Note from Mary: This post is written anonymously with exceptional bravery. I pray “Elizabeth”‘s story blesses you.
When life is in shambles, and abuse is constant, the terror is at an all time high. All of a sudden the monster and creator of the horror is killed, and there is an eerie serene silence. A first you think that silence means the pain is over, but then you realize that it was just the eye of the hurricane. The silence lasts only for a very short period of time before the outside voices of family members and church community begin to craft a different narrative, and keeps you trapped in the terror.
This is the story of a little six year old girl. She was born and raised in a very isolated fundamentalist community where life was disconnected from the world and “all things worldly.” Her world was so incredibly small and sheltered. Visiting the local grocery store was the only thing she knew of the terrifying world her family spoke of outside of the farm where she was raised. While some people may see this sheltering as a safe and secure space for a child, this was not the case.
Her dad, a farmer, was always home. He was a dictator who ruled with an iron fist in an effort to show his control.The uncontrolled rage that boiled within this man left his family in ruins as beating after beating continued. His targets were the easiest and closest family member or farm animal. The little girl was constantly on high alert. In an effort to keep herself safe, she created escape routes and alarm systems wherever she went on the farm. Despite her best efforts, a little girl is no match for a stealthy evil man who thrives on seeing the pain he creates in his family member’s lives.
He was notorious for pushing his victims to complete terror and fear that he was killing them before he would turn on a dime and walk away, leaving his victim in shock and horror. This was especially true when he would stand over her tiny body with both hands on her chest. He would apply pressure until the bones in her ribcage flexed and she would be sure that this time her ribcage would collapse. He would kill her. But he always quit just before her chest collapsed. He would do the same thing as he “played” with her. He would grab her ankles swinging her upside down until her body was completely stiff and frozen in utter terror. He then dropped her and laughed pretending it was just a fun game.
Whenever and wherever he found her alone he sexually abused her. The only value she held was for his twisted sexual pleasure. She couldn’t fight or escape. The only defense she had was completely dissociating. Her mind would go to a place of nothing as he defiled her tiny body over and over again. The constant-ness of the abuse, and the instability of her home caused her to live in this space of nothingness for the majority of the first six and a half years of her life. Food supply was rationed and inconsistent. For some reason she didn’t have a bed like her other three older siblings did, and to this day no one knows where she slept. Not even her mom knows where she slept. She existed in a constant state of horror without a place of peace or rest.
Suddenly, one day it all changed. Her dad was killed in an accident. In the midst of the chaos, this just felt like another crazy episode. While her family was dealing with their own tumultuous emotion, no one thought to explain what happened to the little girl. They used phrases like, “he passed away,” words the little girl had never heard before and didn’t understand.” It’s not that she was unfamiliar with death, because her beloved little kitten named Tiny was killed. Her Dad reveled with joy as he watched the pain of that separation and dangled Tiny’s dead body in front of her. He was a butcher and slaughtered many of the animals on the farm. However, she didn’t understand the use of the word dying or the phrase, “he passed away.” She just found it very unusual that he didn’t return home that night after the ambulance took him away. It wasn’t until the day of the funeral that she finally understood that he was gone.
At the funeral, she stood next to her Mom and her siblings, surrounded by weeping and wailing extended family and church members. Her Mom picked her up so she could peer into the casket and she whispered into her ear, “This will be the last time we see him.” This was the BEST day EVER. Her heart leapt with joy. Her father could never torture her, her siblings, or the animals on their farm again! Though all she felt was elation, she knew she could not show her happy emotions. Everyone was grieving like a good man was gone; no one was acknowledging his evil. She solemnly stood there as they closed the casket, and watched as they moved it outside to the cemetery. He was gone.
What followed was extremely complex joy mixed with what everyone thought should have been sorrow and grief. Extended family had seen and ignored signs of abuse. Her Mom had reached out to the church asking for help, but they had dismissed her. They told her that it’s better to be slow to speak out in situations like this. The little girl knew that the family and the church community were aware of the abuse, but that they had chosen to ignore it and brush it under the rug. With bruises still on their bodies, the children were expected to forgive and forget the horrors their dad had put them through.
As if when a man dies all of his sin dies with him, and all that ever existed was goodness, everyone talked about what a good man her dad was, and how he will be greatly missed in the church and community. There were poems written in his honor and memory cards created and loss shared, all while this man’s wife and children sighed with relief. They were finally free, but none of them dared to admit it, not even to each other. It would be eighteen years until the family spoke to each other about that man who was supposedly their dad.The man that all of a sudden, because he was dead, had become a saint to the church and the fundamentalist community.
