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Archive for February, 2008

Boy in cabin (c) Lynda BernhardtI have just finished reading the book The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls. It was a very good book but also very difficult for me to read. She shares her story about being raised by two very dysfunctional parents. Her father was an alcoholic (known as the “town drunk”), and her mother was clearly mentally ill. So many things that her mother said to her came right out of the script of my own life, especially the comments about her mother needing to think about herself for once when that was all she ever did. Yes, I know that phrase all too well.

The most beautiful part of the book to me was a comment that Ms. Walls’ husband said when he first saw her physical scars. When the author was only three years old, she suffered severe burns when her outfit caught on fire as she was boiling her own hot dogs on a gas stove. (Her mother was always “too busy” to feed the children, even though she rarely held down a job.) She was hospitalized for several weeks and could have died from the injuries. She was left with burns along her side.

At the end of the book, the author writes the following about her husband’s reaction the first time she showed him her scars:

And when I first showed him my scar, he said it was interesting. He used the word “textured.” He said “smooth” was boring but “textured” was interesting, and the scar meant that I was stronger than whatever it was that had tried to hurt me. – Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle: A Memoir

I cry every time I read that passage because this is so true about our emotional scars. Our scars are what add “texture” to our lives. They show that someone tried to hurt us, and they are evidence that we were stronger than the one who hurt us. While my emotional scars do not define me, they definitely shaped the person that I am today.

Someone told me about an interesting view of scars. I think this was said at a Promise Keepers convention, but I could be wrong. The speaker held up his hand and showed where a grenade had blown up in his hand. He said that scars have value for three reasons: (1) They show that you were wounded; (2) They prove that you survived; and (3) They earn you the right to say, “I have been where you are.”

I no longer hide my emotional scars. My refusal to pretend that I have no emotional scars might make some people uncomfortable, but most seem to appreciate this. I earned those scars, and I am not going to cover them up. Instead, I am going to use them to help as many people as I can.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Shack (c) Lynda BernhardtYesterday, I wrote about the ambivalence that a child might feel toward his birth family after being adopted out of foster care on my professional blog, Adoption Under One Roof. I would like to explore that topic here for those of us who were not fortunate enough to be removed from our “birth families.”

I have worked hard to remove my ambivalence toward my mother/abuser. I have reached a place where I mostly feel nothing toward her – no hate or love, just nothing. However, I continue to have ambivalent feelings toward my father.

My father was the “good” parent, but he was mostly absent. He was always away on business trips, leaving me to be raised by a mentally ill woman. On the one hand, my father was my “savior” in that he made my mother stop harming me when he walked in on her abusing me when I was around six. On the other hand, he swept the whole thing under the rug, and his “fix” only brought more abusers into my life. Ironically, I would have been better off if he had let my mother continue abusing me than to bring these other, horrible people into my life. I do think my father tried to do the right thing “in his own way,” but it was nowhere near enough.

I love my father for being one of the few adults in my life who did not abuse my body sexually. I hate my father for encouraging a relationship with my ritual abusers. I hate that he did not see that each time they visited, they raped his little girl. I love my father for providing for our family financially. I hate my father for leaving everything to my insane mother when he died, enabling her to p#$$ away millions of dollars. She now lives in a shack. He was a well-educated man, so why didn’t he set up the money in a trust fund so it would last? I will never understand that.

Meanwhile, my sister continues to wrestle with her own ambivalence toward our mother. While I have washed my hands of the woman, my sister continues to feel an obligation to take care of her. My sister barely gets by with government assistance as a single mother of two children, and yet she felt responsible for replacing our mother’s broken television set. No matter how many times I have told my sister that our mother is a grown woman who is responsible for purchasing her own appliances, my sister cannot let go of feeling responsible to take care of her.

Even though my sister feels this responsibility, our mother drives her crazy. My sister continues to visit with her because “she is still my mom,” even though it causes her pain and aggravation to visit with her. While I do not agree with my sister’s decision to continue contact with our mother, I understand it because I was once in that place. Ending the ambivalence toward her was very freeing for me.

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Sunset (c) Lynda BernhardtIn my last couple of posts, I have been discussing my faith journey as I have wrestled with the question of where God was during my child abuse. In my last post, I shared the results of my searching from a Christian perspective. While that resolution was healing to me, my faith journey did not end there. As I spent more time in prayer and meditation (“Be still, and know that I am God.” – Ps. 46:10), I came to understand God, the child abuse, and the reason that I am here on earth in a much deeper way.

