Thursday, January 13, 2011

It's Complicated

Nothing sends me into orbit quicker than statements from clueless people, especially when it comes to the issues of sexual trauma. Let me say at the beginning that most clueless people are not trying to be malicious - they're just clueless. However, ignorance doesn't make their words or opinions any less hurtful. I've found it necessary to dig my nails in - white knuckled at times - as these un-informed, self-appointed advisors pass judgment or let me know what they'd do if they were me. Well . . . they aren't me and they haven't earned the right to judge - at least not by the standards they use. They aren't you, either.

Sexual trauma - regardless of the circumstances - is complicated. What makes it particularly complicated is context, relationships, age, response, and circumstances. If the perpetrator is a relative, it's quite possible that you feel some kind of affection for her or him, or even protective. It's also possible that you never want to see that person again and that you are disgusted or repulsed with every fiber of your being. Clueless people will tell you to either “forgive and forget” or to abandon these relationships completely. It doesn't always work that way - and that's part of the inner pressure you may feel.

If the perpetrator lurked in the shadows and suddenly took advantage of an opportunity to have access to you, clueless people will say things like, "It could have been worse" or "Just get over it and think happy thoughts." They don't understand that you are struggling with the “I-should-have, would-have, could-have” syndrome - second guessing your actions and your responses, questioning why you were targeted, or wondering if you're partly to blame for being in the vicinity of the shadow-monster. It takes time to sort through these thoughts and land on your feet. Clueless people don't understand that this is a difficult, complicated process.

If the perpetrator systematically groomed you - set you up with attention, favors, kindness, and affection - they exploit your needs for acceptance and inclusion. Clueless people will look at the outcome of this grooming and assume there was willingness and cooperation on your part. They won't recognize the grooming, the set up, or the strategic manipulation that placed you in the position of being victimized and exploited. This is often even more hurtful to you when the perpetrator has also manipulated everyone else around you. It also means that clueless people have no idea what they're looking at or who they’re dealing with - even when it's right in front of them. Perpetrators who groom are often so skilled at controlling others’ perception and cooperation - that people are actually charmed by them and sympathetic toward them. Being the victim of systematic grooming is a very difficult role to move beyond. It takes a while to know the truth, to recognize the grooming and set up, and to let yourself off the hook. Clueless people may even blame you because manipulators are so charismatic.

Recovery from sexual trauma is always a process. I've found it necessary to develop a pretty resilient shell when it comes to clueless people. I had to learn that my experiences are unique to me and extremely complicated. I had to cut myself some slack when clueless friends and family weighed in. I had to set some boundaries and use my voice to lay down the ground rules for their input and advice giving. I also had to give them the benefit of the doubt that they were operating out of ignorance due to a lack of similar experiences (thank God!!), and without malice - at least at the beginning!

Whether you've been groomed, suddenly assaulted, or kept by a perpetrator - it's always complicated. The situations are complicated. Your responses, decisions, and actions are also complicated. There is nothing about recovery that is simple. NOTHING! You're not dealing with a checker board of only black and white squares and specifically designated moves. What works for you may not work for others. What decisions you make may not be appropriate for anyone else. Your responses took place in a context of circumstances, age, and relationships. Let me repeat: nothing is simple. Recovery is complicated - and there will always be clueless people in your life that do not have the capacity to grasp that.

In your journey beyond abuse and trauma, be prepared for clueless people. Expect it, because when you do, it lessens the potential to derail your progress. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to have wise, informed, and aware people around to get you through the debris of trauma? Of course - but that's not always available to you. Take a deep breath, determine if their motives are good or not, and take this at your own pace, in your own way. And above all things, realize that it's complicated and that it takes awhile to regain your balance and strength.

Written by Sallie Culbreth, Founder
Committed to Freedom . . . providing people with spiritual tools to help them move beyond abuse

Thursday, January 6, 2011


It's no secret that sexual trauma is a thief. The experience of assault and abuse steals a great deal from victims. Innocence. Freedom. Health. Safety. Relationships. The list varies, but there is always loss.

A particularly troubling loss is to your calendar - your seasons - your special days. If Valentine's Day twelve years ago ended in rape, then the significance of that day changes for you. If your birthday celebration turned into an opportunity for predators to molest you, your birthday becomes tainted by their actions. If the night of your high school graduation included assault and terror, then that accomplishment has been overshadowed by pain and fear. If Sunday afternoons after church gave relatives an excuse to abuse you, then the "Day the Lord Has Made" feels as if it was made for weeping, not for worship. If you were preyed upon when going out with friends or walking down a street, you may think you were to blame for an attack because you were there, having fun. (Please NOTE: the person responsible for any abuse, assault, or attack is the perpetrator, NOT the victim!!)

