Growing up a Christian, I was well acquainted with the concept of sin and the need to forsake it and follow Christ. Going through the day-to-day activities of life, there frequently is the realization that one could have done better, so, one tries to change and do better. Unfortunately, an abuse survivor’s sense of wanting to be better escalates beyond anything rational or reasonable. This need to right all wrongs, at least for me, comes from feeling dirty, unworthy, struggling with personal responsibility, and sadly taking responsibility for the actions of my abusers. No one tells you that those feelings have been twisted to the point where you don’t recognize the tool you really need:
THE NEED TO GRIEVE
Yes, allowing yourself to grieve is an important tool, and one too often glossed over or ignored completely, probably because we tend to think of it in terms of death exclusively. In truth, the healing process is a grieving process.
I was stunned by the idea of needing to grieve when I read about it in one of the many surviving abuse books I’d read. It was especially surprising to me because I was repeatedly advised to confess and change my behavior, a repentance type of process. Repenting made more sense to me because I felt like I had sinned. After all, what had happened was wicked.
I spent years trying to right what was wrong with me. If only I were more obedient. If only I were smarter. If only I were prettier. If only I were more intuitive. If only I tried harder. If only I worked harder. If only I were more patient. If only I were better. If only I were more like Christ.
I made goals ostensibly to become a better person, but in my heart I knew I was trying to make sure I didn’t make the same mistakes, didn’t invite unwanted attention, didn’t behave unseemly, couldn’t be accused of inviting what had happened to me ever again.
But no matter how hard I tried, no matter what I did, I found myself feeling dirty and worthless. Then it would be worse when someone took advantage of me again because I still didn’t have any boundaries. Surely if I were cleverer, more spiritual, less lazy, I would be treated with respect. I would be safe.
I felt like I had a label stamped on my forehead that said, “Abuse me.” Imagine how horrified I was when I realized that I did, in a way. I knew how to interact with abusers, so that’s the type of person I interacted with the most.
Like any abuse survivor, I believed it was my fault, not simply because of the sinful nature of what was happening but because my abusers actively blamed me. And surely it wouldn’t be happening if I were a better person.
My later boyfriends were never allowed to do what my abusers had done, but I allowed them to violate other boundaries I set because I still hadn’t learned that I was worth protecting.
How many times did I hear, “Just obey the Commandments, and follow Christ, and you’ll be fine?” I tried, and I wasn’t.
It took years for me to realize that I didn’t need to ask for forgiveness, not from my abusers, not from myself, and not from God. The only confessing that needed to be done was the kind that would have seen to my safety and protection, though to be honest, it didn’t. I tattled, and I was told to never let it happen again and to accept the miracle of forgiveness. I was even instructed to write one of my abusers and tell them I forgave them. I hadn’t mentioned the others. I felt guilty for not being more forgiving.
Finally, I realized that I didn’t need to confess to God the horrible things I’d done. He already knew the horrible things that had been done to me, and grieved.
I also needed to grieve.
The grieving process has five stages: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
I needed to recognize the first stage of the grieving process: Denial.
I didn’t deny it happened, so what was I denying? If I accepted responsibility for everything that happened, then surely I had control and could change myself and make everything all right. It also meant that I didn’t have to accept that people I loved and trusted would treat me so brutally, so unkindly, so wickedly.
This is where the tool STOP LYING comes in handy. As difficult as it is, if you aren’t willing to stop living in denial, then your life will never change. You’ll keep running through the same confusing mazes and ending up in the same starting place, over and over and over.
I spent a lot of time in anger. Simple, plain fury, directed everywhere, ineffectually. I’ll focus on anger in the next chapter because it’s complicated, to me anyway.
Bargaining is something we do every day. I’ll eat this piece of cake, today, and work out longer, tomorrow. I’ll work longer, today, so I can leave early, tomorrow. I’ll spend so much on groceries, this week, and cut back, next week.
Then there is bargaining to the extreme. I’ll do anything not to have to go through “it” again. I’ll attend church every day. I’ll work forty hours a week at the local soup kitchen. I’ll donate half my pay. I’ll give anything, do anything, give up everything, and all the variations in between.
And life goes on, and the bargains are lost in the everyday effort of living. And we feel guilt for not following through.
God never asked for those bargains, and reality makes keeping those promises impossible. For me, it only made a bad situation worse because I’d broken promises. Even when I knew they were outlandish promises, I felt the sting.
