Forgiveness

My sister told me a few days ago that she was having a hard time forgiving a close family member for betrayal, and she said she was afraid she was sinning by not forgiving immediately. It was a statement but a question too. She wanted to know what I thought.

Funny how the woman who told me I was a sinner but she loved me anyway when I got divorced was now asking my advice about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an interesting subject. Forgiving is something we’re taught from a young age. Our parents urge us to forgive those who have hurt us even from the time we’re toddlers. We say, “It’s okay,” when someone says she’s sorry, whether it is or not, because it’s good manners.

In church, we’re taught that forgiveness is a much deeper concept. Christ forgave us so we must forgive others in return. Jesus instructed us to forgive each other.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.

Matthew 18:21-22

We aren’t even supposed to take Holy Communion until we’ve forgiven all who have sinned against us. No grudges allowed.

Forgiveness isn’t exactly an easy topic for me to tackle, but I wanted to both be honest with my sister and to comfort her.

I told her I don’t think being hurt or hanging on to that hurt, and being unforgiving are the same thing. And I said that I don’t think it’s sinning to hold back forgiveness until we’re able to truly follow through with it. It takes time, and betrayal runs deep, and it’s okay that it’s taking her some time to get there. I told my sister I don’t think she’s sinning.

This concept of “sinning” against God when we can’t forgive and forget the moment someone acts against us is such a backwards perspective. God, who has the greatest capacity of anyone to forgive, isn’t going to hold our pain against us.

My mom told me she hoped I’d fail when I moved away from my hometown with my kids and that I wouldn’t have too much pride to come back when I did.

My best friend quit talking to me when I told her I’d been pregnant when I got married.

My ex-husband raped me before and after we were married.

My church mentors told me I had to let the rape continue because he was my husband.

My sister told me I was a sinner for getting a divorce from the man who raped me.

No matter how many times I forgive these people, no matter how much I love my mom and sister and the children I had by my ex-husband, I still hurt so deeply. I still get angry and sad and depressed, and I cry. Sometimes I even hate.

But I don’t need to dwell on the things they did or said. They are over, and though I have the memories, their actions and words are no longer mine to bear. I can leave the burden behind. I can accept that what was done is now between God and those people.

I’m stronger today than I’ve ever been, and it isn’t something that was given to me by the people who betrayed me. They only helped me to see just how much was inside me. I don’t need a single other person to get me through this life or to determine whether or not I’m strong enough. I am.

I think this is what forgiveness means. It doesn’t erase the injuries or the scars. It doesn’t leave you suddenly at peace. It doesn’t secure the past in the past. It doesn’t take away your knowledge that something was done against you. But it frees you to move on from what happened.

I think Kesha says it truthfully in her song “Praying.” It’s about forgiveness and letting go and moving on and being better for all that’s happened. And it’s become my anthem, in a way, a song  that knows the truth of my heart.

No, Sister, you are not sinning. You’re hurting and it’s alright.

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The Fight Isn’t Over

I’m feeling an enormous amount of shame today, shame and worthlessness and everything that comes with them: hopelessness, sorrow, anger, lethargy, self-judgment. The trigger was a typical “not what I’m looking for” rejection, nothing significant, but I think I must have been ripe for the attack of shame and the sense of unwanted-ness that has now haunted the past three days because it has left me fighting old demons. Old but clearly not defeated.

The thought that I don’t deserve happiness or that I am just plain not allowed to have happiness has become persistent. My reason for this lack of deserving and allowance? God’s will. Why would I think God has willed such a dark life? The reasoning comes from my religious upbringing, the knowledge passed on to me by church elders and youth group leaders.

One, I have never been meant to be happy. God knew this before I existed. The assumption is that some people just aren’t meant to know happiness in love. My churches taught that some people are meant to remain unmarried for their entire lives, and that if you are chosen for this, it should be accepted and adhered to, as it is God’s will. Certainly, if God wants people to remain unmarried, he must also mean for hearts to always be broken. In essence, this has always been his plan for me. 

Two, I’m being punished for something I’ve done, so I will not be allowed happiness until I’ve repented or made up for my offense. Was it the divorce? Is it because I’ve had sex outside of marriage? Until yesterday, I hadn’t seen these things as sins for some time. But now the fear of God preached by my church pervades. What if I’m wrong and what I was taught was 100 percent correct? What if this is God’s judgment? I was taught that if we disobey God, he may choose to cause terrible things in our lives until we turn back to him. Is the worst yet to come? It is quite possible I deserve this brokenness.

