Penance

The key that fits the lock is always discovered in the least expected moment. I sat on the therapist's couch, sitting on my hands, huddled in my jacket, unable to name what I had been feeling last week. I knew it was a feeling, in the visceral way you recognize the rhythms of your soul, but I couldn't understand where it came from. It was the fist closing around my throat, the lump in my chest, the sweat beading up on my forehead. I felt my eyes widen, but I couldn't say why.

It was fear. Admitting fear is so difficult for me. The recognition of that fear, especially when it is someone else who sees it in me, threatens to undo all the work I've done to hide my fear so that no one will know that something is wrong with me. And deep within, I am horribly afraid that there is something wrong with me. As my therapist has continued to hone in on certain sensitive moments of my childhood, has asked questions about my siblings, my parents, I have harbored a secret fear that she will find something in my family of origin that will point to my current problems - disassociating, blunting my emotions, turning to self-harm. I desperately did not want my family to be at blame. And so I have run from that fear, stuffed it down into that tight lump in my chest, and gingerly regarded it as something very dangerous to my way of life, my beliefs, my way of thinking.

Today, I found an answer. And it isn't how my parents raised me, or what kind of discipline I was brought up with, or my own reprehensible original sin. I've struggled for years to find an answer, because I couldn't imagine how I got to where I am now with what I started with at age seven. You know yourself, the deeps that lie hidden to all the world, and yes, it is blacker to you than to anyone. But you also know when that hidden river of sinful thought has not buoyed you along in your wrong ways of thinking. 

Somewhere along the line, I picked up the idea that by suffering abuse in secret, I was protecting my family, not just physically, but socially - the family persona or image that might be destroyed if word got out. In a very human and childish way, I developed my own system of penance to purge out the ugliness that I attached to myself, blaming myself in small ways for big things. In this way, I could get rid of the big things by doing something in my own control - hurting my body and torturing my own mind. This developed into a knee-jerk reaction, and as an adult, I faced a similar catastrophic situation when I was blamed for the circumstances that led to my entire family vaunting from a church. Just like I did when I was seven, I meted out my penance in private: a slit to the skin, letting my personality disappear into the gray nothingness with each drop of blood shed. 

Again, this winter and fall, as my therapist edged ever closer to the epicenter of my pain, and I saw it was not the actions of my abuser, but rather something to do with my family...I wielded weapon against self to get rid of the haunting fear that, if I let it get out, even in the privacy of the counselor's office, I would be hurting my family. What I didn't realize is that by trying to protect my family's image, I was entering a vicious cycle. 

The light turns on as quick as you flip the switch, turning on your lamp. The light dawns into the dark corners of my mind, and the word penance comes up, and I feel shame. Penance to me means pride, thinking that something I can do, something I can control, can wash away my sin. It hurts the very Jesus who died on the cross, telling him I regard his sacrifice as incomplete, not worthy to pay for my sin. As if the darkness of that sin somehow negates the overwhelming, overflowing love and grace of the cross.

Katy helps lead Tally to surgery at the vet yesterday.
I know why my eight-year-old's pain sears my very soul. Because I am afraid for her. I am afraid she will think she has to protect her family. I am afraid she shoulders burdens too heavy for her frame...because of me, my inadequacy as a mother and a person. I have fought tooth and nail against the inherent fear of imperfection that fuels perfectionism. It is why it took years for me to come to my peace with my messy house, our messy lives.


I have to constantly remind myself that this heavy mother-guilt is much heavier than I was ever intended to bear. Mothers with depression, after all, have probably been happening since the beginning of time. Learning to cook a simple breakfast and helping put away laundry are normal tasks to ask of an eight-year-old.

One of the simplest verses of the New Testament has proven very difficult for me throughout my lifetime: Cast all your cares upon Him, for He careth for you. (I Peter 5:7) I humbly go to Christ, who did offer himself for me, for my whole family, generations upon generations of sinners, and ask Him to help me learn this simple thing. Help me shake loose from fear (for isn't that the whole story of the Bible? That love is greater than fear?) and break the shackles of guilt and live free as He intended.