For husbands of survivors| Trauma Tuesday

This short video is an excellent resource for Christian husbands of survivors, although I would urge caution about one of the recommendations made by the speaker.

My reaction to this video was almost entirely positive. I especially liked what the speaker said about husbands pursuing their own healing and growing in sexual purity. The husband who takes this video to heart would truly end up being a tremendous blessing to his wife as well as receiving much blessing in return.

However, I do want to voice a few serious cautions to husbands about seeking support from other men:

  1. Only disclose your wife’s sexual trauma to someone with her full knowledge and consent. Do not pressure her — not all women are ready to go public with the most traumatic events of their lives, especially trauma of a sexual nature, and the thought of a man knowing can be especially frightening, shameful, and humiliating. Your wife’s ability to trust you and feel safe should trump your need or desire to tell “the guys”. A therapist might be a far better source for support, since not many men are equipped to offer the wisdom, insight, and confidentiality you need.
  2. Choose your confidante carefully. We like to pretend that men don’t gossip, but this is sadly not the case. Furthermore, the last thing you should want is to confide in a man who believes in rape myths, insists that your wife made the whole thing up, tells you to “make her submit!” or even angrily confronts your wife about “crying rape just because she regrets her slutty behavior, and is making up a lame excuse to withhold sex”. (One woman had to deal with more than one such angry confrontation after her husband confided in his men’s group at church.)
  3. Choose as a confidante only a respectful, godly, tender-hearted, safe, loving, compassionate man who is a friend of your marriage. Such a man should not press you for details about what happened to your wife or about any of her current sexual struggles. (Those issues should probably be dealt with in therapy anyway.) Instead, he should encourage you to be more Christ-like. One husband was shocked, and later convicted, that the man he confided in was moved to tears — in marked contrast to the husband’s own lack of tenderness and compassion. The best confidante will challenge you to grow in sacrificial love, rather than further enable you in selfish indifference or impatience.
  4. Be prepared that telling people may make your wife the target of gossip, false accusations, harassment, intimidation, and even worse. One wife was continually harassed by a man who accused her of lying about her sexual assault because, as he insisted to her, “you are too ugly to rape”. Some survivors have had to endure “rape jokes” or “incest jokes” supposedly in order to get us to lighten up and not take ourselves so seriously. Men have attempted to intimidate rape survivors with, “I hope someone rapes you again.” Even more frightening, a woman was confronted in her own home by a “friend” of her husband who threatened, “I could rape you too, you know, and this time no one would believe you.” The worst case I know about personally is the woman who was assaulted by her “pastor” after he learned of her past sexual trauma. Predators and abusers don’t usually identify themselves as such in advance, and are all too often the last person we would suspect.

Obviously I am not suggesting rape survivors hide in silence. After all, I’ve gone public. But it should be our own choice, and we should not be outed as survivors without our consent — especially not by the very men who have vowed to love, honor, and cherish us.

Hiding from help

“Why do you get angry at any adult who really cares about you?” my sweet, kind, and bewildered friend confronted me when I was in high school.

“What? No, I don’t. I just can’t stand ultra-concerned types.” I put so much sneered emotion behind the words “ultra-concerned types” that one would have thought I was plagued by obnoxious, overly-zealous, heavy-handed, intruding busybodies trying to bulldoze over me and seize control of my life.

“But why get so angry when they care about you?” she asked again, mentioning some specific examples of kind, wonderful adults.

I brushed her off, muttering something about how I suffered at the hands of “ultra-concerned types” and their annoying ways. I rather angrily denied that I was angry, and then changed the subject.

It took me over three decades to find out the answer to my friend’s question.

Back then, and for those many years afterward, I was hiding a deep dark secret, one so deep and so dark that I could only cope by refusing to think about it, by pretending it away. That didn’t work well. As a teenager, I was filled with the constant, overwhelming sense that there was something very much wrong with me, but I had no idea what — and I never connected that sense with the hidden burden I carried. Fear, shame, and secrecy had become a way of life for me. So had a form of denial so profound that it was almost as if I’d created an alternative reality for myself.

I had to keep people at arm’s length. If anyone, especially an adult, got too close and actually looked into my eyes, they might know whatever it was I dared not face.

At the same time, my innermost being was desperately crying out for help, and my greatest desire was to be rescued…from what, I dared not think. The memories of some of the wonderful adults who managed to overcome my defenses long enough to plant seeds of hope in my bruised and battered, locked up heart, cause tears of gratitude as I write. There was, for example, the youth director from another church who spent a Friday night playing bumper pool with me, laughing with me, having fun with me, and treating me as an interesting person of value and importance. I don’t remember your name, my brother, and I never saw you again, but you were like a ministering angel to me that night.

