I’ve been trying to write this post for a few days now. At first what felt very exciting, started to feel very heavy and more like a dark cloud.
Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. In some Christian traditions, this is a more somber holiday marked by counting back 40 days from Easter (excluding Sundays) to represent the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before beginning his formal ministry. During these 40 days, Jesus fasted and was tempted by Satan.
Growing up in Episcopal school, I have participated in many, many Ash Wednesday services. As a child, I didn’t really understand having ashes spread on my forehead in the shape of a cross. As a teenager, I took a more legalistic stance and tried to white knuckle giving up something and making a big deal about it. By the time I left for college, I wasn’t really attending church so I didn’t attend to many Ash Wednesday services as a young adult.
This year, the idea of Ash Wednesday took on a whole new meaning in my life. Days before the holiday, I attended a training workshop taught by Dr. Dan Allender, a well-known author and psychologist who specializes in working with people who have survived trauma and sexual abuse. Dr. Allender spoke a lot about the concept of being “marked”. The more he talked about how abusers and attackers mark their victims, the more upset I became.
At one point in the weekend, I realized I had phased out mentally and looked down to see I was pulling on my fingers and breathing quickly. While this is certainly a sign of high anxiety, it is also an indication of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Just hearing a man talk from the perspective of an abuser about what it means to mark and groom a victim, I was being transported to a time and place in my own story when I was being groomed, abused, and marked.
While I have always known that the man who abused me in the context of a dating relationship had an immeasurable impact, I had never thought about how he had marked me, and how I have spent years trying to scrub that mark from my very being. The crux of PTSD is having to relive aspects of trauma even when the event(s) are clearly in the past. A particular truck model, the scent of a specific cologne, and even a song on the radio will send me right back to a place I can’t stand to remember.
Trauma memories bring with them all of the words, lies, and beliefs that an abuser uses to mark his or her victim. Some of the words that have marked me include “worthless”, “whore”, “fat”, “never enough”, “insignificant”, “bitch”, and others that I don’t care to type out right now. Some days it feels as if these words are etched in tar, never to be washed away no matter how many therapy sessions I attend or books I read. It has taken years to pursue healing and redemption, and it will take years more to continue that process and get to know the unmarked me.
Last week, my friends and I led the female inmates in the Orange County Jail in an Ash(less) Wednesday service to tell the women that they are marked by love. I wasn’t able to take in ashes (thank you, Pastor ZVD for reminding me that our good standing is not worth the risk of seeing what I can get away with!), but we sang, read responsively, prayed, and administered ashless ashes to remind the women, and myself, of our own mortality and need for grace.
It was a beautiful, powerful evening and the women opened their hearts to what freedoms they have found over the past several weeks in the recovery process. There were many tears – some sad, some joyful – and many, many words of love and encouragement. There was also a lot of gratitude. These women who are arrested at the lowest points of their lives, incarcerated in a dehumanizing fashion, and forced to eat, sleep, shower, pee, and live together, have come to love not only each other, but themselves.
As I walked in a circle and looked each one of them in the eyes, I was reminded of their stories, of the ways in which they have all been marked, and how we all have to fight a battle for our own freedom each and every day.
My prayer for this Lent season is that anyone who feels marked will begin to feel free. We are not defined by what as been done to us, but sometimes that can be difficult to remember when the names, accusations, and lies have been etched in so deep by someone so deceiving and cunning.
My prayer is that my friends and I begin to see that we are marked by love, and not by the actions or words of an abuser.