The Nature of Healing

Today my children and I read “How the Bear Clan Learned to Heal: An Iroquois Story” from Angela McAllister’s A Year Full of Stories. It goes like this:

Three young hunters were running home one evening, when a rabbit jumped out ahead of them and sat in the middle of the trail. The hunters stopped. They’d already caught plenty of game, but each one reached for his bow, plucked an arrow from his quiver, and shot at the rabbit. To their surprise, the arrows returned without a spot of blood.

As they reached for a second arrow, the rabbit disappeared. In its place stood a bent old man.

“I am sick,” said the old man weakly. “Help me find food and a place to rest.” The young hunters didn’t want to be bothered by the old man. Ignoring his plea, they put away their arrows and ran on down the trail. They didn’t notice the old man turn and follow.

When he reached the hunters’ settlement, the old man saw many lodges. In front of each lodge was a skin hanging on a pole. This was the sign of the clan within.

The old man stopped at the lodge of the Wolf clan and asked the elder woman for shelter, but she wouldn’t let him in. “We don’t want any sickness here,” she said. So he shuttled on.

The young women at the Beaver lodge insisted they had no food to share. The Turtle clan and Deer clan both sent him away. The old man asked for help at the sign of the Hawk, Snipe, and Heron, but everyone shook their heads.

Night fell, and the air grew cold. At last, he came to the lodge of the Bear Clan. When the Bear Clan mother saw the sick old man, she lifted the blanket at her door and welcomed him inside. She gave him a bowl of warm corn mash and spread soft skins for him to rest on. The old man was grateful. The next day, he told her what herbs to fetch from the woods to make him well, and soon he was healed.

The old man stayed with the Bear Clan mother, but a few days later, he became sick again. As before, she cared for him. He told her what roots and leaves to use for medicine, and she made him well.

Many times the old man fell ill: once with a fever, another time with pain, then a rash and a cough. Each time, he instructed her about the flowers and plants to use for his condition and she listened and learned well. Before long, she knew more about healing than anyone in all the clans.

One evening, as they sat together under the stars, the old man gave the clan mother thanks. “I was sent to earth by the Great Spirit to teach people the secrets of healing,” he said. “You were the only one who showed pity and welcomed me at your fireside. Now I have taught you how to use plants and roots to heal the sick, and from this day, all the other clans will come to learn from the Bear Clan how to heal, and the Bear Clan will be the greatest and the strongest of all.”

Then the clan mother was filled with joy. She gazed up at the sky and thanked the Great Spirit for his precious gift. But when she turned again to the old man, he had disappeared. All she saw was a rabbit running away down the trail.

The abuse survivor sphere has taught me just how true the lessons of this story are.

In order to help others heal, I must listen to them share their needs. I must acknowledge, understand, and meet those initial needs–and I must be prepared to meet many more varied needs as they are gradually expressed.

I must understanding that healing takes a great deal of time, and that if I want to become a good, capable, effective agent of healing, I have to commit for the long haul.

I must maintain a posture of humble attentiveness that whole time. I should constantly expect to need to take in new information and apply it.

I have to be willing to go out of my way again and again and again to bring in resources to help the wounded.

I should expect the recovery to be lengthy and involved and taxing, primarily for the hurting party, but also for me.

I should understand that what I gain from the privilege of caring intimately and faithfully for someone is a greater gift than I could ever give them. That I am not the source of their rescue and restoration: God is. When I enter into another’s suffering, I witness the work God forges in the interplay between their expression of needs and hurt and my acceptance and tending.

In the comprehension brought about by that witness and engagement, I am renewed.

And most importantly, I should understand that healing is primarily the work of the wounded. I am the student and the servant. The one healing is the healer. I follow her lead and provide support–but she does the work of knowing her pain, choosing her struggle, and asking for help.

I might provide resources, treatment, time, expertise: but she is the one who heals.

We best serve our wounded when we entrust them with their own fates: when we affirm their agency, their autonomy, their responsibility as their own primary caretakers.

When we defer to them like this, we learn a great deal about how also to look after ourselves.

