TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains details about rape, eating disorders, and self-harm. Don’t read ahead if this will cause you to feel unnecessary stress or put your mental health in jeopardy.
Every night after I get out of the shower I look at my reflection in the mirror and take an inventory of all my physical imperfections. After having four children and developing severe arthritis, I see nothing but failure written all over the inches of my skin. I quickly attempt to hide my body with a towel, only to feel a deepening sense of shame when I realize that my towel isn’t big enough to stretch fully around me. Shakily, I run a comb through my graying hair, take the contact lenses out of my bloodshot, weary eyes, and slip into oversized pajamas. I hope that my clothes will hide my compounding sense of physical failure. This act of visual self-flagellation guides me to sleep every night where my anxiety replays a playlist of worries, fears, and shortcomings in my mind until I drift into a restless sleep.
My relationship with my body has had its peaks and valleys over the 36 years of life I’ve lived. The first time I remember being aware of my body was when I was five-years-old, lying on the floor of my grandparent’s farmhouse in Iowa. It was early morning and most of the people in the house were fast asleep. I was hiding under a quilt – a patchwork of blue, brown, yellow, and red. Holding the quilt up over my head, I observed how the sunlight pouring in through the windows caused the colors in the patchwork to create a unique visual filter of the atmosphere around me. I was in a magical childhood world of awe and wonder. Life held so much promise and so much beauty to explore. I felt content and drowsy.
Suddenly, I felt a hairy, grown-up figure slide underneath the blanket behind me. I don’t remember anything he (I’ll call him Dale) said. I only remember that he kept running his hand up the backs of my legs and over my buttocks. I remember him pressing himself into me. I remember thinking this was just another thing to be explored, another part of life that felt scary but was probably totally normal.
Unfortunately, Dale wasn’t the only adult to experiment with me sexually and he wasn’t the worst offender. In fact, I’m still in contact with Dale. I’ve never revealed Dale’s indiscretion to anyone. In my mental Rolodex of bad influences, he’s an anthill among mountains. But he’s the first person who made me aware that the physical part of myself was something to feel shame about. Until that point, I’d never really taken much notice of my body, other than the fact that when I scraped my knees it hurt, or when I put on a frilly dress I felt beautiful.
When I was eleven-years-old after one particularly violent encounter with someone else, I remember standing in the shower and thinking to myself, “Well, now it’s over. I’m definitely going to hell. I am disgusting.” Afterward, I poured nail polish remover all over the most sensitive parts of my body and held in my pain through gritted teeth and clenched fists. Stinging, burning sensations ran through me and I thought to myself, “Is this enough, God? Does this prove to you that I’m penitent enough? Can you forgive me now?”
But no amount of self-flagellation or penitence could erase the feeling that I was an aberration in God’s pristine world. My abuser had called me dirty, but even if he’d never verbalized this, I’d still have felt it.
I grew up in a strict religious family. When I was eleven-years-old I was wearing ankle-length skirts and being told how modesty was crucial because men were visually stimulated and had poor self-control. My father would gather my siblings and me around him to listen as he read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to us. My parents would marvel that God could love the worms that we as humans were.
As deeply loving as my parents were, the continual message I received was that we were abominations, created to be beautiful, but forever bent on vile, impure actions and thoughts.
Unless we loved God and gave him our whole heart. Unless we believed in him as faithfully as we believed in the ground beneath our feet. Unless we loved him more than mother, father, daughter, or son.
We read magazines about martyrs and were told stories about martyrs. We were urged to be like those who had been tortured and abused for God. We were instructed to forgive and repent and realize that all things happen because God wills them to happen.
Thus, in my eleven-year-old mind, God had willed me to be a vessel that others poured their anger and sexual frustration into. God had not given me the gift of faith. God had not given me enough love for him. I loved my mom more than him. I loved my dad more than him. If someone told me to deny my faith or they’d shoot my brother, I’d deny my faith so my brother could live.
I’m 36-years-old now and I still feel all these things deep within my soul.
This, along with the recurring sexual abuse and rape led me to look at my body with disgust and indignation. But I didn’t just hate my body. I hated the soul within my body. Why couldn’t my faith be stronger? Why couldn’t my love for God forge through the uncertainty and distance I felt between myself and his unknown palace in the sky? Why did I read the Bible and see a cruel and vengeful judge while others saw a loving, compassionate father?
I loathed my body and my faithlessness. I’d find new and unusual ways to torture myself physically over the years, hoping that each time God would see my pain and take some pity on me, giving me a “free pass” into the heavenly gates when I died.
