Abuse and The Blame Game

“There appears to be a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering…we sacrifice those who suffer so we can maintain our illusions of autonomy and safety.”  -J & L Holcomb

It took me over a decade to tell anyone other than my very closest friends that I’d been abused. Part of it was, of course, that it’s a very private and painful experience. But if I’m being honest, the biggest reason I didn’t want anyone to know was because of the reality that I’d be shamed. Me. Not my abusers. I knew I’d carry the weight of what had been done to me. Not just the pain, but the blame. People rarely admit to blaming the victim but their cold comments, the looks on their faces, their body language, or their overall lack of response speaks volumes to those brave enough to break the silence.

I get it…we as humans want to believe that, at the core, everyone is good; that society is good. It’s just too scary and disturbing to look at the possibility that many of us, maybe even those we know and love, are capable of detestable things. So, we buy into the lie that, somehow, those who have suffered abuse must have done something to deserve it or something to welcome it; some major lack of judgement or some sin they’re being condemned for. So much goes unsaid and so much is assumed, rather than asked about, all because the topic of abuse makes most people uncomfortable. If there’s one thing our society is determined to be, it’s comfortable.

Here’s the truth, whether it makes you comfortable or not:

A victim of abuse is NEVER to blame for the actions of his or her abuser.

To abuse is a choice. To be abused is not. 

It’s that simple.

If someone comes to you with their story, be conscious of your words and actions. Be aware, and in control of, your responses. Craft them with compassion. Understand that the greatest gifts you can offer are your belief in them, your ability to listen to them without judgment, and your presence. To be in an abusive situation is horrible but, to feel alone in the midst of it is an unspeakable burden to bear.

We need to place blame where it belongs, solely on the abuser; to help victims of abuse move forward towards healing by giving the life-changing gifts of love and acceptance. Whether through sitting down to listen, sending a card, dropping off coffee and a hug on the hard days, or taking an active (but safe and appropriate) stand…you have the power to be a light in the darkness.

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When Grief Gets Complicated

My grandfather died three days ago. The news crushed me. Questions like, “I’m sorry for your loss.” and, “Do you need anything?” came from a handful of precious friends but, mostly, there was silence. An echo of the loneliness I often feel in response to all things family. At first, I’d wished I had more support. Then came the question that made me want to transition back into the realm of near-invisible: “Were you and your grandfather close?”

Yes…and…no. It’s complicated.

It wasn’t so much the question itself that bothered me; I was thankful someone was thoughtful enough to take interest. It was knowing that my answer would stop the conversation in its tracks that made my chest ache. It would result in awkward silence, and I just didn’t have the emotional energy for that.

My biological family is dysfunctional. Extremely dysfunctional. Generation after generation of verbally abusive motherhood stopped with me, but the women in my family remained hostile and manipulative behind closed doors. The men made the choice to either pretend that everything was fine, or to drink their problems away. To the outside world, we were so…normal. A seemingly vanilla family that says and does all the right things on the outside, while slowly burning alive on the inside.

When my own firstborn came along, I drew boundaries. Painful, yet completely necessary, boundaries. I refused to carry on their legacy of abuse. I demanded respect or separation. My family chose to pretend that the issues that tore us apart didn’t exist. They chose to keep up the manipulation and the verbal abuse. So…I walked away.

One harsh truth about drawing boundaries, about escaping an abusive family, is that often the decision also means walking away from some good relationships along with the bad; walking away from sweet memories and stolen dreams. My relationship with my grandfather went from cherished to non-existant in the blink of an eye. In doing what I had to do to protect my own children from abuse, I lost one of the most important relationships in my life. One of the only people who were safe. Grandpa was, in many ways, more like a Dad; in many ways, my rock. He was steady and strong, while gentle and kind.  He was predictable and sweet; comforting in his consistency. He had loving nicknames for me and proudly hung up my childhood drawings on his refrigerator…

He was what family was meant to be…and now he’s gone.