Or three, perhaps the brokenness is God’s way of loving me. He’s calling me back, and he’s doing it through the breaking of my spirit. Let me feel unlovable and unwanted and alone because then I’ll realize I need God and that I’m not living life according to his will. FYI, I know I need God. 

Four, God intended for me to be happy, but I messed up his plan seventeen years ago when I fell in love with and married my now ex-husband. Had I followed God’s plan, I would know peace and joy now, but instead, I’m cursed to remain lonely and sad for the rest of my life. I missed my chance and I must pay the price for my misjudgment.

I suppose all of these come down to the ever-present conflict of “God is love” versus “God is a jealous god,” a complicated dichotomy that has plagued me since my confirmation days. Is the character of God truly summed up in “I love you but disobey me and I’ll destroy you”? And is there nothing I can do to change it? Because I was taught that though I’ve been given free will, God will do whatever he pleases. So I’ve wondered for much of my life if prayer is even worth it. If God will do whatever he wants, can my prayers ever sway him?

Christian readers, do not fear for my soul. It is not my faith that is shaken; I know Jesus died for my sins and I love him dearly for it. Rather, it’s a question of how to live this life here on earth. Do I spend the rest of my life accepting loneliness, heartache, and the feeling of unworthiness as the payment for my crimes, or part of God’s plan, or God’s way of loving me, or the price I must pay for the choices I’ve made? Do I decide this is God’s will and accept that I cannot change it? Do I accept a life of utter joylessness and pray that I won’t live too long? Or do I tell myself this is shame speaking and that these things aren’t true and that God wouldn’t allow me to experience such a dark life? (A persistent voice says the last isn’t true; just look at the biblical figure Job.)

I don’t have an answer today. Shame is sucking the life out of me, and I don’t know how to stop it. I’m writing because speaking the hurt and shame aloud is supposed to be the key to healing. Shame researcher Brené Brown (http://brenebrown.com) says that we need to acknowledge shame and share our stories because shame thrives on silence. It’s difficult but necessary:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

So here I am writing to you, being vulnerable. I don’t see any more light than I did an hour ago, and I don’t feel any more wanted or hopeful, but maybe it’ll come with time. At least I’ve said something. At least I’ve confessed these things I’ve feared my entire life. At least I’ve broken the silence. Wiser people say this will help me heal, help me have hope, help me to see the value of me. I hope so because I don’t think anyone deserves to go through life feeling unlovable and worthless.

The Myth of The One

Booth: You know, when I say heartbreaking you say the heart is a muscle, so it can’t break. It can only get crushed.

Brennan: Isn’t it heartcrushing?
Bones

Hearts are broken—crushed—every day. It’s been sung about, written about, spoken about. Every one of you reading this knows the feeling. It’s not a new sensation, curtesy of Facebook or Snapchat. Shakespeare writes of Enobarus (Antony and Cleopatra) and Lady Montague (Romeo and Juliet) both dying of broken hearts. Even King David writes of his broken heart in Psalm 69. It’s an ancient feeling and experienced almost universally: nearly every culture acknowledges the concept.

I don’t just mean heartbreak by a lover, mind you. Mothers, fathers, children, family members, friends can cause just as much heartbreak as a boyfriend or wife, sometimes more, because it is those we love who have the ability to cause us the greatest anguish and sorrow. We can break our own hearts if we love ourselves enough. But it doesn’t matter who or what the cause is; the experience is real and tangible. An ache in the chest where the heart beats. Stress of the mind. Inconsolable grief. Depression. Sometimes it’s more than the loss of love: it’s the loss of hope, the loss of joy, the loss of dreams. It is loss.

My heart has been broken again. I should be getting used to this by now, right? But I’m not writing today to express the heartbreak I feel or to talk about how to heal. I’m writing with a caution. It is a realization that came to me with a sharp shock this afternoon, one that caused me to scribble out the words I was writing at the moment to the point of shredding the paper. Let me tell you what happened.

My sweetheart broke my heart on Monday morning (via text, while I was at work; he’s seeing someone else … some might say good riddance). I’ve felt the twinges in my heart muscle, the loss of hopes and dreams, and the loneliness that usually follows. Friends and coworkers have offered condolences, advice, admonishment for my former lover, and well wishes. It is the well wishes you need to beware.

“You’ll meet someone who treats you right.”

“It wasn’t meant to be.”

“I want you to meet a nice boy.”

