Everyone Has a Story
As I have traveled through this life, I have met some very interesting people along the way. I have talked and discoursed with longhairs, shorthairs, republicans and democrats, conservatives and liberals, poverty-stricken and filthy-rich. I have talked with people from all over the world, and even lived in some of their cultures. What I have learned from all these interactions is that everyone has a story. Some are tame and mild, others are outrageous and wild. Some stories tell of great tragedy and pain, while others are full of victory triumph. Some have straight and clean paths, while others somehow face every obstacle under the sun. What is so interesting to me, though, is that you just never know what a person's story is from looking at the person alone. That old saying of "don't judge a book by its cover" is just so true. You just never know what a person has gone through, or is going through, to be where she is today. What I have also learned, though, is that even if you do know a person's story, it may give you an insight into what the picture of the life has looked like, but it does not tell you how the heart has held up in response to it all. That's a different story altogether.
I have become thoroughly convinced through the years that God wants us to tell our stories, because ultimately, they are His stories. It is through these stories of our lives that His character is revealed and we meet Him afresh and anew with experience in our lives. It is also through these stories that we remember what He has done for us, how far He has carried us, how He has healed and changed our own lives.
Have you ever noticed how many names of God there are throughout Scripture? Whenever an event would happen in Scripture, the people involved would name God based on the characteristic that was revealed, based on who He was to them at that point in time. Maybe He is Elohim (the Creator) at one point, and then Qanna (Jealous) at another. Maybe He is El Roi (the God who sees) to the woman who has been cast out, or Jehovah-Jireh (the Lord will Provide) to the woman who is struggling to make ends meet. I have come to realize that Scripture is full of so many different names of God, as there is no one name that is big enough to encompass all that is God, other than to simply acknowledge YHWH in how He called Himself, I AM THAT I AM.
When we tell our stories of God, when we tell the history, or rather His Story, of our lives, we share with others the character of God and the ways that He has revealed Himself to us, that others may know Him and recognize Him as He reveals Himself to them.
And so I will slowly begin to tell my story, mostly for my benefit, so that I may take a look back and remember how far God has brought me. There are many days that I battle with discouragement, wondering if I have grown at all. And so it is through this remembering that I may see the path I have traveled, and see the wonders of the Lord and how His hand has worked. I don't know how long it will take to get it out, but slowly, and patiently, I will lay it all out there. Well, maybe not all...we'll see what it brings.
Feel free to journey with me. It might not all be pretty. Let me rephrase. It is not all pretty. There are parts that are downright ugly. But there is nothing that Jesus touches that He does not turn to beauty, no ashes left behind. And so there is no shame in the path that was taken, only praise that He did not leave me there.
Where It All Began
I grew up in Texas, the Lone Star State. The great big Lone Star State. When you grow up in Texas, there truly is no other state, as there is no need for anything outside the borders of the great cowboy state. They say that everything is bigger in Texas, including trucks, hair, egos, and churches. My days started in a suburb of Dallas where church was a social expectation, as it is with much of the Bible-belt South. You went to church out of fear of the fire and brimstone that was being spewed from the pulpit, or the sweet southern gossip that would tear a person down with an oozing smile, seething, "Bless her heart," in a long Texas draw.
Ah, the way of the South.
In those days, I could turn one-syllable words into 3 or 4 syllables. Just apply a slight whine and varying intonations, and suddenly "Dad" is more like du-aa-ieed. Combine that with some severe puppy dog eyes, and a sweet Southern gal will have one daddy wrapped around her precious little finger. Not that I would ever have done that. It was just an example.
I grew up in a slightly less conventional family, especially for Bible-belt standards, where longhair and Volkswagens were commonplace, and clean cut was a phrase used for trimming flower stems in a shop called Strawberry Fields. I remember for a short time there was even a Harley in the family. That one didn't last too long, but I do recall a ride or two seated quite tightly in my father's lap, a blonde-haired three year old reaching tall for the handles with a proper fear. But I also remembering feeling so alive there with my daddy, wind tracing through my wispy, fine hair. If I was laughing or crying, I don't remember, but I do remember knowing that I was safe there with my daddy behind me. That's how it is meant to be, conventional or not.
