what I had was a poor imitation of the real thing.

Yesterday, a friend of mine gifted me with a copy of Tapping the Power Within: A Path to Self-Empowerment for Women. Just the title reminded me of something I had forgotten – or maybe I had never known it in the first place: that empowerment, if it is to mean anything, must come from within.  So what does self-empowerment look like? How does it begin?

I’m not really sure, but I think I have an idea about that. I think it starts with love. Not love from an outside source – there’s nothing wrong with being loved, in fact, it’s great, but being loved by another can’t fill the emptiness that exists in the face of self-loathing, and that’s the way I’ve spent the bulk of my life. God adjures us to love our neighbors the same way we love ourselves, but it can also be said this way, “Love yourself the way you love your neighbor.” So, if I am to be good to my neighbor, I should also be good to myself. Please don’t mistake my statement for stupid self-indulgence, because that isn’t how I mean it. I don’t mean I should put myself before everyone else. I am talking about treating myself with kindness and respect. I don’t do that – how many of us really do?

If it is to begin, it must begin in me. I need to find a way to appreciate myself, to be compassionate with myself, to give myself loving kindness. I can’t rely on anyone else for this kind of nurturing. So I am making a pact with myself to learn self-love. I'm going to start by allowing myself to do things that I enjoy; yoga - meditation - prayer. Writing, singing, target-shooting; it may sound contrary to my nature, but I do love to shoot - and gardening. I'm the proud owner of a shovel now, and there are lots of plants out in the yard that need some attention. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Choices

I’ve never believed I had a lot of choices in my life. As a child with three older siblings, I ended up with a lot of hand-me-downs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is difficult to develop a strong sense of your own likes and dislikes when most of what you own has been chosen by someone else. My first car was a Ford Maverick that had been wrecked by both my older sisters. I was really glad to get that car but it wouldn’t have been my first choice. My second car was chosen by my father – a Mercury Marquis that resembled nothing so much as a battleship – it was even the right color. When I was thirteen, I was invited to join a college-level math-and-science class that met on weekends, but my parents decided not to let me attend. I wasn't allowed to participate in sports or to join clubs that met outside school hours. And of course, sexual assault takes all your choices away. Some of these things may seem small, but as I aged without being allowed to form opinions or make decisions of my own, the ability to even know my own needs and wants gradually faded away.

I left home and got married when I was nineteen years old, and I transferred the decision-making power from my parents to my husband without so much as the blink of an eye. He didn’t always like it, but we both took it for granted that our marriage would be that way. I had never seen any other behavior modeled in any relationship. His approval was so important to me that I negated my own sense of self in order to become what he wanted, at least at first. Later on things changed between us and I became more autonomous, but neither of us really knew how to exist with each other once I was no longer agreeable to everything he did and wanted. It made for some deeply stressful times. Ultimately our marriage dissolved.

When we divorced, I promised myself that I would never again give away the power of decision. I would have the power to make my own choices. Sure, I would always give due consideration to what was best for my kids and the other important people in my life, but my own needs would also be a huge part of the equation. After all, only I can live my life. I was going to be kind and fair, but firm; I was going to make sure that my needs and ideas were an equal part of any relationship I entered. 

I went into the first relationship after my marriage with a very healthy set of boundaries only to have them torn down and destroyed by my abusive partner. Because I had always lived my life without choices, I had no defense against his controlling behavior. I believed him when he told me that it was selfish of me to want to know where we stood, to want him to talk to me before changing our plans, to want to know that he was going to be faithful. I had no clue about how to get my needs met, or even that it was okay to have needs. He trampled my rights and left my self-esteem shattered. The first time he hit me, I was so concerned about what would happen to him if I reported his abuse that I decided not to tell anyone. I was so numb and so convinced that I deserved the treatment he had given me that for months after that relationship ended, I had no boundaries or limits at all. I could ask for nothing. I could pursue no rights of my own; I had no concept of what that would even look like.

So here I am, more than a year later, and I am in a relationship that is mostly positive. The man I’m currently with is a good man; kind, loving, and intelligent. There are a lot of good things in the relationship, but - as with any coupling - there are also some negatives. For the past fifteen months, I’ve sold out my needs and behaviors to match what I felt he wanted. I’ve laid aside any notion of who I am so I can be the person he wants me to be. He has never asked for this – I did it so unobtrusively that neither of us had any idea what was going on. A recent incident opened my eyes to how completely I had subverted myself to him, and when he failed to reciprocate in even a small way by placing me first when I really needed him to, I realized that I had allowed and even encouraged him to ignore my needs and boundaries and to discount my feelings. I don't know how to start over in this relationship and be the person I am, instead of the one he wants me to be.

