Today I read Self Harmers in the Church by Sharon Dickens, and I remembered my close brush with self-destruction. I’m not super excited to share this with you. It’s something I’d like to pretend I never thought about. But my experience gave me some personal insights into this subject, and if there’s a chance it could help someone else, then I want to share it.
At that point in my journey, I was in the midst of crying out for help to anyone who might listen regarding my destructive marriage. I had been asking for help off and on over the course of 23 years with no luck. Whenever I dared to stick my neck out and describe my confusion and frustration, the answer was always the same. “It takes two to tango. You’re a sinner too. Work on your own stuff. Respect your husband. Submit. Christ suffered, so rejoice in your sufferings. Be good. Shut up.”
Choppy chop went my neck on the block.
So I worked on my stuff. And I worked. And worked. And nothing changed in our relationship. No conflict was truly resolved, regardless of my efforts or how much I prayed or how much faith and perseverance I could muster up or how many times I could forgive. The only way forward was to take the blame and sweep it under the rug.
After several years I was beside myself with confusion. Surely this is not what the Bible taught about relationships? Surely there were more constructive and mutually satisfying ways to deal with conflict other than taking sole responsibility for everything that went wrong? After a few more years I wasn’t sure how I was going to get to the end of my life without ending up in a funny farm. And after a few MORE years, I decided I was done. Something had to give. The pain was now greater than the fear of bucking the system, and I decided to stop playing my own role in the sick cycle and see if things might shake down enough to bring about a healing change for both of us. (I just read a terrific article on this concept HERE.)
Of course I got the painful, but predictable kick back from Christians who “loved me too much to let me wiggle out of the personal hell designed for me by God.” There was betrayal. I had my own issues to work through at the same time I was setting boundaries. It was messy. And at one point when things were at their lowest, and it appeared nobody on planet earth gave a damn about me or my kids, I decided to start cutting notches in my thigh.
(Rabbit Trail: Christians are notoriously talented at showing compassion and forgiveness for abusive men and throwing anyone under the bus who stands up to say, “Um, I think I see a naked emperor.” Did anyone catch the most recent conversation on my Facebook page about the “Christian” pedophile who molested his infant son? You must stand in defense of the pedophile if you want to be a Loving and Forgiving Christian. Let’s never mind about the pesky children. They’re just the side story.)
I know shredding up my legs sounds dramatic and ridiculous and desperate. But here was my reasoning: the kind of abuse I was experiencing in my marriage was subtle. My husband wasn’t beating me or swearing at me or looking at porn or doing anything anyone could see on the outside. Only experienced, educated professional counselors (or those who had lived with it themselves and researched it) could see it and name it for what it was. Basically that was nobody in my life at the time other than a counselor who was coaching me and the authors of a dozen books I had been reading on the subject. (See below for a list.)
But what if, every time I was bleeding on the inside where nobody could see, I cut myself? I could take care of that kind of wound. I could wipe off the blood and apply antibiotic ointment and a band-aid. It would heal. IT WOULD HEAL. And I would have a scar. A scar to remind me of how it hurts like hell to be treated like a nothing. Maybe if I had hundreds of scars all over my legs – one for each unresolved conflict representing each time I was emotionally cut, I could visually prove that I was a real person with real feelings, and my life meant something. I wasn’t a nobody who felt nothing; who could be treated like a non-person without consequence.
Because it wasn’t just my husband who couldn’t see me. It was every Nice Christian I had begged for help from. It was everyone I had dared to make myself vulnerable with. Everyone who approved of my being made into a nothing-person because I was only a woman. Only a wife. Worth something only for what I could give to a man or a church or a friend. (Another Rabbit Trail: theology that pounds into people that they are just worthless chunks of crap on the floor of the universe isn’t helpful. We are created by God in His image – and if He doesn’t view humans in a disparaging way, why do we?)
I realized with bitter sorrow why some girls might cut. Maybe they feel invisible and want to be seen. Maybe they want to be known. Maybe nobody is listening. And you know what? We can tell them until the cows come home that Jesus sees them and knows them, but if we aren’t being the hands and feet of Jesus in their lives, all that is – is worthless words that make no sense. I had a long term, deep, abiding relationship with Christ. But the fact is, God gave us one another for a reason. Blowing people off with “God loves you – He’s all you need. Be good and don’t be so selfish and needy. Gotta run…(James 2:16)” isn’t what He had in mind for relationships.
I didn’t cut myself. God mercifully intervened and sent a small (very, very small) entourage of real human beings who decided to invest the time, emotional energy, compassion, and practical assistance to demonstrate what God’s love is really all about. They listened and heard me without charging me for their time. They didn’t accuse me of lying or being a horrible failure of a wife because I was full of the pent up anger of over two decades and couldn’t take it anymore. Instead they loved me. They were Christ to me. And once I realized (I could hardly believe it after so many head-banging years) that somebody really cared and believed me, I began to rest. I was able to let go. I began the healing process. Those thousands and thousands of inner cuts began to heal. (If you want to read about how to TRULY help a person in any kind of abusive marriage, check out this article HERE.)
I’m in a different place now. I’ve got inner scars, but they don’t hurt so much anymore when touched. I’ve got a long way to go, but boy, God has done a huge work since this dark moment. When I’m tempted to despair of ever seeing closure or a great movement forward, I remind myself to look back at how much God has accomplished, and I have hope He will continue to do a good work.
Here is the list of books I read that helped me figure out and name the destructive dynamic in my marriage (many were recommended to me by a skilled counselor.)
The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick
Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft
A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church by Anna Wood and Jeff Crippen
Whose Pushing Your Buttons: Handling the Difficult People in Your Life by Dr. John Townsend
People of the Lie by Scott Peck
Character Disturbance: The Phenomenon of Our Age by George Simon
The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us by Ross Rosenberg
Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend