Triggers Sometimes Do Die Down

Six years ago, I asked Marie Fortune of Faith Trust Institute if I would ever be able to experience a change in ministers at my church without it triggering me.  I had asked similar questions of others before.  It’s my biggest trigger – causing flashbacks and anxiety attacks.  I was abused by a minister who was transferred to my church just after losing a minister who had been a lifesaving pastor to me.  Everyone else I had asked about triggers over the years had either not answered, or questioned me on why it was so important.  Marie answered very honestly, “Probably not.  You know things others don’t.  But they will get less powerful.”

My reactions were put to the test this summer when the pastor at our church made a surprise announcement that he would be leaving in a month. Until that moment, I thought I had found the perfect setup to allow me to worship with minimal triggers.  Services were held in a school cafeteria, not a church sanctuary (another big trigger for me), the minister was younger than me and we communicated a lot through email (which felt much safer than a pastor’s study).  I had begun to feel very safe at church.  We frequently volunteered as greeters and looked forward to attending.

The week after the announcement, my husband and I went to service.  I could feel the anxiety building as we drove there, and my mind was busy with rapid-fire thoughts and I lost my sense of safety.  I used techniques I had learned from therapy, such as grounding and staying present and I began to feel centered again, so I decided to go ahead and attend that day.  Most importantly, though, I promised myself I would take care of myself and put my needs above things like politeness or protocol.

For most of the service, I stayed centered and did quite well.  It was near the end of the service when we lined up for communion that looked back, saw the minister who was leaving at the back of the church and remembered falling apart when I was 14 at the minister’s final service.  It was then that I started to cry and I knew I needed to take care of me.  I turned to Dave and said, “we need to leave now,” and he didn’t hesitate.  The moment I was outside the building I knew that Marie was right.  I couldn’t forget what I know that others don’t, but it had gotten less powerful because I had gotten better at taking care of myself.

Over the following weeks, I sometimes chose not to attend, sometimes attended and snuck out the back before the end.  I gave myself permission to stop volunteering as a greeter for a while so I didn’t feel obligated.

I don’t know if triggers can get less powerful for everyone.  I pray that they can because every survivor knows how debilitating they can be.  But I want others to know that it can happen and it has happened for me this time.

Work In Progress

I know I am a work in progress, I do.  I see that I’ve come a long way, I do.  But I still get frustrated with myself when familiar scenarios replay.

I was standing next to him.  He was seated at the table. The meeting was about to begin, and I was talking to someone nearby when I felt his hand grasp my right calf and give it a little squeeze.  I froze.  What the fuck just happened?  I finished my conversation quickly, moved away and found a seat.

In 1987, I watched the movie “Nuts,” starring Barbara Streisand.  In it, there is a brief dialog that comes to my mind frequently.  A patient says to her therapist, “the thing is…I know there are normal people out there…I’m just not sure what they do.”

What do normal people do when someone you are acquainted with fondles your calf just before a  business meeting?  Does this happen to normal people?  What the fuck just happened? 

I kept this story to myself for several days.  I began to question what I did to invite this.  And, I hated myself for asking that question.  Me.  Survivor.  Advocate.  I tell people “it’s not your fault and you are not alone.”  I wasn’t listening to my own message.

Finally, I shared what happened with my tribe…a friend who also attends these meetings, my husband, Jackie, and then another friend, and another.  To a person, they understood me, believed me, and supported me.  They encouraged me to take back my power and confront him.  And it was through them, that I remembered how important it is to speak  my truth.  The few days I spent silently pondering what had happened, inside my own head, were the worst days in recent memory.  When I shared what had happened, they reminded me of who I am, and they reminded me that I did not ask for or invite this awful act.

My tribe also reminded me that it was okay that I did not react in the moment, and that there was no statute of limitations on confronting him.  With their encouragement, I wrote him the following letter:

A few weeks ago at the meeting, you reached out, took hold of my calf, and gave it a squeeze.  Although I did not react at first, I want you to know three things, so I am writing you this letter.

1) I did not enjoy it  

2) It was completely inappropriate for you to touch me this way, and

3) As a result, do not touch me again for any reason

Jennifer

We are all work in progress.  It’s never too late to start speaking about what happened/happens to us.  No incident is too small or insignificant.  If it made you uncomfortable, it matters.  If you know there are normal people out there, but you’re not sure what they do, your tribe will help you remember who you are.

Expanding The Semicolon ; Movement

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The Semicolon Project began in the spring of 2013, when Project Semicolon Founder, Amy Bleuel wanted to honor her father whom she lost to suicide.  I just heard about it a few weeks ago, and it hasn’t left my mind since.  Although the original movement was created to honor one person, it has grown into an organization to raise awareness and lower stigmatism about mental illness.  It resonates on a different level with me.  It helps me understand part of my healing journey out of a history of sexual abuse.

Even though I was getting better, I used to struggle with the reoccurrence of pain, depression and anxiety with triggering events.  I wanted to conquer it once and for all.  I wanted to be done with it.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask.  Please…just make it stop.  Shouldn’t the end goal of healing be freedom from pain, depression, and anxiety?

I was raped by my own pastor at the age of 15.  Years into real progress of healing, I was surprised when a change of pastors in my church sent me reeling into weeks of flashbacks, and uncontrollable anxiety.  During that time I had an opportunity to be speak privately with Marie Fortune.  Marie is the founder of Faith Trust Institute, a respected national educational organization that provides training on clergy sexual abuse.  I took the opportunity to ask Marie if I would ever heal to the point that getting a new pastor would no longer traumatize me.  Marie answered honestly.  “No.  Because Jennifer, you know things other people don’t know, or choose not to know.”  And then she added, “but it might get less severe.”  I have forever been so thankful that Marie was honest with me that day, and that she explained why.  And she was right.  As a result, I no longer panic when it happens, and it has become less severe, and I have learned to trust that it will eventually subside.

So when I read about the semicolon project, I really connected with the metaphor.  In grammar, the author uses the semicolon to ask the reader to pause – but not permanently stop here – because there’s another complete sentence coming just ahead.

When Jackie and I created LearningHope.org, we gave the name a lot of thought.  We tossed around several ideas before realizing that learning hope is what we have both done throughout our healing.  We have learned to pause here and absorb what we’re going through but not to stay – because we know more healing is just ahead.  Healing is not freedom from pain, depression and anxiety, but the solid hope that we are bigger and stronger than the pain.

We have also learned that sharing our stories has bound us together and makes us stronger, which in turn makes the pain, depression and anxiety weaker.  We have dedicated LeaningHope.org to encouraging others to share their stories with us; please consider sharing yours.

See what I did there?  😉

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Child Abuse Awareness and Sexual Assault Prevention Month 2015

 

April is Child Abuse Awareness and Sexual Assault Prevention Month. Here are some pictures to encourage you through the month. Please feel free to share them!

 

breathing

 

only one

 

survivor

“Sorry, I’d Rather Not”

Something interesting happened to me while I was traveling last week.  And my response to what happened was even more interesting.  It showed me how much I have grown.

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I’ve been traveling more in my new position with my employer.  When you travel every couple of weeks, you start to develop preferences.   I’ve discovered that I like the aisle seat best when flying.  I like to be able to shift my weight and stretch out a bit on long flights.  Like many people, I really dislike the middle seat, unless I’m traveling with family and can lean on and snuggle with my companion.  Friday, I was traveling home after a long week in Boston.  It was a three-hour flight home and I was VERY glad to see that I had scored an aisle seat.

They were putting their cases in the overhead compartment, when this man in his 40s or 50s looked at me (already seated in my aisle seat), and asked, “are you traveling alone?”  and then added “because we’re separated,” motioning to a young woman in her mid to late teens – probably his daughter,  “and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind switching seats.”  It took me a few seconds to assess what he was requesting.  “We’re separated” translated into “we’ve been assigned two middle seats -one behind the other,” and he was asking me to move into one of their middle seats so they could sit next to each other.  I summed it up in my mind as a situation that was an inconvenience for them, and he was asking me to inconvenience myself to resolve his inconvenience, and I promptly responded “I’m sorry, but no.  I’d rather not sit in the middle seat.”

He wasn’t sure what to do next.  He hadn’t prepared for a woman traveling alone to say that she would not trade her comfort to alleviate his discomfort.  I can’t say he was mean about it – just stunned.  And I want to admit that although I had easily decided not to make the trade, sticking with my decision was more difficult.  I immediately questioned whether I had done something I was proud of or uncomfortable with.