If I could martyr myself for my sins would God forgive me?
Around the age of 14 I “came to terms” with the fact that I’d never love the inner me. Thus I worked to perfect the outer me. If I couldn’t have a beautiful inside, I’d make the outside as beautiful as humanly possible. I’d starve myself, preen, polish, and perfect every inch of my body, hair, and face to present a shiny exterior to the world. Beauty became my camouflage, and I spent an enormous amount of time each day perfecting that camouflage.
I’d get up at 4 AM to prepare for a 9:30 AM church service. The preparation would not only be physical, it would be emotional. I didn’t know it then, but I had severe PTSD and social anxiety. Going to church felt like facing the judgment seat of God and falling short every time. It also felt like facing the judgment seat of my peers. Every imperfection felt like a siren blaring through the service saying,
“She doesn’t belong here! She’s an imposter!”
I felt like people could see the inner me – like perhaps I hadn’t covered it up enough with the right makeup, the right self-tanners, or the right name-brand clothes. I felt like a rat among lions in the cold, fluorescent light of that small church.
“What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
Oh, precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow…”
I’d sing this song next to my family, legs shaking, hands cold and clammy. My stomach would churn and there was a sensation like someone tying knots in my intestines. Sometimes I worried that I’d pass out in the middle of the hymns. Starvation and anxiety have that effect on a person.
I would never be whole. I would never have my sin washed away. I would never be white as snow.
When we’d leave the church building, I’d breathe a sigh of relief. I had survived it once more. But had I done anything to let the inner, dirty me show?
Many homemaking blogs instruct you to dump all your clutter into a laundry basket and hide it in a closet when company arrives.
I needed a laundry basket to hide all my shame and pain in so that I could survive in a world that I saw as judgmental, condemning, and exclusive. I never found one so I just covered it all up with perfectionism, beauty products, and “niceness.”
No matter how many beauty products I tried, I was never pristine enough. No matter how many meals I skipped, I’d never whittled away enough of me. No matter how “nice” I was, I never felt worthy. I learned that people liked the shell. But just like a face-mask that you rip off and throw away at the end of the day, the shell was just a disposable shield that was trying desperately to keep the bad stuff inside me from leaking out. I knew those people didn’t really like the real me, because she didn’t exist to them.
Vacating my body was a gradual process. In order to do it right, I had to run as far away from the deep inner emotions, cravings, feelings, and convictions that had been raging inside me, unheard for so long. Vacating my body involved emotionally slipping into ceiling fans, lightbulbs, and even stars in the sky during sexual encounters.
If I could vacate my feelings and my body then I could function as an effective, nice, robot.
After all, robots don’t go to hell, do they?
When I got married I thought I had grown past a lot of my mental health issues because of my ability to vacate myself. My husband made me feel protected. He had a strong, powerful presence. Unlike me, nothing seemed to scare him. He served in the Air Force and drove convoys through Iraq while bombs exploded around him. He shrugged those experiences off like they were nothing (they weren’t nothing, as we both later found out). With him at the helm of our family, I felt that there was an enormous, unshakable wall guarding me against the outside world
Unfortunately, I still was in danger of attacks from my own mind.
Marriage as a sex abuse survivor is rocky and turbulent. I went into my marriage blissfully naïve. I thought I’d be the perfect wife and mother. I’d always been an easy-going, accommodating person and so I figured I’d make a “good” (submissive, kind, generous) wife to my chivalrous husband. I’d stay thin. I’d polish the “shell” part of myself and keep her attractive and polite. I assumed that the safety I felt would ease up my internal distress and, in turn, I’d be full of gentleness, enthusiasm, and charm. After everything I’d been through marriage seemed so simple in theory.
Up until marriage and motherhood, I’d learned to punish, starve, beautify, and vacate my body.
Before marriage, motherhood had taught me to nurture someone from the very body I harbored so much bitterness against. I grew my daughter in my body. I fed her from my body. I held her with my body. I comforted her with my kisses.
Then with marriage I, again, had to give from the body I felt so much revulsion towards. Before marriage, I’d experienced sex as a violent, forceful act I didn’t have the strength to defend against. I’d also experienced consensual sex, but I viewed it as a skill to be mastered not an act of intimacy to be deeply-felt.
Intimacy in marriage was the veritable bucket of ice water over my picture-perfect hopes and dreams. I was shellshocked by it. When I was safely lying next to my husband at night I’d imagine him reaching out to strangle me and his strength became terrifying rather than comforting. I struggled to stay present during sex, unable to separate the threatening, abusive form of “man” I’d grown up with from the loving man in front of me.
