Sunday, October 18, 2009

I Live to Speak Out: The Shoes I Was Meant to Wear

“Thank you for speaking out” she said as she gently took my hand and squeezed it. She was barely able to choke out the words through the flood of tears streaming down her face.

I had just given a speech at the regional competition for Toastmasters International, and I suspected this was the first time in the organization’s 50 year history that anyone had taken the stage unveiling a story of sexual abuse and recovery. I took second place in the competition whereby missing the opportunity to advance to the World Championships – but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was looking into that tear-stained face and knowing I gave a voice to her pain.

I live to speak out.

With the exception of my love for my two beautiful children, there is no greater joy in my life than sharing my story of incest and the hope for recovery. During the years when I was curled into a fetal position sobbing out the pain of abuse, I never imagined I would someday be telling my private story very publicly. It seemed like I was in a dark hole with no light, no end, and no purpose. But when the day finally dawned when I cast aside the shame and gave it back to my offenders, I began to speak – and I discovered that I was very good at it. People listened and they cared. They were able to take pieces of what I said and apply it to their lives and, most importantly, to the lives of the children in their care. I had found a way to take this pain and give it the power to heal others.

I live to speak out.

I have spent fifteen years refining my message and speaking my experience to those who are in a position to dramatically affect the course of a child’s life – teachers, daycare providers, foster parents, social workers, college students… the list goes on. And as I have discovered, those helping professionals are often the children of yesterday who silently hold their own burdens. Each time before I speak, I pray to my Higher Power that I am given the right words for the person(s) in my audience who need to heal. I have the honor of watching miracles unfold through my sharing and union with the Great Force of Good. I hear the silence end as the pain cries for healing…

I hear it when the teacher comes to me after a child abuse recognition workshop and says, “Now I understand why this child in my class room acts this way, and I know I need to do something.”

I hear it when an angel foster parent of 43 long, enduring years gives me a hug and says, “You have inspired me to keep the faith and keep fighting for these kids.”

I hear it when the young daycare provider timidly walks up to me after class, and her trembling lips say, “I have never told anyone about this before…”

And ever so poignantly, I hear it when the agonized woman who just happened to get my business card calls me begging for a good therapist referral. Her sister-in-law is an incest survivor and drug addict who has been hospitalized for her third suicide attempt. This survivor’s perpetrator father conveniently shows up to visit during every psychiatric episode. And worst of all, her life is so out-of-control that she is about to lose custody of her children. The frantic family member says to me, “Bonnie, I am afraid we are going to lose her.” I sat in silence after this call for a very long time, and then found myself inundated by my own tears and dropping to my knees in sobs of gratitude. I knew this could have been my story had I traveled another path.

I live to speak out, because I know not everyone will live. Someone must speak for them.

Answering the Big “Why” Question: Why Did I Get These Painful Shoes?

“Why does God allow bad things to happen?” I felt like finding the answer to this would allow everything else to fall into place. It was the key to making some semblance of sense out of the senselessness of incest.

So, what is the ‘right’ answer? Where is the definitive text that establishes the nature of evil in the Universe, and which religion lays claim to it? For many struggling years, my life was consumed in a quest to find the answer to the Big “WHY???”

I decided that the people who really understood the nature of evil were those who have had to face it down, not those who simply stood on a pulpit. So I looked for meaning from the people who, in my opinion, experienced the worst of the worst and yet have managed to pull through. I turned to those who survived what should have been unbearable grief and loss, and most of those people were Holocaust survivors.

I submerged myself in Holocaust studies reading the fascinating story of Simon Wiesenthal, a man with nine lives who witnessed soul-crushing horrors, narrowly escaped death multiple times, and went on to hear the bedside confession of a young, dying Nazi soldier who begged his forgiveness – a forgiveness Simon chose to withhold. Later in life, he questioned the “rightness” of his decision to deny forgiveness, and in his book, The Sunflower, he asked world religious leaders from all faiths if he should have offered forgiveness. The responses were deeply split.

From Mr. Wiesenthal’s bravery, I learned that there is no universal “right” answer to tough questions. The right answer is the one that affords you peace.