The torture and the abuse had already left this little girl with a shattered soul, but the warped reality of how the church and family members responded left her with a question that haunted her. If he was a good man, then what is a bad man like? Was she actually fortunate to have been his daughter? Her six-year-old brain couldn’t and shouldn’t have reconciled the two. What she experienced and the picture the church painted was completely opposite. Her Mom followed the church’s mentality of, he is gone, so you forgive, forget, and ONLY speak of the good. This created a twisted warp of reality that the church, the community and her own mom created. They lived in a completely different narrative of what was actual reality.
The days and weeks that followed left her in complete confusion trying to figure out what is real. Her laugh became very eerie and her behavior was weird. This was something that her Mom, family and community couldn’t deny. So her Mom sent her home with her aunt for several days. When the little girl returned home to the farm the eerie laugh was gone so her Mom thought oh, she is fine now. She was anything but fine. The impact of years of torture and abuse left her crippled with Complex PTSD.
Now that her dad was gone, she got to sleep with her mom. She finally had somewhere to go at bedtime. She was physically safe, but the nightmares still haunted her. Her body was constantly triggered, and she would freeze in fear and would dissociate. She went to nothing and lived there. The world wasn’t safe to live in, and it especially wasn’t safe to live in her own body.
This is how she lived for more than a decade, frozen in pain and confusion until a friend outside the fundamentalist community introduced her to Jesus. For the first time ever she felt love and peace. She couldn’t reconcile this Jesus with what she had been so strictly taught in church. This Jesus was real and she felt his presence and his gentle spirit of peace in her life. She wrestled to read the bible, because she had always heard it with the rigid harsh rules and judgement. Slowly, she began growing in her relationship with Jesus.
It would be lovely to say that there is new life in Christ; the old is gone and the new has come, and life becomes neatly packaged and tied with a lovely bow. Unfortunately, Jesus doesn’t use a magic eraser; the wounds and scars of such profound abuse don’t magically disappear. Instead, he is a healer who walks slowly and gently with the shattered and broken. She was eighteen years old, so shattered she couldn’t make eye contact with anyone much less herself. She had no resources, and she was stuck in the fundamentalist system where her options were extremely limited. As a woman she was expected to get married and raise a family that honored this system. This made her absolutely SICK. She was trapped in a religious system, and she could not see any way out!
Eventually God opened the doors for her to leave the fundamentalist church. God sent his people into her life. They surrounded her and cared for her in her crippling pain. She started counseling and trauma therapy. After more than a decade of hard work she has grown so much. She has learned to experience life, instead of living in a constant state of dissociation. She is a creative person who carries beauty and celebration. She not only allows people to pour into her life, but she also pours herself into others as well. She has overcome so much of her past, and yet she still faces Complex PTSD. She still struggles with church and religion, but she knows Jesus. She does not walk alone and he has taught her that even a shattered life can be beautiful.
There are millions of other survivors fighting for their lives. She prays that they too would find Jesus. That the true church would come along side those whom’s souls have been shattered by sexual abuse and violence. That they too would know that there is hope and healing even in the lifelong journey of recovery. A journey where shattered ruins, deep sorrow and grief mingle together with beauty, hope and even joy.
This artwork represents the first six and half years of her life. When she first walked into her counselor’s office she was completely numb, without words to describe what was going on inside of her or what had happened. She lived under the twisted narrative for so long that she didn’t know what was true anymore.
Her life was shattered into pieces. It was like she was carrying an old plastic gallon storage bag with thousands of puzzle pieces and no way of fitting them together. Many of the individual puzzle pieces were mangled and torn. There was no box top and it all felt so overwhelming that she simply wanted to throw the bag out.
The pieces in the bag represented her life. A life too shattered to hold value. It would be better if her life didn’t exist. But nonetheless she sat with Jesus and her counselor and piece by painful piece they sorted through the contents of the bag. Even though there is no clear picture, there is a piece of art. The dark piece represents terror, horror and pain. The brown pieces represent numb and the state of nothingness that she dissociated to. The light blue pieces represent normal life. The three bright spots represent the three highlights of her young life, kittens, blankets and an occasional ice cream cone that her mom bought for her at the local grocery store. The pieces outside of the general framework represent the pieces that she still hasn’t been able to place within her life’s story.
Today this artwork hangs in her home as a reminder of how far she has come and how much Jesus has healed her. Next to this artwork hangs a blank canvas reminding her that her life isn’t over. There is a future. Trauma doesn’t define her or her future. She prays that God will fill the next canvas with a vision and purpose as he continues to heal her.