**Trigger warning: The following post involves the story of a child sex abuse survivor**
You may remember that over the last couple years, I’ve shared blogs in the past either written by or about an unnamed, anonymous friend who suffered extreme sexual violence at the hands of close family for years growing up, the worst of which began at 4 years old when her grandfather first raped her.
Over the last months / year, she’s climbed mountain after mountain and come to a place where she’s ready to speak out loud, to tell the truth of her trauma, without hiding her identity.
This is such a huge and powerful step for anyone who’s endured sexual violence not least because of the shame inextricably tied to victimhood, but also because the victim’s voice is repeatedly stolen. Along with everything else they’re forced to do and participate in, they’re forced to protect their abusers as well.
Culturally, we don’t believe victims. We blame victims. We shame victims. We silence victims. And so they learn to believe the lies and wear the shame like a blanket.
So much of overcoming victimhood is taking back the power to own the story, be the hero, and lay waste the villain.
Here’s Jessy’s story in her own words. Under the light.
I hope you’ll listen closely. I hope you’ll share far and wide so she is heard, and so others like her are given permission to tell their stories in their own voices.
It is better to speak
we were never meant to survive. -Audre Lorde
As one of my favorite writers and thinkers, I often revisit the wisdom and challenge of Audre Lorde. For those unfamiliar, she was a gay black womanist poet, essayist, and activist. You can imagine that she writes with unsurpassable authority on what it means to survive when the very system is stacked against you.
I struggle to use Lorde as the basis of a piece about my own survival because as a white woman, I do not want to co-opt her words to explain my own experience. I can not know what it is to live as a black woman; I can only grasp some of what it means through the subversive power and the heartbreaks in voices of women like Audre. However, I can speak to what it is like to survive in the margins, not just of society, but from the very foundations of life and family.
In her essay, ‘The Transformation of Silence Into Action,’ she states, “In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear — fear of contempt, of censure, of some judgment, or recognition of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.” I read this in juxtaposition with her great poem “A Litany for Survival,” and I see myself “at the shoreline standing upon the constant edges of decision crucial and alone….”
AND it’s in these vast oceans of silence, where I’ve made an art of survival.
You see, I was born into a system, a family, whose very history is fraught with the most insidious abuses; kept in the secret and in the dark. When you come into a world like that, you lose your power and your voice before you can even walk. Even as I took my first steps and learned my first words, how was I to know that a monster would step out of a closet and snuff out my life before it began?
Beginning at the age of four and lasting for the next eight years, every last breath of my life was raped from me. Even when the actual terror stops, you do not just go on living. There is no life after such horror, only what existed before and the fragments of who is left after. AND the truth is if there was anything left of you, in a system like that, you become the problem because your very existence exposes every other piece. BUT you grow silent and numb, because even if only in physical existence, you learn to survive any way you can.
So I fought. I spoke up. I became disruptive. I self-destructed. There’s only so much a child can do, and eventually I bought into the lies that I was the problem. So I grew silent. I feared more loss; I’d already lost so much. I knew the truth: you can’t live apart from community, and in systems such as this, you believe there is no one else. I did what I had to to do to make it through and in so doing, lost every last piece of myself.
Despite some achievements that on the surface point to one who’s overcome, a closer look reveals an ugly truth: I scratch the surface of my pain and realize that fear and heartache still controls my every move, and I wonder if I will ever be free.
As I consider how the treacherous conundrum of the past can be navigated, I turn back to Audre Lorde. From her essay, ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury,’ she argues “when we view living only as a problem to be solved, we then rely solely upon our ideas to make us free.” She goes on to say in one powerful passage that it is not in the “drug” of a new idea that saves, but instead the creative, liberative power of feelings shared and voiced in community that brings about freedom. “I feel therefore I can be free.”
In her powerful words, I see a call to freedom not necessarily in things actively getting better, though one hopes, but in letting out our hearts cries. Mine: I am not a problem to be solved, but a woman worthy of love and worth being heard in a world built to drown me in silence. I know the road is fraught with peril when speaking truth over and against a system meant to break you. However, there will be other voices, too, who come along side and join in “for all of us this instant and this triumph” who also were never meant to survive.
In our society we are often expected to just get over our grief or look past the abuses committed against us. What’s done is done. Just focus on the positive. But the truth is sometimes we face impossible losses; however, we can gain a new level of awareness just by shining a little light in. In turn, we begin to see through the cracks.
I don’t know that I hold fully to redemption, at least in the narrative that wholeness or healing after such horrific trauma can ever be attained. However, I do think it occurs in the smaller, mundane moments of living. I find it in: the first notes of a songbird after the quiet of a long winter, the frail purple bloom of a flower emerging from the cold hard ground, in the soft, knowing eyes of a horse or a cat, running and getting lost on deep forest trails, listening to music, playing cards with a client or painting a room with a friend. All restore a sense of connection and okayness in a world that often makes us feel less than.
AND therein lies the crux of what I’ve come to believe. If we do not allow ourselves to feel whatever it is we need to feel we lose ourselves. If we listen to the voices that tell us how we should act or to keep silent never speaking the truth of our existence, then we can only always be our fear. We lose out on the very things we desire like love and friendship. AND if we were never meant to survive as “A Litany for Survival” so eloquently posits, then we must speak our truths, no matter how devastating. We learn to sit with others in their pain. We drop our expectations of who we think they should be or how they should act because none of us know who we would be in the face of such ruin. Instead, their song becomes our song and we lift our voices together.
A Litany for Survival
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
looking inward and outward
at once before and after
seeking a now that can breed futures
like bread in our children’s mouths
so their dreams will not reflect
the death of ours:
For those of us
who imprinted with fear
like a faint line in the center of our foreheads
learning to be afraid with our mother’s milk
for by this weapon
this illusion of some safety to be found
the heavy-footed hoped to silence us
For all of us
this instant and this triumph
We were never meant to survive.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive
Husband and I have now been married for ten years.
Over the past ten years, I’ve been contemplating and collecting thoughts about what I’d say if and when Paul and I reached the Decade marker in our marriage. I decided a while ago that if we made it to ten years we’d be a Legit Married Couple. Because listen: Ten years is a long time, and a lot of shit comes up over that time. I figured if we made it ten years, we’d have some Real advice to give young couples on what to expect from marriage, and what to do when the bottom falls out (because it will).
I have many stories to tell.
About the highest points on the tallest mountains and the glory of the Lookout. About the coldness and darkness and loneliness and hopelessness of the super dark and terrifying valley when it feels like death is poisoning your marriage.
So many stories.
Lucky for you, I’ve boiled ten years down to three major points and some light housekeeping.
Oh. And quick aside: While I don’t presume every married couple are Jesus followers, for those who are, everything I’m about to say is predicated on the assumption that Jesus is True North on your compass. Your spouse is with you on the adventure through this meandering jungleous territory; Jesus is your guide. You’re partners following One.
So the Superseding Point Above All: Keep Jesus as your one and only God. Do not make your spouse your god, or you will be grievously disappointed and ruined. Seriously. Don’t do it.
1. ON FIGHTING: Nobody tells you this – or maybe it’s just that nobody told ME this – but it’s important, maybe most important: At some point, you will have such a massive fight, a colossal, feels-earth-shattering falling out, that you will think you’re the only couple in the history of all time to ever fight like this or deal with this kind of scandal. It will make you believe your marriage is different; that it is so deeply and irrevocably flawed that it cannot survive. You will look at couples around you and think, “Sure, we all argue and fight and have our shit. But only we are facing this.”
Listen to me. Take this in, and hold it close. This is your life jacket, okay?
You’re not the first to fight like this.
You’re not the only ones dealing with this.
You’re not the first to wonder if your marriage can survive it.
You are not alone.
And most importantly: This is normal.
Literally every couple comes to a point where they’re like, “Are you kidding me? This cannot be normal? This cannot be something every couple deals with. That cannot be real.”
But it is, and that is so important to remember because it will help you to not give up.
Every couple has or will be here, and so, so, so, so, so many have come through it not only alive, but stronger. Not only that, so, so, so, so, so many couples have survived worse. So trust me: You can survive this, whatever your this is.
That’s not to say it’s healthy. It’s almost definitely not healthy (unless you’re one of those couples who argues really sweetly slash doesn’t argue at all and then you have a minor little spat and you’re like OH MY GOSH WHO DID I MARRY!? Then your arguments are healthy but – and I say this with all sincerity – your lack of fighting my be unhealthy. But anyway…).
The thing is, don’t be afraid of fights. And don’t be afraid to ask for help when the fighting gets out of hand. All marriages need counseling at some point. Call a therapist. Don’t be ashamed to do that. In fact, keep one on call. If you’re willing to see a doctor for a general preventative health maintenance, be willing to see a therapist for marital health.
And keep one on call for yourself too.
2. ON BABIES: So the fear is that everything is going to change when you have a baby, right? That your sex life is gonna disappear. Women fear the disappearance of their bodies. Men fear… well I don’t know what men fear, but I bet they fear the disappearance of their wives. Both fear the disappearance of their marriage. Or at least, what it was.
This is the true thing I can tell you: All of that is real. Everything, and I mean everything, is going to change.
Your sex life is going to be way different than it ever was before. You’re gonna have less of it. It’s gonna have to be quieter (unless you’re creepy and think it’s fun to make your kids listen to you having sex. In which case, as I keep saying, hire a therapist.) Sometimes, maybe most of the time, you’re gonna have to schedule when to do it. Seriously. And that’s okay.
You’re not gonna be sleeping anymore. Baby is gonna wake you up at all hours of the night, and it’s not gonna stop when she’s in her own room, because nightmares happen and noises happen and sick happens and kids who want to cuddle with mom and dad happen.
Spousal needs are gonna go to the back burner for a bit, not because they’re less important but because they’re less immediate. A hungry baby has to eat. A kid’s broken foot needs medical attention on date night. Stuff just… comes up.
So your marriage isn’t gonna get quite as much attention as it did before kids. You spouses won’t get as much of each other’s attention as you did before kids. Time will need to be shared. Dating will have to be a deliberate thing you do. But the time you save for each other will be better, more quality time.
But listen to me: When I say everything changes, it changes for the better. If and when you choose to have kids, it will strengthen your marriage, because you’ll be partners in raising this little human that was literally made from Love. You won’t ever want to go back. You may look back on pre-kid days and remember them as joyful, fun, spontaneous days that you loved and are so glad you had. (And please. Please please please take time for your marriage, because that Just Us time is holy.) But you will never want to go back.
Unless you had a baby to fix your marriage.
Don’t ever be so stupid as to try and fix your broken or breaking marriage by having a baby. Instead of having a baby, HAVE A THERAPIST. I am so serious about this.
If you have a baby to fix a broken marriage, your baby will not fix your broken marriage. Instead, your broken marriage will break your baby. Don’t do that.
Now, once you’ve had your amazing baby and everything has changed…
Show each other affection often, and in front of your kids.
Gross them out.
Make them go “ewwwwww! Get a room you guys!”
Be good wives and husbands because your kids are learning how to love and be loved by a Lover by watching you.
And here is the Truest Truth I’ve ever heard, and my daddy told it to me long ago:
The most important gift you can give your kids is love for each other.
So always, always put each other first.
Your kids don’t need to be your sun and stars, the thing you orbit around and hang on for Life.
Plus, putting kids at the center is way too much pressure for them.
They need to be free to hang on you.
Don’t ever hang on them. Ever. Ever ever ever.
Also, your kids don’t need stuff; they need stability.
And speaking as one whose parents literally went through hell and back a dozen times over some pretty major things, I know this is True.
Your child doesn’t need a fancy house or organic food or the best schools or financial stability, though those are all nice things.
They need their parents.
Stable marriages make stable parents make stable kids.
3. ON EVERYTHING ELSE:
Love each other fiercely.
Be unwaveringly selfless.
And be the first to apologize. Don’t wait for your spouse to say she or he is sorry first.
There will be times when you feel like your spouse is walking all over you. Demanding or expecting too much. You will feel like you’re giving, giving, giving and receiving nothing in return.
Sometimes that feeling will reflect what’s actually truly happening.
Keep on giving.
This may be an unpopular point, but I believe it with everything in me:
Lay yourself down for your spouse.
Let yourself be walked on.
If there is one person in your life who deserves to walk on the softer ground of your back or belly, rather than the rocky ground beneath you, it’s the person you’ve given your life to, and who’s given their life to you.
Be willing to give up your comfort; be willing even to be pained and splintered to spare them the pain and splinters.
You can do this thing.
It is hard and painful and awful, and it bears the most wonderful fruit.
Do not punish or resent your spouse for having a bad day, week, month, or season.
Instead, be their respite. Their resting place. Their safe place to be broken and hurt.
Be the place where they can be their absolute worst, while you remain your absolute best.
Also, don’t be the reason they’re having a bad day, week, month, or season.
When push comes to shove (not physically – don’t ever tolerate physical violence or aggression; Duh.)…
When you’re at the point where you cannot give any more of yourself to your spouse, and they cannot give anything more to you, pour into your marriage.
Because this union is holy. It is sacred.
When you can’t be For Each Other, you can be For Your Marriage.
Don’t say mean things.
Focus on small things because small things become big things that are way bigger than Big Gestures.
Do the big gestures sometimes, but not always, or they’ll become meaningless.
Drink morning coffee together.
Kiss each other hello and goodbye.
Say “I Love You” often.
Say “I was wrong” often.
Make dinner together.
Go on dates.
Make out in the car and in the shower.
Smile at each other.
Talk about real things.
Strive to understand rather than to be understood.
Undress in front of each other, and praise each other’s bodies.
Don’t entertain the thought of any other person. (The grass is never actually greener, okay?)
Make long, exhaustive lists of each others strengths,
Highlight them often,
Add to the list daily,
DO NOT MAKE LISTS OF ANYTHING ELSE.
(Get me here? No record keeping, people. Do not keep records of wrongs.)
Watch movies you don’t want to watch just because your spouse likes them.
Look at each other across a crowded room, and wink.
Praise each other in front of other people.
Never, ever, ever mock or degrade one another in front of other people.
Create the kind of marriage you want your kids to have when they’re grown up.
And don’t give up.
Don’t give up.
Don’t give up.
Don’t give up.
It was steaming hot, delicious, and perfectly sugared and creamed.
He brought it to me at 9:45am, after having gotten up with Eli at 7:30am.
That’s right – he let me sleep in. Til 9:45am.
I know, right? I’m one lucky broad.
I say all this like it doesn’t happen every day.
I’m serious people:
Paul gets up with Eli each morning, letting me sleep in like a pathetic college kid, and waking me up to the half-gone day between 9:30a-10:00a with a steaming cup of coffee Every.Single.Day.
I’m not telling you all this to brag. I mean, I totally could be bragging, and I’d be right to do so. My husband loves me well in these small ways every.single.day.
I’m telling you all this because lately, I’ve been a horrible wife. I’ve been keeping records of his wrongs.
Like, it makes me so mad when he empties and refills the dishwasher, but neglects to wipe down the counters and stove.
It drives me bonkers when, after cooking my favorite meal – asiago cheese egg-in-the-hole bagels with bacon – he doesn’t wipe the table off, and leaves the dishes in the sink instead of taking them to the dishwasher.
Want to know what really drives me mad? When he takes his sweater off at bedtime – so he can comfortably curl up next to me – and throws that sweater on the otherwise clean and clear floor.
And good lord, when I come home from a 10-mile-run during which I enjoyed an hour and a half of uninterrupted “me” time while you solo-parented our child, would you please not ask me how it went? Geez!
You can punch me in the face now.
One night, after a fight, I went to sleep in the other bedroom. Not necessarily because I didn’t want to sleep with him (though I didn’t), but because my mind was racing a million miles a minute, and I needed to get clear. So I googled stupid things like, “What to do when your husband doesn’t appreciate you.”
[Before you go any further, just know that I am keenly aware of the incredible irony of my previous sentence.]
I stumbled across this blog. The author tells about how, when she told her mom she wanted to leave her husband, her mom said, “Do this first: Make two lists. The first should be a list of ‘everything that makes him impossible to live with’.” She assumed the other list should be of his good qualities. But instead, her mom said to write down opposite of her grievances all the ways she responded to them. Then, her mom said tear the sheet in half and throw his side away. She was to reflect on HER side of the paper.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
Then, yesterday my husband – the very one who makes me coffee each and every.single.day after letting me sleep in, and who usually takes that morning time to do the one chore I absolutely hate doing (dishes – you know, when he fails to wipe down counters. Ugh.) – shared this blog from Business Insider, declaring that, scientifically speaking anyway, the one thing that practically guarantees marital bliss or destruction is kindness. Are you kind to your spouse? When he invites you into an intimate moment – whether it’s about a bird chirping or snow falling or a funny video or a job frustration or straight-up sex – do you turn toward him, listen to him, affirm him? Or do you turn away? Do you ignore him, or worse, make him feel like he shouldn’t have bothered because you just don’t care?
Turns out, marriages that last are always built and nurtured by two kind and generous people.
And recently, anyway, there’s really only been one kind and generous person in my marriage.
The other one has been a raging bitch.
I’ve held him to these impossible standards and unrealistic expectations. I’ve kept a tally of minor grievances, even making shit up when the list isn’t long enough to match my unreasonable and disproportionate rage, while failing utterly to notice the myriad ways he loves me so well Every.Single.Day.
Whatever list I may be able to make of his “wrongs” – which, I’m sure you’ve noticed, are *just so horrible* (she said, tongue dripping of sarcasm) – the corresponding list of my responses is dastardly.
I wrote him an email at 1:30am this morning to tell him I’ve made the right list. That I’m trying.
That he’s a good lover, a champion friend, and a faithful and long-suffering teacher of generosity and kindness.
That he deserves to be noticed, acknowledged, hugged, kissed, thanked, seen, heard… every.single.day.
I apologized for being a demon woman.
And I told him I would have asked for his forgiveness if I thought for even a second that he hadn’t already forgiven me.
But he had.
And he does.
“It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
– Phil Robertson, in GQ Magazine
1) Dear LGBTQ Friends of mine. You are not less-than.