The second amazing Holocaust story came from Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor survived life in a brutal camp where he watched some of his fellow inmates succumb to less honorable tactics to simply stay alive (and who can blame them?), such as stealing food, starting fights, etc. Viktor found his meaning in maintaining his humanity, dignity, and values while in the throngs of chaos.

Viktor’s story proved to me that God is not outside of bad situations, but is ever-present and available. How else could he have been prepared to walk in the gas chamber with his head held high?

Lastly, the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold Kushner, a Jewish rabbi who lost a beloved 14 year-old son to a rare disease, struck a deep chord with me. Rabbi Kushner surmised that God must allow us to grow and make our own choices, and this includes giving us freewill to do both right and wrong. God is not an all powerful demigod, but a loving parent allowing us to learn along the way.

This remarkable book helped me to see that God is not the bad one involved in destruction, but rather the good one involved in supporting us during our necessary trials. And what human being escapes life without trials?

After emerging from my studies and ponderings, what became clear to me was that while I had learned many valuable things that I could apply to my own theology, ultimately my answer to the Big “WHY??” had to be found within myself. The answer had to incorporate what I had learned from the “masters”, bring me to a place of serenity, and allow me to remain open to other ideas in the future.

My current answer to the Big “WHY???” is as follows:

God is all-loving, but not all-powerful
God is with me every moment
People make bad choices to do bad things, but they are not born bad
I am here to learn certain lessons over multiple life times
I ultimately chose my own lessons, therefore God is not punishing me with trials

As to the existence of a dark force or “lower” power, I have not whole-heartedly embraced this concept because I think it relinquishes personal responsibility by saying there is a devil out there causing all the problems. However, there are times when I read about a simply heinous act and I say to myself….“how could someone possibly stoop so low?” Then I truly wonder if there is not a dark force involved.

The jury is still out for me, but I think evil is simply rooted in the animal-side of our humanity. This was explained to me one day by a wise Jewish woman who said, “We all have the tendencies of the lion or the lamb… it just depends on which one you feed.”

Finding the God of My Heart: The Wings on My Feet

Spirituality in my young life existed on two plains – that which I knew from my heart, and that which I watched in the world around me. The “outer world” concept of a higher power was demonstrated by the obligatory family trips to the Methodist church on Christmas and Easter. During these times, I would wear an itchy, frilly dress, sit in a hard pew, and watch my father write the big check to place in the shiny bowl that passed our way. I looked like the happy girl in the nice family swinging her black patented leather shoes and hoping for that robed man to be quiet so I could get out of there.

But the robed man seem to go on forever and speak of scary things like being nailed to a cross after which he passed around little cups of “blood” that we were supposed to drink. But this was all a good thing because God loved us so much that killing his son for us was going to make us all better.

Just what every abused kid needs to know, right?

It appeared that God and my father had a few things in common. They were both angry men who ruled the roost and abused others – but they would both emphasize that it was really for your own good. Through my tears and sobs, I remember my dad saying how much he hated to give me those enemas (his abuse of choice), week after week, but he just didn’t have any other option because I was a failure in the pooping department. Such were the “sins” of a five-year-old that God, the Father, would set straight - even if it pained him in the process.

The God of the “outer world” had failed me miserably, but the God of My Heart saved my life. This God would show up during my moments of greatest trial and pain – the times when I “left” the abusive experience and traveled to a place of protection. Scientists of brain chemistry might call this splitting “dissociation”, but I call it Divine Intervention. The God of My Heart was felt but not seen, was nameless but was all, and was mission-driven but carried no agenda of deceit. If I were to place a human image upon this energy, I would see it as a wise and loving Mother God with a fabulous gilded shield for deflecting damage to the soul. The God of My Heart allowed me to remain intact at my core while my physical self endured the torture. It was as if I was being touched and untouched at the same time.

I owe all that I am and all that I will become to the God of My Heart, but she holds no expectations of me. Her mission is to support me through my darkest times, and uplift me in my life journey. I believe this is the nature of unconditional, pure love. The greatest gift that I have pulled out of misery is the deep knowledge of, and relationship with, this mighty force of good.