I have vague memories of growing up around church for a short while. I even remember being baptized. I must have been about 7 or 8. We lived in Houston by then, having moved from our family roots of Dallas to a suburb of Houston for the sake of jobs. I remember Sunday School as a small child, and can even recall being chosen to be the "pastor" of our small Sunday School class when we were putting together a kid's church. It's funny to think about it now. I had created a sermon and all, ready to give a word. Unfortunately it never happened though, as the Sunday that we were to hold our church service, daylight savings struck without the clocks being properly forewarned. So we showed up an hour late for church. I remember walking into the classroom just as the "substitute" pastor kid was finishing up my message. What heartbreak and disappointment. That's the way it goes sometimes.
Our church days ended fairly shortly after that, not because my pastor job was given to another, but because it turned out that the conventional were not necessarily comfortable with the unconventional being in any place of leadership. I tell you, it's still like that.
My folks were in charge of leading an adult Sunday school class. My dad loved to teach, and used his gifting well, but not everyone wanted to learn from a longhair. And so they were asked to step down. Was his teaching unbiblical? No. Was he breaking doctrine? No. But he was a distraction to others because he did not conform to their ways. I tell you that they remain like that to this day, not conforming to the ways of this world or the wants of man, and I am so proud of them for that.
That began a slow death of church-life, disheartened and hurting from judgment and deception. I remember several Sundays in a row, I would be the first to wake up in the house. I would run to my folks' room to wake them, saying, "It's Sunday!! Can we go to church? Wake up! Let's go to church!"
And in a slow, groggy voice, one of them would say, "It's too late, sweetie. We missed it today. We'll try again next week."
Though I did not know the reason at the time, after a few Sundays of that repeated, I finally took to heart that our church days as a family were done. For a short time, there was a Sunday school teacher who would pick me up at the house and allow me to tag along with her family, but that didn't last long either. Folks just move on.
It wasn't too long at all before the idea of church was little more than a distant memory. Verses that had been memorized, books that had been recited, and songs that were sung and acted out were filed away in the deep recesses of the memory, making way for new lessons in life.
And did those lessons ever come.
The Birth of a Perfectionist
I was an incredibly sensitive child. To a fault. I was condemned to glasses and acne at a very early age, which was only a set up for the schoolyard bullies to have a field day. On top of that, my fashion sense was, well about as unconventional as my family, and so I was teased on many fronts, from a very early age. Because I was such a sensitive, tender child, this teasing absolutely shredded any amount of self-esteem that a child could have.
I also came from a teasing family; only it wasn't the same kind of malicious schoolyard teasing that I received during the day. But to my sensitive heart, all teasing equaled insults, and so I began to live in constant fear of being teased for my faults and shortcomings. Somehow, I determined that if I could just be perfect, get things right, all things, then no one would have reason to tease me. If I could just blend into the back wall so no one would notice me, then they wouldn't tease me. In theory, that might sound good, but no one can really live like that. There is no perfection this side of heaven, and a child cannot go unnoticed for too long at all.
But I worked at it nonetheless. I strived to be the perfect student, quiet and smart, loved by teachers for not causing problems and not requiring extra attention. Unfortunately, though, the teasing at school did not stop, as I was called every name under the sun by bullies who had their own issues.
Four-eyes! Zit-face! Nerd! Hey dork, why don't you wash your face every now and then! What the hell are you wearing, dork? You freak!
I wish I had been stronger. I wish I could have fought back. I wish that those names didn't level me to tears, every time. But I refused to cry in front of the bullies. I would not give that to them. So I would hold it in, push it down, and allow the words spoken over me to ruminate, simmer, like a crockpot of hatred and bitterness that would swirl around my heart and mind, taking up residence in any crag available. In my pursuit of perfectionism, I neglected proper use of my own emotions and boundaries, and tried to hold things together, right up until I would explode, every couple of months it seemed. What a mess.
I just read recently from a Beth Moore book that "perfectionism is insecurity in art form." Precisely. And that was the aim. And when those habits go unchecked as a child, when that becomes the form of coping and dealing as a child, growing into adulthood becomes very interesting. Truly, it's difficult to really grow when perfection is the aim.