I spent a good portion of the trip mulling over a question: Why would I think that my comfort was any less important than his and his companion’s?  Then I realized…that’s what happens in abuse.  As victims, we are put in situations where our needs, our safety, ourselves are made less important than the abuser’s.  Victims of childhood abuse, or any kind of long-term, systematic abuse, are placed in this position so often that we forget that our needs are of equal importance to others’ needs and that there is nothing wrong with advocating for what we need or want even if it means someone else not getting their needs met.

I realized on that airplane a few days ago that I have come a long way from being a doormat (which I was for many years), and that I have still farther to go.  I’m so glad that I responded graciously, but firmly that my priorities mattered.  But, I would like to get to a point where I don’t question myself for such a healthy move.  I also realized that self-care happens in everyday encounters, not just in stressful situations.

Accidental Feminist

feminist theology Dismantling patriarchal (male dominated) religion is an important focus of feminism.  But, it’s not just feminism that suffers from a patriarchal religion.  It’s painful for anyone who has suffered abuse from a father or father-figure.  And that’s a lot of us.

I’m an amateur theologian, so I’m not sure when God was first characterized as a male parent figure.  But, in my recollection of the stories of Abraham and Moses, God was God – like no other.  Moses even asked God “whom shall I say that you are?” and God replied “I am that I am.”  Somewhere along the way, God became Father in a lot of religious circles.

It’s not to say that there aren’t abusive matriarchal households too.  But statistically, most abuse is perpetrated by males in power.  If you were raised in an abusive household, you likely spent your formative years hearing a male voice telling you what to do, what to think and what to say.  And, you were likely taught that you were flawed, defective, expendable and/or worthless. Is it any wonder, then, that you feel uncomfortable with corporate prayer in church, telling what to believe, and that you are flawed, defective and/or worthless without God?

Some Christian churches  actually glorify sacrificial physical abuse.  Rather than preach about Christ’s life, message and ministry, they define salvation through the humiliation, physical beating, and even death of an innocent…orchestrated by his Father.  Is it any wonder, then, that an abused child in that church feels that they should not object to, speak out about, or even question what happened to them?  Is it any wonder that glorifying a body being broken and blood being shed, while at the same time asking your Father for forgiveness might be a destructive ritual, rather than a redemptive act for someone whose body has been broken by his/her father, grandfather, minister, teacher, or priest?

Did you ever think it was just you? – unable to sit in church, reading a pre-prepared confession, chanting along with a man in power up front, asking for forgiveness, – without becoming more angry by the second?  Have you ever cringed at the message that religion is basically made up of a set of rules created by your Heavenly Father?  It is not just you.  It is me too, and it continues to be thousands of others.  And, it was not your sin that needed to be forgiven.

Changing to non-parental images of God (or at least offering them) , including alternative voices in worship, and offering communion as a celebration of life and ministry are lifelines for survivors of abuse.  Much of these ideas have been demanded by Feminist Theology.  Maybe it’s time Survivors take it a step further and demand new conversations in our churches, mosques and synagogues about making worship a healing place for survivors, instead of place of glorification of abuse.

My God is a Messy God

This post is the first in a series exploring religion in the context of being a survivor of sexual abuse.  Jackie and I are very interested in this topic and have seen how conservative religious dogma has historically been demeaning to survivors.  Rather than walk away from religion, we would like to face it head-on and demand change.

messy  god

“Perhaps real wisdom lies in not seeking answers at all. Any answer we find will not be true for long. An answer is a place where we can fall asleep as life moves past us to its next question. After all these years I have begun to wonder if the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.”
Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings : Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging

“My Grandfather’s Blessings” is the only book I have read multiple times.  Usually, when I finish a book, I give it away and start on a new one.  But this book is like a comfy blanket that makes me feel all wonderful inside.  It’s full of stories of hope and healing.

Rachel also writes in this book that Meaning is the language of the soul.  I believe this.  I think we all search for meaning.  I also think that far too many religious people have instead settled for explanations.  I have even heard religious people say that if you can’t rely on specific “truths” in the Bible, then religion is meaningless.  I could not disagree with this more.

