Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Evanna & Darrel: A Story of Invisible Abuse

Can you imagine what it would be like to be beaten by your spouse or partner until you were black and blue with bruises? Molested by a trusted family friend when you were young? Sexually assaulted by an acquaintance at a house party? Perhaps you can. Perhaps you've even experienced similar abuses - it's not unlikely, as these scenarios are a devastating reality for so many people. 

But what if you were abused by your partner quietly and methodically, with manipulation tactics so elusive they're nearly impossible to detect unless you already know they exist? What if this abuse caused you to suffer from chronic depression, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder but left you with no bruises to show, no horrific story of molestation or sexual assault? 

What if the abuse you suffered was completely invisible?

This form of abuse is called psychological abuse, also referred to as psychological violence, emotional abuse or mental abuse. It's characterized by humiliation, degradation, discounting, negating, judging, criticizing, domination, control, shame, accusing, blaming, trivial and unreasonable demands or expectations, refusal to admit own shortcomings, emotional distancing, "silent treatment," isolation, emotional abandonment or neglect...the list goes on.

Rather than lay out the aspects of emotional abuse in a clinical or sterile way, I'd like to tell you a story, and it's not my own. A brave friend of mine recently escaped her emotionally abusive marriage after eight years of having her personhood slowly taken from her, and she has graciously given me permission to tell part of her story. (Names have been changed for the protection of the victim and her children.)

Evanna and Darrell: A Story of Invisible Abuse

Evanna was twenty seven years old when she met Darrell. It wasn't love at first sight but he was charismatic, charming and laid back. Evanna, a wanderer at heart, had just moved home to help care for her ailing father. In an effort to force herself to stay put, she bought a house and hoped to get married. After a few dates with Darrell, though, something felt "off." He seemed almost too nice and Evanna wondered when his outer charm would wear off and reveal who he really was, but it didn't happen. Not at first, anyway. 

About a year later they were married and it didn't take long for Darrell's true colors to begin showing, in small ways at first. For instance, Evanna would prepare one of his favorite meals and Darrell would love it and praise her cooking skills, but if she prepared the same meal for him consecutive times he always found something wrong with it. It was never quite good enough for him, no matter if nothing had changed about the way Evanna prepared the food. 

Evanna and Darrell were not a religious couple but Darrell made sure that gender roles were very clearly defined in their home. In spite of the fact that Evanna worked an intense, full time job before they had children, she was expected to keep a perfectly clean house. If she failed to keep the house clean and meals prepared on time, Darrell would demean her, telling her she simply didn't have the capacity to "work like a man." The irony lay in the fact that Evanna was in fact bearing her ailing father's responsibilities of running a crop dusting company, working with local farmers, and servicing airplanes. When Darrell would berate her for not working harder, Evanna would break down in tears, exhausted from working so hard in and out of the home. She'd push on, hoping Darrell would notice how hard she was trying and begin appreciating her, but he seemed to only become more dissatisfied with her all the time. He withheld affection from her when he was upset. He would stonewall her, remaining emotionally disconnected and unresponsive if he was displeased with her. 
Darrell largely controlled the family's finances and would occasionally put a small amount of money into the couple's joint account - the only account Evanna had access to. When it came time to pay the monthly bills, Evanna would ask Darrell to deposit more money into the joint account and he would become annoyed and accuse her of mismanaging their money, even though he had poor spending habits and severely mismanaged his own business, incurring a great deal of debt in the first several years of their marriage. Eventually, Evanna grew weary of the conflict over money and let him pay the bills, handing over complete financial control. 

Over the next several years, Evanna and Darrell had three children together, and Darrell's mistreatment of Evanna continued into parenthood. Evanna quit working to care for the children, and Darrell's expectations of her as a mother were unrealistic and harsh. He expected her to entertain the children, change dirty diapers, and prepare all of the meals while he sat on the couch after work, fiddling around on his phone. He refused to care for the children by himself. Evanna wasn't allowed to leave the house and go to the grocery store by herself because Darrell didn't want to be left alone with the children. Anytime the children got bumps and bruises from playing or falling, Darrell would find a way to blame Evanna for being a neglectful parent and not taking better care of them. 

