26 & 5 years

Today marked 26 years of life. Every time this time of year rolls around I look back in amazement. Have I really made it this far? Life has meaning, I value life, and I look forward to each day.

Life is no longer a black mass that is dictated by my experiences.

Even bigger than celebrating another birthday, is the week before my birthday. This year a milestone rolled around. Five years of freedom. And freedom has never felt so free. The first few years of freedom from my abusers felt anything but like freedom. The emotional abuse left huge gaping wounds and everything else just topped off the damage. I struggled, sank further, and often felt worse than when I was actively being abused. My escape to freedom felt anything but like freedom. But somewhere between then and now life has evolved, and I can truly say I am free.

That’s something to celebrate.

So I went on a mini vacation with friends to the beach, tried new foods, and reflected on all I have to be thankful. We often get caught up in the stress of life and forget all we have right at our feet. Even on the worst days, I have a bed to sleep, eyes to see the beauty around me, and breath. Instead of retreating inward and shutting down over a week that completely changed my world, this year, I chose to reflect and express my freedom and thanks. I know I’m extremely thankful for a Heavenly Father that never gave up on me, even when I gave up and completely turned away from Him. What an amazing feeling knowing that despite my brokenness, filth, and even hatefulness, Jesus didn’t turn His back. Instead, he broke through my stubbornness, cleaned me off, and made me whole. Are there still broken pieces? Of course. But instead of gaping wounds that spew out darkness, the cracks shine the light that was so graciously poured into me. How could you not celebrate that?

He has a way

Two weeks ago marked much more than turning 25. It also marked 4 years being free from my abusers. It has always been a week of mixed emotions…excitement of my birthday, and utter fear at the same time. The previous past 3 years were marked with grief or struggling to not return. This year was different. Society says this is something to stay quiet about, but I’ve come to realize that being away from people like that is just as big as if I were to say I’ve been sober or cancer free for 4 years, I’m having a baby, getting married, or graduating. All have different paths but I can undoubtedly say I know how hard it is to stay sober from something deadly, the grief of losing a part of yourself, and the excitement of a celebratory life event. I’m finally at the excitement part. I don’t need the world to know, and I’ve over-prided myself on being able to do it on my own – the one thing I would tell anyone not to do. But this year was different; I finally felt free.

ladybug

Ladybugs serve as my reminder that God has everything under control. Sometimes I forget this, you know, when things are stressful or difficult and I’m stuck in that “why me” stage or running around in panic mode. Much to my surprise when I was outside with my dog March 16th I turned around to admire the beautiful azalea bush in front of my front door. Looking closer I noticed over a dozen lady bugs spread across the large bush. I couldn’t help but stop and smile, thankful for the reminder that God is in control and that He is always with me. Peace spilled through me and I knew this anniversary would be different, I wouldn’t be crying and in pain this year, but rejoicing and praising Christ who saw me through and has already begun to use me in ways I never thought possible.

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.

A Message that Stuck

Have you ever had a sermon speak directly to you? I’ve heard many sermons that touched my heart, that I could relate to, and one’s that I thought were just incredibly amazing. However, I’ve never had that “God is speaking to me right this second through this sermon” moment while at church; until this past Sunday morning.

There have been plenty of times where I have either been angry or overcome with anguish over the complete lack of support I’ve received through my journey of facing and dealing with 9 years of abuse. I reasoned with myself that I didn’t need support; I didn’t need anyone to hold my hand, calm my fears, or protect me. I could do it all alone. I told myself these things, but I desperately wanted understanding and support. This year will make 4 years being away from my abusers, and Sunday morning reinforced that although I have felt extremely alone in this journey, I’m not fighting  overcoming my past on my own. God given courage has carried me through, and I can say without a doubt, that these years of being “alone” has made me strong.

“What makes you strong in the valley, is your time with God.”

I’ve learned to completely rely on God through this time. As much as I may want something from man (or woman), I can’t make someone do something. So I should never question God’s plan, right?

Not exactly there just yet.

As the sermon continued, the more I got out of it. For the past year and half or so circumstances and people have pointed me in a direction I feel I am anything but qualified for. Public speaking. I’ve been in school my entire life, literally, and even at this point, public speaking at any level still makes me nervous. I’ve lead groups, presented research and papers, and have taught classes. Each time my stomach drops and I have to maintain awareness of my nerves taking over in my rate of speech. As time has passed and I’ve had to get up in front of people, the less fear engulfed me about this future possibility. But I’m still digging my heels in, because excuses are the easiest way to avoid something, right? I’ve made a lot of excuses to try to get out of the direction God has planned for me because of fear.

Isaiah 41:10 says “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

This is a command that I have continued to struggle with. I look at what my flesh is afraid of, but become uncertain in putting complete faith in God’s promise in the middle of my fears. My flesh may be completely terrified of getting up and making myself completely vulnerable by publicly speaking, but if that’s the direction God is intending me to go, I will not falter.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:9

You have the Right to Remain Frozen

As a psychology major, not one of my textbooks gave much light to the third component of the fight or flight response. Hundreds of thousands pages read and hundreds of hours of lectures; I was never able to settle for this black and white, either-or, response. The overlooked “freeze” component of the stress cycle screamed how I dealt with my years of abuse, but tonic immobility was never mentioned. I take a lot of pride in where I attended for my bachelor’s degree, but this is one aspect that boggles me; one aspect that isn’t talked about near as much. The education system and larger society is teaching ignorance and contributing to blame by leaving this extremely common aspect of the stress response system out.

I spent years blaming myself because I often just “lied there and took it.” Much like a turtle goes into its shell to protect itself, the human body adapts to trauma by protecting itself in the safest way possible. Freezing is an unlearned response that we are incapable of changing. To take it one step further, compliance is a normal form of self-preservation. If you’re mugged on the street, you’re likely to freeze and say “take what you want” to protect yourself because you want to live. Nobody would blame you for “asking for it” by walking out of the bank, and no one would blame you for surviving, even though you complied.

This changes when it comes to sexual assault and expectations change. Why didn’t you run? Why didn’t you fight? Why did I do what he said? Why did I stay quiet? Not only are these blaming statements coming from people around the victim, but they’re also more than likely coming from themselves as well.

It’s easy to leave out topics like the common response of freezing or compliance. Accepting and voicing these things make it more likely that sexual assault is real, and it can happen to anyone, and the only person responsible is the abuser. If you’ve never experienced sexual assault yourself this gives you the comfort that you can protect yourself and your loved ones; if you have experienced sexual assault, this gives the protection that there’s possibly something you can do to keep it from happening again. Acceptance of evil in the world can be terrifying and forgiving yourself for whatever you had to do to survive can be difficult, but it’s much easier than continuously filling a destructive hole.

 

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.