After experiencing sexually and emotionally abusive relationships, it seemed like my heart and mind were wired for skepticism and distrust. I kept most in my life at an arms length, revealing only the surface of my emotions and realities of my heart to even those I was closest to. I was comfortable in hiding. It was safe. But I was alone and at the core of my identity, I desired to give myself totally to someone. However, that required a step in the light and a vulnerability that absolutely terrified me (and at times still does).
My healing really began the day I began to share my total and authentic self in a completely platonic relationship that pointed me towards Christ. As my healing journey progressed I had a lot to learn about what it meant to give of oneself to another. I had to discover and rediscover what maintaining proper boundaries looked like in both non-platonic and platonic relationships. And there was a lot of trial and error. Thankfully, through it all, I had and still have the guidance of the Church.
I met my husband, Jordan, just a couple months after really beginning the process of healing. At the time I was not looking at my husband as a potential dating interest as I was discerning the possibility of marriage with another holy man. Because of this, I first got to know my husband as a friend and thus through an honest lens not blurred by feelings of attraction. In hindsight I can see this was an immense blessing. About a year after initially meeting Jordan, we both were in a position to be open to dating and that door between us was opened by what I believe to be the nudging of the Holy Spirit.
“He loves you so much.” friends repeatedly said to me. When I first heard this, there was a part of me always looking to disprove this claim. I wasn’t afraid of it being true but I was afraid of it being another lie.
From the very beginning of my dating relationship with my husband, his intentions were clear and out in the open. And this was completely anti-thesis to the abuse I had experienced. There was no hiding. While this was comforting, I quickly discovered it was also terrifying.
I had to learn how to live in integrity and trust Jordan with my honest feelings which required the thing I was worst at: vulnerability. I knew that if I wanted to authentically pursue a relationship with Jordan that was geared toward marriage I had to choose vulnerability. My love for Jordan ultimately led me to make this choice. But I came to this choice only after a lot of internal conflict and struggle. It was this conflict of feelings that made me realize my husband would sanctify me in marriage, because he was already doing so.
I can identify the exact moment in our relationship when I realized that I wanted to marry him. It was when I able to display my greatest weaknesses and emotional ugliness to Jordan that I knew a marriage to him would prepare for total union with Christ. Because he did not leave.
There I sat sobbing in the grass, letting this man see me and be present to my raw woundedness and hurt pride. I fought him at every effort he made to understand my hurt, but he remained present. This is exactly what I had experienced with Christ just months prior. I don’t really remember anything Jordan said that night. But I do remember the gift of his authentic presence and his unwillingness to abandon me when I tested his patience and trust. I recognized that I desired to overcome my brokenness out of love for him and Jordan was patient with me in my struggle to do so. That’s when I knew that this was the man who would get me to Heaven. I only hope that the love I’m able to give does the same for him.
I was recently advised by my spiritual director to write a letter to the man who groomed me. What I ultimately wrote was something that I did not foresee.
I had never realized, or perhaps let myself realize, how much my teenage self admired and loved the man who ultimately used me for his own gratification. In hindsight, I can see that’s exactly why he was able to use me in the way that he did. This letter was the product of repressed grief stemming from that affection. I taught myself to hide from this grief for nearly a decade. But you can only hide from yourself for so long.
One of the very reasons I was vulnerable to abuse in the first place was because of my tendency to hide within myself in moments of stress or trauma (kind of like Adam and Eve when God came looking for them after the fall). My healing process has been a process of learning to live completely in the light. For me, this letter was a major step in doing so and ultimately giving all that was previously hidden to the One who can make me new.
What is written below is my teenage self finally having the ability to articulate all she was feeling through the mind of her twenty-five year old self. I now know that there is a vast difference between the capabilities of those two brains. I share in order to help all who may feel uncomfortable accepting the feelings that were evoked in them by those who had power over them, just as I did. Perhaps, your reaction to what happened is completely human. In recognizing your humanity, maybe you can learn to love yourself more. I’m beginning to love the teenager I once hated and she needs that.
Sections and details written in the original letter have been omitted for the sake of identity concealment and prudent disclosure:
I distinctly remember the day I met you. At the time I couldn’t understand why you stood out to me so much. But perhaps God was giving me some sort of spiritual insight I would later need. We first met when I was 13 years old. You were at my parish for the ….…, when I looked at your face and at your eyes, I felt extremely sorrowful and empty. I couldn’t get it out of my head for a while. However, something about you also made me joyful and it was very confusing. I had forgotten about that moment by the time you started messaging me 3 years later. But as I’ve reflected on everything that occurred the past several years, it came back.
I have no idea how to say what I need to say to you. Maybe I can start with the fact that I was in love with you for a long time when I was just a teenager. I don’t think those feelings will ever go away but the feelings have changed as my understanding of love has. I was so angry with you. For years I went between wanting to you punch you in the face and wanting to give you a long hug on a daily basis. Do you have any idea what you did to my heart? Do you realize how much you meant to me and how much affect you had on me? Did you ever love me for who I was? Or was I just something you were attracted to. I desperately wanted you to love me.
