Tuesday, May 31, 2016

An Idol

In the 1985 film Plenty, Meryl Streep played the role of Susan, an Englishwoman who worked with the French underground during World War II. The story is set 20 years later. Those years after the war provided the only meaning in her life. Everything before and after focused on her wartime work.

Here’s another example. When I was a pastor, by invitation I occasionally sat in on AA meetings at our church. One thing bothered me about a few of the more than 40 regulars. Some of them were dry alcoholics.

As I understood the term, those individuals hadn’t touched alcohol in years, but their behavior hadn’t changed. They were essentially the same as they had been when they joined.

James, the leader of the group, talked to me after one meeting and shook his head. “We know. We love them and we try to help, but some of them have made sobriety an idol—even a disdained one. They worship at the shrine of their abstinence and never leave.”

Much later, Gary Roe used the term in referring to sexual molestation.

We can elevate what happened to us and empower it with responsibility for everything that happens in our lives. Abuse can define us and control how we react to any situation.

What happened to us affects every relationship we have—even when we’re not aware. Molestation is probably our saddest, most devastating life experience.

We can choose to heal, to move forward, to receive help from other survivors, turn to God, or get counseling. Or we can keep going back to then.

As awful as our experiences were, healing means moving on and refusing to allow the trauma of childhood to define us in the present. Otherwise, our thoughts and actions go back to, “When I was abused . . .”

We don’t say the words, but the experience can still define us. That’s when abuse becomes our idol.

What is happening in my life illustrates what I believe takes place in the lives of most survivors. The effects of our trauma continue to manifest themselves. There will always be people and events that trigger our abuse-meters and send us reeling.

But we keep on and we remind ourselves that healing is a lifelong journey. To see it as anything else sets us up for disappointment and discouragement.

Or worse. We make an idol of our pain.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

My friend Gary Roe once said that sexual molestation was the gift that keeps on giving. His ironic statement meant that the assault on our innocence is bad enough, but it has residual effects. It keeps on tormenting us and showing up in many ways.

For example, most of us have little ability to trust and we’re often suspicious of others. Our lack of believing in them often becomes the so-called self-fulfilling prophecy. The relationship ends and we moan, “They failed me again.”

The old fears and deprivations of childhood flash into our hearts. Abandoned. Unloved. Unworthy of being loved.

The primal cry breaks through and becomes a piercing scream. Yes, our abuse becomes the gift that keeps on giving.

Unless we change. Unless we refuse the so-called gift. As we progress in our healing, we learn to do exactly that.

I reject “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Helping Others

In a previous blog I mentioned helping others. I did kind things and encouraged them. I tried to love people—that was genuine—but sometimes for the wrong reasons.

Although unconscious of the truth, I served them because I wanted their acceptance and love. I believe they needed and often benefited from what I did, but this is an attempt to be candid about misperceptions about myself.

My friend and a man with whom I wrote two books, Gary Roe, has also struggled with some of the same issues. “I was afraid of what other people thought, afraid they wouldn’t like me, or worse, I feared their anger.” He added, “I also worried that if I didn’t do whatever I could to make them happy, they’d abandon me like many others in my life. If I performed well, their response would get me what I needed.”

I needed to be loved. Helping them made me feel worthwhile or significant. I became so enmeshed in taking care of others, I had few thoughts about self-care.

I still help individuals when I can, but my motive is improving: I do what I can because it’s the right thing to do. Now I see it as a privilege and opportunity to share what I have and not to gain anything from them.

That change began one day when I felt worn out from helping and asked my wife, “Would people still like me if I didn’t do nice things for them?”

“But that’s who you are.” She added that it was my nature to help. Even though I spoke about my need to give so they would value me, she said, “But it’s still who you are—you care. You give of yourself.”

Shirley’s affirmation pulled me back to reality. My motives weren’t always pure, but I was still doing what I could for others.

Since then, I’ve realized I truly, genuinely want to help others. I gain deep satisfaction from that.

And as my wife said, it’s who I am.

Friday, May 20, 2016


I can’t remember when I didn’t know I could teach. In school I used to reach out to the so-called dumb kids and do what I could to help them improve their grades. While still in high school I became an excellent bowler and taught others how to play the game well.

Fifteen years ago, I was teaching a group of twenty people about talents—how to recognize and use them. One of the things I suggested was to ask our friends what they see as our special abilities. “All of us have talents of some kind. Sometimes we don’t recognize those talents,” I said. “Others may see them, but we remain unaware.”

Then I said, “I’m a teacher. That’s my primary gift.”

“I disagree,” one woman said. “You’re an encourager. You do that better than anything else.”

Her words stunned me and my impulse was to shake it off, but I said, “I need to think about that one.”

“She’s right,” someone else said.

Within minutes, most of the people confirmed that statement. And I was in total shock. I had never seen myself in that light.

That day, I accepted the truth about myself.

Since then, I’ve self-observed the way I interact with people. It’s a natural reaction—okay, it’s a talent. I wouldn’t know how to teach someone to imitate me, because I see that as a divinely given gift.

