In the Beginning
People try to put labels on you from the moment you’re born, it seems. Have you noticed? Some of them are benign: ‘healthy’, ‘thriving’, ‘girl’, ‘boy’. For some the problems begin at birth. What happens if the child is not healthy, or has ambiguous genitalia? Already the labels are out of kilter.
I had some nice labels attached to me when I was an infant. I was loved and treasured. I lived in one of the world’s most prosperous countries. As I grew a little older, I heard the words ‘gifted’ and ‘clever’. My mother at one point went as far as getting the prospectus for one of the local prep schools, to see if I might earn a scholarship, but decided against it because I was already thriving in a happy little C. of E. school. I was given books and toys at Christmas and birthdays which subtly reflected this notion of ‘clever’ and ‘gifted’: a microscope, a typewriter, an encyclopaedia, ‘The Book of Answers’, a gyroscope, the junior version of Trivial Pursuits…
‘Gifted’ is supposed to be a pleasant one. Yet it placed expectations and pressures onto my malleable little mind. Somehow my sense of worth was in being ‘clever’. I grew up believing that all I had to do was to be more intelligent than anyone else, work hard, and life would be all right.
Although at the time I didn’t know I bore this label, I became a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Later, when I learned that I was a victim, I tried to ‘tell’… No one listened. I had to ‘tell’ numerous times before anyone actually took me seriously. No one in authority took me seriously, however, which is why it was never investigated.
Just over a year ago I was praying for answers to why I was still held by such terrible remnants of the past, as if they were woven and wrapped around me as a mummy is wrapped for burial. One night, after a particularly vivid dream, I woke and there was the answer – or part of it. It suddenly dawned on me that no one had listened when I had ‘told’ and why the **** had no one listened?! despite me trying to ‘tell’ several times (which was in spite of threats to my life from the abuser… do you know how courageous it is for a child to speak out when there have been threats on her life?).
Twenty years ago my parents went to the police, who never even spoke to me. Yet I was pretty sure they would now. Things have changed, thank God. I have changed. I am not afraid. I now await the results of their investigation. I pray for justice.
Twenty Long Years
Back then, I received counselling and therapy, which helped. Yet somehow it missed some vital, and I mean vital components. The label of ‘victim’ still seemed stuck to me, as if stamped like a brand across my forehead. It was synonymous with there being something innate, something within me, which was not quite right. My mother would speak about me in hushed tones to her friends as if I was ‘troubled’. I don’t know why she did that. And I never saw anyone get angry about what had been done to me, except my father, who was so torn by grief that I didn’t know how to discern the tumble of emotions he bound within himself so carefully, but with such fragility. Yet when I think of such things being done to one of my own children, or anyone’s children, I am angry enough to burst. I could kill. Gentle little me! Is it just me? Am I somehow more aware, because of what I have been through?
Going back to the past: at first, I tried to tell other children. Twice. Once in school, to a group of girls, and once to my best friend. No, three times; I tried to tell at my youth group summer camp too. I also tried to tell my mother…
And I was sent to a psychiatrist. This is not to say my parents didn’t believe me, but they didn’t really know what to do.
Yet why did they still let ‘him’, the abuser, be part of the family…? It reinforced, over and over and over, that it was me who was at fault. Me who was screwed up. I recall one day, after having ‘told’ my mother, having used the words ‘sexual abuse’, that she took ‘him’ and me to a village tea room, where we had afternoon tea and scones… How very pleasant. How very Orwellian in its screwed-up Englishness.
You couldn’t make it up, frankly, could you? I mean, who the **** hears their 13-year-old daughter say, “I was sexually abused by so-and-so” and subsequently treats everything and everyone as normal???
No one tried to find out what had happened. And the abuser was still allowed free access to our family home. I was raped for the last time when I was 14. I had tried to ‘tell’ several times from the age of 12.
It took two years for it to finally stop. Two more terrible years. Why? And how could it possibly teach me anything other than ‘Sandy’s the one with problems’. Tut tut. Whisper, ‘It’s a shame, isn’t it?’
Sandy’s the problem. Sandy’s got something ‘wrong’ with her. A ‘troubled teen’. I was sent to a school for ‘troubled teens’ (though I was there ostensibly because I’d missed out on schooling due to illness). The head teacher, instead of trying to find out what my problems were, decided that I was ‘middle-class’ and therefore couldn’t have problems (at least, this is what I deduced) and on one occasion told me about a former pupil who was raped at knifepoint. I was bewildered. Should I reply with “I was raped too. Many times.”? Was it a competition to see who had been hurt the most? What on earth did she say it for? I could not reply. As I perceived it, it was said to make me feel as if I was attention-seeking, with little or no reason (I had not disclosed details of what had happened to me by that point. I was too traumatised to talk about it).