….. I was so mad at myself for feeling the way I did about you. I knew it would end with me hating myself. I hated myself so much.
As I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve began to understand why I felt so strongly about you. You gave me attention when I didn’t feel like anyone else genuinely cared. With the frequency and content of your messages its no surprise to me know why things happened the way they did. My teenage brain wanted to believe you. The horrible thing is that I was smart enough to know what was happening but not strong enough to put an end to it. I left for college with a very conflicted heart. ….
…at Cal I met …. He ended up completely breaking my heart. This heart break was the final straw that led me to change my life. During my first semester I …began attending a bible study and met two friends who would play an important role in helping me let go of you.
I met a group of people who were pursuing a life of chastity. They were the most joyful people I had ever met in my life and I wanted that so much. Eventually I was able to attain it, but it took a lot more than just putting an end to the things that were sexually inappropriate in my life. I had to replace those things with something that would give me lasting joy. I found that in an authentic relationship with the Eucharist. Previously, I had resorted to sexual sin when the desires I had to be loved and known were not being met because of my fear of vulnerability. I think that’s what you do to whether you are aware of it or not.
Cutting off communication with you was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It literally took an act of God to make that happen. He saved me from your inability to protect me from yourself. I definitely didn’t have the ability to protect you from me. I tried. The day I stopped talking to you I felt like my soul was bleeding. It took everything I had to push send on the message I had spent days drafting which I’m not sure if you ever actually saw. I cried so much. I felt like I was dead inside.
Because of you, I began going to adoration every day with greater intentionality and authenticity. I had to learn how to speak to Jesus with complete vulnerability. The ache of your absence lead me there. And Christ began to mysteriously fill the wounds in my heart that I previously used you to hide and conceal from myself.
Had it not been for you and this chaos– I wouldn’t have the amazing life I do now. I think you did to me what someone once did to you, …. And I am so sorry.
……………I forgive you for everything.
Those who abused you do not define who you are and they never did. You know who does. He thirsts for you way more than I ever did for your (authentic) love. And I know that’s unbearable.
Forgiving him is not something that I could ever do on my own but only through redirecting the distorted affection towards love for Christ. In Christ filling the wounds of my heart, as discussed in the letter, he can now act through me if I remain in Him. This is what He does for us and this is our path to freedom.
Writing this letter has been one of the most healing experiences of my life. While I realized a long time ago that direct contact with my abuser would be extremely harmful for my mental and spiritual health because of the mental power he has over me, I made the decision to give this letter to someone who I know could get it to him. I have no certainty if he will actually receive it (and maybe he’s not supposed to) but if God wills it, I know it will happen in His time.
I’ll never forget the night I was asked this by a man whose attention I had become emotionally dependent on over the course of the year prior.
Not only was this question inappropriate for a middle aged man to be asking a teenage girl, but for me, the answer to that question was almost impossible to articulate.
As I answered a question I should have completely ignored, I confided in this man that I had been hurt by the effects of a sexual experience at the age of 12. While I hoped I would receive the response of a loving a father, the response I received was one that indicated he desired to use me just as I had been used before.
At the age of 12 I had what I would later come to realize as my first sexual experience. At the time I was infatuated with a boy three to four years older than me who had asked if he could be my first kiss.
But when I showed up to receive it, I got a lot more than I expected. While in the moment I was completely enamored by the fact a boy who I had a crush on “liked me,” this moment was the beginning of a struggle that would be present in my life indefinitely.
In the months following the sexual activity I became extremely depressed but I had no means of articulating why. While I attributed the depression to losing the friendship I had come to have with that boy, there was something deeper at play. I was grieving the loss of my innocence and purity at the level of my soul. And it wasn’t until 6 to 7 years later that I would be able to understand what happened for what it was: a grave violation of the good and natural order that God intended for human relationships and physical communion.
I now understand the grief that my 12-year-old self experienced as an indicator of the goodness my body was intended for and the innate dignity I possess. In a sense, the grief I experienced was a God-given built in mechanism that I believe every human feels when they are used (or use themselves) for purposes contrary to God’s design (Sort of like a check-engine light on a car). I thoroughly believe that anyone who engages in behavior contrary to God’s intention for sex feels this to some degree, regardless of consent or lack thereof. Guilt and shame serve a purpose.
As asserted in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, our bodies are designed to communicate the language of love. And because of this, sex can only be done in the context of marriage, if what is said by our bodies is to be true. Sex communicates, “I love you in my entirety and without end.” When sex occurs in a context other than an intentional life-long sacramental commitment, a deep and physical lie is communicated. And we feel this deception in our very physicality and soul, if not immediately, eventually (the check-engine light). This is exactly where my profound grief was coming from, the lie I had been told.
In my adolescent efforts to make sense of my own grief, I often compounded it in the lies that I would fully consent to and engage in in my romantic peer relationships. This grief landed me in yet another situation of domination and use as a 16/17 year old girl who found herself the target of a sexual predator. But Christ found me at my breaking point and that’s why I’m writing this today.
