It wasn’t until I attended my first Living Waters training that I named abuse as part of my past. While listening to the teaching and the definitions for different types of abuse, I realized I had experienced this kind of trauma. Until then I vaguely described my past hurts as “just trials people go through.” I normalized and minimized these hurts in my mind and emotions. But after hearing the specific details describing emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect, I had to wrestle with the intensifying and uncomfortable awareness that I had personally suffered harm from abuse. In fact, I had to concede that the effects from abuse were still impacting my life.
My parents divorced when I was five years old. Until that time life seemed normal. I had a father, mother and two older brothers. We lived in a new home built in one of the first suburbs of Denver. It was the early 1960s, with black-and-white TV and Motown music playing on the hi-fi stereo. I remember feeling carefree, playing with my brothers and waiting for dad to come home so he could throw me in the air and make me laugh. There was a rhythm to domestic life that included meals, cleaning house, sprinkling the freshly laundered clothes with water to keep them damp for ironing, and yard work.
The suddenness of my parent’s divorce and the subsequent split of our family left me devastated. My father and brothers departed our home and so did any impression of normalcy. My “home” was disappearing quickly. Everything I had known about life and family turned upside down. My mother’s emotional and financial life rapidly spun out of control when she started abusing alcohol and prescription drugs. Her downward spiral included long hours in nightclubs and bars.
The caring mother I had known was vanishing along with most of our belongings. Security and comfort in my surroundings was seriously undermined when she began selling everything around us. The familiar was being replaced with emptiness and anxiety. First went the furniture, then went the little things that make a home. Our huge braided rug in the living room was gone, the TV and hi-fi, and then my bedroom. My coordinating bedding and curtains and my beloved play kitchen were gone! As a child I didn’t know where these things went. They just disappeared, like my dad and my brothers. Life became unpredictable and frightening for me.
I was exposed to the vulgar atmosphere of the night scene in bars with my mom flaunting about while hiding me under the booths. I can still remember the rank smell of the cold floor and the embarrassment and shame I felt seeing my mother expose her nakedness to strange men. Eventually that scene found its way into our house. Multiple men walked through our doors and throughout our bedrooms like they belonged there. It was terrifying and repulsive for me to hear their voices and see them engage sexually with my mom in the form of live pornography. Dread replaced revulsion when I imagined what they might do to me.
Mom was frequently so intoxicated I felt unprotected and defenseless. I learned to quietly hide in the hamper under the dirty clothes, in a closet or under the stairway in the basement to keep these men away. But when caught off-guard and threatened by their presence, I spewed out loud, angry words with facial expressions and body language to go with them. It wasn’t unusual to hear someone say, “She’s a firecracker for such a little thing!” I learned that anger and adult words could make a big person step back. I became the parent.
Although I have no recollection of being physically violated other than them petting and leering at me, I was stripped of innocence and security. I despised the money left on the table by the men and repeatedly hid it to keep my mom from having any connection to it. I was especially traumatized and haunted during times when my mom was passed out on the bed or floor, completely lifeless and nude. As a child I could hardly differentiate that condition from death. I would shake her and plead for her to come back to me, to wake up!
While my mom lost control of her own life, my life was being swept away as I was bounced around from house to house. Unable to properly care for me, she frequently left me with neighbors, distant relatives and acquaintances. I faced disdain and judgment from these caretakers and sensed their discomfort from being put out. I didn’t fit in and regretted being a burden. I knew I wasn’t home and should be with my mom or dad.
One person regularly misused her authority and beat me with an open fist on my face. It hurt and was degrading! When I returned home my mom was habitually gone. I was left alone in a dark, cold house to figure out how to eat and bathe and find kindergarten or grade school. It was humiliating for me when neighbors would switch my shoes or put my dress on frontwards or comb my knotted hair and wash my dirty face. I internalized that feeling of humiliation: “I’m bad and something is wrong with me.”
The feeling that something was wrong with me left me with self-hatred and shame. I was trash. That’s how I felt. Worthless. Not worth caring for. I despised feeling helpless and vulnerable and displaced my pain onto other children without understanding why. In confusion I acted out with resentment and mistreatment. I learned to use control to guard myself. I developed a toughness that sent the message “stay away.” Loneliness and fear were inescapable, and my bare mattress provided little comfort for the anxiety.
A difficult but fortuitous break came when I was forced to testify in a judge’s chamber about my situation and was afterward granted permission to live with my father, brothers and grandmother.
During this tumultuous period in my life, I met Christ through a neighborhood outreach for children. With a broken heart I heard the simple message of forgiveness for sin and the promise of One who will never leave me or forsake me. I prayed with childlike faith to receive Christ. His enduring presence and faithful love brought significant comfort and healing from the wounds of abandonment. The Bible became a mooring force at that young age. I cherished the revelation of God’s advocacy for my existence.
It has taken the persistent work of the Holy Spirit, through the body of Christ, to help supplant the deep-seated lies and resulting self-hatred and shame left by sexual perversion, neglect and abuse. Living Waters opened a door for me that provided the necessary language and comprehensive process for healing from abuse that included listening, healing prayer. By allowing the Holy Spirit to awaken painful memories in His time and way, through safe places of teaching and prayer with trusted leaders, I began confronting the depth of damage these insidious deprivations and abuses deposited in me.
As a result, I recognized and confessed my own distorted reactions and behavior that perpetuated brokenness in my life. I exhibited stubborn independence, need for control, and fear of intimacy; these false defensive traits stifled healthy feminine qualities that I needed in order to nourish good relationships. The disproportionate need for security compounded by fear of rejection also triggered confusion and fear of authority in me.
Residue from confusion and fear of authority undermined my confidence as an adult who had become a church leader. Amid this insecurity came a surprising fissure that surfaced during a season of church planting. The recurrence of self-doubt and the underlying need for assurance produced fierce loyalty in me, to a fault. I became vulnerable to misguided spiritual authority and the abuse of power from others. That environment interpreted having a distinctive voice or opinion as rebellion and divisiveness. Veiled suspicion about my spiritual contribution and the impression of being devalued caused me to seriously question my ability to hear and know God.
In fear of disobedience, and with the growing risk of losing my “family” again, I found myself instinctively excusing false assertions and misperceptions. I became willing to accept any necessary blame to ensure harmony and stability. These and other disorienting experiences reopened old wounds related to self-hatred, shame and worthlessness. I later recognized this behavior as a familiar childhood response to trauma and loss.
During the arduous process of allowing Christ to reveal and remove the painful roots of confusion and fear of authority in me, my heart was liberated to receive His view of reality and definitive approval. By resisting and renouncing beliefs from faulty theology and methodology, a sharpened discernment for the misuse of authority developed. Letting go of control and trusting God for the future was frightening but imperative to growth. Receiving care from life-giving influences empowered me with resilience and renewed conviction that I am a good gift to Him and others.
The pathway toward more wholeness and self-confidence as an individual and as a spiritual leader has been difficult but amazingly fruitful for me. Along this journey God has proven to be a faithful Father, vigilantly providing for my needs. His leading has been surprisingly risky and adventurous, moving me toward a clearer view of his abundant love and plan for my life. I am truly grateful for the sufficient cleansing power of the cross to redeem the effects of abuse and for the privilege of sharing His message of hope and healing.