Do Not Be Silent

A friend reminded me today that those of us who have been hurt cannot stay silent. This is something I have known for a while and something I try to honor daily. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. It’s a struggle. Silence is so much easier than speaking out, than admitting the truth. If you are silent, you can feel numb, you can pretend you feel safe, you can try to forget. But the truth is always present; it doesn’t go away because you want it to. Instead, silence perpetuates the lies it hides. We must tell the truth.

I’ve done this here in my blog, used it as my media for being honest. Here, I am not silent. Here, I speak about what has happened to me, even when it’s difficult, even when I fear what others will think. I share my struggles and what is on my heart. And every time I do it, I heal little. I grow a little stronger; I gain a little power. I fight the pain and trauma and evil in my past. I stand up to the people who hurt me. I want to encourage you to do the same.

I realized today that it’s been nearly five years since my journey to uncover the truth inside me began. The inciting event was a late-night conversation with a friend. In the midst of our talk, I told him what I considered at the time to be my greatest secret: I was pregnant before I was married. This fact had caused me so much pain and had been used to shame me my entire adult life, and I hadn’t told more than two people in over five years, not even some of my closest friends.

But this friend had his own demons, and I trusted implicitly that he would not judge me for mine. And he didn’t. I told him how I’d been shamed but that I was past my guilt—I called it guilt because I believed what I did was sinful and made me unworthy, but God forgives, and I believed I’d done so as well. But my friend saw through my lies even when I couldn’t.

“You still feel shame,” he told me.

I denied it, but he persisted. In my memory of that night, I can still hear the tone of his voice and see him calling me out for my lie.

“You still feel shame.”

Those four words changed my life. They saved me. In that moment, I knew he was right. I hadn’t forgiven myself; I hadn’t put the shame—the guilt—behind me. I’d been numbing myself and my mind, lying to protect myself from the trauma that shame is—and to protect myself from memories I wouldn’t understand until later. I didn’t know the difference this discovery had made in me until the next morning when I journaled about it. Logically, I wrote about how now that I knew I still had shame, I could work on it; I would finally be able to move past it.

But there was something else in the back of mind, another truth that had been hidden from me until my friend’s words: I knew my marriage, from the very beginning, had been based in shame. I’d told myself so many lies to believe otherwise. They unraveled when I admitted the truth, the same way they did over three years later when I admitted I was raped, the same way they do every time I tell the truth today, every time anyone tells the truth no matter what it costs them.

So many of us have been hurt; we’ve been raped, abused, assaulted, threatened, tortured. We feel fear and shame and depression and hatred. It plagues us. Sometimes it’s used against us to hurt us more. No wonder we bury it, we lie about, we stay silent.

We need to stop that. We need to stop being silent. For our sakes and for the sakes of others. Tell someone you’re being hurt. Tell someone you feel ashamed. Tell someone you were hurt in the past. Tell someone you’re losing hope. Tell someone you’re in danger. Please. It won’t be easy, and you might not see the difference it makes right away, but it matters; the truth matters. You matter.

I was blessed. I couldn’t tell the truth because I didn’t see it, but my friend saw the truth in me and spoke it. He showed it to me and taught me that I didn’t have to be silent any longer. He changed my life, saved me. For that I will be forever grateful. But not everyone has someone like that in their life, so you need to speak up for yourself, every day. Be courageous and say what you have to say. Speak it, put it in writing, draw it, paint it, record it on video, post it on Facebook or Snapchat, just tell the truth. Do not be silent.

Unlovable

Lovable: of such a nature as to attract; deserving; amiable; endearing.

Unlovable: not lovable: of such a nature as to repel; undeserving; repulsive; hateful.

I imagine everyone knows what it’s like to feel unlovable, if only briefly. It is a sense of unworthiness, a belief that there is no possible way or reason you could be loved. It is a feeling, a sense, a belief I know well. Perpetuated first by shame, feeling unlovable has been my constant companion for the better part of the past two decades. It has influenced my decisions and behavior. It has stolen happiness and left wounds and saddened me more than once. And it has continued to feed that which birthed it: shame. It all comes back to shame.

