Thursday, February 26, 2015

PULLING BACK THE SHADES OF DARKNESS: ENDURING AND OVERCOMING A SEXUALLY VIOLENT MARRIAGE

The following is a guest post written by a survivor of domestic violence and emotional abuse. I offered my blog as a safe place where she could tell her story in graphic detail without identifying herself or her family publicly. For those readers who have no personal experience with abusive behavior, we hope to raise awareness, as well as heighten understanding and sensitivity for other victims and survivors.

You may not be aware of this but, statistically, we can almost assure you that you know someone who carries hidden wounds they may never feel comfortable enough to reveal to you. After reading this, we hope you'll be better able to understand why sharing is so hard and takes such courage.

For those of you who have experienced the anguish of abuse personally or have been devastated by the victimization of a loved one, our goal is to offer hope, encouragement and empathy. We want you to know that you not only can survive and make a fresh start, you can triumph over the wounds of abuse and use your experiences to help others. We want you to know you're not alone. We stand with you against domestic violence. And we care deeply about you and your pain.

And now you will hear from the heart of a true survivor... 

*****

I stand at the kitchen sink, washing dishes for what seems like the thousandth time today.  I have just gotten the kids to bed and am trying to relax my thoughts. I am desperately trying not to focus on an earlier conversation; trying not to worry about what is going to happen tonight, attempting to block the memory of his earlier promise. 

I think back over the day, starting with his list of ever growing “expectations.” Each day he assigns tasks for me to finish before he gets home.  Today, I have completed most of them.  But, alas, most is never enough or acceptable.  I reflect on the last time I didn’t get it all done.  It was bad.  Will he understand that one child was running a high fever, resulting in a doctor appointment and my waiting forever for the pharmacy to fill the prescription?  Will he make any allowance for the valuable hours I can’t get back?  Cranky, sick babies meant shorter than usual naptimes.  I was never able to catch back up.  Will he even give me a chance to explain? 

My stomach is in knots.  He should be home by now. 

When he finally arrives, dinner is not quite ready.  Abandoned toys are scattered on the floor.  The TV is on, maybe a little loud, as a last ditch effort to occupy little minds while I get dinner on the table.  It was meatloaf night, his favorite.  At least that would buy me a few points.  The door opens.  My heart pounds with anxiety, then sinks heavy in my chest.  He walks up behind me while I'm at the stove cooking, sneaks his hand up my shirt and whispers, “You’re late.  You will make it up to me."

I quickly apologize. “It’ll only be another 5 minutes or so.  I am really sorry.  The baby was sick today, and…”

“You aren’t sorry.  But I promise you will be," he says with anticipation in his eyes.

Dinner is cooked to perfection.  The kids eat well; there is even some cheerful conversation at the table.  But I see that expression.  I know it too well.  It isn’t one of happiness. He’s displeased, simmering in his anger.  It is all my fault.  And he doesn’t even know yet what tasks I didn’t finish. 

Dinner is over.  I realize I have hardly eaten.  The kids are done, though. So I get them ready for bed and tuck them in.  They go down easily. I feel a twinge of hope that I may be able to complete those unfinished tasks. 

I finish washing dishes.  The floor is clean, toys are put away.  The house looks really good considering my eventful, rushed day.  I feel relieved that the only thing I have left to accomplish is the shower I skipped this morning.  Showering used to be such a peaceful experience.  But now, even my hygiene habits are scrutinized.  I better get on it, though. 

Has he even noticed? 

Walking through the bedroom to the bathroom, he doesn’t seem to notice my presence.  Trying to rush, I quickly get in the shower, being careful not to miss anything as I cleanse my body.  My mind races. Thoughts and fears run through my mind. I made him mad.  I know he will be making sure my body is just how he wants it, and he is utterly precise with how he wants it.  I hate that I can’t even control this part of who I am.  When I shave, what I shave, what gets plucked, what gets left....  Why is this so important? 

Halfway through my shower, the door opens.  His anger is palpable, even though I can’t see his face.  “This should have been done first.  My needs come first. Your body is my body.  You know I want you to take care of it.  Why did you think it could wait?  What was more important than making me happy?” 

By now, the curtain is pulled wide open.  He is glaring at me.  The smell of alcohol is repulsive on his breath; it makes me sick to my stomach.  The implication of impending trouble makes me tremble.  As usual, I stand there naked, vulnerable, and trying to think carefully about what to say next, knowing anything I say might be twisted and used against me as a weapon. I think hard before actually forming any words.  And once again, my brief hesitation is too long.  An icy stream of water suddenly sprays my body as he commands,  “Answer me next time I speak to you. “

I smile at him, a slow cautious smile, trying to conceal my despair.  I slowly reach down, hoping he will allow me to turn up the temperature of the water.  He grabs my arm, stopping me.  “If you had wanted a hot shower, you should have taken one first, like I asked you to.  You must’ve wanted to give me a show, deciding to wait for me.  I love the way it looks when it’s cold.  Especially because I get to warm it up later.” 

While I finish my shower, I pray my heart isn’t visibly pounding.  I try to conceal emotion.  I try not to imagine and worry over what might be awaiting me when I get out.  I hate nights like this.  This is not where I want to be or what I want to be doing. I wonder: How in the world do I make it all stop?  All my attempts to stand up to him have failed me.  I feel powerless, weak, and defenseless against his tactics and mind games.  The worst part?  It's as if he knows me better than I know myself and can predict my next move, stopping me before I can even think it through. Being constantly toyed with mentally and emotionally is exhausting and leaves me feeling like I'm being driven insane. 

The water stops.  My shower is over.  Not because I am finished, but because his enjoyment of watching and tormenting me is over. Mounting frustration becomes evident on his face.  As if suddenly deciding to be a gentleman, he hands me a towel.  As I start to take it, he changes his mind and unfolds it.  “Let me do this for you, as you obviously have other things on your mind than taking care of the things I need.”  I know better than to tell him that I can do it myself, or even that I am sorry. 

The last time I told him no is still vivid in my mind.  I had to cover up rope burn on my wrists and ankles for weeks, in addition to what he did to me while I couldn’t fight.  I don’t have the energy to do that again. 

He takes the towel, rubbing it across my back.  Surprisingly gentle, he continues across my stomach.  I’m watching him, his expressions, thinking that maybe I’ve misunderstood.  Maybe he isn’t mad like he was last time.  I start to breathe deeply, willing myself to calm down.  Relax, I tell myself.  Maybe this is his peace offering; a romantic gesture, a decision to show love and affection.  

As my body relaxes, he gently moves my hair off of my neck and whispers, “You aren’t getting off that easily.  You didn’t do what I asked.  You need to be punished.” At this moment, his tender touch becomes savagely harsh.  He takes the towel and starts vigorously rubbing the tender folds between my legs.  The friction on bare skin quickly becomes uncomfortable.  As the discomfort increases, I attempt to move away.  But he grabs me firmly by my arm and commands, “Don’t move.“ The towel continues to intensify the painful friction. That moment of tenderness that provided momentary hope is long gone.  This hurts.  I’m weary.  I’m tired.  I don’t want to do this.  I start to step out of the shower, but he stops me with a firm yank of my hair and his orders:  “I said no.  Do not move.”

You see, I’ve pushed past this point before.  I’ve said no.  I’ve begged and pleaded.  I've tried to bribe him by offering to perform "tasks" less emotionally draining.  And I genuinely meant what I said when I said "No."  The consequences for my actions only seem to get worse over time.  So I carefully choose my words in this moment, knowing what he wants to hear: “I want to make you happy, I know you are upset with my disrespect.  My feet are slippery though, and I’m going to slip if I can’t put my feet on dry floor.” That is the truth, partially.  I do want to make him happy.  I desperately want to make him happy, fix him, save him from whatever hell he is living in.  Above all other desires in life, I simply want a happy husband, a happy marriage, a happy family. 

He helps me out of the shower, and resituates himself.  He moves me closer to him, and starts up with the towel again.  “Does this make you happy?” he asks.  I pause.  I can’t lie.  He’ll know.  I sigh, “It hurts, babe.” It was barely audible, and yet just loud enough that I regret it immediately.  While there is no verbal response, his grip on my breast increases to the point of pain. It is not a loving or sensual caress, but the intentional infliction of pain meant to crumble my will. 

The towel-rubbing increases in speed.  I am inflamed and raw.  I feel like skin is being ripped off of those incredibly sensitive areas.  Turns out, skin is being ripped apart.  At some point in all of this, which feels like an eternity of time to me, I make the decision to pretend I am aroused.  I know he doesn’t want me to feel good.  When it feels good for me, he stops because my pleasure provides no sexual benefit or arousal for him.  He smirks. “I told you that you liked it.  Go to the bed.  You’ll really like that.” 

Failure to comply is not an option.  One tender piece of my breast is clasped between his hands in a tight pinch.  His grip is not lessening as we walk toward the bed.  He directs me with his hand to move there.  I sit on the edge.  I try so hard to appear brave.  In control.  Not afraid of what is coming.  Truth is, I’ve never been successful at hiding my emotions. 

“Aww, babe, why do you look afraid of me?” He’s taunting me.  Baiting me.  Seeing whether or not I will say what he wants me to say.  We’ve done all this before.  If I admit I am afraid, he will do something to make me more afraid.  I will not do that this time because I am genuinely afraid of what more he could possibly come up with. 

“I’m not afraid of you," I say dishonestly. "I am just worried about what you have planned for tonight.  I want to make you happy ... make love to you, the way we used to.”  He laughs.  “Oh, don’t worry.  I’ll make love.  I’ll be gentle," as his grip on my breast tightens.  His fingers are then quickly inserted inside of me, feeling for something to grasp; pinching, plunging and probing, as though I am an empty space, just waiting to be occupied. 

“Gentle enough?” he asks mockingly. Pain pierces through my insides. 

He releases his grip on me, pushing me back further on the bed.  “Get up! On your knees!” 

I know fighting is useless.  He doesn’t care what lengths he has to go to, as long as he gets the expected response.  I do as he says, feeling his hands tighten around my wrists, knowing within seconds I will be unable to free myself.  I feel the all too familiar pieces of cloth that will be put over my eyes and in my mouth, reminding me my comfort and safety is of no concern to him, and that I should have tried harder to do what he wanted. 

