I found myself sitting on an airplane, somewhere over the Atlantic ocean on a 16 hour flight, in a state of shock and completely surrounded by a noisy group of college students. I had wanted to finish my project, to stay in Rwanda. But my pastor gently and strategically suggested that I come home for a bit and then when I felt safe again, I could reconsider returning. He didn’t speak words of anger, or force me to act, but he communicated love and acceptance. I was wedged into the window seat, hair still wrapped up in a scarf like a Rwandan woman, completely heartbroken and still in physical pain from the assault. I was annoyed at these college students, who were all coming back from a missions trip and pretty wired for 2am. Was I pregnant? Should I have turned him in? What would change about life now? Would I ever get to go back to Africa, the place I had dreamed of visiting for much of my life?
Rape. It’s such a harsh word. It is such a harsh reality.
I was now a statistic. 1 in 3 women in this world have been sexually abused. It happened to me once; to many it happens over and over again, a never ending horror. One time was enough to change my life, to halt my career path, to nullify my fancy art degree. One time was enough to alter all of my plans, and how I viewed myself, and how I viewed the people around me.
I was met with an abundance of grace and support, but most women are not. Out of the comfort I have been given, I would like to share what I have learned. Everything I say comes out of my own experience and gratitude toward those who surrounded me when I was feeling helpless. I have not gone to school for counseling, and do not speak as an authority…just as a woman who is healing. I am hoping this will also ring true with other healing women.
January 28th, 2014 Kigali–Washington D.C.–Denver
The person I feared telling most was my mother, who had been terrified of me traveling to Africa. I did not want to tell her that her worst fears had come to pass, and I dreaded hearing “I told you so”. Her worst fears were actually the worst fears of everyone in my life before I had gone. Professors in art school, close friends, people in church, all the uncles and cousins all thought I was foolish for going alone to Africa. My mom’s response was most feared, because I was afraid I had let her down the most. But she did not respond the way I at all expected. When I talked with her en route (25 hours of traveling), she simply said “You are alive, and that is all that matters. You are so loved.” Later on, she would come to Colorado and go to counseling with me to see how she could better help, something that I am forever grateful for and will not ever forget.
A close friend and her mom dropped everything and met me at the airport in D.C. where I had a long layover. They bought me lunch, let me hold the new baby (what is it about babies that makes bad things seem a little less awful?), they prayed with me. When I got off the plane in Denver, another close friend was waiting for me, and had a warm cozy bed waiting at her house. As one who had been so eager to get out of my own country and explore, all the familiar smells and sounds eased me into much needed sleep.
February and March, 2014, Vail, Colorado
People cried. Every time I told them. Not just a tear, but full on weeping. It was like a loved one had died, a great tragedy had occurred. I remained in shock, unemotional. I was alive, in front of them, no one had died. It was disconcerting at first. Actually, my first response was to joke about it, even. Shock does unpredictable things to people.
But then grown men cried on my shoulder…in the church foyer, in friends’ kitchens, over and over again. Hear me on this one: grown men crying on me was probably the most healing thing in the journey, from the beginning even until now. Women consoling me is a beautiful thing, but men…men who I love and respect, as friends, as brothers, as good daddies to their children, my boy cousins and uncles–there is just something in that which emanates the Father heart of God in a way that only men can do. His tenderness, His fierceness. They communicated without words, “You are worth so much more than you have been shown through this. We are sorry and angry that no one defended you in that moment.” The fact that this was a big deal to other people had a profound effect on my soul, and confirmed that I was made with dignity, and that dignity had been brutally wrenched from me. Each of us is made in the image of God with dignity. When someone hurts another human being, one of God’s creations, it is indeed worth weeping over.
Time and again, this verse ran through my mind as I interacted with other people’s emotions, humbled, confused and overwhelmed:
“And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.” 1 Corinthians 12:26-27
The day that I finally cracked and came out of shock was two or three weeks after being home in Colorado. I sat on the living room floor and just wept, a flood of emotions coming out. Frustration, helplessness, anger, resentment, despair…all of them mixed together. One of my good guy friends happened upon me, a mess on the floor. He came, sat down with me, and simply wept with me. He prayed with me, and he prayed for the man who raped me. He asked the Lord to forgive HIM for the anger he had in his heart toward Charles. Without him knowing it, that single prayer was a catalyst on the journey of healing. He was willing to enter into an incredibly dark place with me— resentment and bitterness are deep, black canyons that one can get lost in, or go over the edge to their despair. Unknowingly in that moment, he talked me back from that ledge.
“The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart,
And saves such as have a contrite spirit.” Psalm 34:18
The questions came out, then. The anger in my own heart.
Why did God let this happen? Why didn’t He stop it? Why did a man’s selfish actions have to take away all my dreams? I was trying to do a little bit of good and someone stole it from me! Would God fix me? Was I damaged beyond repair? Who would ever want me now? Could I ever be clean? I felt all these emotions, and had to work through them over and over and over again. I felt these things even being completely surrounded by love and support! Even with someone there all the time to combat the lies with me! I cannot even imagine what it is like for a woman who has no support, no one fighting on her side.
I saw my counselor right away, a woman I also hold very highly in respect. My healing was her goal as much as it was mine. From Day 1 of seeing her after Africa, her advice was this: TALK ABOUT IT. Talk about it, and then talk some more. Share about it, use the hard words, share the shame and fears and questions. Keep talking. She told me that sexual abuse produces the greatest about of confusion and shame in people of any type of hurt out there. The way that shame festers and becoming a prison within a person is by being kept in the dark, being kept quiet and a secret. Therefore, my willingness to talk about it would directly line up with the depth of healing I was able to step into. And it would keep me from being lied to, within my own mind and from the memories.
