Sometimes I wonder if every person in the world has been sexually abused. I am aware that the nature of my work biases my perspective, perhaps severely. You see, for as far back as I can remember, I have been interested in supporting survivors of abuse, addressing the laws that add to our frustration, and changing our “church-talk” which in many cases hinders healing. I’m invited to enter into the lives of many women: women who are your next-door neighbor, your kid’s Sunday school teacher, your pastor, your physician or your best sister-friend.
For so many of them, a history of sexual abuse lingers like a chronic toothache, so familiar that it is no longer recognized, dulling the senses but not interfering with the capacity to perform the routine tasks of life. I too have been there, making my way through life slightly numb because of the sexual abuse I suffered as a child. I didn’t realize the ways my body, mind, and spirit were impacted by the abuse until I asked myself why I continued to do certain things. For example, I never really got a good night’s sleep. In fact, for roughly 30 years, I averaged about 4 hours each night. There is no reason a 7-year-old should be living off of 4 hours of sleep each night. Sexual abuse impacted my relationships with myself and others. I normalized living from a position of “not quite whole”. Sexual abuse is not only a crime against the body, it is a crime against the soul.
Statistical information varies. Some reports show 1 out of 4 women will have been impacted by sexual abuse by the time she is 18. And some reports show that the numbers of African American women are as high as 1 out of 2 women. With the number of abused women being so high and percentage of women in our congregations being so high, why is the only thing I hear about sexual abuse about how I should forgive my abuser? That is, if I hear anything at all. Please don't get me wrong. I certainly have a deep belief in and appreciation for forgiveness. However, when forgiveness is built on forgetfulness we are inviting people to normalize their pain. For example, a woman who was abused by her father shared with me that she was told by her pastor that she was to forget the past because God made her more than a conqueror. This is absurd.
But in many ways, this is how we address issue of abuse in the church. We are taught to deny what has happened to us. We are taught to believe that it is not that big of a deal. We are encouraged to keep those dirty details to ourselves and move on because they make people feel uncomfortable. And if we continue to express pain, sadness, or anything that points to our trauma, we are somehow denying the power of God to heal us. But if we accept that, we will not be free to face the parts of our souls that remain scarred and damaged by the effects of sexual abuse.
But God does not intend for us to live broken. And the result of silence on the subject of abuse is often a greater deadening of the soul. I want to invite us to do more than talk about Tamar every couple of years, and instead, find ways to engage in conversations around the issues that cause damage to our souls more regularly. I want us to invite God into all of those closed doors where we’ve stuffed and locked away our pain. I want us to reach out to therapist and healers and our sister circles so that together, we become whole. God is big enough to handle our questions, our sadness, and our rage. So can we talk about this?
I never did tell anyone about the times he touched me when I was six.
It’s probably because I didn’t say stop.
I didn’t know I should.
I didn’t know I could.
After all he was family.
The painful urination eventually stopped, and I came to expect him-- finger,
I learned how to sleep without sleeping, always aware of every movement around me.
That sound is my baby brother leaving his room to go to the bathroom. And that sound is my mom,
going downstairs now, no doubt for a Pepsi and some pretzels.
She always wanted a Pepsi and some pretzels.
And that sound is him,
using the connecting door to enter my room once he thinks everyone is asleep.
But I learned to sleep without sleeping,
to always be aware of every movement around me. And I know he’s coming.
Even before he enters the room, I can hear him. Even before he is close to me,
I can smell him.
Even before he touches me, I can taste his breath.
He stopped once I was ten,
and I didn’t see him after that for almost ten years.
I no longer had to pretend to sleep,
but I had learned to sleep without sleeping,
to always be aware of every movement around me.
Yet I was completely oblivious to what was happening in me.
Because of what he did to me,
in me, grew shame, anger, and disgust.
And those deadly seeds, once planted,
would take years to pluck up.
Always trying to fill that void,
I went looking for love in all the wrong places. I was stuck.
I was pregnant at thirteen,
yet no one ever checked to see if anything had ever happened to me. They just assumed it was me.
“Fast” was what my mom called it, what she called me. Why would she assume it was me? I hated her for that.
I thought for a while that she hated me too. So I learned how to be with her-- I mean, live with her while being apart— connected by DNA but disconnected at heart.
It took years for me to like her,
to not hold what he did to me against her.
Then at fifteen I had an epiphany.
In order to be free,
I could no longer let my mother’s disappointment have power over me.
When I saw him again,
it was at my grandmother’s funeral.
I was nineteen by then.
Someone there told me he lived in a shelter when he was a kid and was probably abused.
It’s no excuse for what he did,
but holding on to it the way I did was choking the life out of me.
And again I had an epiphany.
In order to be free,
I had to take back my cousin’s power over me. And I did.
But the hardest work was learning to like me, not hold what he did to me against me,
not let what he did to me define me.
I didn’t realize it until now,
but I hadn’t dealt with me.
I had pardoned everyone else but me.
I never even allowed myself to cry, to really feel the hurt, anger, or pain.
I left that me in Philly with all her bitterness and rage.
Until one day the me I buried was resurrected from her grave and forced me back to me to deal with all the anger and shame.
Then one night in August,
I sat with my tears, anger, and hurt. I gathered my strength and took a deep breath.
I told that six-year-old,“It wasn’t your fault.”
I told that thirteen-year-old,“You shouldn’t have had to go to the clinic alone.”
I told that twenty-year-old,“You are special just the way you are.”
I told that twenty-seven-year old,“You don’t have to hide who you are. You just have to be the best you.”
I told that thirty-year-old, “You’ve come a long way but still have work to do.”
I told that thirty-five-year-old, “It is okay to smile and cry because it doesn’t say you’re weak.”
I told that thirty-six-year-old,“Get yourself some sleep.”
Because I had learned to sleep without sleeping,
to always be aware of every movement around me.
And at thirty-six,
it was becoming tiring.
So for the first time in a long while I slept.
And it wasn’t the sleep without sleeping I had become accustomed to doing for thirty years.
I really slept
without waiting for the connecting door to open.
without hearing or smelling him or tasting his breath.
without pretending not to notice the unwanted finger, penis, or tongue. I slept for the first time in a long time.
I was finally able to sleep,
Because At thirty-six I had another epiphany.
In order to really be free, I couldn’t hold my past against me.
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