One year, for Evanna's birthday, a friend bought tickets to a Broadway show and planned a girl's night out for her and Evanna. When Evanna told Darrell about the plans, he said he didn't want to be left alone with the children (they had two at that time) and invited himself and the children along, eliminating the special time Evanna's friend had planned for her birthday. 

If Evanna wanted to visit an out-of-town friend, have access to spending money, practice with her singing group, buy new clothes, spend an evening with her dying father, or even just walk across the street of their small town to visit her sister-in-law, Darrell would become upset and jealous and would try to guilt her into staying with him and the children. Eventually, Evanna would give in and either stay home or take the children with her. Darrell would give her the silent treatment, sometimes for days afterward, making her feel terribly guilty for ever wanting to do anything for herself.  

She learned to completely avoid contradicting him because she knew her opinions and desires would be discounted, or worse, that she would be humiliated for expressing anything that wasn't in line with Darrell's opinions. Over time, Evanna even began to believe that she deserved the treatment she was getting. She wasn't a good enough wife, she didn't work hard enough, she was lazy for not preparing every meal from scratch or cloth diapering the children, she didn't have the laundry washed and put away in a timely manner, she couldn't keep the house spotlessly clean -- she was simply never good enough. Feeling ashamed and inferior, Evanna's opinion of herself suffered more all the time. 

Raised in a religious home, Evanna had been taught divorce was terrible. Even when she was miserable and unhappy in her marriage, she would tell herself it was her duty to stay married to Darrell. She'd chosen to marry him, after all, and now she needed to deal with the repercussions of her decision. Quiet and uncomplaining, she bore Darrell's mistreatment of her and slowly lost herself and her voice. She watched her friends flourish, enjoying equality in their healthy marriages, while she was constantly shamed and dehumanized. After eight years, Evanna was a shadow of the strong, outspoken woman she had once been. 

It wasn't until Evanna's father was approaching death that she began to grasp the reality of her situation. On his deathbed, her father told her he was sorry for leaving her to "fend for herself." She didn't know what he meant. He went on to explain how he wished she hadn't married Darrell because he treated her so poorly, drank too much, and was not a good person. He wished she'd married someone who loved her and treated her the way she deserved. 

After Evanna's father died, Darrell's mistreatment of her grew even worse. While Evanna planned the memorial, Darrell couldn't be bothered to watch the children because he told her it would interfere with his daily runs. Deep in sorrow and grief, Evanna longed for comfort and companionship but Darrell would ignore her and sleep in the next room with the children, leaving her alone in bed. During the memorial he didn't stand near Evanna or give her any comfort. She had never felt so alone in her life, and suddenly began to realize she had, in fact, been alone for a very long time. She was isolated, imprisoned, living a lie in her marriage that from the outside appeared to be perfect but in truth was slowly killing her. Evanna knew she had to get out. 

She left Darrell soon after her father died, but it was far from easy. Darrell constantly gaslighted her, telling her she'd "snapped" and that the children needed to be with the "stable parent," (him.) He shamed her for divorcing him and painted a picture to friends and family in which he was the ultimate victim in the situation, abandoned by his wife. And while the manipulation tactics, guilting, and shaming didn't relent, the difference now was that Evanna saw Darrell for what he truly was: an emotionally abusive spouse who had spent years slowly, methodically robbing her of her personhood and her voice, making her believe she was unworthy of being treated as an equal. 

