For the Daughters

I’m not sure why I haven’t written about this before. Perhaps I was afraid it would somehow get back to my mother. But I doubt she will ever read this. I sent her a link to a blog article I wrote once. She opened it on her iPhone but couldn’t figure out how to scroll down so she never read the whole thing. It’s comical, but a little sad, too.

Mother’s Day has been a difficult holiday for over a decade. It wasn’t until I moved out of my parents home at 19 that I began to wake up to the abusive nature of my relationship with my mother. It wasn’t until I had friends look at me and say, “You need to get out.” that I realized what I was enduring wasn’t normal.

I don’t remember the first time she said it. I know I was young, maybe 5 or 6 years old. My strong-willed personality was beginning to show. I was bossing my little sister often and speaking up for myself more than any “gentle, quiet spirited” Christian little girl should. The first time I remember her saying it was after I was released from children’s church. I navigated the mingling post-church adults until I spotted my mothers floral skirt. I skipped up to her-perhaps too eagerly-and wrapped my arms around her legs. She was clearly put-off by my interruption and apologetically indicated to the family she was talking to… “and this is Rebekah, all of my worst qualities glorified!” They laughed together, and I tried to hide behind her skirt.

It wasn’t intended to be a slight, I don’t think. It was meant to poke fun at the idea that god gives you children like yourself, to show you what you need to work on. But over the years it became the mantra she held over my life, introducing me in that way to friends and strangers alike. My father even adopted the phrase, often reminding me when I “misbehaved” that I was just like my mother and the devils greatest tool against us was each other. I was to always remember that I was the child and therefore my opinions and defenses were irrelevant. Total submission and obedience was required. These were the boundaries of our relationship. Anything less was rebellion, bordering on witchcraft. I was to remember that in biblical times, I would be stoned for defending myself to my parent. It was only the mercy of God that afforded me a safe place under their roof.

I moved out at 19 and took my 18 year old sister with me. I worked full-time to support us while she worked part-time and attended college. We stayed close by our parents and maintained a relationship as best we could. Things seemed to improve with a little proximity. But mothers day? It became a painful obligation.

I knew the consequences would be severe if I didn’t give some acknowledgement of the holiday. We’d already set the precedent of giving gifts and cards, sharing lunch, going to church together, and various and sundry small celebrations. If we’d suddenly ceased because we realized the relationship was abusive, it only would’ve become moreso with my long-suffering father caught in the crossfire.

I vividly remember standing in the greeting card aisle of a drugstore, reading card after card and putting each one back after skimming just a few lines of admiration and generalized happy reflection. My heart felt like it was breaking and bleeding all over the polished linoleum. None of the heartfelt sentiments applied to me or my mother. Gradually, I would wander toward the comical section of cards or the discount ones that didn’t say much. Since that day in CVS, selecting a Mothers Day card has always been an intensely painful experience.

This year there was no time or emotional energy for a card. Instead, I sent a text before work and made a phone call after work, both of which have gone unanswered. And while in some ways it’s a relief not to have to talk to her, it also twists the knife just a little bit. Especially when I scroll through social media today.

I’m known as the mom-friend, the “mother hen” among my friends. I’m the one who will ask you over and cook you dinner, or show up when you’re having a bad day with little sources of comfort. I will massage you, encourage you to take care of yourself, drink water, get lots of rest, help you see a Dr. if you need one. I didn’t get this way by accident. I was raised by my older sisters until I was 8 years old, but then I had to raise myself.

So today I am thankful for all the friends who remind me that I am not the worst parts of my mother. I am thankful that they hold for me a different mirror. And this is for the daughters. For those who feel motherless, who have had to raise themselves, teach themselves how to navigate the world, how to show empathy and compassion to others when the opposite was demonstrated for them. Here’s to you, warrior women. Your heart will mend. But today, it’s okay if it breaks a little. Hold yourself closely. You are worthy of mother-love.

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My Own Independence Day

Three years ago this month I wrote my own Declaration of Independence. I threw a ring with a religious symbol off the side of a Swiss mountain in a snow-storm and let these words ring out.