So, how do I stop doing this? How do I throw away a lifetime of training and behavior? How do I become the strong person I am determined to be? I am sick at the thought that I’ve done it again – why don’t I just get “WELCOME” tattooed on my forehead and be done with it? I’ve made myself into the most accommodating of doormats; go ahead, wipe your feet, I don’t mind. Maybe I stop by just stopping. Maybe it really is just a choice – one I’ve never been allowed to make before. Christians are encouraged to meet the needs of others before meeting their own, and women are often forced to do so. But I don’t believe that God wants me to be miserable, worried, and hurt. I don't believe that God intends for me to put myself dead last and to treat myself as if I don't matter. After all, it was God who told us "love your neighbor as you love yourself" - this assumes, of course, that you love yourself. I have never really loved myself or treated myself with compassion. Maybe it really is as easy as saying, “This time, I choose me.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What Happens Next

It has been a difficult couple of weeks. Stress is cumulative, as I’m sure most of you know from experience. Take the stress of buying a new home, packing, and moving, and add the stress of an impending court case, the surety that somewhere out there is someone who wants to cause you harm and who cherishes his rage against you, and you have a recipe for total exhaustion. So last week, when I got news about the hearing from my attorney, it was a pleasant shock to find out that the communication sent from my abuser which broke the order of protection I got last year was apparently sent by mistake.


I sat at my desk, holding a letter from an online jobs-by-fax company, which was written “to whom it may concern”, that stated that my abuser had paid for their resume dissemination service, and that he had specified that no resume be sent to my work-place. The resume and cover letter I received was sent in error, the letter explained. It was all a misunderstanding. Upon reading this communication, I felt nothing but relief. My attorney asked me if I wanted to pursue charges or getting an extension on the order of protection, but I declined. It had always been my intention, I told her, to leave him alone if he left me alone. And according to the notice I held in my hands, he intended to leave me alone.


A weight left my shoulders then. It had been traumatic, seeing him again, being in close proximity – turning around while holding the gate in the courtroom for the next person and finding out that HE was the next person. Even with the knowledge that he did not send that fax on purpose, I’ve still been having nightmares about him. Last night, I was unable to sleep because my heat-pump stopped working and the house was hot and uncomfortable. Lying on the couch in the living room, I heard the sound of a car approaching. It slowed and came to a stop in front of the house. I sat up, checked the clock – 1:51 am. I had started to lie back down when I heard someone shouting – a high-pitched, male voice, screaming obscenities. I pulled back the curtain and looked out. The car was speeding away. It was small and dark, but I couldn’t make out any features. It could have been anyone, I guess, but it made me wonder…


I wonder why we never received another of these faxed job applications from anyone else, for example. I wonder why, the weekend before we received his resume, I saw him twice near the house where I was cat-sitting for a friend. I wonder why he was looking for work in an area two hours away from where he currently lives. I wonder…


I've said it before: once trust is destroyed, it is impossible not to question motives. Where my abuser is concerned the only things I believe in are his duplicity and the uncontrolled nature of his rage. I guess questioning is fruitless. Maybe I’ll never know what his intentions were – or if he had intentions at all. At this point, it’s just back to waiting to see what happens next.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Love Wins

Two weeks have passed in a whirlwind of stress and work. Friday, July 29th, was the date of the preliminary hearing for the violation of my standing order of protection. There’s no need to belabor the point I made in my last post; suffice it to say that I spent most of the past three weeks in a dazed state of anxiety mixed with apprehension. Less than five hours of sleep a night for more than twenty days has really taken its toll. By Friday morning, I was a mess. Getting up, getting ready, heading out the door and to a place where I would potentially have to sit for hours in the same small room with my abuser was extremely difficult. I prayed for months that this would not happen again. I prayed that he would just keep his silence…keep his distance.

Seeing him again on Friday left me shaking; having to stand at the front of the courtroom less than ten feet away from him was hellish. Sometimes I wonder why it is that I’m still so frightened of him, but then I think back to that time of my life and the rage, violence, and instability that was the daily norm, and I remember…there is good reason for the fear I feel.

My attorney was unable to be present with me, so I requested an extension and a new court date. The judge was happy to grant that request; he remembered having heard my case last year. My abuser’s attorney also requested an extension, in order to “review some new evidentiary information” and “possibly reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion outside court.” Does that mean that they are going to request another mutual restraining order? I’m not agreeing to that. A mutual restraining order assumes a level playing field, as though I did something as horrible to him as he did to me. I never hit him. I never threatened to kill him. I never forced him to have sex with me. I never threatened to harm his children. There was no level playing field, and there would be no safety in agreeing to a mutual restraining order.

I am left feeling ambiguous about the outcome of the day. Sure, I got my extension, and my order of protection is in effect until the next hearing. But I also have to go on anticipating another day in court, another day of questioning. I can’t imagine what kind of “evidentiary information” they could have come up with. I haven’t had contact with my abuser since last year in court. I have not tried to find out anything about him - except to make sure he was not living in the neighborhood where I recently bought a home - and though occasionally people tell me rumors about him, I don't perpetuate those rumors. I am left wondering what kind of ridiculous allegations my abuser and his lawyer are going to make about me, and how I can possibly counter those accusations. My mind is racing and I can’t turn it off. Right now, around 36 hours after the hearing, I am exhausted. My emotions are raw, but I can’t get my mental wheels to stop turning. I have been pushing myself to the point of collapse physically just to be able to get six hours of sleep. I’m not sure how long I can cope.

On Friday morning, as I was showering and getting dressed for court, a song that I never sing or even think of popped into my head. It was an old hymn, and one I don’t particularly like – “God Will Take Care of You”. Only the chorus played through my mind, and as the morning wore on, I heard those words over and over, unbidden – God will take care of you; through every day; o’er all the way…he will take care of you; God will take care of you. And though normally this kind of ear-worm would have driven me crazy, I found myself listening and holding onto that thought, that no matter what happened, God would take care of me. No, I didn’t expect the heavenly hosts to ride in on white chargers and chariots of fire, and I didn’t expect a rousing defeat of my adversary. But I did – and do – believe that whatever happened, God would be there. And even though I hated every minute of the two and a half hours I spent in my abuser’s presence, I felt assured that I was not alone.

Tonight, as I write this, I am almost too tired to feel afraid. My eyelids are heavy and my fingers are clumsy – I am moving slowly and it is almost time for sleep. In the pit of my stomach there is a cold knot that tightens whenever I think of what is coming, but my heart is warm with the knowledge and surety of God’s loving grace. Fear is the opposite of love, and I know that ultimately, no matter what the outcome of the next hearing, love will win. God will take care of me – maybe not in the way I hope or expect, but that’s okay.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Violation

Last week I wrote about my abuser having broken the order of protection I’ve had against him for the past year. Today is July 13, the final day that order is in effect. However, I’ve filed for another order of protection against him, based on the obvious proof that he is already beginning the same obsessive, stalking behavior that caused me to seek relief from the court last year. I would have preferred an extension on the current order, but in order to get an extension, the application must be filed, served, and heard in a civil or family court before the current order runs out. That was impossible in my case – there wasn’t enough time.

At the courthouse, the clerk told me she could not advise me about what to do but that she could tell me what my options were. She laid them out very clearly – I could file for an extension, which wouldn’t work for reasons already enumerated above, or I could file for a new order of protection, which would mean another hearing. She also told me that I could file a violation of the order of protection, either using the new case number – which would help me prove that I needed the order, or the old case number, which would allow the court to prosecute him to whatever extent the judge decided. With the help of my legal aid attorney and paralegal, I decided to file for a new order of protection but to file the violation of the order under the old case number, which would allow the judge to decide what, if any, consequences would follow. It took three days to process all the paperwork, and four trips to the courthouse, but it’s finally done.

Now it’s after 6 pm, and I’m sitting in a quiet house, trying to relax. My left hand is twitching, which is something it has done periodically since the first time he hit me. My chest feels tight and it is hard to get a deep breath. My stomach hurts. My heart races and then slows…races and then slows… I am exhausted from this constant hypervigilance, but I am afraid to stop looking over my shoulder.