Finally free from her abusive marriage, Evanna is beginning to heal but her journey is not anywhere close to being over. She had no bodily bruises to show the world, no reason to call the police. Her soul, though, was battered and bruised nearly beyond recognition. You see, emotional abuse leaves victims suffering effects of PTSD, chronic depression, and anxiety with the same intensity (if not more, research has shown) as victims of physical and sexual abuse. On top of healing from the abuse she suffered, Evanna must now learn how to coparent three young children with her abusive ex-husband; a heavy and constantly stressful task. Professional counseling, supportive friends and family, and a loving, caring partner who treats with her equality (hooray!) have been integral parts of Evanna moving forward, and while she's not ready to tell it herself, she wants the world to know her story. 

In closing, here are some words Evanna asked me to share:

"The best thing someone who has left an emotionally abusive relationship can do is to surround themselves with supportive, understanding people, and to seek counseling.

It's scary to put a name on emotional abuse because it makes you feel weak. It's also scary because you fear you may be wrong, you fear you may be the real problem, just like you've been told for so long. I believed I was weak, but I am not weak. I wasn't susceptible to my ex-husband's emotional abuse and gas-lighting because I'm weak. I was susceptible to it because I am a person who can love someone beyond their faults. I give people the benefit of the doubt and I am kind even when it is hard to be kind. Those are not weaknesses. Those are strengths and they ought to be celebrated. Even though those strengths put me in a position that hurt me and messed with my head, there is nothing wrong with me and I am not weak."


Please note: You deserve to be safe and loved. If you are currently in an emotionally abusive relationship, or think you may be, please seek help. Resources and help are available to you and I am happy to assist you in accessing them. I can be reached via private message on my Facebook Advocacy Page

To learn more about the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship, read this pamphlet from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

I Am Not Kintsukuroi.

(Please Note: What applies nicely to pottery does not necessarily apply nicely to human beings.) 

"You are so much stronger because of what happened to you."

Many times over the years I have heard some version of this statement, nearly always from someone who is trying to be comforting and helpful, and while I can appreciate the sentiment behind the words I think it's important to exercise empathy when we speak to others and most especially when we speak to someone who is suffering. Words have the power to soothe or to harm, and so in the spirit of mindfulness and empathy I'd like to point out the ways in which this go-to statement is not at all comforting or helpful.

  • It makes the assumption that my strength came from something horrible happening to me. Abuse breaks us. It is not a strengthening life experience, it's a destructive alteration of life no victim plans for. Abuse derails and dehumanizes us, and most survivors spend the rest of their life rebuilding. If I am strong it is not because someone raped me for almost two years when I was a young girl, it's because of my own inherent strength of spirit. Did I have to utilize that strength to survive during abuse? Absolutely. And did that strength help me to break free from the abuse or to speak up about it? Undoubtedly, yes. My strength was not created by abuse, it was mine to begin with. Taking sole ownership of something wonderful about myself is cathartic and necessary in reestablishing my person-hood.

  • It makes the assumption that I am strong despite the fact that surviving does not necessarily equate to or feel like strength to me. The fact that I survived abuse doesn't necessarily make me feel strong. I did survive. I am alive, which is a very good thing indeed, but being an abuse survivor means that very often we feel weak or helpless or ruined and those feelings are likely to increase once the abuse has ended and as its effects more deeply set in. Being told we're strong comes with the expectation that we act like a "strong person" and has the potential to isolate us. After all, "strong people" aren't debilitated by panic attacks, they don't cry uncontrollably or need anti-depressants, and they certainly don't ask for help when they're drowning in grief. This statement is (most likely unintentionally) loaded and leaves little room for vulnerability and connection to take place.  

  • It compares me to a person I will never know and never be, and paints who I am now as an improvement from that person. " much stronger..." So much stronger than what? Than the person I would have been if I hadn't been abused? This is an impossible scenario. Survivors of abuse will never know what their life would have been like without abuse - they only know what their life is like after experiencing abuse and honestly, the reminder that we could have been someone other than who we are is painful and jarring. We already think about that. Thousands of times I've wondered how my life would be different if I hadn't been abused, and in every imagined scenario my life is better without abuse. I attribute many of my struggles to abuse. I don't attribute the good things in my life to it and that's how it should be. Telling an abuse survivor their experience created something good in their life invalidates their suffering. It tells them to re-frame their abuse as something helpful, something that made them into a better person. Finding things to celebrate about a person who survived abuse is a beautiful thing. Finding things to celebrate about the abuse itself is not.