Recovery is about taking back what you a right to. It is about refusing to relinquish your holidays or special occasions to the thief. It is about reclaiming your body as your own, your right to be who you are, and your seasons to enjoy as you see fit. You cannot be passive about this. No one will give you these things - you must militantly reclaim them as yours.

Our Co-Director, Anne, was brutally raped many years ago on Halloween. The fun, the costumes, the silly trick-or-treating - all of it had the potential to invoke only pain for the rest of her life, and that would be understandable. But Anne did something revolutionary. She refused to let the vile animals that did this to her hijack the day. How did she do that? Well, every Halloween, she throws a HUGE party, decorates her house so elaborately that it stops traffic, and dresses in costumes with her friends and family, enjoying treats and special times of fun. In other words, the day that was hijacked - she took back!

Yes, trauma is a thief. A brutal, cruel thief. There is nothing to make light of. To shrug it off, to push it deep inside, or to deny the loss will only hijack all of your future days, seasons, and moments. There is loss, but there can also be gain if you make the decision to reclaim what you have every right to.

An important aspect of this reclamation process, is that the timing has to be right for YOU - when you're ready. At first, it may feel forced or false, but the key is to aggressively claim what is yours!

There is a time to mourn and to remember. There is a time to reflect and heal. And there is a time to radically take back what is yours - be it attending a religious service, Valentine's Day, Sunday afternoons, the first day of springs, or walking down any street you want to!

In the Hebrew Bible, there is a beautiful promise from God that states, "“I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten" (Joel 2:25). Trauma hijacks the ordinary every day moments and the large celebratory ones too. You have been empowered by God to take those back and reclaim them as yours.

Written by Sallie Culbreth, Founder
Committed to Freedom . . . providing people with spiritual tools to help them move beyond abuse

Friday, December 17, 2010

Advent's Trauma

(This is the second in a series of three articles about Advent as we prepare our hearts for Christmas: (1) Advent's Journey, (2) Advent's Trauma, and (3) Advent's Celebration.)

The arrival of Jesus was declared to be "good news." He was given the title of Prince of Peace, and yet, there was anything but peace taking place around the events of his birth. Joseph, when he heard the Virgin Mary was pregnant, considered a quiet divorce* from her (a kinder option than having her stoned to death), the land was occupied by a brutal regime, and they were issued harsh requirements to travel far from home and give birth in a barn. All of these were certainly traumatic! Not yet fully realized by Mary and Joseph was the very real threat that Jesus' birth posed.

Later in his life, his presence would prove so threatening to religious leaders that they would have him assassinated, but from birth, he was perceived to be a threat by a civil king, too. You're probably familiar with the Christmas story about the Magi (probably astrologers from Persia) who stopped in to see King Herod (Matthew 2:1-18). They were on a quest to find Jesus - the King of the Jews - which Herod found so threatening that he had all the boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem slaughtered, hoping that this infant king would be killed too. I can't imagine the horrific scene or the overwhelming heartache that took place as his orders were carried out.

Abuse is about trauma. It happens because people do terrible things to each other. It happens because the weak and vulnerable are crushed by those who misuse their power. It happens when compassion and empathy are not part of the cultural or personal equation of small-minded people.

In your journey beyond abuse, it is easy to be consumed by the trauma of your experiences. It is easy to feel threatened by the past. It is easy to become brutal or paranoid or calloused. It is easy to forget who you are or to run away from making that discovery, but I want you to know that there is also great joy in this journey.

The arrival of Jesus was, indeed, "good news." Despite all the cruelty, the tarnished reputations, or the harsh circumstances, the presence of Christ was and still is good news. In fact, against that brutal backdrop, the Prince of Peace especially shines bright in contrast to trauma as a beacon showing us another way.

The trauma of your abuse has the very real potential of turning you into an equally heartless predator, but it also can be used to propel you forward and away - beyond it. I realize this is an allegorical parallel, but the fact remains, that "the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned" (Isaiah 9:2, Hebrew Bible).

As you walk on your journey beyond trauma - beyond abuse - you may feel as if you're walking in darkness. That's when it is most important to lift your eyes, focus on that star in the east (or west or north or south!) and follow that light through the trauma - the shadow of death - and into the dawn. Your dawn begins the moment you choose to take a different road than the cruel, the paranoid, or the calloused. Your dawn takes place when you follow the Prince of Peace and become – like him - a magnificent being of depth, compassion, empathy, and kindness.