The order is up at midnight. The new temporary order is in effect but may not have been served yet. I have no way of knowing, and probably won’t know until the day before court. I wonder what my abuser is thinking, what he is planning. I hate thinking about him, because that leads to memories that are incredibly painful – the way he counseled and supported me in the beginning as my pastor; the way he slowly began to make the sessions more about his problems and needs than about mine; the way he continually assured me there was no way to salvage my marriage and I should just give up and file for divorce. Those memories hurt, because they remind me of how much I depended on him. As my pastor, he was my spiritual leader, my mentor. He was powerful and I trusted him. I believed that he had my best interests at heart. I did not suspect that he was using my problems and the things I told him so that he could edge his way into my life and my emotions. I didn’t know that he would exploit the love I felt and use me so harshly. On the one hand, I feel stupid and incredibly na├»ve for having allowed it to happen, and on the other, I feel outraged that a pastor with years of training and experience would do what he did, and what he continues to do. At this point, I want him to leave me alone. I don’t want to have to think about him or wonder what’s going to happen next. I want this to be over. After all, it has been over a year now. That is plenty of time to let go, to move on, to have a life – for both of us.

Instead, I will go to bed tonight wondering what I’ll wake up to tomorrow. Damaged tires? Destroyed property? Will he set fire to the house – he’s threatened it in the past. Will he show up at work, with the excuse of checking on that resume he faxed over? And if he doesn’t show up, I will still be facing the dreadful prospect of the hearing – having to be in the same room with him, to feel his eyes on me, to feel his rage growing. I will have to face the questions about why I stayed, why I did the things I did, why I “let” him hurt me. I will have to give intimate, humiliating details to people I don’t know. Last time, being examined by his lawyer felt like being raped all over again. The knowledge that this is what is coming leaves me feeling sick and shaking. I want to go to sleep, but when I do I have nightmares and I wake up breathless and terrified. There isn’t a fragment of my life this hasn’t changed. There's a reason why they call what he did a "violation" - that's how I feel, as if the sanctity of my life has been violated by the threat of his obsession.

Last year, a friend of mine asked me how I was coping with the hearing and the stalking. I said I needed to find some way to live around the fear. That’s what I need now, a way to live in spite of the dread and anxiety that are my constant companions. I need a way to find peace.



Survivors Speak

Today I am the featured contributor on Heal My PTSD, an online magazine and resource for anyone who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Check it out: http://healmyptsd.com/2011/07/ptsd-survivors-speak-surviving-sexual-assault.html

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Full Circle


A couple of years ago, I blogged about irony and defined it as the poignant contrast between what you want and what you get. The reason for writing that post was because my husband and I had just had our family portraits made; the first and only ones we had during eighteen years of marriage. That was in April of 2009. By May of that year we were in the process of divorcing. The picture we had taken shows a happy family, but the reality was that we were coming apart at the seams. At this stage of my life, I have that family portrait hanging on the wall outside my bedroom door. It is a precious reminder to me that even though our marriage didn’t work out, my ex-husband and I along with our daughters are still a family.
Today, I’m thinking again about irony, but for a very different reason. July 13th is the day that the protective order against my abusive ex-partner runs out. That is six days from now. Since he had stayed away from me after having dropped his appeal last August and because there had been no further damage to my property, I had planned on letting the matter drop. He was leaving me alone – that was all I ever wanted. To all appearances he was going on with his life, and I have been doing the same. I did not know where he was and was content not to know. But then, on July 5th, he changed everything when he broke the no-contact portion of the protective order by faxing a job-application for a non-existing position to my workplace. I went to work on Wednesday morning, July 6th, and it was lying on my desk – all applications come across my desk; this is something he knows very well, since he knows I’m the administrative assistant.
Seeing his name, reading his writing – and there is no doubt that it is his; I’d recognize that grammar and syntax anywhere – was like taking another hit to the side of the skull. The fear was immediate and left me physically ill and shaking, but after that came the realization that it didn’t matter how much I wanted to let things drop, he is never going to allow that to happen. I can’t fathom the kind of person who would make such an ill-considered decision. But then again, I can’t fathom the kind of person who would tell a woman that he loved her, and then beat her, and then want to hold her to make up for it. I can’t fathom the kind of person who would threaten to commit suicide, drive drunk, or go out and find someone to rape if his girlfriend would not give in and have sex. I can’t understand that kind of mentality. Thank God I can’t. My only question is: why? What’s the point? What in the world is he trying to prove? Doesn’t he realize that he is forcing my hand? I wanted to let it go, to forgive, to move on. Obviously, he is not going to allow that to happen.
So here we are – same place we were last year; we’ve come full-circle. I am in the same situation, except so far there are no nails in my tires and my mailbox is intact. I am left with no alternative but to legally pursue my own protection. It is not what I wanted. It is not what I hoped for. But that’s irony - the tragic gap between what you want and what you get.


