I have seen my life experience through God’s eyes, and what I saw there has forever changed me. What I’m about to share with you is deeply sensitive to me, and it invites you into some of my most tender places. I also want you to know that I am sharing my perspective, as well as my mother’s. It is with her full knowledge and permission that I bring you these glimpses.
My mother has been mentally ill for most of her adult life. Her instability was already evident by the time I was born. Until I was almost six years old, we lived within walking distance of one set of my grandparents, and within the same community as the other two sets of my grandparents. My aunts and uncles were younger than my parents, so between the grandparents, great-grandparents and adolescent aunts and uncles, we had a built-in support system. In fact, my dad’s younger brother, Ronnie, was my primary caregiver until he was killed in a car crash when I was about 3 years old. When I was almost six, we moved into a new house that my parents had built, out in the suburbs of Simpsonville, where a young couple might better afford a home. Without her former support system in place, my mother’s mental illness descended upon her with a ferocious intensity, devouring her young mind and heart. From that time forward, my life changed drastically.
My first six years of nurturing had come from my uncle Ronnie, Papa Hubert, and my dad more than anyone else. Mom was unable to nurture me or be very affectionate. Discipline and order were her strengths, and in them, she found her identity. As a result, I grew up terribly malnourished, deficient of maternal love. I had known, however, her intense hatred of me; she despised me. She completely agrees with this assessment. Although I speak weekly with my mother, I do not talk with her about the consequences I still experience as a result of my childhood. However, because of God’s work within me, on Friday evening and with great trepidation, I called my mother. “Mom,” I said, “I want to have a difficult conversation with you.” “Alright,” she replied, and I could hear her lighting her cigarette and settling in.
“In hindsight, after all these years, why do you think you treated me the way you did when I was a child?” You must know that I have not had a conversation like this with my mother for at least 15 years. She still actively despised me until about that time, and it wasn’t until the past 10 years or so that I could engage with her without grave damage. I won’t lead you down the rabbit’s hole that we then traveled through our conversations, but I will share with you what I gleaned. First of all, through what she shared, I again experienced the reality of what I lived, and was again enveloped by what I hope to never touch again. I’m sure that some have wondered, but I know beyond any shadow of a doubt, that not only have I never exaggerated or embellished what I experienced in childhood, no one can ever even imagine the horror of what I experienced. The power of that intense environment of hatred can never be described, and unless someone has lived in it as a child, despised by a parent, one can never fathom its terrible toll upon the human heart and mind.
Secondly, I sadly realized that part of my mother is still bound by that same distorted belief system. Mom still remembers what she believed all those years ago, and in a very real part of herself, it all still makes sense. This is the mental-illness. The lies that drove her belief system are still in there. When Mom explained her actions of those years, she could tell me why she’d done those things, just as if it all still made sense to her. In the part of her that accepted Christ since then, and has grown in her spiritual walk (most shockingly through the 42-week Journey Bible Study I wrote), she knows that none of it was my fault and that it was a horrible, horrible past. But take her back to those years and she still experiences them through the same distorted mental state that she first experienced them. This was almost terrifying to me.
There were many terrible actions taken against me while I was still as young as grammar school. I’ve talked about them elsewhere, but the truth is that none of these things were the cause for the deepest devastation I knew in my inner self. So to this I spoke, asking her, “Why, Mom, did you despise me?” Mom’s hatred of me had planted a deep self-hatred within me, and her distrust of me had planted a deep and powerful distrust of myself within me. I have always been afraid that any good I saw in myself couldn’t be trusted, because there was none. The only way I had ever pleased my mother was through outward performance, particularly in doing her work for her. As a person, I had never pleased my mother, and in fact, had severely displeased her. It is only in the last few years that I have heard my mother’s pleasure in me, and after all this time, hadn’t I earned it through my forgiveness and love towards her? That still had nothing to do with me, the inner me, that should have been worthy of a mother’s love just because I was hers.
Everything she answered boiled down to one thing: she had seen me as an enemy to the life she wanted. Isn’t that always why we are cruel towards other people? They either have something that we desperately want, or we believe that they stand in the way of something we believe should be ours. But it was not until we spoke on Sunday that I finally understood where this intense hatred began. This is the story she told me.
When I was six, my mother decided it was time to try for a third child. This had been the plan all along, she told me, but when she had brought it up to my dad, he’d recommended that we put it to a family vote. With absolutely no conscious memory of this event, but with a sinking certainty that I knew where this was headed, she informed me that she and my 3-yr-old little sister had voted yes and that I had voted no. According to her, my dad had cast no vote, but had said that if I said no, there would be no third child. She then said, “I told him right then and there, ‘Don’t you see? She’s got you wrapped around her little finger! You’ll do whatever she says but not what I say!’“
This was the hinge upon which my childhood experience swung. This was not just an emotional response that would change once thought through. No, this became a deeply engrained belief system within her. In that moment, my mother became thoroughly convinced that I had displaced her and had become her enemy. She went on to repeat her appeal to my father several times, always with the same sentiment, as if she were talking about an adult mistress that my father was choosing over her. The venom in her conviction was astonishing. It was as if she were talking about someone other than me, as she told me the story. You could hear her anger still powerfully evident as she explained this to me. This, she said, was where the bitterness first took root. After that, every parent-child exchange was viewed through that framework. She believed that I was her enemy- powerful, subversive, and with a keen determination to ruin her life. And she responded in like kind. She became my enemy- powerful, subversive, and with a determination to ruin my life.