In a world that downplays abuse, blames victims, and justifies rape, we can always be more mindful of our words and actions. Just as there are many discouraging or isolating things we can say to an abuse survivor, there are also many encouraging and connective things we can say. I'm so grateful that topics like sexual abuse and sexual assault are becoming more mainstream in discussion. My hope is that as awareness is raised and as we all begin to learn what it means to truly love and support victims and survivors of abuse, we will see the great healing potential in practicing compassionate listening, mindfulness, and empathy. 

And as an alternative to the statement addressed in this post, perhaps consider saying something more like this:

"I know you might not feel strong and that's okay. But in spite of what happened, I see so much strength in you."

Monday, September 5, 2016

CREC Review Results: Will We Ever See Them?

Nearly one full year ago, on October 3rd, 2015, Christ Church (located in Moscow, Idaho and pastored by Douglas Wilson) announced they were launching an internal review to look into the possible mishandling of two sexual abuse cases that had occurred approximately a decade earlier. Within a few weeks of the announcement, two members of the review committee emailed me and asked several questions about my sexual abuse case and how the church had handled it. While I was uncomfortable answering those questions via private correspondence, and though I felt very strongly that an external investigation was required, I wrote a series of three blog posts addressing the questions I was asked. Those can be found here:

The announcement of the review states, "Christ Church is asking this committee to issue a public report in the next few months." But as of today, September 5th, 2016, the results of the internal review have not yet been released. We do know one member of the committee, Randy Booth, was removed after an unrelated plagiarism scandal surfaced, but beyond that very little transparency has been practiced. On July 20th, 2016, I emailed a member of the committee, Rich Lusk, and inquired about the status of the review results. I received this answer:

"Not yet finished. I’ll let you know. We’re in the final editing stages, but we’re working with an outside party on that to ensure the integrity of the process/results."

I asked to know the name of the outside party they were working with and was told that information could not be shared at that time.

Although I realize that a review is different from an investigation, the entire point of the process is to have accountability. Critique of the process is both legitimate and, in this case, called for.  

Earlier today, on a heated comment thread under a friend's share of an advocacy post of mine, a former member of Trinity Reformed Church offered some great insight about the CREC Internal Review. (sharing with permission):

"I heard that the committee's work was "nearly complete" several months ago. What we haven't heard is whether its findings will even be released to the public. It has been nearly a year since the committee was formed, and nobody seems to know publication dates or plans. Perhaps that is because the CREC, like so many churches, values damage control above justice for victims and prevention of future atrocities. Perhaps they want to reduce the impact it would have on the cozy network of pastoral reputations, blogs, conferences, books, educational ministries, etc that drives the business model of the CREC. The fact that Doug Wilson continues as moderator while under investigation for mishandling of child sexual abuse cases (and blogs shamelessly about them meanwhile) speaks volumes about the CREC's standards of accountability and propriety (or lack thereof)."

I'll leave it at that. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Hello, My Name Is Anxiety.

Anxiety has been a significant part of my psyche for a long time now. In truth, I'll never know if I was naturally predisposed to anxiety or if all of it stemmed solely from the long term childhood sexual abuse I suffered. That's one of the impossible crises abuse presents in its aftermath - never really knowing who you would have been if you hadn't been abused as a child. But here I am, sifting through the pieces of myself and my past, putting back together what I can and diligently working to mend what someone else broke. 