Feeling ashamed, I believe I deserve what is coming next.  He pushes me down, face first into a pillow.  I can feel tears forming.  I hate myself for not being able to suppress them.  The tears will only make it worse.  I know too well how my tears empower him and remind me of how powerless I am at the same time.  He knows once the tears start, I have given up -- that I have lost the energy and will to fight him. 

The slaps to my backside begin promptly, picking up speed and force.  He rubs my back, chuckling, “That’s what you like, huh?”  The pain becomes intense, insistent, demanding to be felt.  I can feel my skin smarting, throbbing. Then sadness falls over me, because I know this is only his warmup. 

His fingers are suddenly probing every available space, asserting his superiority and control, conveying to me that even these most private areas of my body aren’t really mine, but his.  He knows I hate the thought of him penetrating me like this, that it makes me feel like an animal, instead of his wife.  Exploited doesn’t even begin to describe what I feel.  I know I am no more than an object to him. I don't get to be a person with feelings and preferences. Not tonight. Not ever.

“Will you behave tomorrow?” A long low laugh accompanies his question. “That’s right.  You can’t talk.  You told me you didn’t like me or what I was doing.  No more talking for you tonight.” 

Another pause.  Something different is then inserted into my already aching body.  Pain radiates through me, as something else fills the rest of my insides.  He positions the devices he is using on me.  He loves the feeling of power he experiences in knowing that I can’t stop him, and he adjusts them often to increase discomfort.  I start to cry. 

I don’t know what else I can do to show him that I am sorry.  Over the years, I have learned nothing works.  Begging only seems to build him up and feed the monster in him.  But I am so desperate, I am almost ready to take that chance.  Then, breaking the silence, he says,  “I think this week, I’m gonna find some buddies who would like to have a little fun with you.  Or maybe you’d prefer some women?  I bet they could make you happy, huh?”  I shake my head.  I’m done.  I just want out.  I want him to do whatever he is going to do and be done. I just need to get this night behind me. 

The spanking becomes different.  He is using something now.  My shoulders ache.  My backside throbs.  It continues. No slowing down.  I am angry at myself for messing up again.  I am frustrated because nothing I do is ever good enough.  I am such a screw-up, I think to myself.  I start to feel resentment because I didn’t even get a chance to explain the chaos that was my day! Then, anxiety and fear -- that he will feel my emotion -- overwhelm the resentment as I remind myself I will pay for that too.  Finally, defeat. 

I start to think about how in the world I got here, to this completely out of control moment.  How much longer can I do this?  I start to zone out. This has started to become my survival tactic.  I just go someplace else.  I think about everything except what is going on. My mind detaches from the torture my body is enduring.

And then he abruptly stops, which causes me to jump in panic because I don’t know how long I have wandered off into this mental abyss.  The sweeping pain reconnects my mind with the rest of my body.  My body feels as though it is on fire.  Then, finally, he decides he can’t wait any longer.  One hand reaches for the ties that restrain my hands in a way that almost feels as if he wants to hold hands.  His other hand squeezes my breast so tightly that I gasp. 

I can feel him intensifying his violent thrusts inside of me.  Getting close.  Praying I make it through one more night of this. Thinking I’d rather die than go through this again.  His urgency tells me it’s almost over. Then I feel him pull out, spraying himself all over my body.  Within seconds of finishing, he frees me.  He looks at me, full of disgust, and says “You’re pathetic.  Clean yourself up, and this mess, too.  You disgust me.  Get it right tomorrow.  I’m going to bed.” 

My body aches.  Yet, inside I feel raw. 

Drained.  Emotionless.  I feel completely empty and alone. 

I know I deserved his wrath.  I didn’t do what he wanted. I knew better. I should have tried harder. If only I had just made him happier.  I look at myself with disgust.  Failure.  I see the shell of this person who can’t even speak for herself. 

While cleaning up at least a dozen beer cans, along with the rest of his rage from the night, I think that there has got to be more than this. Can I really do this the rest of my life?  It doesn’t seem like I have any other choice.  By the time I’m done in the shower, he is passed out and snoring.  And I am a mess.  I am reduced to a defeated, pathetic, piece of crap mess.  I crawl into bed, praying tomorrow won’t be a repeat of today. 

Sadly, this night is a vivid memory.  Although not the worst of my nights with him, but the one I remember most often.  It was the lowest moment for me in my marriage.  I had given up. 

This isn’t the work of an author’s imagination, but something I lived -- day in, day out -- for almost 9 years.  When I say I feel like the main character in 50 Shades of Grey, I don’t mean the romanticized version of abuse that E.L. James writes about.  I mean the real life of an abused woman.  A slave.  An object.  Someone who is told they are worthless, then tied up, humiliated, raped and beaten to prove it. 

I have not read the books in their entirety and I do not intend to subject myself to that, even if that's what it takes to have credibility with some.  I have read brief quotes and researched the storyline.  I spent almost a decade with my spouse/abuser, and I know that this na├»ve young woman, Anastasia Steele, walks through confusion, fear, demeaning treatment that isolates and grooms her for the needs of her abuser, who is the same man she loves.  I know intimately the feelings of worthlessness.  And yet, I am also well-acquainted with the belief that there is no alternative but compliance, to "choose" to love him through the pain. After all, you are his only hope.  You are the only one who knows him well enough to know he is worth saving. You stay because you know him and because you love him -- because somewhere deep inside him, you cling to the belief that there is a heart capable of returning your love.  So you want to show him you love him enough to stay, even when the incomprehensible happens.  Even when you start to think you’d rather die than live another day with him...you stay.  But the endurance of abuse will never be the making of a fairytale ending (like the novels).

Of course, it never starts out looking like abuse, which is part of what makes you stay.  It does, in fact, start out like any typical love story.  Kind words, sweet gestures, incredible dates, shared secrets and promises of happiness.  You fall.  And you fall hard.  I was raised in a very strict church.  The woman loves the man, respects him, fears him, submits to him.  No matter what.  So, I thought this was part of the "for worse," and that every marriage would be like this. 

You see, we were young.  He was my first everything.  First love.  First date.  First kiss.  He rocked my world.  I didn’t believe in divorce. I was determined my marriage would not end like my parents’ marriage.  Two years into the marriage, he tried to strangle me.  It was as close to death as I ever want to see again.  I left.  Quite briefly, though, as I was told to return to the marriage or risk my salvation.  There was no room for divorcees in heaven.  I returned, determined it was going to be better. I convinced myself that my love and effort could result in him becoming a loving husband.

That other reason I stayed, you ask?  Fear.  Fear of the unknown.  What if his threats aren’t empty? What if he can and will fulfill them?  Fear that no one will want damaged goods, that I’ll never find someone better.  That I'll end up alone. 

The night I returned after our separation felt like a fairy tale. I forgave him for trying to strangle me.  He cooked dinner for me, rubbed my back and cleaned the kitchen.  I felt safe and secure.  We moved on to our bedroom, as expected.  We were talking about dreams and goals, and one thing led to another. 
When I recall these memories, I am in the moment as if it's happening again. That's why I often write in the present tense...
He is there, on top of me, whispering sweet nothings in my ear.  Then, pushes up just a little, so he can see my face, and says, “If you ever, and I mean ever, try that shit again, you’ll be dead.  You try it.  Take my child from me again and I will kidnap our child and leave the country.  You’ll never be seen again.”  Then, as if he had said nothing, he continued with his kind words.  These threats continue and increase.  They are not forgotten.  They are built upon. 

And then there is the shame.  Early on in our marriage, he decided he was “bored.” Told me in a relaxed conversation he was thinking about bringing home another girl to have some fun with.  Shocked, I asked if he was breaking up with me.  His response was casual, stating that he didn’t intend to leave me out of the fun, but that I was to join it. Thankfully, that never happened.  

That was when the subtle signs of his desire for more sexual dominance had first entered the picture.  When I felt like it was scary, or out of my control, he told me he would always stop if I said no, and that he never wanted to actually hurt me, just make my adrenaline rush a little.  He asked if I would sign a piece of paper (legally binding) confirming that the sex was consensual, just because he didn’t want anyone overhearing and getting arrested.  It was weird.  But I was young, in love, didn’t understand what he was asking.  I signed.  And he never ever let me forget it, threatening often to tell both our families what I like to do in the bedroom. 

At first, his play wasn’t anything more than a little rougher than normal sex, holding my hands above my head, or a few swats on the backside, but nothing I recognized as signs of abuse.  I was able to embrace it as playful.  Maybe it was a little rough, but nothing that scared me.  As years passed, his expectations increased, as did the playing.  When I would object, he would withhold attention, conversation, sex, and money from me.  Each time I tried to resist his demands, he wore me down.  He knew I needed him more than he needed me.  What started out as a way to appease him ended up in brutal rape.  What started out as him telling me I was naughty eventually ended in him swatting me in front of his family, while making comments like, “She likes it rough.  You should see what she’s like in the bedroom!”  It was demeaning.  Humiliating.  And so gradual I didn’t even see it happening. 

The difficult part is, for a healthy couple, exploring “scenarios” in the bedroom might sound like a fun way of igniting passion, breaking up monotony.  And for a healthy couple, it might be fine.  What I want to emphasize is that in a healthy relationship, boundaries are respected, emotional needs (as well as physical) are met, and the “game” ends when the couple opens the door and leaves the bedroom. The domination doesn’t force its way into every aspect of life.  Figuratively speaking, my door never opened and I never escaped the domination.  This game didn’t stop when the door was unlocked and the world could see in.  The more he got away with, the worse it got for me.  There was no respect. 

One night, I flat out told him no.  He laughed, continuing despite my fight, and asked, “Why do you even say that?  You know you’re mine, and I’m going to do this anyway.  And if you don’t, just give it a few days, you’ll change your mind.  You’re really just making it harder than it needs to be.”  I gradually stopped fighting.  He was right. 

The last night in our marriage was the most intense hurt I have ever, and hopefully will ever, experience.  After an argument that only increased frustration for both of us, we called a truce, of sorts.  He retreated to the bedroom with a case of beer. I stayed in another room with our kids.  After they were in bed, he apologized for his earlier behavior. 

His behavior, for the record: Not only had he literally ripped clothes off of me, he had tossed my phone into a fish tank when he realized I was calling 911.  The situation was bad, and I was absolutely terrified.  He said he knew I was scared, but that it was probably just stress and beer talking.  I tried to shrug it off.  But inside, I knew I was done.  I knew this was my last night with him.  He had no idea of my newly found resolve. And to stay safe, I didn’t tell him. 

That night, he came to me calmly, sanely, and started to imply he wanted to make love.  I said that I was not feeling well, and would lie next to him, but just couldn’t do more.  For this, I question myself.  What made me believe he’d respect me? 

After a little while, I went in and crawled into bed.  It felt odd, as I hadn’t even been sleeping in the room with him for a long time.  Too many memories.  I just couldn’t do it anymore.  As I lie there, wide awake, he rolls over, and starts laughing.  He pins me down, forces himself inside of me, and does it anyway.  He was so forceful that I had bruises on my thighs.  There was no punishment issued.  This was no game.  I cried out, told him no.  I cried out, praying out loud for God to please help me.  I fought him physically.  I scratched him, did everything I could to get him off of me.  It was pointless.  The harder I fought, the worse it hurt.  When he was finished, he rolled over and fell right back asleep. 

There was no miraculous intervention.  What happened instead was a miraculous journey of God’s protection, as well as renewed hope, strength and courage.  At first, it was one minute at a time.  Now, I look back and am stunned at the mercy God has shown to my kids and to me. 

A little more than four years have passed.  They have not been easy.  But I have survived.  I was diagnosed with PTSD shortly after our separation.  Panic attacks, anxiety and nightmares plagued my every moment for almost a year. A difficult divorce process, where I lost mostly everything, ensued.  He would show up in random places, smirking at me from a distance, knowing well how much his presence scared me.  Some days, I would receive over 100 calls in a two hour period from him.  Those early days were the most difficult. 

There were many days that first year that I considered going back to him, just because I was so weary of fighting him.  I still felt pretty weak and powerless.  But I started standing up, saying no, and enforcing rules.  I told parts of my story.  Realized I wasn’t alone.  Allowed God to heal and restore parts of me so far hidden. 

I look forward today to a life of amazing promise.  While I am still a work in progress, I am so thankful to have a second chance at life and a better future for the lives of my children.  I don’t know how much longer I could have stayed.  Deep down, I just wanted him to be okay.  To know he was safe with me.  That I wanted so much more for him, for us, and for our kids.  Even now, there are moments when I grieve the possibility of what could have been. 

Today, I share the rest of my story with you.  Writing this post has been painful.  I imagine the nightmares of the last few weeks won’t stop.  This post has made me feel dirty, violated, humiliated and shamed all over again.   While it would have been easier to keep it locked inside, safe and sound (because very few knew of the sexual abuse, and no one knew details), triggers are everywhere. 

I see women racing to see a movie I’ve lived, thinking it is an amazing love story.  I see men exerting dominance and force on innocent women because Christian Grey has done it and millions of women seem to be turned on by this type of relationship! 

Lastly, and most troubling to me, is that I see so many people (mostly women) completely unwilling to even consider the possibility that this relationship could be abusive.  That money means power, and innocence can be stolen without repercussion -- these are messages being ignored and dismissed because we're entertained.  This book desensitizes us to the experiences of others. It blurs the lines of consent and will confuse many young women about what they should be willing to tolerate in the name of love. All the hype and women gushing over Christian Grey makes those living in these situations terrified to speak up, fearful their friends won’t understand what the big deal is. 

This book makes abusive men look appealing.  Those we should be running from, we are running to. 

There are 100 million Grey fans out there.  Maybe more, by the time this post is published.  These readers are enjoying the story, getting all worked up, looking forward to the next movie, trying this stuff in their bedrooms at home.  You may be calling your friends, talking about this thing your husband tried, that forbidden place he touched, and the rush of excitement you felt.  What about that friend who you don’t even know is experiencing exactly what you are talking about, but in an unsafe environment?  One where she is trapped in something real, full of legitimate fear and facing danger, with little to no hope of escaping.  For her, the door doesn’t ever open.  The "playtime" never ends.  That safe word really means nothing.  Her man is tracking her every movement, criticizing and punishing her every fault. She is sad, alone, and ashamed.  Maybe she has even been coerced, like me (and Ana), into signing a contract so she can never claim she didn't welcome this behavior.

The bottom line is this: Abuse is never a game.  It shouldn't be entertainment for people with nothing better to do.  For those of you fortunate enough to have never experienced the "crazy" that is abuse, please be compassionate.  Understand that some of us gave up everything just to escape.  For me, and others, I am sure, it wasn’t pretend. It wasn’t romantic. 

It was my life. My personal hell.  My reality.  My every breath. 

And thankfully, for me, it is over. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Humor with a Bite (and why I don't like it)

The other day I found myself reacting to a person on Facebook who was using sarcasm (masquerading as humor) to belittle a category of people. It triggered some intense, raw emotion.

The sarcasm was directed at certain Christians. (Everyone knows it's politically incorrect to mock groups of people ... except Christians, who are fair game.)

I didn't feel defensive personally because I would never be considered the kind of Christian she was taking aim at. Those kind of Christians make me angry too. And although the remark smacked of contempt for Christians in general, I thought it was unfair and insensitive primarily because the recent beheadings of Christians served up the opportunity (the sarcasm indicted Christians for only caring/reacting when other Christians are murdered). I don't know any Christians who are only outraged by the slaughter of another Christian.

I thought it was an awfully inappropriate moment to seize an opportunity for sarcasm, to throw a jab and make the point that some Christians are hypocrites. I think this is something we all know about humanity in general, including ourselves; that we are all hypocrites -- Christian and non-Christian.

But mostly, I didn't like the belittling, biting humor for a different reason; one I did not immediately identify.

Exercising wisdom would have meant ignoring her comments. But I wasn't guided by wisdom. I impulsively confronted what I deemed insensitive and offensive. But I did so from the gushing emotion of an opened wound, never stopping to consider that her biting sarcasm might also be the gushing emotion of an opened wound...
Just a different kind of gush.
I wish my first reaction would have been empathy for her.

I didn't feel better for responding. In fact, I felt like an idiot.

But I did learn something, even if it took a few days.

This morning, I was proofing a final edit of a chapter I contributed to a soon-to-be-released compilation book about surviving and overcoming abusive relationships. As I read through this condensed version of my 27-year-long journey with an abusive man, something dawned on me about this recent interaction with a stranger.


I think this is something I already knew, but so many years have passed that sometimes I fail to instantly connect the dots from some of my emotions back to their true source. And while focused on this chapter with the recent confrontation fresh in my mind, it dawned on me:

This is why I react so strongly to all belittling sarcasm: Because I spent so many years being the target of mean-spirited bullying, belittling, and character assassination.

I've been the recipient of too many piercing verbal stabs that were laced with laughter, but left me with internal bleeding.

I hate belittling on any level. And I have a fight or flight response. I either need to get away from it or I will confront it. And I realize I don't always know how to combine wisdom with confrontation. Sometimes I fail miserably.

Maybe a few people reading will relate to me. That's one of the main reasons I share.

I hope next time I encounter someone demonstrating a desire to mock other people in a condescending manner, I will exercise wisdom and/or continue scrolling. I can't promise myself that I will. But that is the goal.

On the other hand, there are times when it is absolutely appropriate to challenge condescending and belittling words no matter how clumsily you do it.

When it's possible to take a visible stand that might make a difference in someone's life, I will always speak. But this is not likely to happen on Facebook. And I need to learn that.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Who am I? What do I stand for?

Because hypocrisy is something I loathe especially in myself, I've always tried to look myself squarely in the mirror, facing who I truly am; rejecting a false image created by me and for me. Sometimes I feel satisfied and content with who I am. At other times, when facing my flaws and inconsistencies, the mirror is painful and difficult.

I'm asking myself a few questions this week. And I'm hoping to inspire you, my readers, to ask these questions of yourselves as well. You don't need to share your answers with me. I just want you to contemplate the questions in your own heart and find your answers honestly. And I'd like you to be tuned into any defensiveness you may feel -- because defensiveness tells us something about ourselves. When we feel defensive, it's an indication that we feel the need to protect something from being exposed. Sometimes that exposure involves no one but ourselves.

If we face something, we have to deal with it. If we deny it, we don't.

So here goes with the questions...
  • Who am I?
  • What do I stand for?
  • What do I value?
  • How important is entertainment in my life?
  • Am I more likely to sacrifice entertainment for values or values for entertainment?
  • Where would I draw the line in the entertainment I embrace?


Please keep in mind: The thoughts I am attempting to share and inspire in this post are not limited to one impending movie release. But this one movie release can serve as an example and a catalyst.




I'm a Christian. So my convictions about the entertainment I embrace is (hopefully!) influenced by those values. But I don't exercise those choices perfectly. I've watched things I wouldn't watch if Jesus were in the room with me. (Oh, that's right; he's always with me. I do tend to conveniently forget that. Do you as well?) Since I don't have a flawless record of consistently choosing what Jesus would choose, I'm not going to approach this hypocritically and lecture anyone on morality. I don't have credibility with myself and, as I've already said, I loathe my own hypocrisy.


I am hoping to challenge Christians and non-Christians alike with this post. So I'm intentionally not making it about Christianity.

Movies are not simply entertainment. Movies deliver messages to viewers. They influence us as individuals right along with shaping our culture as a whole. Certain movies/books deliver hope and inspiration, lessons from history, a heightened awareness of the need for social change. But some movies simply desensitize us and cultivate through entertainment an acceptance of harmful messages and outright lies that can (and do) lead to the destruction of lives.

I believe we have a responsibility to ourselves and others as we cast our "vote" for the kind of entertainment we want with the dollars we spend on being entertained. Do you?

OR

 
Is the enjoyment/gratification/consumption of entertainment your higher priority?

I'm not judging. I'm simply asking you to ask yourself why...

Why would 80 minutes of entertainment or curiosity about steamy sex involving violence and exploitation be so important to you (and valued by you) that you would choose to deny and disregard the harmful impact of this entertainment?

The movie I'm referencing is obviously 50 Shades of Grey. I have not read the books or seen the movie. This is not a review of either. But I do know the storyline (as told to me by readers and legitimate reviewers) and have sat through numerous trailers and interviews. This story glamorizes and romanticizes sexual violence and male domination ... and full-throttle narcissism. The happy ending suggests that a sexually damaged man can be healed through the love of a submissive participant in his sexual violence and domination. By writing her as a willing participant, the submissive woman's victimization is denied. The director even goes so far as to claim she is empowered. And as a society we are "buying" the lie that is being "sold" to us. How can so many WOMEN be buying this and selling it to other women???? I am so disheartened by the reality that women are going to be lining up to see this movie by the millions.

Perhaps, sadly, one has to have been a victim or know victims personally to realize how dangerous this lie is, but I wish some of you would wake up and believe those of us who know the truth.

This film may not result in your life being destroyed, but does it matter to you that it WILL result in someone else's life being ravaged and destroyed? Can you live comfortably with the reality that there will be young women who buy into this lie and submit to a violent man in the hope that her love and submission will ultimately heal and change him? Because THAT is the harsh reality and the truth. Is your 80 minutes of entertainment more important to you than that reality? Are you comfortable with your financial support of this message? Would you want someone important to you to be influenced by this message? And if so, shouldn't all women -- their safety and dignity -- be important to you?


My questions are intentionally blunt and direct. I'm hoping to encourage as many of you as I can to boycott this movie even if you are dying to see it. Why? Because I long for our values and principles and concern for the suffering of others to trump entertainment value and escapism ... and the narcissism of making our entertainment and gratification the highest priority in our choices. Please donate the money you would spend on theater tickets to a women's shelter, because that's where women like Anastasia end up in real life.

The following excerpt is taken from The Guardian:

"Men like Christian Grey are never loved out of battery and brutality; they just keep getting more drunk on their power over women. Battered women's shelters and graveyards are full of women who had the misfortune to meet a Christian Grey.
 
Fifty Shades glamourised and eroticised violence against women and rebranded it as romance. No doubt the film version will do the same, because a film with a happy ending always makes for a good "chick flick". Films that tell the truth about sexual sadists like Christian Grey – films where we see broken bones, black eyes, funerals and motherless, traumatised children – don't seem to generate the same profits. One of the last things Stella says to serial killer Paul [ in  The Fall ] should be said to all those who have already profited from Fifty Shades, the book, and who stand to profit from the film:

"You try to dignify what you do, but it is misogyny. Age-old male violence against women."
 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Road from Disappointment to Gratitude

This past week I was celebrating eleven happily married years with my wonderful husband in the Caribbean. On our last full day of turquoise water and swaying palm trees, I was alerted to a book review by a tweet. This was a review I had pursued in November (of my first book). And it was the furthest thing from my mind in Punta Cana.

I eagerly clicked on the Book Review by Sarah Young blog link, anticipating an affirming review. And as I began reading, I felt my heart sink into a sea of disappointment. Before you click on the link to read it for yourself, please allow me to elaborate on my emotional response.

I'll let you read the full review yourself, if interested. Sarah actually said a lot of positive things about my book and testimony. She didn't write anything harsh or overtly critical. But I'm going to be painfully honest in revealing my emotional response. Because I've enjoyed so many glowing words about my writing from readers (friends and strangers alike), I never stopped to think about how a professional writer would review my writing. I've been hearing what a good writer I am from enough people to start believing that perhaps I am a good writer! (This is embarrassing to admit, but that has never stopped me before.) Some of Sarah's comments deflated me to the point that I couldn't get my mind fully engaged with paradise again. I found my thoughts continually floating away from my romantic reality and pondering what I initially perceived as an embarrassing review.

I looked right past all the positive comments and focused on a few select words. Instead of saying my writing was good, she said "the writing wasn't terrible" (like she normally expects from self-published authors). In fact, she went on to say "Sheri's writing isn't bad at all." Yeah, that'll knock you down a few pegs (especially in combination with the misspelled name) when you're hoping for more glowing adjectives.

I hope my humor is translating through the keyboard. I'm laughing at myself as I'm sharing this. My disappointment was all about my expectations. The review was not unkind. She simply didn't "love" my writing style. My pride was a little wounded. But I don't have a problem with the reviewer. I don't even care that she accidentally misspelled my name in that one place. My name gets misspelled all the time. That is ONE thing I don't take personally.

I am grateful that Sarah explained what it was about my writing that initially distracted her. My editor did not mention to me that I might be using "I" or "however" repetitively to begin sentences. I can guarantee that overuse of those words in future writing will be something I consciously avoid. I hope she reviews my second book too. I'm curious to know if she sees improvement in my writing.

After a brief spell of ruminating incessantly on the words "wasn't terrible" to describe my writing, I emerged from the cloud. I reflected on other times when I have received criticism so deeply that I allowed it to eclipse everything else. I decided to set it aside and reread the review in a day or two. When I did that this morning, I read it much differently. I came to it with different expectations and, to my surprise, I no longer felt any sting from the words that had initially caused me to cringe. I was able to embrace the review, including the honest criticism. And I'm grateful.

I also read a blog post this morning (Own What You Know) as I was in the process of embracing the review. The message of this post was exactly what I needed to be reminded of. Thank you, Denise DiNoto! I agree with everything you wrote. And yet, I couldn't say those words to myself. I needed you to say them TO me. And as I read your post, I realized that I have done what you advocate. And I'm doing it still.

I didn't write either of my books so I could be praised for my ability to write. I do want to be a good writer. But writing is not my vocation, it's my vehicle. My vocation, my calling in life, is to connect with and help others. I do that by sharing.

Sarah hit the nail on the head -- she really got me -- when she said "Breaking the Chains doesn’t read like a typical memoir. Shari spends more time getting the facts straight than she does on artful prose..."

I agonized over getting the facts straight and I'm thankful she saw that in my writing. But the best words in her review were these:

"Shari’s book is full of hope. In the midst of legalism and her confusion about grace, she meets Jesus for real. And He changes everything."

I loved one other thing Sarah wrote. She said, "If you’re looking for a powerful testimony about freedom from religiosity or you just want to be challenged in your own ministry (believe me, she raises lots of convicting questions), consider giving Breaking the Chains a chance." (My emphasis added.)

More than I wanted to expose the inner-workings of a cult or write beautifully, I wanted to proclaim the true gospel and grace of Jesus Christ. I wanted to be real and own my story. And I wanted to help others. One of the ways I hoped to do that was by provoking deeper thought and raising convicting questions. So while Sarah's review may not have sung my praises as a writer, the important take-away for me is that the message broke through my inadequacy.



Once again, it was a process to get from disappointment to gratitude. But my gratitude at the end of the struggle is every bit as genuine as the disappointment was in the beginning.

This is a road well traveled in my life.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

HCA MEDICAL BREAKTHROUGHS

I'm excited to be able to share this video with my family and friends! It will be on both the HCA and the Sarah Cannon blog/websites. I was also given a copy to share personally, so I uploaded it to my YouTube account.

I am so proud of my husband John Howerton and my mother-in-law Marian Howerton Kibler!
And I'm proud of the team that put this together! They all did an excellent job!

We are grateful to be in the care of Dr. Ian Flinn at SCRC and TN Oncology!



Wednesday, December 17, 2014

New Book Set for January Release

I'm excited to share the upcoming release of a compilation book I've made a contribution to:
 
Tales of Women Survivors: How We Became Free
 

 

Friday, November 14, 2014

GOD IS FRUSTRATINGLY WILLING TO LET THINGS GET DESPERATE

I listened to my son's most recent sermon this morning.

Growing and Waiting Patiently

Several quotes resonated with me as I thought about advice I have given recently to women emotionally trapped in abusive relationships, still hoping God will somehow miraculously change their abusive husbands.


As I have said many times: 

It is a rare thing for God to make an instant change in anyone, absent their engagement and participation. That is not typically how He works. He changes us in slow, painful processes -- processes that require our cooperation. His processes require a desire to see ourselves and grow as we follow His guidelines for our lives. Even those of us who embrace the process often find growth and change to be difficult and slow-going.


Danny was obviously not talking about staying in abusive relationships while waiting for slow change to happen. He was talking about the importance of grace, and God's patience with us. But several statements reminded me of a time in my life when I was desperate and God was comfortable with my desperation. Even when I couldn't see it, He knew there would be light at the end of my tunnel and redemption for every painful experience.

These are the quotes I typed out while listening:

"God is frustratingly willing to let it get desperate."

"I wish He wasn't so comfortable with my desperation."

"He's comfortable with the story entering dark times."
 
"God is really, really, really, really patient. And our growth is going to not be really, really, really, really fast. It's going to be slow. And that's part of the story. There's no quick fix here. And it's going to be desperate sometimes."

These statements apply not only to my own slow growth and the frustration I often feel with myself. These statements apply to the circumstances we face in life that make us feel desperate, including interaction with people whose behavior is dark and causes us to suffer. As I heard these words, I reflected on times I felt like I couldn't hold on for another day. Yet I was frozen in fear of God's rejection if I made the wrong choice. Add to that my fear of the unknown and my paralyzing self-doubt and you have a recipe for a holding pattern that kept me emotionally battered for decades.

Those years were indeed dark. There was no quick fix. And it WAS desperate at times. Those decades are a part of my story. But they are not the whole story.

God has brought the brightest light directly from the darkest places of my life. This applies to the sins I committed as much as the sins committed against me. He has brought good from all of it. It was never fast or easy. There was suffering. There were tears. There was even the occasional, "God, do you even care what's happening to me?" But He had a purpose in the timing of every detail. And He was patient with me through it all.

His grace was present even before I could comprehend its magnitude.

Sometimes I wonder if I was "trapped" as long as I was because God was patiently waiting for me to grow; to stop being a willing victim and become a participant in my ultimate deliverance. Not only did He never wave a magic wand over my abusive husband and miraculously change his behavior; He didn't wave a magic wand over me and "bestow" courage or wisdom. He allowed me to acquire both in a slow process involving mistakes, suffering and self-examination.

I'm thankful for the process ...
not only because I grew stronger,
but because through it I discovered His grace.