Chanel refused to let them use their suggestion. She explained that those were the words she had used in the aftermath of her assault, but the truth was she was not okay. She went on to explain, "I struggle with how I am supposed to live as a survivor, how to present my story and myself to the world, how much or how little to disclose. There have been numerous times I have not brought up my case because I do not want to upset anybody or spoil the mood. Because I want to preserve your comfort. Because I have been told that what I have to say is too dark, too upsetting, too targeting, too triggering, let's tone it down. You will find society asking you for the happy ending, saying come back when you are better, when what you say can make us feel good, when you have something uplifting and affirming."
As a survivor, her words described what it felt like the 40 years I kept the secret of my abuse, which contributed to the development of an eating disorder, which I learned to hide as well. I kept my secret, because I believed it was such a bad secret it could tear our family apart. I kept my secret because I thought it was too dirty for my friends to hear. I kept my secret because I was afraid it would upset my spouse. I kept my secret because I thought it would embarrass the people with whom I attended church. I kept my secret because I felt dirty every time I thought about it and assumed that anyone hearing it would view me as too dirty, too messy, and to defective to be around.
In addition, I internalized the comments and insinuations of others that it must have been because of what I was wearing, because I didn't tell the perpetrators to stop, or because of the size of my chest. But, the truth is I was only four the first time it happened. I didn't dress immodestly. I was too fearful, too trusting, and too confused to tell someone older to stop. And, as a flat chested preschooler, I am pretty sure now that my body wasn't responsible for what happened. (If you are stuck on it being about one's clothing google the "What Were You Wearing?" Exhibit.)
Many survivors do not tell their stories! They don't tell because they don't want to make waves, they fear that no one will believe them, they know that many will place blame on them, and they feel responsible for the feelings of those around them. Many who have told said they have noticed the discomfort it caused others and assumed it must have been wrong to speak their story. So the secrets get pushed down deep where the feelings smolder inside to the point they consume one's life without them even knowing it.
I wish I could say I found it easier when I became a believer, but I didn't. I trusted Jesus around the age of 10 and soon embarrassed a Sunday school teacher by asking what a virgin was when he was telling the Christmas story so there was no way I would share my story. I quickly came to love Jesus and was clinging to Him with everything I was. And some years--they were pretty good, but then every so often a new traumatic event would occur and the shame and the anxiety of the past would rise up strong and ugly and mix with the feelings of the current event until I could manage to push them all back down.
Many of the women who have told someone in the church were say that they were quickly silenced with admonitions to forgive. And, the first people I told about the eating disorder were just as quick to point out that I just needed to take it to Jesus and believed I sorely disappointed them when nothing changed. Unknowingly the church often validates the lessons learned in society--our job as survivors is to tell happier stories that are full of victory. And, I tried to do that until I just couldn't do it any more.
I did everything I knew to heal myself, only to realize later what I was doing was governed by distorted thinking and self-contempt that I thought would lead to holiness. I kept trying until God opened doors for godly, gentle, patient, and wise counselors. It was there that I realized that some trauma is just too big, too hard, too scary, and too painful to visit alone. Safe counselors provided a safe place to do that. They also provided interventions and guidance that helped and they encouraged me to be curious and creative and showed me recovery wasn't about shaming oneself into perfection, it was more about telling my story and identifying how the things I had experienced impacted me--physically, emotionally, cognitively, and relationally. And, all of those things were so intertwined.
Overtime, I grew to trust my caregivers with more and more of my story and became willing to try the things they suggested that felt foreign to me. I even got to the place I could pray and asked God to show me how to heal parts of my story and He would lay some creative thing on my heart to do and I would take that in and show it to my counselor and experience freedom as a result. I leaned that for me personally to heal, I needed people willing to both enter my story and to witness the healing taking place.
As I read and reread Chanel's words and thought of them in light of the church, I realize there is all sorts of pain that people believe they are to hide or stories to sanitize so others feel more comfortable. It might be the woman sitting in the pew who has suffered five miscarriages, who smiles and says she is fine. But the truth is she doesn't want to tell all of her story because she doesn't want to hear any more thoughtless words or admonitions to examine her life and trust her God more. She smiles, but longs to be real and have someone to simply sit with her and bear witness to her grief.