Then there was Mr. Bottaro, my tenth grade English teacher. He told me, when I was attempting to argue with him about a paper I’d written, “Someday I’m going to break through your façade.” Façade? I fumed angrily. What on earth is he talking about? The nerve of him! The next year, even though I was no longer in his class, he would often stop me on campus and ask how I was doing. He never believed my polite responses or automatic answers. “No, really,” he would insist, his eyes trying to search mine for the truth. “Come up to my room and see me,” he would urge, no matter what I answered. I knew he saw…something.

Finally I decided to take him up on his offer. I would sit in front of him, let him look in my eyes, and tell him that there was something terribly, seriously wrong with me but I was too afraid to try to think about it. Surely he would be able to figure it out. That was my plan, anyway, to beg him to help me, when I arrived on campus early one morning. I was on my way to his classroom when another teacher stopped me with devastating news.

Mr. Bottaro was dead of a massive heart attack.

It took over 30 years for me to try again, to sit across from someone else and let him try to figure out what on earth was so terribly, horribly wrong with me. But, as desperate as I was for help, I didn’t make it easy for my therapist. I hadn’t just erected protective walls around my growing mountain of secrets — I’d planted prickly cacti outside the walls, dug a moat, and filled it with alligators. Then I stood in my watchtower, safely out of reach, and threw rocks at anyone who dared commit the heinous crime of caring in ways that made me uncomfortable or threatened my defenses. My therapist did not have an easy time gaining my trust, and overcoming my anger and fear.

Exposing our dark secrets to the light of day — it’s scary stuff, I tell you. Absolutely terrifying. I do not exaggerate when I say it came close to killing me. But hidden secrets can never be healed, and there is no freedom comparable to living in the light. There are burdens we were never meant to carry alone.

I’ve been on the receiving end of the prickliness when I ventured too close to someone who did not wish to be known, who feared what I might discover. I’ve experienced what it’s like when others lash out in fear and panic because a secret has been exposed. So now I know both sides, and I understand.

Until recent years, I had no idea what true freedom was. I was in survival mode, always feeling as if I were on the brink of chaos, barely holding things together. My life was a carefully erected house of cards that might fall down at any moment, and I couldn’t let anyone know. The fear of exposure — even exposure of some of my more trivial flaws and failings — was crippling. The worst is that this didn’t just effect me. I raised six beautiful, wonderful, amazing children in a climate polluted by my fear, isolation, and secrecy. By the grace of God, they are now much stronger and healthier than I could have ever hoped.

The enemy of our soul hates freedom. He hates the light. Stay in the dark! he urges us. Don’t let them see who you really are! Don’t even admit to yourself how desperate your situation is. Deny. Minimize. Hide. Cover up. Isolate. Live in secrecy. Get angry at anyone who refuses to play along. Break relationships with those who care for you and try to help. Live in fear!

That house of cards? Trust me, once you start walking in freedom and truth, you won’t ever miss what you were once so desperately protecting. Experiencing true healing is more than worth the temporary pain of bringing shameful, dark, or painful secrets out into the light.

Walk in the light. It’s absolutely beautiful out here!

Why I’m glad that I’m no longer a Calvinist…

…and some other rambling thoughts about suffering and stumbling.

I wrote this as a comment on a blog a few months ago:

I wish I had the rest of the day to respond to individual posts. As many of you so eloquently and heartbreakingly described, grief and suffering HURTS. Jesus showed us what true compassion and grief looks like when he wept with his friends over the loss of their brother — even though Jesus knew full well he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. Later, Paul would remind Christians to weep with those who weep, to bear each others’ burdens.

And, you know what? Doing that HURTS — not as much as the actual pain of the one grieving, but it hurts to sit with someone in their pain and totally open your heart, allowing their pain to invade your safe little bubble. It’s scary to admit that we don’t have neat, tidy answers to difficult tragedies. It’s scary to admit similarly devastating blows could strike us as well. So we blame people for their own pain in a self-righteous and desperate attempt to promise ourselves that this same sickness, this same tragedy, will never come near us. And, if it does, we will handle it better. We are made of stronger stuff and better theology, so we will never hurt as much as those other people. That’s what we tell ourselves.

I know. I was that person…until my world exploded about 6 years ago, and years of running from pain and being all “praise God, the past is in the past!” came crashing down on me. Thank God that I had left Calvinists and Calvinism behind before then.

There were no easy answers. I did not heal nicely, or neatly, or tidily. It was messy. I stumbled and fell a lot. I sinned — not by grieving or hurting or being a mess, but by actual sins. I met a ragtag group of beautiful fellow sufferers who showed me what true, loving acceptance looks like. The best thing that eventually came out of the evil that Satan intended for me — and he intends evil for all of us because he is all about killing, stealing, and destroying — is that God showed me that he is a redemptive God. Sin and evil and sickness has no silver lining, but God can redeem the worst thing. And the best way he redeemed all that ugliness in my life, all the pain that came to a head in recent years, is that he revealed himself to me as the perfect, loving Father that I’d never dreamed he could be. It was in relationship with him — and some of his representatives who shared his love — that I have been able to walk out my healing journey. (It has felt like stumbling and even being dragged more than walking at times.)

