It was a Wednesday morning around 9 am when my phone rang at home. I answered, “Hello.” At first there was silence. I thought, “Great, another computer generated sales call.” You know the type of call I’m talking about, where there’s this long pause and then someone finally answers, “Is this so and so?”
I was just ready to hang up when I heard this really soft voice say, “Hello.”
“Yes, this is Tom. Who am I speaking with?” Again another pause and then I hear, “Is this Tom?”
“Yes, this is Tom. And who is this?”
“My name is Mary. I got your number from a friend, Shannon Henderson.”
“Oh yes, Shannon. She is such a sweet, young lady. How do you know each other?”
“Shannon and I went to college together, and she thought you might be able to help me,” Mary continued in her very soft tone.
I am used to getting these types of calls. God only knows why, but for the past 20 years He has had me walking alongside women who have come out of severe abuse backgrounds, mainly sexual abuse.
I am not a counselor or therapist. I have no college degree in Psychology, or in anything for that matter. Vocationally, I’ve been working for large printing companies servicing bookbinding machinery for the past 16 years. You might be asking the question, “Then how did you get involved with women coming out of trauma backgrounds?”
Good question. I’ve often wondered that myself. Well, I didn’t sign up for it, nor did I seek them out in any way. Papa, that’s who I like to refer to God as, just started bringing these women across my path. As I would meet with them, they would start sharing their stories with me. Low and behold, there was a common theme in those stories, sexual abuse. I was pretty ignorant on the subject but I figured there isn’t any pain or struggle in this life that Papa can’t help us with. So, typically after one of these ladies would share something of their story with me, I’d start asking Papa a lot of questions.
I asked the common “why” type questions to Papa. “How could You allow these things to happen to Your children? Why did You have her born into such an evil family? Her dad is the pastor of the local church; that is so wrong.” And the list goes on and on.
These ladies’ lives were shattered by the abuse they had experienced, often over a period of many years. For a lot of them, their trauma was so severe that their minds had kept the truth hidden from them often until they were in their mid-30’s or older.
Probably, the hardest thing I had to face was the stark reality that it didn’t matter what type of home they were raised in. Abuse has no socio-economic boundaries. It has no boundaries if a family is religious or non-religious. Race and sexual orientation were insignificant: moms and dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, family friends, neighbors, coworkers, teachers, pastors, community leaders…it just didn’t matter when it came to who did the abuse. Sadly, but rarely was it a total stranger.
I told Papa I would walk with these women as He would lead me. I had great freedom with my job since I was my own boss and controlled the schedule. I’d do a machine project for a few days or a few weeks and then when I was back at my home, I would meet with a woman for a few hours or a few days to listen to her story. I also traveled all over the country meeting some women too. Oh, did I tell you? I didn’t meet with these women alone. It was one on one but I always had another woman teaming up with me. Over the years, there were several who would join me as their schedules allowed. I learned early on that, for all of us, we need healthy male and female relationships in our lives. Especially for women who have been violated by a man, to have a safe man in their life again was a huge step of healing in their journey. I was often privileged to become that first safe man for them.
Often times a woman would bring a close friend or a spouse to sit in with us. Again, Papa had His reasons, but over the next 20 years, the vast majority of women I walked alongside were from out-of-state and either I would be in their city or they would come to my town. We often met for several days at a time, and boy did Papa bring a lot of wholeness to these ladies’ shattered hearts. He sure loves us!
Enough about me, though; back to Mary’s story. After answering her call and finding our common connection was Shannon, I asked, “What can I do for you, Mary?”
“I’m not sure how to say this, but I am falling apart emotionally, and there just isn’t any reason I should be feeling the things I am feeling. I can be out in the garden watering the plants and I just start crying. I can be watching a TV show and find myself feeling so angry like I want to just kill the person on the screen. I often then take my anger out on my family and have to go back and apologize later.”
“So when did you notice your emotions start to escalate outwardly?” I asked gently.
“I’m not sure. I don’t see myself as that emotional a person compared to most other women I know. In high school and college I was pretty shutdown emotionally, especially towards guys. I didn’t date at all in high school except for my husband, who I met my senior year. I don’t like talking about this. I’m starting to feel some things coming up. I need to go. Bye,” as she abruptly hung up on me.
