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.

National Drug of Choice

TW: descriptions of substance abuse

Fear is America’s drug of choice, and I’m a user.

This year I’ve come to realize how little fear aligns itself with any one political party. An equal-opportunity motivator, it has served as primary rhetoric on both sides of the aisle for the past four years.

I watch people promote Trump out of fear. I watch people promote Biden out of fear. I do see people supporting those two candidates for reasons other than fear, sure. However, the most vocal supporters I know are bound together by fear. The only thing that distinguishes them lies in the particular things they are afraid of.

Abortion. ICE. Socialism. Nationalism. Human trafficking. Drug trafficking. Economic ruin. Economic oppression. Social rights. Religious rights.

Something about each of these feeds our addiction to fear, regardless of our preferred delivery mechanism (blue or red syringe?).

I have repeatedly heard Christians lament the absence of simple civility, let alone love, in our political discourse and policy debates. I feel the same–but I’ve come to realize that an shortage of love oughtn’t surprise us when so much fear has inundated our faculties. Christians are called to better, but not even a God-fearing addict can live out the Gospel while indulging his habit. Ultimate hope remains even for this fellow–

“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire….” (1 Cor. 3)

–but he loses much. So have we.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4)

We cannot experience or share the fulfillment and security found in love so long as we are full of fear. Here we are, a nation subscribed to fear. Not a single Pandora’s box, but an endless monthly subscription. We can’t bear to go without it. No wonder the love designed to define us has grown scarce. Little demand; little supply.

One of the most discouraging parts about all this is that even when we receive our hoped-for outcome, the fear driving our efforts doesn’t go away. If anything, it increases. We now become afraid of losing what we’ve striven so hard to gain. Attaining the supposed solution for our fear does nothing so much as create more of it.

We are becoming best known for our fear-worship, across the board. We never had to settle for that. We still don’t. The alternative is so much better.

“By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.” (Ibid)

I’d rather be associated with Christ–like Christ–than affiliated with any political party, policy, or person.

“If anyone says, ‘I love God,”’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (Ibid)

Don’t worry: I’m guilty as charged, too. I’ve been so afraid of so many of you.

But I don’t have to be. I have access to love that casts out all fear. Tomorrow, and in the weeks ahead, I pray God refocuses me solidly on that.

“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (Ibid)

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.