The verse that has most come up to support this theory in the last 4 years has been Ephesians 5:11-14 which says:
“And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light. Therefore He says:
“Awake, you who sleep,
Arise from the dead,
And Christ will give you light.”
April-June, 2014, Alaska
A few months after the fact, I was still struggling, obviously. My radar for what I called “safe/unsafe” people (especially men) was on red alert all the time. I cancelled all my wedding and portrait photography plans for the summer, as I could hardly even look at my camera without feeling sick again. My pastor suggested a trip up to the Alaskan bush, where I had spent a few weeks the previous summer with a family in ministry sent out from our church. A trip to this particular village seemed like the right thing at the right time. It was an extremely isolated area filled with some of the safest people in the whole world, and several people whose life work (and passion) just happened to be walking with people through their trauma in a Christ-centered way.
The short visit turned into a move there a few months later, and the temporary move for the summer turned into two years in the Alaskan bush. The two years ended up being some of the most incredible years of my life, mixed in with some of the most difficult feelings and longings and surrenders. That community holds a place in my heart like no other…they met me in my brokenness, they sat with me, and they cheered when the restoration came in slows bits and pieces. I will share more about them (the years and the people) in the last part of this story, in the next post, as they deserve far more than just a paragraph.
Whenever there is a tragedy, whether a death, an illness, a natural disaster, or anything horrible that cannot be explained away, there is this desire to fill the silence. It’s uncomfortable for the onlookers. Cliches and comforting words— any of us who have been through horrible loss know what it is like to be on the receiving end of those; well-intentioned but just not right. Rape and sexual assault is the theft of a woman’s dignity, and dignity is a God-given means of survival and purpose. In the moment, it is okay to be silent. It is okay to cry with the victim and to not say anything at all. Words are not always enough, and silence accompanied by love brings far more solace than 1,000 words.
However, if you DO want to speak, here is a list that might help. Some of these were spoken to me by people outside my immediate circle, and many I only heard second hand as other women shared their stories with me. I DID hear all of the helpful words though, and they went a long way. Most of these I wrote down about 10 months after the rape and this is the first time I am sharing them.
What NOT to say:
Why weren’t you more careful? (this goes along with “What were you wearing?”)
It was not even about my being careful…remember, I was wronged, that man is in the wrong. IT WAS NOT MY FAULT. To tell the victim to be more careful gives power to the words the rapist will usually use, “She was asking for it.” NO. She was not. I was not. NO woman wants to be raped. YES, now that time has passed and the shock is gone, I have learned much about discernment. Being wise is necessary, while traveling, while dealing with people in different situations. Just don’t say this as an accusation.
Why didn’t you fight? Why didn’t you scream?
When I was being raped, the “Fight or Flight” mechanism kicked in, like it does for most women. When I am being hurt, my reaction is to just hold still and get it over with. I was in a slum, in Africa, in a country where I didn’t speak the language. That’s my reasoning. My response was to freeze, to be paralyzed. For a lot of women, there is a fear that cannot be explained, and no man or woman should DARE ask why they didn’t react a certain way. The first thing my counselor went over with me was that question, because I was already beating myself up over it (as most women do). When faced with life threatening danger, MOST PEOPLE have very little control over their reaction.
You need to just move on with your life.
Healing is a really long, inconvenient process. A lot longer than what is comfortable for most people. My process is different than what you think it should be, and progress comes at a different pace than you would like to see it. Don’t worry, the victim is probably frustrated with the slowness of the healing process as well. IT IS NECESSARY to go all the way through it though. A woman who has not healed from a trauma will be paralyzed later on when something triggers her. Do not rush it.
Just forget about it.
Not likely. This one makes me more angry than any other response. YOU just want to forget about it because the emotions and darkness of your own heart are brought to light and you don’t want to deal with it. But no woman will ever forget an act of violence like that against her. Just because you can forget it doesn’t mean she can.
You shouldn’t talk about it.
I think I’ve sufficiently covered this topic, and don’t want to beat a dead horse. However, there is one thing that is super important, and it took me quite awhile to discern– while talking was important, I didn’t need to talk to EVERYONE about it. Not everyone was a safe person to process with! Having an inner circle was key, and keeping others at a gentle arm’s-length was also necessary. This took time to work out, and I’m sure I shared with people I shouldn’t have. ALSO, if you don’t feel like you can be a safe person for someone who clearly needs to process, that’s okay! Just tell them that and hopefully you can direct them toward someone safer. I am grateful for people who did this with me too!
The RIGHT things to say:
I love you.
You are beautiful.
You are safe here.
You are accepted.
There is no hurry.
I am here for you.
I am here to listen if you want to talk. If you don’t want to talk, I am still here.
I hurt for you. I am angry for your sake.
And the one that has stuck with me the most, and been the most useful:
What can I do to make you feel safe?
My church was incredible during this season. ABSOLUTELY phenomenal, excellent and praiseworthy. My community, my friends, and members of my family were unbelievably kind and gentle with me. They made my story their story, they assimilated it into their own lives, and walked with me in a nearness that only tragedy can bring. This is what the body of Christ is supposed to look like! My church should get an A+, because what they did and said, the sensitivity with which they responded, the way they protected me and counseled me…it was exactly right. My heart continually wells up with gratitude for this group of people, I would name each one by name if it was the right thing to do. I think I should make a list of what they did for other churches to use as a model when they are faced with similar situations in the future.
In the next post, which will be the last one, I will be sharing about the turning of the tide. How did God take me from brokenness back into wholeness and then back into overseas ministry? How did He take away my fear of men and of traveling? Are there still any hangups or triggers?
Check back in a few days for the last installment of this series, where I will also share some of the helpful books, where my heart is at now, and the incredible good I have seen God bring out of this. For now, I will leave you with the words that were spoken over me countless times by various people:
“But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”