“Just because someone isn’t willing or able to love us, it doesn’t mean that we are unlovable.” ― Brené Brown
I have been doing some deep soul searching. When you first leave a toxic church or family it is all about survival. Then as the years peel away deeper issues are revealed. One of my biggest struggles right now is to see myself as good. Now I know that if you are still a Christian you may not agree with this post and if that is the case please feel free to scroll on past. I can’t ever remember a time when I felt that I was good, from a very young age I felt wrong, off, broken, and dangerous. Some of the blame for that I can lay at my parent’s feet and some of that blame belongs to the church. I was a vibrant child with intelligence and ambition. I was artistic, athletic and loving. Somewhere along the way, very early on my light was snuffed out. Some of that was stress and some of it was from constantly being reminded that I was a sinner, and the worst kind of sinner, a woman.
“We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.” ― Brené Brown
I’m taking a class right now that requires me to do a lot of journaling and soul searching. As I look back on my child self I find myself struggling to like that little girl. I find myself asking why, why did I always feel rejected by God and why did I always feel like I was somehow the exception to God’s love? It makes me so angry that my light was extinguished so young and that I was taught to hate myself especially my own body. I was taught to see my very existence as sinful and the body that I had no choice but to live in as dangerous and flawed. What awful poison! Now as an adult I try to reach back to my child self and offer her love and understanding but I feel like I’m failing. My only hope is that somewhere in my mind I can find the truth of who I was/am. I realize as I type this how crazy this must all sound. I’ve been out of the church for so long, how can this still be a struggle? It’s a struggle because I am not yet totally healed and may never be, but I strive anyways to heal a little more every day. Part of that process is to grant my child self something she never had, unconditional love and belief in her inherent goodness.
“Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it- it can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.” ― Brené Brown
When I try to hold an image of my child self in my mind all I can see is shame hanging on her like a dirty cloak. Shame because of my parents’ behavior and choices, poverty, shame about what was done to me, and shame about my early blooming body. I knew that I did not come from the right family and yes I felt shame because of my skin color. Shame about my intelligence and shame because I had questions. In the past, I have worked hard to let go of shame but this work is showing me that there is still work to do in that department. I have to remind myself that the shame they heaped on me was not my shame to carry. I need to find a way to see my child self without the gray filter that is always present.
For now, I’m going to keep pulling the past apart and reminding myself how the adults around me were wrong and deceived. I’m going to try to love my child self the way I love my own children. This might be an unpopular opinion but I believe we all come into this world good. I refuse to believe that a child deserves hell or is even capable of sin. I’m also going to remind myself that all of those statements include me. I am not the exception, I am good.
Today I want to tell you that you are worthy. If you were sexually abused as a child you are worthy. You did not draw that older man into sin. He made his choices and he was an adult. You were a child and children cannot consent. I am so sorry if the church did not protect you, love you, and help you to heal. You deserve love, support, and an apology. I am still stunned at Calvary Gospel’s silence. I am experiencing them as no more loving now than they were when I was a child.
You are worthy even if your family did not dress right, or if you are brown or black, and even if your family did not tithe enough. A child shouldn’t have to pay for their parent’s choices. None of us can control the color of our skin or the family we are born into. We certainly could not have controlled our parent’s actions.
You are worthy even if you made mistakes, snuck into the movies, or listened to top 40 radio when your parents were out. These things are not sins, they are a normal part of growing up. No one perfectly listens to the adults in their life. Normal human development dictates that teens challenge adults, it is how we grow and become independent.
You are worthy if you wore a slit in your skirt, asked too many questions, or got bored in church. If you kissed a boy behind the church camp auditorium when you were supposed to be inside, if you faked being sick to stay home from church, and even if you faked speaking in tongues because you were afraid to disappoint your parents.
I see you trying to pretend that you are ok, trying to heal, trying to deal with the coldness coming from the people who raised us. I see you dealing with trauma, being the family outcast, never being 100% sure if you made the right decision when you left the church. I see you wondering if you should have kept your mouth shut about it all.
I understand not being educated properly and how that stays with you all your life. I understand playing small, staying invisible, always waiting for something bad to happen. I understand feeling weird in the world like you can never quite fit in. I understand the world not understanding where we come from and how exhausting it can be to try to explain.
For the men out there I see you too. Struggling to come to terms with what has happened to the women you grew up with, ministered to, your sisters and friends. I see you having many of the same struggles as I have only different at the same time. I know that there are survivors among you and when you are ready to tell your story we will be there for you as you have been there for us.
Consider this my love letter to all the survivors out there no matter what your damage is. You are worthy. Please don’t let those who refuse to ask for forgiveness, who refuse to take responsibility, and who choose to stand in judgment rather than lend aid define you. I see you as strong, brave, and overcomers. We have overcome the lack of love, support, grace, and normal human kindness we should have received as kids. We have found each other and created a life raft for one another and any new survivors who choose to join us. You are good even if you are not perfect. You are worthy.
