Somebody shared a YouTube link with me the other day and it hit home like nothing I had ever seen before. The video, clearly designed to motivate people to get involved in the foster and adoption process, is called Removed and the sequel to it Remember My Story (click the links to be taken to the video. TRIGGER WARNING for abuse survivors/victims). Although fictitious, the story, which follows a young girl as she is removed from an abusive home and cycles through the foster system, is remarkably true to kids who have gone through the same or a similar ordeal.
The young girl, Zoe, describes her life as like being in a tornado that, despite as hard and as often as you try to escape, it keeps sucking you back in. She makes the observation that just when life is starting to get peaceful and she might be just a bit happy, something happens that stirs it up again and she faces another loss.
I know she’s a fake person. But for the first time in my life, somebody explained exactly how I felt as a survivor of child abuse. Kids who suffer through abuse, who get moved around from home to home in the foster system, and even some who have been adopted can oftentimes face a struggle in trying to figure out where they fit in the world. So where do we go when we find ourselves trying to find our identity?
Truthfully, my ten-year-old self knew better than my fifteen- or twenty-year-old self. When I was ten, late at night when everyone was finally asleep I would turn on a boombox at the end of the mattress I slept on, just loud enough for me to hear but not to wake anyone else. I would rewind the tape that I had used to record music off of the radio and listen to the same songs over and over, crying as I stared out the window up at the sky, asking God when would He help me.
I’m looking for a reason, roaming through the night to find my place in this world…not a lot to lean on, I need Your light to help me find my place in this world…If there are millions down on their knees, among the many, can you still hear me? Hear me asking, where do I belong?…
As I stared at the stars and moon I wondered who else out there was also looking up, and if God had a family for me that would love me. I would then picture myself walking down a dirt road, free and at peace, as the next song came on:
So much pain and no good reason why…you’ve cried until the tears run dry…why, why, why, does it go this way…why, why, why, all I can say is somewhere down the road there’ll be answers to the questions…somewhere down the road, though we cannot see it now…somewhere down the road you will find mighty arms reaching for you, and they will hold the answers at the end of the road…
In my thoughts I could see myself running to Jesus, who was standing at the end of this dirt road, and He loved me and hugged me and protected me. At that point in my life, everything I knew about myself was in Jesus. He was the reason I was surviving.
And then I would fall asleep only to wake back up to my reality.
Within a year of being in this particular house God did eventually make a way for me to be rescued. Unfortunately, those in my family who took me in wanted me as far away from the church as possible, blaming them for what happened. If only they knew my pastor had tried to help…
The longer I was away from church the further I got from God. I was determined to find my purpose–my identity–a reason for being alive, a talent, something nobody could take from me. I poured myself into school, had straight As in honor classes–but nobody knew how much I struggled because the years I wasn’t allowed to go to school put me significantly back. Everyone thought I was naturally smart. Perhaps God did bless me with the ability to learn quickly, but it didn’t come without a lot of work. I had a lot of friends and was in at least half the clubs the school ran, but still I wasn’t happy. At the end of the day I would drink whatever alcohol I could get and frequently contemplated suicide.
I tried the club scene. I looked older than I was as a teen and so when possible I would go to the nightclubs and bars. I could walk in with a confidence that got people’s attention but deep down was false. By the grace of God, He kept me from illicit relationships. As much as I wanted somebody to love me, I never once assumed I would find it in a significant other or in temporary flings. The drug abuse I saw growing up kept me away from that as well. Somehow the extent of my trying to find myself in the pleasures of the world ended with alcohol and dancing.
Around that same time, God put a father-figure in my life who drove me to make it through school, get into a good college, and make something of myself. But then I was forced to move and while we still emailed on and off, I had lost the only support system I had. My friends were gone, too, as was the reputation I had built up for myself at school. Like Zoe described in the video, it was like everything was coming together and then a tornado comes and tears you away again.
