There’s been a question stuck like a boomerang in my head for weeks now.
I’ll get busy with something or other and it’ll go away but then, when it gets quiet, it keeps coming back to haunt me. It started a couple weeks ago. I’d almost finished the book and had started updating the website . Once a week, usually on Mondays, I check the stats of both the printed books and the e-books (two separate publishers). Upon doing that, I saw a dramatic increase in book sales for Broken; in fact, so dramatic that it was out-selling The Character. It was the first time that The Character has been outsold, in any format, by one of the other books. I was excited…. and also provoked into thought. The question formed and sat in the back of my mind, but it was so hazy I ignored it. Although seeing the stats was, as always, rewarding, it didn’t leave me with the usual excitement. Or pride, even. Actually, it left me with a hollow feeling; a raw gnawing of pain that felt as though I’d been punched in the gut. You see, The Character is a first person narrative of a ten-year-old girl who is currently in the midst of an on-going struggle with sexual child abuse. Broken is the first person narrative of a sexually abused teenage girl who, after experimenting with self-harm, contemplates suicide as a way out. These are not light reads; in fact, I’m the author and I scarce can read them cover to cover. The majority of those who spend hard-earned money on my books do so for a reason, one that is apparent in stories contained within the e-mails I get.
Suddenly, the gnawing in my gut felt like an overwhelming need to do something about all this evil. I volunteer, sure, but what else to do? The only thing I know of is to write about it, in the hopes awareness is raised. So for several nights after looking at the stats, I sat down and tried to write something, anything, that would speak to survivors. Until last night. Last night, I sat with my trusty blue Bic pen in hand and stared down at the write lined paper. I was poised to expose more raw wounds. I was poised to pour my heart and soul onto that paper until I bled.
But then a voice inside my head whispered, “it won’t matter. It’ll still happen tonight and tomorrow night and every night. Nothing you write is going to matter.” The thought made instant tears fill my eyes. Dropping the pen, I covered my face with my palm and cried. I have many walls. I have walls around my walls. I can write about almost anything but ask me to talk about anything face to face and I’m probably going to shut down faster than you can blink. I can talk in front of groups because they just listen, they don’t usually ask questions. One of the strongest walls of protection I have, though, is against myself. You see, I’ve handled my past by writing about it. I speak about it to groups but it’s a prepared speech designed to bring awareness to child abuse as a whole, not necessarily to highlight my own past. In other words, I’ve deliberately taken something bad and made every concerted effort imaginable to turn it into something good. I’ve become an advocate. That’s not a bad thing; it’s a good thing. And I sincerely hope someone, somewhere, truly has heard what I’ve said before them. I truly do. But one of my flaws is that I tend to take on the world a little too often, believe on perhaps a subconscious level that I am responsible for ending something as massive an evil as child abuse. I feel personally responsible when I hear news stories about some little child being abused because I didn’t stop it. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t know that particular child even existed before the news story broadcast. In my head, I should have known, I should have fought harder to raise awareness, I should have been in that child’s community. It’s a weight that never, ever leaves. It shadows my every thought. I don’t write the stories I write for children all over; I write them because it’s my story and writing about it is the only way I’m ever going to acknowledge the raw pain that still lies just beneath the surface. I write because it’s what I have to do. But I volunteer and I speak because of the children I know are hurting and are going to be hurting. Tonight, some kid is being held down against her will for the first time while, a few streets over, another is contemplating suicide because death is better than the thought of feeling that violation even once more. They think they are alone. But they’re not. Because I’ve been there. But they don’t know I exist. I have to reach them, I have to help them. I can’t help the little lost girl I once was; she’s lost. But I can help those who need it right now; if only they knew they aren’t alone and that someone truly, gut-wrenchingly understands, the light of hope would shine brighter for them. It’s what I’ve been put here for. I even used to tell myself that it was the reason it happened to me–so that I could help others.
But…. was it, really?
Or is that just a lie I’ve told myself for decades as a way of avoiding confronting the issues myself?
I don’t know.