Published at The Salt Collective

Last week I was honored and grateful to tell a larger part of my story publicly for the first time. The Salt Collective provided a broad platform for me to share, certainly a larger audience than I’ve ever had; and the encouragement, kindness, support, and practical editing help that I received from Nathan Roberts was invaluable.

The essay this collaboration produced is a heavily modified version of a blog post I originally published here. The end product connects further details of my own history and experience to the broader issue of religious gendered abuse and how it is unwittingly harbored and enabled by systemic abuse and shame culture within American Evangelicalism.

The consequences of rotten roots are far-reaching. If we wish to restore the church, we must protect and rescue our most vulnerable. The healing of our community begins and ends with the healing of the wounded individuals within it.

Read my essay here: I Survived a Rural Evangelical Daddy Cult

Will the Horrible Truth About the Man Who Led Me to Christ Wreck My Faith?

It might.

If it does, please don’t give in to shame. Especially shame leveled at you by others. As my husband says, probably quoting another source I’ve forgotten, “If anything can be destroyed by the truth, it should be.” If your faith can no longer function after sustaining a blow to its core by the person who planted it in you, who grounded it in you, then it is a faith that also would not have sustained you til the end of time. Faith rooted in the work of a human either dies prematurely, with the corruption of that human’s works, or with the slow death of that human’s influence over you as you realize the limits of his or her power. Do not accept a burden of guilt for letting go of something that was never actually good in trade for the thing itself.

Instead, recognize that letting go of what betrayed your trust and confidence will free you to cling to what truly deserves it.

If you discover your faith is rooted in a human, vs. the God you thought you adhered to, go ahead: dig up the dying or dead roots of that crushed faith. You can’t can’t cultivate anything living in the soil of your soul until you’ve made room. If you’re afraid of throwing anything good out, don’t be. The God that cracks dormant seeds awake in the dark and turns the globe to quicken the sap of deciduous forests and sends the spring rains to water the earth wants clear ground to work in your heart, so that what he does plant–and will plant there if you only ask, even if it’s a second or third or three-hundredth asking–won’t be choked or plucked out when we mistake the weeds sown by simple birds for the sprigs of his intention.

The horrible truth about the person who led you to Christ might wreck your faith; if it does, that is not a bad thing.

And, it might not. If it doesn’t, it should give you one of the best opportunities you will ever have to clear out the brambles and thorns and tangling vines that you likely would have never noticed threatening the seedlings of truth and justice and mercy and love set out in careful rows.

If the horrible truth about the human you trusted so implicitly doesn’t wreck your faith, it will only ground your faith more firmly as and where and how it ought to be.

Let me tell you a little about how my own faith transformed and endured through such betrayal.

My father abused me from a young age. The abuse began in the form of molestation when I was about 18 months old. I remember multiple incidents very clearly, which is not surprising if you consider the fact that I was quite verbal for my age–I had conversations with my father about this early sexual abuse at the time it was happening–and that I retain multiple other memories from that time period as well. I have spoken to other family members who, it turns out, were aware of the molestation at the time but did not understand what it was. They validated my account thoroughly; one person expressed remorse that they did not know enough at the time to do more than threaten to expose my father to his church leadership.

Shockingly, this threat apparently prevented my father from molesting me further for well over a decade. Other sexual infractions that he committed against me much later on were comparatively slight. The majority of my abuse at the hands of my father was psychological: mental, emotional, and spiritual torment was leveraged against me for decades in order to control my thoughts, behavior, and resources to serve his purposes. Physical and financial abuse was also occasionally employed to these ends.

My father was my jailer, my abuser, and in many ways, at least for a time, my god.

My father was also the first one to tell me the story of the Gospel in a way I could understand, appreciate, and accept, again from a young age.

What do we do when we are assaulted by the truth that the man who led us to Christ may well have never known and accepted Jesus to begin with? Or, worse, if he did–that he never allowed the power and goodness and truth and love of Christ to so work in him to preserve him from committing unspeakable sins against the most vulnerable in his care?

What do we do when a spiritual parent uses what gave us life to bring death to others, or to ourselves?

We cling to the life we were given, if what we were given is indeed life-giving, because it did not come from this man or woman, this mere, distorted, destruction-bound human soul–

It came from the Source of Life Himself.

