out of the darkness: self-injury

there’s no doubt, i could talk church & theology all day long; i think a huge part of the blog-o-sphere conversations are related to those two broad and never-ending topics. and while i always appreciate the different perspectives, the one thing that i sometimes think is missing from the conversation are stories.  real life stories, God-in-the-midst-of-it-all & what-it-really-looks-like-feels-like-is stories. one of my favorite things on the carnival blog so far was the view from the margins” series.  i have a few more coming in & will share them when i get the interviews back.

but i have had a new series on my heart for a while. i’m going to call it out of the darkness; it will focus in on some stories from brave friends who are experiencing healing & transformation on their journey as they bring what was once hidden into the darkness.  i believe that is a huge piece of what “church” should be–a safe place to bring what’s in darkness into the light so healing has a chance.  each of these stories have one binding thread–shame.  you all know i feel about shame.  it is one of the most crippling, damaging, paralyzing, messing-with-freedom issues that people face; it is subversive, it is prevalent, it’s stigma is it’s-not-the-way-it’s-supposed-to-be-especially-in-the-church.  the biggest eliminator of shame is the telling of our story in the presence of safe people who will listen, understand, and are willing to share their stories, too.  so, here we go, over the upcoming weeks you’ll hear a mixture of journies out of darkness & into the light, beautiful examples of what can happen when Christ’s love shines into the places that often remain hidden.  as always, be kind, be respectful, and listen well.  and even if you don’t understand what it’s like, know that someone in your life, your church, your family, your workplace, your neighborhood does.

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self-injury has gotten a lot more press over the past few years.  cutting & burning are two of the most common forms of self-injury, but there are other ways that hurting people find to injure themselves.   the shame level with self-injury is high, especially in the church.  i know a lot of self-injurers.  in different ways, it seems like each one will somehow think they’re the worst, the only ones who struggle, the weakest ones who can’t seem to stop. like every addiction, the most healing moments have come when some of these beautiful friends meet each other & their stories can come out of the darkness and into the light with people who understand. shame & loneliness lose their grip in those moments.

i’d like you to meet sabrina* (like the previous series, all names are changed to create the safest space possible).   i met her when she was in high school; so many people thought she’d never make it for all kinds of reasons, yet she stayed in, pursued God, pursued healing, and has a bright & amazing future ahead.  she is a cutter.  she is healing.  she is passing on love & hope to others who need it.  she is a young woman coming out of the darkness.

  • share just a  little bit about what your family is like and how you came into a relationship with Christ.

My parents are divorced and I have two younger siblings. Growing up my father was abusive both verbally and physically. He never hit us when my mom was around, and he never hit my mom but was verbally abusive. When my parents got divorced my dad decided he wanted nothing to do with us; he told the judge he wanted no custody rights. My dad walked out and chose drugs and alcohol and girls over us kids. There is a lot of bitterness, sadness, hurt and anger built up in each one of us, but my family is not a family that is open and honest with each other. We all put up walls and paint on happy faces and go on with our lives. I am the only believer in my family, well aside from my sister who I believe knows Jesus but doesn’t seek out a relationship with Him. I came into relationship with Christ after my freshmen year in high school. I was in a new town and had new friends some of whom were Christians and went to church and youth group. I went with them a few times but it never really seemed like my scene until a few girls who were seniors at the time decided to hang out with me in the midst of chaos and darkness. They loved me well and sought me out. I finally started to question what was different about them, and that’s when I realized it was Jesus that made them different from anyone else I had ever known.

  • do you remember the first time you ever cut?  what motivated you?  what did you feel afterward?

Yes, I remember the first time I ever cut. I was a freshman in high school. I was going through a lot of really hard stuff and didn’t have anyone to talk to.  I had a really big secret weighing me down that I didn’t feel like I could share with anyone. I got the idea from a TV show I was watching and since I had been drinking and doing drugs and those weren’t making me feel better I thought I would give cutting a try. Afterwards I felt better, for a moment. Then shame, guilt and regret kicked in causing me to only cut more.

  • if you are willing to share, where did you hurt yourself & what did you use?

I cut on my legs and arms. I used a razor blade from a box cutter.