It’s not that I don’t believe in truth.  I do.  I believe in meaningful truth, not explanational truth.  The best example of settling for an explanation vs. searching for meaning is found in the overused phrase “It’s all in God’s plan.”  No.  No, no, no.  God has a Desire for all of creation.  God’s desire gives meaning to everything in life.  But saying “God has a Plan” that will someday be revealed in the face of senseless, horrible experiences is a cop-out for trying to explain the unexplainable.

Saying “God has a Plan” heaps more damage on an already-wounded person who has survived sexual abuse.  No-one planned the abuse that happened to you, other than the abuser.  Certainly God didn’t!  What message do we send to a victim of abuse with this theology???  “You’re an expendable part of a greater plan.”

I have found it very helpful to apply a Third World Test to religious belief.  Because God is also the God of people who live and die every day with famine, genocide and violence, a valid religious belief should be one that you could defend while looking a third world person in the eye.  It may sound comforting to explain our troubles with a Grand Design, or a lesson orchestrated or imposed by God, but you know that famine and pestilence don’t work in this paradigm.

Another theological phrase that doesn’t pass the Third World Test is, “there’s a reason for everything”.  Nope, Sorry.  Many things happen randomly, with no reason.  As spiritual beings, we can seek (not necessarily find) meaning in everything that happens to us.  And where there is no meaning, we can either create one by moving forward and working for change, or walk away from it without requiring an explanation.  We don’t need to attribute luck to God in order to be faithful.  It’s not that neat and tidy.

My God is a messy God, an omnipresent God, a loving God.  My God is an awe-some God.  My God does not need all the answers to be God.  And my God doesn’t require us to be certain in order to be faithful.

If you are a survivor of sexual abuse and you have been turned off by religion, please know that there are faithful believers who struggle with you.  Religion doesn’t need to be reduced to trite catch-phrases that dishonor the pain you have endured or try to make you responsible for finding an explanation for the random, senseless violence that was perpetrated on you.

There are several resources for exploring a questioning faith, including a few of my favorites: Living the Questions, Progressive Christian Theology, Kissing FishNALT (Not All Like That), and “My Grandfather’s Blessings.”  These are all mainly Judeo-Christian resources.  I’m sure there are similar meaningful resources in all religions.  Just keep pursuing unanswerable questions and you will find yourself in good company.

What religious teachings don’t pass your test?

 

Even if…

I once got pick-pocketed and thanked the thief who robbed me! Seriously. Who does that?? A kind-hearted person, who was preyed upon by a criminal – that’s who. I used to be really embarrassed that I actually thanked a robber until I realized that I had nothing to be ashamed of.

I was traveling in a foreign country. I was in the company of a native, whom I knew and trusted. A few years earlier, my husband and I had hosted a foreign exchange student. We were riding the subway in downtown Madrid with our former exchange-student when it happened. I was wearing a fanny pack with my driver’s license, some cash and a credit card. The subway was very crowded, so we were all standing very close to one another. A man tapped me on the shoulder, and pointed out to me that there was something really gross on my right shoulder. He started “helping me” get it off, making quite a production of it. This little drama allowed his partner to unzip my pack and remove its contents easily while I was distracted. When the train doors opened at the next stop, the object finally came lose and the man who was “helping me” got off the train. As he left, I smiled and waved, telling him “Gracias!”

A few minutes later, when I realized what had happened, I felt more violated by the fact that I had thanked him than I did about the loss of my card and license.

If you listen to rape culture, and apply its thinking, I wasn’t really robbed. After all, I am a generous person, so I might have given him the money if I were asked, and I knowingly went into a risky environment, wearing my valuables in plain sight. And, then there’s the fact that I not only didn’t object, I thanked him. No one is that naïve, right?

The minister who raped me at 15 also robbed me. He robbed me of my innocence and my virginity. And just because I didn’t object, and even though I worshiped him and thought he loved me, it was still rape. Once I realized the crime that was committed on me, I was very ashamed and embarrassed that I was used and abused in this way and so naïve…until I realized that I have nothing to be ashamed of.  I was a kind-hearted person who was preyed upon by a criminal.

Almost everyone who is sexually abused is somehow made to think that they were at least partially to blame, but that is a lie. Please, don’t believe it. Even if you didn’t object. Even if you thanked him. Even if…

Know this – IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT and YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

Congratulations!