I could tell by what Mary shared with me that her heart was trying to tell me something. Mary’s adult mind, though, was uncomfortable being vulnerable with me. That’s not uncommon, since we had yet to meet face to face. I knew when Mary was ready she would probably call again.
Almost two months went by before I received that next contact from Mary. This time, I was unavailable to take her call because I was out-of-town on a job fixing a machine. She left a voicemail which said, “Tom, this is Mary. I called you two months ago, and we talked briefly about me but I got very uncomfortable and basically hung up on you. I’m sorry. I hope you will listen to the rest of this message. Life has continued to disintegrate for me. The emotions are leaking out more and more, and I hate it. I’ve been to my therapist, and he increased all my meds to higher dosages, but nothing seems to be helping. I’ve been in touch with Shannon some, and she encouraged me to talk with you again. She said that you have been walking with her and her many struggles for the past two years. I feel a little safer talking to you knowing that.” Mary’s voicemail continued, “I asked Shannon if you had an email address. She said yes and gave it to me. I am sending you an email that expresses what I am currently feeling and thinking. It’s from my diary. I think it will be easier to share these things in an email than on the phone. After reading it, if you don’t think I’m some wackjob, please let me know when we might talk again. Thank you.”
That night after dinner, as I got back to my hotel, I flipped open my laptop to find Mary’s email. Here is what she wrote about herself from her journal entry last month:
She's lying in bed tonight watching the stars. The clouds of the storm before hide most of them. She is unable to sleep this night, wondering about the past and maybe a little about the present and future. She heard it said plenty of times before that a person's past, shapes his/her future. Maybe it's true. Maybe it isn't. Maybe a person doesn't always notice. Or maybe it makes a person die.
She certainly knows about the heaven or hell concept, and mostly believes it. She mostly believes in God, sometimes in Satan too. Tonight she feels completely lost and desolate and in the fourth category...dead. She tries to capture the exact date and time of her death. She tries to remember what dying felt like. She tries to remember what happened. So many years of her life are just missing - lost in translation. Here and there a face comes to mind. Here and there a word comes to mind. It is always just ghost images of a past forgotten, or maybe of a past that never was.
She once read of a little mermaid who dreamed of becoming a real woman. A sea witch granted her request, but with the understanding she should find true love within three days. She never did. As a result of failing at finding love, she had to hand over her soul to the sea witch and was sentenced to an underwater eternity without her soul. Thinking about this story would have brought tears to her eyes if she could cry. However, falling in the category of deceased-without-knowing, she can't cry.
She thinks about the church service she went to the previous day. How do you serve God all your life and feel you don't know Him at all? She read the entire Book of Genesis and some of Exodus today, and still feels estranged from God... hopelessly estranged. Light years removed from His heart. Maybe she died and went to hell? Maybe not. It would explain a few things though. She saw someone from her past. She walked out. She wouldn't have talked about the past. She wouldn't have reminisced. She wouldn't have pretended to remember. There is nothing to remember. Something killed her heart, soul, body, mind and spirit and she is painfully ashamed of the fact that what happened in the past is split into components of space, into chambers of blackness, of nothingness, of death and non-existence.
There is an invisible line she can not cross. An invisible line keeping her at arms length, if not more from even her Creator Himself. Every black hole of her past, every buried trace of remembrance, every twisted thought of anger against an unknown foe - it all leads back to the candles, the coldness, the evil. She has no idea why she feels this way, but she feels that she died. She will always feel dead, bruised without falling, broken without force and deeply disturbed without reason.
She feels lost as she tries to count the stars tonight, trying to hear the sounds of being alive, to smell the fresh air outside, but she whispers again into the nothingness around her: goodnight cold, cruel world. Will anything ever matter again?
I sat back in my chair with a flood of emotions welling up inside me as I read this. Mary had just expressed what so many abuse survivors do so well, their heart’s cry.
It never ceases to amaze me how abuse survivors’ words on paper can so clearly articulate the many mixed and often contradictory emotions swirling around within them at any given time. Mary’s note was just that. She thought they were only expressions of feeling “dead.” Yet, did you see how alive she really is from reading her note? I saw someone with such raw emotion, such expression, even though pain was blinking like a neon sign behind her every word. Life is full of pain and joy. But, Mary isn’t feeling much joy yet.
