If you have not heard the new Taylor Swift Song, Anti-Hero, you must be living under a rock. You also cannot read this blog any further and actually understand what I’m talking about, so here’s the link to the lyric video on Youtube.
If you didn’t know that I am a Swifie, you either haven’t been here long or haven’t been paying attention. The woman knows how to turn every emotional experience into a catchy tune, and as someone who doesn’t do well actually expressing feelings but also wants them out and known, I am here for it.
Most of my life was spent in blissful ignorance that I was, in fact, the problem.
Well, at least part of the problem. I grew up in a very abusive environment. I was surrounded by violence, drugs and multiple types of abuse. In the midst of that, I learned to survive. It was obvious that I, this vulnerable child, was not responsible for the abuse, the violence or the drugs. I didn’t bring my circumstances upon myself.
I did, however, learn to exist within it. Survival meant developing certain tools and turning off certain parts of my being. I stopped trusting people. I once believed that it was men that I predominantly stopped trusting as a result of the times I experienced sexual trauma and witnessed domestic violence. Now, after years of processing, I realize that this isn’t the full truth. At the time, expecting to be let down was helpful for me because most of the adults in my circle were unreliable at best and unsafe at worst. There were adults at the time that I believed I could count on. Now, looking back, I am able to see that they were central figures in the system, benefiting from the destructive behaviors of others and not taking the appropriate steps to intervene even when they had the ability to do so. Even those I believed to be safe and trustworthy, weren’t. My primary abuser was a woman in a position of power and authority over me who didn’t do her job to care for and protect those in her charge, instead, using them to serve her own ego and her own desires.
As the oldest child, I learned that the other children were even more vulnerable than I was. I loved my brother and sisters with a parental love, and as a result, in that environment, I learned that I could not protect both myself and them. I had to turn off every internal drive to keep myself safe, standing between them and the violence of adults. I also turned off my ability to sense pain and to know when too much was too much. This served me well when I was taking hits, my heart was breaking and grieving as I saw the brokenness of the adult-world around me and tried to build a wall to protect the children in my midst from it, and when choosing not to eat so that my siblings had enough.
I lied so well. I am sure that people knew things weren’t great, simply because I know how many calls were ultimately made to DCFS and law enforcement. But time and time again, when I speak to members of my community, they are shaken. Nobody knew how bad it really was. That was largely due to my sheltering of the other children combined with my ability to perform well for a crowd.
I did this because, while I haven’t ever been someone who “cared what others thought,” I have always been someone who highly valued certain relationships. Once you are in my heart, you stay there. I love fiercely, fervently and with a force that most aren’t familiar with or ready for. When I was young, I loved my siblings that way, and I was convinced, heart and soul, that to tell the truth would mean losing them.
This is a tactic used by abusive parents everywhere. “If you tell, they will separate you. They’ll take you away. They’ll punish you, too. They’ll know all of your secrets, too. I have dirt on you, too. You aren’t perfect, you know. The things you’ve done trying to keep this family together? I can tell them that. Then what will happen? You’ll never be able to protect your siblings from jail! That’s where they’ll put you when they know you fought back/stole for food/ went along with/didn’t tell when…You’re brother/sisters will go to foster care! Do you know what happens there?”
So I learned to protect with lies. I learned to tell the highlight reel and hide the abuse. These skills served me well in my abusive household, or at least, I my little brain and body believed that they did at the time.
But then I became an adult. I didn’t follow in the footsteps of those that came before me. I didn’t pursue drugs and violence.
And yet, I spent the last few years taking some giant steps back. I stepped back from leadership, from ministry and completely re-evaluated my faith, steeping myself in Jesus rather than people.
Because in my mastery of survival, I learned skills that helped me hurt people who could be trusted, who did invest in me and who were safe. When someone demonstrated themself to be safe, trustworthy and tender with me, rather than opening up and letting them in, my defense mechanisms went on high alert.
It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem.
When someone stepped in to help lighten the heavy burden I have always shouldered all by myself, I found myself observing them, wondering…” When will they cash in the favor?”
It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem.
When someone was truly available for my vulnerability, I ran in fear. After all, historically, vulnerability meant danger. So instead of imbedding myself with those who treasured all that I am and valued my whole self, I ended up surrounded by people who treasured all that I was capable of doing and giving, using my skills to further their own agendas and egos.
It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem.
And still, even today, I struggle with those I love the most. I am constantly tempted to compromise my safety, my values and my limits in order to ensure that those I love the most are safe, protected and that I can be there to see and ensure that it happens. I stay. I fight. I persevere, I take the blows, I overwork and overextend myself. I see what they don’t see, and do my best to stand guard while it rips my heart and soul to shreds. I sit across from a man who shattered my whole heart, realizing it’s me. Hi.
I’m the problem.
I’ve done the work. I keep doing the work. I certainly stopped lying to protect those causing harm, because now I understand the importance of cycle breaking. I am determined to break the cycle.
So. Many. Cycles.
Years ago, I wasn’t even capable of feeling my own pain. I was only able to hurt for someone else. But there is more work to be done.
Yeah. Abuse was the problem. Trauma was the problem.
Have you ever gotten up during service and left, or even just taken a break mid-message?
I never used to. I felt guilty, walking out during the message. I thought about how it impacted the pastor, seeing someone leave and not come right back.
Over the course of the last year, I have been challenged to consider protecting myself rather than only protecting others. With that in mind, I stepped out of service today.
I stepped out with my own peace and mental health in mind, so that I wouldn’t have to control any physical or bodily reaction to what was being said.