“I, Rebekah Hope, hereby declare myself independent from any religious domination system. The death of Christ does not demand anything from me. I am free from cycles of religious obligation. I do not have to serve God because I am afraid of what will happen if I don’t. I am free from the requirements of public confession and restitution. I am free from the scrutiny and criticism of those still under religious domination. I am free of other’s opinions regarding my eternal soul. I am free from the belief that the highest form of love is through correction and discipline. I am free of any sense of indebtedness-to God or man-for love. True love is a gift freely offered which by its nature cannot be repaid. I am free of striving to earn love, repay love, or keep love.

I, hereby, maintain the right to speak out against the domination of others in the name of God. I maintain the right to ask questions and to challenge the system and its powers, no matter how established they may be. I maintain the right to lament the damage done by the domination system and to stand with those who have been wounded by it. Together we will turn the other cheek, absorbing in defiance that which was intended to shame.

I, therefore, in an exercise of my hilariously free will, and in the presence of these witnesses, rid myself of this ring as a symbol of religious domination.

To Life!

CelebratingIndependence

As I shouted the last two words of my Declaration of Independence amidst the raucous cheers of my friends, I pitched the ring off the side of the mountain into the darkness. We all raised our glasses then took shelter from the snow in a hay barn. Together we drank and laughed, celebrating freedom. I received words of affirmation and sincere encouragement throughout the night, filling my heart to the brim. Once back at L’Abri each of them signed as witnesses to my Declaration. This document with signatures of those who are still close to me is one of my most prized possessions. I’m sharing this today just because I want to. I hope it finds some resonance with you.

Chosen Change

Image via Rebecca Waltner, LPC

I’ve been through a lot of change in the last year. I’ve never been one to resist change. I am always the first on board with new protocols at work. I get excited about moving. When I moved out of Texas in early December, it felt like Christmas to me! I was so excited for the next chapter!

I’ve been in Asheville almost 2 weeks now and have secured a great job and somewhere to live. Everything seems to be falling into place seamlessly. I often drive around my new city grinning, so happy that I get to live in such a beautiful place with so much to explore!

My unconscious mind is not as enthusiastic.

The nightmares have been raging this week. And in them I dream of my life in the cult. I feel my autonomy stripped away. I remember what it is like to have every move and decision under criticism by church elders. Choice was an illusion. The only choices sanctioned were those that benefitted the church. Who you dated, what your job was, where you lived. Those that moved away were not under church counsel. Or if they were, they eventually moved back. I heard a while ago the cult was creating a compound in a rural area. The faithful must stay close.

Perhaps this is why every time I move, whether to another city or state, I have nightmares of being back in the cult. In the dreams I remember how easy it was to let my will be subdued. My personality was confined to “gentle” and “quiet.” Anything outside those parameters was bordering on the spirit of Jezebel, which seemed as pernicious as Satan himself. In the nightmares I feel myself falling under the spell of submission… but then something in me fights back. I come to life, kicking and screaming. I fight my way out from under their influence and this is usually when I wake up. I once woke from such a dream punching my bed side table, acting out the fight in my conscious life.

The fight in my dreams is proof that I am healing now. I am choosing the changes in my life. They do not nullify the changes trauma made. But the fact that I’m living in a city I’ve dreamed of, with people I love nearby, doing a job that was made for me? That is healing empowerment. I’m building something beautiful. I’m defying the odds. I’m not fulfilling the prophesy of life-destruction outside of the cult. I am living the hell out of MY life. Eradicating the hell out with an abundance of love and support I never knew I could have.

My sister once said of the cult that we knew grace was available to us – but were supposed to live in such a way as to never need it. I am more richly saturated in grace now from people who don’t even know what “grace” is. To them, this is just the right way to treat people. This is just what you do for the ones you love. It is not “unmerited favor” divinely given. It is human decency in generous amounts.