I was once encouraged to ask Christ to reveal to me where He was in the particular moments of my life that have caused me the greatest amounts pain, most of which being related to sexually abusive behavior and my own failings in striving for chastity. In each moment I saw an image of Christ in profound grief, reminding me of the grief I knew intimately. He revealed that He was full of sorrow for me in each moment I recalled, just as He no doubt is for you in your most painful and shameful moments.
“Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Psalm 37
I struggled for a long time to accept the fact that I had developed feelings of emotional attachment to a man who clearly did not have my good or wellbeing in mind. While I was conscious of the fact he did not genuinely love me and the relationship was not age-appropriate, I could not let go of it. And for a long time I hated myself for it. But learning why I couldn’t let go has not only helped me understand why I acted the way I did, but has completely changed my relationship with Christ.
We all possess innate goodness by the simple fact we are created by God. While the human race is quite diverse, we all desire to be loved, to be known, and to be delighted in. These desires are very good. But when we or others in relationship with us break the natural law set by God in order to fulfill these desires, destruction and greater longing is what follows.
When our hearts are wounded or in need of love, we cling to the things that give us security or seem to fulfill our deepest longings. For me, my abuser was this sense of security for years. He offered me a very distorted reflection of what my heart desired most. I used him to fill the cracks in my heart that were longing for healing. It was a dependency that was never fulfilling but just enough to take the edge off.
I was in the habit of turning to him whenever I felt lonely. He distracted me from hurt and stress that occupied my mind. Ending communication with him was extremely difficult for this reason. In February of 2015, less than a year into my freshmen year of college, I put an end to all communication with him. In the lead up to that day, I remember having a complete emotional breakdown when I realized what I had to do.
I sat at a coffee house bawling my eyes out realizing that he not only needed to be removed completely from my life, but that I was the one that had to send him away. At the same time I was uncomfortable with myself for even feeling so torn up about it. Why was I so emotionally invested? How did it get that far?
When God created the human heart and marriage, He created them to function with integrity. Sex creates lasting and enduring bonds. It is designed to increase unity and love between spouses. While we can certainly numb ourselves to these lasting effects for a time, we will indeed experience them at some point and often at the least convenient times–the times when we most need security and love.
There is a very good reason behind why we should take seriously the Church teaching that sex is specifically reserved for the marital union. The reason is that valid marriages are indissoluble, and sexuality is designed to perpetuate this indissolubility. On our own, we cannot break these bonds once they have been established. When we let in or give too much of ourselves to another person that is not our spouse (physically or emotionally), we are swimming in dangerous waters. We must recognize the limitations of our hearts if we are to truly love. In my life this recognition came when a trusted friend pointed out, “He (my abuser) is very good at manipulating you.”
Recently I’ve spent some time revisiting the tens of thousands of messages sent between me and my abuser with the hopes of answering the question: how did it get that far?
The answer I’ve come to is this: attachment. There was a point where I began to have real feelings for him. He was giving me constant attention and manipulating my desires to be seen, known, and loved. I loved him for the attention he gave me. But then it got complicated.
When he first sexualized the relationship I convinced myself I was reading into something that wasn’t there. He did so in a way that was not explicitly clear and I didn’t want to be embarrassed for telling anyone if I was in fact misinterpreting his words. He was an adult who was esteemed by those I was close with. I continued to let his advances and words in and over time it became explicitly clear that he wanted our relationship to be sexual. Eventually I felt trapped in a situation that I didn’t know how to get out of and ultimately felt responsible for. I was afraid of anyone finding out about what was happening for fear they would think less of me because of the amount of time I had let the communication continue.
The content our messages and the amount of time I spent speaking with him created inappropriate attachments that I became aware of only when they felt impossible to break. And at the time I ended communication with him completely, the attachment had only been accentuated through a physical interaction that occurred months prior.
In the immediate months following my decision to end communication with him I remember feeling as if I had just come out of an intense battle. I felt like my soul was bleeding. But that ache is exactly what led me to spend time in front of the Eucharist on a daily basis. This ache pointed me straight toward the authentic fulfillment of all the desires of my heart.
On February 25, 2021 I celebrated six years of striving to fill my wounds with the only One who can truly heal wounds and fulfill the longings that make us human. While I fail at this on a daily basis, it has been the greatest adventure of my life.
In your battle to guard your heart (or reclaim it) do not forget to surrender it to the One who created it and delights in you more than any of His creatures can!
While I have always identified as being “pro-life,” I struggled with this belief silently for years. I logically understood and could clearly see that abortion ends a human life (all we have to do is open a biology text book to figure that one out), but I found the distressed plea of a mother who legitimately felt she could not bear a child compelling. In my head I could logically see how this thinking was flawed, but I struggled with it in my heart, much like I did with my own worth. And the two were intimately connected.
