On the first day of this new year, I returned to a really crappy and painful portion of my roots. I grew up in the metro DC area, and last Tuesday I drove back there. Sometimes, like an arrow, you have to be pulled back to go forward.
I drove by all three schools I attended there. I sat across the street from our house. I walked up and down the street, passed the houses of friends, walked to my high school bus stop on the corner, recalled conversations and events, stood at the chain link fence around the neighborhood pool and heard the sounds of my summers ……
There is more to come regarding that visit, but here is one of the critical takeaways for me: NO ONE WHO IS NOT ME gets to tell me my story. No one gets to edit my life.
NO ONE who is not YOU gets to dictate YOUR story to you. No one gets to edit your life.
This has been an unbelievably difficult concept for me to grasp. I grew up with constant gaslighting (something I had no word for until recent years), and then, in adulthood, too many well-meaning (and ill-informed) Christians affirmed the unhealthy narrative that the “right” thing to do is cover up for people. Not tell the truth unless the truth paints a person in a positive light. Keep secrets if telling the truth will “hurt” someone. To be truly spiritually mature, or “godly,” etc. is to not bring it to light when someone does evil. Because, after all, “all have fallen short ……..” (*bangs head*)
You don’t know how damaging it was to a person like me for people to insinuate to me (or flat out tell me) that the way to please God is to sweep evil under the rug. No, no one phrased it like that, but that is the bottom line of what they were saying. Don’t tell. Funny how that unspoken rule coincides with an abuser’s #1 rule. More ironic is that Jesus was all about truth. He forgave and healed and loved people, but he didn’t sweep what they’d done under the rug. If that’s the hallmark of being a good Christ-follower, sweeping things under the rug, that would mean Christ died for nothing. (If you’re a Christian, please think about that for a little bit, seriously. If sweeping things under the rug is what God really wants us to do, Jesus died for nothing. Total waste of an extraordinary young man doing remarkable things to make the world a better place.)
No matter who silenced you, or the reason(s) they gave for why it was/is the right thing to do, you absolutely have a right to tell the truth about your life experience. No matter how much shame you feel about what happened to you, or what didn’t happen for you and was meant to (unconditional love, acceptance, help, protection, etc), your abuse or neglect or assault or abandonment or rejection was NOT your fault and you do NOT need to hide it. You don’t need to protect people who behaved badly, nor do you need to blame yourself. And telling the truth doesn’t mean you’re attacking anyone. I was in a car accident when I was 18 because a little old lady pulled out in front of me on a busy road. It happened, there was damage to my car, and it scared me and made driving scary for a while. I was especially hyper vigilant when I saw someone pulling up to an intersection or the end of a driveway. How is it wrong to share that, and how does it equal an attack of any kind on the little old lady? It isn’t, and it doesn’t. It’s just telling about an event that happened and what the impact to me was. It’s owning my behavior and my thinking, and identifying where it came from or changed.
As I sat in front of my junior high school last Tuesday, I sobbed for the first time for the girl I was when I walked through those doors year ago. I felt the weight of being just twelve years old and not knowing that what had happened to me that summer was rape, not having any language or reference point to give my real-life-nightmares context nor to tell another human being about them, and of having to push my horrible secrets as far down as I could in an attempt to act as normal as possible. And for what? Acceptance? Love? Safety (real or perceived)? Good standing with people who behaved badly? I swallowed the grenade. But as I walked my neighborhood last week, relieving the silent pain and overwhelming shame I pounded into those same sidewalks all those years ago, I was so aware of how real my struggle was then and has been since, of how alone I was with all of it, and that no one has any right to make judgments about it or to dictate what pieces I can and cannot own. I had to suffer in silence, and I’ve had to pay the bills for it ever since – in the work to undo it all, in the toll it’s taken on me physically/medically, in the emotional and relational damage it’s caused, etc. No one whose judgments or minimizations or dismissals or accusations I’ve feared is helping me clean up the mess nor rebuild. I don’t know anything about construction, but I am pretty sure that if you were restoring an old house, personally paying all the bills and doing all the labor, you wouldn’t let someone who knew nothing of construction, or of the old house or the work and expense that had gone/was going into repairing and restoring it, be giving their uninformed opinions about any of it, nor deciding that there was no damage in the first place ……
I’m writing to myself today, but I am also writing to and for every single person out there like me who suffered in silence, and who still struggles with trying to hide the grenade you’ve swallowed for the sake of the person(s) who pulled the pin, or of those who love or defend them. What happened to you matters.
