My Love, My Cross, My Joy: Marriage following Abuse

This evening, I’m very honored to welcome my dear friend Faith Hakesley to MIHI’s blog. Faith, a survivor of sexual abuse, wrote for the National Catholic Register about her experiences several months ago and this evening Faith will address a very sensitive topic for survivors: Marriage Following Abuse.

As the founder and president of MIHI, I would like to sincerely thank Faith for her candor, courage and perseverance. Her faith, and choice to see beauty, despite her suffering is extraordinary. The things that most people complain about are unparalleled to what this woman has overcome, through the grace of God.

This is a repost from Jan. 2011 due to the emails MIHI has been receiving.

By Faith Hakesley

Following months of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest when I was fifteen, marriage and children were gifts I felt totally undeserving of. “Why would anyone want to marry me now?” were the words frequently haunting my traumatized mind. In our society, women who have been abused or raped are often seen as “damaged goods” and it takes a rare and special man to be willing to “deal with” and share the repercussions a survivor experiences. God blessed me with one of those rare and special men, however, and, even though it is not easy by any stretch, we have built a strong relationship of incredible love and unity.

“You are my love, you are my cross, you are my joy.” These were the words spoken by the officiant at my husband’s (Alex) and my wedding three and a half years ago. The priest held up a crucifix as he spoke these powerful words. Some people might just shrug these words off. To my husband and I, however, these are the words that we have learned to live by in our marriage. My crosses have become his crosses, my joys his joys, and my love his love (and vice versa).

The road is difficult and different for each family but it is possible to overcome trauma. I was fortunate enough to have come to terms with and gotten help for the traumas I had experienced before marrying. When Alex’s and my long-time friendship blossomed into something more, I was at a point in my own recovery that I was able to help him understand what I was going through, and he was able to support me in my recovery. With the help of therapy and the loving support of my family, Alex and I developed our own boundaries so that I could continue to heal without him feeling as though he could somehow fix it all. We have worked hard, both individually and as a couple, to create a relationship of honesty, communication, and complete faith and trust in God.

A male survivor of clergy sexual abuse gave my husband some great advice several years ago. “If she’s having a bad day, don’t assume that it’s because of memories of the abuse. She still has feelings and, if you want to help her, validate that she can feel human again and it’s okay for her to be upset about other things.” The abuse is a big part of my history & has certainly made me who I am today, but it’s not all I am. Guys can have a hard time reading women and (let’s face it) we can be mind-boggling puzzles sometimes!

I have learned to be open and honest with my husband about my feelings. I’ll say “I’m having bad memories today” referring to the sexual abuse or “I’m having a Matt day” if I’m missing my brother who passed away ten years ago. Sometimes it’s just, “I feel angry today but I don’t know why.” When I struggle with thoughts of, “I’m such a burden…,” Alex laughs, rolls his eyes and says, “Faith, I married you…I love you and I will always be here for you so get over it!”

My husband has created a safe place for me although he has had to embark on his own journey in order to better understand me and my experiences. He has attended some therapy with me in the past, done his own research on trauma, and has learned to ask questions. If he is ever struggling with a question or concern, he will discuss the issue with me but, if I just don’t have the emotional energy to talk about something, he will go to my parents. He has cried with me, screamed with me, thrown stuffed animals with me, and prayed with me. Alex carries me when I need to be carried but also pushes me when I need to be pushed. He is my “lion” and stands up for me when necessary. He even has stood up to me when I have criticized myself!

As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder in the past, I have a very skewed perception of my body. Although naturally frustrating for him at times, he is there to reassure me that I am beautiful. He supports me in prayer and during times when I don’t “feel” my faith. It takes a very special man being graced by God to be able to put his own emotions and needs aside in the moment and put you first! Yet, even if I experience a flashback in the midst of an intimate moment, Alex will hold me and say, “Faith, it’s okay…nothing can hurt you…I’m here with you and you’re safe. Come back to the present. Come back to me.” He has grown to be especially sensitive to my fears of intimacy and, in the past, has sometimes been hesitant to touch me for fear of upsetting me.