As I talked to someone about my nightmares tonight, I cried. Once upon a time I didn’t have friends who were there for me during these moments. I cried remembering how exhausted and alone I was, fighting my way out of the cult mentality. I cried in relief that I may be exhausted now but I am not alone.

Tonight grace comes in the form of an open phone line. It is in the reassurance that I do not face the night alone. When I wake with my heart pounding, someone will be there. If I wake up swinging, there will be a hand to hold. I have people in my corner now. I am so grateful for that chosen change.

30 before 30 – An Update

If you’ve known me for very long, you know I have a list of 30 things I wanted to do before I turned 30 years old. I wrote this list when I was 23 and my younger sister dared me to dream outside of the very small, comfortable life I had. It was a life spent taking care of other people and my only aspirations at the time were to continue caring for other people by fulfilling the expectations of (hetero) marriage and bearing children in a semi-small town, raising them in the same church and traditions I was in at the time. I remember when I wrote the list how daring it felt, how scared I was to dream that my life could be different, that it should be different.

I was on the cusp of leaving a cult I’d basically grown up in. Writing down that I wanted to order an actual drink at an actual bar felt like a dangerous admission. The fact that I hadn’t yet done that at 23 years old felt shameful. It’s only now at 29 that I finally feel some sense of confidence when approaching a bar to order a drink.

I dreamed about going to Europe, putting it on the list and never imagining it would actually happen. I certainly didn’t foresee living there for nearly 10 months and the ways my life would change for the better afterward. I went sledding in the Swiss Alps and tumbled and laughed until I was breathless. Small dreams are important to have and can bring the sweetest joy when we see them fulfilled. I was terrified to see a counselor, so I put it on the list as a challenge to myself. But I’m now in my 3rd round of therapy in 6 years and its the first one I feel I’m making significant progress with.

I didn’t complete everything on the list. There are still 6 things I haven’t done. My friends are going to take me out for karaoke this week to try to knock off the first thing on the list (sing in public). But, truth be told, I’m not terribly worried over the fact I have a few things left to cross off. Because I did so many of the things I thought would never happen. And I’m damn proud of myself.

A week from today I turn 30 years old. I can’t remember the last time I looked forward to something so much. I had some very wise co-workers in my mid-twenties who reassured me that the twenties are hard years. They are full of struggle, change, trial and error, lots of fun, but a lack of stability. They told me how much I had to look forward to in my 30’s and beyond. They showed me through examples in their own lives how life only improves with age and maturity. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t limping through “my best years” with growing pains. My best years are yet to be determined.

One day at 27 I woke up sobbing and wishing my 20’s to be over. I was in massage school, living with friends, sleeping on a twin bed, adjusting to anxiety medication, working/going to school over 12 hours each day… and I just wanted it to be over. Some days, I still feel that way. I know that hard days will not evaporate next week. But I know better now how resilient I am to them. Hard days, difficult seasons do pass.

I have evidence of this in the form of 4 sisters who are 10+years older. I’ve had a distant view of their years of struggle, growth, and in the last few years? I see them settling into so much health and beauty. They are proof that trauma does not limit you. Difficult things can be faced and worked through. Strong families can be built, in spite of the history of dysfunction. Their lives are evidence that the patterns set for me can be broken. There is so much to hope for.

In less than a month I’m going to relocate my life –again. I’m moving to an area of the country I’ve always wanted to live in. I’m getting out of Texas, out of the Deep South and headed to a place with 4 real seasons and mountains and friends and adventures I can’t even fathom yet. And I’m so excited. Turning 30 is turning into everything I hoped it would be.

Dare to dream, my friends. Some of those dreams may actually come true.

“We”

“We are going to get through this,” you said. And the tears I’d been trying to hold back tipped over the edge of my eyelids. I covered my face and cried, letting all of the stress and sadness spill out in the best way I know how.

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The last couple of weeks on social media have been rough for survivors. Frankly, the last couple of years. It seems like every few days someone else is making headlines by sharing their story. Speaking up, speaking out against injustice, saying “me too” and so much more. They are holding the men who abused them accountable and setting a precedent that we will not stay silent. These crimes will not stay shrouded in shame that is not ours to bear.

