Change of View, Change of Heart

story isnt over

This past weekend I went to the “big city” to visit friends and family. On my way to visit my grandmother, I drove past my childhood neighborhood that I moved away from about 5 years ago. Like many parts of this overpopulated city, the streets have gone from bare fields, to filled with neighborhoods, and now businesses are lined down this high trafficked street. Driving down this road used to bring a rush of anxiety; I knew this area was filled with a number of my abusers. It was like driving down the memory lane no one wants to return to. This Sunday afternoon was different. I wasn’t engulfed with fear, but instead I felt the heartache of the young me running the busy street to get away only to be threatened, harassed, and nearly kidnapped. I could feel the pain I was always trying to escape. For once, I empathized with myself instead of pulling up my armor to avoid showing “weakness.”

Sunday I looked at myself and changed my view. I can easily sit across from someone and empathize with them, feeling every obvious or non-obvious emotion they’re experiencing. Yet I’ve failed to have this deep care and understanding for myself. I’ve relished in displaying “strength” and have taken a very matter-of-fact stance in working through my abusive past. Having compassion for others comes easy, but having compassion for myself is a challenge I rarely take on. Sunday looked different – the “adult” me that used to scrunch up my face and look down at the “child” I used to be, embraced and looked her in the eyes as a part of me; not as a disconnected entity that was too much of a disgrace to be around.

Why I Stayed

A while back ago #whyistayed was trending across the media in regards to domestic violence. It’s easy to throw around “why”, but understanding why is a completely different level. One of the reasons I’m not very transparent with the world I’m in contact with everyday about my abuse is because I fear the “why” questions.

Why did you stay?

Why didn’t you do anything?

Why did you believe them?

Why didn’t you know better?

Where I am in life now I don’t blame myself, nor do I think I would if I had these questions thrown at me, but it does take vulnerability to a new level. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with my abusers, both as a coping mechanism and because of their way of twisting the world around to fit their goals. By the time I was an adult, my time away from them, my education, or “common sense” had zero power over what all of the years with them had told me. The trauma bond between myself and my abusers were alive and well.

Traumatic bonding is a powerful emotional attachment that is seen to develop from two specific features of abusive relationships: power imbalances and intermittent good-bad treatment (as cited in Dutton & Painter, 1993).

March will make four years of what I like to call, sober of abuse. I use the word sober because in many ways I needed my abusers in my life like I needed air; I couldn’t live without them. And just like someone being sober from alcohol may have urges to drink, there have been a number of times that I have stayed in bed having withdrawals, wanting to contact the very people that nearly took my life from me. As time has passed, I’ve learned time really does heal. The aches and pains of wanting to return became shorter in length, decreased in how often they showed up, and created in me a sense that I can do this. When I’m in my pit of despair I can’t guarantee this surging urge to run back will not return, but I can guarantee, in the words of Taylor Swifts “Clean” –

I won’t give in, now that I’m clean, I’m never gonna risk it.

Living in the Present

In January 2013 I started my new year out by vowing not to let flashbacks, memories, lack of memories, and heartache over dealing with my past take over my life. I had just completed a 4 month intensive counseling program for survivors of sexual abuse who were experiencing post traumatic stress disorder and was confident I could overcome the nightmare of my past. It was haunting being with friends who could easily reminisce over middle school and high school memories, but I was left to just laugh around with them without remembering the majority of these times we shared. I felt stuck. Pieces of my past were flooding back, but there were so many good and bad things that I couldn’t recall. No amount of therapy could bring back the time I lost and I reasoned that this was my brains way of protecting me. It was either work with what I had in the present, or continue to drown in anger, sorrow, and confusion over these empty spaces in my brain.

I chose to relish in the present; make new memories and live to the fullest at being absolutely thrilled about the “now”. I went out, bought a large glass mason jar, decorated Memory Jarit, and filled it with the greatness of life as it is now. The first slip of paper that made its way to the bottom of the jar: “Telling the truth about my abuse, and being believed 1/2013”.

Life is not all rainbows and fields of flowers all the time by any means, but proving to myself that I still have plenty of time to make new memories, and great memories at that, began to make the hurt of not remembering that much easier to deal with. By the end of 2013 my plan was to empty the jar, read the notes I had written about all these great memories, and start all over again. Instead, I continued, and as 2015 has began, I still continue, with pieces of paper dated all the way back from January 2013. Sitting right beside my desk, it’s a daily reminder that I have had many amazing memories in these last 3 years.