Monday, July 4, 2011

A Lesson Well-Learned

On May 28th 2010, I filed for an order of protection against the man who had abused me. The day of the hearing was July 13th, about six weeks after the date of file. My ex-boyfriend hired a private detective to dig into my past and a cut-throat lawyer to “tear me apart” on the witness stand – the attorney’s words when he spoke with my legal-aid representative. I blogged about the process last year, and anyone who is interested can go to those entries and read them for more details – there’s no reason to repeat them here.

Earlier today, I was looking back through my personal journal and reading what I wrote during the months of June and July. During the time preceding the hearing, I was in constant fear. Every day was spent looking over my shoulder, watching –waiting – wondering what was going to happen next. During the time between when I filed for the order of protection from my abuser and the hearing date I had five nails removed from my tires, the flowerpots on my porch were kicked around and overturned, my front door locks were tampered with and damaged, and my mailbox was destroyed. I spent my days in a state of heightened vigilance. My heart raced every time I saw a black car or a dark-haired man. I had a hard time sleeping and when I slept I had nightmares. I was afraid to go forward with the hearing and I was afraid to let the matter drop. If I lost, I knew his anger would be profound. And if I won, I believed he wouldn’t have anything left to lose in coming after me.

I went through with the hearing, and I won. About a month afterward, I ended up needing treatment for my PTSD, and I chose to go into counseling. It was a good choice. Being able to talk to someone made my feelings and the stress easier to deal with. I began to practice exposure therapy to get past my triggers, and that made the general act of living much easier, though I do still have trouble sometimes. After I left my abuser, I wasted five months trying to decide whether I should take action against him. Honestly, if he had just stayed away instead of continually coming around I probably would have let the matter drop. I did not want to take action, but he left me with no choice. On May 28th last year, it took all my strength to walk into the courthouse and describe what had happened to me. It took all my courage to sign those papers, knowing that he would read them and that I would again be the target of his rage. I was caught between two terrible fears – what would he do to me if I went through with it? What would he do to me if I didn’t? It was torture. For a long time after I won, I still looked over my shoulder, watching - waiting - wondering. Then I realized that the only thing that can ensure my protection is me.

The protective order runs out in nine days, but it doesn't really matter. It is only a piece of paper anyway, not some magic shield that means the difference between security and danger. Its best function was to help me understand that I deserve to be safe and that it was okay for me to take steps to ensure my own protection. Today, I am much stronger. It wouldn’t take me five months to decide if I was worth defending. It is a lesson well-learned, and I won't forget it, no matter what the future brings.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sticks and Stones

“Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing.” ~ Proverbs, 12:18; The New Living Translation of the Holy Bible

Words are powerful. I learned this when I was twelve years old – I was mercilessly bullied and called all sorts of horrible names while I was at school. The boys who tormented me went on molest and sexually assault me the next year, and sometimes I wonder which of the abuses hurt me more. In the deep watches of the night, I hear their voices and the hateful, hurtful words that they said just about as often as I still feel their hands on my body. Let no one deceive you – that “sticks and stones” thing we learned in kindergarten is a load of crap.

During my eighth grade year, being molested was a daily occurrence. There was nothing uncommon about being backed into a corner and touched intimately, and it didn’t matter if I yelled or fought – generally, no one came to my aid, and my struggles just ended up causing me more pain. Everyone in my tiny elementary school knew what was happening, and no-one wanted to deal with it. When I spoke with my teacher about it, he said, “Well, if you wouldn’t wear make-up and dress like that, then these boys wouldn’t feel like they could take liberties with you.” A classmate asked me on the bus why I “let” those boys do that to me – didn’t I know it made me look like a slut?

I lived for many years believing that I had done something to deserve the treatment I received. I didn’t know or understand that what had happened to me was not my fault. I thought that my 36-C sized bra caused the problems, or maybe it was my Levi’s, or the tee-shirt I wore that day – after all, it only came down to the top of my jeans. For a long time, I accepted what I had been told – that somehow, I had caused myself to be raped and abused because of what I had chosen to wear, and the fact that my body had developed earlier than those of the other girls in my class. I accepted this horrible lie and took the blame upon myself, and it nearly killed me.