I didn’t get to say goodbye. In fact, because I had chosen to protect my children from the abusive members of my family and all of my relatives came as a package deal, I didn’t get to say anything to him for the past eight years. Eight years went by without a single interaction and then, one day, I got the call. It was done. There were no take-backs, no do-overs. All I had left were distant childhood memories, photographs…and regrets. Do I regret drawing healthy boundaries for the sake of my own children? No. Do I regret not making sure that my grandfather knew, really knew why it was that I’d left the family? Yes. I should have told him face-to-face instead of sending a letter (which very well could’ve been opened by grandma and thrown away). I should have called to tell him that none of it was his fault and that I loved him, just one more time. I should have…but I didn’t. I was too scared of being sucked back into the nightmare that was my experience with family. I was afraid that if I spent even one more second around their chaos, I’d become more like them. That toxic environment threatened to take from me all that I’d worked so hard to create. My own sense of self. My calmer, more peaceful demeanor. My strength. My victory over generational sin. I was afraid of all that I’d lose when, in reality, I was going to lose either way. I lost one of the only sane, healthy relationships I’d ever had. I lost one of the only good things I had to hold onto from my biological family. I lost part of myself.

If I could do it all over again, I would still make the same decision. I’ll always carry regrets about certain things not said or done. It’ll never get easier to answer questions about family. The awkward silences will never disappear. It’ll always sting to see others enjoying loving relationships with their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins…grandparents…but I wouldn’t change my decision, because my decision saved my life. It saved my children’s lives. From the devastation and decay of abuse. From the pain of separation. From the eternal, toxic poison of mistrust and manipulation.

Relationships, no matter how pretty the package, are messy. Maybe not as messy as mine, maybe more. Family isn’t always joyful and filled with sweet, loving memories. Family isn’t even always remotely functional. Sometimes it’s a complete disaster with a terribly unhappy ending. Questions about family can’t always be answered with a simple yes or no. Sometimes it’s painful, confusing, and sad. Sometimes it’s complicated…and that’s okay. That’s human. We just need to find a way to be human together. To fill the awkward silence with compassion, even when we don’t understand. To offer the comfort, the freedom, to just be.

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Resurrection Child

I was born on Easter morning. I was raised to believe that this meant I should really like bunnies and baskets full of candy. Which I do, because of the cute and the chocolate, but that’s not what the holiday means to me today. I actually struggled for many years to figure out my personal views on Easter. For some reason I felt numb…until the pieces fit.

I was a victim of verbal abuse as a child. The message I received: I was a worthless failure. It was my identity. Nothing I did was ever good enough so, my sense of value became tied to what I did rather than who I was. I was a disappointment and a burden in my mother’s eyes. She made little to no effort to hide it. This formed my reality; the image I saw when I looked in the mirror. I was a slave to my shortcomings, always feeling pressured to be impossibly perfect, and always missing the mark. I couldn’t escape the feeling that, no matter how hard I tried, I would never be worthy of love or respect. This led me straight into the arms of an abusive boyfriend after high school graduation. In my mind, physical, sexual and verbal abuse seemed to be exactly what I deserved. Pain was my normal. Before I knew it, two more years of my life were gone. By the time I realized that I needed to escape the relationship, I was staring death in the face. He had completely lost control, and I had completely lost myself. The grace of God landed me back home. Physically in one piece, but emotionally shattered, I couldn’t see beyond the pain. I couldn’t understand what needed to be done. Instead of reaching out for help, I entered another unhealthy relationship. One that ended in rape.

Being raped flipped a final switch in me. I felt cold. Empty. Defeated…and alone. Completely and utterly alone, in the depths of a sorrow I couldn’t bear the weight of. Less than a year later, I attempted suicide. The pain was too great and what I felt I had to live for was too small. I believed the lives of those around me would either be untouched by my absence, or improved by it. I chased a bottle of pills with a bottle of alcohol and went to sleep.