I stepped out in solidarity with other survivors of sexual trauma and other queer people within the faith community. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah has been used in harmful ways for far too long.
Today, my pastor was discussing the book of Jude, which references the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jude 1:7-8 says,“Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Yet in the same way these dreamers also defile the flesh, reject authority, and slander the glorious ones.” Other translations use the word “perversion,” and refer to “abuse” of celestial beings.
In Genesis 19, the story of Sodom unfolds as two angels arrive after visiting with Abraham and Sarah. God sent them there, Genesis 18 tells us, to do some investigative work, as there had been “outcry” against the cities. Lot, being the hospitable man that he was, invites them to stay in his home. This was customary at the time, and inhospitable treatment of travelers was a huge deal in the culture at the time. The angels, though, decline, and announce that they are staying in the town square. Horrified, Lot insists and they end up in his home for the night where he is a gracious host, feeding them well before bed.
“the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may know them.”
In scripture, “knowing someone” is code. Euphemisms were used throughout scripture, and this one was code for sexual penetration. The men of the city surround Lot’s home, announcing their intentions. They intend to sexually penetrate the two men they had seen come to Lot’s house-two vulnerable travelers, in need of hospitality and protection.
I once believed that this went without being said, but since the majority of Christian settings use this passage to target non-heterosexual sex expression, I am going to make sure to say it. These two traveling angels were not consenting to any form of sexual expression. This community of men were demanding it. Sexual contact without consent is sexual assault. Rape. They were trying to rape the angels. This is a story about attempted gang rape. Genesis 19 continues,
“Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man, let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’ But they replied, ‘Stand back!’ And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.”
This is not a story about queer sex. This is a story about attempted rape. There are also multiple points in the story where “outcry” is referenced. Whose outcry? After reading the story, is it more reasonable to believe that “outcry” exists because of men who were using sex in a way that violated other people, or because people were engaging in queer sexual expression?
This is not the only time that we are given the account of a group of men demanding access in order to commit a horrific rape in scripture, either. In Judges 19 we are given the story of a Levite who is traveling with his servant and his concubine. They had a fight and she left him. He went to bring her home, and the assault happens as they travel home after being reunited. The story is strangely similar. From the men surrounding the house, pounding on the door and demanding access to rape the man who was given hospitality, to the host attempting to talk them down, it’s like a repeat of Lot’s account.
Like Lot, this host offers his own daughter as well as his guest’s concubine. That is not good enough, though. They want to rape the man.
It’s important to recognize the different impact this sexual victimization would have on a man vs. a woman in this culture. Women had no status and were treated as non-people. Women were property, and they existed for the use of men. The rape of a man, then, even moreso than that of a woman, was about removing his status. It was about demoting his position and making him “like a woman;” one with no power, no position, no influence. To be penetrated in this culture was to reduce a man to the lowly status of a woman. In an honor and shame culture, rape was about power and shame.
This was not about homosexual desire.“He would play the judge,” they said, as they demanded access.These men wanted to show this traveler who had the power. The story continues,
“But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. As morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light. In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house with her hands on the threshold. “Get up,” he said to her, “we are going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey and the man set out for his home. When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine, he cut her into twelves pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. Then he commanded the men whom he sent, saying, “Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, ‘Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.”
This sounds a whole lot like “outcry” to me.
There is an old saying in church circles about how if the Bible references it multiple times, it must be important, and here we have two entire stories about gang-rape.
Yet consistently from the pulpit, this passage is used to condemn our brothers and sisters acting out consensual, committed, loving sexual expressions of intimacy rather than condemning the violations of consent and the use of sex to exert power and control over others. Instead of expressing safety and empathy for those recovering in the aftermath of sexual trauma, our churches are focused on what traditions benefiting those in power have taught them. We overlook the clear abuse that God is condemning in scripture.
And our brothers and sisters who are engaging in loving, consensual, non-straight sexual expression are treated as worthy of God’s wrath, while those using sex in a way that violates others keep their positions of power and prestige. We sweep their offenses under the rug, hope that they can say “Sorry” (maybe even publicly) and thank them for their (feigned) humility while expecting the most of the abused party. Accept the “apology” and the (public) change or be ostracized. After all, “hurt people hurt people” and “we’re all broken people in need of God’s grace.”
That’s why we shamelessly condemn queer people so hard they are unaliving themselves (some of whom are the best humans I have ever met, and more like Jesus than a lot of church folks I interact with) while simultaneously giving our predators free passes, right?
I’m tired, church.
I am tired of seeing “sexual immorality” defined as “doing what makes you happy/feel good” and NOT by the misuse of power, coercion and lack of consent. I’m tired of victim-blaming, survivors hiding their pain and being forced into relationship with their abusers under the guise of “community” while these stories of sexual assault given to us IN SCRIPTURE are weaponized against some of our most tender-hearted brothers and sisters. Some of our most marginalized, most abused, most isolated and most abandoned by our own faith communities bear the burden of the label “sexual sinners’ while our rapists and harrassers stand at pupits and gain repeated access in the name of grace.
So yeah, today I took a break during service even though my pastor didn’t do anything different from countless other pastors across the country. In fact, he even recognized that there was a “lack of hospitality” in the treatment of the men of Sodom toward the angels. He didn’t call attempted gang rape what it was, and he still identified the sin of sexual immorality as “doing what you want sexually” rather than “using sex to harm other people.”
And I have had enough. I am so close to my breaking point that I can hear the tension in the air.
We have to do better, church.