It’s bolstering to see so many publicly stand with survivors. But this cycle of #metoo headlines is hitting me harder than others have. I’ve been reading “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van de Kolk. It is a summary of research studies and treatment methods for trauma impacted individuals. It’s fascinating and validating and painful to read, all at once. More than once I have closed the book feeling raw, exposed. Recognizing that I’ve come so far in my healing but still have so much work to do. Perhaps that awareness is contributing to my short fuse of tolerance to minor reminders of sexual abuse.

I deleted the Facebook app from my phone several days ago after a CSA advocacy group posted a quote from a perpetrator that hit me between the eyes and made me sick to my stomach. They were making a relevant point with the quote and I’m glad they are doing it. But I recognized I was feeling my capacity for triggers dwindle. I deleted the app, telling myself it would be temporary, until the senate confirmation process for Kavanaugh is completed, one way or another.

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As I scrolled Instagram this morning I saw so much support for survivors from names big and small. I scrolled past them quickly, avoiding the details. I don’t want to know or hear. I don’t want to take the hands I can’t hold in person, though I know they are offered sincerely. I am tired. So very tired of the daily reminders that I am a survivor; that the stories being told are mine, too; that the decisions being weighed in our judicial system will impact me, no matter what I do.

I am tired, perhaps this is why my internal alarm system is on high-alert, moreso than usual. I was writing a letter in the cooler weather on the patio this afternoon when a nearby neighbor roared up his muscle car with a muffler that made it sound like a gunshot. I jumped out of my skin, streaking the page with ink. My heart skipped a beat and surged with anger. Immediately the internal dialogue I have conditioned into my mind played on a loop:

“You are safe. It was just a noise. Don’t panic. You’re fine. Calm down. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

The engine eventually turned off, my heart rate settled quickly back into a more normal rhythm. But the anger? The anger remained.

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It’s easier for me to be angry with a neighbor who is unknown to me than it is for me to be angry with the man who is responsible for my internal alarm systems over-sensitivity. I recognize that anger is misplaced. Another close friend I reached out to this afternoon reminded me that I am allowed to feel angry. She suggested this is perhaps the next uncomfortable step towards healing. It needs to be felt.

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I know my state Senator. I have met him and interacted with him on a professional level many times. Perhaps I will email his office and make my voice heard. Maybe he will remember me. Maybe he won’t. But maybe he will put one more face to all the nameless women who plead with him to do the right thing, to cast the right vote.

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I wanted to bury myself under the blankets this afternoon and shut the world out. But the beauty of the first day that feels like fall beckoned me out to revel in it. I went to get groceries for soup and kitchen therapy. I drove with the windows down and the radio up. I chose a complex recipe I knew would keep me fully engaged. I grounded myself in an activity that required all my senses. And I survived the day. I might’ve even thrived a little bit.

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After my shower, I started a video chat and we both knew I had something on my mind. I was talking before I could talk myself out of it, but numb in the re-telling. I couldn’t look you in the eye. And as my speech faded, I worried I would stay numb. But then you responded, showing you heard me. You didn’t just listen. You engaged. You reminded me of the things that are hard to believe when my headspace is occupied by unpleasant memories.

You agreed that yes, perhaps I should delete Instagram also, for a season. Free up more headspace for other things to aid my healing. So I did. And suddenly I have more room to breathe.

Thank you. For letting me know I am not alone. For turning “me” into “we.” It’s the best two-letter word I’ve ever heard.

Already Home

A few days ago I received a well-meaning message from an old friend, claiming they had a missive from god: Come Home. After some time in reflection, this was my response.

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Hey There,

I’ve spent the last couple of days contemplating how to respond. I don’t think you are a weirdo, I don’t think this message is bizarre. This is precisely the kind of thing I used to think or do, with regret now. It is, however, not something I would have expected from you. So I find myself feeling a deep sense of hurt and disappointment.