My parents had a rocky relationship. I can’t remember them being happy. My mother came from a small town and moved to Madison after high school. She married the first guy she dated and it did not turn out the way she expected it to. My mother went into the relationship with expectations that my father did not share. She assumed he would follow the rules of the church and those rules were very important to her. My father was a serial cheater, drinker, and poker player. My mother dealt with most of that but the cheating was a deal breaker. They did not immediately divorce because my mother believed that divorce was a sin. So she hung on and they were on and off for much of my young childhood.
I know very little about my dad’s past. I know he was born in Mexico and that he became a citizen of the U.S. I do not know where in Mexico he is from and I know next to nothing about his family. He never shared things like that. It was very rare for him to talk about his past and sometimes his stories did not add up. It is a sad part of my story because not knowing his family or anything about that part of my ancestry has left a hole in my heart. I often wonder who they are and I wish I could ask them my questions. Maybe then I would understand my dad better, maybe if I spoke with them I would know why he seemed so broken.
My father was unreliable. He did not pay child support and that kept my mother and me in poverty. He had a habit of disappearing. He often would not show up for visitation. I would wait for him to drive up and many times he just never showed. After hours of waiting my mother would coax me into bed. As I grew older my resentment started to increase. By middle school, I became aware that he only came around when he was between women. I started to feel like a consolation prize. Our relationship became strained. When I was little I was a daddy’s girl. I loved him fiercely and forgave him for every terrible thing he did. As I was approaching my teen years I could see who he really was and it was pretty ugly.
My dad had high expectations. If I got sick or struggled with anything he would blame it on my mother’s bad genes. I was a reflection of him and therefore I had to be perfect. He was emotionally unavailable. I could get affection but I could not talk anything through with him because everything was always about him. I have come to believe that he had some sociopathic tendencies. Perfection was not about how you treated people it was about what you looked like and how successful you were.
In middle school, my dad started flirting with my friends. By high school, many of my friends did not want to be around if he was around. The church already treated me badly because of Steve Dahl, then on top of that my dad was a creep. In high school, I became aware that he was dating girls my age. At one point when I was around 16, I told him about Steve Dahl. Then the unthinkable happened, he told me that he knew it was happening the whole time. He figured Steve was tired of his wife and would eventually marry me. This crushed me and it changed the way I saw my father forever. I did not cut him off but it was the beginning of the end. My dad never saw an issue with a man having a much younger wife or even multiple wives. I have no idea where this thinking came from. It seemed to grow stronger over time.
When I was in my twenties he was sent to prison. He was convicted of molesting my little step sister. After prison they deported him. He never forgave me for not supporting him in court and I only spoke with him twice after they released him. He has disappeared from my life.
I have daddy issues. I am sure that my father’s bad parenting is partly why I was so vulnerable when Steve Dahl came into my life. Knowing that my dad knew what was going on and did nothing to help me has given me self-worth issues. Men, in general, failed me during my childhood. Whether it was the babysitter’s husband who touched me when I was in elementary school, my pastor who did not report the abuse that happened at his church, my abuser, or countless others. My only real positive male relationship during childhood was with my grandfather. This brings me to God, Yahweh, Jesus, whatever you choose to call him. He really did not show up for me either. He was silent. I felt rejected by him as well.
This story is tragic and so I’m going to try to end it on a happy note. I did get some good things from my dad. I am very tough and strong-minded, I hold myself to high standards and I’m a hard worker. I have some charm and charisma which I’m pretty sure comes from him. I’m also in a much better place spiritually. I have stopped chasing after god. I have embraced a spiritual path that feeds me and where I feel accepted and respected. At times my daddy issues bubble up and then I have to work through some new layers. There is so much more I could share about my dad and maybe I will in a later post. Sometimes writing all of this down drives home how sad it all is and it becomes too much for me to handle all at once. I’m grateful I survived my childhood and I’m grateful I am in a better place now.
Once when I was in therapy the therapist asked me to envision my child self. My mind went to a field we had near my childhood home. I would run around that field playing Wonder Woman. I went sledding with my dog down the hill beside the field and I would make crowns from the dandelions I found in the grass. When envisioning my child self my mind immediately took me to that place and sitting in the grass making crowns and placing dandelions in my hair. That little girl was still pretty carefree but that wouldn’t last for long. By that time I had been exposed to rapture theology and my parents were struggling within their marriage and we were poor. Even with all of that to worry about I was still an adventurous, imaginative, happy-go-lucky little girl.
We started attending Calvary Gospel on and off in 1978. By 1980 I was becoming pretty entrenched. You might think that Steve Dahl was the first thing to interrupt my girlhood but I don’t think that is true. What came first was fear. Calvary Gospel was awash in it at that point. Sermons like the one that lead to my salvation were not the exception they were common. My world kept getting smaller and smaller. It seemed like everything was a sin and the devil was everywhere just waiting to deceive and maybe gobble up a little girl like me. The seeds to all of my anxiety were planted, watered, and tended there. How can you be a little girl when all you can think about is hell, the rapture, and what sin you might have committed while just going about your day? It didn’t take long before innocent things like watching cartoons on tv or listening to the radio could be enough to damn me for eternity. This is where I learned to make myself small and it has impacted my life in a very negative way. I became super fearful and so I stopped taking chances/risks and instead tried to stay safe. Safety is good but it can go too far. I believe all success requires being willing to take some risks.