The anxiety that was planted in me has roots that seem to weave and stretch through every fiber of my being. It's always there. Just there. Some days it's quiet and doesn't trip me up too badly. Other days, it's like cotton in my ears and mud in my eyes. I can barely function through it. It gets in the way of everything. Thanks to years of practice, I probably appear pretty normal on the outside, even to my husband who knows me better than anyone else. What he and others cannot hear, though, are the voices and compulsive urges in my mind, the ones telling me to rearrange the books on the coffee table 18 times in one day so they line up perfectly with the edge of the table, or to sweep the kitchen floor every 30 minutes, or to disinfectant the toilet every time I step foot in the bathroom. Ignoring the urges doesn't make them go away, in fact, it makes them louder and harder to ignore. They grow and grow until I can no longer maintain a normal outward appearance and I turn into a giant ball of OCD stress. I can't enjoy myself or my family, I can't relax or focus on anything but the intense, compulsive urges to clean, rearrange, and nitpick -- the urges to control everything around me. 

You see, abuse does a lot of really nasty things and one of those nasty things is that it robs the victim of two traits that are essential to our health and well-being: personal autonomy and independence. When those are taken away from us, and especially when it happens at a young age, it leaves us grasping for whatever control is left available. The remaining options are less than ideal and often a victim's grasping for control results in severe anxiety disorders, OCD, eating disorders, mental illness, and most tragically, suicide. 

I struggle with a decent handful of anxiety disorders across the spectrum and I can say one thing with absolute certainty: they are not to be taken lightly. Abuse damages its victims in deep and powerful ways and the last thing a victim or survivor needs to hear is that their struggle is ridiculous or irrational. If only we could tell ourselves the same thing and simply be done with the anxiety...what I wouldn't give! 

One time during a weekly therapy session, I told my therapist about some of my cleaning obsessions. I was embarrassed to bring up the issue but it had begun to inhibit my ability to function normally and I knew it was becoming a real problem. The therapist laughed at me and told me he wished he felt the same way so his house would be cleaner. He told me it didn't sound like a big deal and not to worry so much about it. His inability to actually listen to me and understand my struggle made me feel marginalized and I instantly regretted ever mentioning it. Later, after switching therapists (and once the problem became far more consuming) I'd be diagnosed with clinical Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, something I still have trouble wrapping my mind around and have sought relatively little help for, even though it presents itself on a daily basis. 

I've written about some of my other struggles with anxiety as a result of childhood sexual abuse. In this post I talk about panic attacks, and here I share what it's like to have Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Part of me feels like I'm painting myself into The Crazy Corner, where people tilt their heads and look at me funny because Geez, she's so messed up. But the wise, strong-hearted part of me knows this is just real life. I didn't ask for these struggles, I didn't ask to be broken by abuse, but it happened and now I am bound and determined to be whole and happy and healed, and for me that means sharing. It means connecting with the millions of other people who are dealing with the same shit I am, day in and day out, because someone took their innocence and filled their lives with pain and suffering when all they wanted to do was be normal.  

Anxiety is with me when I wake up in the morning and it's with me when I lie down at night. It's with me when I make my children lunch, when I walk down the street, and when I make love to my husband. Some days it rules me and some days I get a swift upper cut in first thing in the morning and it hits the ground for a few hours (though if I'm blogging about it you can bet today I'm most likely on the receiving end of that punch). 

This isn't me offering you solutions for your own anxiety or telling you what self-help tactics work well for me when I'm blinded by mine. This is just me saying you're not alone. I'm a survivor, a mom, a wife, a musician, an abuse advocate, a customer service rep, an outdoors lover, and a woman who struggles with crippling anxiety. It's a part of my story just as your pain is a part of yours. 

My story is worthy of being told. So is yours. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Are You Angry? That's Okay.

I used to hate hearing stories of my husband's teenaged years. I wanted to know about his past but hearing stories of high school, prom, dating, and all the other young adult experiences I had never known left me feeling empty and angry. 

Those years were taken from me, and even after the sexual abuse ended I'd still spend years being consumed by guilt, shame, secrecy, and trauma aftermath. 