This longwinded comment is to say that I think when we begin to comprehend the enormity and tenderness of God’s love — especially in the midst of life’s ickyness —when we begin to experience how deeply personal and intimate his love is for us, it makes all the difference. The Calvinist view of God is much safer. It keeps God at a comfortable distance. God up close and personal is beautiful and healing beyond all comprehension, but it’s also overwhelming. After all, this is the God of the universe we’re talking about.

My world has been rocked. My heart has been broken. I’ve lost my taste for nominal Christianity. I have no easy answers. Sometimes all I can do is hug someone, pray for them, and weep. And that hurts, even though compassion is a good hurt, a good heartbreak.

That’s what I was running from when I was a Calvinist. I needed a small, safe, understandable, predictable God who provided security and a safe haven from pain and messiness. What I’ve found now is this huge, wild, mysterious, incomprehensible God who has captured my heart, melted and broken it, healed and tenderized it — and turned my world upside down.

I wish everybody could know that wonderful, amazing, magnificent God.

The comfort of victim-blaming

When people find a need to blame, even if only slightly and indirectly, the victims of sexual trauma, it can be for a variety of reasons. One motive in particular stood out to me recently: we engage in victim-blaming because doing so provides us with comfort.

There are two different areas in which we comfort ourselves by insisting on finding some fault with the victim’s behavior or attitude:

1. Finding fault with the victim gives us an excuse for withholding our compassion. Weeping with those who weep is uncomfortable. So is bearing one another’s burdens. Compassion does not sit well with us and, if we are Americans, we are impatient with grief, whether our own or others’. So, even if we cannot blame the victim for what we perceive to be problematic conduct before or during her sexual assault, we can surely withdraw our sympathies if she doesn’t handle her victimhood according to our standards, or if she doesn’t “snap out of it” quickly enough. Pointing out her failings and sins enables us to hold her at arm’s length, thus carefully shielding ourselves from having our hearts broken by truly loving her.

2. Finding fault with the victim helps us maintain our illusions and wishful thinking that sexual trauma will never visit us or our loved ones. Sometimes people will even admit this is behind their “Monday morning quarterbacking” of someone else’s rape, when they announce almost triumphantly, “That’s why that would never happen to me or my daughter! We don’t dress immodestly / talk to strangers / threaten that easily / get intimidated by armed men / let anyone overpower us / have male friends / go on dates / trust any man besides our husbands / go anywhere alone / smile in public / laugh at a man’s jokes / sleep without a gun beside us / marry child molesters / have rapists as fathers / attend a church like that / know any pedophiles / allow women and girls to have jobs / etc.”

Even survivors can do this. I know this all too well because I did it to myself for years, until pain and desperation drove me into therapy. There, despite my best attempts to convince my therapist that I was an “accomplice in my own rape”, despite my pointing out every sinful act and every foolish thing I had done leading up to my rape and afterward, he steadfastly refused to buy into my self-blame. It seems that the only difference between the night of my rape and other nights in which I may have been equally — or far more — sinful and foolish is that, on that fateful night there were two rapists nearby with evil plans.

It was a struggle to accept my therapist’s “theory” because I preferred to think that a frumpy wardrobe, a bunch of legalistic rules, an untrusting attitude, and my martial arts skills and/or arsenal of weapons would guarantee my safety, now that I was no longer that “stupid” young, reckless, trusting, taken-for-a-sucker, woman who “put herself in that position”. Therefore, I tried to tell myself, it could never happen to me again. For years before entering therapy, I had so desperately needed to cling to my “never again” comfort that, when I read other women’s accounts of rape, I found myself accusing silently, “Obviously married a creep…what a fool, trusting her pastor like that…why didn’t she fight harder?…where was her cell phone?…she should have run away from home…only idiots go to frat parties…why did she rent that crummy apartment?…she should have gotten a different job…” My self-directed anger, and the shame I heaped on myself, spilled over onto how I viewed other survivors. Thankfully, I avoided them like the plague during this time, or who knows what harm my toxic attitude may have caused.

The problem is that any comfort built on lies only serves to perpetuates more lies, and cannot protect us. Whatever false sense of safety or control it gives us is a sham, a vapor. The truth is that no woman is so powerful that  — simply by her attire, behavior, and location — she can turn good, decent men into rapists. Nor is any woman so wise, so all-knowing, and so powerful that she can discern the hearts and motives of men, avoid all the bad guys, and fight off the ones she can’t avoid.

Even worse than offering false comfort, these lies harm survivors by interfering with their healing. Blame is toxic. So is shame. It holds us prisoner. It is so corrosive that it eats away at our very soul.