Soon I learned that women were supposed to be quiet in church. Women’s role in family life was to be submissive to the husband and to raise the children. I was never asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I think it was assumed I would be a quiet submissive wife. When I was a little girl I wanted to be a minster. I would line up all my dolls on the sofa along with my stuffed animals and Barbies. We would have church and I would lead the worship and preach the message. At about age 10 I stopped dreaming about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Soon my goals shifted to being an evangelists wife and going to a UPC supported music school. I knew that a good ministers wife needed to know how to sing and play an instrument in order to support her husbands work. I went from being the leading lady to being a support player. Wonder Woman was long out of my reach.
A.C.E. did not help. I attended the church school and those old PACES did not show women doing much other than working with kids. We did not have many great electives to take and the work itself was not inspiring. Most of the time I was bored out of my mind. I went in a bright straight A student and left hating school and just wanting it to be over. No one ever talked to me about college or offered to help me with picking a career. The staff seemed just as miserable as the students. It was not an environment that fostered curiosity, questions, or deep thinking. It was learning by memorization, no real thinking required. Things that could not be taught that way, like algebra turned into a nightmare for me. I am a kinesthetic learner and I love a good discussion. There was no place for any of that within my Christian education. In my late high school years, I toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher but nothing ever came of that dream. The idea of college just became too much to try to figure out in the midst of all of the other things going on in my life. Even being a teacher was a downgrade from another childhood dream of being a doctor. Public school in the 70’s taught me I could be anything, the church and Christian school undid all of that.
Steve Dahl took what little bit of self-esteem I had and crushed it. That experience made me feel dirty and sinful. I had a pretty good body image before he came into my life but that all changed. I started to see my body as a sinful trap that kept ensnaring this godly man. I felt betrayed by my body because at times I enjoyed the attention he gave me. I started to see my body as something that needed to be hidden, controlled and prayed for. I certainly did not feel fearfully and wonderfully made. I did not feel created in god’s image. All of the things that made me a woman seemed evil and wrong. Eve was my mother and well we all know how things went for her.
Catching a husband seemed important. I worried about being attractive but not too attractive or attractive in the wrong way. I was half Mexican and so that added an extra level of difficulty. I could not get a straight answer about who it was ok for me to marry. At that time interracial marriage was considered wrong and there were no other Mexicans in our congregation. I felt that my being half Mexican meant I needed to find a Mexican husband, and that seemed like a tall order. I dated Caucasians boys but I always felt the undertone of racism that existed there. I would not be anybody’s first choice. I was tainted by my molestation and the color of my skin. I felt lesser. My parents were not part of the in crowd and that also lead to me feeling like a second-class citizen. It made me feel even smaller.
Yesterday I was talking with some other survivors about who we could have been had we not grown up in the UPC environment. We all feel like girls interrupted. Our childhood interrupted and corrupted by Calvary Gospel church. Our innocence was stolen. We were not allowed to be kids. The adults always seemed to have their minds in the gutter and so every innocent thing became an opportunity for sin and especially sex to invade our lives, and yet no protection was offered to keep us safe from the real dangers. Predators were protected and supported while victims were scorned and not to be trusted. We received a substandard education and the church seemed to care more about whether or not our skirts had slits than whether or not be could go to college. The adults in my life didn’t seem to care about the lack of food in my home or about the devastation that my abuse caused in my life. If they had done that one thing, protected me from my abuser my life could have been so different. If they had offered loving support and reassurance my life could have been so much better. They took beautiful, bright, and hopeful young girls and turned them into anxious, fearful, and damaged women.
Now as we try to raise awareness about what happened to us all the church can do is scorn us. They can’t seem to understand or they don’t care to see what they have done to us. These things are not things you just move on from it takes hard work, support, and a lifetime of striving to overcome. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t been striving to be better no matter what our damage is. We don’t desire to be bitter we desire justice and we hope to save other children from the fate we have suffered. We were girls interrupted but now we are women seeking to bring about change.
Last year my word for the year was restoration. I wanted to go back to the time before I was so afraid. I wanted to see my body as a miracle and a blessing and I wanted to say goodbye to shame once and for all. I worked to remember who I was before my worth was called into question. Last year was a big year. My life has totally changed. I feel like my life has been restored. I’m taking chances again and I’m daring to go after what I want. I’ve stepped out of the shadows and I’ve become more engaged in my community and politics. I’ve been reunited with old friends and found many new friends and supporters. I’ve learned I’m not alone thanks to #metoo/#churchtoo. I am not the person the church might like you to think I am. I’m not bitter, I’m strong. I’m not trying to engage them in spiritual warfare, I’m trying to seek justice for my child self. I’m trying to tell the truth and speak for all of those who cannot speak for themselves. Wonder Woman doesn’t seem so out of reach now.