I have come to believe that this is not my first time living on this earth. I believe that the reason for our time on earth is to learn life lessons, such as how to grow the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (See Gal. 5:22-23.) I do not believe that we can accomplish all of this in one lifetime. I believe that we experience things on earth in order to grow and become more like God. I do not mean that we seek to be God, only that we grow more in His image as we exhibit more of His traits.

The whole pass/fail test that churches teach about Christianity has always bothered me. God wants us to grow the fruit of the Spirit, but a person can be an axe murderer, receiving Jesus on his deathbed, and then go straight to Heaven with Mother Theresa. It makes more sense that God wants us to grow more like Him, and we need to experience different things in different lifetimes to accomplish this.

How does this tie into the child abuse? I believe that this lifetime has been a final exam of sorts. I believe that I have been cultivating the fruit of the Spirit over many lifetimes, and now I was put into a much more painful life experience in order to bear a harvest. I also believe that I was put here to heal and then offer that healing to others. That is an act of love that grows out of compassion from having developed many of the fruit of the Spirit.

I do not believe that we are put on this earth to “be happy.” Instead, I believe that we are here to grow. As painful as my life experiences have been, I have grown immensely. I have developed deep compassion and empathy for those who are hurting, and I feel a strong drive to spend my spare time (like right now as I write this) doing everything I can to encourage other people along their own healing journeys.

Believing that this lifetime is only one of many and that I am at peace between lifetimes has removed my fear of death. It has also helped me overcome my phobia of flying in airplanes. When I view my life experiences as conditions helping me to grow and become more like God (growing the fruit of the Spirit), I stop seeing myself as a victim and instead see myself as blessed.

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Chapel (c) Lynda BernhardtIn my last post, Where Was God When I Was Being Abused?, I shared that healing from my history of child abuse led me on a quest to understand who God is and where He fits into the picture of the abuses that I suffered. In this post, I will share the answers that I found to my questions from a Christian perspective. In my next post, I will get into where my faith journey has led me beyond this.

After spending a lot of time searching for answers about where God was, I concluded that God was always there, watching my pain and grieving that He ever made people who could be so cruel. The Bible is filled with instructions to protect the widow and the orphan – those who were the least protected in society at the time. God instructs His followers to be His “hands.” Unfortunately, the people in my life failed to do this. The people in my life are the ones who let me down.

Also, nowhere in the Bible is there a promise of Heaven on earth. Jesus was very clear that in this world we would have trouble, but take heart because He has overcome the world. (See John 16:33.) Most of the people who had the strongest faith suffered. So, being abused is not a breach of some sort of promise that God made. Nowhere in the Bible is there a promise that God will prevent abuse.

In the Bible, God usually intervenes through instructing humans do to something, and humans have free will. I believe that God nudged people to intervene to protect me, but they chose not to listen. However, God also nudged other people to offer me hope, and they did. If they had not, then I would not be the person I am today. I would not have warmth and compassion without having known it from loving teachers and others who showed me kindness. I believe that those kindnesses were gifts from God.

Also, God made me strong. I believe that He knew what I was being born into, so He gave me the gift of dissociation, and He made me with a very strong will to live. He also gave me the gift of healing, which was Jesus’ first job description – the healer of broken hearts. (See Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18.)

So, I have found a way to make peace with my view of God and where He fits into my Christian understanding of who God is. Because I was so broken, I experienced deeper healing than most people will ever know. Because I have experienced deeper healing, I have a much deeper appreciation of God’s power.

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Tree in swamp (c) Lynda BernhardtMany survivors of child abuse ask the question, “Where was God when I was being abused?” Some are unable to embrace a faith because they believe God betrayed them by failing to intervene. Others believe that child abuse is proof that there is no God because what kind of loving God would allow children to experience abuse?

I, too, wrestled with my faith. My mother/abuser started taking me to a Baptist church when I was eight years old. I became a Christian and embraced that faith. I took my faith so seriously by age 15 that I read the entire Bible from cover to cover because I wanted to understand the Christian faith fully. However, when my father (the sane, non-abusive parent) died when I was 16, I walked away from my faith. I could not understand why God would have allowed him to die, leaving me with an insane mother who began her abuse again.