It might be the woman whose marriage is crumbling under the stronghold of addictions that are taking their tole on someone she loves. She is smiling and telling everyone she knows, "I know God has got this," but is secretly longing for someone to realize just how deeply her hurt runs, how overwhelmed she feels making decisions she never thought she would have to make, and how lonely life feels right now in the boundaries needed to stay safe and invite the other to live in the light. She may be smiling but she longs to have other bear witness to her struggle.
It might be the wife struggling with years of infertility who is always smiling and saying she is fine. Yet, she is still living with the longing God placed in her heart and trying to make sense of the truth that the One who could fulfill the longing is choosing to not do it at this time. She believes she can't give words to the grief she experiences every month as it makes those around her uncomfortable. And she lives with the reality that there are those who think she should be over it by now. Since there is no switch to switch of the desires, she longs for one to witness the struggle and remember her monthly grief.
It might be the mom of a special needs child who smiles and says she is fine when she isn't. This is because she has learned the hard way that when people offer to pray and then follow up with her that they will become uncomfortable when she tells them the truth that things are about the same, which reveal that the prayers they prayed didn't result in some miraculous change. She longs for someone to bear witness to the long term struggle she faces and feels powerless over and to believe with her that her child's life matters greatly in kingdom life.
It might be the mom of the child that an accident, a war, an illness, or a mental health issue took too soon who is smiling and saying she is fine when she isn't. It might be the anniversary of the child's death, the birthday celebrated in heaven, the empty chair at the holiday table, or the missed milestone that will never be met that renews her grief with a vengeance. Only this time it is harder because she feels alone in the realization that her grief makes others uncomfortable. She longs for others who will understand that grief she experiences has its own ebb and flow and to give witness to the fact that it speaks of a love that runs deep.
It might even be the couple sitting in church, feeling isolated and alone due to a moral failure of one of them. Their has been real repentance and healing in their marriage, but no restoration in their church. So they quietly move to new churches and sit on back pews. They are quick to smile and say they are fine if asked, but they have learned their kind of messy makes others uncomfortable and that people don't forget confessed sin like Jesus does. They long for people to bear witness to their messy story and to see all the beauty of grace and restoration in their marriage and the love that grows out of such testing.
The questions I want to lay out there for us to all grapple with is, "Is it the job of those who have or who are suffering to protect the church from the truth of life as it really is with all of it's messy, hard, and painful parts? What if there are valuable, healing, and sanctifying lessons bound up in those untold, unsanitized stories we are so quick to silence?"
We don't have all of the answers, we just have to be brave enough to sit in the discomfort of another's difficult story--fully present, leaning in, listening intently, and saying honestly, "There are no words I can say to make this better for you, but I see you, I hear you, I care, and I will let you be real with me and maybe we'll find people who can help and if we can't I am still here." I have come to believe that God truly can turn sorrow into gladness, fear into courage, and despair into hope and maybe He is calling His people to be conduits for this work by sitting in the uncomfortable with each other.
I began counseling because I was sick of pretending to be somebody I wasn't, I was sick of hiding things to make others feel better, and I was sick of hurting. I also went because the deeper intimacy with God that I longed for seemed so illusive when I pretended to be fine. Intimacy with God deepened in the counseling office where God was invited into my broken parts. It was there I began to more fully grasp how to apply Scripture to my healing. An example of this occurred when I entered the counselor's office so filled with shame I wanted to curl up in a ball. She asked me if I was okay and I responded that I hated the devil. She pulled a chair over and said, "So, talk to him." At first, I quietly addressed him. She then had me sit in the devil's chair and say what he was saying in my head. His voice was loud and hateful as he hurled accusations, shaming words, and lies at me. She directed me back to my chair and asked me to take those thoughts captive and I sat up a little bit straighter and spoke a little louder as I began to speak God's truth. I moved between the two chairs until the accuser said God couldn't love someone like me. This holy anger rose in me and I loudly proclaimed that the proof of God's love was the cross and Christ death on it. I then proclaimed that there was nothing I could do to make God stop loving me and nothing I could do to make Him love me more. She pointed to the Enemy's chair with a question on her face and I just smiled and said, he is gone. Truth will always win out. But, maybe truth is more powerful when we quit slapping people with it and get comfortable with discomfort to witness to another's wrestling to make the Truth fully their own. So, are we willing to get comfortable with discomfort?