I Used to Think Abuse Was Love
The concert ran late and I knew I was breaking curfew, which spoiled any of the fun I had in the previous hours that night. I carefully tiptoed up to my room hoping that, for a change, my mother had already gone to sleep so my punishment would come in the morning. This wasn’t the best move to make right before leaving for college. But I wasn’t running too late; maybe there was a chance that she would forget about it. Maybe not.
I quietly turned the corner to enter my room, and my jaw dropped in horror as I found all my belongings in a big pile in the middle of the floor. Everything, from pencils to underwear to my computer, was built into a giant mountain. She was wild-eyed and furious, waiting for me to arrive, and like a lion pouncing on its prey, she proceeded to yell and scream, reiterating her analysis that I was inherently bad.
This sort of dramatic reaction to my disobedience was not unusual, each time leaving me in a state of confusion and shame. But something about the way she said it this day was different. Along with the usual berating of my character and how I would amount to nothing, I heard something different in her voice as her rage subsided. Her eyes, full of fury, now went stone cold with a look of resignation. She carefully said, “I will never trust you. I don’t believe in you anymore. I give up.” My inner-fighter voice that usually said, “But I will prove you wrong,” was replaced with final defeat and a laying down of arms. Suddenly overwhelmed by the wave of darkness, my mom and I wept bitterly into the night. I could not hate myself any more in that moment.
I never understood all the complicated dynamics that existed between my mom and me. There was the usual mother-daughter dynamic that so many experience: the mother as the scientist, always examining the daughter specimen and constantly tweaking in order to prime and perfect for marriage and motherhood. I can only imagine her struggle of survival in America as a Korean immigrant, sacrificing her own wants and needs for her children and showing love in the ways that fit her culture but didn’t speak to me growing up in America.
But then there seemed to be an extra layer of complication that seeped into our interactions and went above and beyond these other factors. Was it okay that she tore up my favorite outfits in front of me because I wore them too much? Did it seem necessary to tear the ribbon out of my favorite cassette tape because I danced to it? Could it be right to punish me by keeping me home from school and making me hold my hands in the air all day, naked? Even now I struggle with labeling it as abuse or manipulation since this was what I thought love was.
Many years later, I rocked my newborn baby Hudson during his first days of life. I leaned in and whispered, “I love you so, so much. I will never, ever, ever . . .” and felt the tears well up in anguish as the painful memories of that night of resignation came to the surface. I wanted to say, “I will never make you feel like a waste of a space.” I wanted to say, “I will never make you feel rejected or ashamed of who you are.” But I couldn’t bring myself to finish that sentence because I couldn’t know for sure if it was true. I couldn’t say that I had broken the cycle of abuse and violence simply by avoiding the pain of the past and living in survival mode. But somehow I knew that there was some active work to be done, a deep healing, and God was beckoning me to it now more than ever.
How does one begin unraveling the wounds of the past? I was completely terrified of what I would uncover once I began, deathly afraid of feeling the lifetime of pain I had tried so hard to conceal. I didn’t even know how to approach God in an honest way. I felt like Adam and Eve, using puny little leaves to cover myself when God knew all along who I was and exactly what I was doing. And yet I heard God’s still, small voice, so strong yet so peaceful, saying, “I want more. Bring it all to me. All of it.”
At first, I enlisted the help of a professional therapist because I knew I couldn’t do it alone. This moved me light years ahead in terms of confronting the pain. It felt powerful to name my shame and counter it with truth that revealed a little more of who I really was, who I was created to be.
One tip I received from a friend was to allow myself three pages every morning to write down everything going on in my heart and soul as a concrete offering to God. I began writing everything down in its raw form, unpolished and unattractive, sometimes even spilling beyond the allotted three pages. At first I was half expecting some sort of punishment from God, or even a sign of resignation similar to my mother’s. But God received every word, fear, anxiety, and even silliness with arms wide open.
As much as I was tempted to banish the darkness or pretend it wasn’t there anymore, I realized that hiding it would lead to shame. Revealing every little nook and cranny of ourselves to God is terrifying, and yet also extremely exhilarating. We can learn to see ourselves as God sees us, and to sort out the distorted views that have been so deeply ingrained and rooted in our souls. And God, ever faithful, joyfully forges our path the whole way.
Angie Hong is a worship leader and serves as the Creative Program Director at Willow Creek Church’s Chicago campus. She blogs at AngieKayHong.com. Taken from Soul Bare, edited by Cara Sexton. Copyright © 2016 by Cara Sexton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.