What should have killed me didn’t. I don’t know why. All I know is that I’m thankful. I wasn’t thankful immediately, but immediately I knew that there was a reason God had kept me alive. He’d saved me from my abusers and he’d saved me from myself. I had a chance to begin again. I wish I could say that I picked myself up that day and started a new life…but I didn’t. I didn’t know how. Not at first. I had no idea what kind of person I was beneath it all. I only knew the labels my abusers had given me, and those only led me further down the wrong path. I knew God was there. I knew He was waiting. I didn’t know how to accept what He had to offer.

Then Easter came around again. I listened to another sermon in another seat in another church, the same way I had my entire life. This time, He captured me. Deep inside, beyond the wreckage that had been my life up until that moment, my entire being shifted and I stood face-to-face with GRACE. The message of the cross clicked. Christ’s body broken. For me. Not the me I was dying to become, or the me I’d been told I was…the me that I had been all along; the me He created. God’s intense suffering, chosen. Willingly chosen. For me. For the first time in my life I realized that, there in my darkness…in the evil, disgusting, utterly terrifying spaces of my life…He chose to be. At the greatest of all costs…

I was chosen. 

Today, because of His grace in my darkness, I am living a new life. I’m married to an amazing (and respectful…and gentle…and kind…) man. I am the mother to four incredible children. I am a photographer. I am a writer. I minister to families of children with disabilities and to recovering victims of abuse. I am a survivor. I am a warrior. My identity is no longer forged by my scars, but by His truth: I am a daughter of The King. This chapter of my story exists because of His saving grace; because of what Easter represents: There is no sin too dark, no hurt too deep. He has overcome it…and so can we.

We are made truly alive because of His death. With Him, we are resurrected. From unwanted to cherished. From defeated to conquerors. From victims to victorious. From chained…to FREE. Not because we have earned it or deserve it, but because HE. IS. LOVE.

…and love always wins.

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Survivor’s Love Letter

I’m sorry.

You are all I ever wanted. Now you’re here, and I’m messing it up. I don’t know how to be who I thought I’d be with you. Who I wanted to be. Every day, I try to move towards being that person and every day I seem to fail.

I’m stuck.

I’m stuck in between the person I was and the person I want to be. Fighting. Years of fighting. Somehow, I’m right back where I started.

I’m longing.

I die inside a little each time you try to hold me, each time you ask me to hold you…and I can’t. Not for long anyway. That feeling inside takes over. The suffocating fear, the crippling ache, the intense need to pull away from the ones I love the most…because the ones I used to love the most betrayed all that was sacred.

I’m damaged.

They took. Even in their absence, they’re still taking. What I’m left with never quite feels like enough.

I’m unfinished.

I’m a work in progress. Though I don’t have much to offer in this moment, I can promise that giving up is off the table. I’m weary from the fight but you’re so worth fighting for.

I’m hopeful.

This place is dark and tormenting…but I won’t settle here. Though it feels lonely, I’m not alone. The One who gave you to me offers the promise of victory. I refuse to be defeated.

I’m chosen.

Though I don’t deserve you, here you are. By design. In that truth I find the strength I need. To get up again. To try harder. To push further. Fire-tested and refined. I will forever fight to live beyond what’s left of me…to be recreated and restored. To live and to love beyond the scars.

I’m thankful.

You are my reward. I’d suffer it all over again if it meant that, in the end, there was you. You are greatest achievement. My reason and my inspiration. You love me, even when I feel unlovable. For that, there are no words. Only the eternal echo of a redeemed and grateful heart.

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Filled

My cup is empty.

The suffering of yesterday is too heavy, combined with the pain of today. I wake up empty, my strength failing before my feet hit the floor. I struggle through each day feeling worthless and ugly inside and out; forgetting His Truth and remembering their lies. I approach the world hiding. Hiding behind a smile, the silent desperation of feeling surrounded and alone all at once.

This morning, I considered not getting out of bed at all. Then I remembered something I’d read to my children last night:

“God breathed life into Adam and Eve. When they opened their eyes, the first thing they ever saw was God’s face.

And when God saw them he was like a new dad. ‘You look like me,’ he said. ‘You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever made!’ 

God loved them with all of his heart. And they were lovely because he loved them.”