  • everyone’s different.  some cut to relieve pain, others to prove that they still feel, and yet others as a way to express self-hatred toward themselves, just to name a few.  why did you cut?

Sometimes  I would cut because I had made myself numb; I had chosen to avoid things and feelings and the result of that was feeling like I wasn’t really living anymore. I knew I was physically alive but I didn’t feel alive.  Cutting allowed me to at least feel something, feel alive. There were other times when I cut because I hated myself. I am a perfectionistic people pleaser, and when I would fail I hated myself and punished myself. I blamed things that were done to me on myself.  And when I thought about the fact that some of these things happened to others, too, I also blamed that on myself and thought that I deserved to be punished.  I deserved to feel even an ounce of their pain, so I would cut.

  • how much sobriety do you have from cutting at the moment?

3 days.

  • in the past did you ever tell people afterward?  why or why not?

There were times when I would tell someone afterwards but a majority of the time I  kept it a secret. I usually only told when I had friends who knew who would ask me about it but most of the time no one knew. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I thought I was supposed to be past cutting.  I was suppose to be happy and have it all together and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone by showing them I was weak, I still struggled, and I wasn’t happy. Plus I didn’t want people judging me; it’s a shameful thing you just don’t want to share with the world.

  • people who have never self-injured can sometimes say “well, that’s dumb, just stop doing it.”  why is it so hard to stop? how is it like an addiction?

It’s hard to stop because it makes you feel good even if that feeling only lasts a few minutes. Like someone who does drugs craves the next high, a cutter almost craves that next cut. You know it’s not okay and you know it’s hurting you physically but you just choose to ignore that because it makes you feel better. Plus, it’s something you can control.  While the rest of your life is spinning out of control you can control how you respond to that, how you make yourself feel better.

  • share a little bit about the shame factor related to cutting.

The shame factor in cutting is simple, people judge you. People look at you and think you are weird and psychotic, when truthfully you are just trying to keep yourself alive. You also feel shame because you do it knowing it’s wrong and it’s not the healthiest way to deal with life. As a Christian the shame factors into my relationship with God.  I sinned and that always leaves room for guilt which ultimately leads to shame. I chose to cut instead of trust God which makes me a failure and the cycle continues to make you feel shameful.

  • what are some of the dumb things people have said to you when they found out you cut?

“You are psychotic”

“Life can’t be that bad”

“You can just stop.”

People have used it as a way to hurt me as well.  They will say things like, “Well why don’t you just go cut yourself then.”

Then there are those people who don’t know I cut and they think it’s a big joke and make fun of it and the kids that do it by calling them emo or they will say something like “I am going to go slit my wrists,”, etc.

  • why do you think it’s so hard to be honest about self-injury?

Because people are to quick to judge, because it’s easier to hide self-injury than to admit that life is hard and that the pain you feel is real and valid. It is easier to stuff everything down and ignore it than it is to deal with things. It’s also hard because people respond in ways like I said in the question before making you feel worse than you did before.

  • what do you think help you the most in your journey to greater freedom?

Continuing to walk through some of the issues that still hold me captive and learning to rely on God’s strength as well as being open and honest with the people in my life about where I am at and what is going on in my heart and my life.

  • what words of wisdom do you have to share for parents out there who are scared for their kids?

Continue to love them.  Get them help even if they fight it. Most of us want help we are just to scared to ask for it. Try to really talk to your kids about life and don’t belittle anything they tell you— something as silly as an argument with a friend or a boyfriend breaking up with them or whatever that may be small to you is a huge issue to them, and they just need someone to talk to. Be quick to listen not to give advice… most of the time all we want is someone to just sit and listen to us share all the crazy wacky thoughts that run through our heads.  We want to share without the fear of being judged. Also don’t assume we are trying to kill ourselves and we have mental illnesses, for some that may be the case but for a majority of us it’s not.

  • what do you want other cutters to know?

YOU ARE NOT ALONE!! And that there is hope and a light in the midst of your darkness.

  • what are you learning to do with your pain?

I am slowly learning to share my pain with others as well as with God. I am learning to use my pain to help others.  Even when I am in the midst of pain I can still help others and in doing so my pain starts to fade and healing begins to happen.