My biggest fear in life used to be that I was a burden to other people. I never wanted to cause problems or inconvenience others. If another was upset, I too often assumed it was because of something I did. When I was first sexually abused at age 12, I was convinced it was my fault. I thought I had done something wrong. The abuse only accentuated my fear of being a burden–how could I reveal what happened, and create the trouble that would come with it? I struggled for a long time to even call what happened “sexual abuse” because of this fear. But that’s exactly what it was–sexual abuse. My fear of being a burden is what led me to keep quiet about what was happening in my life as a teenager when I began to be abused by another man.
When I became a member of my university’s pro-life group my second semester of college, it hit me that abortion and sexual abuse are different forms of the same evil. They hold the same assumptions to justify their existence and accomplish similar ends; death on one hand, and abuse in another. A mother who only has an abortion because she feels it is her only option is certainly more sympathetic than a sexual predator, but the acts themselves communicate the same message: “You are less valuable than me, and disposable. I do not totally or genuinely love you, and you will suffer for me.”
If from our very conception, it is permissible to question whether or not someone’s existence is convenient, or worth protecting, what stops us from using someone at any stage of their lives for our own convenience or pleasure? Why are we worth protecting from any danger if life has no inherent value? Truly, if our lives have no value or meaning, there is no reason to protect them.
If you ever wondered what goes on at a pro-life group meeting, we spend a lot of time studying why abortion occurs and how to compellingly and compassionately explain the logical fallacies used to justify it in our culture. It was in this study that I realized the logical inconsistencies that were rooted in my heart and which led me to believe I was not worth being treasured and protected. When I began to realize and believe I did have value, and was worth being loved, I had no question as to whether or not another human life at any stage deserves the same, no matter the level of “convenience” their existence disturbs in another’s perception.
Abortion and sexual abuse are both products of the culture of death. It will take prayer and true charity to bring about the culture of life. Please join in me in prayer for the protection of the unborn today and that our culture may come to never view another human person in light of what they can or can’t do but rather what they are: a being of infinite value who is due only love.
This coming Thursday, November 5, 2020 was the due date for the child we lost, Claire Francis Buzza. I can’t help but mourn that this day is lot different than I anticipated it would be when we found out Claire was with us. In the 7 months it’s been since the day we faced our loss, I’ve learned a lot, both joyful and sorrowful.
Something so close to my heart is so close to Jesus
Just a few days before we lost our baby, I received communion for the last time before we would undergo more than three months without in person Mass. A day or two after the loss, which fell on a Wednesday, we received news that public Masses were canceled indefinitely as lock downs began. Admittedly, I felt abandoned in my grief. The one place I had always gone when I felt I could go nowhere else was now closed off.
Without the support of my loving husband, the joy my living son bring us, and the actions of my father, I can’t imagine what the first two weeks after the loss would have been like. When I woke up from surgery I found out my dad was boarding a plane to come be with me as I recovered. This was an immense consolation and had he not done this I know this time would have been much worse than it was, as after he left I began to feel weight of isolation much worse than before.
The first two weeks after the loss and surgery, I spent most of my time focusing on physical recovery and began to feel anger as society imploded in fear. A fear I felt at the time, took away any sense of compassion from what we had just gone through. As I tried to process what had just happened all anyone talked about was how it was unsafe to receive or give physical presence, the thing I craved most. And as it became the societal doctrine that anyone who deviated from this “new normal” of social distancing was a “selfish murderer,” none of it set right with me. I cried myself to sleep for 2 weeks due to feelings of abandonment ( and in part due to post-pregnancy hormones no doubt). I wondered if anyone else was feeling this way as the (in hindsight what could only be described as) militant “Quarinteam” posts flooded my social media accounts.
Around the third week after the loss, I felt I was pretty well recovered physically. It was around that time I began to really grieve the loss of the baby. I relived the day of the loss praying we had navigated everything in a way that honored our child. I felt like every time I closed my eyes I saw the image of the ultrasound that told us the pregnancy was ectopic. As I looked at my 1 year old living son, I began to feel a sense of guilt and sadness over how much love I could show him that I felt I would never be able to show the other child.
A few weeks after we lost Claire Francis, a local parish began perpetual adoration (outside of course) in light of the pandemic. My husband and I immediately ran to this. Our first visit to the Eucharist was filled with clarity and peace.
While ideally, having had recourse to the Sacraments after a loss such as ours would have been preferred, would I have searched for God in the same ways I did without them? I don’t know. But in this heightened longing which was brought about by the loss amidst social isolation, my desire for God was increased and not my desire for the world that will continually disappoint. And in that came good.
As we continued to visit the Eucharist, I came to know and feel that our little one was in the arms of Jesus through the forms of prayer that I see Jesus most. And every time we visit Jesus in the Eucharist, we also visit Claire Francis who I have no doubt is praying for us as he or she lays in green pastures and praises our Lord with the Heavenly hosts in an even more beautiful life than would have been had on Earth. Jesus holds on to a part of me that is so dear. It is through Jesus I can have a relationship with a child I didn’t give birth to, but gave life to. And in that I find joy.
