“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.” ― Frederick Buechner
For years I have been in the process of healing from a terrible thing. There were times this process was more fits and starts than anything, but in hindsight, I can see it as a journey I’ve been navigating for much of my life. I’m writing about it now because I believe hope and healing and blessing in our own lives are meant to be shared with others.
When I was a child, I was molested by someone who was older than me, but not quite a teenager. I didn't tell anyone, even though it happened multiple times, because he told me I’d be the one in trouble if I did. Instead of telling, I tried subtle ways to get out of being alone with him. If that didn’t work, I’d end up crying, insisting that I didn't want to play with him, but my tears were dismissed and I was told to stop being rude and go play.
I spent years trying to minimize this experience or rationalize it away. I made excuses for all the reasons no one stopped it from happening. I told myself that a kid who would do that was clearly troubled, that something bad had likely happened to him, too. I told myself the adults didn’t know what was really taking place and that they'd been taught “acting out” was defiance. I reminded myself that far worse has happened to many other people. None of this helped.
What happened is a true and terrible thing about my life.
Neither minimizing nor rationalizing creates a magical path to healing. What I told myself about those involved is probably true. It is also true that far worse has happened to many other people. But I now understand that I can only heal by dealing directly with my own experience – an experience that has influenced the way I see myself, how I relate to people I'm supposed to trust, and how I parent my own children.
Part of dealing with my experience has been realizing that what happened to me was made worse by unhealthy fears created in a culture of fear. My fear of punishment made me afraid to tell anyone what was happening. The adults who dismissed my tears feared what others might think of my behavior. They also feared that taking the time to try to understand my “acting out” would be an indulgence that would lead me to even more defiant behavior.
When we succumb to a culture of fear, we have trouble distinguishing healthy fear that is an appropriate response to real danger from unhealthy fears that create more fear, harm, and secrets.
I'm learning, however, that we can learn to identify and break free from the unhealthy fear that causes us to react in hurtful, controlling, or dismissive ways with ourselves and with others. Pema Chödrön writes, “Interrupting our destructive habits and awakening our heart is the work of a lifetime.” While it's true that healing from living in unhealthy fear is a process that takes a lifetime of work, each step we take in that process brings us closer to wholeness and freedom.
For me, the process took physically separating myself, as best I could, from places and people dominated by unhealthy fear. It took stumbling my way into a daily practice of contemplative prayer. It took (after much searching) finding a church where the voices of women and children are valued and heard. It took letting go of most of what I’d been taught about relationships and parenting in order to find new understandings. It took finding life-giving friendship where I could be true to my process in a safe and accepting dynamic. It took finding a good therapist. And it is still taking time.
It's true that it has not been easy. I've struggled and doubted and second-guessed. It's taken a lot of hard work and tears and reevaluating. There are times I still worry over the possibility of terrible things happening. I'm still affected by terrible things that did happen. I still have a long way to go and lot to learn.
But I've also discovered it is possible to own my story and choose how to move forward, that I can choose love over unhealthy fear. 'Love is kind' (1 Corinthians 13) and 'Love casts out fear' (1 John 4) have become deeply held truths for me. If you’re needing to find a way to heal from your own terrible thing or simply realizing you need stop living in unhealthy fear, don’t give up. Love can be a lifeline for you, too.
If it seems too overwhelming, start small. Start one new practice – meditation, mindfulness, hiking, biking, walking, setting a loving intention every morning, taking a few deep intentional breaths every night, appreciating one beautiful thing every day – anything that can help you start to separate yourself from the habits of unhealthy fear. Find a way to get help, from a professional if you can, or from a trusted friend. Work on one relationship. I started with my kids, convinced that since love is kind then my interactions with them must come from a place of kindness rather than fear. None of us are able to change the past, but we can choose a brave and loving way to live now.
I know that love can't always stop terrible things from happening. I know that love can't necessarily make other people respond the way we hope they will. But choosing love changes us. Each time we make a conscious choice for love over unhealthy fear, we become less afraid. We open ourselves to growth and to healing and to new understandings. We become people who can be a safe, life-giving, loving space for ourselves and for others.
And that is beautiful.
Note: I know that sexual abuse and trauma varies in degree and each survivor will have his or her own journey to healing. If you are traveling this journey, please reach out to those who are qualified to support you. Many areas have excellent local organizations or you can contact a national organization like RAINN at https://rainn.org/ or 800-656-HOPE(4673). You are loved and worth the effort it takes to find hope and healing.
Brené Brown's wisdom has been invaluable to me on this journey.
I encourage you to read her books or visit her website here.