I know this all too well.

At the risk of oversimplifying a long, painful, arduous process, my healing journey can be summed up as the task of replacing lies with truth. As a Christian, I already knew of the gospel and had availed myself of its truth, but I discovered a greater depth of personal meaning, a wonderfully healing theological reality, in the Cross. To me, this is the most precious and significant part of any true gospel for victims: Jesus bore our shame. Whether the shame was put there by our own sin or slimed onto us by the sins of others against us, whether the shame was deservedly ours or not, whether we could sort out the difference or not, Jesus bore our shame on the Cross. He took it all away. It was no longer mine to carry. Wow. That is news so good, so marvelous, so life-transforming, that my puny words are woefully inadequate.

The gospel saved my life. Literally.

There were other healing truths as well: No rape victim ever “asked for it”, or it would have been consensual sex and not rape. No one deserves to be raped, no matter who claims otherwise. It wasn’t my fault. God despised what these men did to me even more than I did. He cared. He loved me — real love, not some fake “tough love” substitute. Christ didn’t just take my shame on Himself, but He carried my grief. He understood, truly understood, and He identified with my suffering. I could go on and on…truth after freeing truth.

It was not until I stopped believing the lies of blame and condemnation that I was able to embrace the truths that brought healing and freedom — and real comfort, rather than its deceptive and damaging counterfeit.

Allowing others to define us | Survivor Saturday

Recently I was listening to a podcast that discussed, among other things, the difference between guilt and shame. It gave the example:

  • Guilt says, “What I did was bad.”
  • Shame says, “Who I am is bad.”

As I listened, I was contemplating the place in my healing journey when I began realizing that I am not my actions. I may fail at something, but that does not mean my identity is “Failure”.

Much of my healing has involved dismantling lies and replacing them with truth. Sometimes those lies were told to me by others, but sometimes they were things I told myself. As I was reflecting over this, I was reminded of some of my previous blog posts, especially one titled We are not fragile or weak. I ended that post with the following:

We can’t help the blindness of others. But it is important that we open our eyes to who we truly are. We are survivors. We are the ones who cling to hope. We are the ones who bend, but never truly break. We are the ones who put back together the pieces of our lives that are broken, and emerge even better than before. We are not fragile, or we could not endure. We are not weak, or we could not do the hard work of healing. We are survivors. We are overcomers. We are strong.

Looking back over my healing journey, it’s obvious that I didn’t act like a strong, brave, victorious, conquering Super-Survivor every step of the way. Sometimes I felt like I kept getting knocked down, over and over again, and could barely pull myself up to stand one more time. I felt weak. Sometimes I felt like the most dismally frail and weak failure of all time. I would drag myself up the stairs to my therapist’s office and whine, “I can’t handle this. It’s too much for me.”

He would point out that I was, in fact, “handling this”. I had managed to climb the stairs once again, had managed to sit myself down on his couch yet another time, had managed to continue to bring to light the most terrible of my terrible secrets…and I did this week after week after week. As we were winding things down, and I was getting ready to “graduate” from therapy, Donny let me know that he had asked me the most difficult questions that he could, and that I had bravely faced every single one. We left no stone unturned.

Healing from trauma is messy. Sometimes it’s kind of like being stuck in a time warp. We may find ourselves feeling, acting, and being like our much younger selves. It would be funny if it wasn’t so disconcerting. Other times, it’s not even remotely funny, but simply raw and ugly. None of that looks particularly admirable to those who don’t understand the healing process. So, when they attempt to label and define us — even if they don’t mean to be insulting or belittling — they tend to accentuate the negative. Often, it’s all they see.

When people define and label us…even if they are using positive labels…they are attempting to speak into our identity, to tell us who we are. I am not sure anyone really has the right to do that. Even if they refuse to separate what they observe about us from who we are — our actions from our identity — we need to insist on doing so.

We are not our sins. We are not our failures. We are not our trauma. We are not our pasts. We are not what people did to us. We need to be very clear on this. We will not be freed from the burden of shame — the burden that Christ bore for us on the Cross — until we stop allowing the lies of shame to define us.

Guilt should lead us to conviction and repentance — and that’s a good thing, because it heals our relationship with God and makes intimacy with Him possible. Shame, however, leads to condemnation, and that never leads us to anything or anywhere that is good.

One of the most powerful parts of my healing took place this past year, when I received some intensive inner healing ministry. Probably the most beneficial aspect was examining the whole concept of identity, and getting rid of the false beliefs — and the resulting shame — that had plagued me for far, far too long. Only God, my Creator, has the authority to define me, to speak the definitive and enduring truth about my identity, and to tell me my worth. And I need to remember that the same applies to other people: it is not my place to label or define. It’s time we agreed with God about who we really are. Our truest identity is found in Him, and in Him alone.