Shame researcher Brené Brown defines shame as:

The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

It sounds an awful lot like feeling unlovable to me.

Why I believe I’m unlovable, my reasons for such a diagnosis, per se, has evolved over the years, following the opposite path of Dictionary.com’s definition of “lovable” as if it was a map: this way to hating yourself.

When I was unmarried and pregnant and was being shamed by friends and family and the Christian group I belonged to and my own beliefs in right and wrong, I felt undeserving of love. I felt lucky, blessed even, that the man who was both the father of my child and my rapist wanted to marry me despite my shameful, repulsive state. So I married him and stayed married to him for a long time. My family and friends who did stand by me, they were kind and good beyond all expectation and necessity because I didn’t deserve their love or support. I didn’t deserve anyone’s.

I carried that sense of undeserving  into and through all the years of my marriage. I felt that being pregnant before I was married was something I would spend the rest of my life fighting to make up for. I was already a perfectionist, but now I thought being perfect might earn back my ability to be loved. But every time I failed to be perfect, I also failed to be lovable.

And when I started a new church early in my marriage and wanted so terribly to belong, be accepted, be loved, I believed the lies my mentors told me and followed their guidance to a fault. The group was for married, Christian women with young families; the mentors were highly respected women in the church who had raised or nearly raised their children to adulthood. I felt honored to be invited to be part of the group and sure that if I did what I learned there, I could lessen my shame and be worthy of the love and friendship of the other women, and I could deserve to be part of my church.

One night we talked about sex, and the mentors told us that we were to have sex with our husbands whether we wanted to or not. They called it “sympathy sex” because we were taking pity on our husbands’ desires and needs. It was guidance I took heart, having sex with my now-ex-husband again and again, whether I wanted to or not, an act that has left me with nightmares. I believe now that if I hadn’t been trying so hard to be the perfect mom and wife and member of my church, to be lovable, I would have seen the fault in their words; I might have spoken out about them. God help the other women who believed them.

Today feeling unlovable looks different for me. I do think I’m deserving of love. Rather, why would anyone want to love me? I have a dark past. I’m anxious and emotional and intense. I experience PTSD-like responses to unexpected triggers as a result of past trauma. I’m not an easy person to have in one’s life. Some might say high maintenance. Repulsive.

And if you’re not already repelled, I’m divorced and have children. My ex-husband, the man who raped me, is still an irremovable part of my life because of my children. And if you want children, I not only don’t, but I can’t have them anymore.

I have so much that I carry with me. I can’t imagine how anyone could possibly want to love me. It doesn’t matter that I’m a good person, have a good heart, or have a nice smile. The fact that I work hard and pay my own way doesn’t improve my prospects either. I deserve love, but that changes nothing. I have come so far and fought so hard to get here, but I believe all those repulsive and repelling things cancel that out. And my shame forces me to ask, who would want to be with someone like me?

Today a man I’ve been dating, and have really been starting to care about, told me he only wants to see me once or twice a week, at most. He’s not into texting, though phone calls are okay, occasionally. He said he’s easygoing and calm and that I’m intense and emotional, and that this perplexes him. But he told me that I shouldn’t alter my behavior—that is, my desire to talk to him and see him more often, my penchant for texting, my efforts to plan ahead, my need for connection, my intensity—for him, that I should be who I am. Then he said he’s going to be who he is too and not alter his behavior either. I’m not sure where this leaves us.

I don’t blame him for needing his space and time. Everyone needs those things, and some more than others. I certainly can’t fault him for standing firm in who he is, something I’ve personally struggled with in my own life. Rather, it is the sense that he can only take so much of me that it gives, the implication that if I want someone who can give me more of his time and attention, I should look elsewhere, that is hard to cope with. It echoes my feelings of being unlovable. Did I really expect more? I want to hold on to his assurance that my caring for him is reciprocated. Isn’t it better for part of me to be loved than none of me? I’m not sure what the answer is.