Depression is something I’ve lived in all my life. It’s really all I know. I would like to try living differently, but I’m not sure I’ve the capability. Living happily is an acquired skill, not something that simply happens. My depression is actually a well-honed skill. It was a better choice than being angry all the time. I pray, with time, there will be a lot less depression in my life, but it starts one step at a time. I’ve chosen to begin taking those steps.
Acceptance is exactly that: no more denial, no more temper tantrums, no more bargaining, no more depression. That being said, acceptance is not surrender. Acceptance does not mean rolling over and playing dead or being a doormat. Acceptance means acknowledging the problem and deciding not only to create a plan to overcome it but carrying out that plan, including when the plan is to leave the past in the past and move on. I’m moving into acceptance, little by little.
Being a survivor, it was years before I realized I needed to grieve, to allow myself to mourn the loss of innocence too young, to mourn the loss of childhood too soon. To mourn the loss of security. To mourn the loss of peace.
I recognized those things first. Then I began discovering other things I would need to mourn. All I wanted to do was marry and have children, a happy, healthy family of my own, but I haven’t the skills necessary to fulfill that dream.
Oh, I know all about cooking, cleaning, etc, but the emotional ability to be a supportive and encouraging spouse and parent simply isn’t there. I never learned those skills. They do not magically appear because I want to be that way. So I mourn the loss of dreams.
I recognize that had I married, my “skill set” would have hurt those I love, which would have tormented me. Gradually, I’ve accepted that God’s way, though painful in some ways, is wiser, kinder, and gentler in so many more ways.
I agonize over hurting anyone’s feelings, including the feelings of those who so brutally squashed me at every turn. If I see a problem, I want to help. If I have it within my power to make something better, I try to do so. I want to do no harm. The only way to fulfill that need, to my mind, has been to maintain a certain amount of distance in all my relationships.
Fortunately, as I’ve actually become healthier, God has blessed me with some incredibly awesome friends. With their help, I’m learning that I don’t need to maintain a false sense of distance. I truly am capable of having close, healthy friendships.
However, I’ve needed to mourn that because of what I was taught growing up I’m incapable of having a healthy relationship with a man. When a family member treats you more as a lover than a sister/daughter/niece/cousin (whichever the case may be) it’s creepy to have a boyfriend treat you the same way. I tried. The flashbacks were and are powerful and ugly.
I needed to mourn the realization that I would never have the family every child deserves, to be loved wholeheartedly, unconditionally, accepted simply because of who I was. And that this would be something I would mourn my whole life, whenever something would remind me of what could never be mine.
Sleep isn’t restful when you’re trying to avoid your dreams. It was so difficult for me to admit to my counselor that I considered my dreams to be nightmares. I would wake to dreams of having a beautiful home, and being happily married, with children, and a dog, and I’d cry. I hated those dreams. They tore my heart in two. My counselor agreed that they were nightmares, because they could never come true, just as it would be a nightmare for a hungry child in Ethiopia to dream of a feast and then wake to another day of starvation.
It isn’t that I spend every moment of every day mourning, but when I feel sad, rather than berate myself or push it away, I allow myself to feel it, embrace it. And there is no time limit. None. My horse passed away in 2002, and I still miss him. My dog passed away in 2006, and there are moments that catch me by surprise, and I weep. One of my dearest friends passed away, in 2009, and there are still moments when I want to call her and tell her about one thing or another. No one has the right to dictate to someone else to “get over it.”
I know there are those who revel in eternally grieving, but do you really want to live your life that way? I don’t. But that doesn’t mean anyone is allowed to dismiss my feelings.
I want to be happy. Those who know me know I want to be happy. They don’t tell me to “get over it.” They allow me to be sad and share in my grief. And then I pick up and go back to the business of living.
It hasn’t been easy to accept that God has a very different plan for me than I ever had for myself. His plan for me is about using my strengths, and my weaknesses, to fulfill His purposes, His grand plan. My responsibility is to open myself to the possibilities God offers me.
Knowing God has a plan for me doesn’t mean I have nothing to grieve. God is good. His plan is wondrous. He not only understands the need to grieve, He even blessed it.
“Blessed are they that mourn…” Matthew 5:4
So much to grieve…
And so I grieve.
© 2010 The Project: The Tools I Wish I’d Known About Sooner / My Abuse Survivor’s Basic Toolkit by Judy