After over a decade of wrestling with my faith, I came back to God just in time to face years of struggling to become a parent. I leaned on my faith throughout this time, and having a faith to rely upon made this time more bearable.

Fast-forward to when I started having flashbacks. By that time in my life, I knew that facing a painful time would be easier with a faith than without it. However, I had the same question that many other child abuse survivors have: “Where was God when I was being abused?” It took me a while to work through this question, with lots of prayer, Bible study, and other forms of reaching out to God for the answers.

My quest led me to a deeper understanding of who God is. It led me to a place of seeing my history of abuse through very different eyes. I also found an enormous amount of peace along this journey.

Over my next couple of posts, I will share where my journey has led me. I hope that reading about my experience of coming to terms with my faith after abuse will offer you hope along your own faith journey.

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Seaside shelter (c) Lynda BernhardtOne of the most frequently asked questions by child abuse survivors is “Why me?” What was it about me that made other people want to harm me? Am I fundamentally flawed? Did I bring this on myself? Why did my abusers choose to harm me?

I wrestled with this question quite a bit early into my healing from child abuse. I was abused by multiple people, so I saw myself as the common denominator. I felt as if I was an abuser magnet that drew those people to me. I just could not figure out what it was about me that invited the abuse.

After wrestling with the “Why me?” question for a long time, I have reached the conclusion that I was abused because I was available to be abused. These people were seeking targets, and I was an easy target. My mother abused me, likely in reaction to her own history of child abuse. My mother felt comfortable hanging around with abusive people, so I was exposed to many more child abusers than most children are. There was nothing “special” about me that “attracted” the abusers.

I was abused because I was there. I was easy prey. I had already been too frightened to tell, so I was a “safe bet.” My abusers did not have to worry about me telling when my own mother abused me, too. Who was I going to tell?

On the one hand, this realization is comforting because it means that I am not a fundamentally bad person who deserved the abuse. However, there is something sad about this realization, too. I was nothing special to anyone. I was not special enough to be protected, nor was I special enough to be singled out. I was simply an available body to harm, nothing more and nothing less.

However, I cannot allow myself to get caught up in this kind of thinking. Just because my abusers did not see my value does not mean that I had no value. I was priceless, and any decent human being would have seen that about me. I am special, even though the people around me during my childhood failed to see it.

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Girls on path (c) Lynda BernhardtI once told my therapist that my entire childhood was pure h@#$. He said that could not be true because, if it was, then I would not be the person that I am today. He said that while I definitely endured some horrendous trauma, I also experienced some good during my childhood. If I had never received love from anywhere, then I never would have learned how to love.

I had a hard time believing his words at the time, but I have come to see the truth in them. One of the blessings of recovering childhood memories has been recovering some very good ones. Not every minute of my childhood was bad. In fact, I have many good memories. No, the good times did not outweigh the bad stuff, but they did help shape me into the compassionate person that I am today.

What helped me to see that others really did care was reading Jonathan Kellerman’s Billy Straight. Billy is a kid who flees an abusive household and lives on the streets. He encounters all sorts of terrible things, including witnessing a murder and narrowly escaping being raped by an older couple. He feels all alone in the world.

However, Billy is not all alone. The librarian notices that he steals and then returns library books (He had no home address to check out a library book), but she pretends not to notice and allows him to stay in the warmth of the library as long as he likes. The man at the hot dog stand pretends not to notice when Billy steals hot dogs off his stand and even leaves him choice food to take. Throughout the book, while Billy feels all alone, strangers notice him and show him compassion in ways that he never sees.

How many people did that for me? Was it just a coincidence that my preschool teacher took me under her wing? Why did the librarian loan me her own personal copy of a dog-training book when the elementary school library did not have one? Why did the police officer approach my sister and me, offering to protect us if we had the courage to tell what was happening behind closed doors? People noticed, and they tried to reach out. I just didn’t see it.

I have been in the same position as an adult. I know a young child who I suspect is being sexually abused. I have no proof, only my intuition that recognizes the red flags. She will never know that I called Social Services to report my concerns, only to be told that I did not present enough evidence for them to do anything. She does not know that others have tried to protect her as well, doing all they can within an imperfect system. All I can do is give her hugs when I see her and let her know that somebody sees her as precious. If I am correct about my suspicions, I hope that the love I invest in her in the brief encounters we have will be enough compassion for her grow into a loving person like I did.

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Lynda Bernhardt

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