Out of this experience I have had the opportunity to form relationships with others who are navigating how to grieve losing a baby in pregnancy, in a world that only recognizes the value of a baby in utero in certain cases. This is obviously problematic.
Miscarriage is a pain that’s not allowed to be expressed (and a lot of women are suffering)
After the loss, I was encouraged to join a support group of Catholic women who have had similar or identical experiences. Around the time of COVID many women voiced similar feelings of abandonment and inhumane treatment when it came to their loss.
Aside from the COVID mentality, one of the most common grievances I have heard among women who have experienced loss is the fact that these women aren’t allowed to express their pain. Because in doing so, it illegitimizes abortion and a “woman’s right to choose.” There is not a single woman I have spoken in this group who views a child as disposable. There is not a single woman I know whose experienced a loss and doesn’t feel the immense pain that comes from death within one’s very body.
The great logical fallacy that a baby is a person if it is wanted versus if it is not wanted cannot continue. WOMEN ARE SUFFERING (also PEOPLE ARE DYING). We can’t continue to ignore this suffering simply because it makes us uncomfortable. We can’t continue to redirect oppression simply so women can have “better lives.” (Not to mention a majority of women who have abortions suffer from it in the long run anyways.) Perhaps we should value human life for how precious it is and honor women for their inherent ability to bring about life. Had Claire Francis never existed, I would never have known this unseen struggle of women facing miscarriages in a society that is now indifferent to the right to life.
On November 5, 2020 a precious life I once carried might have been born. But I now call upon that life to pray for the unborn and all mother’s feeling like their only option is abortion. I hope and have faith that Claire Francis’ proximity to Jesus allows these prayers to be better heard and felt.
Freshmen year of college is perhaps one of the most exciting times of life. It’s a time of new experiences, friendships, and a completely new way of life. Many are also living away from their parents for the first time and are experiencing a freedom they’ve never known. But along with this newness, comes a recognition of the old. Our frame of reference is built upon our foundational experiences and where we come from. And we view everything that is new to us new through these experiences.
After shedding some tears as I watched my family pull away from my dorm, I remember asking one of my roommates, “What’s our curfew?” to which she replied, “Oh Mariah, there is none.” When realizing I had made a somewhat humorous assumption about what life would be life going forward, I stood a bit confused and overwhelmed. What would I do with my time? Who would I spend it with? Would I make the most of it? I vowed not to live college like I lived in high school (isolated and depressed). So I did the exact opposite of what I did back then. I followed what the crowd was doing and went to a frat party, while at the same time flocking to a remnant of what was familiar to me. My abuser.
I attended my first frat party just a couple of hours after my family left. I had never been in an environment like this and was extremely intimidated. Then someone offered me a beer.
I felt a relaxation I hadn’t felt in years. While receiving a Generalized Anxiety Disorder diagnosis at the age of 9 and taking anti-depressants since the age of 13, I had tools to mask and manage what I was feeling on a surface level. But at my very core I was exploding. With that first beer, I was able to interact with those around me in a way I had never been able to. I had forgotten about “the him” who inundated my messenger inbox. I returned to my dorm at 3 am after drinking more than I had in my entire life and smelling horrible.
Upon checking my phone I saw several messages from a person I had grown emotionally dependent on for years. Of course I responded to him telling him all about my new found freedom and the fun experiences I was having.
But very soon came the guilt trips, like those I received throughout high school.
“You go to college and you forget about me, I see how it is”
I wanted more than anything to actually forget about him but I couldn’t because of words like those. They put a hook in my heart that I was doing something wrong by ignoring him or telling him to go away. I didn’t want to hurt anyone but I failed to recognize I was hurting myself. “How would my new friends look at me if they knew I was continuing to message this man?” I felt like I was living with a mask on at all times.
Then I remembered how this impossible conflict seemed to go away when I was drinking at the party. For the next few months this became the habit I flocked to any chance I got. And when there wasn’t a party to go to, there was always alcohol to be found somewhere. It eventually got to the point that I found myself needing to drink, every night, just to take the edge off.
It got to a point where every new thing I added into my life was simply a distraction from reality. Everything from my new found relationships to the Xanax I was prescribed half-way through the semester because I was having trouble sleeping. I was living for momentary relief in things that had long lasting consequences. I was searching for the life I craved in places where death reigned.
Miraculously, I somehow got through that first semester without failing a single class. But at the end of it all, something changed in my outlook. I came to the realization that I wasn’t happy, even though I had these distractions and what appeared to be total freedom. I realized I wanted more. I didn’t want to constantly feel like I was living a double life. After having my heart broken in a relationship with another freshman that I was way too emotionally invested in, I realized I wanted to be able to live in complete authenticity. I didn’t want to hide parts of myself anymore, and do things I was uncomfortable with just to maintain relationships that ultimately drove me into deeper depression and killed my soul.