People often ask me how I can handle hearing such stories of abuse, such deep pain, such brokenness. I tell them it’s only because I get to see such transformation in these women’s lives. Don’t hear me wrong. It’s not a cakewalk alongside these women, but Papa gives me everything I need. I often cry right along with them as their tears well up and spill down their cheeks. I often find myself grabbing for a tissue as I pass the box around to everyone else present in the room. I often at times just sit next to them, holding their hand or putting my arm around them as we sit together in silence.
Mary’s email to me is the cry of a broken girl, a broken woman, who doesn’t know what to do about her brokenness. She has taken the first step. She’s asking for help. She can’t do this on her own anymore.
As I sat looking at my laptop with her email on the screen right in front of me, I told Papa, “Thanks for bringing Mary into my life.”
I hit the reply button and sent Mary a quick note back.
Dear Mary, Thanks for being so honest, so transparent, and so vulnerable with me in your email. Your words were the cry of a shattered heart, words I have heard many times from so many others. I would love the opportunity to meet with you as soon as our schedules permit. I will be back in town next Saturday. Give me a call later that day at the number below and we can set up a time to meet. There is hope Mary. Life can get better. I know you may doubt that currently because of what you’re feeling, but I have seen many women’s lives transformed right before me over time. See you next week! Kind Regards, Tom
I finished up my work project over the next several days, packed my bags, and headed home Saturday. Just like clockwork, Mary called that evening.
“Tom, this is Mary. I promise I will try not cutting our call short like last time. I was just overwhelmed. Everything I’m feeling is still so new to me and I hate it.”
“I understand, Mary. You are hurting. Much is happening right now in your life, and there are a lot of confused and fearful feelings you’re wrestling with. I’m used to these challenges. There is great grace extended from my heart to yours. What does your schedule look like for next week?” I asked her.
“The kids are in school each day, so anytime after 8 am and before 3:30 pm will work. Tuesday, I help tutor in my daughter’s class, but any other day will work fine.”
Mary’s voice was lightening up with me. She seemed a little more upbeat about meeting, but I knew that could change in an instant.
“How about next Friday at 9 am? Could you meet at my home?”
“Is it just you that I would be meeting with?” Mary asked hesitantly.
“No, I always have another lady present with me. Do you have a friend you could invite or would you like me to bring someone to be here with us?”
“No one knows what I am really going through. I haven’t told anyone anything, not even my husband. Shannon knows I’m struggling, but she’s 250 miles away. Could you get someone to meet with us, Tom?”
“Sure, Mary. I’ll call Sandy. I’m sure she would love to join with us. Let’s plan on her.”
“How long do we meet for?” Mary asked somewhat nervously.
“Typically, I block out two to three hours, but there are no hard and fast rules. When we get together, we’ll see how things progress and you will always have the choice to say, ‘That’s enough for today.’ Even if after 15 minutes you want to leave, that’s Okay.”
“Oh, I would never do that to you and Sandy. That would be mean. I’ve been in therapy for several years and had 45-minute time slots. What are we going to do for two to three hours?” she asked somewhat fearfully.
“That’s a fair question, Mary. You will come to find out our approach isn’t like most talk therapy. I’m not going to ask you 25+ questions about your childhood. We won’t need you to actually tell us much of anything about the past, only what you’re comfortable sharing.
“Talk therapy is about trying to figure out what’s wrong, list the symptoms, come up with a diagnosis, label the person, and then come up with a treatment plan. That’s what I call living from your head. We have surrendered to knowledge and understanding as the solution to every problem. If we just study something long and hard enough, we’ll come up with an answer, usually a formula for modifying certain behaviors. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but I don’t want you to become dependent on me.
“We are all about restoring healthy relationships, mainly with your self. That is, living from your heart. Our only goal is to come alongside you as a friend on the journey and love you. We do that by listening to what your heart is saying to you and to us. We will share with you our hearts’ replies. You’ve already shared enough for me to know your heart is shattered and screaming out to be heard. Your emotions are the signpost, the language of your heart trying to communicate to you.
“We will help you listen to your heart and, hopefully, you will desire to reach out and love your own heart. It’s all about loving yourself, Mary. The love you, as the adult, are willing to show all the other parts of your heart that are hurting. That will bring the wholeness and healing you seek.”
“Okay, I’m not sure if I understand what you are saying, but I’m willing to give it a shot. Shannon says you have been such a help to her and her family.”
Mary seemed somewhat upbeat again. We’ll see if she makes it until next Friday.