Shame Does Not Belong To You
From the moment we were born until the day we inhale our last breath, it is inevitable that we will encounter trials and disappointments. These unexpected situations most times never announce themselves. They take us by surprise and when we are faced down, sometimes we don’t see our way out. Yet, we tend to bounce back from defeat and rise above the ashes. But what happens when we recover from the wounds but have to still behold the scars? No matter the effort to shake it loose, this one thing seems to stick with us. It’s unforgettable and finally it becomes a part of you.
That one thing for me was the day my bags were packed and I was sent back to my grandmother in Jamaica on a one way flight from New York City. The punishment for speaking the truth and standing up for myself introduced me to a broken-heart, abandonment and shame.
I was ten years old with infinite possibilities, an unexplained joy and saw the world with hope. Like every little girl in the trenches of Kingston, Jamaica, my dream was to live in the place where the streets were paved with gold and you can buy anything for ninety-nine cents. My father was a Jamaican soldier who had moved to the states to make a better life for himself and family. Although we never met until I was six years old, the one photograph of him in my dresser drawer where I kept all the important things like fake pearls, the letters he wrote me and the perfume I only wore on Sundays, painted this image in my mind that somewhere out there in the world life would be grand.
And that day came. In a short purple and white dress, fishnet stockings and sandals with laces strapped up to my calves, I climbed the stairs of American Airlines, ready for a new life in the United States. Everyone back home cheered. I was the golden child in the neighborhood who had made it out of poverty and the shame that came with having a mentally ill mother.
The day I landed at JFK Airport I never forgot the joy on my families faces. This was my “Coming to America” moment. It was fall and the splashes of color from the birches, maples and sumacs trees laced the project courtyards in the Bronx. At the time, the projects to me were like Beverly Hills’ compare to the room I was crammed in with my grandmother and her boyfriend back in Jamaica.
That winter, Thirty Fourth Street, Burger King and then there was the first day of snow. I ran outside, stuck my tongue out to catch each snowflake. Uninhibited, unafraid and unashamed. It was magical and from that courtyard all things were possible. Until one afternoon when my brothers stayed home from football practice, everything changed. I was not sure what was happening but the touch on my private part felt uncomfortable, embarrassing and for the first time I was afraid to speak. It was as if my voice disappeared on that bed. For some reason, saying, “No” “stop” or don’t do that” to protect myself seemed lofty. I am ten years old, a girl and who gives me the right to defend my body. This unrequested invitation to the most intimate place of my body had left me speechless, well just for a moment.
You see, I was not just any other ten year old girl. From birth I was out-spoken, a thinker and stood against injustice. Like one day, the landlady told us we were not allowed to eat the mangoes from her tree. It did not matter that we lived in the same yard or the fact that we paid her rent. She was determined that this was her mango tree and no one was going to eat her mangoes, even if they rotted on the ground, which sometimes they did.
At first it was all fine until my grandmother was low on cash and we had nothing to eat. That day we sat on the verandah with no hope of the next meal. The day was passing and the closer to dusk, I could not help but notice several ripe mangoes hanging from the top of the tree. It just did not make any sense sitting there, both of us hungry, food was available and no one could eat it.
Soon my grandmother retired to bed and so did the stingy landlady. While everyone slept, I took it up on myself to climb the tree and pick those mangoes. What I did not know was the landlady already knew how many ripe mangoes were on the tree.
My grandmother was upset that I disobeyed but we both had a mango feast that night. The following day when the landlady discovered her mangoes were gone, she raised havoc and wanted us to return the rest hidden in our room. Embarrassed, my grandmother begged the landlady for forgiveness, but all I witnessed was a mean old woman who had not an ounce of love in her. “Apologize, Jozanne”, my grandmother said. But the only words that came out of my mouth was, “God made the mangoes for everyone who lives here to eat, not just you". The tree belongs to God.” Stunned by my reply, the landlady bursts out in laughter. She grabbed me and said, “You are one bold little girl”. From that day on the landlady shared her mangoes and sometimes even shared her meal.
Somehow that little girl had lost her playfulness, boldness and the faith she once had. Life had gotten the best of me and the older I grew the more cynical, practical and afraid I became after my abuse. I had forgotten the magic in living and that I was loved by an amazing God who had a purpose for my life. The silence of my abuse and the repercussions for daring to speak about it, left me ashamed.
Abuse will do that to you. It seeps into the fiber of our souls poisoning the fabric of our identity and soon we find ourselves ashamed and fearful. Fearful of life. Fearful to confront. Fearful to be peculiar. Fearful of our past. Fearful of our truth. Fearful of change. And if we look closely enough, we discover fear and shame are bosom buddies. Shame is the ugly beast that hides in the darkness of our soul and whenever we decide to take a step forward into destiny, shame reminds us a million and one reason why we can never come back from trauma. Hence, fear takes control of our lives.