After crying for awhile, I stared at the pen. Another blog post, another book—what difference would it really make? And then another question seeped through my pores: “When will you be good enough for you?”
At first, it didn’t seem to have any relevance to the line of thought I was drowning in. Except, it did. Because I was that girl held down. Because I was the one who wrote out Last Wills and Testaments. Talking about child abuse to others is good and worthwhile—-but no matter how personal I make a speech, I always keep hidden the knee-knocking fear and shame that still follow me around as a result of my childhood. No matter how many times I promise a survivor who e-mails me that it will get better, there’s that tiny part of me that still longs for the same reassurance. I’m a survivor, right? I’m strong and happy and healed. I speak and I write and I play with my daughters and I don’t ever need anything. Except that’s not the truth. The truth is that I’m still searching, too. I’m trying to reclaim a sense of worth by advocating for those who can’t speak up yet. I pray and I stubbornly refuse to acknowledge even the slightest fear when I have to answer a difficult e-mail or when a stranger comes up to me and says something like, “I wish I’d known Ash too.” I cry—but it’s only for the pain I see in the eyes of the men and women who talk to me. If I cry for what I lost, I have to acknowledge I’m not as complete or healed or strong as I want to be and, if I do that, I’m afraid of the shame that comes washing back in waves, and the stone-cold terror.
When will you be good enough for you?
How many people have to read the books? How many schools do I have to talk to? How many children do I have to hug? How many prayers do I have to pray? How many adventures do my girls and I have to go on before I’m deemed worthy of their affections and love? How many nights do I have to surrender sleep before I atone to that internal little girl I let down by not yelling for help? What will it take to forgive myself, to truly stop blaming myself?
When the torrential rainfall of questions fell, I was too overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted to wade my way through them. I just soaked in the bath and tried to pretend they weren’t there at all. Tonight, I don’t know the answers to those questions. But what I do know is all the facts and statistics and information and personal stories of terror I’ve heard and learned over the years. Everything I know tells me that most survivors feel an irrational sense of guilt. Most feel shame. And that means I’m not alone. What I do know for sure is that God transformed my life. Without His intervention, I might have eventually sought the solace of a gun, or a bottle of pills or a deep knife wound; I know for sure I wouldn’t have learned to appreciate the vibrancy of the grass or the shapes in clouds. Maybe I do feel a sometimes staggering responsibility to share my journey for some unknown stranger who might need it. God will hold your hand—but you ask Him first; He will open doors you never knew could be unlocked—but you have to let Him. The first time I was asked to speak to a large group of people about my past, I was absolutely terrified. I wasn’t really thinking of who was in the room or what stories there were there—all I could think about was, “Dear God, please protect me from these people’s reactions.” I actually whispered a prayer in the bathroom that asked Him to protect me from feeling ashamed. I didn’t want to be weak. I trusted Him to guide my words in that room.
I admire women who are able to tell their stories of abuse and then add that they are now happily married because that’s something I don’t think I’m strong enough for anymore. It’s something I doubt I can successfully accomplish because it means living with physical intimacy. I think of Abrielle and Clayton, the characters in my book Me. Abrielle endured abuse at such a staggering level it’s mind-blowing. But the love of a gentle and honest-to-God loving man transformed her, healed her until she was able to actually participate joyfully in intimacy. No, she never forgot, but she was able to truly move on. The question begs: is that what it would take? Does it even really happen; abused children, do they ever really sexually heal? When God shields my daughters all the way to adulthood without being harmed physically—will I be able to rest then, knowing that my life’s greatest treasures were never harmed?
When will you be good enough for you?
I’ve craved acceptance my whole life. When I was little, I sought it through obedience and submission. As an adult, I seek it through being the best mom I know how to be, through volunteerism and through writing. It makes me uncomfortable when people tell me they’ve purchased my books because that means they’ve spent money on me; it makes me want to apologize for their lost wages by giving them stuff. It makes me feel guilty when people talk to me on the phone or through chats or e-mails because I don’t deserve the time or attention; it makes me want to give them something to make up for what they’ve lost by spending time with me. I can’t let anyone know when I need a hug or when I need time to just talk or when I need someone to watch the girls or drive me to the hospital so I don’t have to do an IV treatment alone because I haven’t earned the right to those things. I’m fairly decent with children, an adequate teacher and I can write. None of that makes me a good person; it makes me good at things but everyone is good at something.