  • how is safe christian community helping you on your journey of healing?

I can trust people to share with them what is going on in my life, I can be real with them and they love me regardless. I am surrounded by people who simply LOVE ME and who walk right along side me as I journey through healing.

  • what are you discovering about God through your healing process?  what are you discovering about yourself?

I am learning that God is strong, He is in control, He is fighting my battles with me not against me and because of that I am victorious because He is victorious. I am learning that God doesn’t heal me in a day; It is a life-long journey He will continue to go with me on until the day I am sitting with Him in heaven. He heals us thoroughly;  he doesn’t just stick a bandaid on our wounds and call it good.

I am learning that I am stronger than I think, I am learning to ask for help. I am learning to be open and vulnerable not only with myself and God but other people as well. I am learning to have hope that cutting won’t always be a struggle, but until then I am learning that I can stand up and not give into temptation.  Now, more often than not, I don’t give in to the temptation.  That is what healing looks like.

thank you, sabrina, for letting us in to a bit of your journey.  i hope that others who struggle on either side of this issue can feel a little less alone in the midst.   it does seem, in reading this story, how the same elements are always present when it comes to healing in community–the importance of a container to share our real story without fear of being judged, fixed, or patronized with trite prayers & a lack of understanding.   instead, good listening, merciful hearts, God-in-the-flesh and long-haul relationship seems to do the most good.

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ps:  next week, out of the darkness:  brave thoughts from a former abuser

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

21 Comments

  • Kathy!!! I am SO glad you are posting more in this series, the stories encourage me on so many levels!
    “Sabrina,” thank you for sharing what your struggle is like. I have friends who cut and you gave me some insights that I didn’t have before into what their world is like…thank you for that!!

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  • Thanks for sharing.

    “… community–the importance of a container to share our real story without fear of being judged, fixed, or patronized with trite prayers & a lack of understanding. instead, good listening, merciful hearts, God-in-the-flesh and long-haul relationship seems to do the most good”

    wow that’s a bar-setter right there for how to be in loving community – a community full of true love. Patience, kindness, commitment, openness, being others-focused, “being” and not just doing/trying to fix yet encouraging and sharpening through upholding the Word & God’s unfailing love & grace…letting love prevail. very powerful

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  • Thank you for being courageous enough to share your story Sabrina. I have been there but never did feel that the christian community was a safe place to share. I agree for anyone else who has read this…you are not alone.
    Like a well loved baby blanket that I carried around for years, I was reluctant to let go of my comfort, until one day I felt that God was asking me to take the first step to freedom by handing Him my comforter (the knife) and He would replace it with freedom and health. It’s not an easy road but there are many of us who will link arms with you on this road if anyone needs it.

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  • Kathy,
    Wonderful blogpost! By the way, so was the last one (I fell a bit behind on reading some from my Feed Reader, but I read all of yours always).

    Thank you for allowing *Sabrina to share her story here. I have known some women (probably a dozen, actually) who were cutters. I learned their stories, as well, and all of theirs were very similar to Sabrina’s. Truly, it is a heart-issue deep inside that compels one to cut.

    I love what you shared *Sabrina in the last two paragraphs about what God is doing in your heart and mind. He WILL guide you into Freedom from this. Keep your heart on Him!!

    Blessings,
    ~Amy 🙂

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  • Kathy,

    This another story that so highlights your passion for healing. Thank you, friend for not giving up on the need for deep healing.

    Sabrina,

    Thank you for sharing your story of pain. I have no doubt that your story will be an encouragement to others.

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  • Hmm… Sabrina, thank you for sharing.

    I have never actually gone through with cutting. I think it is only God’s grace. There have been times I have actually dreamt about cutting my wrists.

    For me, it is the emotional pain. It can get so intense that it feels like a focal point of physical pain will release it. Sometimes, my wrists and forearms almost ache with the pain. I used to think I was crazy.

    Then I told a therapist about that and she smiled and said it made perfect sense to her. She said that there has been research showing that there are pressure points in the forearms that relieve emotional stress. Well. Hmm…

    I have tried just rubbing my forearms – putting pressure on them…. and it seems to help some.