*Betrothal during the era of Jesus’ birth was considered to be marriage that had not yet been consummated.

Next week we will look at Advent's Celebration and the parallels to your journey beyond abuse.

Written by
Sallie Culbreth, Founder
Committed to Freedom . . . providing people with spiritual tools to help them move beyond abuse.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Advent's Journey

(This is the first in a series of three articles about Advent as we prepare our hearts for Christmas: (1) Advent's Journey, (2) Advent's Trauma, and (3) Advent's Celebration.)

You would think that the task of bringing Jesus into the world would have qualified for a first class ticket in a deluxe camel caravan suite, but that wasn't the way it worked out for Mary and Joseph. From the beginning, there were no free passes for Jesus or his family. I've often tried to place myself in their shoes (or sandals). Of course, at this time of year, pastors and choirs and made-for-television Christmas specials examine every Christmas possibility, but this isn't going to be a detailed exploration of those reflections. Instead, from the perspective of an abuse survivor, I want to explore the parallel journey you are on as you make your way to a life beyond abuse.

Unsettling news was what prompted the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Mary's pregnancy and Joseph's response bound them together to complete an incredibly difficult mission. They were suddenly placed in a situation where society might reject them, where family might deny them, and where trust might never form between them. Their truth had the potential to isolate and possibly endanger their status and well-being.

When you, as an abuse survivor, finally acknowledge the unsettling truth about your experiences . . . when you rock the boat, shatter the secrets, and are emboldened to reclaim your life - you will be launched on a journey that has the potential to isolate and change how others see and they relate to you. This is a good thing, but it is also unsettling and life changing. However, to begin the process of moving beyond abuse will means that you have been prompted to take that first step. Making that decision - acting upon that decision - changes everything. Is there risk involved? Absolutely! You risk rejection, isolation, and perhaps even retribution. You also risk discovering the deepest levels of strength, love, beautiful people, and personal empowerment.

Under the circumstances, the journey was difficult. Mary was in the late term of her pregnancy; Joseph - knowing Who she was pregnant with - was responsible for her safe passage to Bethlehem. Not only that, but they lived under oppressive civil authority that required them to take this journey, and under rigid religious authority that eventually used their rules to crucify this child who was about to be born. However, they did not make this trip alone. There were others in equally difficult circumstances that travelled in this caravan toward Bethlehem.

The journey beyond abuse is always difficult. The circumstances - the actual abuse, your relationship dynamics, and the damage that you carry - create tremendous challenges to find safe passage to a life of peace, health, and balance. It is possible that you may encounter oppressive and rigid people who will not facilitate your progress, but throw further obstacles in your way. It is also possible that you will discover people on the same path who are willing to walk along side you as you travel.

At the journey's end – once the arrived in Bethlehem - it looked nothing like Mary and Joseph imagined. They expected to stay at an inn. Instead - thanks to the kindness of a stranger, the innkeeper - they were ushered to a stable where Mary gave birth amid donkeys and sheep and chickens and hay. I’ve read commentary on this that states the stable was actually a much better environment for Mary and Joseph than the inn. Rather than being crammed in a crowded inn with others, they were given the privacy and space they needed for the birth of Jesus.

People are often surprised by what they find when they move beyond abuse. It's probable that we all start out with some idea of what being healthy and balanced will look like, but it's also quite probable that the reality of journey's end will look quite different from that initial expectation. Being healthy might mean the beginning of a new relationship or the ending of an old one. It might mean changing personal habits or occupations or locations. Being balanced might completely alter the way you interact with others or how you reconnect with God. As you grow healthier, as you move further beyond abuse, you will discover that that which once occupied center-stage of your attention and your life - your abuse - will move to the side until it no longer defines you.

How wonderful it would have been for Mary and Joseph had there been a luxury train and a beautiful birthing suite for their journey to Bethlehem. How much easier it would have been if the angel of the Lord had appeared to all of their friends and leaders to let them know exactly Who was on his way and how this family should receive royal treatment at every juncture of the situation. But this was not to be for Mary and Joseph and Jesus. No short-cuts. No easy passage. No accommodation for these unique circumstances. This was a difficult journey in difficult circumstances.