They seem harmless and they are well-meant. But they’re dangerous. A single someone, a nice boy, and, worst of all, something that is meant to be. We all want to meet that someone, that special person who we’re meant to be with. I was taken away with the thought, and in a manner of trying to heal my heart, I started to write him a note today.

You don’t know me and I don’t know you. I’m … looking for someone special to connect with. What about you? … I imagine you out there, and whatever you’re looking—

And that’s when I cut myself off and crossed out my words and cut the paper through to the page beneath it, thinking, “That’s how I got myself into all of this in the first place.” I was looking for The One … the one God had meant for me from the beginning of time.

I grew up in a world where divorce was against God’s will because we are to search and wait for The One meant for us and work through everything with that person to stay married forever. I left home and my church youth group for college with a delusional belief that there really was one special person out there whom God meant for me and me alone, and that I’d meet him and know he was The One and that he would too. I prayed for God to prepare him for me and me for him. We were encouraged to so because that would help us ensure a God-blessed, happy relationship in our futures.

Out of this upbringing I came and promptly fell into the arms of the man I thought was meant for me, despite our lack of shared interests and his judgment and his hurtful silent-treatment pouting whenever he didn’t get his way … oh, and the fact that he raped me. It’s okay; he’s The One. I married him in spite of horrible fights, traumatic shame, mistreatment of my body, and continued shaming. I felt lucky to have found The One so quickly and easily. He loved me so much, and he’d even dreamed of us getting married. God was truly guiding us.

No one once suggested we shouldn’t get married. I don’t know if it was complacency in the belief we’d each found The One or a matter of everyone minding their own business, but friends and family saw problems from the beginning and yet not a word was said. I don’t blame them. We’ve been fed this line of fiction all our lives. Even my parents have a messy, unhappy marriage, but have been together 40+ years. I believed in The One with all my heart … I believed in The One to a fault.

I know better now. “The One” is a myth, and I won’t be that blind again. God didn’t create me for my ex-husband or me for the man who broke my heart on Monday. He didn’t create me for anyone I’m about to meet either. The idea that there is someone out there looking for me, who God made for me is beautiful, but only fantasy. The concept of a soulmate is heartwarming and hopeful, but as wise as Plato was, I’m not sure I believe anymore.

It’s heartbreak versus fear in me right now. Heartbreak seeking hope that I won’t spend the rest of my life alone.

I want to love you. … Please find me. Look for me and don’t give up.

(I wrote that too; not twenty years ago, but yesterday. Old habits die hard, I guess.)

And fear that my beliefs could trap me in another life-draining relationship. I won’t go there again. I won’t be part of that. I won’t be the pawn of my religious upbringing, and I won’t believe the myth again. I won’t search for someone special. I will accept that he doesn’t exist, and I caution you to follow my example, whatever you believe. It’s harsh and it hurts, but trust me, please. 

But think of it this way: there is no One. Not “one” doesn’t automatically mean zero; it could mean many. What if instead waiting for the one, you search for love. Go slow: take the time to know yourself and know what love is to you, and then look for it. You might love many, and your heart might get broken a lot. But you’ll always have new hope because you won’t meet the love of your life just once.

Sweets: Mm-hmm, perhaps you’re saying this because you’ve never met the love of your life.

Angela: I have, actually. Many times.

—Bones

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.

Knowing What I Know Now

I had a date last night, a first date with a guy I’d met on an online dating site. We’d hit it off right from the beginning, and there was definite chemistry when we met in person. We ate a late lunch and talked for hours. He asked me to be his girlfriend before the night was over, and I politely declined; it was too soon (really too soon!). I told him a little about my past, and he told me I was safe with him and that I could trust him, and when I left, I felt safe and did trust him.

Don’t get me wrong; I had my concerns. In an earlier conversation, he’d told me how religiously conservative he was, and referred to my (religiously and politically) liberal leanings as “liberal proclivities.” (I wondered if he realized “proclivity” had a negative connotation; though, I think he did.) Religious conservatives make me nervous already, for obvious reasons, but he did more than disagree with my beliefs and opinions; he criticized them.

And he spoke excessively about the future, our future. I thought maybe he was just a little too smitten. When I told him my plans for after my kids leave home, they became his plans too. And he talked about wanting to buy a house with me. And when we talked about Disney world, and I said I would like to take my kids but couldn’t afford it, he said that such things were possible now with “two incomes.” To all of this I replied, “Let’s get through the first date first,” move slowly. He wanted exclusive, long-term, and while exclusive might be okay, I’m not ready for long-term; my marriage only ended a year and a half ago.