And yet that was the path that I chose, for better and worse.
The Beginning of a Downward Spiral
I spent most of my childhood in Houston, rather a suburb of Houston. Houston is a good place to be from, and the suburb where we lived was a relatively great place to grow up as a kid. There were lots of other children in my neighborhood, where we filled our days with splashes and games at the neighborhood pool, and filled the evening hours with massive expeditions of Capture the Flag. We were an active family, with soccer games and swim meets keeping the family van moving.
Life after church was just, well, life. All things carried on in a status quo manner, and we were just good people just making our way. There was summer camp, and tents in the backyard, and surprise parties, and orchestra events, and all manner of busyness that goes with a growing a family. And I never knew the difference of the whole God-thing, and never thought to give it a thought.
That was up until my freshman year of high school, when my little world got it's first deep rocking. I was a member of the high school swim team and felt so privileged to be able to spend so much time with my fellow team members. It seemed I had finally found a niche where I felt I belonged, and all the deep insecurities from teasing and striving perfectionism settled into a tolerable rhythm.
But then just a few weeks into the year, tragedy struck our sheltered little suburb when we heard the news that one of our swim team members had been murdered, along with his older brother and his father. This person, this friend, this team member with whom we had spent many hours in training, was now gone.
Shock, confusion, and great despair spread throughout the community. Their church family was beside themselves. No one could understand how this great family, these upstanding Christians could have been caught up in such violence. They didn't understand where God was in the midst of it all, and for me, on the outside of that church family, it was one more confirmation that church held no lasting benefit for anyone at all.
In the mixed up emotions and angst of my teenage mind, I reasoned that a God who treated his followers like that was not a god to be followed. In the arrogance of my youthful invincibility, I reasoned that I was surely better off on my own, and that church was for the weak, the ignorant, the desperate. And I had already decided that was not to be me. As so I resolved that I was indeed better off on my own anyway. Decidedly, there was no reason to seek after God. He’ll only hang you out to dry and die in the end anyway.
Looking back on those years now, I can easily see how that period of time was like standing at the top of a downward spiral. I was on the edge of the widest circle, moving slowly down, around, and was slowly picking up speed. I just didn’t know it.
At the end of my sophomore year of high school, my family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, a beautiful little city where no one knew anything about me. I could be whoever and whatever I wanted to be, because no one knew me.
There was a culture shock that was experienced in Little Rock that I did not expect. The racism that thrived in that town of the South ran so deep that both sides of the fence were tainted with ugly words and evil thoughts. I discovered a new kind of teasing at school, as racial slurs were thrown in our direction as my brother and I would walk down halls lined with much darker skin than our own. The tension was palpable and made school a painful thorn in my flesh.
This straight A teacher’s pet began skipping classes for the sake of avoiding the place altogether. I discovered a quiet park where other delinquents gathered and quickly became friends with my fellow ditchers. Truly, there is only so much that a bunch of teenagers can do while avoiding school, and alcohol and cigarettes were always a part of it. I spent many school afternoons out drinking and smoking for hours. I even showed up to my teenage job slightly tipsy one day. Very dumb.
Oh, if that were where my dumb choices stopped, I would rejoice greatly and write it all off to the foolishness of youth. But with each afternoon where I was tipping back booze rather than sitting in typing class, for each day that I was lighting up smokes and kicking back with new friends, I was stepping further onto the downward spiral with very slippery slopes.
By the end of my junior year of high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, I rarely stayed at school for an entire day. My grades had begun to suffer, and my apathy was overwhelming. On a whim, I decided to apply to be a cultural exchange student. At that point, I was looking at anything to avoid having to return to school the following year. I wrote an essay to compete for a scholarship to send me to Ecuador for a year, and won. Crazy!
So the school year ended, I squeaked by to the finish line, and before I knew it, was packing my bags to spend the following year in a small town on the coast of Ecuador.
Oh boy, that downward spiral was beginning to get very slippery.
