Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter: He knows our Shame

Lucy Toner
One of the many difficult things survivors deal with is an overwhelming sense of shame.  I remember well how it crept into my life, like a horrible disease that begins with symptoms that are almost unnoticeable, then grows in severity until it becomes crippling.

I fought it. Know that I did.  I didn't go down without a fight, but while my logical and surface part of my mind told me "what happened was not your fault", my emotional and much deeper rooted belief was that it was.  It happened because I was bad.

One day I was asked to substitute in one of the children's classes at church, the 4 yr olds.  I panicked.  I felt too unclean, too ashamed to be with those sweet little children and talk to them about the things of God.  I felt I had no right to speak of such things.  I was startled by this, but powerless to overcome it.

Then I was asked to give a prayer in a meeting...something I had previously enjoyed.  I couldn't do it.  I was embarrassed to say no, but I would have been even more ashamed if I had said yes.  How could I speak to God on behalf of the group?  I couldn't.

I stopped sharing comments in classes.  I had previously loved teaching, or giving a talk, but I could do none of them anymore.  What felt like the greatest blow was when I went to the temple.  The temple had always been a place of peace and comfort to me, but no more.  While I was in the temple, I felt miserable, ashamed, unworthy.  The pain was terrible.  I tried again another time with the same result.  My peace was taken from me.

I am doing better now.  I have begun to pray in church again, and well who knows...perhaps soon I will feel ready to speak or teach again. I am thinking of going to the temple has been a few years, maybe it is time.  I hope it is.

The reason I am sharing this today...of all for my fellow survivors.  I know your shame and your pain.  I know that telling you it is not your fault will not be enough to make it go away.  But I want you to know, that the Savior understands our shame.  He can help us, and we can turn to Him because He knows.

Philosophers throughout the ages have asked "why does God allow bad things to happen to good people".  I have asked that question myself, as a deeply personal question, not a philosophical one.  I don't know the answer, but I find comfort in knowing that Christ suffered too, so that He could help us with our pain.

He chose to come to earth during the time of the Roman rule.  He chose to be born in poor circumstances.  He chose to associate with people who were outcasts, the lepers, the sinners, the tax collectors.  And when it was time for His death, He allowed Himself to be killed in the most shameful way the Romans could think of.

The usual Jewish form of capitol punishment was stoning.  Pilate seems to have given them permission to do this, and yet that would not appease them.  They sought for crucifixion precisely because it was shameful.  Even the Romans did not use it for their "good" citizens.  It was reserved for slaves, and the most base criminals.

They always chose to do crucifixions in public areas, like well traveled roads, so that people would see those  who were being crucified, see them there naked.  Romans disrobed the people being crucified and attached them to crosses like animals, intentionally, they wanted the experience to be dehumanizing.  And all this in addition to the physical horrors.  No one deserves that sort of death, but especially not Christ, who had spent his life serving others, teaching, healing and uplifting, and yet there He was.  Innocent and treated with shame.  We, survivors, are too often weighed down by a shame we don't deserve.  Christ understands.  He has conquered death, and overcome shame.  He can help us do the same.

Photo Attribution: Lucy Toner

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Letter to the Editor: "...could not cope"

Marilyn VanDerbur, author of Miss America By Day, is one of my heroes.  She is an incest survivor, and she encourages other survivors to speak up and write letters to magazines and newspapers about this issue particularly when things are said that are incorrect or hurtful.  I am taking her advice to heart and learning to speak up in a new way.  Another survivor friend, suggested that I share this on my blog because people besides the Editors could benefit from it.

Petr Kratochvil

Dear Editors,

I'm writing to you because of something I read in the (magazine name redacted) that troubled me.  I understand that it was not the intention of the author to give offense, nor of the editors.  However, words can sometimes speak what is in our hearts, more than we had intended.  It is my hope that discussing this will help avoid this sort of painful error in the future.

Recently, I opened the current issue and saw an article on the Atonement.  I am currently working to heal from the impact of childhood abuse, and so with high hopes I started reading that article first.  I was felt as if I had been slapped when I read the author's' words: "As a child she had often been abused, and this had led to years of therapy—and at times institutionalization—because she could not cope."  

The dictionary defines cope as "deal effectively with something difficult."  The implication appears to be that if someone cannot cope, it is because they are weak, or deficient.  I considered that I was being overly sensitive and so asked a group of friends to fill in the blank, "He _______ because he could not cope."  The answers were things like: self-medicated, drank, quit and prayed.  As you can see, three of the four are negative coping mechanisms, which seems consistent with a negative connotation of the phrase "could not cope." Or in other words, supports the inference that the Survivor mentioned in the article was weak and deficient in some way.  It is very common for survivors of childhood abuse to suffer from anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation, which may led to years of therapy, and sometimes institutionalization.  This is not because they are weak, or cannot cope.  It is because the damage of abuse during ones formative years, and the pain of healing is so great. 

It may seem at first that survivors of childhood abuse are overly sensitive and writing for or about them is a veritable minefield.  Yet, I believe that if two things are understood, much pain and misunderstanding could be avoided.  Those two things are: survivors need their pain validated, and they need to know that people care.  For example, in the article, "could not cope" could have been worded, "because she suffered a great deal of pain".  The later validates the pain, and gives a feeling of empathy from the writer.

