I can remember my dad’s last words to me on the phone as he was dying in the hospital. They scarred my mind and heart…..
I was a professional photographer at the time, though I never advertised or sought customers. People constantly asked me to take black and white pictures of their children playing. They had seen my work at friends’ or family’s houses, and got my number.
I had to come up with various methods to engage toddlers and children, so that they’d have fun, and get distracted from the camera pointing at them. I’d blow bubbles for them to chase, or ask them if they could catch one. For girls, I’d set up elaborate tea parties with silver sets. I’d walk them to the picnic cloth, where they saw the bowl of bright red berries. I told them they could dip them in the powdered sugar and eat them! The joy and excitement on their faces was captured instantly by my ever-following camera.
If they were ball players, I’d have their mom bring their favorite one from home and ask how high up they could throw it. Gazing up, waiting for it come back down, with arms outstretched looks adorable in black and white…but so does the look of satisfaction when they caught and squeezed it. If they skateboarded, I’d ask them to perform their favorite stunts for me. I also learned really fast that after the normal, “happy looking” pictures for Mommy, kids love to make goofy faces when you let them. (Those were some of my favorites)…
My dad was in the hospital in New Jersey. I was in Texas. He was dying of cancer. He said, “Gretchen, I want to tell you something. Take heed to my words.”
I thought, “Finally! He’s going to apologize for all the years of verbal abuse. He’s going to apologize for telling me how ‘stupid’ I was, and how ‘hopeless’ I was all my life. He’s going to apologize for cheating on my mom for 15 years. He might actually tell me he’s proud of me, for once.”
My hopeful imagination and dreams of hearing him say, “I’m proud of you” all flew right out the window as he said, “Promise me you’ll never pick up your camera again. You take provocative pictures of children and should be ashamed of yourself. I don’t want you to hurt people with your photography. I have to go now, the nurse is here.”
He died that night.
Shock and dismay…confusion….bewilderment….punch to the gut…
None of these words adequately describes how leveled I felt after hearing that. Apparently, my dad was ashamed of my favorite passion in life up until the minute he died…and even said that I should be ashamed of myself. No underwear, naked bellies, or naked bottoms ever showed. The only thing “revealed” during our shoots was children’s imaginations.
I shared this story of his last words (through blubbering cries) with my other family members and friends, who were all every bit as shocked as I was. They all reassured me with every ounce of conviction and persuasion they could verbalize that I, in no way, had ever once taken a picture that remotely could be perceived as “inappropriate” of children, and that my dad was clearly sick in the head and must’ve saw the children that way himself.
Whatever the reasons…his words stuck in my head like concrete.
I won’t get into all the names or negatives things my dad called and said to me when I was growing up, or I’d be writing a book. I’ve lost count of how many times he said I was stupid or an idiot. It was at least a thousand. Perhaps you get the idea….
I didn’t experience physical or sexual abuse, which I know many of you have. (My heart breaks for those of you who did.) But, verbal abuse is bad, too. It’s emotionally and mentally scarring. It shapes who we believes ourselves to be…if we believe the words that are said.
Words stick in your head like super-strength glue. We can try to “forget” or “ignore” the words or comments (as many will suggest we “should”)…but, doing that is no easier than forgetting or ignoring the moment of being punched, or cheated on, or experiencing some other traumatic event.
Seeing that forgetting or ignoring harmful words spoken to us is virtually impossible to do…the next best thing is healing from it. Minor cuts to our skin take days or weeks to heal. Cuts to our heart and mind take much longer….
As the years passed, I found myself being a chronic people-pleaser. I wore myself out apologizing to anyone and everyone about the silliest and most minor of things…just to ensure that no one had a single bad thing to say or even think about me. People’s thoughts and opinions of me literally ruled my life and made me physically ill to think about.
For example, I permitted my hair dresser neighbor across the street to chop my hair when she asked to, simply because I didn’t want to risk hurting her feelings or making her mad by telling her “no thank you.” I lived with a horrible haircut for months until it grew out, and ended up window-watching like a freak, waiting to go outside when her car was gone, or she was inside her house.
I found myself explaining every dollar I spent on groceries, furniture, or clothing, to ensure that people knew that I was trying to be “responsible” with my finances.
I would explain every single thing I did…from how I raised my kids, to my household cleaning rituals. People needed to know about my efforts and good intentions, in case they saw that the final results weren’t perfect. (Hmmm…maybe I haven’t gotten completely over that, yet??)
If anyone ever asked me to do them a favor, or if the church ever had a task that needed to be done (whether they asked “me” or just advertised it to anyone listening)…I always said yes to all of it…because if I didn’t, people may have thought badly of me. I didn’t want to be thought of as a “bad Christian.”
I’m quite positive that my neurosis repelled a lot of people…or at least wore them out. (My poor, wonderful family. I’m so grateful for their patience of putting up with my plague and venting all these years.)
I look back on all of it now and it exhausts me. I truly don’t know how I functioned. I just didn’t want anyone to think of me the same way my dad did. It hurt too much. I needed to be accepted. I craved it.
I knew the Bible said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find.” (Matthew 7:7) I had done that with all kinds of things over the years…but never about this.
So, I pleaded with Jesus to please help me to finally get past believing my father’s words to me. Help me to not believe the negative things any more. I felt plagued. I needed a fresh new start.
The Bible told me, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” 2 Corinthians 5:17.
I’ve learned that to “believe in” and “belong to” are two totally different things. Satan believes in Jesus. The demons believe in Jesus. But they don’t want to “belong” to Him. Meaning, they don’t want Him be in control, make changes, tweek their lives, or give them instructions. I did. I wanted to belong to Him, and for Him to be fully in charge of my life…and I told Him that.