We have to put aside our own expectations that people will be just like us, adopt eyes that see, ears that hear.
Lives depend upon it. Hearts that crave a relationship with God but do not feel wanted in the community we have created depend upon it.
The safety of our community depends upon it.
“Consider it, take counsel and speak out.” Judges 19:30
If scrolling social media when I have 47 other things I should be doing is my toxic trait, you’re all coming down with me.
Don’t even make that face; you know it’s true.
Scrolling when I should have been cleaning is exactly what I was doing when I stumbled upon a post from a casual friend. I wasn’t expecting my childhood trauma and the social ramifications of it to be unearthed due to social media dissociation, but there I was, pantsless, rocking a messy bun, totally shaken.
“I was just thinking this morning about multiple instances during my early teenage years when my friend’s mom would say awful things about me. I was probably 13-16 years old and they wouldn’t let their daughters stay the night with me or would tell them things that weren’t true about me…It’s been over 15 years and I still remember every instance of this happening…”
-Anonymous FB Post
My breath caught in my throat. She’d only posted it a few hours earlier, but the #metoo comments were rolling in.
“I was just a kid born into a bad situation…”
“I was screaming for help. Those throwing those words had a good environment…support…all the things I wish I’d had.”
“…because of the way I dressed.”
“…we were not only judged by the adults but by their children based on the assumptions of our last names, the way we dressed, who we hung out with…”
“Turns out I didn’t become my family and somehow became a good person.”
Slowly, I added my own to the growing list.
“Yup. It took years to deal with the shit I carried because my boyfriend’s dad told him to break up with me because “shit rolls downhill” and no matter how great I seemed to be doing at the time, I would inevitably end up like my mother.”
There is so much that I said, and so much that I didn’t say in that one statement.
I imagine that this is also true of every other woman who added her #metoo statement to the post, and every other individual who could.
Because the truth is, we carry so much baggage in secret.
Even when the obvious aspects of our pain are brought forcibly, into the light. An arrest. Child Services involvement. Expulsion. Divorce. Even then, we hide push the impact of the trauma into the darkness, behind phrases like:
“I’m committed to being a cycle-breaker.”
“I will never be like that.”
“I am dealing with it.”
What I didn’t say in my “You’re not alone” reply?
It didn’t take me years. It took more than a decade.
That one statement, in the context of a relationship that was really important to me, had a significant impact on my life. I hate admitting that, because frankly, I don’t like recognizing that this jerk had that much power over me, but here we are.
That one statement was the culmination of my efforts to overcome the stereotype of being “her daughter” failing miserably. No matter what I did and no matter who I became, I would always carry that with me. My character would never matter. My integrity would never matter. My success would never matter. Hell, me, as a person, I would never matter because at the end of the day I would always be marred by my lineage. I would never just be “me.” I would always have an asterisk next to my name.
A child of addiction. A child of criminality. A child of deception. A child of….
Every negative label in the book. And every single one, forever applied to me, not for anything I had ever done but simply because of whose womb I grew within.
It affected the way I moved through relationships. It planted a niggling question mark in the back of my mind. I was afraid to invest in romantic relationships and even close friendships. I was waiting for those around me to change their minds; to decide that I was too labeled for them to attach themselves to.
For years, I have talked openly about what happened to me. HERE are the abuses that I experienced at the hands of my abusers. Rarely have I spoken about the social impact of being abused and neglected. It’s even harder to speak about how that impact on me impacted others. Others that I love. Others that love(d) me.
It’s unsettling to know that adults knew that my circumstances were bad and that their response was to shame, isolate and condemn me. Rather than intervention, support and advocacy, so many adults further isolated a vulnerable child (and later teen).
I was a child. These women responding to the post? They were children.
All it takes is one safe adult. We’ve heard that time and time again, and I have written at length about the people in my life that gave me safety and security when I had never really experienced these things before. One safe person can make all of the difference in the world.
BUT, friends, hear my heart when I say this, BUT
So can a sea of catty, judgmental assholes.
It is incredibly difficult for one safe person to stand guard for a vulnerable child against a hoard of gossip mongers and judgmental jerks. It’s hard to keep teens alive and free from self-destructive and dangerous behaviors when there is an ensemble of voices telling them they will inevitably continue to be a drain on society (because per these people, they already are-cue the complaints about food stamps and income based housing.)
When all a teen hears is a melody of all the things they aren’t and will never be, it’s hard for one voice to overpower all of it to remind them of who they are.
Their creation story; created in the image of the creator of the universe.
It’s hard to plant hope for the future when so much of the community around them is rooted in fear of replicating the past.
I spent so much of my life afraid.
Afraid to Love. Afraid to live. Afraid to really try.
I spent so much of my life in disbelief.
Of my worth. Of my autonomy. Of what God created me to do.
Can we please commit together to do better for the next generations?
Our next generations, sure.
But also the next generations whose homes are broken, drug-riddled and abusive. Who dropped out of school, were never taught to wash their hair correctly and speak too loudly?
Can we plant hope instead of fear?
Can we instill faith instead of disbelief?
Can we, together, choose to rise above rather than tear down?
I was watching a fabulous Hulu Dramedy this Sunday afternoon while navigating my way through laundry mountain when I heard this chant in a protest on screen.
I’ve heard it before. You probably have too. It’s been used in countless protests for years.
“A people united will never be divided”…
It gets used in church spaces, too.
But here’s the thing, Friend.
Just like every catch phrase, this is depreciative. Sure, it’s handy at a protest. But in practice?
It reduces the significance of the events leading to division.