When I was in my early twenties, newly married and pregnant with our first child, the weight of the abuse began to truly set in. I had finally turned to face some of my suffering instead of perpetually burying it and the result was a tidal wave of anger. I was angry with my abuser -- how dare he think my youth and my innocence were his for the taking? How dare he use me that way, with no regard for my own well-being and future? I would sit and think of all the terrible things I wanted to happen to him and all the awful things I would do to him if I had the opportunity; the ways I would make him suffer. I was soothed by thinking of him burning with pain.     

More than anything in the world, though, I wanted those years back that he took from me. I wanted to know who I would be if he hadn't destroyed me and poisoned me to the world. What would I would be like without this clawing, hissing anger inside me? Who would I be without crippling anxiety and depression? 

I wanted to sleep with the lights off and not have a panic attack. I wanted to look at myself in the mirror and not be consumed with self hatred. I wanted to stop the flashbacks and nightmares. I wanted to breathe deeply and love freely and slow my mind that couldn't ever seem to stop racing. I had been altered by him and it felt horribly unfair. No one asked my permission to harm me. My voice was taken away before I had even learned how to really use it and I was left with a silent scream that only I could hear. 

As I began to work through my PTSD and depression, I realized the anger I was consumed by was actually a healthy, normal part of healing from abuse. My kind therapist told me I was allowed to be angry. That in fact the anger I was feeling was an integral part of my grief process, and the sooner I recognized and embraced that, the sooner I'd be able to cope with its intensity and function through it. And yes, that's a lot harder than it sounds.

Another emotion that arrived early on in the abuse and settled in to stay was guilt. Victims find every possible reason in the world to feel guilty. During and after abuse, guilt becomes like a siamese twin. It takes serious, careful work to detach from it. Guilt became such a familiar part of me that it felt more comfortable than almost any other emotion. It ate away at me like an acid and I was addicted to its destruction. 

After the abuse ended, I felt guilty about everything. Guilty for being sad, guilty for being secretive, and later, guilty for being angry about it all...So naturally, when I finally came out about my abuse and was told by my church leaders that I was at least partially guilty for what happened, it fit me like a glove. Only this time, I didn't want to wear it. I knew enough to realize that shame and guilt were destroying me and keeping from being able to heal. I saw those accusations for what they were, secondary abuse, and I wasn't going to let myself be robbed of my voice another time. 

I should mention, I do think there are appropriate times to feel guilt and that it's not an emotion that should be entirely done away with. The problem with abuse, though, is that guilt is used as a tool by the abuser to continually disempower and dehumanize the victim. When you're made to believe that everything is your fault, you accept the abuse you're being subjected to because you don't think you deserve anything better. It's a cruel game and one not easily overcome. 

When we begin to understand abuse, it's easy to see why victims often experience extreme anger in the aftermath. In the same sense that we can't tell a victim the pace at which they should heal, we also can't condemn the wide range of emotions they'll experience in the process of healing. They all serve a purpose. 

Supporting victims of abuse as they heal takes great care and patience -- it's not an easy journey for anyone involved. At its highest points it's hopeful and rewarding, and at its lowest points it's heartbreaking and feels fruitless. It's not any wonder most people would prefer to look the other way and keep from getting their hands dirty, but the truth is there's profound beauty and connection in helping others, and it goes both ways. 

Victims cannot simply forget their suffering. When those around them forget, it feels like abandonment. It feels like we don't matter all over again.  

It's so important for victims of abuse to understand that the suffering they have experienced does not determine their worth. When someone chose to harm them, use them, abuse them, and discard them, it did not diminish their value and it didn't change the fact that they deserve love and healing the same as anyone else. 

Shaming victims must end. We must stop blaming, devaluing, abandoning, and judging those among us who have suffered so much. 

When victims take the risk of sharing their stories and revealing their pain, the only message they should be met with is this:

Do you need me? I am here. Do you feel guilty? You are not. Are you angry? That's okay. Are you breathing? Then you are worthy. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

God Said No.