Much has been taken away, but I have so much more to gain.

 

End the Contribution to Violence: How and Why Society is Supporting the Abuse Cycle

I’ve seen quite a few things going around the internet giving attention to cat-calling. As someone who has regularly dealt with the entire spectrum of harassment, it blows my mind at some of the responses I have gotten.

“You’re a girl, and you’re cute – get used to it.”

“You were alone – what did you expect?”

“You shouldn’t have acknowledged him.”

“You should have acknowledged him.”

And the list goes on.

To the majority, being female makes me an automatic target. If even my ankles are showing, I’m even more of a target. I’ll be the first to admit I dress extremely modest both because I prefer to, and because it makes me feel safer. Because after all, according to the majority, if you’re dressed a certain way, you’re attracting negative attention. While I agree with this, I don’t agree with clothing, or lack of, being the cause of any type of behavior of another person. If someone takes their wallet out of their back pocket to pay for something, puts it back in their back pocket, then walks out of the store and their wallet is lifted from their pocket, is it their fault that someone stole their wallet? Of course not, so why does harassment, assault, or rape become the victims fault?

I look at how far women have come in the world, but then I look at how far we have left to go society has to go. As women, we are the ones that are expected to not walk alone at night, dress a certain way, be wary and cautious of drinks being spiked, be cautious around the opposite sex, and take all the other possible steps in attempt to avoid sexual assault. We’re expected to take extra precautions, but at the same time pornography, violence, drugs, power, alcohol, and male dominance are highlighted in the movies, on television, in music, on the internet, and in everyday life. We’re contributing to the cycle of violence all because we “like” the song, show, actor, athlete; we’re supporting abuse, victim-blaming, and silence. It’s easy to fall into this trap, after all, everyone else is doing it! The media carries a heavy message – are you listening to and watching something with a message that is contributing to abuse? At an even more personal note, are you joining in on discussing, a part of, or being a bystander of abuse or harassment? It’s easy to point fingers at others, but the real challenge stands in looking at the only person we have control over – our self.

Finding my Voice

Two months ago I verbalized my abusive past in about five sentences. Speaking the truth seemed too risky; speaking the truth would make it all so real. Weeks prior I kept hearing that small voice and kept feeling this internal push.

“Sarah it’s time. You’re ready to speak the truth – you’re ready to share your testimony.”

I pushed these words away just as quick as they seemed to come up. I was not ready. I was ready to become a voice for change, but I wasn’t ready to make myself vulnerable enough to speak aloud about my abuse. I feared being looked at like a victim, as someone who would have lifelong problems, and completely inept at obtaining my professional goals after having such an recent abusive background. I argued with God, this time I was right and He was wrong.

I feared people thinking of me as a victim, as someone who would always have problems because of my past, and as inept at reaching my goals because of my past because these are things I fear. Underneath my cloak of “I’m a thriver, hear my roar” there still lies layers of insecurity and doubt. Every time I get out of balance with God and doubt His plan, I’m always dumbfounded when it all works out. I may be continuously healing for the rest of my life, and insecurity and doubt may always creep out, but God always reminds me that it doesn’t take a perfect person to get to where He wants me, as long as He’s in it.

Surrounded by five people, I spoke up without any fear. My voice left my mouth; 9 years of sexual abuse, shutting out God and turning to my abusers occult system for answers, and being saved from all of it by the only one who never left me – God.

 

The Legal System and Indicting Abusers

This topic comes up a lot, but I recently obtained a new perspective on the legal process and prosecuting abusers. I did not go through the court process myself, so I admit that the little I do know about the entire process is mostly through formal education. Sitting in class discussing the pathway to counseling survivors of abuse, the topic of pursuing legal action came up.

As counselors, advocates, and supporters, we prop up, support, advocate, and have hopes that each survivor will find strength. But on the stand these same people are put in a vulnerable position and looked more favorably upon when they portray weakness and a victim like stance. So on one side we’re pushing for victims to become thrivers, and on the other end (atleast for the sake of the trial), victim, hurt, helpless, and defeated are pushed for. Survivors are being pulled in two different directions at an already intense time.