But I am here, alive and well, thanks be to God. And about ten years ago, I came across some words written by Shannon Lambert, creator of Pandora’s Aquarium and a very wise woman. Shannon said, on her website Welcome to Barbados – “It doesn’t matter what you said, what you did, what you wore…” Wise words. They brought me healing, and they have helped me to realize and understand that I didn’t deserve to be raped. What I wore had nothing to do with it. In the end, my rapists chose to hurt me, and they didn’t make that choice because my short tee-shirt had inflamed them beyond their ability to control their urges. They made that choice because they wanted to hurt me. Nothing I did caused that desire, and there was nothing I could have done to change what happened. I learned that what happened to me was not my fault; it really didn’t matter what I said, what I did, or what I wore.

Words are powerful. They can wound us deeply, compounding the horror of the sexual and physical assaults we suffer. But we can stand up and say, “No more.” We can refuse to take the blame for the actions of another. It doesn’t matter what you said, what you did, or what you wore. It doesn’t matter where you were. If you were raped, your choices were taken away, but if you survived, then you have choices now. You can stand up and you can tell the world that you are strong, that you refuse to accept responsibility and shame for what your rapist did to you. You can choose to work hard for your own healing. Despite the scars you carry, you can choose joy.

Next month, I'll be attending a SlutWalk. Yeah, I hate that word; hearing it makes my skin crawl. I hate it because it has had so much power in my life; it was used to wound me, and so I've decided to refuse to allow it to hurt me anymore. I will march and speak and wave my sign, and I WILL NOT be ashamed about it. I will take back the power that word has had over me, and in doing so, I will be choosing to live in freedom and in joy. I survived - and hurtful words have no power over me anymore.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Inertia

Her name was Trisha Sadler. By all accounts, she was a bright, generous person, who was well liked by her co-workers. Her family certainly loved her – her adoptive father, Michael, speaks of her as the baby of the family and talks about how badly missed she will be. She didn’t have to die. There was no illness, no reason for her life to end at age 29. Trisha Sadler was murdered by her boyfriend, stabbed to death and dismembered in the home she had bought for herself. Just a few days before she died, Trisha told her co-workers, “If I don’t come to work, call the police. He’s said he’s going to kill me.”


Willie J. Ward, Trisha’s boyfriend, had a history of abusing her. Trisha would come to work with bruises, and said that Ward threw her around. So maybe you’re wondering why a bright, generous person like Trisha Sadler would stay with an abuser like Ward…


Frankly, so am I.


Yeah, I know, it doesn’t make sense. After all, I’m a survivor of domestic violence. I stayed, even after my former partner hit me and threatened me with a knife. So if anyone should understand the reasons behind Trisha Sadler’s decision to stay with Ward even though he abused her, I should. Right?


But I don’t. I find myself wondering why anyone would stay in that kind of relationship. I find myself wondering why I did. Oh, I know…at first, I loved him. At first, he didn’t hurt me; he was gentle, loving, and kind. And later on, when I began to see who he truly was, I convinced myself that if I could just hold on things would go back to the way they had been. After a while, I knew things would never get better, but by then I was sure he’d kill me if I left. He had threatened to, after all. And even when there came a time when I thought it would be better to risk death than to stay, I was afraid of what he might do to other people. And frankly, I was tired…I didn’t have the energy left to fight it anymore.


Maybe that’s the answer right there. Abusive relationships wear you down – by the time you know how bad they are, it’s either too dangerous to leave or you just don’t care what happens to you. Maybe that’s how Trisha Sadler felt – maybe, by the time she realized how much danger she was in, it was too late to get away. And even if she had left, it wouldn’t have ensured her safety. Intimate partner violence accounts for 30% of the murders of women in America, and women who leave their batterers are at 75% greater risk of severe injury or death than those who stay.


I wonder, too, about Trisha’s co-workers and family. Her friends at work knew what was happening – did they encourage her to leave? Did one of them call the police to report that Trisha was being battered? Did anyone try to intervene? Trisha said that if she didn’t turn up for work, they would probably find her dead – did they think she was being melodramatic, or did they believe her and try to help?