I went to Sunday School this morning. I’ve only attended a handful of times in the last year or so, and a large part of that is due to my personal difficulties with the way that certain topics- like mental health, sexual trauma and gender issues- are handled within faith communities. These are issues that affect people at a deep and spiritual level, and this is certainly true for me. Is it true for you?
Does your gender impact the way that you experience the world around you, including your faith and your faith community? For example, do you feel safe in situations where other genders feel unsafe, or are you prohibited from accessing spaces because of your gender? Have you been told that God will only bless you, guide you or gift you in certain ways but not others because of your genitals?
Have you, like me, faced some sort of church drama or even split as a result of a calling or gifting that didn’t align with gender norms? When my church split after my nomination to the board led to a debate about gender roles, the impact on me was greater than I realized at the time. I am still affected by the comments made at the meeting questioning my character, my skill set and even my employment in a way that my male peers never experienced. When people I had once considered family showed up JUST to vote against me, simply because of my gender, my heart was broken.
What about sexual trauma? Have you, like me, fallen victim to the chewed-up-bubble gum analogy? Have you been told that you were less valuable to your spouse because you’d been previously touched? What about significant sexual violation, when that touching was not with your consent? Others then discussed how this precious thing was stolen from you and from your spouse, how you were forever changed and how this person had taken something from you that was so precious because of the way the church valued virginity and sexual purity?
Has someone in your church body crossed the line, violating both your body and your sense of peace in a space and a community that should be sacred?
Have you opened up about mental health struggles with your church family, only to be told to be more positive, more prayerful, and to spend more time in your Bible? Have you experienced relational harm within the body of believers and been told to be more tender hearted, more submissive, more forgiving, and more loving in order to get them to treat you better? Because, after all, you are a sinner saved by grace, so you should forgive others too, right?
And I am a white woman married to a man. This doesn’t even begin to touch the experiences of our brothers and sisters who are minorities or are part of the LGBTQ+ community.
These types of experiences impact us deeply, but we are often taught to stuff them for the sake of “unity.”
After all, a people united can never be divided, and we are called to be “one body,” right? (1 Corinthians 12:20-25)
So we stuff. We silence our inner voices. We ignore our guts, despite the Holy Spirit dwelling within us as our power-giving Advocate. Despite being gifted with Godly discernment. Despite being given instructions for handling confrontation and despite the reality that scripture was literally given to us for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Confrontation is not evil.
Rebuking is not “of the enemy”.
Correcting someone is not the same as breaking apart the body of Christ.
When we refuse to engage in healthy and appropriate confrontation, we are refusing to honor God’s design. Instead, we elevate the pleasant atmosphere and acceptance of others to that of an idol. We worship at the altar of being “nice,” and “good.” When we confront others, especially when others are harming people who are unable or unwilling to speak up for themselves, we risk anger, rejection and even (further) harm to ourselves for the sake of honoring God.
The truth is that so often, in our desire for unity we often create disunity. We do this by ensuring that our faith communities are not safe for the most vulnerable, the exploited, the marginalized and the oppressed. We silence those who are hurting, ensuring that our faith communities are the exact opposite of what JESUS IS.
Jesus is safe.
Jesus threw tables when he saw the vulnerable being exploited. (Matthew 21:12-13)
Jesus used his voice when he saw the unjust “law of the land” being weaponized by the powerful majority against the powerless minority. ( John 7:53–8:11)
Jesus stopped in the middle of his trek to help the child of an influential man in order to heal a woman who had been ostracized for over a decade due to… menstrual blood. (Luke 8:43-48)
In fact, Jesus full on called the Pharisees out for their… well… their bullshit. My favorite part: They do all their deeds to be seen by others, for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. (Matthew 23: 5-8… and it continues!)
Jesus is safe.
Jesus has, and always will be safe.
Jesus proved time and time again that he was willing to risk confrontation for the sake of others with less power, less authority and less influence than him. He walked with the unpopular, He sat with the women and he fought for the oppressed.
This entire concept of unity for the sake of the “body?”
This is not Jesus.
Jesus did not disregard the mistreatment or the needs of some for the benefit of the religious industrial complex. He called it out. Over and over and over again. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”(Matthew 23:13)
Or there’s this one
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others” (Luke: 11: 42)
Or there’s this gem, found in Mark:
“…Because of your traditions you have destroyed the authority of God’s word. And you do many other things like that.
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and try to understand! Nothing that goes into a person from the outside can make him unclean. It’s what comes out of a person that makes him unclean. Let the person who has ears listen!”
I urge you, Friend. Do not let the Pharisees of today pressure you. Do not let them push you to give up your indwelt desire for truth, for justice and for the church to reflect Christ.
Do not allow yourself to be shamed by words like “divisive.” After all, Jesus was one of the most divisive figures to hit the collective church. He came in like a wrecking ball and turned everything that so many believed upside down. He forced people to question their convictions, their traditions and their beliefs. He put people from all walks of life in a position where suddenly they were looking at humanity through the lens of Christ-like love rather than the lens of performative religion.
Please. Seek Jesus and not acceptance.
Seek Jesus and Not gold stars from religious elites.
Seek Jesus above all else.
When I was in the midst of religious elites, I was suffocating. It wasn’t until I took a step away that I was able to find the oxygen that I needed- in the arms of Jesus.
I didn’t find him in the elites. I found him outside of the walls built by performative religion, expectation and demands and in the stories of his solidarity with those on the periphery of society.