Alex has gone through his own struggles to accept the rape. I will never forget the conversation we had some years ago during which I told him all the details of the abuse. It was a difficult conversation, allowing myself to be vulnerable to a man once again but it was an important step in rebuilding the trust that I had lost when the abuse took place. Alex has never blamed me, but he did spend a lot of time being angry about “why” it happened. He went through many of the same struggles as I did – he blamed God, he blamed other people, and he looked for answers that just didn’t exist. Over time, I was able to help him as were my parents, my therapist, and the good God above I believe gave him the graces to move forward. We have both experienced resentment of having to “deal” with everything that has come our way, but we choose to let that anger make us stronger.

Our son, Matthew, (born last year) puts life into perspective for us both. I am fortunate enough to be a stay-at-home mom and sometimes long hours alone with an active and precocious toddler can play havoc on the mind. However, I work hard to prevent any negativity on my part to affect him. Over time, I’ve learned to put my thoughts into words through prayer, writing, exercise, or music and I call on these wonderful things everyday. For a long time, I was surviving for me, then for my husband and I, but now I survive for our son too!

If you have ever experienced abuse, don’t look for someone who’s going to carry you all the time. Rather, look for someone who can both carry you when you need carrying and who can push you when you need pushing! Choose someone who is willing to become a part of your journey and someone who is willing to take on a part of your burden. My husband chose to be a part of my life and that includes my past, present, and future experiences no matter how negative they may be. In the end, a strong relationship is based on hard work – the harder you work, the stronger you will both be! Our marriage is far from perfect, but as long as you both pursue healing and strive to move forward, God will be present amidst your joys and love and, when there are crosses, He will carry you both.

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“She left pieces of her life behind her everywhere she went…

It’s easier to feel the sunlight without them she said.”

Yesterday was the anniversary of the date I started therapy and a reader asked if I could describe part of the process. I had spoken with this doctor once on the phone before packing everything I owned into my Honda accord to move 18 hours to see him and to start a new life. To put it bluntly, I was terrified. Sure, I was excited for the change and the opportunity for healing but those thoughts paralleled with the uncertainty of the future.

The night before my first therapy session I could barely sleep. I woke up early and went for a run in the hot southern heat. On my drive to his office my mind churned furiously. What if he can’t help me? I mean seriously, what good is this even going to do? Why do I think that telling a complete stranger everything that has happened to me is going to make me better? How could that take away the nightmares? What if he doesn’t understand? And frankly, it’s really none of his business. 

Sassy and naive I know.

Okay, calm down Maura. Trust in God, you have trusted Him to bring you here and this is going to be no different. I knew in my heart this was what God wanted from me, but I was petrified, especially since the doctor was a man. I started praying the Rosary and arrived at his office.

He was late and my mind used that as an excuse to try to run away. But I fought those thoughts with God’s grace, as I sat down. Even though I was shaking, by the end of the 2 hour session I knew God had placed this doctor in my life as a tremendous gift to me. As soon as I closed his office door, I bowed my head in grateful thanksgiving.

Despite that realization, therapy was still exhausting and intense, and that day, I promised myself I would never give up. No matter what. My third session was exceedingly challenging and when I left that afternoon I couldn’t stop crying. This is so hard, I don’t know how I’m going to make it through. I’m just not that strong, how am I going to do this? Later that day I went to adoration and decided that I was going to offer up each session and homework activity for my future children. I desperately yearn for my future children to not have to suffer from the ramifications of abuse.

So, when therapy seemed unbearable, or I had to draw or describe events and bodies that I thought I would never be able to do, I would close my eyes and picture what my future children might look like. I imagined their tiny hands and toes and how I would desire to surround them with love and tenderness. I thought about all that I would want to teach them about God the Father, Jesus, Mary and the Saints. Then I thought about how strong I would need to be for them and how much I needed to grow and heal before I could get married and have children. Then I closed my eyes gently, as I opened my doctor’s office door and proceed to another therapy session.

