I Am Not Finished

horses in field

Today, Becky Allender reflects on the pain that comes with looking at our stories and grieving the joy that is lost as it is interrupted by trauma. This post originally appeared on Red Tent Living and contains explicit reference to a traumatic event, which may be difficult to read.

“I wasn’t finished!” Elsa stomped her foot and ran to the living room. We were watching Mary Poppins, and my sweet two-and-a-half year-old granddaughter had come to the end of her allotted thirty-minute screen time, so I needed to turn off the video.

Jane, Michael, Bert, and Mary Poppins were on their merry-go-round horses and beginning to gallop off into the spring meadow. It’s a glorious moment in the movie. But I respect my children’s parenting wishes and told Elsa we’d watch more tomorrow.

My heart hurt disappointing her understandable desire. She took the fly swatter that hangs on a hook, ran to the living room, swatted the floor, and again said, “I wasn’t finished!”

Something about that sentence, “I wasn’t finished,” brought tears to my eyes. I could hear her quietly rocking in her rocking chair. I was so proud of the way she self-soothed and cared for herself after being so frustrated. We soon went on to another activity, but I realized that I had some processing to do with what had been triggered in me with that sentence.

I began thinking of all the moments in my life that I could say, “I wasn’t finished.” Last month, in The Allender Center facilitation group, I wrote and read about a summer school experience in college. It was our third time for our group to be together, and we have come to care deeply for one another. We are learning how to listen as we carefully watch and hear how another person tells their story.

The group is made up of folks who have already been through the certificate program and are being trained to facilitate story groups. It is demanding work, because we are invited to go far beyond merely being heartbroken for our losses and tender to our wounds.

The work requires pursuing the parts of the story where there is passion and life, and where there is fear and death. For our deepest traumas, we need more than mere encouragement and empathy. We need someone who will read the story and pursue the hidden tracks to our heart.

I shared about being on an archeological dig in the wilderness of Colorado the summer after my junior year in college. I was sleeping in a tent with two other girls. The final night of the dig, my professor came into the tent and raped me.

I described the smells, the night air, the dirt floor, his drunken stupor, my debilitating shock, and how I froze. Before learning that it is common to freeze in trauma, I had always presumed it was my fault that I did not say no; it was my fault that I could not find my voice or push him off.

I understand far better how my whole life was set up to not speak, to endure violence, and to presume it was my fault. If only I had done something different, my mother would not scream at me or my father would have not raged.

I now understand why I froze. I have also learned how I was expected to be submissive to authority figures, and therefore wouldn’t have thought it possible to confront an authority like my professor.

In the morning, I awakened for kitchen duty with my professor and acted like nothing had happened. After breakfast we began loading the jeeps, and then seventeen of us flew home to different parts of the country. I never returned to that university. It was an incident I buried for fifteen years because it was so shameful. When our son was born, I realized I needed to seek counseling.

I had thought that being married to a man whose calling is to those who have been sexually violated was enough vengeance against evil. I claimed the verse, “What evil intended for harm, God intended for good” (Genesis 50:20). I had thought that standing on the street corners to reach out to our city’s prostituted youth was validation that I had worked through all the issues.

I finished reading my paper, and our group leader said to my peers who were trying to enter the sadness: “What did you most notice in Becky’s story?” My group cared for me well, but our brilliant leader noticed something that the group had not named. The focus had been on the horror and heartbreak of the harm. That is understandable. But what the leader asked the group to name was where my heart seemed to be most alive and passionate in the reading of my story.

She asked the group to consider where I seemed most free. There were just two sentences that she captured. I knew exactly where she was headed, and it felt beyond wonderful to have that named.

I had written:

“Fifteen college students from other universities along with two professors set off for six weeks of site surveying for Indian remains in the most beautiful setting imaginable. Herds of wild horses would gallop by, and eagles soared overhead, which was other-worldly to an Ohio girl.”

I had read those sentences with my eyes almost closed, breathing and remembering the beauty of the time and the place in the Rocky Mountains. I have no clue how our leader knew to enter that doorway.

She said, “Didn’t you see her? Didn’t you feel her freedom? Didn’t you hear her say that after three years of an abusive relationship she finally left Ohio? Didn’t you get how hard that was, and then weren’t you there with her when she read of the eagles and the wild horses?”

My group pursued my heart. They named places in the rest of the story where I had buried my dreams and lost the passion that once had been so alive in me. They took me to the horror of being “a dead girl walking,” and they cared for me in that moment of changing my major and giving up what I had loved so dearly.

It was an exquisite ending to our third training weekend. Since I was the last to tell my story, our time was short and there was less time to process what I had experienced. From there we all left and, as it goes, life took off. So I did not reflect on the loss that had been named.

A month later, Elsa’s sentence triggered my tears. “I wasn’t finished.” I wasn’t finished, I really wasn’t. I had escaped an abusive relationship with a boyfriend in Ohio and transferred to a university in Colorado. I had changed my major and was excelling in Anthropology. I loved being out West and I loved the school and I loved being alive. And then my breath was squeezed out of my body and my voiced silenced even more.

Like many women, I felt ashamed and ruined after what wasn’t my fault. Yet I blamed myself. I thought being 21 years old caused me to be guilty. I buried the secret and moved on. I eventually sought healing and counsel about the rape, but you see, I never mourned the wild horses I lost.

When our group leader began naming the eagles, the wild horses, the excellence in my studies, I was back in that moment feeling the joy, the exhilaration of that summer, and the absorption in my major.

People ask, “Why go back to sad places in your life?” It is not an easy question to answer convincingly for someone who believes it is wrong or useless to return to sorrow. All I can say is that in sorrow and in the care of wise guides, your broken story comes to be holy as you taste the tears of God.

All I can say is that in sorrow and in the care of wise guides, your broken story comes to be holy as you taste the tears of God.

It is life-changing. Research shows that our brains actually change when we tell stories of loss in a safe setting. The puzzle of who I am and who I am meant to be unfolds with resurrection hope, even for someone who is 63 years of age!

I have felt the Father’s delight and love in renewed ways. There is so much more to my story than I thought. And there is so much more tenderness from Jesus to experience. I hear my Savior say, with a bold, playful, and fierce twinkle in His eye: “I wasn’t finished!” And He isn’t. He who died for me and said “It is finished” also invites me truly to a brand new, wild, freeing life. I am not finished, and apparently neither is Elsa or Jesus.