You can spend all of your energy waiting for the luxury liner to pick you up and transport you to a fantasy destination, but that won't accomplish the new life you seek on this journey beyond abuse. Something has happened to you that is unsettling, inconvenient, and often quite painful. To move beyond abuse means that you embrace that reality and put one foot in front of the other because you KNOW there is more for your life than dysfunction, hopelessness, and chaos.

Why the human experience of men and women who do extraordinary things is so difficult remains a mystery. Mary and Joseph were given a remarkable privilege to participate in God's redemption of this world. You have also been given a remarkable privilege - to reclaim your life and find personal empowerment, health, and balance. That is no easy task, but when you take your life back into your hands - and out of your abusers' hands - you will be filled with awe and wonder. You will witness intimate miracles that few people could ever imagine. You will be in the presence of a miracle, of redemption, and of hope.

One final thought. This journey's struggle came about because average people made themselves available to do something extraordinary, and in that process, they were changed forever with the arrival of Christ. As you make yourself available to do something extraordinary, you, too, will be forever changed as you participate in life, following the path well-worn by the Prince of Peace.

Next week we will look at Advent's Trauma and the parallels with your journey beyond abuse.

Written by
Sallie Culbreth, Founder

Committed to Freedom . . . providing people with spiritual tools to help them move beyond abuse.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Abolishing Slavery

In the United States, we are marking the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. One consequence of that conflict was the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended legal slavery. However, before that dream became a reality, there were many courageous people who helped slaves escape from their slave-owners and find passage to freedom. This passage became known as The Underground Railroad and one of its chief engineers was an escaped slaved named Harriet Tubman. I have to tell you that she is one of my all time heroes, but it wasn't just because of her involvement in The Underground Railroad. It was because of her militancy for freedom. (Click here to read more about her.)

Having been a slave, herself . . . having been permanently damaged by the abuse she suffered at the hands of her masters, she had almost insurmountable odds to overcome - just to live! But this pit-bull of a woman refused to remain a slave to her circumstances. She escaped and found her way to freedom, where she could have remained safe, but that was still not enough for her. Not enough because there were still those just like her who remained enslaved, hence the intensity of her mission and life work.

Harriet Tubman once made a statement that perfectly summarizes the struggles of all abuse survivors when she said, "I freed hundreds of slaves. I could have freed hundreds more had they only known they were slaves."
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges you face is recognizing the parts of your life - your mind, soul, body, and relationships - that are still enslaved. Let's face it - the legacy of abuse tends to keep how we live on a kind of "auto-pilot" in which you mindlessly obey the damage and don't even notice that you're not free. It is only when you've been conquered by it just once too many times that you become aware that you are still owned by it - owned by the damage and dysfunction. The question then becomes, what are you willing to risk to follow the passage that leads to freedom?

The journey beyond abuse is not for the faint-of-heart. It is for militants. It is for revolutionaries! It is for those who are sick and tired of being slaves to the past. So sick and tired of it that you're ready to escape, regardless. It's interesting to me that Harriet Tubman - and many just like her - didn't wait for the Emancipation Proclamation to proactively find freedom. She didn't need permission to know she deserved to be free. Neither do you. In fact, you may never be around people who think you have the right to be anything but conquered and dysfunctional, but you do!

The beautiful thing about making that decision to be free is that once you do, you already are! The recently released Burmese human rights activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, stated, "I always considered myself free because my mind is free." That's a powerful truth for you to embrace: once you make up your mind that you are ready to escape - to be free - you already are. This is an echo of Proverbs 23:7 in the Hebrew Bible that reads: "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he." That truth will be increasingly manifested as you take each step along your personal Underground Railroad. The fact that you're on it means you're no longer a slave. It means that you've laid claim to your emancipation and you're taking action on that claim.

Harriet Tubman was ruthless about freedom and would not tolerate anyone who jeopardized the escape to freedom. The legend goes that she was known to shoot people who did so! She was completely unwilling to risk dragging dead weight - those who impeded the journey, those who preferred bondage to freedom, and those who tried to hold her or her passengers back from being free.

You and I need to be equally committed when it comes to taking back ownership of our lives. While we must always respect ourselves and other, and interact with kindness and gentleness, that is not the equivalent of being a doormat or a pushover. You have every right to be free. Harriet Tubman, who was often referred to as Moses, knew this. Jesus came for this. You must know this too, and then push past the lies that enslave you and move along that well-worn path to freedom, illuminated by the Spirit of God.

Written by
Sallie Culbreth, Founder

Committed to Freedom . . . providing people with spiritual tools to help them move beyond abuse