Jesus is rarely found at the pulpit. He’s in the streets, He’s at the tables, and he’s where the people are. He’s breaking the rules, asking “Why” and rooting every single choice that he makes in love, not a desire to BE LOVED, and not in a desire to look good.
Do you want to be like Jesus? To do what he does, to live like he lived, to radically love like he loves and to be where he is?
I know that I do.
So when I’m chastised and told to “just forgive, just read the Bible, to thank God for the bad things I experience, just keep Jesus at the center and it’ll all work itself out…” I’ll take a breath and look toward Jesus, knowing that HE has been my hub all along. He is the reason I step out of the “in crowd”, throw tables, and use my voice.
Jesus is the reason that I speak rather than quietly accepting harm done to myself and others.
When Religious Elites tell me to be silent and still, Jesus is my example to move forward boldly.
Thank you, Lord, for seeing me. Even when you walked this earth so long ago, your interactions with the vulnerable and marginalized supported, honored and protected me. My siblings. Those that I love. Generations to come.
It’s true though. I’ve written before about my Jr. High Cross Country Coach being the first adult to tell me that my life could be different, and that I didn’t have to live the same life as the adults I was surrounded by. Coach B was the first adult to push me to look beyond what I had always known and embrace all that I could be.
I haven’t written at length about my High School Cross Country experience. Many people think that I am so vulnerable with this blog, talking about difficult experiences so openly, but there are many things I don’t give details about. There are things happening in my little hometown regarding Cross Country and Track that have prompted me to finally share just how significant Cross Country was for me.
How Cross Country saved me.
How Coach K saved me.
Last year, I had the opportunity to speak at a fundraising banquet for JFive Ministries. JFive is a local sex trafficking organization based here in my little hometown. I speak publicly quite often, but this one was different. This time, I was sharing a story that I had never shared publicly before. In fact, prior to that JFive event, I had only told a handful of people about this experience.
I’m not even sure Coach K. knows exactly what was happening when he intervened.
When I was 15, I was trafficked. I went through a breakup with my first ever boyfriend and I was devastated. I was vulnerable, for the first time in my memory… and for the last time in a very, very long time. I turned to an adult that I should have been able to trust and that adult drugged me. That adult told me that I was being given medication that was similar to taking tylenol and benadryl mixed together- that it would help my headache and help me rest. I was in and out of consciousness for at least a week as a result of the vicodin I was then given regularly, around the clock. I don’t know how many men had access to my body, although I remember one distinctly because I knew him. I heard the conversation about drug debt. I will never forget the weight of his body over mine when I was so weak that I couldn’t even really hold myself upright.
I don’t know how long I was there. I do know that Coach K. is the reason I got out.
You see, Coaches have a unique point of view with their athletes. They see into the lives of their athletes in a way that many others do not. They see their families, their homes and their environments. They know who shows up and who doesn’t. They know who gets them to and from practice, who makes sure they get water and shoes and who just pops by the games to offer the appearance of parental support. They have a closer view of bruises, malnourishment, poverty, support and needs. They have a unique and specific opportunity to speak into the lives of their athletes that others don’t share because of this perspective. They meet athletes in those gaps. They don’t just get students to athletic scholarships and championships- they help athletes become active, contributing and effective members of society.
I am who I am because of Coach B. and Coach K. I do what I do because my coaches taught me to take a breath and keep going when it feels like I am being stabbed beneath the ribs. I am able to advocate, to cheer, to encourage, to fight and to do what some think is impossible because I was taught, by incredible men, that there is no such thing as impossible when you lean in, lean on and put one foot in front of the other. Today, I still retreat to the woods, running the trails when I need a minute.
Coach K made a phone call. I don’t know what was said, I only barely registered that the call was made, but I was given no more medications after that. Nobody touched me after that. That Saturday, I was delivered to the Cowden-Herrick Invitational without any explanation except that “Your coach said you are needed by your team.”
I don’t think I ran that meet. You don’t run if you miss practices, after all. But Coach K. said, “Glad you’re back, Kid.” and I got to be there, with my team. I rode the bus home, and Coach ensured I was returned to my dad’s home, where he knew I was safe. I was never trafficked again, and I saw the way Coach watched closely any time the person who had trafficked me was around. He may not have known what was happening, but he knew something was- and he didn’t let it go. That person KNEW Coach had eyes on them.
That is what a coach does. It’s what my coach did, and my coach mentored and chose the person he was passing the baton to after decades of building a program rooted in THAT kind of coaching. The kind that raises up champions, sure, but also empowers survivors, giving the voiceless back their voices and reminding this community’s future leaders the value found in coming together for one another and with one another while still working hard independently.
Coaches help create the future.
I don’t know about anybody else, but when we find a Coach like that, I believe we should trust him. Listen to him. Value him.
When a Coach like that pours himself into a mentee, literally raising up someone to carry on a tradition like that, I want to listen.
We need more people like Coach K in the world. We need Coaches like him influencing the next generation. Why wouldn’t we want THE Coach that he has influenced since high school, that he has spoken into, mentored and supervised and hand-chosen as a replacement, to be the one to step in?
For me, there would need to be an egregious offense to disregard the recommendation of the Coach who was all of this for me.
And I am only one. There are countless other stories of the impact Coach K and his Mentee and assistant, Chris have had on those they have worked with.
A quality Coach is worth so much. Don’t let one get away.
“I no longer make allowances for abusive people. I no longer justify it under the banner of, “but they’re family…” I’m not a child anymore and I’m certainly not naive and helpless. I have a choice here too, and I choose not to participate.”
