I could feel the filth, see it, taste it. I felt dirty from the moment my neighborhood bullies stole me away to parks and woods and took parts of me I thought I'd never get back. At five years old, I learned words I never wanted to know. And I did things no little girl should ever experience—all at the hands of teenage boys bent on sex and exploitation.
I wonder if they felt dirty afterward.
I wonder if they still do.
Pictures of me during this time are startling. I was a waif of a girl with dirt-crusted shoes, secondhand clothes, and a distant look in my eyes. I felt out of place, even before I was sexually abused. But afterward? Although I had no unction of the word "outcast," the word defined me. I lived on the outside looking in. I watched The Brady Bunch voraciously, longing to be Cindy Brady in what I perceived to be the perfect, safe family.
But I never felt safe.
Even today my husband opened a door and startled me. I nearly jumped into hysterics.
When I met Jesus at 15 years old, 10 years post-rape, I felt things would be different. He would clean me up. He would help me shed the moniker of outcast. Well-meaning leaders reminded me of 2 Corinthians 5:17, that all things were made new in Christ, and the old things—all the flashbacks and searing memories—were gone.
I pretended the sexual abuse didn't matter. I tried to shove that dirty feeling way down. But ultimately, I believed I was dirty, and no amount of disregarding or shoving changed the way I felt about myself.
Within the church I'd been taught that the biggest indication of my value was my virginity. I wondered if I'd be considered a virgin. Technically, I wouldn't. What those boys did to me assured that. But I wondered if there'd be hope if I chose chastity. So I became hyper-vigilant about chastity. I could prove I wasn't dirty. But even in that decision, the dirty feeling remained.
It took several years for me to realize this truth: The most precious part of me isn't my chastity; it's my heart for Jesus. Nothing can nullify Jesus' outrageous act of love on the Cross for me. When he said, "It is finished," he meant it. He took my sin upon his shoulders. He bore the weight of those neighborhood boys' sin. He took my dirtiness, my shame, my fear, my penchant for startling easily, and he shouldered each pain.
How did I get to that place of hope?
It started with telling the truth about the past. What those boys did was heinous. What they did to me scares me to this day. After keeping my abuse quiet for many years, I still wasn't free from my past. The more I realized this, the more I kept it inside. I began to disconnect from my family. I lived aloof. Inside my mind, all sorts of terrible words assaulted me: unwanted, dirty, unlovable, ugly, marred.
The more I believed those words, the deeper I sunk into myself. Eventually, I realized this painful paradox: God uses good community to heal us from awful community. Though trust was excruciating for me, and I still didn't know how to find safe people, I began to slowly entrust my story to people. And as I did, healing started to come in fits and starts.
I learned, oh so slowly, that I was actually the opposite of the words I spewed in my head.
Not unwanted, but wanted.
Not dirty, but clean.
Not unlovable, but worthy of love.
Not ugly, but beautiful.
Not marred, but redeemed.
And I learned this because others spoke those life-giving words over my life. One of those people was my husband, Patrick, who has faithfully walked me through my healing these past 23 years. He has been an agent of healing, particularly as I ponder my worth on this planet.
Have you ever felt unwanted, dirty, unlovable, ugly, or marred? Here are two simple (but difficult) steps you can take to escape those very real feelings:
One: Tell Your Story to a Safe Person, and Ask for Prayer
One thing I've learned: an untold story never heals. But telling it is so very hard. If you're like me, and you have a hard time discerning who is safe and who is not, consider picking up the book Safe People by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. When you find a safe person, share your story, and also share how that story made you feel. Once I told my version of the events to a trusted person, I finally let out my breath. In telling, my friend helped me realize how very normal I was, that I wasn't crazy, and that what I had endured was difficult. She assured me that healing would come, and that I was not dirty. Such life-giving, sweet words.
Two: Pursue Healing
There is no such thing as passive healing. Healing doesn't simply happen to you. We can't just lackadaisically want healing and hope it comes. Jesus touches us, yes, but he also asks us to do something—to pursue healing, to so want to be healed that you chase after it. "My eyes are always on the Lord, for he rescues me from the traps of my enemies" (Psalm 25:15). The psalmist makes a concerted effort to fix his eyes on God.
It's been 42 years since those neighborhood boys made me feel dirty. Today I understand my worth. I'm washed clean—not to boast, not to point to how awesome I am at healing—but to reassure you that healing and cleanness is possible through Jesus Christ and the company of his followers who bear our "dirty" stories.
Mary DeMuth is the author of more than a dozen books including Not Marked: Finding Hope and Healing after Sexual Abuse. She speaks around the nation and the world about living an uncaged life. Her greatest accomplishment? A dear, dear family in Texas—a husband of 22 years and three nearly-grown children. In her spare time she gardens, runs, leads a high school girls' group, and cooks-cooks-cooks for family and friends.