I needed to feel like the new creation that He promised me I was….
My husband and I had been sailing since our first year of marriage. We started with a battered 18′ sailboat, and put in our time and elbow grease to paint, polish, stain, varnish, replace parts, sew new cushions and covers…you name it. We bought that first 18’ sailboat for $1000. Sold it for $2000. We used that money to buy a bigger, battered boat…and did the same thing.
Over the years, we ended up working our way up through progressively larger boats, ending up with this 37’ sailboat (small yacht in our eyes)…. that came with a wooden dinghy.
That wooden dinghy had seen much better days; its paint was as chipped as it could be, and the bottom required work before floating again. It just sat in our yard untouched; we had no use for it.
As soon as I asked Jesus for help, immediately I saw a vision in my mind; it played like a tv show. I wasn’t in control of any of it. All I could do was watch. It was a vision of me sailing on our new, biggest boat. I had company on board. They were admiring the boat, and trying to enjoy relaxing, but I was too busy being turned towards the back end of the boat, pointing out the dinghy that I had roped on to it. I was pulling the battered dinghy along with me everywhere I went. I was telling my company about all of the mars and scrapes on it, confirming how “dinghy” it really was.
In the vision, the company on the boat asked me why I was focusing on that old boat rather than focusing on and enjoying the newer, better one.
God then filled my head with wisdom that I NEVER would have come up with on my own. Such clarity. In all my years of getting advice from people, venting, crying, and undoubtedly irritating people with my ongoing lack of healing, no one ever said the “right words” to make it all go away like God did in the one brief moment in time, like I asked Him to.
The thoughts that flooded my head were:
“Your father called you stupid your whole life. He battered you with words, making you feel very much like that wooden dinghy looks. He left you feeling just as useless as that wooden dinghy currently is. But, you asked Jesus to forgive you and be your Lord. The Word of God promises that from that moment on, you were a new creation. The old Gretchen…the one your father raised and battered…is gone. The Lord has made you a new and improved creation, through no work of your own; Jesus cleaned you up inside, and continues to do so….
(He continued…) “Your new life is like your new boat. Every time you let someone into your life, they want to know this ‘new’ Gretchen, but you only point them to the ‘old’ Gretchen, by telling them all the stories of bruises and bumps that you’ve gotten along the way in that old life. You drag the ‘old you’ along with you everywhere you go. Let go of her….
“Cut the rope that ties you to the ‘dinghy’-Gretchen that your Dad called you. Let her drift away, forever. Refer to your past only when you need to, to show how God took you from that old life to this new one. But, don’t stare at the old life, dwell on it, re-live it, and talk about it every day. Don’t focus on the old life any longer…for your sake. Instead, turn forward, look at your current, new life, and look ahead at the future horizon and where God is taking you in this new life. New, exciting adventures await.”
In that moment, in my head, I saw myself cutting the rope that linked the dinghy to the new sailboat. I watched the battered boat drift away, further and further.
“…but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead…” Philippians 3:13
Deep inside, I felt my anxiety, my dad’s words to me, and the affects they always had on me literally dissolve away from my gut and heart and mind like cotton candy dissolving on a tongue. It was all gone. That was around 2007/2008. Today is 2015.
The memories of the words he said will always be in my head. They’re facts of my past. But, attaching myself to those words and believing them is no longer a problem for me. Instead, I remember the moments and words, and it seems strange that it was “me” he was speaking to; I no longer feel like or resemble the words I remember.
I feel sorry for him. I don’t miss him…but I forgive him. He was a sick, unfortunate man.
I love my new life. I know now that I’m not stupid. I might not be the brightest bulb in the box, or the sharpest tool in the shed…but I don’t have to be. I’m still useful. I’ve learned that the value of something isn’t in its perfection; it’s in how it fulfills a need when it’s needed. God has given me certain spiritual gifts and physical/mental skills, and will show me when and where to use each one to meet certain needs at particular times and moments. That’s all that’s important. Vast intelligence isn’t. He’s given you gifts and skills, too, that no one can take away from you.
As for my photography…
I am no longer a professional photographer, but I take pictures all the time of the newest ventures God has placed in my life. If you go to www.OurCottonwoodCreek.com, you’ll see what I’m talking about.
I’m sharing my stories of verbal abuse for only one reason…
Maybe you, or someone you know has experienced abuse of some sort, and the memory of it, and affects of it on the psychy have been seemingly impossible to get past. I want to offer reassurance that it is possible to heal from it, with Jesus…the Healer. It’s possible to feel restored, brand new, separated from “that abused person”, and even able to completely forgive the abuser. “For NOTHING is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)
Some of us might wonder “why” God allowed the bad abuses or other bad things to enter our lives, rather than always protect us from them. I can only speak for myself. John 9 tells about a blind man who was blind since birth. His disciples asked him, “Teacher, why was this man born blind? Was it a result of his own sins or those of his parents?” Jesus said, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins. He was born blind so the power of God could be seen in him.” Minutes later, everyone watched as Jesus healed his eyes, which doctors today can’t even do. God had the man be born blind for the day that Jesus would come along and permanently heal him…for his sake, and everyone who watched sakes. They all came to Jesus and eternal salvation as a result.
Go figure…the man’s temporary blindness was just a tool God used to bring dozens to heaven.
God didn’t protect me from all of my dad’s harmful words or actions. But, when I turned to Jesus and truly depended upon Him for restoration and healing from th affects of it…He gave it to me. He was glorified; He got the pat on the back from me and the people who knew the old me and the new me. He did something no one else could do for me, and something I couldn’t do for myself, and now…He’s using my photography on our blog to reach people in over 100 countries…and perhaps a few of those readers have experienced abuse and can see that healing is possible.
What can He do for you?