When I returned to campus that next semester, I flocked to the one thing that gave me hope and was a driving force in the switch that seemed to go off in my brain. A relationship with Christ. Because of my familiarity with the Church through a childhood that spent a great deal of time in the sacristy, I knew exactly where to look.
In this story I continued to fill my broken and wounded self with things that gave me temporary relief. And while anti-depressants can help a person manage their feelings, much more is required for a person to heal and receive lasting joy. Through the pain of this first semester I was able to reason, through the grace of God, that I would not find joy and peace from the improper or excessive use of good things (relationships, fun, wine, etc.). That first semester I let in people and things that left me more depressed than I would have been otherwise.
It was this pain that was the impetus for me to learn who I was, with the help of the Church. I discovered that my desire for relationship and peace pointed to what I was ultimately made for–a relationship with God. In understanding this I became unashamed of the desires I was acting on and began to actually love myself. I began to realize I was simply acting on them in the wrong way and that no matter what I did, I could not eliminate my value as a human person. Through recognition of these errors in the Sacrament of Confession and a change in lifestyle I was able to begin pursing the life that I was made to live. And while I still struggle every day to fully do so, I’m not as far off as I once was. Because I know that I can’t do it on my own. By surrounding myself with people who desire life to the fullest in Christ and desire my authenticity, I am freer than I’ve ever been.
It is only in understanding who you are that you will know what gives you true joy! Perhaps those desires you’re ashamed of are pointing to something good. It is simply your job to look in the proper places and to open your heart through the way you live your life to receive grace.
“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:5 RSVCE)
A few years ago, a good friend of mine and I were sitting in a coffee shop hashing out our grievances of the opposite sex, (you know typical girl stuff). During the course of our conversation we landed on the topic of attraction.
Both of us admitted we had been confounded as to why we were or had been attracted to certain people over others throughout our lives. While there may have been certain similarities between the different men I had been attracted to, or at least emotionally invested in, there were also stark differences, and it didn’t seem to make much sense. My friend was in the same boat. She then stated something I’ve reflected on a lot since that day, “I firmly believe that attraction can occur between any male and female if they spend enough time together as our hearts were made for each other.” This is completely and undeniably true–our hearts were made for each other.
Like all good things though, that desire for love from another can be twisted for evil. In the past, I had developed feelings of attachment for my sexual abuser. This man was not only decades older me but the attachments I had developed on an emotional level for him were clearly unhealthy, and while being attached to him, I was simultaneously disgusted by that attachment. I couldn’t go five minutes without checking my phone to see if he had messaged me, because I was dependent on his attention. It was like an addiction. And I hated myself for it. These habits of dependency could also be seen in many of my early dating relationships, which inevitably ended in heartbreak.
However, in this distorted emotional desire, there rested an inkling of a very good desire. We were made for relationship.Whether we are called to marriage, religious life, or single life, at the core of who we are there is a burning desire in all of us to give and receive love. The nature of who we are as relational beings is illustrated most clearly in the creation of man and woman, specifically in Genesis 2:18-25.
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” 19 So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; 22 and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,
This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman,[c] because she was taken out of Man.”[d]
24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
Genesis 2: 18-25 Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition
Okay. So that might seem like a cliched passage you’ve heard at Church or in your catechism classes that seems pretty straight forward, right? In my opinion (or at least in my experience) if we take a deeper look, there lies an explanation for our desires, to give and receive love in this passage. The love between man and woman is a insightful reflection of the love we are each called to receive from God and give back to Him.
Lets start with man, Adam. When I read this passage recently, I was struck by the words of Adam when he says, “this at last….” Place yourself in the moment he first saw Eve. See how Adam is completely overwhelmed by her and at last, not alone. Feel his longing for another finally coming to fruition. I think of my own loneliness as I navigated single life (which I know was relatively short compared to most these days – yes! I married young). My loneliness was one marked by heartbreak and at times, despair. For every relationship that didn’t work out there was a doubt that I would ever find the person God was preparing for me (or that He had even remembered to give me a vocation at all). With this came a feeling of unworthiness and sadness for a love that would never come to fruition.
As Adam was brought creature after creature by God, imagine the heartbreak he experienced in his dissatisfaction. Imagine how easy it might have been for him to lose faith in God’s will for him to find a worthy partner. Yet, he trusted and continued to make space for God to keep bringing him creatures until finally, God brought him Eve. However, to receive Eve, Adam had to give of his very self. God removed a part of Adam’s body, his rib. Furthermore, the purpose of that rib was to guard his heart. If you’ve ever had surgery, you’ll know recovery is a pain! But it was out of this pain of having his heart exposed, and his vulnerability to God, he could receive the love that he was longing for in Eve. I can tell you from personal experience, I wasn’t ready for my spouse until I could authentically expose my broken heart in all it’s ugliness to Jesus. And it hurt. But Jesus hurt with me.
