Patchwork: The Gift of Helpers

By T. Pitt Green

My story as an adult survivor of child sexual abuse is, like that of any other survivor, a story of trauma, scarring and grieving, of wounds and tenacity. Experts who study us call it resilience. I call it grace.

My father moved his young family to a town so we could be educated at Catholic school. Then he commuted through treacherous winters for decades unaware I was abused there. Similarly my mother worked faithfully as office manager at the rectory where I went after school – to be abused. My parents entertained priests in our home often, where I was abused. In shame I hid the ugliness from my parents, a mask of childhood I could not feel.

All I felt was dead. Everything was torn apart in my world. It would take a sewing together during recovery to recreate a patchwork of love and trust.

Over the years, with life’s lessons and therapy’s process, the memories seldom trigger me. (If they do, the detour is familiar now. The steps needed to minimize the lost time are almost second nature.) What does rattle me is the not infrequent news how yet another survivor has retreated into substance abuse or sought relief in suicide. No matter how many decades have passed, I still experience such a loss as the lost by one child of another child–an inner wailing of incomprehension. Yet, that’s what keeps me going in reaching out to other survivors with words of encouragement and hope. Because there is hope, and it can be rooted and completed through faith, using a patchwork of helpers, some we know, some we do not. And some, like we hope with this newsletter, we find through our faith journey in healing.

My wonderful therapist was the first to hear my secret, but over time I felt constrained by her medical model. It could see abuse only as pathology. It could not account for evil. I was driven again and again back to the realm of faith–the world where I was harmed. One day, in New York City, I staggered into a confessional to seek relief, asking for absolution. To my shock, the Franciscan repeatedly refused to agree it was my sin. Thanks to his Christian witness, moral clarity began to return to my life.

Closure on that thought was slow in coming. 25 years later my friend and fellow survivor intruded into my all-important bubble of space I had wrapped around me while sitting in a chapel. He gently said, “Some people only carry their own sins. Some of us carry the weight of others’ sins on our shoulders.” Only another survivor could understand, cutting through the confusion of this evil, witnessing truth, setting me free yet a little bit more. My patchwork quilt of support and understanding has truly been enriched by knowing others who walk this path we did not choose by choosing God.

There are so many reasons to seek fellowship with survivors pursuing recovery in some kind of relationship to faith. It is also worth finding other spiritual companions to play a role in our patchwork of support. A proponent of therapy, I nevertheless still rely most on a spiritual guardrail set against the all-too familiar Dark Abyss. Therapy was not sufficient for this bulwark, but it helped me get regain the strength I needed to explore a new and different relationship to the faith of my childhood. Doing so, I have been able to internalize a critical truth in two voices—that of my Bishop and his Vicar General saying to me, over and over, “It was not your fault. You are loved by God.”

I’ve no doubt my life is very different from, indeed less than, what it would have been had I progressed through childhood and teen years without abuse—and through my young adulthood without collateral damage in the aftermath. Such are bitter realities which we must process to heal. (Notice I did not say “accept,” just “process” or “integrate.”) That said, surviving abuse is sure proof that God alone does suffice, so very often brought to us by others, sometimes strangers. They are all part of the patchwork needed to thrive now as a survivor of past trauma.

My struggle has indeed bought me the pearl in the field in the parable Jesus told. In my case, quite literally I have spent my life doing, with the gift of grace, whatever it took to gain new life despite trauma. And it is mine. God’s promises are true.

My story is unusual for the extent to which other survivors, non-Catholic Christian friends, Catholic ministers, nuns, priests and a bishop have contributed substantially to my recovery. It is unusual for the extent to which family has rallied around me and not (as with many courageous survivors) rejected or disowned me. Then again, all our stories are unusual. All our stories are unique.

Like others who have founded this newsletter with me, I have found ways to offer my suffering to serve others, by writing and so forth. The most important lesson I’ve learned in this service has been that, ultimately, our first ministry as wounded healers is done closest to us, in the relationships we have found in our adult lives, in those wounded alongside us during our childhood, and, first and foremost, in that we have with ourselves–and with God. So, start with your own heart, and open your heart to the healing power of the Holy Spirit. God takes it from there. That I know.

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