And if what you were given was never in fact life in the first place, know there is a source that exists that is more than willing to share true, everlasting life with you, that will not betray you, that will not wield good for evil, but that will tear down and burn and blacken into NOTHING all that has ever hurt you. All that has ever wounded you. All that has ever torn your heart out and eaten it in front of you.

God of peace, of justice, of righteousness, of truth, of love gives me life and hope and healing. Not my dirt-born father. My infinite-always-was father.

He got through to me when I was surrounded by deep darkness, where no one else was close enough to reach me, even through the morass of evil embodied by my earthly parent. He reached me, and he did not leave me alone there. He sat with me in all the agony and misery and torture and wickedness inflicted on me until it passed. Until he achieved my restoration out of its clutches and showed me his true, deep, abiding goodness in the land of the living.

He is with me still.

When Is It a Good Time to Discuss Abuse?

My birthday was about a week ago. I enjoyed time with family (wrangled fussy children through getting a Christmas tree), food (made my own supper and cake, which, thankfully, the natives loved), and leisure (binged on a new video game until way too late). I also got to consult on an emergent abuse case involving a starving pregnant mother–because there is never a bad time to discuss issues of abuse.

Let me clarify: there are FREQUENTLY bad times for a VICTIM to mention abuse. Victims are likely to be shunned, scorned, or shushed no matter where or when they share their story. There is never a “good time” for a survivor to speak up, tell the truth, or ask for help because mostly others fail provide a safe listening ear, and it’s terribly hard to predict who, if anyone, will be a trustworthy confidant.

In order to help survivors, we must work to change the culture so that it is never a bad time for THE REST OF US to discuss issues of abuse.

I hyperbolize, of course. No, I’m not going to take a consulting phone call while on a bathroom run. If you send a message asking for help in the middle of the night, you probably won’t hear back from me until after I’ve fed my kids breakfast the next morning. Sure; we are human; the rest of life also must be dealt with. Even on my birthday I put the phone down for awhile and let others carry the conversation while I finished putting my cake together.

The point is, we usually just shut down the entire topic as soon as it’s raised: either by ignoring/failing to respond or by hurriedly excusing ourselves. It is never easy to engage. It is always a hard subject to face. But if we don’t begin by choosing one of those awkward, discomfiting moments to lean into, we never will. Because EVERY such moment is unpleasant. There is NEVER a time when it will be “good” for us. But any time we do, it is beyond good for the survivor.

And the baseline wellbeing of that woman or man or child is more important than any fleeting discomfort I might have at facing a particle of their reality and seeking any small way that I might be able to help.

There is never a “bad time” for me to discuss issues of abuse–even if, realistically speaking, it might take me a little to get back to you about it. I invite you to join me in creating a culture where we tell survivors, “No, it’s not a bad time. What’s going on? How can I help?” And then listen, and listen, and listen.

You may find that, even at its worst, it costs you far less than what it costs survivors when we don’t.

Flat Tire: Officially Published!

This past April I was privileged to have my work accepted for publication by Beyond Words literary magazine. “Flat Tire” received a two-page spread in a particularly handsome issue, to my eye, and I am extremely grateful to see my work appreciated by others well enough to finally find a place in print. Thank you, Beyond Words!

While I’m mentioning this, I must also make a secondary but equally important note: within the April issue, “Flat Tire” is directly followed by a flash fiction piece by another author that rocked me to my core: “The Girl in the Bathtub,” by Francesca Ferrauto. This piece accurately portrays the precise scenario in which my own childhood sexual abuse took place but, astonishingly, manages to convey the truth of the experience without any graphic detail. It revealed myself and my history to me in a way I had never known before, gently, and with hope.

For that, Francesca, I am eternally grateful. Thank you.

Since I do not own the rights to her piece, I cannot reproduce it for you here, but I do recommend you purchase a copy of the April issue (either a digital or hard copy) so you may read “The Girl in the Bathtub” for yourself. It will be well worth your time if you wish to better understand and care for survivors of CSA, and it’s not even too difficult to read, as so many of these things often are.