Recently, I drew a hard boundary. To be honest with you, it was one that I should have drawn a long time ago. I sent those very words to individuals who have been central to the abuses I have experienced throughout my life. Many of you know me, but some of you don’t. I have shared parts of my story here with you, but to be frank it would take a book to tell it all. Suffice it to say that I grew up in the midst of significant abuse. I have an ACES score of 10. I experienced environmental neglect, pervasive inadequate supervision, extensive exposure to drugs in the home, extensive physical abuse, sexual exploitation and substantial psychological abuse. While I am the oldest of a plethora of children, In the home where most of this took place, I was the oldest of 6. Throughout my adult life, I have had guardianship of numerous family members; many I have had more than once. The first time, I was barely 19 and my sister was 4. Currently, I have 4 children in my home who have been impacted by the generational trauma of this family. That is in addition to my own 4 living children. We also lost a baby girl to late missed miscarriage in 2016. We carry so many children in our hearts.
I have complex PTSD. While PTSD is generally related to one significant event like a war or a natural disaster, complex PTSD is an anxiety disorder related to repeated trauma over the course of months or even years. It can include nightmares, flashbacks, hyperarousal, avoiding certain situations and a belief that the world is very dangerous and people are generally untrustworthy. While I function well in the world, I certainly operate from this place. It takes a lot for me to trust someone and I have always kept a few close friends and even less very close friends. I can get along with most anyone, but I am not afraid to fight back because in most situations I already saw the worst coming and was ready for it. I’m usually more ready for bad things to happen than for good things to happen. I’m almost certainly going to cry at a wedding or a birth, but when something awful happens I am generally stoic. I am not shocked. I know how awful and scary the world can be and the devastation never catches me off guard.
Joy does though.
These individuals continue to insert themselves into the lives of their victims in a way that gives little but takes constantly with no concern, remorse or gratitude. They take, demanding that those giving be grateful for the opportunity to do so. These individuals claim responsibility and proclaim their pride for the successes of others, yet spend their time berating, belittling and finding new and creative abuse and control tactics.
When victims are young, abuse can take a variety of forms. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, neglect, etc.
The psychological component is just as damaging, if not more so. It lasts. Assuming a child in an abusive home survives, they can eventually escape. They get bigger than their parents, they get stronger, they get access to employment and housing and have the opportunity to get away. Many don’t.
Because the abuse gets more creative and more insidious. After all, their victims aren’t children anymore so the violence and threats that DCFS will take them away and separate them no longer work. Now it’s more malicious.
And it’s not really surprising. After all, isn’t this what we, the survivors, have been groomed for all along?
Those of us who lived through this- who have come out the other side battered and bruised but able to talk about it… we know.
We were groomed to believe that we are helpless, dependent and incapable.
That we are nothing without our abusers.
Some, like me, fought back hard. Ultra independent, never flinch, never let them see a crack in the armor. The best solution to not need the abusers, according to logic like mine, was to not need anyone. And yet, I was used to being needed. The oldest of the children, I had spent my entire life keeping other people safe..keeping kids away from violence, away from knife fights (a gun once) and shut tight in bedrooms when the aggression escalated, making sure everyone ate when there wasn’t an adult around and food stamps had been sold again, and lying to cover up the abuse so that we wouldn’t get separated by DCFS.
Someone had to take care of things and I considered it my job.
Avoidant-dismissive attachment (with a little fearful attachment sprinkled in for funsies.) Unable to actually rely on anyone, but not knowing how to not be needed.
Others, like many of my siblings, froze or fawned. They went along because what else was there to do? They numbed with substances to forget. They appeased abusers, thanked them for the scraps and believed the lie that they were the problem. They were at fault. These survivors, stuck in the abusive environment, learned how to continue to exist within it. They developed escapist behaviors, they lied, cheated, stole. Drug use became pervasive. Avoidant-Fearful attachment wreaked havoc on their relationships as they desperately wanted intimacy but were terrified of more abuse and abandonment at the hands of someone they were supposed to trust. The lack of understanding of healthy relationships and what love looks like doesn’t help.
After all, love is NOT abuse, but the abused child often grows up to become an adult that doesn’t fully understand this. They DO love their families, and they have been taught to love and protect their families. They have been taught their entire lives that their families love them- taught in church, at school and through culture that families love their children. What they experienced as that love was abuse. This is not an easy concept to unlearn.
Boundaries are Loving
I have maintained soft boundaries for the majority of my adult life. My family members don’t show up at my house at 2am, strung out. People stopped asking me for money a long time ago. It’s well understood that we do not let adults just come “crash” here. If you steal from us, we WILL contact law enforcement. I have credit alerts and monitor my credit. I’m still recovering from the identity theft I discovered in my early 20s.
Recently, though, I discovered that people only have as much power over your life as you give them.
I am allowed to say no.
I am allowed to protect my peace.
I am allowed to protect the peace and safety of those in my home.
And the truth is, I know the drill.
Abusers don’t just stop. They don’t just suddenly one day decide that they are not going to exploit, manipulate and harm others for their own gratification and benefit. People who abuse others have significant work and healing that they need to do before they are safe. You are worthy of them doing that work before you provide them access to your life.
I am worth that before I provide them access to my life.
So I did the hard thing. I said the hard words.
Because Abuse is not love. It never was. And a couple of kindnesses does not cover the abuse.
Love is Patient
Love is Kind
It does not envy, It does not boast, It is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres
It seems like so much and so little all at the same time.