While we don’t hear from Eve at all, imagine this scene from her perspective. From the first sight of Adam she is delighted in by him. I often think about how treasured and worthy she must have felt in that moment. Being delighted in was something I struggled to feel as the abuse occurred. While I was being seen by a man, I was not being treasured by him. And deep down I knew this. But my desire to be treasured had been twisted so that I doubted my worthiness and thus kept responding to his advances. In my heart, I don’t think I believed any man would every truly treasure me, so I settled for what I was getting.
There is a unique desire built into the feminine heart to be noticed and beheld just as Eve was first noticed by Adam. My desire for the continued attention of my abuser was a reflection of this. We can also see there is a complimentary desire in the male heart to behold a “worthy helper.” But there is a stark difference between beholding and belittling (which is what using someone for your own gratification is).
Destruction occurs when the longing between man and woman is acted upon through use or domination. This is evil. When we lose sight of the equal dignity and responsibility that both sexes possess, we actually deny the other in his or her totality. Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed before the fall because they had not yet lost sight of this equality between them or the responsibility they had to each other. They did not yet fear the other using them for their own gratification because they were completely rooted in their identity as a creature of God. The implications of their identity as made in the image and likeness of God were understood at the level of the heart.
I can remember the first time I experienced the belief that I was treasured and beloved by God at the level of my heart. I was kneeling before the blessed Sacrament and burst into tears. I finally believed in the reality of my identity has His daughter. My life changed in that moment, and less than a year later I would meet my future spouse for the first time. The two years before we started dating were the most painful of my life. However, had I not experienced them I would not have been ready to give of myself in marriage in the same way that I can now. I had to be able to receive Jesus first.
If you are ever ashamed of your desires, explore the truth of what they are saying to you and how they point to your deepest identity as a beloved son or daughter of God. Although they may be misplaced, you are not alone as you strive to better align your will with the will of God. He will help you along the way (In fact, you can’t do it on your own). If your still waiting for your future spouse trust and pray. And if God is calling you to single life– remember, you are beloved by the One who is love Himself, and alone suffices. After all, marriage is simply a path to prepare us for the only relationship that matters in eternity! Your wait or situation in life does not dictate your worth. You are treasured.
What we believe about ourselves affects every aspect of our life and especially our relationships. It affects how we communicate with the rest of the world and also how we hear what’s being said to us. Sometimes, these beliefs become so deeply buried within us, we forget they are even there.
In some ways, the worst part about the sexual abuse I experienced were things that occurred before my abuser took advantage of me. It was the times in which people who were important to me made me feel worthless. These actions planted the seeds which allowed me to let my abuser use me at his disposal.
Some of things these actions told me were:
“My love for you is contingent on what you give me.”
“I’m not staying in your life or paying attention to you if you don’t entertain me.”
“You are a burden.”
“If someone is upset or sad, assume it is your fault.”
While it was rarely the intention of anyone in my early life to communicate these things to me, this is what occurred.
Why did I have these feelings and beliefs? Was it the result of a flawed outlook inside of myself or was it truly the behavior of everyone around me? The more I’ve reflected on what set the stage for my rocky teen years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is, both. While I now understand it was very rarely the intention of those I held dear to hurt me, the actions of, and more often inaction, of key figures of my early life (several affiliated with the Church) communicated that I was unworthy of their love. And even though I was blessed with many who loved me very well (both in my family and the Church), I heard the love I didn’t receive over the love that I did. I suppose this is human nature (or perhaps a consequence of original sin).
A few weeks ago I was asked to present a talk on the value of Catholic health care for the apostolate I work for. In preparation for this talk I sat staring at a picture of Jesus hung in my dining room. I felt him telling me “Remember who you are.” (Of course I was immediately taken back to my favorite movie as a child, The Lion King, but that’s besides the point.) In the few weeks since I’ve gave this talk, this phrase has come up more times then I can count. #IhearyouJesus.
So what does this phrase have to do with my experience of sexual abuse and the people and events that formed my sense of self-worth?
My journey of healing, in large part, has been defined by coming to understand and believe my truest identity. Healing has come from not only knowing that I am loved, but believing that I am delighted in by the Creator of the Universe. And this is enough to dispel the lies that I once believed about myself. All of the lies I once believed were rooted in a warped sense of identity.
Most people come to initially understand their identity through their parents or other strong influences in their lives. What these people say we are is very powerful and in some ways form our perception of how God views us. However, because we are all imperfect beings, parents included, flawed perceptions of identity exist. While I believe it is rarely the intention of a parent to neglect or communicate to their child that they are unworthy of love, unfortunately, it does happen. And it can be difficult to remember that one’s own flawed understanding of inherent dignity and self-worth is not always in accordance with the reality that God has set forth (a reality in which you are infinitely valued by an infinite God!).
The flawed perception that I carried of my own identity allowed others to treat me in accordance with this perception. I didn’t see myself as having value, so I allowed others to treat me like I lacked it. And those who hurt me were also acting in accordance with how they perceived themselves (I would venture to say that their perceptions were also very flawed).