The Loss of What Could Have Been: You Can Never Get Those Shoes Back

I could hear the sadness and tension in my Aunt’s voice. She had just found out her brother was dying from Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, a rare and incurable lung disease. She also knew that I had not seen nor spoken to the man who was also my father in nearly seven years. My heart pounded as it took in the terrible news of my father’s impending death. I knew I would face this “someday” and now the shock of “someday” had rudely and abruptly entered the space of right now. In the background, my husband was tending to the cries of our newborn son, our first child, and my father’s first grandchild.

My Aunt told me that she and others in our family had been praying for a place of peace and resolution between my father and I - and now the clock was ticking. My father’s prognosis was terminal in all known cases. No one has lived with IPF for more than five years. I looked over at my precious son in that moment and made the decision that it was time to end the separation - for him. Could I rightfully deny him the chance to know his grandfather (in a safe and observed manner)? “Grandfather” - that word sounded oddly out of place, a new role that might never be fulfilled unless I changed my heart.

The progress with my father was tense and fearful, and we ended up agreeing to disagree on our versions of our past. I would never get the acknowledgement that I craved, but I did get glimmers of a man reformed. He became more patient, more available, and increasingly able to see and admit some faults. He was an adoring Grandfather to my boy. He was even aware that his illness had purpose woven into the fabric. Shortly after his diagnosis, he said to me, “If it took this illness to bring you back into my life, then I am glad it happened.” How ironic to me that the same man who could never afford me the healing of an apology could now welcome a terminal illness into his life on my behalf. It was clearly apparent that the Grim Reaper had ushered in a new man - right before he ushered him out.

Perhaps in the end, there was some twisted justice from the years I spent in silence, being completely at his mercy. For on his death bed, he was unable to speak or respond, and I was able to have my final words without rebuke. The balance of power had greatly shifted. Yet those final words to my father were not harsh, but deeply, deeply sorrowful. The bad choices he made and all that was lost in our relationship was never more profoudly felt than while I sat by his bedside in those final moments. How little time we all really have to affect our world and spend time with those we love. Can there be a more tragic ending than when your time embraces more hurting than healing?

The greatest loss in those last minutes was realizing that we did not need to be in this place. Would a mysterious lung disease have consumed him has he taken better care of his health, had he decided to act only as my father and not as my spouse, had he been able to embrace his imperfections and admit error? I could only wonder about what might have been as the doctor came into the room, listened to his silent chest, and pronounced him dead.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Finding Peace: Being Completely Comfortable in Your Shoes

Peace. Isn’t that what all survivors crave? The day when the flashbacks end, the depression lifts, and the anger subsides - the day when you can be “normal” again.

At the beginning of my recovery, I thought that if I just worked hard enough to purge every memory, cry every tear, and scream every injustice, this would bring me to a place of incest being “over”. I would “do” trauma recovery, come out victorious, and life would be a Disney flick.

After four years and mounting shame wondering, “Why aren’t I over this yet?” I saw peace as a gradual reduction of annoying symptoms and a greater sense of courage emerging. I would celebrate a week without a depression bout, or mustering the courage to confront my offenders (first in role play and then in person), or landing a job that was “healthy” and kept me out of a victim role.

Twenty years later, I have finally grasped my real peace as a survivor:

Real peace is accepting that trauma has forever changed you, your perceptions of the world, and your feelings about those who directly or indirectly injured you. You can heal, but you can never “undo” it.

Real peace is both doing the hard emotional work of recovery and understanding that you are always going to be a work in progress.

Real peace is continuously employing strategies for the times that life will throw you a triggering curve ball. Such as when a new daughter reminds you of your innocence lost, or you finally get the “validation” you wanted by a sister whose memories surface a decade later.

Real peace is transforming the negative experience into positive actions that heal others.

Real peace (here is the late-stage grand prize) is watching so much good evolve from uplifting others that you no longer carry any regrets about your past, and in fact, begin to celebrate the strength of your character brought about by facing adversity. Wow!

