Monday, July 4, 2011

Part 4, My Coming Out: “I am a Survivor” ~ God is a wonderful counselor!

The day that America celebrates when it declared its independence from Great Britain (1776), from the womb that birthed and fashioned her, is as good day as any to talk about how I became a survivor. The English word survivor derives from the Latin supervivere where the prefixed preposition super means above or beyond, and the infinitive vivere means to live. I can live above and beyond my experience of child sexual abuse. I don’t have to tip toe around it or allow it to measure my steps. As Maya Angelou (a survivor) wisely stated, "I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it." I lived through it, and I can live above and beyond its potentially debilitating tentacles.  But I did not always know that I could be a survivor.  I did not always know that I could say those words out loud without being derided by the experience of my abuse. I did not know how it would make me feel.

In, I think, my third year at Howard Divinity School, I was one of about seven students chosen (by application) to be a Ford-Field Based Fellowship recipient. This fellowship allowed students to fulfill the field placement requirement of the M.Div. in the then nontraditional setting of a nonprofit organization. I chose Sojourners. Just as significant, if not more, the fellowship presented each student with the privilege of attending six or seven free counseling sessions with a professional counselor. (I simultaneously enrolled in my pastoral counseling practicum course through which I served as a student chaplain intern at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.). We were excited about the opportunity to sit down with a counselor, but many were also apprehensive. I don’t think any of us had done so before. And I think the black community as a whole, and particular the religious/clergy community, frowned(s) upon the possibility of healing through a professional counselor. And black churches (and others) were likely to stigmatize persons who frequent clinical psychologists and/or psychologists despite the dire need because the church is supposed to be the panacea for all God’s children’s problems (even while it struggles to swim in a sea of problems of its own; living in denial as life’s undercurrents pull people under).
My first session with Dr. W was nothing less than miraculous and cleansing. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. She told me she believed in maintaining strict professional boundaries and confidentiality; that, for example, she would never just show up at my church (if I remember correctly). That set me at ease. I tend to believe that her very next words to me were “I am a survivor.” I had likely shared more about me than I can recall. But what takes center stage in my memory are her words to me, “I am a survivor.”  When she spoke those words, I broke down in uncontrollable sobbing. How did she know to say those words to ME?  How did she know that we were connected by a similar, sordid past? I do not know the answer to this day. She shared as much as was professionally appropriate of her past. And then we began to talk more about mine.
Those words, “I am a survivor” acted like a telescope aimed directly at the stain on my soul. I could not hide; I could not run. I could only sit and weep, like David when Nathan the prophet told him “thou art the man.”  Those words, “I am a survivor,” revealed as much about me as they did about her. Before I could speak out and voice those words for myself and about me, they belonged to others and their circumstances. I admired other women who could tell their stories of rape, molestation, incest and/or abuse and declare that they had survived. But all I could do was silently and dispassionately listen, without any visible hint that we had anything in common, lest others know and I'd say “amen.” But now I had been called out and exposed. And I could not hide because she knew; she knew first-hand, empirically, not just scientifically or theoretically. She knew about me. And I am thankful that she loved me, as a human being, to call me out. And I am thankful that she knew; she had the professional and divine wisdom to know when and how to call me out.  I don’t remember how long I wept. And I don’t recall stopping. I do remember that while Dr. W kept her professional composure and strength of posture, I had little doubt that she did not empathize. I was just coming to terms with my survival. She had begun to do so long ago. I didn’t know it then, but as we heal and grow and share, the less power the experience has over us. We will neither deny it nor will we cry every time we remember; neither posture allows us to help others.
Another significant realization that came out of our sessions was the consciousness that I needed to find a part of me that had been stunted; that did not flourish as I grew.  Dr. W asked me, “Who is going to take care of Mitzi”?  Following typical Christian rhetoric and teary-souled and -eyed, I childishly and rotely answered, “God is.” Dr. W (who was also a pastor) confidently and compassionately replied, “No, Mitzi is going to take care of Mitzi.” When I was a child, she explained, I could not defend or speak up for myself, but as an adult I am fully capable of taking care of myself.  This does not mean I do not rely on God for strength, sustenance, faith, hope, etc. But it means I recognize that God has gifted me with what I need to take care of me. When God released Adam and Eve from the womb of mother earth and gave them instructions to care for the adamah (ground/soil) from which they were taken, that guardianship implied a measure of independence and God’s confidence in their ability to do something for themselves and outside of themselves; to be a part of their own survival and thriving.
In Part 5, I will discuss virginity and scars.


Tracy said...

When I made the comment on twitter, " the church is for the feeble minded ..." I attributed those words to the church being a breeding ground for negativity's vultures. More than a few of those who are ordained and of high influence prey on those seeking guidance in their most vulnerable moments. I've visited the church religiously to achieve some sense of reprieve and I did not receive that. All that was handed to me was more confusion, betrayal and anger atop of the scars I already possessed. My family is catholic and they are the source of many of my ugly hurts and deepest pains. And each time they fail to accept responsibility for what they have caused, they use the bible as a defense tool. I've come to dislike the church and bible handlers. I've learned that god is not in a building, in a book or in the sky-- god is within me.

I really appreciate our different paths and you sharing your story. However, although different we've come to same conclusion: we are the ones responsible for taking care of ourselves now. Your words have given me great understanding and I commend you for continuing up this path despite your past experiences-- it is a testament of your faith. Thank you.

WomanistNTProf said...

Tracy, thank you for sharing. Even though we have taken different paths, I could not disagree with much, if not all, that you have said about the church. In my opinion God, has not called us to have faith in the church, but in God. We are all imperfect and damaged in ways we don't even realize. And sometimes the rhetoric of the church, the doctrines of the church encourage a false sense of superiority, a blind ignorance, an inability to be compassionately vulnerable or in touch with our own vulnerability and the needs of others, and a social club mentality. My mother taught me early, I believe, what God looked like in terms of relations with other people and their needs and pains (lessons I'm still trying to digest and walk in). She always quoted to me that verse that says greater is he that is within you than he that is within the world. Now I know that means something different in the context of I John where the people who left the community were cursed. But I know what she was saying to me as she quoted that verse. She was telling me that God is within me and that the God within me is able to give me strength, courage, etc. Yes, God created a world and before a world there was God. So God is wherever God chooses to be and we have no control over God. We cannot say he is in the church and not in the world around us. Just because we call a place the house of God does not mean that God always shows up there in the way we treat other, the things we say and expect of each other, or in our negligence toward the least of these. And God has many people who will never set foot in a church doing the will of God. But I hope that wherever I go, because God, I believe, chooses to dwell in me and I welcome her, that God is there. And that where you go, because God is in you and you welcome her, God is there. Even so I do not always say or do the right thing. Yet, God and I struggle together. And because I realize that God gives me a lot of rope, I have to be willing to do the same for others (in a nutshell). And Just because some preachers and some church members believe they have constructed the ultimate box for God does not make it so. We have to remain humble because only God is God. Love you sister Tracy for reading, listening, journeying, and loving God and God's children.

WomanistNTProf said...

Tracy, I pray that your family realizes the ways in which they have contributed to your scars before while life remains. A FB friend suggested I see St Louis Blues with Eartha Kitt yesterday. I watched it before I went to bed. Very powerfully shows how very wrong we can get God and the pain we cause others in the process.

Tracy said...

Thank you for your prayers and your voice. The love is received and returned.