    But it still comes back to the emotional pain. The closest I got to actually following through with cutting was in my early 20s. The pain was so intense and I was so far from understanding what was even going on inside – so much was still buried. I remember that a couple of friends had more or less thrown me out and I was just sitting in my car. And I started gouging deep imprints into my hands with my thumbnail. And it left marks and it felt good. It relieved the pressure for a moment…

    Anyway, thanks.

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  • Kathy, kudos for the insight to share this story. I am not aware personally of anyone who cuts, but I found about a friend who is a compulsive hand washer, and she was suicidal. She is a committed Christian but with lots of shame in her past. Gently, I was able to suggest a counseling service that was offering free counseling through a special Hurricane Katrina fund in New Orleans. She was able to see a counselor from our church for a long time without having the burden of payment. She is recovering, and she is no longer talking about suicide. I haven’t seen her lately, but I am hoping her hands are not red and chapped! God is good.

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  • Self injury–WOW–it comes in so many forms, eating disorders, cutting, self depreciating talk, under achieving. Of course it doesn’t seem like the same thing sometimes and some behavior is more socially acceptable then other behavior. Hand washing to the point of causing chapping is a perfect example. I personally self injured without even understand what it was I was doing until I started hearing about cutters. It was like this huge light went off in my head and suddenly my behavior made sense (sounds strange I know since most of the time we look at self injurers and think it doesn’t make sense). Anyway, it didn’t stop the behavior but it did make me begin to look into what was causing the pain and how I could come out from under the cause. The more pain (emotional, spiritual) I get rid of the less pain (physical) I cause. Hurt people hurt people, and sometimes that means themselves.

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  • Sabrina, THANK YOU!!! What a courageous and healing story yours is. 3 days! That’s a beautiful start– keep going no matter how many times you begin again. You are loved, regardless! :0) Your insight is kick-butt.
    Kathy, another great one. I am always freshly amazed and hope renewed in my heart.
    Love,
    Tami

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  • Hi Kathy:

    A friend of mine sent me a link to your site. Thanks so much for covering this topic. It is definitely one that is covered in shame in the church, because it can be such an obvious problem (people know it isn’t “normal” to take a blade or a lighter to their skin). It almost seems like alcohol or eating disorders are more socially acceptable problems to have.

    I have been a cutter for the last seven years (and I had an eating disorder for four years in high school as well, disorders that often occur together). It has taken me a long time, but I am realizing and accepting that God uses many methods to heal people. For me, he’s primarily used psychology and medication–things that had once been sources of contempt for me in my “super-spiritual” condition at my “super-spiritual” church, where we thought we didn’t need those things, because Jesus was all we needed.

    However, even though I wouldn’t consider my church as a whole an extremely safe place, the pastor has been a major force for healing for me, constantly encouraging me that I don’t have to hurry to be okay with him or with God. God’s healing, while always miraculous, is rarely instantaneous.

    Anger and guilt are the two primary emotions that I cut to escape from, and about two years ago, my pastor preached a sermon where he talked about trusting Christ’s better sacrifice to be payment for our guilt and sin, rather than trusting our own devices to do penance or make us feel better.

    Anyway, thanks again, Kathy for bringing light to this subject, and thanks Sabrina for sharing your story and your pain. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5, TNIV).

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  • Kathy, thank you for sharing these stories, and thanks to Sabrina for being one to open her heart. Stories like this do so much to shake us out of our apathy and denial, especially Christians.

    The idea of cutting may be shocking to some, and may even be something that some prefer not to speak of. But when I read Sabrina’s answers to the questions, it reminded me that at the root of it, cutting is actually not much different from so many other more “acceptable” things we people do either to medicate or to punish ourselves. Most addictions or compulsions or codependent behaviors are self-destructive, and I know few (if any) people who don’t struggle with some sort of compulsion. So if you think about it, most of us are self-injurers in some way–we just do it in more subtle ways. Maybe that’s why cutting is a hard topic for some to face–not because it’s so damaging, but perhaps because there is something in it that is more familiar to us than we care to admit.

    The truth is, we all need healing, and that, to me, is what Sabrina story really is about. Thank you both.