I want to be loved so much. I want someone to look at me and see only me, not my faults or past or children or mistakes or tears. I want someone to love all of me. I’m just not sure it’s possible.

There is no moral to this post. I’m not writing tonight to say I’ve learned anything or grown or overcome or won my battle against shame today. I still feel unlovable. I imagine I might forever. But I’ll still get up tomorrow morning, and I’ll still try to find someone who could possibly love someone with my history and flaws and challenges, and I’ll still fall in love, over and over again, even if it means I’m likely to get hurt. So if I’m nothing else, I am at least brave.

Lousy with Deep Red Roses

In my haste to minimize my belongings, I didn’t see the brick wall coming. I opened the box: photo albums and picture frames. Easy. Save the pictures, give away the frames and albums.

And then it was there staring at me: my wedding album. White and pearly with the words “our wedding” written in calligraphy on the cover.

Apprehension filled my chest, but I can be brave when I need to be, and I opened the cover and stared at my 20-year-old face. I was an ugly bride. My hair was half-grown out and awkward, and the hair stylist curled it, sprayed it, and then ratted it to fit around the veil. No one helped me with my makeup, and I didn’t have a manicure, though all my bride’s maids did. And though the wedding dress is a beaded work of art and the bouquet is lousy with deep red roses, it’s all overshadowed by half-hearted smiles and sad eyes.

It doesn’t even occur to me to look at my stomach, though it’s all I could think about that day. I was five months pregnant with my daughter. It’s impossible to tell. The wedding dress fit perfectly without a single adjustment. Swollen breasts and stomach made the dress fit when it had been too big three months before. The only indication something is off is the shame I can see covering me from head to toe. It stained everything that day, from the glow of wedding candles to the matching white-gold rings we put on each other’s fingers.

I felt my shame acutely that day. I wonder now if anyone knew the torture inside me. Did anyone know how much pain I was in? Probably not. But I cried as I walked down the aisle with my parents, and it wasn’t the first time I’d cried that day.

I thought everyone was so kind to me. Friends and family circled and fussed and asked how I was doing. I didn’t understand it. I was overwhelmed by their goodness because I believed I was unworthy of it. I was so ashamed, so completely undeserving of anything good. And even now, it’s difficult to discern their unconditional love from the memory of feeling like a burden.

Most of the pictures I stacked and set aside out of sight for my kids to look at some day. It might be fun to look back and laugh at mom and dad and grandmas and grandpas. But a few pictures I saved for me. My dad looks so handsome, and he’s smiling at me. My mom is too. She’s so beautiful and happy. And there’s one with my grandparents, all four them.

I touched the picture of my mom’s parents. They’ve been gone a long time now, my grandfather dying just thirteen months after my wedding. My dad’s dad is gone too. And I cried and wished my ex-husband wasn’t standing next to me in the center of the picture. It was a battle between sentiment and disgust, but I chose to save the picture.

It was the first time I overlooked the sick feeling I get when I look at pictures of the man I now know took advantage of me. And it was love that conquered that feeling. No matter what, my grandparents always thought the best of me. I love them so much, and when I looked at their faces in that photo and remembered that, my ex-husband quickly faded.

This doesn’t surprise me, now that I think about it. I can’t stand to look at myself in these pictures, but I’ve rescued the ones with my mom, dad, sister, and grandparents. I saved a picture of the wedding cake with the flowers a now passed friend grew just for my wedding. I can look past all the hurt I felt that day and all the sorrow I feel for it now for the people I love, and that’s something worth knowing. But what about me?

I don’t feel the shame anymore, but I remember it vividly. I remember a scared young woman who was desperate to be told “you are worthy.” I feel pity and sympathy for her. I want to hug her and tell her the truth about herself.

I’m a little angry no one told me I didn’t have to get married to earn my worthiness back or to make things right, that I was never unworthy and things were never wrong in to begin with. I’m so sad for all the lies I believed back then, about myself, about the man I married, about right and wrong.

But I also feel a little less unworthy about that day. People were kind because they were happy for me, and they loved me. I won’t say I deserved it, but I was worthy of it, if only because I loved them and they loved me.