You don’t need to purchase a copy of Beyond Words in order to read my poem, however; I retain the rights to that myself. I happily reproduce it for you here.

Flat Tire

To my chagrin,
I’m not feminist enough to know how to change a flat.
So I ask Husband what to do,
not because I’m not a feminist
(although I might not be),
but because asking him is cheap.
No response;
so then to the community I encapsulate
(aside from incarnation wrought by Sunday supper)
in my pocket
I pose my S.O.S.
Air conditioner and CD player labor
to appease the puny monarch
in the back seat:
vanity, vanity,
but at least my hair is washed.

While I struggle diaper bag
stroller
water cup
and progeny
to the simmered sidewalk,
it goes (I later suppose)
down like this:
Sarah calls Jenn calls Emily texts Audrey,
Andy calls Husband,
two call me
but I can’t answer;
my hands are full of stroller handlebars.
We thread through weedy concrete banks to follow a river of exhaust.
A naughty branch slaps my baby’s face,
but given no eye to prod back at,
we press on.
Two sweaty Israelites endure a ten-minute desert
with brow-raising grace.
One thrills at the promise of frozen milk sans honey.

I have Jacob of the new testament here with me;
he sees a ladder
chock-full of angels
rising up from their couches and novels and streaming videos,
going down early from their offices
to dirty their fingers in the puddle of rubber on the corner of Spruce and Market.

Milestones

Today marks two milestones:

1. 180 days logged for our first full year of homeschooling, and

2. The last day of classes for my first year back teaching online.

Many parents and teachers were thrown into these scenarios unexpectedly and unwillingly a couple months ago, but they have been our normal for quite a while already. And honestly, we love them.

We love Mondays, when my husband works from home (even long before COVID) so that I can have an hour in class in the middle of the day while he teaches the boys and plays with the baby.

We love singing silly phonics songs together, computing with marbles, writing letters to friends and family, reading books aloud to each other, planting seeds and watering the garden, playing baseball in the basement when it rains, using arithmetic at dinner to count bites of vegetables, studying the legends of St. Patrick, rapping Dr. Seuss, building maps and dungeons with Duplos, inventing every possible mash-up of known fictional characters, practicing piano, and saying “goodbye” at bedtime in Hindi.

We love short lessons, long lessons, cross-curricular learning, small class sizes, and individualized attention that caters to personal interests, which we employ to strengthen personal weaknesses. We get a lot out of bookwork and leave busywork at the wayside. We Skype with our supplemental instructor–Mimi–for story time and show-and-tell. We work on potty training at our own pace and build good habits in a secure environment.

Most importantly, we establish home as a nurturing, safe, warm, welcoming, happy place, where you can really trust the people you’re closest to, and everyone wants to be with each other.

Not because there aren’t days when I want and need not to see a single soul for a few hours.

Not because we don’t fight or drive each other nuts.

Not because everybody always gets what he or she wants, right when we want it.

Not because my husband and I are perfect parents with an endless supply of patience (in fact, my husband will probably tell you I’m one of the most impatient persons he knows).

It’s because we value strong relationships with our kids above almost everything. It’s because we believe doing conflict well is a vital part of building strong relationships. And it’s because we don’t see how to build a solid relational foundation with our children unless at least one of us spends the majority of the day, every day, in close proximity to them when they are little–i.e., under 12.

Most out-schoolers (non-homeschoolers) don’t see the sense of item number 3 there, and most homeschoolers don’t practice values 1 and 2–at least not together, in my anecdotal experience.

So combined, these values make our family pretty weird, though you don’t notice it til I spell it out. But it’s that weirdness that has made quarantine under COVID shockingly easy for us.

Quarantine didn’t use to be easy. And by that, I don’t mean what you think. We’ve only homeschooled seriously for about a year. My own sordid history with isolation precedes that adventure, starting some decades ago.

My parents were religious fundamentalists who rarely attended church. My father was an isolationist, prepper, and serial abuser. We moved endlessly from one state to another until I was 13 years old. Even after that, we never set down roots or grew close to any local community in any real sense. My father preferred no one else influence his thrall over his family, so I and my 6 younger siblings were homeschooled and kept as far apart from the rest of society as he could manage. This meant months at a time of seeing no one outside of ourselves–and my father also estranged us from each other, pitting us against one another and against my mother.

