Don’t Call Me Brave
I speak. In public. About really, really personal things. I do it for a lot of reasons, the number one of which is because I genuinely have a need to help other people. I really do. And I really hope that my story, however mundane in comparison to others’, accomplishes that. That’s number one. I also speak because it helps me. I’ve lived a very long time thinking that I’m some sort of alien. It seemed like I was the only girl on the planet who didn’t know how to be friends with other girls. It seemed like no one else thought any of the same things I did. It felt like I was a very old woman trapped in a young girl’s body. That’s what it’s felt like being me for most of my life. I couldn’t make decisions because I needed permission, because I was afraid of doing something wrong and getting ”in trouble.” Speaking in public helps me verbalize things I could never otherwise say. It also helps me see with my own eyes that I am not the only one who thinks things like what goes through my head. Other people do to. I know they do because, as they’re crying, they tell me so. I also speak because it’s a reminder to me, and hopefully a sign to others, that God never left. He was always present. If He hadn’t been, I would not be the same person I am today; in fact, I probably wouldn’t even be here at all. It’s a reminder that He regularly takes sad and bleak stories and transforms them into sparkling ones of beauty. Light. Speaking flushes light into my world. Light of hope, light of acceptance, light of freedom.
The last couple of days, though, I’ve been rather disturbed. I’ve received no less than 3 e-mail messages and multiple wall posts/comments on FB. Most of them used the word “brave” at least once. I hear that word a lot, when speaking is concerned. The organization I work with said I was “brave” to ask to be a speaker in the first place. The hosts of the speaking events call me “brave.” I hear it a lot. It disturbs me and, over the last few days, more so than usual.
You see, in my mind, the definition of “brave” is to do something courageous. It means overcoming some challenge or obstacle. Basically, to me, brave means doing something even though it is hard. People call me brave. Why? Because I speak. Why is speaking in public brave? I’m trying to organize my thoughts here, because I’m really upset about this, and have about fifty thousand pages’ worth of things to say, so please bear with me if I ramble for a few minutes. In order for speaking in public to justifiably be considered brave, something has to be hard, right? Since, for me, it’s pretty obvious I adore people and am not afraid of leading or otherwise being in front of a crowd, it can’t be “stage fright.” What, then, should be hard about speaking in public about my past? The only thing I can think of is the fact that I was hurt as a child. And the main reason it’s considered “hard” is because of the paralyzing shame that survivors feel.
Sadness crashes through me in waves.
Guilt’s Shadow has been my constant companion, most of my life. I’ve felt guilty and ashamed of nearly every action I’ve ever made, particularly when I was younger. I walk with my head down, even after all the psychology I’ve taken and mastered, even after all the books I’ve written, even after all the research I’ve done listening to pedophiles and sociopaths try to justify their behaviors. People, I’ve made it my life’s goal to try and understand. I’ve spent hours upon hours deciphering these people. I know all about control. I know (read: “know”), at least in my head, that it does not make a darn difference who the child is, so long as that child meets the pedophile’s “type.” I know this. I know some children are born with characteristics that make them easy “targets,” characteristics over which the child has absolutely no choice. I know this. And yet, the ugly truth is, I was there too. I didn’t scream at the top of my lungs, even when I knew I should. I didn’t tell. When faced with “choices,” I always “chose” one of the “options.” In essence, I particupated. Unwillingly, with tears streaming down my face, and a body made of stone but, nonetheless, I. Didn’t. Stop. It. If something’s happening and, even after you know better, you still choose to stay silent, then aren’t you all but sanctioning whatever’s happening? And, if that’s so, what in the world gives you the right to later complain about it?
I don’t have magical answers to those questions. What I have is an often overwhelming since of shame. Something ugly, something dirty, something wrong happened in my life; something that hurt me beyond all definition and shaped who I am. Something “bad” happened. And I was there. I was in that bed. I was on the couch. I was there. And, even after I knew the way out, I said nothing so, in essence, I went along with it. When my father would be in prison, I would write him letters. I have no idea why I did that, except that I wanted things to be peaceful. I wanted that more than I wanted oxygen. I wanted peace more than I wanted physical safety. Placating was my role, my job and it didn’t matter what the cost was. My sister was in the house and I truly believed that she was safe as long as I could “make him happy.” Sure, there were mind games. Sure, there was manipulation. Sure there was. But I remember going to middle school and being in the girls’ locker rooms at gym. I remember listening to them and thinking, “something is terribly wrong with me because I don’t feel a thing they say they do.” My high school prom came and went. It didn’t really matter that no one asked me to go, because the sheer idea of kissing someone voluntarily terrified the bejesus out of me. There were millions of ants crawling in my skin. No matter how many baths I took, no matter how hard I scrubbed with soap—they never went away. I was never as “clean” as the girl next me in class. Defiled is a word that we have become desentisized to but it so accurately describes what I felt.