And he’d mentioned he used to be more controlling and particular about the way he liked things. I won’t be controlled again, not for anything or anyone. But he said he’d changed, and I wanted to believe it was so.

Overall, the date ended well, and we agreed to see each other again soon. To be honest, I was taken with the cuddling and kissing and the warmth of someone wanting to spend time with me.

By morning, though, the red flags (of him being a potential abuser) that I’d stored away in my subconscious were crimson and the size of Rhode Island and waving like the Star-Spangled Banner over Fort McHenry.

  • One, he’d told me he’d once broken a woman’s spirit through constant criticism and being mean, but that he’d decided to make up for it by making people feel good about themselves. I thought his change of heart was noble, but “broke a woman’s spirit”? Can people really change that drastically?
  • Two, the criticism of my liberal tendencies and his disdain for some of the decisions I’ve made since my marriage ended: being in a polyamorous relationship, for one. He was judgmental and even declared that he thought I was “rebelling” in response my long, difficult marriage, and suggested the rebellion would end and that I would eventually go back to being conservative. In hindsight, I see that this is manipulative and shaming, telling me I don’t really know what I want or what I’m doing or what’s good for me, and that I’ll eventually see the light.
  • Three, he mentioned that his first wife (first wife?!) had a lot of guy friends that she’d hang out with, and that it really bothered him. This was an issue in my marriage, and I am not going to let it be an issue again. I have guy friends, and that’s the way it is, period. So I told him up front my best friend was a guy. He replied, “It would help if he was gay.” I said he was not but that he lived in another state, and he said, “That’s the best kind of friend.” When I caught myself thinking today about listing off for him all my guy friends and which are gay and which are far away, I knew I’d been shamed.
  • Four, his first wife? He’s had more than one?
  • Five, his references to the long-term future and his taking ownership of my future plans.
  • Six, he said he’d been abused in his youth, and having discussed red flags at my domestic abuse and sexual assault support group, I knew this was a concern.
  • Seven, I discussed briefly my reasons for not being simpatico with the church (not Jesus or my faith, but the church itself) right now, how it was through mentors at my church that I was told to allow my husband to use my body as he pleased. My date, though he said what the mentors said and what my husband did were wrong, quoted St. Paul’s discussion of women submitting to their husbands. Yes, my date was pointing out that husbands were also to love their wives as Christ loved the church, sacrificially. But he didn’t deny at any point that wives should submit, and I noticed.
  • Eight, he kept saying to me, “I’m afraid you’re going to do what women do, and go home after this, and think about this too much and change your mind about dating me.” And I kept saying I didn’t think I would, though I didn’t promise anything.

Perhaps it’s strange to you that I listed all these things that worried me out. But knowledge is power, and we need to know when there is potential danger. I’m sharing because you need to know.

I didn’t feel confident enough to make a decision on my own this time around, so I reached out to trusted friends and thought about my concerns and listened to what I was saying to those friends, understanding through my words what I was actually feeling. And I messaged my support group leader. Members of a support group take care of each other, and I knew without a doubt I could trust and depend on her.

I was assured by all that these things were, indeed, red flags. And because they’re good friends, the decision of what to do next was left to me.

I won’t say my decision-making process was great; I obsessed over it a good part of the day, wasting mine and my friends’ time and energy, but in the end, I trusted my instincts. I told my date I didn’t want to see him again because the things we’re looking for were too different, and I wished him good luck. The reasons for my decision are my business, not his.

And then, true to my concern about him being controlling and manipulative, he replied:

I kind of figured you’d do that girl thing girls do. .. ok well … what else is new? …

I guess his response wasn’t completely unexpected. With his expression of fear last night about me changing my mind, he’d set me up as the bad guy before the first date was even over. And not a bad guy with valuable opinions and feelings, but merely a “girl” who only did what “girls do.” Essentially, he removed my worth from the equation. He shamed me.

I’m sad. I could have really liked him. And if he’d been genuine, I might have loved him eventually. I’m sad to have had another potential relationship turn to naught. I’m sad and angry that he shamed me, and that I felt shame, even knowing what it was. I’m frustrated that I feel a hint of guilt for having hurt him by choosing not to see him again.

But I’m confident now too. I saw what was happening this time, understood it, and though it took me all day, I made the best decision and protected myself. And I did the right things to reach that decision. I made a list and I reached out, and before that, I recognized the flags. I’ve grown, in wisdom and emotional maturity and stability. I’ve come a long way, and what I did today will help me grow even more. Today, albeit its stress and sorrow and the low hum of shame in the back of my head right now, was a good day.

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.