I’m writing for those who suffer the consequences of hiding the truth, because you’re afraid that owning and telling it would be somehow displeasing to God, or make you less mature, or less of a good person, or less “godly.” You are not bad, nor displeasing. You are loved, and valuable, and what happened to you matters.
I’m writing for those who are afraid of being mean, or unkind. Your fear speaks to the likelihood that you are not.
I’m writing for those who would rather suffer and blame themselves than accept that someone/people they trusted were capable of unthinkable things. It wasn’t your fault.
I’m writing for those who’ve suffered from an excess of Compliance all their lives, and who would rather whack themselves between the eyes with a 2×4 than to “cause” conflict or do/say something that will “cause” someone else to be unhappy with them. You’re not wrong, or bad, or difficult, or selfish, or crazy, or seeking attention, or trying to hurt anyone, or mean to tell the truth.
I’m writing for every one of us who is or has been afraid to own the truth, and afraid to tell it. It’s okay to tell the truth. It’s appropriate. It’s honest. You’re worthy.
I’m writing because our stories are not who we are, but they are an important part of us and they deserve to be honored. Pain deserves a witness, and suffering deserves compassionate support. You are not what happened to you, but it did happen to you and is an integral part of who you are.
I told my then-pastor a couple of years ago that I was afraid of confronting a key person and of telling the whole truth of my story because I was afraid that somehow I was being mean, or unkind. He responded with a simple question and I still go back to it today: How is it mean to tell the truth?
Freedom and truth are linked. Lying to ourselves or others causes damage, bondage, pain, suffering, illness, strife – I could go on for a long time. There is a reason that not lying was on the same list as not murdering when God gave the Big 10 to Moses. Lying to ourselves and to others (a lie of omission is still a lie) has steep consequences in us and in others. Haven’t we paid enough? We deserve to heal, and healing is connected to accepting and telling the truth.
We need to own our stories, and to stand by what we know is true – regardless of what anyone else might say about it, or about us. I know what happened to me and I know what the impact has been, and no one gets to decide it didn’t happen nor that the damage hasn’t been what I know it to be. No one gets to dictate my own story to me, nor yours to you.
You know the truth, somewhere inside you, even (or maybe especially) if you’re conflicted about it. Did that really happen? Was that really abuse/rape/assault/incest etc? It can’t be _______ (abuse, rape, etc) because ______ (perpetrator, or person defending them) would say it isn’t, or that it didn’t happen, or that they didn’t mean it. Maybe they didn’t mean it. It was my fault for talking back, or for not trying harder, or for being born, or because of what I was wearing. It was just my perception ….
Whatever your conflict is with the truth, odds are it’s rooted in something that someone else has said or believed (or might say or believe). For today, for right now, in the privacy of your own home or cubicle or wherever you are, I give you permission to tell the truth to yourself as if no one will know what you’re saying or that you’re saying it. They won’t, unless YOU CHOOSE to share it at some point.
What is your story, really? What are the secrets you’ve kept – the grenades you’ve fallen on or swallowed – and what do you wish you could just talk about without fear or risk or retribution?
I’ll start, and I assure you this is terrifying to write here: I was abused and neglected, in one form or another, starting in infancy.
Whatever it is, I believe you. I hear you. I know you’re out there, even if you feel invisible. I know how much you’ve suffered and struggled, and I know how much you long to be free. Don’t give up, open up.
And I so welcome your truth and story. If you don’t know where to start, or if it feels safer to tell someone you don’t know first, or whatever may draw you to my inbox, you’re invited.