The bad feelings don’t miraculously go away just because I feel love and a little worthiness. There’s still a heavy weight in my chest and a darkness to my day that won’t be penetrated by either 40-watt bulbs or afternoon sunlight. My wedding day is still a difficult memory and it still makes me sad. But I’ve faced down one of the challenges that awaited me since I left my husband last August: the wedding album. I won’t have to do it again.

And there is something else that I know after today. I will not be that forlorn woman again. I will speak my heart and I will search for the truth. I will trust in my goodness and overcome my shame.

I Bring Myself Flowers

Today would have been my 15th wedding anniversary.

I remember my wedding day in emotions and moments that flash like snapped photos. Waking up with my sister beside me. My hair ratted and pinned in a way I both hated and felt I deserved. Getting dressed with my closest friends all around me. Laughing, smiling.

Shame.

My grandmother annoying the photographer by stealing his flash. My grandfather, who’d I’d lose in a year, watching with joy.

Guilt.

Crying as my parents walked me down the aisle and not knowing why. Wondering if everyone knew I was pregnant, if everyone despised me for it. Crying through the beginning of the ceremony and the pastor trying to calm me down.

Sadness.

A rose falling from my bouquet with a resounding, mic’d thud. Laughing, finally. Tulle catching on fire after we’d left the church. Being overwhelmed in the reception line.

Embarrassment.

A cake decorated by a dear friend. Kissing my bridesmaid and not understanding why she was sad. Thinking everyone was being so kind to me and that I didn’t deserve it, not even on my wedding day, and especially not because I was five months pregnant.

Shame.

Not wanting to have sex with my new husband on our wedding night and not understanding why. A foot of snow overnight. Pizza for breakfast. Finding out my bridesmaids’ sadness was because their grandfather died on my wedding day and feeling somehow responsible because it was my growing belly that made that day what it was.

Shame lies at the center of even what should have been one of the happiest days of my life. I have never remembered it as such. There was happiness that day, but every minute of it was tainted. I didn’t believe I deserved a single good thing that happened to me that day. I didn’t believe that my friend should have grown flowers to decorate my wedding cake and reception. I didn’t think that friends should come help decorate the church and reception hall. I didn’t think I deserved to look beautiful. Or feel beautiful.  I was ashamed of every part of my body, and I thought it was a just punishment.

I was hurt that friends had chosen not to come because of my “delicate situation,” and sad that everything was so rushed that my best friend couldn’t be there because he was on the other side of the world at the time. I was embarrassed that everyone knew I was pregnant and so grateful people were nice to me anyway.

Today has been a difficult day. The memories, the emotions, the sadness of what today might have been mixed with the relief for what it is no longer.

The night a friend called me out for still feeling ashamed about getting pregnant before I was married, it changed my entire perspective, almost in an instant. So many things happened in that moment: I realized he was right; I still felt shame. I’d just managed to lie about it, even to myself, for years. I also realized how much in life I’d missed out on because of that shame. And I realized that my entire marriage had been based on shame and that I no longer wanted to be married. I wanted my life back; I wanted to be myself again.

Today reminds me of how much my world has been overshadowed by shame. It made me believe I didn’t even deserve to be loved or treated well. It made me believe I added nothing to this world, that I was worthless.

So what I can do tonight is combat that shame with the goodness I now know I have.

I am loved. By my kids and my friends; they have acknowledged me and my struggles, and they love all of me. And I deserve that love, not because of anything good I’ve done, but because I live and breathe.

I am strong. After more than a decade, I have survived the steady beating of shame against my soul and still come out whole. Bruised and scarred and hurting, but still standing.

I am brave. Courage is being afraid of something and facing it anyway. Fear has never stopped me. Not when I was unmarried and pregnant, and not when I left my marriage six months ago, alone and against the will of even my own sister.

I am good. I am kind and loving and I care about people. There are good things about me that no one can take away. And I deserve just as much as anyone else to find joy, be loved, and make peace with myself.

I love myself. For so long I didn’t think I deserved even my own love, but I’ve learned that I do. And now I love and take care of myself. I bring myself flowers and take myself out for coffee. I am kind to myself.

