In which I am hesitant to call it abuse.
In which I am hesitant to call it abuse.
This week is Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week, a synchroblog hosted by Hännah, Joy, and Shaney (along with Rachel and Elora). Today we’re all linking up with Hännah, and I’m so thrilled that this is happening. And yet…
I am so hesitant to add my voice here. Surely abuse is too strong a word for the things that have happened in my life, I think to myself. No one meant any harm. Everything was done in love, everything was said in love. They didn’t know that they hurt me.
There is so much to my story — my life — that I feel unable to share. Or perhaps simply unable to share at this time. So instead, I’d like to share the bits of my story that I’ve already shared, until I can find my voice to describe the rest.
Please understand that in each and every one of these instances, I believe with all my heart that the people involved intended good for me. But as I am learning, good intentions don’t always mean good actions. And in fact, sometimes the people who mean the most good do the most damage.
For the past six years, I have mostly lived in silence about this aspect of my life. Several well-meaning mentors and friends told me to get on with my life, to get over it, that it wasn’t a big deal (incidentally, after hearing so many friends recount similar reactions to their abuse, I wrote “the proper response”). So I swallowed the pain and hid the repercussions as deeply as I could. I have been able to hide the panic attacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress from just about everyone. I have lived with the nightmares, the flashbacks, the pain — silently for six long, difficult years.
I stopped eating in the eighth grade.
People complimented me on how much weight I was losing, how much prettier I looked, how much better I was.
They didn’t know something was wrong until I started passing out. And when my eating disorder finally came to light, it was largely seen as me going through a phase to be popular or noticed, much like with my cutting and suicide attempts.
Because, you know, depression and suicide and self-harm and eating disorders are only a phase.
It didn’t matter that I hated my body. It didn’t matter why I hated my body. And sometimes, I was encouraged to hate my body, because fat people absolutely cannot have a relationship with their body that doesn’t involve self-loathing and the perpetual impetus to hide as much of their body as possible.
“You shouldn’t go out in public with wet hair,” he told us. “It makes guys think of you…” He paused, clearly uncomfortable, then said in a quieter voice, “in the shower.”
We were at a Bible conference, staying in the college & career cabins, standing outside and talking. He and his friend were somber-faced, and me and my friends were uncomfortable yet eager. We were talking about relationships, and how guys and girls (why not men and women?) could “help each other stay pure.” We learned that having wet hair was a stumbling block, along with ever allowing any male to see us wearing pajamas. Apparently that makes men think of us in bed.
Why a shower or a bed are inherently sexual places for a woman to be, I don’t know. Frankly, I think it’s quite telling about our culture that those assumptions could be considered “logical” in the first place.
But I do know that during this hours-long conversation, I kept adding things to my mental of list of Things To Do To Be A Good Christian Girl — a list that was comprised almost entirely of Things To Do To Be Pure, which looked a lot like Things To Do To Be Silent And Invisible.
And my quiet panic kept growing and growing, because I wanted so desperately to not be a stumbling block, but it was starting to sound like having long hair, breasts, and hips was stumbling block enough. I thought of my outrageously curly hair that I kept long out of personal religious duty. I thought of my large and endowed body. And my heart sank.
*I* was a stumbling block. *I* was impure — by simple inescapable virtue of being unable to hide the body I had.
“What were you wearing? Did you do anything…inviting?”
I’m never certain what people are saying when they ask me these two questions about being sexually assaulted at the age of 18. Because it sounds like they’re asking me if my assault is actually my fault.
For the record, I was wearing a lime green high-necked T‑shirt, a pair of men’s jeans that were baggy and shapeless, and a large trench coat that was equally baggy and shapeless. Along with a pair of Vans. I was literally covered from collar bone to wrists to toes.
And no. I didn’t do anything inviting.
And it’s insulting that people think that sexual assault is something that can be invited.
For years, those questions have hurt. To be honest, they still hurt.
Because they seem to say, “Your body is temptation that makes assault okay. Your body makes men do evil things. Your body is toxic. Your body is sinful.”
And for years, I believed it.
A sub-culture in which I spent most of my life that believes itself to elevate women to a higher level of respect and honor, but still teaches that women “belong” to their husbands, are more easily deceived, are weaker, are unfit for leadership, are expected to obey like children or servants. If unmarried, these women must answer to their fathers, until they are “given” to their husbands. To remain unmarried is seen as a sign of an unsubmissive rebellious spirit. They must be pure, they must be silent, they must be sweet, they must be kind, they must endure abuse without a word, they must never “allow” themselves to be in “compromising” situations, they must shoulder the blame for the lust and desire and sexual sins and even sexual crimes of their brothers in the faith. None of this may be intended, but too many of us have felt this weight, and it cannot be the yoke that is easy to bear, the burden that is light.