When will the courage and strength of coming forward be enough to not have to portray helplessness in attempt to sway jurors that the emotion, hurt, and effect of abuse still exists regardless of how you present yourself on the outside?

Forgiveness

“Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim – letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.” – C.R. Strahan

I’ve quickly realized forgiveness is not a hot topic when talking to survivors of abuse. Forgiveness can seem impossible in the midst of pain, and in the aftermath. How do you forgive people that have torn you down to nothing? How do you forgive people that ignored your pleas of help? How do you forgive yourself? In the middle of reliving my past I was filled with raging hate. Hate towards myself, towards every person that hurt me, and towards people that didn’t believe me nor did anything to protect me. I didn’t care about someone understanding; I wanted revenge. I wanted the people that hurt me to hurt the way I had been hurt, I wanted them to suffer like I had, like I still was. I wanted them to lose the time in life I had and to feel the feelings that gripped me by the throat. I wanted them to feel empty, used, and broken.

Contradicting the hate I had inside of me, I was fearful of the consequences of my unforgiveness. I grasped for answers; listening to anyone that could give me an explanation, anyone that could pull me out of the pit I was in. I’d sneak in questions about forgiveness in conversations trying to form my own opinion, but also trying to get down to the truth – what is forgiveness? The idea of forgiveness yelled out giving up and I saw it as screaming to the world and everyone in it that I was ok with what happened.

Battling with my contradicting thoughts and feelings, I heard both sides; my anger wanting to accept those that reasoned forgiveness is not necessary to heal. As bitter and hurt as I felt, the twisting of my stomach and core beliefs told me differently. I felt stuck and immobile with the negativity that flowed through me. Anger was running my life, following me around like my shadow. The more I tried to push it away, the stronger it came back; voices whispering in my ears “They did this to you, it’s their fault you’re here. You’re miserable and their life is great!”

Continuing to question forgiveness, I wondered if I was even capable. I fought with being angry, hurt, and betrayed by everyone around me. Being let down by school administrators, family, the police, and doctors – the signs were all there. How could I possibly forgive? As I worked through counseling, my walls continued to come down, but it took more than just counseling for my self-hate and shame to begin to diminish. The combination of counseling and my counselor’s effortless way of not seeing me as I saw myself took me by surprise. I couldn’t understand how someone could know the truth and not shun me, not want to throw me to the side like trash. While I struggled to accept the person other people saw me as, my heart and rough exterior began to change. God’s grace began to flood my heart, and the more I fought it, the more I pushed it away, the stronger the waves came.

“[You] are loved.” John 3:16

“[You] are fearfully and wonderfully made, all of His works are wonderful and [you] are one of them.” Psalm 139:14

“[You] are His masterpiece, created to be new in Christ so that [you] can do good things He planned long ago.” Ephesians 2:10

I fought with these words, words that surely couldn’t be true for me. I was the exception. But the more I could see these words working in my life, the more I began to think, “Maybe I’m not that bad.” The walls around my heart started to tumble down to the point where I was either going to be an open target for the enemy to use, or an open vessel for God to heal.

As I started to hate myself less and less, I started to let go of the self-blame and shame. I pleaded with God to take the heaviness and anger I had towards myself. I wanted to forgive myself for the things I did wrong, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t let go of the anger or disgust I felt towards myself. I couldn’t, but God could. And so another boulder I was carrying around began to be lifted. Although the feelings of self-blame and shame didn’t disappear forever, I learned how to combat them when they did come up. I refused to let negative feelings and thoughts about myself run my life. Those “you’re filthy and can never be made whole” lies were replaced; replaced with wisdom and a forgiveness that only God can give.

“As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:12 (NIV)

Make a Positive Impact

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Earlier today the conversation I was having somehow landed on our aspirations as children. I’ve always been on the shy side, but up until the end of elementary school that didn’t stop me from wanting to be on stage and doing what I loved – performing in one way or another. By the time I got to 6th grade I got a little more realistic about not being some Broadway star and decided I wanted to grow up, get my Ph.D, be high and mighty in the research world, and present research and speak all over the country. This brought on some dropped jaws when I admitted this tonight to say the least.

Now, at 24, I can’t stand having a room turn around and look at me, and am just now starting to get to the point of not feeling like I’m going to get sick right before presentations. Saying I don’t like that attention on me is an understatement. So of course the questions came.

