Today I became a member of the International Network of Prison Ministries. The Internet is a wonderful tool for those who are persistent and of all my character traits it’s my strongest. I’ve been traveling through cyber space for months trying to find a list of all the chaplains at all the prisons. I was on a mission! I wanted to help those who had been sexually abused so much that it was all I thought of. My long term dream was to have every chaplain hold a Lamplighter meeting with the inmates who had been sexually abused. My vision included all of them using the program REPAIR as their model for recovery. You’d think it wouldn’t be too difficult a task to locate this list. I had great faith in Google. I typed in “chaplains”. No… needs more information. I typed in “chaplains in the US”, got nothing. I typed in every combination of words I could think of. Nothing. Month after month, nothing. But in order to have persistence you have to keep feeding it. I kept thinking about all those women in prison who were there because they had been in a domestic violence situation and had been so badly abused by their mate that they murdered him. I pictured mothers who murdered their mate because he was sexually abusing their children. I knew that the biggest percentage of these women had been sexually abused as children. I knew the despair, the anger, the grief that followed their every day. I had to help them. What to do, what to do.
Finally, one night, feeling discouragement wrap itself around me I turned it all over to God and let go. I learned how to do that when I worked a twelve step program. The next morning I attacked Google one more time. I don’t even know how it happened or what I typed in but all of a sudden I was at the website of the International Network of Prison Ministries. I was elated. Today I received an email saying I was now a member. I had my own page and filled it out. Victory!
I’m elated. The idea of being able to reach hundreds of people who need help puts a warm and fuzzy feeling in my heart. Women who are domestic violence survivors are difficult to understand if you’ve never been abused. Over the years I’ve heard so many people say, “I can’t feel sorry for these women. All they need to do is leave.” Or, “it’s their own fault. They never should have married someone like that.” The old Indian wisdom about “walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins” is fun to say and difficult to put into practice. When I was in recovery I joined a group called Alternatives to Domestic Violence. At the first meeting I listened to several women tell their story and when it came my turn all I said was, “You’re all married to my husband.” Being able to spend time with women who were in the same situation I was validated what I was going through. The negative comments I’d been hearing no longer mattered.
During those recovery years I spent time in a women’s shelter. If I am going to reach out to women in prison that were child sexual abuse victims and had formerly been in a domestic violence situation I needed to revisit my own experience. The following is an excerpt from my book, Let Me Hurt You and Don’t Cry Out.
I’m sitting at Bethlehem House in the midst of forty children, all shrieking and running about. I listen to their mothers struggling to cope with all of this. I watch a pregnant woman, bruises tainting the pale color of her face, chain smoking, and fighting off coming down from heroin addiction. I look with sadness at a young lady with only one arm, the result of the male in her life shooting at her, first in the head and then in her arm. She’s grateful her head survived. All the women at the shelter have stories that weigh on my heart.
Their faces show more than strain, more than hopelessness. They show a living death. And yet, at times, I spy courage, I sense strength; I feel acceptance, but not the kind that comes through resignation. It’s more a sense of, "this is what is, do I have the courage to change it?" It has taken several hours to get me checked in. I had to fill out a lengthy report of all my marital problems, including permission to get a restraining order against Dennis.
I watch the Director closely as we sit in her office. She's a large woman, perhaps in her mid-thirties with shoulder length brown hair and a pronounced no-nonsense attitude. She stops her intake frequently to comfort a newcomer, hug a distraught victim who has just discovered her abuser knows her whereabouts, commiserate with a child who has an "owie", arrange for a fill-in to prepare dinner and so on. All of it is done with an aggressive and robust humor and compassion. While I describe Dennis' abuse, I cry, rocking back and forth with pain, feeling fearful and guilty, like I'm tattling and am going to be punished. It's so hard to separate the sociopathic, sadistic side of Dennis from the charming, nurturing side, almost as if when I see the one, it negates the other. I'm worn out emotionally, drained of strength, wondering if I'm doing the right thing, trusting only that God is guiding me in my path.
I'm lonely and frightened, grateful to be away from Dennis but don't feel I belong here. I don't like the rules. There are too many of them. You can't use the phone. If you do, they’ll kick you out. And try as I might I can't get used to how dirty everything looks. My discomfort is acute, an alien in a world I can't relate to, miserably homesick for my own bed and the love and caring that only the phone can bring me in reaching out to my family and supportive women friends. I feel like I am hanging on by my fingernails, each breath agonizing in its intensity.y What am I doing here?
The first night amidst all the din and depression, I sleep like I've never slept before. I am cautiously appreciative, knowing it's from medication Dr. Lewis gave me to keep food down.
I spend the day pacing back and forth, trying to write in my journal, chain smoking on the porch, numb with confusion while I wait for the therapy I have been told is forthcoming. Bethlehem House is situated in the mountains amidst groves of pine trees. It looks so peaceful outside the compound; almost like a movie I'm watching that's part of another world. Only the heavy gates and tall chain link fences remind me that I am a prisoner here of my own choice.
At group therapy, I hear horror stories I could never have thought up, even with my imagination. It frightens and depresses me further. I watch the other women, at times able to relate to what they've been through, other times feeling as if compared to their stories, mine is minor. Are they thinking that compared to mine theirs is minor? We all act like zombies, milling around, waiting for hope, waiting for courage. I search the faces of the women sitting in a circle. They look like homeless people with intense, stricken faces, aged beyond their years.
Later, while I'm smoking a cigarette on the front porch, the Director of the shelter screams at everyone to get inside and run up to the dorms quickly. Bodies scramble and trample over one another as we race up the stairs. A nun comes rushing into the room screaming, "One of your asshole husbands found out where you're at and is on his way here. If the siren goes off, hit the ground and cover your heads. " I stare at her, dumbfounded that a nun would use profanity. The police show up and after the grounds are searched, an all clear is sounded. Again, I sleep like a baby while the other women lay taut and frightened, their sobs ripping through the night.
So now I remember. Now I relive all of it, both in my mind and my heart. I am determined to help those women and with persistence like mine how can I fail.