Realistically, I know everyone battles self-defeating thoughts sometimes. No one is ever truly confident a hundred percent of the time. Everyone needs reassurance. And I’m lucky enough to have a wonderful mother, sister and daughters; a church that makes me feel welcomed and accepted. And everyone has bad days when they’d rather hide under the covers than face another day. The important part is making yourself get up and face that day even when you don’t want to—and I’m pretty good about doing that. If I’m brutally honest with myself, I can say that, while there aren’t many redeeming things to list in my favor, I do honestly try. I make every effort to see grace in every day. And I keep gratitude an active, daily part of my life, even on days it’s hard.
There isn’t really a happy ending to this post.
Until I think of my girls.
Second only after being a child of God, I am a mother. Those two girls influence my every waking moment. And, tonight, as on many other nights, they bring me hope. Because I know that children learn more from example than by words. I can tell them they are beautiful and precious and perfect every day but unless I believe it about myself, they are likely to be suspicious of confidence. I want to teach them to be grateful for who they are—I don’t want them to think, even for a minute, that, in order to be a worthwhile person, they have to stop child abuse, or any other evil. They don’t have to do anything but be Breathe and Alight. The best way to teach them what genuine confidence looks like is to model it. I want them to know that they are not sacrificial lambs—and mothers aren’t supposed to be either. Sharing is good—as long as you don’t forget to share with yourself. You don’t have to give everything you have, physically and emotionally, in order to earn friendship. This is a very, very important lesson I need to make sure they learn.
So I’ve come up with a plan: it’s called the Three Wishes and we’re implementing it starting tomorrow morning. Each morning, the girls and I are going to make three wishes; we’re going to come up with three things that we would like to do for ourselves each day. Simple things. Maybe Breathe’s will consist of something like listening to music alone for ten minutes, play with stuffed animals and dress up. Maybe Alight’s will look more like this: paint nails, play with Squishies and go somewhere (she’s an innate explorer). Whatever is on our Three Wishes list, my goal as a mother will be to help ensure they get time for those three wishes.
And I am not exempt; I have to come up with Three Wishes too. I’ve never been a procrastinator; I’ve already made my Three Wishes for tomorrow:
1) Buy a new book or e-book; read
2) Give away free wishes
3) Bubble bath
The one I am most excited about is number two. We have tons of pennies around the house and coins that can be used as pennies. And I collect mason jars. So we will make a jar, fill it with coins and affix a sign that will say “Free Wishes” to it. We will then take jar to the fountain at a local mall and leave it so that others can take a coin from it and toss it into the fountain to make a wish. Do you remember doing that as a child? Tossing a penny into water and wishing on it? It adds sparkles to a day; it gives you a second to think about yourself and your deepest desires at the moment. It encourages a belief in magic and inspires wonder. I am excited to watch what happens with this jar and to show my girls that we can’t stop wishing, we can’t stop dreaming for things, no matter how unlikely or impractical they may be. The third is simply a sort of time-out that I grant myself when I am most in need of comfort. When I ache a little more than usual for company or for time without thought, a steaming hot bath of honeysuckle-scented candles and bubbles helps calm my nerves and rejuvenate my spirit. The hardest one of these for me will be number 1. I read the books I write so that I don’t have to spend money I could use for the girls on myself. I haven’t bought a new book for myself in years (although others have bought books for me as birthday or Christmas gifts). But true confidence starts with small but meaningful steps designed to inspire worthiness. In Sing Me Home, an act of violence robs Aria of the one thing she loves the most: singing. Every time she tries to sing after this horrible thing happens, she can’t without feeling sick or upset. Song has become a reminder of terror rather than a thing of comfort. Terror is real and it steals precious things. But grace is also real and it restores them; all you have to do is believe.