The Ecuador Year: Just Getting There Was an Adventure
I have avoided writing this chapter. If you could have seen the skillful procrastination techniques that have gone into the avoidance, they might have impressed you, or saddened you. To put into words all that happened in that one pivotal year is, to some degree, to have to walk through it, yet again. It no longer shatters me, as many, many years have passed since this one pivotal year in my life, but to spell it out is vulnerable and slightly scary. I had a counselor, for a short time, who asked me to write about what happened down there in that small South American country. She knew my love of writing and thought that it might be helpful for me to express, through my love of words, what took place. Oh how I hated her for that. She tainted my gift with ugly words, and I hated the words that spilled out, evil that oozed, and I wrote it for her, forming into creation on paper the sin that took place, but then stopped going to sit in her office and allow her to pick open my heart; and then I stopped writing. For years. It was all just too ugly, seemed unredeemable.
But the year that I lived in Ecuador wasn’t all bad, and it’s important to remember that there were some very beautiful things that happened there, some wonderful friends were made there, who, thanks to the power of facebook, have recently reconnected with. Some very fun times were had while I lived there. I’ll start there.
I spoke a small amount of Spanish, four years worth of Spanish class in junior high and high school, only to realize that I hadn’t the foggiest idea of how to put together a full sentence in Spanish, but could recall a few vocabulary words, which weren’t really that helpful. But when the day arrived to leave, my folks had driven my to New Orleans to pick up the flight, and gave tearful, fearful goodbyes right up until I boarded the plane. We had a layover in San Jose, which turned out to be about 8 hours longer than the scheduled one-hour layover, and I remember sitting on the blue short carpet that was full of dirt and smelled of old cheese. I sat in this small, foreign airport, kicking myself for packing my fat, little pocket dictionary in my suitcase rather than carrying it on with me, searching frantically for a white face, someone who might speak the same language as me and yet have a clue as to what was going on and why we weren’t boarding the plane at the scheduled time.
I found a large group of people who appeared to be waiting for the same flight, and so casually slipped into their group and followed them in line, right up until I realized that they were actually leaving the airport and getting on a bus. Panic ensued and I began barking at anyone I could about whether this was the group waiting for the flight to Guayaquil. Everyone I saw said yes and I was sure that it was a communication error, but was herded onto the tourist bus nonetheless.
To this day, I do not know if the tour was arranged by the airline or airport or the city or who, but the whole lot of us who were waiting for the flight to Ecuador were given a wonderful tour of the exotic city of San Jose, Puerto Rico, winding down narrow streets laced with enchanting flowers the size of my head. We stopped at a hotel where we were served an amazing lunch, and I didn’t understand what was happening or what was being said, but just went with the herd and hoped beyond hope that we would eventually land back at the airport. We did, eventually, land back at the airport and before I knew it, the plane was in the air and we were on our way to Ecuador.
The Ecuador Year: The Dream to the Nightmare
I lived with 3 different families for that year in Ecuador, and the first two were in the small coastal town of Portoviejo. My first family had a set of twin girls who were around the same age as me. I cried for the whole first month that I lived in Portoviejo, overwhelmed with homesickness and never being able to understand what was being said to me, or about me. I think that sweet little family thought there was something seriously wrong with me, and when they spoke to me, they would raise their voices a few octaves, just short of shouting at me, as if the lack of comprehension was a hearing problem rather than a language problem. I tried to explain, in my broken, broken Spanish, with several pauses for flipping through my dictionary, that I just didn’t understand the vocabulary yet, and so then they began to speak as if in slow motion. I understood and appreciated the intent, but it really didn’t help, as then everything sounded funny and weird and loud.
After a month or so of living with that first family, it was decided that it just wasn’t a very good fit, and I was moved in with a new family, a little more in town and little less loud. This family had only one daughter who was a year younger than me, and turned out to be a lovely host sister. We became friends quite quickly, and she was determined to help me learn to speak. I think she was very excited to have a sister, and she and I got into lots of trouble together.
When school started, I was taken to the seamstress to have my uniform made, which was a humbling experience altogether. I come from German-Scottish roots, which does not produce fragile people, for the most part. And compared to the smaller frames of Ecuadorians, I was quite the giant. So as I am being measured for my skirt, which was like a turquoise checkered picnic blanket, the seamstress mentioned that I was quite the “gringota” and would require much fabric. Sigh. Gringota.
