Dani is an obsessive geek, skeptical feminist, graphic designer and struggling writer over at crooked neighbor, crooked heart.
Trigger warning: self harm, sexual assault
"I did it to myself. Mea culpa, mea culpa."
I would rock back and forth, muttering those words to myself, scratching my arms and legs until they almost bled, eyes squeezed shut to keep out the images I'd just emblazoned into my mind.
You're a girl, I scolded myself. Girls aren't supposed to want sex. You're nothing but a filthy whore. You're robbing your husband; you'll have nothing to give him. You're disgusting and vile and worthless. Only evil women have desires like this.
You see, believing that my highest calling was to be a wife and mother, it occurred to me that I was ill-prepared for the physical intimacy that marriage entails. Since I was told that frequent good sex was something I owed my husband, and since sex is generally a taboo subject in conservative Christianity, I did what I thought was the most reasonable thing for me to do. I decided to learn about sex from the privacy of the internet so I would be prepared when I got married.
What started as an educational exercise, however, turned into something I thought was a fight for my eternal soul.
I begged God to take away my desires. I begged, pleaded, screamed, wracked my body with temporary scars and shaking sobs. And yet they remained. I hated myself. I thought this must be my thorn in the flesh, and in some moments I even hated God for making me this way if there was no release.
And God was someone who would first make me a sexual being, then condemn me for it. He gave me desires and needs without the means to fulfill them or the decency to end my suffering.
"Your...hair...smells...good," he breathed into my ear. I'd stopped struggling — he was surprisingly strong for someone wheelchair-bound. My breast throbbed with pain as his grip tightened, my back twisted oddly as I was being pulled halfway painfully into his lap. His guardian and our professor sat across the room, talking, oblivious.
It took a long time for them to notice. Even then, my teacher did nothing — my attacker’s guardian was my salvation. As he was being pried off of my body finger by finger, he stretched to kiss me. "I don't want this to be my first kiss!" my brain screamed as I tried to twist away. He managed to plant a kiss on my jaw anyway. It occurred to me that perhaps this was God's punishment for my sexual desire — that my sexual desire made me a sexual object to be consumed against my will.
The next class, my teacher caught up with me. "So, he has wandering hands, huh? He apparently has a way with the ladies."
I was horrified. Shaken. Enraged. Confused. Terrified.
He saw...and did nothing.
And I couldn’t shake the image of God as that teacher, watching silently from across the room, doing nothing.
I had just begun dating my husband, and I was quickly becoming terrified at his level of commitment to me. I tried to push him away as hard as I possibly could with the only thing I knew would surely be repugnant enough to open his eyes. I launched attack after attack, explaining how unlovable I was, how dirty I was, how worthless I was.
He batted it all aside with kindness. He spoke life and truth into my wilderness of self-hatred. He didn't see me as a project. He didn't see me as a collection of moral failures. He didn't even see me as an object for his pleasure. He saw me as a person, full of inherent worth. He saw me. And he loved me.
It took a long time to accept his love. But when I did, all I could think was, "This...this must be what Jesus is like. This is what people mean when they talk about a God of love. I haven't seen it before. This is grace, this is peace, this is hope, this is love. I understand now."
He was the first person for whom love did not include shaming or controlling me.
And God started to become someone I could love, trust, and believe in.
That is...until we had sex.
"Your relationship is ungodly," my friends told me. "If he was the one God wanted for you, he wouldn't have tempted you to sin like this. The fact that you gave in to it shows you're not ready for a relationship, let alone marriage."
And I was confused, so confused. Would God really want to take away the one person who most convinced me of His goodness, simply because we made love? People kept telling me how sex before marriage could never be about love — it could only be about sinful lust and defying the work and word of God. But my experience was completely the opposite. Having sex with him had been the most loving, healing thing I had experienced in my life. And yet it was evil?
And God was someone for whom good and evil could be arbitrarily defined, no matter the consequences to His followers.
"You do have some polycystic ovaries."
My breath caught in my chest and I stared at her, not quite ready to understand what she was saying. "You mean...you mean I have PCOS?" I somehow managed to keep my voice steady.
She didn't quite meet my gaze. "Yes. We'll continue with your birth control, and when you're ready to talk about having kids, come in and we'll see if you can."
I felt dizzy. My mind flitted back to a sermon that a trusted mentor once gave about Hannah and Elkanah. He posited that Hannah should have been content with Elkanah's love and not continued to ask God for children. That when women were barren in the Bible, it was God that had closed their wombs and they should unquestioningly accept God's judgment in their lives.
And God’s judgment seemed clear. He was holding all of my sins against me, and I was found lacking.
After years of squelching doubts and emotions and fears, I finally began talking.
I began to tentatively share my questions, my problems, my fears with a small but growing group of people. They told me about a God who really doesn't hold past sins over our heads to beat us with. They told me about a God who understands fear, anger, pain, and doesn't shame or punish for those feelings but instead listens, loves, cherishes, and comforts. They told me about a God who isn't abusive, who isn't capricious, who isn't cruel. I hardly dared to believe them.
But there it was, that seed of hope.
And God became someone I really felt I could wrestle with, because He might really want to engage my heart and mind, no matter what that meant. Even if it meant waiting until I was ready.
"My friend called me, wanted me to come over to see him at his house. I hung up the phone, and walked to the front door, and stopped. God wouldn't let me leave."
My head was pounding with a migraine that made lights blindingly bright, sounds unbearably loud, and made my stomach lurch. The preacher’s voice droned on, each rise and fall of his tone piercing my head. I held onto my husband for dear life, my only physical stronghold in an environment that made me taste fear.
"The Holy Spirit finally released me, and I walked over to my friend’s house to find people sitting on the front porch, crying. He just shot himself." My stomach lurched again, and I felt my husband stiffen beside me. "He'd been sitting in his room by the window with his gun, waiting for me. God worked salvation in my life that day. If I'd arrived any earlier, he could have shot me."
By the time the closing prayer had been uttered, I was being steered to our car — I was shaking uncontrollably from pain and rage, afraid I would be sick or pass out.
But as we drove away from the church building, my head eased, then stopped hurting altogether. My stomach calmed. Lights became normal, sounds became bearable.
And it hit me like a ton of bricks, how emotionally and physically toxic that environment was.
I looked at my husband and said, "I think this is our last Sunday."
His jaw was set grimly. "I wholeheartedly agree."
And for one day, I was convinced that God was not the monster that this man was preaching. I didn't know what He was exactly, but I knew more than I knew anything that He was not someone who would sacrifice life like that.
Now? I struggle daily with my view of God. I suppose it's only natural, considering the many faces He has had in my life. I'm still sorting through them all. Some days, I don't even think He has a face. Some days, I don't think He exists — or exists in a form that isn't pure evil.
But the struggling is worth it. Because it's finally allowed. I've seen goodness and kindness in people that makes God seem so near. I've seen interpretations of Scripture that seem like they can override the way I was taught to read and understand the Bible. I catch glimpses of a God who isn't a narcissistic sociopathic monster, and those glimpses are enough to keep me searching.
And so now, God is a mystery. But I am resting in that mystery, in the in-between of the faith of my childhood and the faith of my adulthood, waiting.
And I think He's okay with that.