There are no easy answers to these questions or to the problem of domestic violence. In the end, it is the abuser who chooses what happens, regardless of what the victim decides. Where is the justice in that? Why does someone have to die before people intervene? Where is the boundary between live and let live and loving thy neighbor as thyself? Inertia affects us all – victims of violence and those who watch it happen but stand by and do nothing. May God give us the courage to act in his name, for peace, and for justice.





Resources:


McGill, Andrew; Tyler Richardson. 2011. The Morning Call. Retrieved June 21, 2011, from http://articles.mcall.com/2011-06-19/news/mc-bethlehem-homicide-folo-20110619_1_multiple-arrests-affidavit-diamond-ring


Statistics courtesy of: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the Domestic Violence Resource Center

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Time

My knees hurt. So does my upper back, my knuckles, and my right hip. The pain ranges from a dull background-type of ache to raging, burning agony, depending on the weather and the amount of sleep I've had, whether I've been eating too many refined carbs or have been drinking enough water. When I talk to my doctor about the pain, she shrugs and says, "arthritis." I'm sure she's right, but ouch...what a depressing thought. In my vocabulary, arthritis equals OLD.

My birthday is rapidly approaching, and when it comes, the singular comfort of being able to say that I'm still in my thirties is flying out the window. I will turn forty this year, and the approach of that milestone has me thinking about a lot of things, not the least of which is how far behind I seem to be. I often find myself humming that Pink Floyd song, Time, specifically the lines "and then one day you find ten years have got behind you; no one told you when to run. You missed the starting gun." That's how I feel - as though somehow, the race started when I wasn't paying attention, and now all the other runners are out of sight and I'm limping along with a stitch in my side, favoring my arthritic knees, and wondering how in the world I'm going to catch up. I have spent the last decade thinking this way, lamenting the fact that life has largely passed during the time of my deep disengagement, and that I've missed so many important things.

Until now, anyway. Because now, for the first time ever, I feel as if my feet are on the right path. I am open to what God is calling me to do, and there is nothing standing in my way. I am surrounded by people who encourage and uplift me. I expect that there will be many hurdles and pitfalls, but the path itself is the right one. Maybe all the waiting, wondering what I'm supposed to do with my life, trying this and that and never quite fitting in was all a part of the road that has led me to this time of my life. Maybe I was always supposed to take a different path.

In January of this year, in the entry Falling, I said that my journey had taken a turn into the deepest, wildest part of the wood. I imagined myself standing in the dim, grey forest, waiting as the sky lowered and snow began to fall. Now I feel as if the winter of my heart is beginning to pass, and the promise of spring is finally evident. I am ready for warmth, for life, for growth. I am ready.

Friday, June 3, 2011

I Choose Joy

Just what is the language of my past, anyway? Since I wrote my last entry - "Written in Stone" - I've been thinking about those words. When I wrote them, I was referring to the misery stemming from the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse I've suffered. But today, with an important milestone behind me and a clearer sense of direction for the path ahead, I'm thinking that misery isn't the only language of my history. Looking back, I can see suffering, but I can also see survival, healing, and victory. And if it is true, as Madeleine L'Engle wisely said, that human life is like a sonnet - with its form and meter and length pre-set, but with the freedom to write whatever we wish within those parameters - then I can also choose how my future will be written.

The freedom to make choices is one of God's greatest gifts to humanity. Because we are free to choose, any service we offer God out of our love for him has deeper value than it would if it were compulsory. We are at perfect liberty to pursue our own desires and wants first, after all. But the willingness to give of ourselves brings us full circle from selfishness and into the Christlike nature that cheerfully gives everything that we are in service to others, and so to God. It is in choosing to use my hurts to fuel my desire to help others who have suffered what I suffered that I take ownership of my life and bring light out of darkness.

I am free to choose how I live and what I believe. I am free to write my future in any language -  regret or rejoicing; sorrow or song; hate or healing; judgment or joy.

