Janie smiled through her tears and put her arms around Stella.
“How do you do it, Stella? You always seem to find a way to help me put things in perspective when I get like this. I wish I had your confidence! I wish I could stay on top of things the way you do; you never seem to let people push you around, yet you’re not a bully either.”
Composing herself after at least thirty minutes of crying and talking, Janie now felt better. She sat back in her seat and picked up her coffee mug, her favorite mug, which she loved for its heft, its shape and its ability to channel those amazing aromas right where she needed them most. She felt now that she had some good ideas about how to tackle the problem. “Really, Stella, how DO you do it? Were you just born this way?”
Stella sipped her coffee, too. She loved it when someone took the time to ask her deeper questions. Though she’d never broadcast her life or push her opinions, she felt deeply rewarded when she was able to help another. It was as though all her troubles were worth it.
Well, Stella divulged, “I wasn’t always as I am today. One of my old trademarks was that I used to think everything was my fault–and nothing was my fault!”
I was quick to apologize for anything someone else was unhappy about, as if I were responsible for the world, but slow to see things that actually were my responsibility.
Rain on your wedding day? I’m sorry. Mad at your boss? I’m sorry. Lightning struck your Uncle Milford? I’m so sorry. You’re home from work early and hungry because you didn’t stop for lunch and I didn’t have a premonition about this and fix your dinner early? I’m sorry. Here, let me drop my work, mid-sentence, and get right on that.
Then, on the other hand, nothing that I really did was ever MY fault!
Oh, I’m late for work? Well, boss, it’s not really MY fault. I had to make breakfast for my family, get the laundry started, stop what I was doing every time someone couldn’t find their socks, walk the dog when everyone left without doing it, stop at the store so there would be coffee in the break room, and then drive my aunt to the dry cleaner–yes, she had an emergency apparel deficiency.
Geez, why can’t my boss understand that, doesn’t she have a family? I would think.
Stella smiled as she animated these stories. They were true for her, she had lived in that realm for so many years. She looked at Janie, who smiled back, waiting for more of her story.
Well, after about two or three THOUSAND people said I shouldn’t apologize so much, I slowly started to think maybe there might be something wrong with me (Oh, and I’ve been sorry about that too, two or three thousand times).
But what could it be? I thought. What’s wrong with being nice? I’m empathetic, dedicated, loyal, helpful, sensitive, compassionate, considerate. . . What’s so bad about that?
Plenty! Well, actually, nothing, as long as that’s REALLY what you are. Peel away the nice facade, though, and what did I find? The real reason I had such a hard time recognizing what I was truly responsible for. . . the real reason I defended myself when I truly was responsible for doing something wrong. . . the real reason I tried so hard to be so nice, empathetic, dedicated, loyal, helpful, sensitive, compassionate and considerate. . . was my inner wretch!
Underneath it all, I felt completely ashamed of who I was. I was a wretch.
Wretch, according to Miriam-Webster:
a miserable person;
one who is profoundly
unhappy or in great misfortune
II was miserable on the inside. I felt as though I were less than everyone around me.
Why would a young woman (yes, I was young once), with such admirable qualities feel so miserable inside? I was living out of a self-concept that was seriously flawed.
If you said I was pretty, I’d say, “Yeah, pretty ugly.”
They both chuckled.
“I know what you mean,” Janie offered. “I never in a million years would have guessed you felt that way about yourself. You’re beautiful, and you seem so confident.”
Thanks; it’s true, though. I felt ugly on the inside because I bought into some seriously wretched lies about myself when I was a girl.
Where did those lies come from?
What it boiled down to, after digging deep into the soil of my innermost thoughts and feelings, is that the lies came from trying to figure out why bad things happened to me.
READER WARNING: From here we will talk a little about those bad things. If you’re feeling brave today, click for more–
What bad things? Janie urged.