I am 12 years old. I am happy and free spirited. I laugh and talk loudly. I love my friends, music, and swimming in our pool. I dream of being on stage someday, singing for the world. My sky has no ceiling.  

I am 13 years old. My grandfather dies suddenly from a rapid cancer. I get my period for the first time in the airport on the way to his funeral. I don't want to grow up yet. 

I am 13 years old. I meet an older man from church and have my first big crush. He makes me feel special. One night, he touches my face and tells me I'm beautiful. He says he wishes he could see me in the mornings when I first wake up, when my hair is messy and my eyes are still tired. I think maybe I am falling in love with him. 

I am 14 years old. The man moves into our home to help remodel it. He tells me he loves me and makes me give him blow jobs. He takes my clothes off and fingers me. "Don't tell anyone. They won't understand." Often, I wake up in the middle of the night with him standing on my bed, looming over me. I am the object of his desires. The receptacle for his filthy fantasies. 

I am 15 years old. The man says he'll marry me soon. As soon as I'm legal. He calls me a slut. He says if I really love him I won't look at other men, I won't laugh loudly or smile too much. He handles me roughly and it excites him. "No one else will love you. You're too much trouble." He watches porn then comes to find me. I live for him, in the cage he has built around me. I am a prisoner in my own home. 

I am 16 years old. The man moves out of our home. He finds me occasionally. "Meet me in the car around the corner." He ejaculates on me and quickly leaves. This is our last encounter. I sit on the swing set down the hill from our home. I am numb. I am ruined by him. By his hate and his sex and his greed.

I cried for this man. He took from me. I lived for his approval. He took from me. I begged his forgiveness. He took from me. I gave him my future. He took from me. 

I ask God to let me die. Let me die for this man. 

God said no. Go and live. 

"She will break away

She will chase that morning sun

She will fly out of the darkness

She will break these chains of love

She will blossom into beauty

She will stand up tall and proud 

She can see past all the lies 

She has taken down the shroud

She will chase that morning sun."

Friday, May 27, 2016

"When You See Her, You Will Be Amazed."

My body. 

Those two words present some difficulties for me. For a lot of years now I've been sifting through what childhood sexual abuse did to my relationship with my body, and it's not an easy topic for me to talk about or decipher. Lists on the effects of CSA can be found all over the Internet -- there's been a pretty massive amount of research conducted on this topic and I've always found it helpful to know that I'm not alone in my struggles; that for a victim of CSA I'm "normal," much as I hate using that word to describe the effects of something no person should ever experience.

What I've not found as easily accessible as the articles presenting research-based statistics are real life, candid accounts of what it's like to be a survivor of sexual abuse. They do exist and I've been grateful to stumble across the occasional account of, for instance, what it's like to try having a healthy relationship after sexual abuse, but they're hard to find.

In the spirit of healing through vulnerability and connection, I hope to help remedy that.

That being said, please raise your hand if you've ever heard of Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Yeah, I didn't think so. Not many people have, and yet it's something that myriads of abuse survivors deal with on a daily basis. It's something I've battled since I was a teenager. It's weird and embarrassing and nobody really wants to talk about, which is why I'm about to. Honestly, BDD (that's what I'll refer to it as from here on out) is something I've wanted to talk about for years but have never found the courage to do so. Even talking to my husband about it always felt so exposing, but I've learned that we are never truly alone in any of our suffering and in order to find connection, someone has to be the first to speak up.

Technically speaking, BDD, "also known as Body Dysmorphia, is a mental illness that involves belief that one's own appearance is unusually defective, while one's thoughts about it are pervasive and intrusive, although the perceived flaw might be nonexistent."

In simpler terms, it means you look in the mirror and see something really hideous and undesirable looking back at you, and that perception can be so real and so intense that you obsess over it to the point that your quality of life may be effected in very prevalent ways.

