Knock, knock. I looked up, startled. Who was at my door? It was 7 pm, already dark. The blinds were pulled as they had been for a few days. No one had said they were coming. I glanced around my messy house and sighed. I really didn’t want someone else to see all this. I didn’t want them to see me like this. I stayed seated for a moment, debating. “Should I just ignore it?” I wondered. Then I sighed and glanced around my house once more. Suddenly determined, I rose to my feet and walked out to the kitchen. I lifted the blind to see who it was and then opened the door. My coworker Jenna stood on my porch. “Can I come in?”
Surprised and ill-at-ease, I nodded. She stepped in. We made small talk as we settled on the couch in the living room. Then she paused, looked at me squarely, and asked simply, “Ellen, what’s wrong?” I was caught for a moment, like a deer in the headlights, unsure whether to run or stay. “What’s wrong? You haven’t been at work all week. We’ve been trying to get ahold of you and you won’t answer. We had to try to cover for you with clients. Can you tell me what’s wrong? I’m not leaving till you tell me what’s wrong.”
For a moment, I felt overwhelming fear, and I almost turned away and shut her out. Then, my desperation rose up inside of me and I said, “I don’t know.” I then told Jenna the truth: my story of sexual abuse, my dysfunctional family, and the crippling dissociation and accompanying media addiction that was spiraling out of control. I didn’t go far into details; I simply painted the broad strokes.
Up until this moment, I had hidden how bad it was from everyone except my counselor. I didn’t know who to tell or how to tell it. I was too ashamed and too afraid. My normally driven, focused, detailed mind no longer functioned as it had during all those years. I couldn’t compartmentalize all the pain anymore and felt like I was slowly disappearing. I was unable to function at work, now often being absent for days without telling anyone why. I was letting everyone down: my boss, my coworkers, my clients, my friends, and myself. I had hit rock bottom and I didn’t know what to do. I just knew something had to change. In my desperation, I took the leap of trusting someone with my darkness.
I didn’t know it then, but my honesty that night was my first step out of my darkness and despair. That night, a coworker risked everything to care for me. She told me later that she was scared to come to my house that night. She had no idea what she might find. Was I okay? What if I was dead or hurt? What if I slammed the door in her face? I know it was God who put it on her heart to come to my door that night.
The Day My Walls Cracked
That conversation with Jenna led to more conversations with Darlene, another coworker who was in counselor training. The three of us went to Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia one weekend, where I finally told them my story in its entirety. I had no tears that evening at Applebee’s as they listened. That’s how it was then. The sexual abuse story elicited few tears from me. I had become used to the story, or so I thought, calloused, as if it had happened to another and not to me.
That night though, I watched their reactions, watched their indignant anger and sorrow for me. Then, Darlene said, “I have heard a lot of stories, but yours….,” her voice trailed off. “It’s one of the worse ones.” I felt stunned for a moment. Huh? What? Then something inside me gave way. I couldn’t cry, not in front of them. I still hadn’t learned how to cry in front of people. Some minutes later, in a bathroom stall, I held my fist tightly against my mouth as dry sobs heaved up from inside me. In a few moments, I forced the sobs back down, calmed my face to normalcy, and rejoined my friends. Somehow, her words had broken some of the hardness inside me and ever so slightly cracked the high walls I had around my heart. For the first time, I got a glimpse of the utter devastation of a little girl and a life that was meant for so much more.
The Weeks That Changed My Life Forever
One thing led to another and a few months later, I had signed up for a three-week group counseling session at Life Counseling Ministries with five other ladies and two female counselors. June rolled around, and one morning, I walked into my first group session with seven strangers. Little did I know that this would be life-changing, that forever after I would date my life as before Summer Group and after Summer Group. I had little idea that three weeks later, I would speak aloud, for the first time ever, “I want to live.”
I look back on that morning now, ever so slightly amused. I would find out later the name the other group ladies gave to me when they saw me was “Ice Princess.” If I remember correctly, I wore a light blue dress, one that I especially liked. I was dressed perfectly, every hair in place. And yes, I know now that I was icy, perhaps even condescending or arrogant. Sadly, that was who I was then: the competent, intelligent, tough woman who needed nothing and nobody. I’m so grateful that my fellow group attendees saw past all that to the brokenness I had tried to hide for so long.
Our study book was The Wounded Heartby Dan Allender. While I had read other books on sexual abuse, this one went so much deeper. What I read rocked my world. Patterns and emotions and reactions and styles of relating that had simply confused and puzzled me suddenly made sense. My mind reeled as I realized how little I really knew about myself, about relationships, and about God.
The Day My World Fell Apart
I will never forget that day in Summer Group when my carefully constructed world fell apart. On the first day of the third week, one of my fellow group attendees shared a really hard piece of her story. Like normal, the rest of us were asked by the group leader to respond with kind and caring words. All through the preceding days, I found it so difficult to do that. How do you care for others? How do you genuinely love and show it? The whole thing bewildered me. How did you even know where to start?
When it came my turn to give caring feedback to the pain she had voiced, I didn’t know what to say. “Well, yes, that’s a really hard thing. I know what you’re saying because I experienced—” The group leader cut me off. “No, that’s about you and how you feel. Your reply is to be about her and expressing care for her. Can you tell her that?” I sat there, stunned, speechless, bewildered. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to respond to her without making it about me. After a few moments, the group leader turned to someone else and the discussion continued without me.
I sat there, still stunned, feeling like the rug had just been jerked out from under me. I really wanted to care. I wanted to comfort her. By this point in our three-week group, we had all learned to know each other quite well and all of us had found amazing friends with whom we could let our guards down. By now, I had connected deeply with this other lady, but I had no idea how to care for her. I wanted to, so badly, but I had absolutely no clue how to do it. I realized I had been doing that all along, not really hearing the other ladies’ pain but rather changing the discussion to me and what I experienced.
I slowly started crying, tears coming harder and faster turning into sobs I couldn’t control. I slipped out of the room and sank into a chair, sobbing and shaking, unable to stop my tears. Soon, one of the group leaders came to see what was wrong and gently put her arm on my shoulders as I cried. Through my sobs and hiccups, I told her, “I don’t know how. I don’t know how to care for people. I don’t care for people. I make it about me. I don’t know anything about relationships. I’ve built my life all wrong. I thought I had it figured out, but now I know the only thing I’ve figured out is how to protect myself and survive.” I cried for a while longer. Once the tears were somewhat under control, I slipped back into the room where our group discussion was held. I sat there, listening, quietly weeping, my stack of used tissues getting higher and higher.
The Prayer God Answered
Later that day, I wrote this in my journal. “Be careful what you pray for because God will answer your prayers. I feel broken, humbled, bewildered, and saddened. I prayed for brokenness. I prayed to know myself. I prayed for my arrogance to be broken. It has been slowly cracking these past two weeks, but today I felt like it’s all been stripped away, like I’m a crushed china plate. I just feel this deep grief.
“Today, the chapter in The Wounded Heart was called ‘Styles of Relating.’ As I looked at the ways I’m a good girl and a tough girl, I realized that everything I thought I had figured out about life and relationships has tumbled down around my ears. And I sobbed and sobbed and cried and cried and could hardly stop. It took me soooo long to figure out life and relationships. As a child and teenager, I felt so confused and frustrated and responsible for relationships in our family that figuring out life and a way to relate and handle it was a long painful process.
“And now I realize that most of those ways of relating are from self-protection, not based in love. I really didn’t figure anything out but a style of relating based on my own pain and brokenness. I didn’t ask God how to figure out life, how to really care for others. I figured it out apart from Him and never knew it.
“I feel a deep sadness and grief that I’ve harmed others and deadened my heart and grieved a Father who longs to see me fulfilled in love and relationship with Him and others. I feel a deep need for repentance and cleansing.
“I don’t know what repentance and change looks like. I don’t know how to build my life on better things. I don’t know what life lived out of love, trust, and care looks like. I’m only asking my Father to walk with me and build His life and His love in me. I’m giving myself in utter dependence on Him. I’m giving Him my arrogance and drinking the cup of brokenness from His hand. Oh, I need Him!”
That was the beginning of a wonderful change that I could never have foreseen. Stripped bare and broken, changed from the inside out by a gracious Father, my life would go from dark and despairing to hopeful and joyful. The inner sense of total aloneness and the difficulty of connection with others would change into meaningful relationships and wonderful connections. I still date my life as before Summer Group and after Summer Group. Three years ago, God knocked me apart so He could build me back up into His beloved child. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And it started all because a friend cared enough to see my pain and say, “I’m not leaving until you tell me what’s wrong.” Jenna could have ignored the Holy Spirit prompting that evening. She could have played it safe. She could have chosen to not risk our friendship. But she didn’t. She “stood in the gap” for me. Darlene could have chosen to back away too, but she chose to connect me with Life Counseling Ministries which led me to the Summer Group which changed my life. My friends chose to hear my pain and extend grace and love and caring and friendship rather than recriminations and condemnations. Jenna and Darlene, if you are reading this, you know who you are. Thank you for letting God use you to change my life. I don’t know where I’d be today were it not for you.
Do you have a friend or family member struggling? Do you sometimes feel helpless, maybe even hopeless that things will ever change? Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep caring. Follow the Holy Spirit whisperings in your heart. If called to do so, risk the relationship to speak the truth and extend grace and recommend help. You may be the first light in their darkness, the first little step on a wonderful journey. You don’t know what amazing things may be waiting around the bend.
Note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.