I was learning the intricacies of the Spanish language, and seeing that you could tack an adjective on to the end of end of any word. So I was often referred to as “gringa,” which simply means “white girl,” but by adding “-ota” onto the end of it, I was now “big white girl.” There were three other Americans living in Portoviejo at the time with the same program that I was in. They were small and cute and were lovingly referred to as “gringitas,” the “-ita” making the white girls small. I liked the term gringita. It sounded dainty and sweet. It sounded like something you would say in a high-pitched voice to a baby, or endearingly to a cute little girl, while gringota sounded like a word that would boom out of the mouth of the giant at the top of the bean stalk. The other girls on the team, they were gringitas, but me, I was gringota. And now a gringota with a turquoise checkered picnic blanket wrapped around my waist. Lovely.
So school started, which was quite a shock to the system. It was an all-girls’ school, each one in her turquoise checkered picnic blanket. The classrooms were lined up next to each other, forming a large square of classrooms with a spacious courtyard in the middle of them all. The courtyard has a grassy area on one half and a basketball court on the other with cracked cement, old wooden backboards and rims with no nets. I wondered about the basketball court, given the apparent lack of height to the overwhelming majority of Ecuadorian girls, but maybe it was just something that was a standard part of schools.
My host sister and I would wander into the courtyard in the morning, waiting for the bell to ring signaling the beginning of class. My host sister was more like a rock star in those days, showing off her gringota, and all the little girls of the school would crowd around and press in with too many questions, their long dark hair pulled back so tightly into ponytails that their eyes were lifted up into Asian accents. They would all giggle as I struggled to comprehend what they were saying, pausing them every few words to thumb through my trusty pocket dictionary with frayed edges and tattered corners. I didn’t understand most of what they said in those days, but they quizzed about my old school, and my family and friends in the states, trying to get a picture of what my home was like.
Then the school bell would ring and squeals would fill the courtyard as chaos ensued and girls ran to their classrooms with no windows and no doors. We stayed in the same classroom all morning long, and sometimes a teacher showed and sometimes no one showed up for hours. So the scene from the courtyard would continue in the classroom right up until a teacher showed up and sent everyone to her own seat.
It was interesting taking classes in a Spanish all-girls’ high school, and most of the classes I had already taken in the states and most of the material I already knew because I was a teacher’s pet. But it was fun to learn that organic chemistry is essentially exactly the same in Spanish as it is in English, and that made it fun, assuming organic chemistry can be considered fun.
So we would spend our morning sitting in our one classroom, waiting and wondering if a teacher was going to show up for this hour, and then we were excused for the day at lunchtime. I really loved this part of their culture. The entire family would arrive at home for a massive lunchtime feast, and then lay down for an afternoon siesta before returning to work.
For us, the end of lunch signaled beach time, so we would hop onto a taxi bus, again with no window and no doors, and make our way to the nearby beach, where we would spend the rest of the day playing in the waves and dumping back cervezas at the local bar called Topless. We would show up at the house briefly in the evening for a light dinner with family and then meet friends in town for more frolicking foolishness.
It really was a pretty good gig for a rebellious teenager, where it seemed we could really do whatever we liked. And right up until the heinous happened, I felt like I was living the high-life. But then there was a night that we went out, and I made the grave mistake of staying behind when my girlfriend said it was time to go. I told her I would be fine, as I was there with friends, and I was sure that they would take me home. And I shot back another swig of Cana Manabita which was more like firewater than anything and burned liked flames to old planks of wood as it traveled down my throat. And she kept asking and urging and I kept telling her that I would be fine because I knew all the guys there and I would be leaving shortly anyway, I just wasn’t ready quite yet.
Oh but if I had been ready. If I had gotten up, set the firewater down and slurred out a goodnight to all there. If I had walked away with my girlfriend that night, rather than staying, continuing to throw back shots of firewater, how different my life would have looked. That night changed everything.
