I don’t remember when it started- it just always was; but I remember when it stopped. It took a tremendous amount of courage to tell my mother that my grandfather had been molesting my sisters and me for years and years.
My mother had been explaining the “bird and the bees” to my sister and me when she said, “No one should ever touch you in your private areas. Your daddy never will. Your grandpa never will.”
Quietly I said, “But he has.”
“What do you mean, he has?” my mother responded.
Trembling with fear, I said in almost a whisper, “Grandpa has. He has for a long time.”
This conversation would begin a series of events that would change me just as much as the abuse I had gone through with my grandfather. As my parents struggled to figure out who to call and what to do, my sisters and I were relieved that we wouldn’t be exposed to him anymore and that our ordeal was over.
We were wrong.
In the 1980s dealing with sexual abuse was not like it is now. Every police agency my parents contacted wanted nothing to do with the case. To be honest, I think they just didn’t know what to do. Molesters weren’t dealt with the way they are today. They weren’t immediately arrested and thrown in jail. There was no social media to bring their sins to the light of day. No, no one wanted the responsibility of dealing with them and everyone wanted to sweep it under the rug. There was an insistence that you stay quiet and that you don’t share this shame and disgrace that has fallen upon your family. Instead, they told my parents to contact a psychologist to figure out what we should do.
Again, the way psychologists dealt with this sort of thing in the 80s was not the same as they do now. I don’t know if it was stupidity on the part of the psychologist or perhaps just not knowing and understanding the crime that was committed against us, but their advice would haunt us for the rest of our lives. “Bring him back into the family,” they said. “You need to include him in your family gatherings and holidays.” “He just made a mistake. Offer him forgiveness and let him know that you still accept him.” “He needs to know that he still has worth to your family.” “Don’t tell anyone else, this is something your family needs to work out.” “Have your girls greet him with a kiss, sit beside him or on his lap, and accept that he is sorry.”
And so… that is exactly what we did. He was invited over to our house and we were forced to kiss him, sit beside him, hold his hand, and “love” him- even encouraged to utter those very words to him. I wasn’t as smart as two of my sisters who would leave the house and hide at a neighbor’s house when we heard he was coming over. No, I dutifully kissed my abuser on the cheek, sat in his lap or right beside him, and told him I loved him.
The psychologists were wrong… healing did not come by embracing the evil.
What we experienced after our abuse was brought to light was just more abuse. Without saying it with words, the actions we were forced to perform (pleasantly greeting, sitting with, engaging in conversation, and kissing and then telling him we loved him) with our abuser said loudly that our pain, our dignity, our healing didn’t matter. Our abuser mattered… but we didn’t. Later it would be made worse when our mother would marginalize everything that we experienced and at one point even have the gall to ask if we enjoyed it. After all, don’t young girls just bring that on themselves?
Just typing that out brings me to tears. How can a mother think that let alone ask that of her children? I have no words to describe the pain that it brings even today. What lasts with me is that if my own mother thought that about her children, then why should our dignity matter to anyone else? While I always knew my place within my family, this spoke volumes to me and showed me that the way I had always felt was right- I was not worthy of anything… not love, not respect, and certainly not dignity.
This was not the only abuse that we would encounter in our childhood, but it was one we each intimately shared in. My grandfather’s touch would reach the majority of us and while some were abused far more than others, we each knew that the others understood the pain and the horror of the abuse.
We each dealt with it in different ways. Some of my sisters went wild. I chose to go in the opposite direction. I bottled up everything and tried my hardest to be “good”. I did what was expected of me and toed the line. I suppose my choice in how to deal with the pain had a lot to do with just “knowing my place”. All my life I already knew my place (mental and emotional abuse will do that to you), but this was different… this said I truly didn’t matter. I was reminded every day that I needed to just shut up and accept the abuse and my abuser. His dignity mattered. His feelings mattered. Mine did not. This abuse has affected every facet of my life and continues to affect me even now.
This Lent I have been trying to find ways to love myself. It is difficult though. While I am surrounded with people who love me and respect me, when you don’t believe you are worthy of that love it is hard to accept the love you receive. I continually ask myself how I can break the ties to my past that holds me back. How can I look in the mirror and see the person my husband sees, the one my children see, and most importantly, the one that God sees and loves with a passion that can’t even be described? Most of the time I look in the mirror and I see that young girl who was told that she was not worthy of love and dignity.
In a study group that I am in we discussed how to really love God we must love ourselves too. That was difficult for me to hear. I generally believe that I have a deep love for God and that I try my hardest to show it in all I do. But if I don’t love myself then I am not loving God as fully as I can love him. And oh, my friends, I want to love God with every fiber of my being!
We are told in Psalm 139:13-15,
“For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth”.
God has made us each in his image and likeness. He has made us perfectly and wonderfully. Nothing anyone can say or do to us can ever change this. The abuse I have suffered throughout my life at the hands of those who are broken and hurting themselves does not define me nor does it take away my dignity or value. Had I gone a different way and instead of being “good” I had gone “wild”, my value, dignity, and worth would still be the same God’s eyes. He loves me and asks that I love the creation that he has made in me.
I truly want to love myself as God loves me, as my husband loves me, and as my children love me. I want to see the goodness that others see within me. I don’t want to feel broken. But most importantly, I want to love God as fully as I can. I know that by not loving myself I selfishly keep pieces of my heart and soul from him.
I am ready to let go. I am ready to see my worth. I am ready to love myself. I don’t want to sit in the lap of evil where I am told I am not worthy, that I am not loved, and that I am not good enough. I pray that when I look into the mirror I will see the woman that others see; the woman that God sees. I know that I will probably struggle with this my entire life, but I am willing to give it to God to help me work through it.
St. Francis de Salle said, “Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections, but instantly set about remedying them – every day begin the task anew.” I know I will need to have patience and courage to begin to truly love myself. I also know that there will be days when I look in the mirror and once again see the girl/woman who feels abandoned, alone, broken, unworthy, and unloved. It will be then that I will have to have patience to start over again to love myself as Christ loves me.
Abuse has the power to devastate our lives but Christ has the power to redeem us and heal us. This is the hope that I cling to each day. I am so thankful for God’s unending love and mercy.
Father, help me to love myself as you love me. I know that it is only when I love myself as you love me that I can give myself completely to you. Amen.