-The Jesus Storybook Bible

They were lovely because He loved them.

We are lovely because He loves us.

His love knows no end. It’s fierce. It’s unfailing and absolute. This means our loveliness is absolute. Our worth is absolute. Our value is not determined by past or present hurts, past or present sins…past or present perceptions.

This feeling of empty doesn’t have to win. It doesn’t have to overwhelm and deaden us on the inside.

It doesn’t have to exist.

Hold fast to what is true. To what is real and bright. To the lovely, not the empty. This is who we are. Lovely…and loved. Let that fill your cup.

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If You’re Reading This, It Was Meant For You…

I’m just going to trust that God has a plan for these words He’s put on my heart…

Everyone has problems. Life is messy. So overwhelmingly so that you can begin to feel insignificant; your problems feel unimportant…like no one really, truly cares. No one cares enough to really listen, to really hurt alongside you. If you feel this way, may your heart be comforted by this truth:

The same God who created the universe with its swirling, starry sky and its deep crystal oceans…He cares about YOUR. INDIVIDUAL. LIFE.

Your struggles.

Your tears.

Your hurts.

He cares about each and every one.

He cares enough to really listen, to really hurt alongside you.

…and He also cares enough to empower and heal you.

No hurt is too great.

Our God is greater.

…and He is for you.

So, lay it all down. Just pray. If you can’t find the words, don’t worry…just be still.

He knows the aching of your heart.

Simply trust.

Then watch Him work.

 

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An Uncensored Prayer

Father,

You already know. In the depths of my being, you hear the words I can’t bring myself to say.

You understand what breaks me; what has broken me. You are here. In my hiding away, in my pretending…you patiently hold my hand and wait. You’ve always been here, and ‘thank you’ could never be enough.

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I just keep making the same mistakes. I can’t seem to get past this and I don’t know how to fix it. You’ve spoken perfect truth into my life but I can’t seem to own it. I don’t know how to see myself as worthy of your love; as worthy of any love at all. Please. Help me. Help me understand what it is that you could possibly see in me…because all I hear is the echo of their voices. All I feel are the hands that hurt me.

God, I’m so tired. I’m at my end. I’m angry and I’m afraid and I’m screaming on the inside; it hurts so much that it’s burying me alive. I know you have a plan and I know you’re in control…but I’m shaken. I’m lost in the heaviness of the past and the present combined. You’ve trusted me with much, but I don’t feel trustworthy. I feel like a failure. I feel alone.

…but you’ve shown me that I can’t trust my feelings. You are all I need. You are clear, constant truth.

I love you.

For meeting me in my brokenness, for embracing me in my fear. For never giving up on me. For all you’ve done and all you will do. For being who you are, and for loving me despite who I’ve been.

Thank you for reminding me, here in the stillness, that nothing is truly lost with you. That no matter how big I screw up, or how deeply damaged they’ve left me, you can use it. The pain that almost destroyed me, the disgusting shame, the scars that have slowly faded, and the scars no one can see…you can use all that was meant to harm me for good. You turn the battle around on the enemy and rescue me. Not just rescue, but redeem. You are for me, no matter who is against me.

Because of you, my scars don’t define me. My past doesn’t determine my future.

I know my prayers lately have been shallow. I’ve been sitting on the sidelines, feeling defeated. I’ve lost my focus, Lord, but today I pray you’d light the fire again. Burn into my being your truth; the truth that sets me free. The real, raw, beautiful love that you stand for…that you are. That you’ve created me to live in and give away. Help me take the memories and the troubling thoughts captive. Help me see the enemy’s lies for what they are. Help me to see past my circumstances and remember that you’ve equipped me for this battle. We’re in this fight together and, when I can’t fight anymore…I will obey, as it tells me to in your Word, and be still. I will lay down my pride and rest in you, knowing you will fight for me.

Search me, Jesus. Reveal me. Show me who you’ve created me to be. Show me how to let love in. Soften my heart and, at the same time, help me be courageous so that I can stand and fight again.

Amen.

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