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 it, we stay silent.

We need to stop that. We need to stop being silent. For our sake and for the sake 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.

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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.

What Pain Didn’t Teach Me

It somehow seems logical, doesn’t it, that the introduction and relief of physical pain would mimic the same in emotional pain? And that, therefore, existing emotional pain might find relief in the introduction and removal of physical pain.

It doesn’t, though. It doesn’t even make the emotional pain more tangible. Instead, it just tears the flesh and creates more cause for pain of both types. The weight of that which is inside becomes heavier, anchoring in shame instead of healing.

For it is healing that is needed, not simply the release of what hurts.

My skin burns today where I tore it open as I tried to scratch the shame from my soul last night. Did I intend to break the skin when I brought pen and fingernails to the surface? I don’t know. But I did want to hurt. I wanted to feel the pain that I hoped would both punish me for what I saw as fault and release what I knew were lies: I’m worthless, I’m stupid, I suck, I make a mess of everything, I’m wrong, I deserve shame.

It’s a contradiction, but it’s where I stand in my healing process: knowing it isn’t true but feeling it, believing it anyway.

There are healthier ways to deal with the shame and hurt, and I am aware of and have used several over the past months. But in the passion of my hatred for myself, I saw no further than the inherent mistake that was me. Self-centeredness is a cyclical effect of my shame, a symptom but also a force that blinds me and holds me captive within the cycle. Round and round. I see only me and how worthless I am. I exist in a bubble made from two-way mirrors: the truth is hidden, while I see only the distortion of my image.

A week ago I wrote my grandmother a letter and told her I was getting divorced. She called me the day it arrived and told me she loved me and that she was sad, but supported me completely, whatever the reason for the end my marriage. I have not been given this much support in every loved one I’ve told. There has been much questioning and there has been judgment.

When my counselor asked me yesterday what my grandmother’s words told me about me, I struggled to come up with an answer. It took much prompting and time before I finally found the words:

“All I can think about it that my grandmother is a good woman,” I told her.

“But what about you?”

“She loves me; she isn’t judging me.”

She gestured for more. I knew what she wanted to see something from my perspective, not hers, but I couldn’t see anything. To me it was about reactions; my grandmother was kinder than others, less judgmental. And then:

“There’s something in me she thinks is worthy enough to love. Something about me that she thinks highly enough of to trust my judgment when I make a decision.”

It took a lot of work, a lot of reaching beyond the opaque, shame-made bubble to be able to stand on the other side of the mirror and see myself, and the truth, from my grandmother’s eyes. For her, it isn’t about what I’ve done, but about who I am.

Hours later, I still didn’t understand what I’d learned in this conversation with my counselor, and I turned on myself. In a wave of shame triggered by an interaction with my future-ex-husband and fed by a perceived mistake and an ever-changing friendship I’m struggling to find a balance within, I turned vicious. Words and pain and damage I regret today.

I can’t take any of that back, not words spoken or written or typed, not the scratches on my skin. But I can heal from it and make a plan so that next time—and there will be a next time—I might be kinder to myself.

I started with compassion this morning, coaxing myself from my bed and into the day and gently washing away and treating the remnants of a dark night: gentle soap, a soft washcloth, and antibiotic cream.

I reached out to a friend, sharing both my shame and what I’d done as a result, getting it out of me without the need for physical pain. The relief came from just knowing I wasn’t alone.

I told myself the truth—I’m worthy, I’m smart, I don’t suck, I do not make a mess of everything, I’m right in so many ways, I deserve love.

I accepted last night for what it was—more emotional pain than I knew what to do with.

I forgave myself for all damage done.

I looked at myself through the eyes of someone who loves me for who I am and saw someone worth loving and trusting, just like she did—like she always will.

Have compassion, reach out, tell the truth, accept, forgive, and look from a different perspective. It is a path to genuine healing and plan to follow when the shame is triggered again. It reminds me that I’m worthy, and I will remember that again and again, as many times as I need to, until I never forget.

Progress: I rose from bed with swollen eyes and ink on my skin, and now I’m able to write the words “I love myself and I am worthy of that love” and mean them. I don’t know what the rest of my day will bring, but it’s okay. I will face whatever it is and know I will heal, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll remember that I can’t fight pain with pain; I need to fight it with love.