I never dreamed I could write these words and truly mean it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Help in Unlikely Places: Can This Shoe Really Fit?

My survivor friends will never forget the disbelieving look on my face:

“You actually want me to talk to a male minister?”

I thought they had all gone mad. We were all in a therapy group for survivors of incest – female survivors. At the time, there was no way I was going to trust any man and especially one of the cloth. I also lacked trust in organized Christian religion because that involved embracing a God who killed his son for my sins. A God who equated to another abuser was not a God of my understanding.

Yet, one by one, my friends were getting spiritual counseling and guidance from this most unlikely Methodist source. And one by one, they came back raving at their newfound insights, the depth to which they felt heard, and the ability of this minister to make sense out of the senseless. According to them, this guy was performing the miracle of bringing meaning to their suffering.

Hmm…finally, I had to see for myself.

I felt like there was a metal rod up my spine as I stiffly walked into a church. Yuck! I then shook hands with a plump, balding, middle-aged man who looked every bit the part of the Midwest Bible Belt. What could he possibly offer me?

I immediately told him that he was the last person I ever wanted to talk to and I was only here because of the prodding of my friends. He had no qualms with that, and he reassured me I was free to leave at anytime. There, I put him in his place.

Then I just started to talk. I do not know how or why, but he had an aura of goodness and safety that melted the wall I threw around me. I told him of my trials, of the horrific things I had experienced, of the way I felt deeply different from everyone else. I told him that when I looked out the window on a sunny day, I see more than just the beauty of the flowers and grass. I have felt the true depth of the ugliness and evil that hides in the shadows. I can never really enjoy a nice day, not like everyone else. I just know too much.

He listened intently through my story, and then said one sentence that changed my whole world:

I feel like I am in the presence of something Holy.”

I had been called crazy, “dramatic”, over-reactive, and too sensitive. I had been given diagnostic labels for insurance companies to pay therapy bills, but never, ever in my life did anyone suggest that my experiences equated to holiness - that I was brought to bear the same burdens and knowledge as prophets. Prophets are on a mission, and so was I.

My suffering finally, finally found a purpose, and I had a male leader of an organized religion to thank for making it all clear. Unbelievable.

I think I was the one in the presence of something Holy.

Forgive and “Forget”: Can You Really Stick Those Shoes on the Shelf?

Whoever coined the phrase “forgive and forget” obviously never incurred more harm than a broken fingernail. Anyone who has experienced a serious trauma at the hands of another knows they will neither forget what has happened, nor will they forgive without a deeply personal tug -of- war between love and hate.

My tugging and warring consumed seven years of my healing journey. The single factor that made forgiveness so elusive was the fact that my offenders never owned their behavior, and most certainly, never offered an apology. Every time the still voice of forgiveness and love would call to the part of me who was bitter and enraged, it would get slapped down by the quandary: “How can I forgive someone who has never asked for forgiveness?”

Therefore, I lived in the land of “stuck” with each side of the rope pulling with equal force. I deeply wanted to forgive yet felt as though I would be conceding the pain and grief that was rightfully mine. In many ways, it felt like my offenders would “win” somehow if I let them off the hook so easily. I was determined to hold on to my anger, because they were never going to beat me. Never.

Yet over the years I began to see that being filled with hatred was in fact the one thing that was making me “lose” in many other ways. I was losing when every minor disagreement with my spouse turned into a heated brawl. I was losing when I would fly into a rage berating the poor clerk at the check out counter who did not move as quickly as I thought she should. I was losing every time my anger lashed out hurting everyone in my path – and myself most of all.

My first hope of tempering my volcanic anger came unexpectedly one day while I was sitting on a park bench. It was a spectacular autumn day, and I was watching fields of goldenrod sway back and forth. I felt a deep and profound serenity in that moment - a serenity I knew my perpetrators would never experience. With that single thought, my anger miraculously began to melt and forgiveness awakened as the feeling of pity. Pity and sadness for lives filled with bad choices that ultimately held little room for a true and lasting internal peace. I had finally won, and they had lost.

It was a moment to finally celebrate, except there was no joy in their losing.