You know what I think? I think you’re bravest when you’re terrified, but you trust in the Father’s loving guidance and keep moving forward, with your eyes fixed on seeing beauty in your suffering.

What pieces of your life do you think you need to work through and let go of in order to not just breath, but truly LIVE?

“I think we carry our wounds until the end; they do not fully go away but keep us humble, patient, and more open to trust. The healing lies in the fact that our wounds no longer defeat us or cause us to harm ourselves or others. Wounds become our daily offering to God, and they develop in us compassion toward the weakness of others.”- Richard Rohr

Fact: Abuse is NOT your fault

Made in His Image has received thousands of emails, since its launch, from women in various stages of their journey’s towards awareness and recovery from eating disorders and or abuse. There is one particular subject that I would like to address today, that echos many emails I have read. Many women write to me thinking that the abuse they have unjustly received is their fault, because they couldn’t do anything to stop it.

THIS IS NOT TRUE.

In the past, I have lost many a night’s sleep trying to wrap my mind around this subject. Could I have done something to make it stop? Why did this happen to me? Was it my fault? Should I have fought back harder? Was it because I’m not strong enough? Maybe I need to be tougher? Maybe it was because I was bad? 

Asking yourself those questions is only natural, and there is nothing wrong with thinking those thoughts. But, knowledge is power and I want to share some of the counsel I have received over the years.

1. Abuse, whether that be verbal, physical and or sexual is NOT your fault.

2. What YOU can do is own your recovery. You can show yourself and others that you are stronger than what happened to you, and that with God all things are possible.

3. You will not completely heal until you take charge of your recovery process. And this means setting up boundaries, taking control of the people and or places that have power over you. This is something that only YOU can change.

4. You are not bad or worthless. You are created in the image and likeness of God and precious in His eyes. Although you may not feel precious, you must fight hard to ask Him to show you your worth and dignity.

5. While what happened to you was evil, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love you. God gives His children free will, and the person or persons who abused you were in complete violation of his or her free will. Because God has given free will, He could not physically stop your abuser from hurting you, because that would have been going against His very nature as God. He does not force His children to make the correct choices in regards to our free will. While God desires nothing more than your protection and safety, He can not force people to follow Him. Therefore, because of our fallen nature, evil is prevalent in the world.

6. Contrary to what negative stereotypes may tell you, you are exhibiting tremendous courage and strength in seeking professional help. It might not feel as if you are, but you are. Your vulnerability, bravery, determination and perseverance will shine through the darkness, it simply takes time. Allow me to put it into perspective for you, I was a NCAA Division 1 athlete in college, and completing two years of trauma therapy took more endurance than being a Division 1 athlete. You are stronger than you think you are, always hope!

7. Focus on the positive, which is the control and power YOU hold by going to therapy and making daily strides at your recovery. Made in His Image wants to empower you to turn from victim to survivor.

8. TAKE CONTROL TODAY! TAKE YOUR LIFE BACK! SET UP BOUNDARIES. PRACTICE SAYING NO. THIS IS YOUR LIFE – OWN IT!

Such is the rule of our warfare.  We advance by yielding; we rise by falling; we conquer by suffering; we persuade by silence; we become rich by bountifulness; we inherit the earth by meekness; we gain comfort through mourning; we earn glory by penitence and prayer.  Heaven and earth shall sooner fall than this rule be reversed; it is the law of Christ’s kingdom, and nothing can reverse it but sin. – John Henry Newman

Book Publication – Choosing to See Beauty

Since the last two radio interviews, countless people have inquired about the publication of my manuscript. I have had a few legal complications, but everything is working out well and it will be out shortly.