So, on the one hand I had counselling and therapy, which was good. I am still in touch with my wonderful Christian counsellor, who was the only one, the ONLY one who spoke the precious words which would come back to me with full vehemence last year, “You’re not suffering depression, Sandy, you have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
And on the other hand I had people treating me as if I had ‘problems’, or outright dismissing me, as the police did, cementing the idea that I was somehow worth less than other people. Unfortunately, the nature of being human is that negative things tend to stick to you. I walked into adulthood a very damaged soul.
Damage is what the first boyfriend at 21 saw, right from the first. And damage is what he grabbed and manipulated and coerced, to earn my attentions, and to manipulate my affections (love does not arise from being made to feel guilty, but I did not know that). Damage is what he made use of over the years, during the marriage, when the manipulation and coercion became biting words and flying fists. I didn’t believe I was worth anything better. I didn’t fully comprehend there was better.
Carrying the Burdens
For years, then, I carried burdens which were so heavy they crushed me. I didn’t understand what they were, or that they shouldn’t be there. I didn’t realise that I should be any other way. I sank deeper and deeper into the role of ‘victim’, because I had learned nothing else.
Eventually, after years of quiet, desperate prayer, something inside me changed. I decided that, despite what I had been told about divorce and remarriage, I couldn’t let my children grow up in such an atmosphere of sadness and misery. I knew it would affect their long-term development. I still had no notion of my deserving anything better! But I’m glad I valued my children enough. I’m proud of that. So, despite the idea that divorce and remarriage were both ‘wrong’, I made myself a vow. If things didn’t improve – meaning, if the ex-husband’s behaviour didn’t improve – within six months, I would leave. I’d find a women’s refuge, or something. Somehow. What made it difficult was that he’d promised that if I ever went to the police about his violence, he would tell them that I mistreated the children, that I was a bad mother. For years this had kept me ‘in my place’ because I believed I was a bad mother… Eventually (hallelujah) I cottoned-on to the fact that I was not the bad parent.
Fortunately, the police caught up with him for his other criminal deeds and then there was no question of whether divorce would happen or not. And it did, as quickly as I could manage it, though during this time the wicked man still tried to manipulate me and coerce me out of divorce! A convicted paedophile – a criminal of the worst kind – tries to tell me he is a Christian and does not believe in divorce. Insane!
Celebrate Recovery and the Road to Sanity
I then had to bear so many awful labels. All at once they were chucked at me. Added to my load. Social Services had to investigate me because of the charges against the ex-husband (I knew they had to, but it didn’t make it any pleasanter). I had to sit through a Child Protection meeting, which was the most awful experience of my life (bear in mind all I have been through and I still say it was the most awful experience of my life). It was the worst because they were questioning me as a mother, which was by far the most wounding. I also now bore the label of ‘single mother’, ‘benefits claimant’, ‘divorcee’, etc.
As I began attending Celebrate Recovery, the label of ‘survivor’ was offered to me. I accepted it with gratefulness. I was no longer a ‘victim’.
It is a few years since then. I have grown. I have changed. All by grace and only by grace. I am now, fully, ‘wife’ and ‘mother’. I am also ‘mature student’, ‘blogger’, ‘volunteer’…
‘Future pastor’? 😉
But what I have learned is great. The most great. Ever. It is this: these things don’t define me.
For years, as long as I can remember, I was defined by other people’s ideas of me, other people’s expectations, other people’s cruel actions, other people’s negligent actions. I was a ‘victim’. If I allow myself to be a ‘survivor’, I am still allowing myself to be defined by things that were done to me, even if it’s in an apparently more positive way than ‘victim’.
I am not a survivor. I am me.
My identity, my entire being, is as a child of God, who calls me His beloved. He woos me and cherishes me and calls me by name. I am His and He is mine. Here is eternity. Here is love. Here is grace.
All is grace, as Ann Voskamp is so fond of saying. And that, dear friends, is the most freedom a human being can ever have.
‘God’s way of putting people right with himself has been revealed… everyone… is far away from God’s saving presence. But by the free gift of God’s grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free.’
Romans 3:21,23 GNT
‘…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’
Free indeed. To be me.
Amen to that.
Hallelujah for the grace to just be.
I think there was some anger towards my parents when I wrote this post. Now, in retrospect, having recognised my own mistakes as a parent, I realise there are no handbooks when you have children, especially not for the circumstances my parents found themselves in. I believe the fact their marriage survived is a testament to their love and their dedication to their family. I am thankful for my parents and esteem them greatly.