The first time I truly fell in love I really saw stars. Fireworks exploded behind my eyelids. And, miracle of all miracles, a simple kiss flipped my entire world on its axis. It was not the first time I’d been kissed. I’d been kissed before. But it was the first time all of my senses had been engaged. It didn’t feel a thing like what I’d evern known before. But, as head over heels as I was, I drew a line and wouldn’t go as far as we could have. I did it for lots of reasons. One, I already believed God was unhappy with me. He’d never left, He did still hold my hand, but I’d read the verse that said that if a woman has relations with anyone other than her husband, even if she’s divorced, she’s to be called an adulterer. Well, as stupid as it may sound, I didn’t understand the context of that and I was already ‘used.’ I was already ‘defiled.’ I didn’t know what the Bible thought of “rape.” I only knew that you were only supposed to have intercourse with your husband. So, I couldn’t handle the thought of facing more shame. I couldn’t handle the thought of God looking at me in anger. So, if I didn’t have a ring, nothing “permanent” would happen. That was the main reason. However, there were others. The next big one was is complicated and also foolish in retrospect. But I knew I wouldn’t “bleed” like I was “supposed” to. And I was terrified of having this man, whom I totally adored, look at me in disgust or confusion or, basically, any way other than he did. I was scared to death of having to explain. I was terrified of this man discovering that, actually, I wasn’t as wonderful as he seemed to think I was; indeed, I was rather ugly. [Insert sound of heart breaking] Words cannot convey how ashamed I was of my body, and of the knowledge that it wasn’t as clean or worthy as maybe my mind was.
That was the first major event I sabotaged as a result of the shame. But it wasn’t the last. Even today, even as I speak before groups and have learned galaxies’ worth of information and statistics, it is hard for me to walk with my head up. The first time, years after that, that I heard someone say I should stand naked and look at myself, I about lost my ever loving mind. I didn’t want to see my body. In fact, I’d be happy to cut it up; maybe it would get the bugs off me. It was as if my mind and my body were two very separate entities. I was fine as long as my body never became engaged. I was ashamed. I was very, very ashamed. Sometimes I was ashamed even though I didn’t know what I was ashamed of.
Shame dictated my behavior for a long time.
Frankly, even today, if I’m not on my guard, if I’m not acutely careful, it does still. Silence has a way of breeding shame. If you’re quiet about something, if you never talk about, it becomes like a pair of really dark sunglasses. You can’t really see … anything…clearly because it is all colored by the shade of the sunglasses. Likewise, silence makes whatever it is you’re silent about, sit at the corner of your mind and mouth. It never goes away. You think about the thing you’re not supposed to mention all the time. The least act from someone can make warning signs go up in your head and panic fill your heart. You spend so much time worrying about when and if someone will discover your secret that you start “seeing” new hideous nightmares the secret’s uncovering would expose.
I can’t tell because if I do, x will do this.
I can’t tell because if I do, people will start looking at me weird.
I can’t tell because it’s so awful that if I do, the world will end.
It gets worse and worse and worse. And then you start feeling guilty about having this secret that has slowly enveloped your entire world. Then you’re ashamed for new things, in addition to what you were originally ashamed of. It’s a vicious cycle that only light can stop. It’s a vicious cycle that only communication will heal. When I say aloud in a speech these horrible things that have curbed my tongue all my life, I find that, while they may be bad, they’re not as earth-shattering as I thought they were. The sunglasses removed, I’m surprised by how bright the sun is. Yes, it’s still sad. But it’s not going to kill me. And, then… grace.
Grace slips in and whispers, “listen to what you just said. How was it ever your fault?”
Someone you deeply admire, like my pastor, finds out and hugs me anyway. Someone like Stackhouse finds out, and calls me “lovely.” These people, these mentors, whom I admire and have placed so highly in esteem, they know I didn’t tell. They know plently of ways in which I fail, including ways that have nothing to do with my childhood. And yet they welcome me into their presence anyway. They care about me anyway. They don’t think I’m worthless, or beyond all hope. The revelation of the shame brings care and compassion and tenderness, and the realization that I don’t have to do it all by myself.
They call me brave.
Years ago, I would have agreed with them. But now… now, after all this acceptance and care and understanding that has come my way; now, after listening to people say to me, “I thought the same thing,” or “It’s nice having someone who understands to talk to,” I start to think I was wrong all along. Satan is truly a snake for slithering in these awful feelings of incompetency, guilt and outright shame for something that was totally beyond my control. Even if I could have controlled it later, I couldn’t have that first night. I didn’t even know what was happening—how could I possibly be ashamed of something I couldn’t even understand?
When I started writing this post, I was frustrated. I’ve listened all my life to friends and peers talk about blissful summers spent at camps, or about that time their dad took them fishing, or about learning how to drive; or about their first kiss. I’ve spent a lifetime listening to other people recall all these picture-perfect snapshots of a healthy and happy childhood. I don’t envy them, I don’t mind listening…. but why is it that a past that holds emotional heartache is somehow off limits? No one who remembers Thanksgiving with a million relatives is considered brave for sharing those details, because those memories aren’t hard to share. But when pain is involved, when something hurts and is real…. suddenly the pain sets one apart, alienates one from the rest of the universe. How sad is that, that we can’t admit when something has hurt us without feeling inferior, or questioning our own behaviors and reactions?
Oscar Schindler was brave. He risked death for something he believed in, to do something good for someone else. Holocaust survivors who survived camps like Auschwitz only to find they were far, far away from home with no living relatives left but who floundered their way into happiness again–they are brave. Jon of Arc was brave. Galileo faced the Inquistion. He was brave. The seven year old at St. Jude who can’t run and play with her peers but who instead tells her mama that she’s okay with dying—she is brave.
I don’t want to be brave. I don’t want to be strong anymore either.
I want to be normal.
I want to be just like you.
And, the thing is, we all hurt. The thing is, while not everyone (thank God) experiences being hurt as I did, everyone on the planet does hurt. While not everyone was robbed of innocence at age five or six or ten, we all did grow up and get our hearts ripped out of our chests a time or two. While not everyone is funny, we all have laughed. While not everyone is pretty, we all bleed red. While not everyone is smart, we all try. While not everyone has family, we all must have human relationships and connections. And while not everyone is happy all the time, we all are happy at least some of the time.