To be quite honest I am more Home than I have ever been. There is nothing that would entice me to return to a “father” who is alternately as penal and neglectful as he is attentive and loving. My “family” is no longer hyper critical, judgmental or emotionally manipulative in the name of god. I have found a home in people who love me for who I am right now without attempting to impose their moral code onto my life. And I am more free, more happy, more at peace than I ever was inside of Christianity; something you would have discovered for yourself had you taken the time to catch up and engage with me BEFORE delivering your arbitrary judgment. (I know it was not intended as a judgment but you cannot deny it is implicit in the message.)

I know you have the best intentions in reaching out and it is nice to know you thought of me. But I am afraid your words did not have the intended effect of enticement back to Christianity. In fact they had the opposite effect of further pain inflicted in the name of your so-called-god. And because I no longer believe in god, I’m left with the disappointment of holding you responsible for your actions. I can’t just blame “him” or hope you misheard.

I would love to continue this dialogue, to make you dinner and talk on it. I know you have good intentions and it’s your heart to love people. I’d like to try to explain why this feels less than loving.

Hope y’all are well. Stay safe out there.

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I come from a charismatic evangelical background where “words” of this nature were commonplace. I was known to give them as often as I received them. Some of those occurrences appeared to have eerie timing that fit my circumstances exactly when I felt I needed my certainty reinforced. Some of them are even documented in the archives of this blog. You may ask how I reconcile those seemingly “supernatural” experiences now?

For a while I didn’t know how to fit old stories into my current beliefs. I didn’t know how to make sense of “words of knowledge” or “prophecies” or the like. But, as is the case with so many things, the passage of time brings clarity. I now recognize the sensations of “discernment” as truly hyper-toned perception, awareness and intuition. The ability to “discern” things about people around me has actually played a large role in making me a great massage therapist. I’m repurposing those human skills of intuition that were once used to make moral judgments, channeling them now with empathy for the benefit of my friends, clients and perhaps most importantly, myself. The super-spirituality that once gave me traction in religious circles turned out to be a skill set I’m grateful for now that I can pair it with self-awareness and critical thinking. As it turns out I can trust in myself and lean on my own understanding. I was doing it all along!

Naturally this changes how I receive so-called “prophetic words,” post-Christianity. I see them for what they are: emotional manipulation on an expert level. The empath in me recognizes that manipulation is not the intent, but that does not negate that it is often the result, and the results are what matter. In the case of the message from my old friend I recognize the disappointment ontheir part that I have left the faith and the earnest hope that I will return to their interpretation of the truth. I sense their sadness over the “state of my soul.” But I no longer feel responsible to mitigate those negative emotions for them. I am sad that implied expectations will necessarily change the way we relate to one another going forward. My boundaries do not permit these type of interactions to persist.

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So, for anyone else who may be considering sending that “word” my way, I hope it’s clear you’d be better off keeping your thoughts and prayers to yourself. If the display of my life now grieves you too deeply, allow me to invite you to unfollow or unfriend me on social media. I promise I won’t even notice.

Scars of Hope

Hope scarred me.

I was scrolling a worship leaders Instagram account tonight and saw a post where he was pleading his followers prayers for a little boy. He was “speaking life” over this child whose kidneys are failing. I clicked away to a post where another worship artist spoke confidently of this child’s healing. She said they would rest and let god work.

I hope the boy recovers. Truly, I do.

But I don’t hope for it the way I used to. I remembered tonight the way I used to hope. I would pray with a certainty that left me soaring in confidence that god would act. That full restoration would come. I would pray with certainty but also desperation as though the doors of heaven required my pounding. That kind of prayer, that kind of hope, always made my stomach drop.

For a brief moment tonight that feeling visited me. I’m often slow to recognize a flashback when I have one. As I began writing this narrative I felt myself drifting out of my body, dissociating, staring at my hands like they are some kind of alien life form. I’m writing to stay grounded.