About two years later I ended up making a pact with God–telling Him that if He didn’t change my life one night when I first made the attempt to go back to church that I would go home and kill myself. God was faithful that night and He did change my life. I felt peace for the first time–that peace I always imagined on that dirt road leading to Him. I said goodbye to drinking and partying and found joy in prayer, church, and helping others.
I wish I could say my life got perfect there, but it didn’t. As much as being filled with the Holy Ghost (God’s spirit) changes you in ways you never thought possible, your past life, the memories, the hurts, the hangups, etc., they don’t automatically leave you. My obsession with perfection followed me into my life for God and I struggled with the idea of grace–that God could love me even if I couldn’t perform for Him. I allowed that perfection to follow me into ministry, putting unrealistic demands on myself in the name of finding my identity and in proving that I could do great things for God. That was my life for the better part of a decade. It wasn’t all negative, though. The good in my life oftentimes covered the bad and I could forget where I came from. God blessed me with an adoptive family, friends, opportunities to be used in ministry, a great college–truthfully, I felt like I was living a dream. I got to a point where I actually said, “My life is perfect. There’s nothing else I want or need.”
And then I faced a sickness that lasted 8.5 months. I hit burnout. Some people walked out of my life. I moved and got married (this was a positive!) Life eventually got to the point where everything I was was no longer. Again, like Zoe said, I had gotten to a place where I was pretty much out of my tornado, only to be sucked back in. I had to come to the realization that I had found my identity in what I was doing rather than who I was. I was an honor student in school. Eventually the Sunday School Director. The church drummer. The administrator. Youth leader. College graduate. Successful career woman. I also realized that parts of my identity I based on how others viewed me. To some, I was a preacher’s kid. To others who refused to acknowledge that my pastor and his wife had taken me in as one of their family, I wasn’t. With the exception of those individuals, I had been so long in this Mayberry life that most people didn’t even know of my past with child abuse–they thought I was a kid who grew up in church (for the most part I was) who never had any problems (not true) and was perfect (very much not true).
As life changed around me I struggled with finding my identity again. Was I the daughter of a child abuser or the daughter of a pastor? It all depended on who you asked. I let situations and titles become who I was. I had gotten to a place where everything I had become concealed everything I grew up as, but eventually it surfaced in my private life.
I found myself alone at my church one night, sitting on the floor at the altar praying. I was pouring my heart out to God about how deep down I still struggled with abandonment, rejection, and feeling used and unwanted. I felt Him prompting me to get my Bible, and while I rarely just flip open the Bible to a random spot and assume that God is talking, I knew it was Him. I started reading verses about being forsaken.
“I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” -Hebrews 13:5c
“When my father and my mother forsake me, then the LORD will take me up.” -Psalm 27:10
“I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.” -Psalm 37:25
And then I felt God speak directly to me–giving me my identity, in the last verse:
“Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married.” -Isaiah 62:4
All my life, even if I could ignore it at times, I felt forsaken. I had poured so much of my life into finding who I was–where I belonged, what I was good at, building a reputation–that I failed to realized where my true identity was. It was and is in Christ. The whole world can forsake you but He has promised that He never will. We are not forsaken and will no longer be called that, for God delights in us. His love is not based on what we do. Yes, we need to obey His word to be saved–but He has made that simple. He hasn’t put us in a rat race where we have to figure everything out and be perfect. He loves us. HE. LOVES. US.
If you are struggling with finding your identity I encourage you to get into the Bible and spend some time in prayer. What the world tells us is success leaves us empty. The media that tells us we need to find ourselves leads us astray.It is only in Jesus that we will find a constant who will never leave us, who will not reject us, and who will not send us spiraling back into those tornadoes.
We sang a song in church choir a few months ago that I will close with:
I was running and you found me, I was blinded and you gave me sight…You put a song of praise in me…I was broken and you healed me, I was dying and you gave me life…Lord you are my identity…And I know, I know who I am, I am Yours, and You are mine…