There were the usual dysfunctional family problems, like the daily ritual of my parents fighting. They’d sling verbal assaults back and forth, where every problem had a finger pointed in blame, and the finger was never pointed at self. There were lean times (which, mom frequently pointed out, were due to dad drinking away the money) where there were no sheets on the bed and where new school clothes were hand-me-downs from older siblings. Those things were minor, though.
A more insidious bad thing crept in to disrupt my developing mind, and it happened more than once, with more than one person. Family members, whom one may have expected would be there to protect me from harm, instead used me for their own dysfunctional pleasure.
They fell silent for a moment. They looked at each other. Stella could tell by Janie’s body posture and countenance that she wanted her to continue.
Sexual abuse did so much more than hurt my body and my feelings. It hurt my concept of myself. It hurt my core beliefs about what people are like, and what I am like.
From this tiny, fledgling girl came a host of emotions monstrous enough to confuse an old sage. How could I have been expected to make sense of it then? I couldn’t. No one I knew could. So instead, this wisp of a girl took the feelings of shame from participating in something that left her knowing wrong and decided she was bad. She decided it was somehow her fault. She decided she MUST be bad, or it would not have happened. She felt that if anyone knew about it, they would be disgusted. She would not be loved. She would not be good anymore. She would not know the joy of making others laugh, of hearing her loved ones praise her for being good, of feeling her mother’s pride in her. All these reasonings, and more, were too much to take, too much to understand. So, the little girl somehow found superhuman strength and pushed down the prodigious bramble-bush of mixed up emotions, stuffed it into a compartment in her brain she thought secure, and did her very best to stay away from it.
Trouble was: she couldn’t. I couldn’t. No matter how good my grades, how clean my room, how nice my manners, how caring my heart, inside I believed I was stupid, I was dirty, I was vile, I was hateful. I was sorry for THAT. These were the lies I swallowed whole in the midst of trying to understand a horrible atrocity that never should happen to anyone.
But THAT wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t the one who set out to abuse. I didn’t see others as prey. I didn’t take pleasure in doing what I knew was wrong. This is what THEY did.
I needed help to get that straight before I could truly reckon with any wrongdoing I have actually been responsible for, horrible things, like being late for work.
(I jest, of course, I am responsible for worse things than being late for work.)
Thankfully, that help was available for me.
I live in an era and a country where inner healing and transformation are available. In this century, perhaps like none other, and in this country, though not in all countries yet, we have freedom and opportunity to read, to meet together with others and speak freely, to relate to God as people who are fully human, fully alive, fully loved and accepted as we vent and process our thoughts and feelings and look for answers to our questions. We have skilled professionals who can help us process things our friends and families cannot. I am thankful that I do not live in a caste society that forces me to remain the same, to repeat the same mistakes previous generations made, to walk in a rut with no way of escape.
It wasn’t easy to get to the bottom of all those wretched feelings and the utterly false presumptions I made about myself, about others, about God. It took a lot of work over many years, but finally–and for many years now–I truly feel on the inside–that I am smart, I am clean, I am kind, I am compassionate, I am lovable.
Stella took a deep breath. She felt her face shining as she relayed these deep and important truths to her friend. She felt glad that Janie was her friend, glad she felt she could share so much of herself at once, glad that Janie sat beaming back at her instead of rushing off in a fit of uncomfortable turmoil.
They sat on the veranda in the open air, alone in the garden on a Saturday morning. It was warm and breezy. Birds chirped at the nearby feeder as they happily poked and prodded for their favorite seeds. A fly buzzed by Stella’s head. She swatted it away and went on:
Of course there are still times the lies creep back in, but now they are deer flies caught in air-conditioned rooms. They might sting me once, but slowed by the cool air, they are easy to swat and destroy.
I don’t have to apologize for what the world is doing anymore. I don’t have to take responsibility for anyone else’s mistakes anymore.
I don’t have to hide when I do something wrong myself. I can face it, admit it, deal with it responsibly, and, most importantly, learn from it. After all, some things ARE my fault–not many, mind you, but some!
They laughed together momentarily.