Also potentially hurtful, are messages that emphasize forgiveness as the solution for the pain.  Certainly forgiveness is important.  However, before a survivor can forgive there is a lot of grieving and healing work that needs to be done.  Cheiko Okasaki discussed this in her powerful talk, Healing From Sexual Abuse.  Therefore, telling someone who is still healing to forgive is the equivalent to suggesting someone pray away cancer.  It is just not that simple.  Some survivors feel invalidated by the forgiveness message, and may also feel shamed by it.  Shame is a very difficult thing for survivors to overcome, and being told to forgive may reinforce their idea that they are somehow inherently flawed as in, "If I had more faith I could forgive, so this proves I am bad and deserve this pain."

Thank you for your time and consideration.  Survivors can heal with the Atonement, but it is a difficult journey and we need validation and support..

Sincerely.  . .

NOTE:  I removed the names of the magazine, article and the author's name because I felt it appropriate to speak with them directly about the matter (a copy of this has been sent).  But because some newspapers, and magazines print letters to the editor, I felt it would be appropriate to share here to help others understand this important issue.  

UPDATE:  I received a response from the editor.  I was not expecting one, so that was a pleasant surprise.  The response was very kind and thoughtful.  It was personal, not a form letter.  It was very appreciated!!!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Centering Prayer: Sabbath for the Mind

Vera Kratochvil
It's been a month since I last posted about my foray into meditation and centering prayer.  Time to check in and report.

Yes, I am still doing it and yes, I still love it.  I wish I could tell you it has gotten easier, but so far that is not the case.  I try to spend some time meditating before I sleep and again when I wake up. 

Meditating when I wake up can be tricky because I'm not a a morning person, so I'm often pushing "snooze" to many times and getting up late.  But when I wake up and make time for Centering Prayer it is a wonderful way to start the day.  It feels grounding, seriously like I am pushing my roots deep into the earth while simultaneously turning my face up to the sun...or The Son.  It's lovely. 

Meditating before I go to sleep is different.  Usually my mind is churning and not necessarily with worry or concerns, but ideas and inspirations, questions, ponderings....trying to quiet it feels like standing in the eye of a tornado and asking the wind to stop.  Part of the problem is sometimes I want to think about the inspirations instead of being quiet.  During one such a time, I was trying to reassure myself that the "great ideas" would still be there later and would be better for having given my mind a rest (which, in hindsight, has proven to be true).  It was then that I realized that meditating is like Sabbath for the mind.  Resting your mind does help you feel renewed and refreshed later.

Grounding, and resting are wonderful, and if they were the only fruits of meditation, that would be enough to continue...but that is not all--no that is not all!  (said in my best Dr. Seuss voice)   The greatest benefit I have experienced so far is a partial realization of the hope that I mentioned in my last blog post about Centering Prayer...that feeling of coming home.

One of the hardest things for me in this journey of healing from abuse is the separation I have felt from God...its the Jaws of Hell, I tell you!  There are many reasons for those jaws gapping after me--which I won't get into now--the point is that after practicing meditation I feel that gap closing. 

Of course, I considered if I could be certain it is the meditation that is making this difference, or perhaps it was something else that I did...perhaps that something else was also inspired by the meditation. . . The conclusion is that I can't really say for sure, but I believe Centering Prayer is helping me Come Home again.  I had forgotten how wonderful "home" feels.

Photo attribution Vera Kratochvil

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Mitzvah Challenge

Photo credit  Petr Kratochvil

I have found that something really helpful for me is finding things that give me a sense of childlike wonder.  I didn't get to experience that as much as I should have as a child, but I can experience it now.  And it is very healing.

I experienced it recently at a Yo-yo contest that an acquaintence had told me about.  Wowzer! They do some amazing things with yo-yo's these days.  I sat there with my 6 yr old on my lap and whispered in his ear, "Look at that! It's like magic!" 

From this experience, I decided that I wanted to be watchful for other events that might give me that sense of awe and childlike wonder.  So I started looking on an "events calendar" on line.  I discovered that this weekend Seattle University will be hosting a Book Festival on the Search for Meaning.  Forty plus authors will be there, all authors of books related in some way to spirituality and religion.  And it's free!  

I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to do, and started browsing the speaker/author list.  That is how I came across Linda Cohen and her wonderful book 1,000 Mitzvahs:How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire, and Change Your Life.

When Linda Cohen's father died, she took a "spiritual sabbatical" from her home-based business.  She decided to take some time to grieve and heal.  Somewhere along the way, she decided to honor her father's memory by doing 1,000 Mitvahs.  Her husband suggested she create a blog and write about it to help keep track.  It took her two and half years, but she did it!   The blog and the experience turned into a book.  You can learn more about Linda, her blog, and her book at

Immediately, I loved her idea of doing acts of kindness as part of her healing.  Remember I mentioned in a previous blog post that one of my heroes is Admiral James Stockdale.  He was a POW in Vietnam, and one of the things that so amazes me about him was how even as a POW he looked for ways to strengthen and uplift his fellow prisoners.  I decided that if he could do that in his situation, then I could find ways to serve also even in the depths of my pain.  I have tried to do that, and it does help.

So when I read in Linda's book (and heard in her TED talk) that she would love for this idea to catch on, for other people to "copy" it.  I said, Ok.  I'll do it! 

I'm taking the challenge to do 1,000 Mitzvahs--acts of kindness, small or large.  In the book, Linda shares a funny story about changing a roll of toilet paper in a public bathroom and a philosophical discussion that followed with her husband about whether or not that counted for the challenge.  Her final Mitzvah was to help a local food bank by asking for 1,000 bags of food.  They accomplished well over her goal.  She was/is a busy mom.  All of us are busy too...but if we count small acts of kindness like changing a roll of toilet paper, we can all find time to feel the joy that comes from helping others. 

So what do you think? I have a journal that I am going to record my Mitzvahs in, but I'll update here periodically too.  Who's with me?

Photo attribution/credit HERE