On Becoming an Empty Shell
I feel compelled to add a warning of sorts to this particular part of the story, a preface to what is coming. Let me preface it this way:
In America, 1 in every 6 women has been the victim of rape. 1 in 6. Do you know 6 women? Odds are, you know someone who has suffered through this atrocity.
Currently in the US, every 2 minutes, someone is sexually assaulted. Every. 2. Minutes.
Do these numbers astound you? They should.
And the effects?
Victims of sexual assault are: 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, 6 times more likely to suffer from PTSD, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.
How ‘bout them numbers?
1 in 6.
Every. 2. Minutes.
3. 6. 13. 26. 4.
Times more likely to have a life in ruins. Absolute shambles.
That’s the general reality. Now here was my reality.
I don’t think the reality of that disgusting four-letter word really sunk in until a few days after the event. There was a hollowing numbness that had begun to creep in, almost immediately, a battle between what was reality and what was merely a horrific nightmare, and somehow, in my mind, if I could make it all just a horrific nightmare, then it wasn’t real. It didn’t really happen. And the heart began on a slow journey of death that would leave nothing more than a black lump of coal in my chest. I was working on a new reality.
It started with a really, really, really long, very hot shower. Scrubbing, weeping, scrubbing, red, raw skin, more scrubbing. If I could just get that filthy feeling off, out, away. More soap, more scrubbing, clawing, rubbing, more soap, till all that was left was raw, exposed nerve endings, skin that bled in the heat of the water, and a heart that bore a bruise that would not heal and could not be comforted. The pain and humiliation and shame were all too much to bear.
Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw them. I could smell the cigarette-stained hand that muffled my screams for help and held my head in place. I could feel the death grip on my hands, binding them above my head, out of reach to fight and protect. I could hear the sneers and evil laughter of the ones watching, like a hyena’s cackle. Vile and disgusting, as my strength was not enough to protect myself, and my cries of “NO!” fell on deaf, evil ears. And so he had his own selfish, revolting way with that which did not belong to him.
And my world fell apart.
And when he was done, they threw me in the back of the truck, and drove back into town, even dumped me outside of the front gate of my house, and drove away with their squeals ripping the night air apart.
Tell me it didn’t happen.
No one ever has to know.
What does it really matter, anyway?
A few nights later, I met a “boyfriend” at the pizza joint down the road from my house. I wasn’t straying far, and it was the first that I had gone out since my world was turned upside down. We ate pizza, little conversation, and then we drove me home. As we sat in his truck, just outside of my house, he leaned over and said to me, “I heard about what happened the other night.”
“Yea, and just so you know: it’s cool if you want to be a slut.”
“what?” It was barely a whisper at first gasp, disbelief knocking the wind out of me. And then picked up force. “What did you just say?”
“I’m just saying, if that’s what you want to do, it’s cool.”
“I said NO! Over and over and over again! I screamed it. I cried it. I said NO!”
“Whatever, slut. Get out of my truck.”
Looking back on that day now, I wonder if it was visible, the walls that went up. I wonder if someone looking at me from the outside could see the hardening process take place, because it was almost instantaneous. Walls, like Fort Briggs, shot up around my hard, creating a shell of the former me. In that moment, I decided I could tell no one, because no one would believe me. I just heard it. He didn’t believe me, that I fought, that I struggled to get free. He didn’t believe me, but blamed me, labeled and insulted me.
And I could not call my family on another continent and tell them what happened. What if they didn’t believe me? What if they blamed me? What if they got angry or called me names? I couldn’t bear it. There was just too much shame, embarrassment, humiliation, and filth. Stripped of dignity, stripped of strength, I vowed to rebuild my strength on absolute protection.
I could tell no one.
But in order to quiet the painful reminders, to shut the heart up in all its brokenness, to silence the hatred of self, it would require outside intervention. And an addiction is ushered in.
**Writer's Note: This is the story of my life, as best I remember it. I am trying to add to it, slowly, as I have time, hoping to publish a new chapter every week or so. This page will be updated at that time. If you don't want to miss the next installment, please subscribe to the blog by signing up for the RSS feed or receive the emails. Thanks for stopping by.**