But I had to be perfect. No man wants a woman who has panic attacks after sex.
Marriage felt like a battleground that I was permanently stuck in. I needed tougher armor and stronger defenses. I needed a stronger shell. Being pretty and polished wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
I fell into deep, private depression as I continuously failed to keep my demons caged away. I turned to workaholism and perfectionism as a way of meeting my family’s needs and proving myself “worthy” of the life I had. Becoming a selfless provider became my new and improved tough outer shell. I would be unflappable in the face of anxiety. I’d push myself even if I was exhausted and hearing voices in my head. I’d work. I’d clean. I’d bring in money. I’d buy my family all the things they’d ever wished for.
My PTSD was still there, mocking me beneath the surface of all my attempts at perfection.
“You’re letting your ugly side out.
You’re not sweet enough.
You’re so ugly nobody would even want to rape you.”
But I couldn’t vacate my body now. Too many people needed it.
I couldn’t beautify my body now. There wasn’t enough time.
I couldn’t punish my body now. That would be setting a bad example and make me a “bad” mother.
Without my familiar shells there to protect me, I suddenly felt a surge of ravenous hunger overwhelming me. There was so much work to do. There was so much anxiety, anger, and fear to bury. And I needed a lot of food to bury it with.
I tried to fight the hunger monster. I tried to fight it with willpower and shame. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t starve myself like I used to. When I tried to starve myself and failed I’d hear that same mocking voice: “You’re not good enough. You’re a pig. Nobody will be able to stand you unless you give them something else to love besides you.”
In my mind I was letting the ugly, worthless, disgusting me out in the open now. I’d see myself in the mirror and it was all there. The scars, the fat, the empty, vacant look in my eyes. The more I saw it the more I hid from myself under the pressure of work. If only I could be a good enough provider maybe I’d be able to hide from that empty gaze in the mirror. Maybe my husband would be content enough with me. Maybe my children would be so happy they wouldn’t notice. Maybe nobody would see what was happening except for me.
And that’s okay, because being a good mom and wife means being selfless, generous, and giving, right?
But the hunger monster never stayed away long. I use food now the way some people use drugs or alcohol. I hate it and I love it and it distracts me from my pain and adds to my pain all at the same time.
I wish I could tie this post up with a pretty bow and present it to you with a message of hope and truth and beauty.
It’s the New Year now and I want to lose 75 pounds. I want to figure out where I stand with God. I want to like myself. But I know in order for me to do this right I also need to get work on the inner me. I need to work on understanding my soul and facing the pain and feeling the pain and not hiding it under alternating periods of binging and starvation.
I know now that beautifying, vacating, and working my body to death are not the answers.
But I haven’t figured out what the answers are yet. And those answers still call to me, promising me the comfort I desperately crave.
This isn’t a story with a happy ending. Not yet. This is just my story. And I know I’m not alone in this story, so I’m putting it out there in the big, ceaseless void in case somebody else needs to read it and feel less alone.
We may not realize it yet, but our bodies, both inside and out, are deserving of love. We may not realize it yet, but we don’t have to punish our bodies to fight for our little sliver of time and space in this world.
I’m saying this because I want it to be true but I don’t believe it yet. Not for me anyway.
I’m still in the trenches. I’m still fighting against the monsters hiding inside myself. Writing my experience is one of my first steps in trying to process it all.
This post is here for others who are going through the same thing as me. You’re not alone.
This post is for people out there who love sexual abuse survivors and want to get inside their experience. If this helps you understand their struggle then I’ll have done some good here.
I hope that in the years to come I’ll be able to revisit this post and add an ending that is worthwhile. Until then, if you’re like me, I just want you to know I’m with you and you’re not alone. Please keep trying to forgive yourself, to forge ahead, and get help. Call a counselor. Go to a support group. Talk to someone.
My husband, who has worked with a lot of veterans who have PTSD, tells me that the most important step to healing is talking about your pain. Well, this is me doing that. And maybe me doing that will help you to talk. And maybe talking can lead to healing. That’s all this post is really about at the end of the day.
For domestic abuse help, call the National Domestic Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. You can also text LOVEIS to 1-866-331-9474 – This is a good option if you can’t speak safely.
For sexual abuse help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). A trained staff member from a sexual service provider in your area can be there to help you right away. You can also access 24/7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org
If you’re feeling suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.