One of the common threads I discovered conversing with survivors of sexual abuse is the shame they carried for many years of their lives. Shame has kept many victims silent sometimes up to sixty years. I once met a Jewish woman, who told me she was raped at the age of eight and the first time she broke her silence was the day we spoke. This woman is now seventy one years old. It blew my mind that there were people who were willing to go to the grave without ever talking about their abuse. And I understand why. It’s terrifying disclosing the secrets of those we trust and love, especially when it’s a family member. We submerge under the manipulation and seduction of those we believe are there to protect us, hoping we judged their actions wrongly. And maybe if we never reveal their secret, one day it would vanish. We fight for things to go back to normal by pretending there are no damages and the more we pretend, the more shame we feel for not breaking the silence in the first place.
As a result we prefer to blame ourselves and find a way to cope on our own. From age ten until I was twenty three years old I pretended that the abuse I suffered as a child into my teens would disappear if I just lived my life and never talk about it. My true identity buried under the shame of my past and everyone who met me either met a carbon copy of someone else or just small fraction of myself.
The punishment for speaking up when I was ten years old had brought me into isolation and the lesson learned was SILENCE. I became the girl who stayed hushed when people did not value my presence, tongue-tied when I was brilliant at a task and nonvocal when taken advantage of by others. I had forgotten who God created me to be. And to think I believed that was okay. Yes, many times we can become comfortable with brokenness and accept it as “normal”. I was alive but not living.
Nonetheless, God has a way of resurrecting dead things if we let Him. Years later, there I was one night sitting in my apartment with a knife in my hand and half of Jay, Wray and Nephew Jamaican over proof rum in my system. My silence had now turned into several suicidal attempts. But this night was different. I did not see the purpose of living. The brown hard-wooded floor in my living room soaked in tears and the only option was to take my life. The pain from my abuse as a child, the silence of truth and the abandonment from my father came flooding back.
All I could do was cry out to God. “God help me!” I needed to remember who I was. I was desperate for purpose. “God help me” was the prayer. Just a few words spoken. While I sat there waiting for the fire and the wind of God to speak, it was in a whisper, I heard his voice. “Get up and take a shower”. There were no parables. No scripture. No bells and whistles. Just get up and take a shower. While walking to the shower, a Sunday school song came back to me, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and Yellow, Black and White. They are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world”.
But did Jesus love the abused and rejected children? Did Jesus have a plan for those like me that saw no light in the darkness? Did Jesus have the power to restore the damages done to me as a child? For my life was like shattered glass and there was no way of putting the pieces back together from where I stood. Yet, that night I simply got up from the floor and took that shower.
There is something about getting up from where you are and taking a step forward. It sounds so simple but yet so difficult to do. Why? Because faith, not only requires belief, it demands action. It’s hearing the voice of God telling us that we are always worthy of rescue and believing it every time regardless of the pit we find ourselves in. Faith always requires a leap. It’s in the jump. That night I was not sure where I was going to land or if I would make it, but all I knew was I had to jump just the way I was. Broken, ruined and ashamed. I felt like a person without limbs jumping out of a plane. There were no parachutes, no safety nets and definitely no one with me in the jump up from that floor. Only God and me. I needed to learn how to live regardless of my circumstances and the shame I felt in my life.
Many times those of us who are victims of abuse spend years trying to get the courage to break the silence. We feel we need all the ruined places built over before we can live again and speak again. The truth is there is never the correct time. Fear and shame is always there to stop us. The time is always NOW. It is now whether you are currently experiencing abuse or if it happened twenty years ago.
Understand that shame’s intention is to keep its victim silent and fearful. We forget that shame was never our inheritance, freedom is. A tragic event is never the final story of our lives. It is only a chapter being magnified to deceive us into thinking this is the end. And like any great writer, God is the author and perfector of our faith. Rape, molestation and the like does not define you or me. As a matter a fact, the thing that was intended to destroy us can be the very thing God uses to transform us. I am a witness.
That night I got up from the floor and made my way to the shower. The water running down my body was symbolic for the spiritual cleansing God was doing internally. From that day I made a resolve to never live another moment as that abused girl. Each day became better and one day I had not only the courage to break the silence, but confront my abuser and forgave him.
God became my limit and from what I know about Him, He has none. He has taken all our shame to the cross, so we never have to walk another day with our head in the sand, but live each moment spreading our wings and fly. "Fear not, for you will not be put to shame; And do not feel humiliated, for you will not be disgraced; But you will forget the shame of your youth,” Isaiah 54:4. The shame does not belong to me. Take a vertical leap today!