I am me. As the shame is peeled away layer by thick, painful layer, I am finding beneath an amazing woman. She’s funny and interesting and worthy of good things, and she has amazing dreams for the future. She’s going to be okay.

It is these things that have taught me that shame cannot hold me. It cannot prevent me from living a good life. Not anymore.

Today is sad day because it marks the going dark of something I thought would be a part of my life forever. But it is a happy day too because, though I’m marking what was and what might have been, I’m acknowledging what is. I’ve come so far, accomplished so much, and I have the entire future ahead of me.

Five Months

Five months ago I turned paperwork over to the judge and he finalized my divorce. My husband—now ex-husband—having read none of the papers I’d given him the month before, was surprised when I called him. I felt free.

Today, though, five months feels nothing like restitution for the sixteen years I gave him, the years he spent trying to make me less than I was. There is still a lot of healing to get through. He took so much from me and left me with only shame, an entire world of it. I would like there to be a way to give it back to him—not turn it back on him, but to package it up and hand it to him.

“And here’s your wandering hands and cursed dick and blaming and accusations and lies. I think that’s everything. Oh, wait. Here’s your controlling nature and your pouty lip and your hot temper and your cruel family. Good riddance.”

And then it would rain, downpour a warm shower, and I’d stand in it and let it wash from me fingerprints I’ve of yet been unable to erase, let it cleanse the scar tissue so that, though it remains as a memory of my hard-fought battle, it doesn’t burn like the wounds are still fresh and raw.

I want him out of my life completely, but it seems I’ll need to come to terms with him being part of it because of the kids. It will be something I need to learn to cope with—long after the kids are grown, when five months turns to five years and five to ten and twenty. It’ll be a journey in itself.

But he can’t touch me again, and I can find comfort in that. I can make peace with the history he represents, and relegate my life with him to nothing but a moment. I can accept those sixteen years by honoring my memory in that time. The fire inside me never went out, no matter who tried to douse it or how. I kept it alive. I had the strength then and I have it now. Nothing will ever stop me again.

Five months freer, five months more independent, five months wiser, five months stronger, five months braver. Five months spent growing and healing and learning. Five months knowing I am good and loveable.

I am me—five months better than I’ve ever been before.

Secrets

We all keep secrets. Sometimes we keep them from ourselves. I’m an expert at this.

I think it must have been something I learned to do. I think it must have taken some time to learn. But I don’t remember a beginning. I don’t remember the first time I lied to myself. I don’t remember developing the skills I needed to hide the truth. I only remember realizing I’d been doing it. For years. For more than a decade.

When I was 19 I was raped.

The man was someone I knew, someone I loved, someone I thought loved me. But it turns out I was raped by a man who lied to me.

I didn’t know what was happening to me was rape. Yes, I felt violated and ashamed. Yes, I told him no (I told him again and again) and he did it anyway. But I loved this man and he loved me. So it wasn’t “rape,” not that terrible thing we talked about in health class, that thing that was “about power and not love.”

Instead, I believed that what happened to me was completely about lust. The sin of lust, to be specific. My sin. Each time I was raped, I begged God to forgive me for me for what I’d done. You have to understand that at this time my beliefs in good behavior and purity had been twisted by my church upbringing into a sick belief in a need for perfection.

I believed with all my heart that what had happened was my fault, that I could have, should have prevented it, was perhaps even the cause of it. I prayed over and over again for cleansing. I thought the dirtiness I felt was my own guilt. I know now it was violation, a coat of hell I’m still trying to scrape off my skin.

I felt completely worthless while I was dating this man. I was sinning; I was causing the man I loved to sin. I apologized to him. I told him I would try not to let it happen again. I thought I was lucky this man still loved me after what I’d done. My greatest fear was that he’d stop.

I told no one.

Until about a year ago. “You were raped,” my best friend told me. “No,” I told him, “it was never not consensual.”