Be Good to Yourself

Self-compassion is not something I offer myself naturally. I have to stop and deliberately think about it. Every. Single. Time. And even that’s difficult. I don’t always remember to stop and think before I criticize or am unkind to myself. And sometimes I just can’t accomplish it, even when I do think about it.

It’s difficult to justify not knowing how to show myself compassion halfway through my 30s. How have I never learned how to do this? I think I might have known at one time or another, but I’ve forgotten. Shame is good at making us forget the good things. But I’m ready to remember them.

I’ve been working on practicing self-compassion. Several months ago, I wrote myself a letter, offering me the kind of compassion I’d offer a good friend. It began:

My dear friend. I’m sorry to hear about the hard things you’re dealing with right now. I know you must be struggling with the things you’re going through. Hang in there and be strong. You’re so brave to take these steps and to stare down and deal with the shame and history and abuse that is hurting you so bad. I can’t imagine having the strength to carry that for 15 years and in the end to have to relearn how to feel and to cope with such harsh feelings.

It’s time to recognize that I’ve not only endured some painful points in my life, but also have the strength and courage it takes to face them and change my life.

A few weeks ago, and now continuing this week as well, I took this concept a step farther. I began keeping a self-compassion journal. I have been sitting down each night and writing down all the things I’ve felt ashamed for or that made me feel bad during the day, whether it was something I felt I’d done wrong or something someone else had done to shame me. I’ve then been writing self-compassionate responses to each of these items, things such as “It’s okay. You worked hard. I’m proud of you.” It has been difficult and at times tedious work, but I am learning some important lessons from it, things I can use to grow.

First and foremost, I’ve always known I’m critical of myself, but it seems to go further than I thought. I’m hard on myself.  My lists of shaming items tend to be long and detailed. At the end of each day, I remember everything I’ve felt bad for and about. The smallest items are worth criticizing—I felt guilty for having to find a new home for my dog; I felt at fault for my son’s lower grades at the end of the school year, because I’m the one who told him his dad and I were separating and that we’d have to move; I felt ashamed for standing up for myself against another family member in front of my family; I blamed myself for my husband getting angry; etc.

I allow myself no leeway, no room to make a single mistake without notation, and I take responsibility for things that aren’t necessarily mine to be responsible for. More uncompassionately, I also withhold forgiveness from myself. After an entire day has passed, I can still feel the shame and guilt I felt as long ago as the morning. There is no forgetting, no letting go.

I struggle through the self-compassionate notes sometimes, but I write them, forcing the kindness and forgiveness if I have to. It’s helping. I’m learning. Sometimes the shaming lists are shorter and sometimes I fall asleep loving myself a little more than I did when I started. It’s a beginning, a platform to start from.

From this experience and my observations, I’ve gone another step. Forgiveness is definitely one of the things I find most difficult to offer myself. And I’m taking time to study what forgiveness is, to create in myself a concept that I can wrap my mind around and make my own. I don’t want to just allow myself to make mistakes now and again—I want to forgive myself more completely when I do make them, because I will make them.

The most striking thing I’ve found is that experts see forgiveness as a “deliberate” and “conscious” decision. In order to forgive myself, I need to decide to do so. I can also choose not to, which has traditionally been the path I’ve followed. But writing self-compassionate notes has been a way for me to practice making the decision to forgive, and I’ve already noticed that I don’t always need to wait until the end of the day to do so. Sometimes, I grant forgiveness on the spot. Growth.

For me, even once I’ve chosen to forgive, there is still more that needs to happen, and again, the self-compassion notes have given me a way to practice this. It is important to let go of whatever it is that’s given me shame or guilt. This is perhaps the most difficult part for me. I am a perfectionist. My memory is long and focused on the minutiae of every one of my offenses. I hold on to them, save them to use against myself later, let them burn inside me and feed my shame. But one can even learn to stop doing this. Think of it this way:

Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing the monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward. – Author unknown

The idea of a deliberate decision is there again. Forgiveness and letting go of the things I’ve done and that I’ve experienced is my choice. I control it. I have the power to give myself kindness and compassion. No one can offer it to me like I can.

Be kind to yourself. Be self-compassionate. Forgive and let go of hurt and blame. You’re the only one who can do that for yourself.