Why such a dramatic change – How did you go from that, to hiding in the back in such a short time?

It’s a reasonable question, one I’d probably be curious about if I were on the other side of the conversation. I’m rarely open about my abusive past, so I shrugged my shoulders and responded with an “I’m not sure.” I’m not going to say that abuse is 100% to blame for this dramatic change, but it didn’t take long for it to begin to take a toll on my self-confidence, self-image, and self-respect.

Thankfully, now I can say I’ve slowly started to build these things back up, but it is a whole heck of a lot easier to build up a child than it is to repair an adult. Rather you have kids/adolescents, are around them regularly or irregularly, every word that comes out of your mouth and every action makes an impact.

Are you making the kind of impact that’s going to shape a confident, secure adult?

New Direction

“The two important things I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.” -Robyn Davidson

In ‘The Last Bandage: Finding Healing‘, I talked about having finally reached more than just a temporary feel-good, but at the same time, finding this healing didn’t make life instantly magical.

Separating myself from abuse I imagined no more suffering, no more wanting to die, and no more fearing for my life. I pictured happiness and a sense of relief that only purging my burdens could bring. Quite the contrary, my life didn’t suddenly become some magical fairy tale where everything was just alright. I was determined to live a new life, and for me, that meant everything from my past would have to cease to exist.

And so it did, for a little over a year.

Continually fighting to keep the walls built up in my head, the memories were too much, and slowly busted through. Flickers of my past ran across my mind long enough to catch my attention. As fast as these sensory details flashed across my mind they disappeared from my memory until days later. Sitting at a computer in the library at my undergraduate university in 2011, the short, less than half a minute flickers that had flashed across my mind for months were combined together. In an open room filled with hundreds of students my past came to life as my twelve year old self flashed before my eyes. The same memory I had continuously pushed away came back to life as my hands clammed up and my eyes welled up. My clammy hands banged against the keyboard in front of me as I tried to continue working on my research paper. Head spinning and throat closing, I gasped for breath, overwhelmed with emotions. With everyone around me occupied on the computer, I sat in silence as I relived my past. The hurt I needed so badly to get away from was happening all over again, and with each passing day the hurt I hid away ran through my mind.

Despite what I was feeling, I stayed optimistic. I felt the safest I had in years and could see the future I never let go of. I was sure life had better things for me and somehow, my past would be worth it. Unwilling to open my heart in fear of not being believed all over again, I kept what I was going through to myself. I battled the tears, shame, self-blame and hate on my own. My emotions were all over the map and it took every bit of strength I had to stay on track. I hated remembering, but I hated the blanks in my memory that continued to exist even more. What I spent so much time and work on forgetting, I wanted to know. I needed to remember my life; I needed the control that knowing my own life could give me, even if it made me feel absolutely out of control.

After months of banging my head against the wall trying to go back and fill the empty spots and getting nowhere, more flickers flashed through my mind, only slower than before. The same motions played out: flicker, forget, same flicker, forget, same flicker, remember. As my mind played with this back and forth motion of memories a compilation of flickers eventually played like a film. As the memories got stronger, I felt like the life was being sucked out of me. I was too ashamed to tell, but my past felt as if it were starting to eat me alive. Getting out of bed became a chore and anything outside of school and work was too much to care about. I felt like a limp ragdoll that had its stuffing ripped out. The lies depression screams weighed me down, but glimmers of optimism and hope still managed to shine through. The stubbornness that had gotten me through so much stood firm; I refused to be a quitter. Even though I was hopefully, the lies people, myself, and society told me filled my head.

“You’ll never be whole; you’re too broken.”

“No one will ever want you.”

“You’re not worth saving.”

“You’re damaged goods.”

I compared myself to people around me and accepted these debilitating thoughts. My self worth didn’t change when I broke the chains my abusers had on me; I still believed the lies rather their physical presence was there or not.

My self thoughts, society, and my past were telling me I would always be a prisoner and I would always be broken. I was looking for answers to feel whole, but the world was telling me otherwise. Instead, I had to look at the only One who could heal me. The promise of a hope and a future that I held on to for so long was becoming more and more noticeable; I was certain if this was true there had to be more than accepting the lies if there really was any future for me.


 

I’m a true believer of “change your thoughts, change your world.” I’ve talked a lot about how powerful words are. Not only are they powerful in the moment, but they can literally be a life changer.