We developed friendships online as best we could and escaped abusive torment through books and video games. All of us developed Stockholm syndrome: home was a trap, and even those who did our best to leave always ended up back there. Even now, with the homestead sold off and the family splintered across the country, most of us have remained in the toxic mental state my dad cultivated in us for decades.

I was so used to home being a painful, broken, destructive place, that when I finally grew up and built my own home with my husband and children, I couldn’t stay there. I couldn’t find rest. I was always leaving–trying to find solace in another family’s home, in running errands, volunteering, going to church, taking walks, playing at the park, going out to eat. The longer I stayed at home, the more I felt threatened.

And yet I still wanted to homeschool my children. A core part of myself knew that homeschooling wasn’t the problem: my parents had been the problem.

Home school, done right, could save my children from the troubles I had faced, and even better than a public or private education outside of our home could. Homeschooling, restored to what it ought to be, could provide them with the close, caring relationship I never had with my parents, and which my own kids could never have if they spend 30-40 hours away from home every week for twelve years.

This meant that I had to reclaim my home. Specifically, my own sense of security and place, within myself, amongst my new family, so that I could leave it as an inheritance to my children.

Building a familiar place of comfort and security from scratch is one thing; building it in the crater of a previous wrecked domicile since blotted from the face of the earth, amidst the rubble and smoking ruin, is another thing entirely.

It was hard. And not just for me.

Yet, when COVID quarantine loomed two months ago, it turned out–to my surprise–that I could actually face it. The slow work had built and built, and then when the time came, I had a final realization–

This wasn’t a quarantine inflicted upon me by one immunocompromised elder solely to protect his health and interests, which is what my dad did. It was, rather, a quarantine I had to elect to take up, one that no one else was going to enforce, and it was for the literal life-saving (non-optional) benefit of thousands.

Home suddenly becomes a lot more welcoming when you realize it is not, in fact, a prison. I had been running from it because I feared staying too long would trap me again. Choosing to stay showed me the freedom I had in that very choice: I cannot be jailed in a place I freely choose to remain. My fear melted in light of this experience.

On top of this, I had previously chosen to build a life at home that focused on the good of others, especially my children, not on all my own personal desires. Following my husband’s example, I had intentionally built into this. The fruits of that labor on both our parts have been nurturing for all of us–and, as it happens, a perfect preparation for COVID.

This is not my parents’ homeschooling.

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” ~Rev. 21:3-5

You might have supposed, as I did, that revisiting a state of quarantine would throw me back into a very bad mental place, since I spent so much of my childhood there (yes–we literally called it quarantine then, too). But this quarantine has been nothing like the other. Speaking personally–I am aware this is NOT true for so many, and I do not downplay that in any way–but for me, this quarantine is–

Far, far easier. Kinder. Simpler. Pleasant–actually fun, in fact. And SAFE.

It has been a huge step forward in my trauma recovery process to redeem this space of home, even this space of quarantine. I never could have asked for that kind of healing, and I didn’t know how much I needed it.

There are many people out there right now who cannot say this because they are trapped in the same kind of quarantine that I lived for years–but it’s worse, because their abusers are using the whole of society against them now, too. At this moment, it is very likely that in the few lingering places where I could always catch a flickering glimpse of hope, they see none.

“I am making all things new.” I came across this verse halfway through college and clung to it. I needed that promise. I needed that hope that things would be different–completely transformed. The prospect of a decade hence felt like a lifetime away, then; in some sense, it was. The journey to get here, however, has been more sure than I ever realized while I was on it.

Homeschooling and quarantine both: God has made them new for us.

So from this place of security, of joy, of contentedness in the transformed life God has given me and my new family–from the place where I can walk through COVID quarantine and not falter at the shadows it casts of a previous life–I reach out to the rest of you lingering in the darkness.

I see you.

I hear you.

You’re not alone.

And, as the Lord leads you, the darkness in your life can propel you, one day, further than you ever imagined into the light.