These cultures, these systems of thought, are pervasive. Good people with good intentions perpetuate these systems unknowingly without understanding the consequences.
I wasn’t supposed to be hurt.
I keep coming back to that phrase when I engage my emotions. Supposed to.
I’m not supposed to hurt. I’m not supposed to cry. I’m not supposed to be angry. I’m not supposed to be afraid.
I’m supposed to be joyful. I’m supposed to smile. I’m supposed to be gentle and submissive. I’m supposed to endure the race set before me.
It’s thinking of phrases like these that makes me see how conservative Christianity can be used to strip us of emotions, strip us of humanity, particularly women. There are Bible verses to this day that I cannot hear without breaking into a cold sweat and tremors and tears because of the way they were used against me, against my heart, against my soul. But just thinking that makes me afraid.
Maybe the fear comes from the supposed tos. From the expectation of perfection. From the belief that I have to do my best at all times, or else I am a moral failure, ethically destitute, unworthy of the emotional support of anyone, untrustworthy and unfaithful.
When an apology is uttered, it’s my instinct to reply, “Oh, it’s okay,” with a dismissive wave of my hand and smile on my face to prove Just How Okay it is, all the while my inner monologue mutters, “No, it’s not okay, but I don’t know what else to say here and I don’t want to make it even more awkward and it shouldn’t matter so much anyway.” Then, of course, there’s the bigger and harder times that it comes up, like when shortly after my assault I was challenged that I hadn’t forgiven my attacker yet.
You know, the word “forgiveness” gets thrown around a lot in Christian circles.Particularly at women. Particularly at women when they notice injustice and dare to speak up about it (or even, like in my case, just confiding hurt in a friend). Ephesians 4:32 or the Lord’s Prayer is whipped out before anyone can do any critical thinking, and the mantra “forgive one another as Christ has forgiven you” is recited as a tool to silence, to shame, to force those with no power into submission.
There’s quite a lot problematic with that approach, and I’m a bit hesitant to get into the problems here. Suffice it to say that this definition of forgiveness that I was taught implicitly and explicitly over the years told me that forgiveness meant that I had to act like the offending party hadn’t offended, that I had to be willing to reconcile with them, just as Christ reconciled us to God. It taught me that my emotional, mental, and sometimes even physical well-being were disposable for the sake of keeping the peace, keeping appearances.
Church as I know it, as I have experienced it — whether in a Plymouth Brethren chapel, independent fundamental Baptist church, Presbyterian gathering, or non-denominational contemporary service — is not a safe place for me.
It is the church that told me that my intellect, writing, teaching, and leading abilities are not welcome within its walls unless I am teaching those they consider less than men (i.e., other women or children).
It is the church that told me that I had to remain silent, covered and hidden both in body and in spirit.
It is the church that told me that my body is toxic poison to any and all men, to the point that I’ve heard it hinted that perhaps breast reduction surgery could be in order for women endowed the way I am, to help brothers in Christ not stumble.
It is the church that told me to forgive my attacker, use my sexual assault as an opportunity to witness to him, even rejoice in my assault because there are many who would give anything to suffer for the Lord the way I did.
It is the church that told me that perfect love casts out fear, so if I am afraid then I am in sin for not accepting God’s perfect love.
It is the church that told me that because I was not a virgin on my wedding night, that I am ruined forever, that my relationship with my husband and even my relationship with Christ will never be whole or healthy.
It is the church that told me that my depression is a sin against God, and that if I just trusted Him enough — put my hope in God — all of my anxiety and depression would disappear.
Is it any wonder the church is not a safe place for me?
Safety is a big thing for survivors of all kinds of abuse. It’s a big deal when someone confides their pain in another individual. And when that individual turns around time after time and clings to rules and regulations, idioms and cliches, proverbs and parables, it invalidates the experience and pain of the person who trusted them. It is a deep betrayal of trust. And when the Bible is used as a tool to shame people for their emotions, silence their pain, and brow-beat them back into line, all in the name of God…if that is not taking His name in vain to hurt the least of these, I don’t know what it is.
I hope to be back on Wednesday to discuss things further, perhaps tie them together a little better so that they’re easier to understand — for me and for you.