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  • Without going into too much detail my daughter will find this very helpful … thankyou Kathy , yep we all need healing. Sabrina thank you so much for sharing yourself.

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  • i have not read all the hard and painful stories. i do know however that i can relate. my little sister as well. i can’t help but feel guilty for she learned from me how to handle pain even though she doesn’t blame me, my older sister does. i do bettter but i have learned to take one day at a time. i have had plenty of support. wise counsil, whether it be therapy, yoga, beautiful friends, and church. most of all doing my walk with jesus christ. surrendering everything to god and belieing in my authentic faith… this is just the gist of my thoughts. but if anything alexian brothers in hoffmann estates is where i started my journey and i hope to continue on with it. i love hearing the advertisments for this cause and hope to be a part of it and support it the best way possible(O: thanks, jane

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  • a little behind and just catching up…

    donna – yes, i have loved the interviews too because they are so real and honest and there are so many different points of connection for all of us, even if we don’t struggle with that particular issue or perspective. talk to you tuesday!

    randi – those are some great words you listed about characteristics of true community.

    amy – thanks as always for sharing & for who you are to others, such an encouragement & offerer of hope & freedom.

    dan – thanks, dan. so much beauty and healing everywhere, that’s for sure.

    katherine – what you are describing here about emotional pain is why i am so passionate about healing in community. we must, we must, we must have places to be able to relieve some of our emotional pain and find comfort & hope. i think emotional & spiritual are all tied up together & God works in amazing ways through safe places to relieve pain & seek healing. relegating only to the professionals won’t cut it! thanks as always for sharing.

    laurie – always great to hear from you from afar. i love stories of redemption….

    minnow – thanks for offering a piece of you and your experience with this. i think you hit it on the head, expressing pain all manifests itself somewhere. and we all hurt ourselves in ways that might not be as tangible as this but it serves some of the same purposes, either covertly or overtly. self-awareness and safe places to get in touch with what’s really going on in the deep places of our hearts is so important to freedom!

    tami – i am so with you, sabrina’s insights are kick-butt! i am so glad we have a safe enough community to do this stuff together….

    elaina – thank you SO much for your honesty and sharing your story and for the work that you have done to offer to hope to others, too. learning how to express anger & guilt are things we often don’t get taught in Christian circles in more practical ways than just “let go of it” they are the root of so much collateral damage, and i do hope that the body of Christ gets better at providing places to learn what that really means and looks like in real life, with our real issues. your story is one of powerful hope & redemption & i am so glad you had a pastor who could journey alongside you well. peace to you on your continued healing journey. i am so glad you stopped by!

    jeff – yes, i am so with you! i self-injure all the time, not by cutting, but by working too hard constantly, not taking proper care of myself, resisting and avoiding good things because underneath there’s this weird “unworthy” thing going on. the list is long and looks different for most of us, but i think what sabrina’s story touches on is why it’s so important to have humility to get in touch with our self-destructive behaviors and seek God’s healing touch and change to learn new ways of living that are healthy, solid, and reflective of being one of God’s children & all that that really means.

    mark – thanks, my friend, sending lots of kingdom love from colorado to down under.

    jane – thank you for your honesty & for sharing a piece of your story here. i am so glad that you are finding healing and hope and passing it on to others, too. it takes so much courage….peace to you!

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  • Kathy, I agree. But finding that safe place…. I don’t think I will ever feel safe in a ‘church’ setting again. The safest place I have found so far has been in the office of a professional. And in the house of a friend. In church? I have tried a couple of times this year, but I think there is still too much damage in that area for me to be able to trust that environment. I can’t trust my family, I can’t trust the Church. I don’t even fully trust the professionals or even my friends. I’m not sure I even fully trust God. Not that I don’t want to, but I’m not sure I can without a lot more healing…. and that is in His court at this point.