Perhaps you can see why this would be difficult to discuss? I understand that by societal standards I am an attractive woman. How could I possibly explain my years-long struggle with BDD in a way that wouldn't make people scoff at me and walk away thinking I'm the most vain creature in existence? Well, it's important to understand that BDD has little to do with actual physical appearance and nearly everything to do with our perception of ourselves, and perception, of course, is a learned thing.

My perception of my body stems directly from the sexual abuse I suffered as a young girl. Let's unravel it a little bit:

When a child is told again and again "You are unworthy of love," that becomes part of her identity. Additionally, when a child's body is used for the sexual gratification of another person, she learns that she has no say over what happens to her body. That loss of control forces the child to disconnect from her body, especially during traumatic experiences. (In my case, my defense mechanism was to have out-of-body experiences. I'd mentally disconnect from my body and watch what was happening from across the room, usually from a corner of the ceiling.) I spent years disconnecting from my body. Rather than my mind and body being essentially one, they were at odds. I hated what was being done to me and I hated that my body responded to the sexual acts, whether or not I wanted it to. Through sexual abuse I learned to despise myself and my body.

Once the abuse had ended, my perception of myself was a tangled mess. I became extremely critical of my physical appearance and found every possible thing to hate about myself. I picked at my skin until I'd scab and scar, I incessantly shaved my entire body (except for my head), I spent hours each day worrying about how I looked. Eventually this turned into a constant obsession with my physical appearance and my weight. I developed anorexia which, over the next several years, would grow to consume my life. Pregnancy is a huge struggle for me and after my first two children were born I became more obsessed than ever with my appearance and weight. I'd frequently cancel activities and avoid leaving the house because I was so disgusted with the way I looked. I religiously restricted calories and punished myself with long, grueling workouts. Finding an outfit to wear often ended in me sobbing on the bedroom floor because of perceived imperfections on my body. BDD and anorexia were dark shadows over my daily life.

My husband's kind words of comfort meant little to me because they couldn't change what I saw every time I looked in the mirror. His love for me couldn't mute those words that replayed in my head every day.

Anorexia and BDD, combined with the other permeating effects of sexual abuse, nearly drove me to suicide on many occasions. Hope was not something I felt much of during the worst years.

So what does BDD look like for me now? I'm twenty eight years old; my sexual abuse ended nearly twelve years ago and I'm seven months pregnant with our fourth child. I still have BDD, but I'm learning how to live with it. I'm learning how to inject my own loving voice over the voices that tell me I'm disgusting and unloved. This is particularly hard and personal for me to share, but here's one of the practical ways I deal with BDD:

When I step out of the shower, before I look at myself in the mirror, I take a deep breath and I say to myself, "You are about to look at a strong and beautiful woman. Her body works wonderfully. She is full of life. She has strong legs and strong arms, and she is worthy of so much love. When you see her, you will be amazed. Are you ready?"

And then I look at myself in the mirror and on the good days, I see myself through eyes untainted by abuse and I believe those words. And I love that strong woman in the mirror.

Abuse literally changes the way we think. I can't know what my daily struggles would look like if I had never been abused and I certainly can't chalk every personal struggle up to the abuse I suffered, but understanding the effects of childhood sexual abuse is a vital step toward healing from our own wounds and also empathizing with others who are suffering.

Part of the reason I've been fearful of opening up about my battle with anorexia and BDD is that I don't want people to read my words and be left with the impression that I'm a sad, miserable, shell of a woman who hates herself and cries all day long. That couldn't be further from the truth. I was badly hurt, yes, and sometimes I am very sad and burdened with pain, but I am a vibrantly hopeful woman. I laugh and smile, I am positive and cheerful.

By the grace of Divine Love I am blessed to wake up each day, roll up my sleeves, and walk forward into more healing and light and love than I knew the day before. Without the deep connection and support I find through openly sharing my story, I know that would not be possible.

Thank you for seeing me in my most vulnerable place and for accepting me. Thank you for opening up in return and helping create a space where we can share our joys and our suffering with one another and be stronger because of it.

Thank for you being a warrior with me.