The story behind Choosing to See Beauty: I have been writing this book for several years. During those years, the layout has changed several times, and it wasn’t until I met a Catholic doctor who greatly helped me heal that I decided upon the manuscript that will be published. One afternoon, after a particularly challenging session of therapy, he told me the following, which inspired me to write my final manuscript.

Seek beauty in all things. To embrace love, you must see what is beautiful. Watching you struggle today and succeed was a great thing of beauty for me to behold. Your precious journal is and remains beautiful. It has in it your deepest thoughts and feelings, dried tears, smudges, corrections, sketches and the like – verses and paintings of love and pain. This is life. Never throw out your memories but instead turn the ugly ones back into what God intended them to be. Only when you need to purge, write or draw things on pieces of scrap paper that you can burn immediately. However, even then, as you watch the billowing smoke rise, ask God to receive what is painful and to supply you with what is beautiful and peaceful. You will never be able to replace and exchange yourself, your body, your experiences or memories for anything else. God made you and will make every thing that you and others do into something good and beautiful. Keep your book, treasure it and envision its old and tattered state over time – a personal guide of your journey and your personal attempt to turn all things that He has given to you into a treasure. Let God turn things to dust as He will do with all things (and from which He created all things).  God is God and we are not.

Choosing to see Beauty is the story of how I came to call God, Father and see myself as His daughter. In it I write about my recovery from an eating disorder, abuse, depression, chronic post traumatic stress disorder, 2 years of trauma therapy, a Catholic doctor who changed my outlook on suffering, a loved one’s addiction to pornography, my time as a student-athlete, my time as a missionary, a summer in Kolkata, India serving with the Missionaries of Charity and most importantly the love of the Father.

I use to be 35 pounds lighter than I am today.

The other day when a young woman told me that her number one goal in life is to be thin, my heart ached for her. Ladies, I am alive today to tell you that there is more to life than a number you see on a scale.

Our society defines beauty as a number on a scale, a dress size, inappropriately clad swimsuit models, pornography, the number of calories you eat in a day and the fact that you don’t eat hamburgers or ice cream. And each day, millions of girls and women from every country, get on a scale and hope to quench their yearning for happiness and success through the number that flashes back at them. I speak from experience when I say, that is fleeting beauty. I use to be 35 pounds lighter than I am today and could have easily died. My life, your life, is a miracle: cherish it.

It took me a while to comprehend that seeing my ideal number on the scale would never fulfill me. It’s so empty and tiring. The scale can’t measure your strength, beauty, courage, determination, perseverance, joy, love, gentleness, compassion, athletic ability and purpose. So you see, your validation of beauty and sense of acceptance, is not the width of your waist or the number you see on the scale. You aren’t your hair and skin color. You aren’t your shoe size or lipstick shade. You are not the number of miles you can run or sit-ups you can do. You aren’t the number you see in your jeans or the number of calories you consume at lunch.

What you are radiates from the beauty of your soul. You are beautiful because you are compassionate and sensitive. You are beautiful because you love passionately, have a gentle spirit and giving heart. You are beautiful because you find your worth in God the Father. You are beautiful because you are His daughter. You are beautiful because you embrace the challenge to be an authentic woman. Authentic beauty flows from the heart onto the face. Authentic beauty is compassion, forgiveness, gentleness, modesty, courage and strength. Authentic beauty is the Blessed Mother. Let us seek to mirror her beauty.

“Mary was not ‘full of grace’ because she was beautiful; she was beautiful because she was full of grace.” – Fulton Sheen

“Above all shadows, rides the sun.”

When I was four or five my dad would take me to the ocean, where he taught me to swim and ride the waves. My dad loves the ocean and is a phenomenal swimmer. When I made the swim team in college I remember the coach looked at me and said, Where did you learn to swim like that?

I smiled, From my dad.

Do you want me to take you out far? He would say. Oh yes!! I responded, coupled with tremendous excitement and a gigantic smile. He would carry me out past where the waves would break, and when the water was calm he would gently throw me. As my body sank beneath the surface, I knew he would be there, no matter what. I can almost taste the salt, and feel the ocean breeze against my face as I type this, the memories are so vivid.

After I had swallowed enough salt water we would spread our beach towels on the sand and have a picnic dinner. And after we had chased the seagulls and watched the sun set, he would take me out to ice cream. You can get whatever you want. My response was always the same, Can I have mint chip, the green kind in a cone? Those were the best days and my favorite childhood memory.

No matter what happened in my life, I clung to that memory because it was beautiful and peaceful. It sustained me through tremendous darkness. It helped me remember that I was normal. And that’s what I want to challenge you to do? Pick a memory from your childhood that was beautiful and hold on to it when you feel as though you were slighted by God.

As we talked about yesterday, where you have control is to make the choice to see beauty in your suffering. Many situations in life are going to be ugly, painful and hurtful, but you have the power, along with God’s grace to make good from the pain and tears. You have the tools to make the choice to see beauty, seek forgiveness, show mercy and the Father’s love to all of those you meet, even those who have abused you. Where does the power come from? It comes from the Sacraments and spending time with God in Adoration. Speak to our loving Father tonight, ask Him to help you. Ask Him for grace, tell Him your fears, joys and sorrows. Let the Healer hug you. Hold onto Him. Cling to the Cross, for this is where your sanctification rests.

“Although I have lived through much darkness, I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young. Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.” – Pope John Paul II

But what if he wasn’t there

During this past year of serving victims and survivors of physical and sexual abuse, countless women have disclosed their stories to me. My heart has expanded with extreme sensitivity and compassion towards these women, as I have learned of the suffering they have and continue to endure by the hands of their fathers. The statistics regarding fathers in relation to domestic violence and sexual assault are both devastating and astronomical.

A father is an irreplaceable person in a child’s life. Statistics show that children who grow up lacking the presence of a loving father are more at risk to develop and engage in destructive behaviors such as, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, alcoholism, promiscuity and the like. With that being said, a child can certainly still suffer from one of the above, with the influence of a loving father.

Today on Father’s Day, MIHI wants to be sensitive to what you are feeling. And if you grew up without the presence of a father and or were abused by your father, Made in His Image is praying for you in a special way today.

So, what do you do if he wasn’t there? I am certainly no expert. But a wise man once told me that when faced with suffering, there are two choices: you can despair or choose to see beauty. And MIHI desires to inspire you to choose the latter.

I’m not saying it will be rainbows and butterflies. It’s okay to be afraid and to feel countless other emotions associated with suffering, abuse and loss. But do not allow yourself to despair, choose instead to seek beauty amidst the ambiguity of life. Rise from the ashes, inspire others with hope, show mercy and kindness, radiate joy and love as the Father has loved and continues to love you. Let His love radiate through you, so that when others see you, they see and feel the love of the Father.

And today if you should feel alone, isolated from those you love or frustrated because you feel as if no one understand your pain, then turn to your Heavenly Father and tell Him your feelings, for He does understand, and sees all things. He is waiting for you to come to Him. Throw yourself into His Arms and let Him hold you through the pain.

There is a loving, gentle, merciful and compassionate Father who will never leave you. You are precious to Him. He adores you so. This is His promise to you: “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” – Hebrews 13:5

It is my hope that Made in His Image will continue to be a safe place for you women to find healing and compassion during your journey of recovery. As always, if there is anything that we can do for you, please do not hesitate to contact us. We exist to serve you, and your healing, safety and voice is our priority.

Made in His Image would also like to acknowledge all fathers who have mirrored the Heavenly Father’s love and mercy! You are a source of tremendous inspiration and your love produces a rippling effect.

I would also like to honor my dad and wish him a wonderful father’s day! I love you dad. St. Faustina, pray for us!

“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering. But no man can tell another what this purpose is, each must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes. If he succeeds he will continue to grow in spite of all indignities.”