Jennifer and Dave

On Saturday, our very own Jennifer Carmer Phelps became Jennifer Carmer-Hall. She and her dear husband, Dave Carmer-Hall invited Jeff and I to the wedding. It was one of the most beautiful weddings I’ve ever been to. I’m a little partial because I love these two people so much, but nothing could have suited their union better. The ceremony was simple, elegant, and FUN! They danced and laughed during the ceremony. This is so fitting because I think that’s how they live their lives every day. Even through the trying times, they dance and work together. It might not always be smooth sailing, but they work together and support each other, holding each other dearly and tenderly through every event life brings. That’s about as wonderful as it gets. 🙂

It was so great for us because Jeff and I got to spend some much needed time away together. It’s been far too long since we’ve been able to get away. It was a good reminder for us that time together is so vitally important. We go on dates and work together out in the yard and garden, but this was a great reminder that dedicated time is important to both of us. It was a long trip, but we had fun and Jeff even got new cowboy boots!

While we were at the wedding, I got to meet some of Jennifer’s amazing friends. These are people who like posts on facebook (and if you haven’t found us on facebook yet, please feel free to like us and share the link if you are inclined.) It was fun, and very humbling to meet people who read what we write. They were all dear and complimentary and I’m honored to know that there really are real people out there who read our blog. There are many people who comment and like our posts. I know they are real people too and I thank you each of you for your support.

I cannot believe I forgot to put in one more awesome thing that happened this weekend! I got to meet the lady who introduced Jennifer and me! I could never figure out exactly how Jennifer found me. She told me the story, but left out the person’s name, to maintain confidentiality. I’m so glad to have met her and so glad she told Jennifer to find me! Thank you will never suffice for that!

Congratulations Jennifer and Dave! I love you both and I’m so honored to know you!

 

Sticks and Stones

Oh the irony!!  The saying “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” are words that have hurt innumerable people.  Words can and do hurt.  Especially words spoken by someone with power over another person.  The words a parent, teacher, grandparent, priest, minister, mentor or physician have the power to heal or to hurt.  But that’s a subject for another day.  Today I am ready to call an end to one word that is spoken by society without a thought to its hurtful impact to all of us.

Provocatively. I found this word staring at me in the midst of an article on rape culture…a comment written by a survivor…written to help end rape culture…raised up by the author as a poignant example (I added the bold):

The views of Ms. Mac Donald are widely held, and they are one of the fundamental things that stand in the way of combating rape culture. When I was sexually assaulted, I had been out with good friends and had been drinking. In the end, one of those good friends was the one who perpetrated my assault. Afterwards, though some people were sympathetic, many more told me it was my fault. That boys will be boys. That I shouldn’t have drank, shouldn’t have trusted my male friend, shouldn’t have been wearing that dress, those shoes, that makeup. It wasn’t until a year later, when I began to research rape for my own writing project, that I began to realize that this wasn’t my fault. The societal problem of the ideas that it’s okay to sleep with drunk girls, that girls who dress provocatively deserve to be treated as objects, that it’s irresponsible for ladies to drink—that was at fault for both the situation and how I ended up feeling about it.

I realized in that moment how deeply rape culture is ingrained in our language and how this word is hurting.  It’s hurting me, it’s hurting you, it’s hurting our society.  PLEASE WORLD – STOP USING THIS WORD TO DESCRIBE A CLOTHING CHOICE!

In case you’re not following me yet, I will back up and dissect this word…this hurtful word.  First of all, this word is never used to describe male clothing choices.  Until now, I had never considered how I’ve been taught (we’ve all been taught) by our own words, that only girls can provoke behavior with clothing.  Because, apparently, only girls and women dress provocatively.

And yes, that’s what the word provocative means – to provoke.

Dictionary.com defines provocative as: tending or serving to provoke; inciting, stimulating, irritating, or vexing…  acting as a stimulus or incitement, esp to anger or sexual desire.

I usually don’t write blogs in an angry state.  I try to ruminate on what I have to say, let it simmer and make sure I am not just spewing on the site.  I can’t get there with this topic.  I’m getting angry just writing about this.

Please World…please stop using this word to describe girls’ clothing choices.

Clothes don’t provoke.

Please.

Don’t you see?

Sticks and stones can only hurt one person at a time.

Words can hurt us all.