“Stella, wow, thank you so much for telling me about this,” Janie breathed as she shook her head and raised her eyebrows in almost disbelief. Janie wiped a tear that slowly made its way out of her eye and down the side of her cheek. It was a different sort of tear than she’d been crying earlier. It was a tear of joy mixed with sadness; a tear of tenderness and connection. “I never would have known this about you from knowing you these past few years.”
Janie took a deep breath and thought about all that had just happened. She replayed last night’s highlights in her mind’s eye, beginning with her great anticipation for her special night out with the man she’d been so crazy about the last two months. It was a perfect night, the moon full, the sky clear, a quiet dinner at a sidewalk café in old town. How foolish she felt when he broke up with her as he dropped her off at her door–when she’d thought he was about to take a ring out of his pocket. “Janie, I like you a lot,” Mike had said, taking his hands out of his pockets, “but I just can’t see us moving forward. You’re a nice girl, but you’re strangling me. I don’t think I’ll be able to give you what you need. This is it, time to move on.” Janie pleaded with Mike to not give up so soon. She begged his forgiveness, for another chance. She knew she was a little too obsessed with him. She knew she could be overwhelming; she would try to be better, she promised. He kissed her cheek, shook his head and walked away. As she shut the door behind her, she crumbled to the floor in uncontrollable sobs. “Again,” she thought, “not again?”
After a sleepless night wrestling with sheets, pillows, thoughts, visions, desperate cries and not enough tissues, Janie called Stella. She knew she could rely on Stella to listen and to understand, and Stella had not let her down. She listened, she let her cry it out, she offered encouragement, and somehow brought her to the point of laughing through her tears. It seemed ridiculous now that she expected Mike to propose marriage after such a short time, especially when she always called him (not the other way around). It was at that point of comic relief she’d put her arms around Stella’s neck and squeezed her tight. What an amazing friend.
Janie realized now that Janie definitely had a problem. It was as though she were addicted to pleasing, and subsequently being rejected by, men. She consistently went out of her way to make excuses for men who ignored her, who used her, who were just fine with her doing all the work in a relationship. She would invariably apologize for THEIR mistakes.
Finally finding courage, she went on: “You know, Stella, your story could have something to do with why I keep getting myself back into the same frustrating relationships over and over again. I’ve never told anyone this before, but as you were speaking, it rang so true. It wasn’t exactly the same when it happened to me, but when I was eight years old, there was this friend of my parents’ who was always at the house. . . ”
Note from the author:
I share with you here not because I feel a need to vent or someone to understand me. Those things are nice, and I won’t turn them down, but I’m happy to be able to say those needs are met in my life very well right now. I share with you here because I know there are countless other survivors of abuse who struggle with the fallout, who want to find a better way of life, yet find themselves stuck in a cycle of dysfunctional relationships, blame and mistrust. I share with you here because I want to announce with joy that there is a way to make it through the wilderness we’re struggling through. There are ways to renew our minds, to find comfort for our wounds, to find healing, from the inside – out. I am not a counselor. I am a peer. I am one of many voices here in cyberspace writing with honesty, authenticity and joy, and I welcome openness in the journey toward healthy recovery.
Every journey toward recovery is unique; as unique as each person–no two fingerprints alike. Just because a certain book, or prayer, or group, helped me, does not mean it will help you, but I will be offering ideas as we go along, drawing from things that have helped me and others I know. As you search for the things that will help you, maybe some of these reads will be useful:
The Transformation of the Inner Man
When I Grow Up I Want To Be An Adult: Christ Centered Recovery For Adult Children
by Ron Ross , Published by RPI Publishing
From Bondage to Bonding: Escaping Codependency, Embracing Biblical Love
By Nancy Groom, Published by NavPress
Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self
Healing the Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families
by Charles L. Whitfield, Published by Health Communications
Thanks to WordPress for the style of this story is inspired by this week’s challenge, to write a story “backwards.” To learn more about their weekly writing challenges, click the link below: