The Value of My Body

My body doesn’t belong to me.

Or so I’ve been told and believed most of my life.

Who, then, does it belong to? It is God’s temple; it is my husband’s property; it is the government’s, the church’s, a politician’s to make decisions about. I am merely the innkeeper. I keep it clean—in every sense of the word—and free of disease. I feed it and primp it and use it to grow life. But if I am to believe what I’ve been taught, I do none of these for me. And the value that exists has everything to do with the world and nothing to do with me.

And so when a man touches me or presses me for intimacy, it is not for the value of me that I say no (or don’t); rather, it is for fear of shame and damnation, and sometimes, fear of flashbacks. I do not say yes or no because I’m thinking about the value of my body, because I don’t actually value my body. I’ve never had need to. I’ve never learned to—or I’ve unlearned how to. My body has never been mine to claim more than guardianship over. It is a lot more challenging to take care of something you have little personal interest in, no matter how precious it is.

I broached this in counseling this week, and my counselor reminded me that a few months back she had asked me:

How long has sex been a currency in your life?

We’d been talking about how, long after I knew I wanted to end my marriage, I kept having sex with my husband. I did it because I thought I had to while I was married to him, but why didn’t I leave sooner and just stop the sex? I was sick back then. Chronic pain crippled me as often as once or twice a week. I’d been to the ER for it, and the neurologists still didn’t know the cause or how to alleviate it. I couldn’t take care of myself; I needed my rapist in order to survive. I paid for my husband’s care by having sex with him. Sex as currency.

I concluded initially that only in those final few years of my marriage, 2012 to 2015, had sex been a currency for me, and I planned to tell my counselor this. Then time got away from us, and we didn’t discuss it again until this week, when I wondered at how little I seem to value my body right now. And when my counselor asked about sex as a currency again, I realized it’s lot longer than those three years. It had been since I was a teenager, since before I was even sexually active, because, based on my beliefs, I thought my sexuality determined, at least in part, my value in God’s eyes. Having pre-marital sex would destroy my worth, and eventually I felt it did.

I told my counselor this and she didn’t deny it likely went back that far. And then she raised the question of my primary love language being touch and asked if that’s why I gave my ex-husband sex, so that he’d reciprocate, touch me, make me feel loved. For the first time in over a year, I remembered that my ex-husband did not usually reciprocate after sex. We touched during sex, but not after. He usually went to his side of the bed and didn’t touch me.

And what’s more, if I couldn’t have sex because I was sick or had an infection or was menstruating, I didn’t get held or touched. Unless I physically pleased him another way. So I gained my touch, my love, through performing sex acts. It caused plenty of arguments. I wanted to be touched, feel loved, even if I couldn’t give sex.

In a way, it’s the same thing I do now. I trade intimacy to feel loved, and it’s easier for me because I give my body such low worth. I have few boundaries that aren’t related to religion, and now that I doubt the rules laid out by religion, I have few boundaries. But I still feel the pain. It is, after all, my body.

I know now it’s time I take ownership of it, restore to myself, my body the value and worth I deserve—deserve because life comes with value, period. I didn’t earn it; I didn’t have to. And I don’t have to do anything to retain it.

Yet it isn’t this simple. Before I can own the value, I need learn how to see and understand it—and I don’t right now—and I need to unlearn what I have always believed. I’m not even sure if those are mutually exclusive. I have a long, long journey ahead. Change, lots and lots of change, but above all, growth. And I can make a difference.

Please don’t be like me and assign the value of your body according to your god or spouse or church or government. Don’t let anyone tell you what your value is or how to determine it. Your body is yours, period. Your body is valuable, period. Tell your sons and daughters and your friends and loved ones. Tell yourself. Say it until you believe it. Make it your daily affirmation.

My body is mine. My body is valuable.

And when you make decisions about your body, make them for you … because it’s yours.

I Decide Now

There is a certain amount of shock—and in my case panic—that comes with realizing that much of what you believe and trust in is false. When I learned just how much control shame had of my life and that the things that perpetuated it were a combination of lies and false beliefs, my world, in a word, shattered.Imagine life as a game of Jenga. You start with a sturdy foundation, three wooden blocks on the bottom, topped by three more laid perpendicular to the first three. The building of the tower repeats this patter until its builder runs out of wooden blocks. The result is a rectangular cuboid. There will likely be a few wonky blocks, but for the most part, the tower is stable.

In the form of a life, this stable tower represents the average child with his or her basic understanding and rules, values, and beliefs laid into place by parents, guardians, family members, caretakers, churches, schools, etc., in essence, a child with a steady base for healthy functioning, making decisions, and moving forward in life.

Now, as the child grows and adjusts his or her understanding, rules, values, and beliefs according to new experiences and the input of new knowledge, the tower that represents the child’s basis changes shape slightly. Some of the initial structure will shift a little, parts of it will disappear completely to make room for new information (imagine the delicate removal and placement of Jenga blocks). But most shifting, changing, growing will take place with the firm foundation (the tower’s first two rows) in place. Everyone who’s played a game of Jenga knows the tower stays steadier if the bottom-most row and the one just above it stay fairly intact.

In the lifespan of the average person, the game of Jenga would go on forever, beliefs and values (the blocks), always growing and shifting while the base remains firm. But in the game itself, there is a moment when the tower becomes too unstable—perhaps when it becomes necessary to pull blocks from the foundation—and it tips and the wooden blocks scatter to the far ends of the table, some even to the floor. If you want to start another game, you have to gather these blocks and rebuild the tower.

My tower built upward as I went to college and got married and had children and worked and went to church and met new friends, always on the solid base of religious beliefs and family values and the dos and don’ts of a righteous life burned into my brain. I depended on this base for everything: guidance for decisions and behaviors, judging right from wrong (in my eyes it was only either/or), how to raise my children, how to process new experiences, how to be a good wife, that shame was normal, even how I viewed and felt about sex and my body. Everything.

And then I discovered that much of what I’d been told religiously about sex and my body and marriage was a lie, and it changed everything. Nearly every block of the first two rows, the foundation, of my tower were pulled out from under me, and lies upon lies that I’d grown to know as my belief and value system tumbled. My tower crashed.

So here I am, in my mid-thirties, gathering up all of these blocks that have scattered and trying to rebuild. I need a new foundation, a new set of values. I have my faith in God, but that’s a single piece, and lacking the religion that goes with it, it seems to mean very little. Essentially, I am beginning over again.

What about divorce? What about shame? What about sexual orientation? How do I feel about sex outside of marriage? My church says stealing is wrong, but it also told me I should let my husband rape me. Now that I know the latter is wrong, I have to ask how accurate the former is. And do the same thing for adultery and coveting and killing. Every part of my belief and value system needs to be reevaluated, even those things written in the Bible.

Now, some of these are easy: for example, killing, stealing, and adultery are generally accepted as wrong by society’s standards, and I agree with this. And I’ll teach my children these things. I will also teach them kindness and generosity. I will teach them to love people for themselves and to not judge by looks or behavior or gender or whatever. And I will lead them by example. I will be tolerant and caring. I will not be prejudice. I will not shame.

But what about sex? Everything I have known about sex and dating was based on what my religious beliefs told me, no questions asked. I determined right and wrong the same way. And how men and women are supposed to behave in relationships. I was told and I accepted, rarely asking.

(Yes, I know there was a HUGE flaw in my thinking; I’m working on that too.)

Even when my feelings told me something that contradicted my belief system, I lied to myself, manipulated my own emotions to match what I was “supposed to” feel. I trusted it all without doubt or hesitation.

So now I have questions, lots and lots of questions. And I have very little foundation to base my answers on. I could ask friends, but people can be wrong and they can lie, just the same as family members or the church. No, I must actually learn and experience and answer my own questions and make my own decisions as to those answers.

It is perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, to create my own set of values to live by, and sometimes I am completely lost. Never mind past trauma, my anxiety, PTSD symptoms, old and new shame, the resurgence of former beliefs, or that others want to weigh in. Making a decision or choosing a path is never just making a decision or choosing a path.

Some days I don’t know the answers or how to find them. Other days I don’t even know my own opinions, let alone my feelings. Sometimes I change my mind. Sometimes I don’t trust myself. Sometimes my perspective changes and my new values shift, and sometimes the values do a 180. Some days I believe opposites are both true. And sometimes, like yesterday, like today, I don’t know what I believe.

I’m holding fifty-four wooden blocks in my hands and sitting at the table ready to begin, but I can’t place even one block because I just don’t know.

So shock and panic. My instinct is to curl up and try to be small and invisible, to disappear from the world so that I don’t have to decide or know or believe anything. But I don’t. I maybe hide for a few hours, an evening maybe, but then I go to work, and I talk to friends, and I laugh and cry, and I face my questions head on. I tell myself this state of unknowing isn’t permanent. I remember the only way to find the knowledge is to experience and learn. And so I search for my answers. It is not my only option, but it is the one I choose.

And piece by piece, block by block, I put my life back together.

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.