This is where the lying comes in. Even as I explained what had happened, even as I described hands touching skin I didn’t want touched, sexuality forced upon me, fear and shame and not wanting it to happen, I told my friend it was my fault, that I’d been guilty of sex before marriage. I told him the shame I felt was my own fault because I’d sinned. I deserved that shame. And the disgust I remembered was with myself, not this man.

I believed it. I told my friend the man I’d now been married to for fourteen years was a good man. It didn’t matter that when we were dating he was a senior and I was a freshman, that he had taken advantage of my innocence and inexperience, that he hadn’t been considerate of my feelings or my boundaries; he’d married (worthless) me and was a good father and a good husband. The sex was my fault because he was a good man and I was bad.

“You were raped.”

The words sunk in as I tried to unravel my shame last spring. My friend told me I was worthy, told me I had a right to say no to anything, even sex, even if the man loved me, even if I loved him, even if I was married to him.

I found a way to share the blame I felt with my husband, at least fifty-fifty.

And then I found out this man had lied to me to make me trust him while we were dating. I discovered he lied a lot. Enough that I knew I couldn’t trust him anymore. I divorced him.

I’d been angry for years that my husband never felt the shame or remorse I felt for the sins we’d committed before we were married. He told me he’d made peace. But as spring turned to summer, I was suddenly disturbed and suspicious of his lack of emotion.

I was raped.

I started to own the words before I believed them. Yes, I remembered being violated. Yes, I remembered saying no. Yes, I remembered being touched in ways that made me sick. But I thought I was mistaken, that the last thing I wanted to do was accuse an innocent man, even if he was my ex-husband, of rape because my memory was false and I’d said yes when I thought I’d said no. I couldn’t blame him if I was wrong and had actually wanted what happened to me.

I spoke the words I was trying to own in a very small circle—to my two best friends, my counselor, the man I was dating—I denied it to myself, refusing to let go of the blame. And then I found proof.

Sixteen summers ago I kept a journal, a record of the year I was 19. It was explicit:

“I had sex with him last night. I told him no, but he didn’t stop.”

I was raped.

It hit like a wave, at the same time filling my lungs and pulling me so deep I could no longer see the light above the surface. The secret was out. I couldn’t deny it to myself anymore. It’s impossible to argue with a first-hand account. The man I married raped me.

I’m still drowning. The sadness I feel is profound, consuming. I can understand why I kept it from myself, told myself it was my fault. Because realizing someone I loved and trusted violated me so completely is so much harder to accept than a mistake I made.

I understand that honesty is the first step to healing. And the honesty of this should lift my shame and free me from guilt, and maybe it has. But the void that remains is deep and dark. The man I once loved more than anyone else betrayed me. That image of a “good man” is now no different than Dorian Gray’s painting. And, worse, memories I once refused to remember are flooding back in all their truth. I was raped.

My friends keep telling me it’s not my fault, and I need to hear those words over and over again. I need to know I’m worthy and loved and braver than I ever knew. I need to know there’s goodness left in this world, a light at the end of the darkness, and even though my secret is out, I still deserve some of that goodness.

Be brave. Tell your secrets. Tell the truth. Even to yourself. It’s difficult and painful, I know. But honesty is so much better than living a lie. It’s so much better than losing yourself in a lie. It’ll be okay. You’ll survive. And best of all, you’ll no longer be alone.

Unfreezing

Rough days come in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’re caused by people or stressors outside of ourselves; sometimes they’re caused by what’s within. Sometimes both. Sometimes they freeze us so completely we can’t go forward or backward. Sometimes they last 72 hours.

I’ve been having one of those days, but I’m inching my way out of it, bit by bit, and wanted to share how, because I know I’m not alone. My advice, ask for help (you don’t have to do it alone); ask for prayer (if this is a thing you do); do the next tangible, logical thing (for me this morning, this was getting out of bed and making breakfast and coffee); and then the next thing and the next; and go slow (stop to take care of yourself between each thing if you need to). Most importantly, be brave.

The problems, concerns, worries, sadness don’t go away in this, but I am moving, not frozen, which means I’ll be able to change, deal with, cope with, fix things in time—my time.