I’m writing about this because too many of us survivors feel worthless. But I still remember a slogan bandied around years ago when I went to graduate school in a predominately black university. Even though grammatically incorrect, it went, “God don’t make no junk.”

As useless as you may feel, you are gifted in some way. You may not be able to see it yourself, so ask your friends.

I am gifted.
So are you.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Being the Responsible One

I tend to be overly responsible and take on burdens that belong to others. As a kid, I became responsible for my two brothers. If they didn’t do their chores after school, I hurriedly covered for them. That became my pattern.

For years I tried to fix problems and people. And like many other survivors, I ended up in what we call the helping professions. I was a teacher and later a pastor.

These days I make my living as an author, especially a ghostwriter. It took me a few years to figure out that I leaned toward the underdogs—to help and encourage them. My biggest success has come from writing Dr. Ben Carson’s autobiography, Gifted Hands, before he was famous. He’s the epitome of a person who should have ended up in failure. Most of the personal-experience stories I’ve written reflect that same perspective.

One day I realized those tendencies and thought, There’s something good about what I do. I focus my life on helping others. When I reach out and help others—such as writing this twice-weekly blog—I benefit from doing so. I try to give to others what I didn’t receive in childhood. That’s a positive response to my abusive childhood.

I give to others
what I didn’t receive in childhood.

Friday, May 13, 2016

By Now I Should . . .

Once in awhile, when I’m emotionally down, I stumble or become aware that I’m not at the end of the healing journey. Then it’s easy for me to berate myself. “By now, I should be . . .” is one of the most self-destructive things I used to say to myself.

I finally figured out ways to ward off that kind of thinking. First, I reminded myself of something my friend Malcolm George said to me in one of my dark moments: “When you tell yourself that you ought to be farther down the road, you’re probably healed more than you know.”

Second, I remind myself of who I used to be. I reflect on the insights and breakthroughs I’ve experienced over the years.

Third, I wrote a simple prayer when I was a pastor. For years, people reminded me of it and told me how much they valued it. Finally, in my dark moments, I started reciting my own prayer:

God, show me the truth about myself
no matter how wonderful it may be.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Big Freeze

One night I went to bed quite late, assuming my wife was asleep. I was relaxing when, in the dark, she reached over and laid her arm across my chest. I knocked her arm away, jumped out of bed, and turned on the light.

My actions had been instinctive—a carryover from childhood abuse. Not every survivor has such reactions, but it’s a common one when someone startles us. Even now if I’m involved in something and someone calls my name, I jump.

I refer to it as the big freeze, because I’m emotionally paralyzed for a few seconds. Or I numbed out when faced with a powerful emotion. It took me several years not to freeze when a man embraced me at social gatherings.

This past Sunday I was in church before the service began and wasn’t aware of someone coming behind me. George grabbed me from behind and hugged me. It startled me, of course, but I felt no visceral reaction. It just felt good and healthy.

I am overcoming my deep freeze.
I am feeling my emotions.

Friday, May 6, 2016

“I Love Myself”

For a long, long time, I didn’t love myself. I felt different, defective, and worthless. That’s common among survivors, and a few become braggarts or bullies as if to yell to the world, “See! I am worthwhile.”

It took me a long time to feel compassionate toward myself. Not only did I have emotional support from my wife and a few friends, but I began to experiment with what some call positive self-talk.

That experiment began after hearing a lecture. One statement went something like this: “You can change who you are by changing what you say when you talk to yourself.” I read several books on the topic and came to this conclusion: We can say positive things to ourselves to overcome the negative things we’ve been saying all our lives.

Here’s one such sentence I began to say to myself every morning and have been repeating it several times for the past 15 years: I love who I am, I love who I used to be, I love who I am becoming.”

I follow up with a second self-affirmation: “I lovingly embrace every part of myself—known and unknown.” I can’t tell you when the change began, but I can say I believe and joyfully accept those words today.

I lovingly embrace every part of myself—known and unknown.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Dysfunctional Patterns

When we were children, someone disrupted our lives and destroyed not only our innocence, but threw us into dysfunctional forms of behavior. Some adopt the pattern of their rapists; others push away from any kind of intimate contact. Still others dash into a life of promiscuity.

Twenty years ago I was part of a men’s group in Louisville, Kentucky. One man, whom I remember only as Tim, said that he had been so compulsive about sexual relief that he masturbated as many as 15 times a day.

One statement shocked and saddened me. “Sometimes my penis was so raw and painful I could hardly touch it—but that never stopped me.”

His behavior was extreme, but I assume all of us live with maladjustment. We don’t have to live that way. That’s one of the reasons for this blog—to help each other overcome painful childhoods.

For that to happen, our own healing must become the priority focus for us or we’ll continue to follow the same dysfunctional patterns we’ve been stuck in for years.

We have to make conscious choices to let go of fear and be open so that God’s love and compassion can motivate us. We also need to experience that love and compassion ourselves before we can spread it to others

True, deep healing is a long, slow-winding, and painful journey. Sometimes our long-established behavior is our enemy. We have to fight our natural resistance. It’s hard work, but well worth it, not just for us, but also for everyone we love and care about.

We can overcome our dysfunctional behavior.