Eighteen years ago this May I graduated from high school. It was supposed to be the best summer ever, but instead I experienced my first real battle with depression. I’ve had a few major depressive incidents in my life, but this was the first one and it nearly cost me my life.
That entire summer was a blur. I won’t go into all of the details of the personal circumstances that preceded the depressive episode. Depression is a disorder that is generally understood to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Those two things crashed together in an epic fusion that left me…not okay.
I had come to believe that I would never be enough. I believed that no matter what I did and no matter how hard I worked, I would always be viewed in a negative light because of things beyond my control.
I believed I would always be a failure. None of my efforts would ever prevent that, ultimately. Every success was just delaying the inevitable and lifting me higher so that the fall to the bottom would hurt even more. After all, that is what was said by an adult that I deeply respected. Maybe all that I had worked to be despite my environment was just like a kid playing dress up. Maybe I would never fit in or be welcome anywhere but trap houses and abusive relationships.
Maybe that’s what I was worth. Maybe it wouldn’t ever get better.
I was in a pit. A bottomless pit. I remember four people from that summer who offered me slices of hope. Four people who chose not to leave me alone in the darkness that WAS that summer. My memories are muddled and vague, but there are glimpses of light and peace that I still remember.
Falling asleep on Aaron’s couch when nowhere else felt safe enough to sleep. Stephen sitting with his knees at his chin, on the floor next to my bed. I don’t even remember why, but he was there. Donna, who never stopped showing up.
Alex, who took away the razor blades and the pill bottles. Alex, who made me eat when I began to starve myself. I weighed 85 pounds when I started college that fall. Alex, who came over every day and refused to let me sit alone, who believed in my worth for me when I couldn’t believe it for myself.
When I look back and reflect, the number of times I tried to die that summer is staggering. I did not see light. I did not have hope.
Eventually, though, the light broke through.
It was gradual. The way Alex laughed when I called him out for manipulating me into eating. His smile would would break and then spread across his face when he knew that I knew but he still wouldn’t give up. His joy was contagious and his persistence relentless. The sight of more books than I could ever dream of reading in 5 lifetimes when I walked through the campus library. The sun peeking through the dying leaves in the fall. Why do we see such hope and beauty in dying things? Road trips and soccer games. Snuggles from my then very little sisters. The idea that maybe, just maybe, hope existed.
It took time. I can’t say that enough. And sometimes it just strikes me- the gravity of what it must have been like to to experience first love alongside someone battling a major depressive episode hits me and my breath catches. I am even more grateful for Alex. He saved my life, over and over again, until I was finally in a place where I was able to value it myself.
And now today, I can hold my own heart, and cherish my own life in ways that he did in my stead so many years ago.
Because the reality is that there will not always be an Alex. Major Depressive episodes are brutal and grueling and if you don’t know what is happening, they can be lethal.
May is mental health awareness month. Awareness is something that I didn’t have back then. Maybe Alex did, or maybe he just had some combination of instinct and love. I guess I will never know. What I do know is that is that I did not know what was happening inside of me. I did not know that there was hope. I didn’t know that there would be light again. I didn’t know that there was help.
I didn’t know, and it could have cost me everything.
Knowing is such a huge part of the battle. Because now, today, I know. When the darkness closes in, I can call it by name. It doesn’t get to consume me anymore because awareness has led me to the tools that I need to keep it in check. A great therapist, who has taught me to be more aware of what is happening inside of my body, as well as healthy coping skills and self-care. Anti-depressant medication. An incredible support system.
If you or someone you love is fighting this battle, please know that you are not alone. You do not have to stumble through this blind like I did- or like Alex did, as someone loving an individual struggling. There are resources and supports that exist. Don’t hide in silence, pushing it under the rug.
It’s time to talk about something that is going to make all of us uncomfortable. When does sexual perpetration actually begin? It is commonly understood that predators often have multiple victims prior to actually being convicted of sexual assault, but we rarely talk about when and how this emerges.
According to the US Bureau of Justice, the age with the greatest number of reported sex offenses was age 14.
Half of adult offenders report that their first offense took place during adolescence- the average age reported? 12.
Even adolescent offenders often have numerous offenses prior to their perpetration being discovered. The numbers range from 1 to 15 prior victims.
This is hard to digest. We want to believe that the danger lies with strangers in vans, but the reality is that the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults happen at the hands of someone known the victim.
Even more concerning is this fact: Most predators begin perpetration as young teens.
Treatment and intervention with juvenile offenders looks different, and the therapeutic process includes the assessment/educational phase. During this phase, juveniles complete a detailed sexual history and complete a polygraph. This educational/assessment phase is considered the most effective point in treatment for perpetrators to disclose additional victims.
Some people believe it’s because of the looming polygraph.
However, other things happen during this phase. These juveniles are educated about the nature of sexual offending. They are taught about consent and violation, and many actually disclose additional victims because they didn’t know their behavior constituted a sexual offense. They learn about healthy and appropriate sexual expression as opposed to violation and exploitation. They are then expected to give a detailed sexual history with the help of their therapists.
Children who engage in sexually offensive behaviors often have substance use, domestic violence, poverty, intergenerational abuse, physical abuse and a family history of denying responsibility. They are often exposed to sexual aggression, sexual abuse, physical violence and blurred boundaries. Often, there is a family history of difficulties coping with abuse perpetrated against children.
Over 90% of the juvenile offenders in one study not only had experienced sexual victimization themselves, but their own abusive behaviors paralleled their victimization experiences.
So, what can we do?
I would suggest that we intervene preemptively, rather than waiting for catastrophe to strike. Often juveniles offend against their family members, which can have a significant impact on the family as a whole.
