A Painful Existence
My father was an alcoholic and abusive both physically and emotionally. I lived in a home where fear reigned.
Although I loved my father so much as a little girl, as an adolescent I never knew who or what was awaiting me at home. Would he be sober, or mostly sober? Or would he be drunk already? Would my mother be home? Would he be drunk and quiet? Would he be loud and full or rage? Living in constant anxiety and fear does something to you. It changes you.
I exercised control over the only things I could control, which was my schoolwork. But as things got worse at home, even that started to fall apart.
My assignments weren’t getting done because I would stay up at night monitoring my parents’ fight. I would monitor them obsessively – listening to hear how violent they were becoming, and trying to decide if I should intervene. I would lie on the floor in my room, which was across the hall from theirs, and watch the small band of light from underneath the door of their room, watching their shadows to see how close he was to her, trying to gauge how likely it was that things would escalate…
My mother didn’t want me to intervene – she wanted to shield me. But more than once I interrupted and was drawn into a dysfunctional drama that would last nearly the whole night.
I spent so much of my adolescence trying to manage my dad, to keep peace in the family and keep him from hitting her. I looked back recently and realized how little I was parented. My parents gave me some good principles as a little girl, but I basically led two lives for a long time. I was Sherin, respected student, and then I had a secret family life that was basically a living hell. I had to constantly work to keep the two things separate and manage both, and it was exhausting.
It was draining to keep up the charade that everything was fine, but I was too scared to tell the truth. The mask I wore allowed me to have some part of my life where I was in control and could maybe be happy. It was the only coping mechanism I had left. But as I mentioned, my ability to keep my secret pain separated from my school life was starting to come undone.
Everything Comes Undone
The summer after I completed my junior year of high school, things reached a boiling point. A lot of things happened that summer that were crazy and chaotic, but one night, while I was home, the beating started for the last time. After agonizing years of escalating violence, the unthinkable happened: my father killed my mother. He beat her to death. The police took her body away by dawn, and by the evening my father was under arrest. He has remained in jail to this day.
My whole world changed. Suddenly my secret was out, and blasted on the news. The worst part of my life was written about in the front page of the local newspaper and on network television. I was reading about the medical examiner’s report on my mother through the newspapers, and people were speculating about our family and the events of that night as well as the years leading up to her death.
We were suddenly reunited with extended family. Some only lived 15 minutes away but we were forbidden by my father to talk to them for years. The funeral was packed. People came out of the woodwork – people we hadn’t seen for years. It was a bit of a blur. Despite all my efforts to appear stoic, I cried and cried and cried. I felt so exposed to the whole world.
I was surrounded by so many people but I felt overwhelmed by loneliness. I used to dream about my life changing, but I never wished for this.
Decisions to be Made
When the funeral was over, most of the calls stopped, the offers of help dried up. I had to figure out some logistics and how I was going to deal with my senior year of high school. My Uncle generously offered me a place to stay with him and his family, but it would have meant changing school districts. I lost so much already, and the one thing I had was my friends.
I had one friend in particular who was my best friend at the time. She came from a Christian family while I was raised an atheist by my father. Her family seemed so ideal, it seemed to be a “no brainer” to move in with them. The only potential problem? They believed in God, and I was an atheist. I figured I would too if my problems were simple, ordinary problems.
It became my mission in my junior year of high school to nurture her doubts about God so that she would know the truth – that there is no God and that we are alone in the world. I was the “bad influence” in her life, so to speak, and I knew my influence was the cause of a lot of turmoil and conflict in their home. I would keep her out way past curfew, lying about our whereabouts and activities until we would get caught, among other things. Let’s just say her parents had many reasons to dislike me.
However, when my mother died, I called my friend – she was away working at a camp that summer – and asked her to pray for me. I can’t remember ever asking anyone that in my whole life. I felt so low, so empty. All my plans and hopes for the future had disappeared in the blink of an eye.
She called her parents to tell them what happened. Her parents knew God was calling them to do something really bold, in spite of all their instincts against it. They invited me to live with them.
I couldn’t believe what they were offering. It would give me a chance to stay in my school district and live with my best friend. It was the chance to live in a functional household. I knew they had every reason to dislike me, and I couldn’t believe this opportunity. After all, who moves the bad influence into the household?! Give this person 24/7 contact with your daughter?! Even at that age, I could appreciate the risk they were taking on me.
When they offered for me to live with them, of course they had rules that I had to follow. I was so broken that I put up no resistance. I made sure to clarify that I wasn’t going to covert to Christianity. They could not invite me in and expect me to make a change, and they had to respect my atheism and not have a goal to change me. They agreed, but they also let me know that they prayed and sometimes read the Bible together, and as long as I could accept that is something they do as a family, and not take it personally, then we would be okay.
A Candid Conversation
The night I moved in felt so strange. I still had so many questions and, frankly, total disbelief that this was actually happening. The night I moved in, I spoke to my friend’s mom and I asked her the question so many have asked before me… I’m not that bad of a person, certainly not worse than most people, why has this happened to me? What can a Christian say to me in the face of all my suffering about God’s goodness?
She gave me an answer I will never forget.
She told me that as Christians, they saw life as a tapestry in a way. We are told it is a magnificent work of art, but right now, we can only see the back of the tapestry. We see lines and blobs of color, knots and thread, shapes that don’t look like anything in particular. It hardly looks like anything.
But some day, we will be with the Lord, and we will see the other side of the tapestry. We will see why there were blobs of colors in certain places, we will see the reason for some of the knots and odd thread choices. We will finally see that it truly is a work of art; a masterpiece.
She gave me a specific example too. They were renting the home they were in at that time, and they were looking for a home to buy. I remember my best friend telling me about one home in particular. It seemed they found the perfect house – everything they asked God for in their prayers and at a price they could afford. The deal fell through when they found a crack in the foundation and the owners wouldn’t adjust the price to accommodate the repair.
I remembered all this, because my friend was so disappointed, and her mom reminded me that they all wondered aloud why would God show them the perfect house and then not let them have it? But she said that they now understood at least one reason why.
She told me that God knew I would need a place to live, and a space of my own. But that other house didn’t have enough bedrooms. So God kept them where they were because He was concerned that I would have a good place to grieve and heal. And knowing that, they were glad that God didn’t give them what they thought they wanted because this was better.
Well, I was floored by all of this. I had never heard such a thing before. Here were people who had every reason to avoid me, let alone stick their neck out for me… but instead, they took this huge risk on me, inviting me into their home! Regardless of how they should have felt, they actually heard God’s prompting, felt God telling them to invite me in and followed Him at the sacrifice of their own comfort.
I had seen some of the worst of humanity at that point, and I knew how low humankind could sink. But then to hear and feel that I could be cared for, loved so deeply by people who had no reason to care for me – in fact rather the opposite – well, I had to know more about their God, and the Jesus they seemed to know. I needed to know more about the tapestry and what God said about the other side.
I didn’t last too much longer from that first day. I started to go to church with them – you know, for research! I had to know what they believed that allowed them to love so sacrificially. A lot of things happened in between, but in less than three months from that conversation, in spite of all my resistance, I became a Christian and gave my life to the Lord.
No Easy Fix
But even then, I had so much pain and grief to work through. For a long time, just the joy of salvation was so freeing, I felt amazing and alive…. But there were still struggles ahead for me. Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were real issues that I had to face and work through with professional help. Although God could have simply touched me and healed me totally, He didn’t choose to do that in my life.
All the coping mechanisms I had, all the strategies that helped me survive in a terrible environment – they were not going to help me in my new life as a Christian. They were not going to help me to be the light of the world, to be the salt of the earth, to be a reflection of God’s love. I had to learn God’s ways of handling things, and that process of being refined and shaped and molded and sanctified has been and continues to be challenging, but worth every moment.
Against All Odds
I had so many odds stacked against me – girls who see their mothers abused often find themselves in abusive relationships. Children of alcoholics find themselves addicted as well, or raise children that will become addicts.
I was so low when my mother died, and I felt so lost. What I needed was healthy relationships. I needed people that were going to love me when I was the most unloveable. I needed someone to tell me there was freedom. That while it’s true I can’t control my life in a broken world, God is mysteriously at work in all things – the good, the bad and the ugly – and He is redeeming even the most awful things.
But I needed more than words, I needed someone to show me. I didn’t need platitudes and cliches; I needed someone to walk alongside me and live it out in my life.
The days that came after my conversion were not easy ones. I know what it is like to feel so low, that you don’t even know what to pray. I know what it is to be a complete, awkward mess, to feel like a burden to those around you. I know what it is like for people to avoid you because you are clearly struggling.
I know we feel pressure to show our best selves, but I want you to know that Church should be a place where we can drop the mask. Jesus said it is the sick who need the doctor. Those of us who admit our need and who run to the Throne of Grace will get what we need from the only One who can give it to us.
I am the last person who desired to become a Christian. God really does have a sense of humor.
Your story many not be as dramatic as mine, but it matters just as much to God.
What About Your Story? For those of you who are not Christians:
It has been many years now since my life was changed forever by becoming a Christian, but I have never forgotten what my life was like before I learned more about God. No one should choose to call themselves a Christian without thoughtfully considering what it means and how it will change the way they live their lives.
If you have any curiosity or questions, please seek out answers. Visit some churches in your area. Ask the Christians you know about how they came to learn about God. Even ask God in prayer to reveal Himself to you more and more. I believe He answers those prayers! Ask your questions to God and His people.
What About Your Story? For Christians:
For those of us who have progressed on this journey of spiritual maturity and healing, it is our job to allow God to use us until Jesus comes back. This is why I am taking the risk to start telling my story, and why I am ready to give my life over and dedicate it to helping anyone who is hungry for more of God at any stage of their walk with Christ. We can only lead others as far as we are willing to go ourselves. As I pursue Him, I will keep sharing with you to encourage you. We are not alone.
I share this, but I don’t want you to remain focused on my wounds. My words and pursuit of wholeness can do some good for you, perhaps by encouraging you or giving you hope, but they cannot make you whole. Jesus was sent to make us whole. In Luke 4:16, Jesus stands up to read a scripture passage, and declares it fulfilled. He quotes from this passage in Isaiah 61:1-3 [NIV]:
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.
HE is the one who came to bind up the brokenhearted! He is the one who came to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from the darkness. He comforts those who mourn. He provides for those who grieve. He bestows a crown of beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning. He is the one who will give us a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. Just as I was, you may feel disposable in the eyes of some, but He makes us deeply rooted oaks of righteousness.
What has He done in your life? How will you pursue wholeness?