My middle name is Hope. It’s something I have struggled to own for many years of my life. I often find myself hoping against my better judgment. I’m a romantic, an optimist, I want things to work out. The strain of charismatic evangelicalism I was a part of for over 20 years cultivated that propensity toward hope to an extreme. I would pray and focus and meditate on certain outcomes: healings, relationships restored, salvation for others, destruction of others, financial gains, demonic exorcisms… and in these prayers there was no room for doubt. As a woman my examples were Hannah, pray with persistence, Rachel, give me what I ask lest I die, Mary, let it be unto me as you will. For some things I prayed for years, faithfully.

If ever those prayers and hopes were not fulfilled my focus always turned inward. If I was not to blame for gods inaction then what was I to learn? What grand lesson would he teach me that I would be compelled to share with others as a consolation prize for their shattered hearts?

It felt false. But I had to believe. I despised anything and anyone that felt false, so to compensate for that I put my heart and soul in to believing. There was no choice. This was the only truth. I was in too deep.

There was no space for grief or pain when you were perpetually hoping and desperately praying for miraculous healing from negative and non-Christian emotions. Grief was only allowed when grieving for lost souls. Pain was only allowed when identifying with Christ on the cross. Resurrection already occurred and that was the goal. There was an unspoken 3 day limit on any kind of sorrow. You don’t need medication. Come out of the tomb. He is risen and what kind of witness are you if you haven’t? It doesn’t matter if it’s true. Come out and testify and our praise will make it feel true. It worked. Until it didn’t anymore.

It wasn’t until after I left the cult that the veil of certainty began to unravel. For the first time my prayers became self-focused. I begged god for healing for my heart and mind that were ravaged by Complex Post Traumatic Stress. My symptoms were largely held at bay by the regimented prayer routines I followed for decades. I allowed myself to grieve. I faced and embraced the pain I’d piously held off. I worked, hard, to heal. And I prayed. Still. Desperately, for the pain to cease. I prayed when I woke up covered in sweat from nightmares of horrors I was loathe to remember. I prayed when panic threatened to drown me. When I couldn’t face it any longer on my own I reached out to friends and asked them to pray, privately. I told a friend that I was clinging to god with every shred of hope in my body.

After over 2 years post-cult that pain was still raw. There’s a Proverb that says hope deferred makes the heart sick. I was hoping for healing as my heart sank into depression I tried to ignore. I dragged myself out of bed one February night and stood in the rain to attend a worship night with the aforementioned leaders. I watched them pray over members of the audience. I heard stories of supposed healings that took place that night. I felt hope and disappointment at war within me. I was tired of fighting for my healing when others were handed theirs on a platter. The veil was tearing from the bottom up. Within 6 months I left for L’abri as a final attempt to repair the damage done.

Nine months later I prayed for the last time to that god I’d given everything to. And I felt a weight thrown off. Instead of always feeling as though I was falling short of the glory of god by not grasping the healing promised, I accepted my pain for what it was. I stopped hoping it would go away by some miracle and then I made tangible strides in healing. I began telling my story instead of covering it over with sticky sweet hopeful platitudes meant to convert the unfaithful.

These days I’m much more practical about the things I hope for. If someone I care for is sick, I hope for the best outcome but I also prepare myself for the worst and plan ways to be present for the people who will need support the most. I will not be the person who “speaks life”… I will be the person who asks if you are sad or scared and holds you while we cry.

It’s been two years since I stopped praying. In the time since I’ve learned that prayer requests can be replaced by vulnerability. Telling your friends you are struggling and asking for their support is so much more difficult than asking for prayer ever was. And I’ve grown so much from learning to do it. Having my friend reach for my hand and cry for me when I didn’t even have tears was more meaningful than the most earnest prayer offered on my behalf.

I’m learning to hope again. It’s hard for me to admit I want something I have no control over bringing to bear. Hope was hollow for me for so long that I’m skittish of getting close to it. But if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that I can survive the deepest heartbreak and learn to live well again. I may no longer be able to pray but hope…

Hope is still my middle name. And it will never be cliche for me.