“Let go, and let God” is a powerful statement. One for me that I haven’t exactly mastered, even though I know how much easier it would be on me if I would just let go. Taking my hands off things means letting control slip away, and the thought of not having control still makes me edgy. But, when it comes down to it, do we really have control? Or do we just do things to try to make us feel like we have control? I wonder how life would look if everyone just took their hands off of their problems, worries, fears, et cetera, and trusted God to handle it. I want to get to the point where I not only trust God, but I trust Him to the point where I won’t worry, fear, or stress out when He’s pushing me in a direction that would make my flesh try to run away.

All of this probably sounds contradictory to my last post, but regardless of how you heal, it doesn’t happen over night. The difference between the me portrayed in this post verses earlier posts of my journey? I wasn’t alone. Although depression and ptsd plagued me, there wasn’t an emptiness within me anymore.

The Last Bandage: Finding Healing

Less than a year passed when I fled from Hayley and David and I transferred from community college to one of the most diverse universities in the country. I was desperate to be accepted back into the safety of God, but ashamed to ask for acceptance, terrified of being cast aside. I’d sit outside of my school’s chapel, the benches a safe distance away from the clean students that walked through the doors. Rather it was raining, breezy, cold, or blazing hot, I glued myself to the dedicated benches near the chapel. Sitting there and staring at the white building covered in arched windows that was home to the dozens of religions that flooded the campus, I didn’t have it in me to walk through the doors. How could I possibly walk in with such evilness attached to me? There was too much darkness in my life that couldn’t dare be brought into what I saw as a sacred place. I was terrified to dirty up something that I saw as clean.

But that feeling wouldn’t go away.

After a year of contemplating, sitting around and walking by the building day after day, I finally heard that confident, reassuring voice.

“Go in Sarah, it will be ok.”

My heart raced and thoughts inundated me as I opened the door for the first time. Making my way up the stairs, I sank into a sofa where I found myself sitting and studying through the rest of the semester. I refused to go into the sanctuary, but the fear of walking in faded.

As time passed I eventually found myself walking into churches around the city. I was still hesitant, and very much “testing the waters”; I was sure one of them would see through me and throw me out. I showed up at churches in the heart of the city, out in the suburbs; Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and everything in-between. I wasn’t stared at, people didn’t look at me and see my problems, and I didn’t get struck by lightning because I wasn’t holy enough to be there. The peace I got years ago that I hid under my rebellious attitude flooded back.  I started to realize my problems didn’t define me nor dictate my life. There was one reason I survived, and it wasn’t because of luck. It was much deeper than that. I came to learn the only bandage that would truly heal my wounds, was God, when the world turned its back; He never left and never gave up on me.


I look back and sometimes find it hard to believe how I was never one of the girls that was found in the ditch after being missing for days. I also can’t explain how seemingly out of nowhere while I was in line to get my passport to leave the country with my abusers, that I walked out and knew I had to get away – life was not “okay”. For all of the negative forces that had their hands around my throat, the real power was always in the part that I continuously pushed away, but never left.

The temporary feel good of ____________ (fill in the blank) is great, until the adrenaline rush, numbing effect, or whatever other feeling (or lack of feeling) it brings, runs out. Not to mention the lasting effects quickly begin to decrease in potentness.  I’m not saying that turning to God suddenly made everything better. In fact, it was more than difficult at times because of the preconceived ideas I had, and the schema’s I had developed over the years.

Trust no one.

Stay quiet.

No one cares.

No one will protect you.

Give, but don’t receive.

People will always fail you.

These had done absolutely nothing for me through the years but create more suffering. But the fact of the matter is, people will always fail me, and intentionally or not, people will hurt me just for the fact that they’re human. That’s where the difference lies between people and God. There have been many times where things happened that I didn’t want to happen, and the phrase “God never gives you more than you can handle” boiled my blood. Instead of our problems just disappearing, we are instead promised that in our sufferings, we will not suffer alone. God does not allow us to suffer things we cannot bear ALONE.

I don’t know about anyone else, but every time I used something else to bandage myself up, it always fell off, and I was always going through the battles alone, regardless of how many people were around me. I was trying to “fix” myself, until I let myself open up just enough to let the only One who could begin to heal me do the healing.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”                                                                                                                                  Matthew 11:28-30 NIV