I choose joy.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Written in Stone

We write our futures in the language of our pasts. Tonight I feel overwhelmed by memories that I can’t shake. I know that they are of my own making, but right now I have a thousand-pound weight on my shoulders and there is no one to share this burden with. The choices that brought me to this crossroads at this time in my life seem to me to have been the only ones I could make, but my heart whispers might-have-beens inside my head and I am tired – tired – tired…

Why is it that memories rise so viciously at the times when I am most vulnerable? Like ravening wolves, they search me for signs of weakness so that they can attack. And I am weak, I admit it. I am tired, I am heartsick, I am alone. In just five short days, it will have been twenty-six years since I was gang-raped. The anniversary is looming and my PTSD is responding with nightmares, flashbacks, and heightened anxiety. In the meantime, I am approaching the culmination of two years of reflection and prayer as I sit before the District Committee on Ordained Ministry to talk about the possibility of candidacy. This is a natural next step on the path and I am trying to feel good about it, but all I can think of is how, two years ago, I was getting ready to take this step and the pastor I trusted used his offers of spiritual support and guidance along with offers of counseling to worm his way into my life and nearly destroy my faith – not to mention the awful abuses he perpetrated on my emotions, my mind, and my body. So this time, which should be joyful with anticipation of exploring God’s calling in my life, has become something to dread for the triggers and memories it brings. One stone is easy to carry. Two stones might feel heavy but they won’t stop your progress. But I feel like I’m carrying a sack-full of stones tonight, and the weight is crushing me.

I wish the interview had come a month later, when I was past my anniversary and feeling stronger. I wish that I had never met the man who used my faith to hurt me so badly. I wish I had chosen differently, or that I had known at the first of that relationship what I know now. I wish that I wasn’t alone tonight. I wish that my past was written in easier words, ones that didn’t represent so much pain. But wishes are meaningless, and the past is written in stone.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Passionate Intensity

The voice of wisdom speaks in different ways to different people. When I am awake, it speaks to me through an uneasy nausea in the pit of my stomach and an unsynchronized fluttering in my heart. When I’m asleep, it takes on the form of someone for whom I hold deep respect. In the past, it has been my father, my late mother-in-law, my late grandmother, a former pastor, and my former boss, Steve Hodges. Lately, it has been taking on the persona of Jay Reese, a man with whom I attend church and whom I consider to be a friend and mentor. A few days ago during a vivid dream, I sat on my mother’s front porch with Jay, drinking Starbucks coffee and talking about the choices that stand before me. You see, recently I’ve been turning over the idea of purchasing a home, going to graduate school, and pursuing some form of ministry. I have also been examining a deepening relationship with someone I’ve been involved with for the past year. These factors have blended into an uncertainty about the direction of my life, what is best for me, what boundaries I need to have, and how in the world I can make good decisions when I’ve never felt able – or allowed – to make choices.

I may be doing Jay a grave disservice when I say that during my dream, he quoted to me some lines from a poem as a way of helping with my various dilemmas. He said:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand.

I have no idea whether Jay likes poetry, though I suspect he does; particularly, I have no idea whether he likes apocalyptic utterances such as the above, written by William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet whose meaning for the words was undoubtedly much different than what I have taken them to mean for me.

During my discussion with Dream Jay, he asked me why I would even think about going into a valley I’d already walked through with poor results. He said, “If you are going to choose to suffer, then suffer for something that’s worthwhile. Is there anything that you're willing to bleed for?” I woke up with our conversation still fresh in my mind and the words “surely some revelation is at hand” echoing in my head.

His words speak to me in two different ways. First, on a wholly personal level as I contemplate a deeper romantic commitment, I am forced to consider whether I am ready to suffer with and for the person I love. Whether I am ready to bleed for him – not necessarily literally, of course, but when you tie your life to someone else’s, then their pain becomes your pain, their hurt becomes yours – you suffer what they suffer. Am I ready for that? In some ways, yes; in others, no – and that is something to consider. His words also resonate spiritually.

Passionate intensity. Has there ever been anything I’ve been passionately intense about? Anything that is central to who I am? Anything that defines me and to which I could dedicate my energy and my intelligence without feeling like I had been untrue to myself? Yes…and I’m doing it right now. Writing. But it isn’t just about crafting words and stringing them together with solid grammar and good syntax. It isn’t even about story-telling, though I do love that part. No, the writing is also about righting – putting things right. It is about exposing violence, lies, and suffering, so that others can see a better way. It is about telling the truth when it needs to be told. It is about communicating my hope to those who have no hope. And my hope lies in following Christ; the world's redeemer who, with his short life, taught us all how to be better people. It all comes back to that central point – that calling to be something more than I feel I am. To be what it is that God made me to be. To live with passionate intensity.

God - help me to be who you believe I am.

***
Yeats, WB. The Second Coming.