Because I did not believe that I was treasured by significant figures in my early life, I did not realize I was treasured by Our Lord. Because of my flawed understanding of love, I ultimately saw our Lord (who is Love incarnate) as a judgmental law giver who I could never please. Someone who did not want a relationship with me but rather someone who I simply obeyed orders from. Someone who did not will my good, but only loved me for what I could do for Him.
Thus, I was predisposed to be pursued by those who used me for their own gratification. I viewed myself more like an object than a person, and thus I allowed others to treat me as such. I more easily entered into relationships with people who treated me this way, as it was easier to accept their perception of me than of someone who viewed me as a infinitely valued daughter of God. It was easier because I already believed what their treatment of me indicated. Living as if I did have value required an immense amount of trust that I just wasn’t ready for.
The reality that I was loved and valuable in the eyes of God challenged the perceptions I carried of my own identity, shaking me to my very core. I wasn’t ready to truly believe that I was worthy of being treasured and protected as a beloved daughter of God. This reality also required that I sit and wait patiently for authentic love while the objectified view allowed me to feel a sense of instant gratification that I was desired. However, once this gratification wore off, the reality that I was being used set in. And the sexual acts that I was subjected to ultimately communicated to me a lie that I was not worthy of complete commitment.
All sin is rooted in flawed perception of identity and my greatest failing in my story of abuse is neglecting to have faith in my truest identity (which I understood logically, but not in my heart). Faith in my identity would have required me to act in accordance with all I had heard about how the Lord views us as beloved, even though I couldn’t quite feel it. Thankfully, the Lord never gave up on me. I now know He wanted me to feel His love, but needed me to choose Him first for authentic relationship between us to exist.
Understanding your identity first starts with an accurate understanding of who God is (and He is indeed a loving Father who delights in you!). And while we will never understand Him completely, if we give Him an honest look, we know that He’s only ever communicated His immense love and longing for us. And our relationship with Him defines our identity above all else.
Who do you believe Christ is? Who do you believe that you are?
It was a crisp spring day in the Central Valley of California. We had just finished an all school Mass at my Catholic high school when one of my teachers asked to speak with me privately.
Heart racing, palms sweating (much like Eminem) I was unnecessarily worried that I was about to be suspended as I tried to figure out what this could be about. (even though I hadn’t done anything to warrant that type of punishment #relax Mariah)
My teacher closed the door to their classroom and just said, “How you doing you’ve seemed a bit down lately?” My first thought, “is it that obvious?” What I replied, “I’m doing good”, the first lie that I would l tell in this conversation.
Just prior to this conversation my abuser had significantly increased his solicitations and communication with me. This was the last semester of my senior year, and a few months from my 18th birthday. Part of me pretended that these solicitations were happening while the other part of me sat in confusion not knowing what to do. At this point I had let what was happening go on for far too long. I was convinced it was too late to say anything or even let myself think that was happening was not my fault. I was convinced it was. The last thing I was going to do was tell anyone. I couldn’t handle anymore conflict in my family and social life.
As I have written about in previous blogs a month into my high school career, my parents divorced, and it wasn’t a nice divorce to say the least. It came right as I was recovering from perhaps one of the most severe bouts of depression I’ve ever experienced and sent me back quite a bit. I mention this only to illustrate I wasn’t in the place at any point in my high school life to add another element of conflict to my already tumultuous environment, all while I was trying to figure out who I was as an unstable adolescent girl. At the time I couldn’t bear losing the relationships that had come to be so important to me in the past few years. In fact, I was emotionally dependent on them.
As the conversation proceeded, my teacher eventually asked, “Is there anything going on? (specifically in regards to sexual harassment)” The moment I was asked this, there was a part of me that wanted to divulge everything that was going on. But unfortunately, that part didn’t win. “No, I’m just tired” I said. This was my typical response when anyone asked me if I was okay, which in hindsight I realized I was asked this quite a bit. Yikes.
When I eventually came forward about everything that happened my sophomore year of college, I thought back to this conversation frequently. What would have happened had I told my teacher back then? Honestly, I don’t know, and probably never will. I do know that back then, I didn’t have the same personal relationship with Christ that gave me the ability to do so. That relationship made all the difference. Despite a deep attraction to the faith, there was much I hadn’t yet let sink into my heart.
While I was seen as a leader in my parish’s youth and in my high school’s faith life, I walked around constantly consumed by the secret I couldn’t tell that teacher who tried to help. I put too much pressure on myself to have it all together because of how I was seen. Terrified of creating a scandal, my soul was consumed by shame. As I was constantly jumping in and out of the confessional, I despaired in the fact that I couldn’t get out of the cycle I was unwittingly baited into my abuser.
I will be forever grateful to that teacher who had the courage to ask me if I was being sexually harassed. When I did eventually come forward, it served as one of the many indicators that I was doing the right thing.
If you suspect someone in your life, particularly an adolescent or child, is suffering from sexual abuse or harassment, reach out to them. While it may not be an immediate solace for their problems, your concern may be a flicker of hope for them when they are eventually ready to come forward.