While it was deeply painful to experience the depth of her hatred once again, even though it was directed towards the little girl that I once was and not towards the woman that I am presently, it was also a gift from God. Finally, I understood why she had hated me so. Until that conversation, no matter what my adult heart knew about her hatred being a result of her mental illness and not rightly deserved by me, I could not extricate myself from its suffocating grasp. I had been steeped in that unwavering environment of profound hostility for 365 days a year for the next eleven years, until she left when I was 17. That is 4,015 days of being molded and shaped in an environment of hatred as deep and as explosive as a volcano. Hell hath no fury... or as the original quote says, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorned” (The Mourning Bride, by William Congreve).
Roughly 4,015 days, of which I was only separated from her approximately 50 days, of living in the presence and domination of a person who despises you. That hatred turned into almost daily violence by the time I was in high school, and the atrocities committed in those days are not to be uttered. Well into my thirties, I still had nightmares that my mother broke into my home and murdered me. But now I knew that there was a moment in time, a distinct turning point, in which my mother’s view of me shifted. It was not who I was that my mother despised; rather, it was who she believed me to be. The difference is profound, and it is the same difference that God has turned within me. It is not who I am that I have distrusted, it is who I feared myself to be. This is the hinge upon which my childhood swung, and it is the same hinge upon which the door of freedom swung on Sunday. But the truth that moved that door and forever changed my understanding is more than this.
Exhausted by the emotional wear and tear of recent days, and that day’s draining, emotional conversation, I sank into bed for a nap beside my sleeping husband on Sunday afternoon. As my mind spun free, still reeling from its painful, wobbling wind up, I heard my Father’s whisper. It was as gentle as a breath upon my cheek, although there was nothing physical about it. “Tammy,” I heard Him say, “The enemy threw everything he had at that little girl, and still… she did not break. He hurt you, but he did not break you.” I have seen myself as broken, as fragile and not strong, and as if everything that God has built in my adult life has been built on a broken psyche. In those moments, I realized that I have seen myself sort-of like a bombed-out building, as if I’ve believed that God built my adult self on top of that bombed-out building, on top of a perilously unstable foundation of rubble.
“I have rebuilt you,” He whispered, “But no matter what it has felt like, I have not rebuilt my temple that is you upon those bombed out remains of rubble. Only man rebuilds on rubble. My work is perfect, complete, and not lacking in any way.” Despite my own best efforts, I could never see the whole of my inner self as anything more than a broken person who had been rebuilt on top of rubble, perilously lacking and unstable in her foundation. Now, for the first time ever, I saw that the precious little girl that I was, the girl that was deeply loved by her heavenly Father and carefully attended although she knew it not at the time, had been wounded, but she had been healed. She had been devastated, but she had been rebuilt. She had known tremendous grief and sorrow, yet she had been set free of that pain. She had not been defeated through those assaults… she had withstood them, and those missing places were no longer missing. God’s love, God’s presence, and God’s tremendous grace had filled in every gap in that foundation, and in those rebuilt layers. Was there more work to be done? Sure… but she was not a bombed-out building upon which something else had been built. She had been razed, but she had been rebuilt by God’s own hand. And everything else that He would build would be on the very sure and very trustworthy foundation of His presence within her. She had been looking at her inner self through the erroneous lenses of human rationale, not the spiritual lenses that see past the obvious and to all the layers of reality that are invisible, but even more real than those things that happened in the physical realm. Far more work had been done in the dimensions that are most truly real, those dimensions that are unseen, yet touched, unknowable until God reveals them.
I had been given the gift of seeing where the vicious assault on me had started, and the gift of seeing that my mind and heart have been rebuilt by the Master Craftsman’s good and beautiful hands. I have known that from a spiritual, eternal standpoint I am on a solid foundation, but now I knew that my inner self is also on a solid foundation, not devastated by the enemy, but painstakingly rebuilt by my God. My greatest fear, however, has always been that because of these perceived inner gaps, I might really fail God. I don’t mean that I might disappoint Him or fail to be perfect. I already know that I cannot live up to a perfect life, no matter how hard I try. And I don’t mean that I fear the enemy’s attack upon me. He has leveled tremendous assaults upon my life and person, both as a child and as an adult. No, this was about my own perceived inner weakness, and about the work God does through me. My greatest fear was that God would continue to build a life of ministry upon my fragile inner self, and that the crumbling inner self would collapse, break into a million tiny pieces, and ruin God’s good name and God’s good work within those who fell within my influence. As my influence has grown, so has my deep concern over what harm that influence might have. It was only sheer obedience that has propelled me forward in service and ministry thus far, and with that obedience had come a powerful and substantial fear.
It is to this fear that God now spoke. “You fear that the enemy’s previous devastation, when combined with some future devastation, might cause you to harm those you love. You’ve been afraid that even his past undermining, when combined with my present powerful work through you, might bring harm rather than help. Hear this now! The enemy did not defeat you even when you were still an unformed, unprotected child. You still believed in Me! You still turned to Me! He did not win! He sought to steal your loyalty, yet even as a very little girl, he did not win! Tammy, you know what I have wrought in your life as an adult. If he could not defeat that unformed little girl, how could he defeat the woman I’ve formed you to be?”
I cannot write these words without feeling their weight fall powerfully into my being once again. A huge weight and a powerful stronghold of fear fell off my heart with those words, with God’s clear perspective. If the enemy could not defeat the little girl that she had been, how could he defeat the woman that she had become? No weapon forged against her could prosper…. not as long as she always turned back to her Creator for re-creation, to her Father for His love, to the Christ in whom she lived and moved and had her being, and to the Spirit that lived within her, filling the gaps with HIS strength. For the first time in her life, that little girl rested in a way that she’d never before known. She was finally safe.