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  • katherine – i so hear what you are saying. i want to clarify, though, what i mean by “church”–to me, it means at least just a few people together on the journey in whatever shape or form or ? that it takes. that’s it. doesn’t need a name, doesn’t need a building, doesn’t need a program or a leader or anything else other than a few people together listening, loving, challenging, encouraging, being present, some how, some way. for me, the key is something that’s not just one-on-one with a professional & requires money. i have a high value for counseling, no doubt, but i do think a true, free unconditional friend creates a different kind of healing and freedom over time. what i like about what you are saying is that you know what you can and can’t do in the moment and are just doing what you can…sending love & peace, kathy

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  • Kathy, thank you for the love and the peace. I need both. 🙂

    I agree that a true, free unconditional friendship is a necessary part of deeper healing – healing won’t happen without it. Sometimes, it takes a professional to help you get to the place where you can even allow that kind of friendship. That kind of friendship is so vital…. but it is scary as hell. When the emotional wounds are so deep from those that were so close – it is very frightening to allow someone in far enough to be a true friend. I have one person, at this point, that I have allowed in far enough to qualify, and yet I find that my ability to trust her is nowhere near what I wish.

    As to church, I have done that with this friend. But the last few months have been sparse. There has been a lot of garbage on her plate and she does not have the time she used to. The intimate community that you describe in this post is something that I crave, and yet it frightens me. I am not aware of anything like it in this area. Hmm…. and moving to Denver is not in the plan at this time. 🙂

    And this thing is in God’s hands. I am not able to heal myself. HE gave me the tools to survive childhood. He brought this friend into my life. He led me to see the therapist I am seeing. At this point, the only thing I can contribute to the equation is to promise to try not to give up.

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  • thanks kathy and sabrina! it is amazing the courage you both display. sabrina, yours is obvious, to speak out loud when not every experience of doing so is positive and the “oh crap, why am i saying this” soundtrack must be deafening. i hope that you will find an amazing amount of energy from this experience. way to go on the 3 days!

    kathy, i am sometimes amazed at your emotional energy and courage. i am sure i don’t do this kind of writing and work because no way to do it without a ton of emotional cost, it is inspiring! see the clan soon- bring the grand parents if you want, but bring the mud clogs!

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  • I really liked what Elaina mentioned…it has been my experience too…of psychology and meds being big instruments of healing, but that often those are considered unspiritual solutions.

    My heart is struggling on both sides of this issue as I try to make sense of the healing process that I am in the middle of. On the one side, I am angry that for so long I didn’t allow myself to find help from effective sources because I was so wholly pursuing Jesus as my healer and the solution to my pain. So on that side, I say why?! Why do we think we have a corner on “healing resources” and when often our resources are not as effective or well-researched or as experienced as “the world’s” (play darth vader music when I say that).

    On the other side of the argument, I still don’t quite understand why Jesus wasn’t “enough”. Ok, I sort of do, but I’m still mad about it:) I mean, all those years that I was pursuing Jesus, I was using him like a drug, to try to feel better, to make the pain go away. And when I got so disappointed and disillusioned that I was still so broken and so hurting and so messed up after pursuing his healing for so long…that’s when I pretty much gave up on him, and started healing more effectively. And yes, I do think he’s been in the process since then, though I don’t quite know how and what he’s doing so quietly or why he let me suffer for so long when I was trying the best way I knew how to get to him, d***it. Or why he let people crush the life out of me so thoroughly in his name in the first place.

    I’ll also tentatively throw out that having really open friendships with other believers wasn’t enough either. My dear, deep friends who I would not want to be without, and who I really shared with honestly, didn’t have the resources or specific bank of experience to help me move forward in the way I needed to. I really needed a skilled counselor to help me get unstuck. I like what you said, though, Kathy…the two (professionals and friends) create different kinds of healing and freedom. For me, I have needed both kinds.

    I can’t help feeling like it’s kind of inappropriate for me to throw so much out in this setting (someone else’s blog!) sorry, Kathy. Aside from trying to get out my thoughts, I hope my struggles to make sense of the healing process and Jesus, and church will be helpful to someone else too.
    Thanks for listening.

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    • blue orchid – no worries in the slightest way about your comments. i am glad you are reading and connecting with different thoughts here in different ways. know that you have total freedom to share whatever you need to! healing is so confusing–a mixture of so many emotions and twists and turns and ups and downs related to God, ourselves, other people. i wish it were clear-er and the path was more defined, but it does seem like some of the most critical elements are raw honesty, a safe place to process, others on the journey in some shape or form, and time. thanks for sharing…

      Reply

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