We start by believing children when they tell us something is off. Unfortunately, children (especially teens) are often not believed when they share that they have been offended against. Even worse, they are blamed and shamed.
Oftentimes adults will disregard a child’s disclosure, chalking it up to “normal exploratory play.” While most children do engage in some sort of sexualized play during childhood, that play is mutual, consensual and it is not coercive in nature. Perpetration is characterized by secrecy, coercion, and exploitation. There is an element of vulnerability and often some sort of power difference, whether that be size, age or influence. This isn’t two kids that are the “playing doctor.” It’s one juvenile using force, bribery, coercion, secrecy and/or manipulation to get sexual gratification from someone more vulnerable than them in some way. It is important to be aware that if one child feels uncomfortable, manipulated or exploited, then the interaction should not be dismissed as mere “play.”
In addition to believing, we also have to preemptively ensure that our children understand consent and healthy boundaries, even from a young age. We need to ensure that children understand that “No” means “No,” and “stop” means “stop.” We have to be intentional about teaching children that nobody is entitled to anyone else. This is difficult for us, as parents.
Our kids don’t have to give hugs they don’t want to give. They also aren’t entitled to hugs.
Our kids don’t have to share. They also aren’t entitled to other people’s things.
Our kids don’t have to play with people that make them uncomfortable. They do have to be kind. They are not entitled to other people’s play.
We have to teach our children to say “No” in a way that is kind and gracious, but also clear and direct.
We have to teach our children to accept the word “No” long before they even understand the concept of sex. Before sexual consent is even on the radar, children should understand consent and autonomy.
If the educational phase of intervention with juvenile offenders is so successful largely because of the understanding it provides regarding consent and autonomy, let’s provide that information before offenses occur in the first place.
Let’s be intentional. Proactive, rather than reactive. Let’s better equip our children to create a kinder, more Christ-like world.
Be Bold. Live out loud.
Jon A. Shaw et al., Practice Parameters for the Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents Who are Sexually Abusive of Others, 38 J. Am. Acad. Adolesc. Psych. 55S-76S, ¶2 (1999 Dec. Supp.)
Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.701(b)(2)
Fla. Stat. ch. 985.01.
Howard N. Snyder, Juvenile Arrests 2001 (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention), December 2003, at 3-4.
Howard N. Snyder, Juvenile Arrests 1996 (Office of Juvenile and Delinquency Prevention), November 1997, at 2-3.
Sharon K. Araji, Sexually Aggressive Children: Coming to Understand Them xxvii (1997).
Are you aware that gastroparesis awareness month is in August.
What about National Pediculosis prevention month? Do you know when that is? What that is? (Lice and September.)
Many of us are vaguely aware of some of the more well publicized awareness months. We might have ribbon magnets on our cars or pinned to coats.
Sexual assault awareness month falls in April. Every April. Unless, of course, you’re a sexual assault survivor. Then you are aware of that fact, acutely, every day. And without adornment.
If you are a survivor, you likely know some of the statistics. Numbers the rest of the country will tut and gasp over for a couple weeks are already etched on the inside of your eyelids so that even sleep can’t make the facts disappear.
-1 out of every 6 American women have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
– every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted
– 1 out of every 10 rape victims are male
– 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide
-less than 1% of rapes lead to felony convictions
In most cases, the victim knows her attacker.
In most cases, she is assaulted near or even inside of, her home.
In this era of #Metoo, rape is no longer the untouchable, unbroachable, unspeakable cousin to sexual harassment.
We’re aware. Enlightened.
And we believe women.
Isn’t that what we purport?
FBI crime statistics indicate that only 2% of reported rapes are false. This is the same rate of false reporting for other major crimes.
So, with all this “wokeness”, we would expect that comments like “If she’s telling the truth, why did she stay silent for so long?” or “She wouldn’t keep that baby if it was really rape” would be unheard of.
Yet hear them, we do.
We pretend we don’t.
We pretend that skepticism doesn’t spread like dandelion seeds in the wind. That doubt, hearty and resilient, doesn’t settle into every crack and tear in our carefully constructed facade of confidence, burrow into our skin and germinate. That self loathing isn’t a continual insidious threat.
We try not to question what we were wearing, how hard we fought, or the devastating consequences of our silence.
We say we believe that we bear no responsibility. We will tell you that we aren’t ashamed as our eyes drift over your shoulder and then affix to a place just above your head. Of course we know it isn’t our fault.
We exchange stories among ourselves, all too often mumbling an introduction of “What happened to me wasn’t as bad as what happened to you…” just to give ourselves permission to speak.
A wool cocoon coat with one of those oversized cowl hoods. An infinity scarf that hid my face from an unusually biting January wind. A skirt that was so long it hid the ribbon detailing on the top of my boots.
That’s what I was wearing.
It was around 8 in the morning.
My own versions of “But what if I” and “Maybe I could have” lie dormant 11 months of the year.
But they blossom in April.
And maybe? That isn’t such a bad thing. It puts the demon front and center. Forces us to face our collective biases and ignorance. Discomfort and disillusion.
The stories shared surrounding Sexual Assault Awareness month are horrible to listen to.
They are devastating to accept.
Accept them anyway.
It’s impossible to fight an enemy we can’t or won’t see.
It’s impossible to heal from a wound we haven’t treated.
What better time than this month of Awareness to ask ourselves what we’re really aware OF?
And what we have yet to face.
Wishing all my fellow survivors a life far beyond simply surviving.