Read Debbie’s story or click here to watch the video.
I would call it shame. Shame is feeling bad because of who you are—as opposed to guilt, which is feeling bad for something you may have done. The fetters of shame are often associated with people who have been sexually molested or physically abused, or those who have experienced horrific childhood trauma. I didn’t have that kind of history.
I came from a two-parent home, and my parents loved each other. We were poor, but no one seemed to fret about it much. I had an older brother and a younger sister. We lived in the country, and we stayed home most of the time. We didn’t have much of a social life.
With a strong family background in ministry, my family was moral to a fault. We attended church on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening, and any special services that might present an opportunity to worship in the little country church where I spent so much of my childhood. I was a musically gifted child and, by the time I was twelve, I regularly played the piano in church services. I always had a heart for God and loved to serve Him. Even at a young age, I sensed an anointing on my life.
But when I was eight years old something happened that made an indelible mark on my mind. It was a cold January day, and I had just come home from school. We had recently moved from Texas back to South Arkansas where my mother grew up, so I was the new kid at school. I got off the school bus at my grandparents’ house that afternoon, excited about the possibilities of new friendships. I began telling my mom all about my new friends when she interrupted me. Looking me straight in the eye, she told me the people in our community didn’t think our family was as “good” as they were. She said I could play with the other children at school, but I needed to understand that they would never accept me.
I didn’t know what to say; in fact there was nothing I could say. I was crushed. I stole away to a quiet part of the house to be alone. Sitting on the edge of my grandparents’ bed, I tried to recover from the shock, but it seemed the room was reeling. I slowly contemplated this dreadful news about who I was—or wasn’t—as my mother’s words began to sink in. I can still hear the silence in that room.
I remember thinking I didn’t believe what she said was true but somehow it became true, because she was my mother, and she believed it. For some reason I didn’t understand, she had the authority to make it true because she had spoken it over me. It became as she had said.
A sadness overcame me, a dreadful heaviness. When I went back to school the next day, I couldn’t look the other children in the eye. I was ashamed. I was so ashamed to be me.
Immediately I began building up walls around my heart. I didn’t realize I was building anything like walls, but I surely was; and within a short time, those internal defenses were impenetrable. My self-worth was severely damaged. Outwardly I could appear bright and outgoing; but on the inside, those walls were a steel fortress. They protected that shameful place from exposure and created a barrier to keep others out. Without a doubt, I knew I was a nothing and a nobody, and I didn’t matter.
To compound the issues I had concerning my intrinsic value, I wrestled with the daily struggle of living with a mentally ill parent. My mother was diagnosed as bipolar and was so severely crippled by depression that many days she could not function. Her good days were very high, and her bad days were very low. And the two were so erratic that no one ever knew what to expect from one day to the next. To ease the tension, I began creating “happy” situations to help steer her into having a good day. I tried to make things pleasant so she wouldn’t plunge into depression as soon as she walked out of her bedroom. I didn’t know then the meaning of codependency, but I had become an enabler to her dysfunction. I was forming relationship habits that would come back to haunt me later.
My mother’s illness stretched throughout my teen years and beyond. Her dark days were frequent, but on her good days, she appeared almost normal like any other mom. As time passed, however, she became more controlling. My father was disabled, and the poverty was grueling. I never blamed my parents. I honestly felt then, as I do now, that they did the best they could. Interestingly, I never told anyone what it was like for me at home. I never spoke a word, but I secretly harbored one single hope: “If I can ever just grow up . . .”
Finally, I did grow up. As a new high school graduate, I went away to college. With great expectations, I moved into the dorm that September fully prepared to live my best life. Escaping the negative influences of home was a huge relief, though I felt guilty for leaving. But I knew all too well that I could never resolve the difficulties back home, and this was my chance to gain my freedom and begin to live life the way I had dreamed. I had high hopes! I was a good student, I made friends quickly, and I was ready to shake off that old heaviness. It didn’t take long for me to realize that wasn’t going to happen.
Something was wrong. I had been at school only a few weeks when I became aware of the tug of those old familiar feelings of shame and unworthiness. I felt I was dragging a ball and chain. I knew I was pretty, smart, and capable—at least as much as any other girl. But I had no hope. My whole life was before me, yet nothing had changed. The fresh opportunities of my new life couldn’t silence the old convictions of my heart: that I was still a nothing and a nobody, and I didn’t matter. And I was absolutely certain that could never be changed.
I had assumed that if I could escape my childhood environment, I could escape from the heaviness and the shame. But whatever had affected me back home followed me to college. It wasn’t about my environment or my geographic location, it was about me. And it wasn’t just about me, but rather it was me. It was me! I tried not to panic as the alarming sensation struck me that this condition was permanent.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to call this condition. For lack of a better term, I called it a “self-esteem” problem. That made me feel a little better because I’d read about self-esteem, and I knew lots of people struggle with that. But I wasn’t going to just give up. I wasn’t going to take it lying down. Not me! I determined to beat this thing somehow.
So when I realized I was stuck with the ball and chain—whatever it was—I decided I would outperform it. I would succeed! I would work harder than everybody else and try to be really good at everything I did. I would play the piano better, and sing better, and dress better, and make more friends, and make more money, and I would put on a big smile so no one would ever know . . . that I was ashamed. That I was a nothing and a nobody. That I didn’t matter.
The main thing was to keep anyone else from finding out. I thought I had to hide the real me because I believed the real me was flawed. To make my life work, I needed to appear to be the kind of person others would accept. I was convinced that faking it was the solution—the only solution to my dilemma. Although I was a genuine person at heart, I thought I had no choice. And that is how I constructed a facade of success and happiness that would fool pretty much anybody.
Several years later, I graduated from college. I had done an excellent job of keeping up the facade, which had become second nature by then. I had a great time during those college years, and I made many friends. In short, my plan was working. Then several years after college graduation, an amazing thing happened: I married a man who turned out to be very much a controller! (He had all the characteristics of a narcissist, although I didn’t know the meaning of that term at the time.) He was an only child, and his mother was a controller as well.
Heartache and pain followed. The verbal and emotional abuse started at a relatively moderate level, but before long became entirely out of control. The criticism was vicious, the demands unyielding, the threats excessive—and all part of daily life. I made excuses for the behavior of these people, taking on the responsibility of making everyone happy and trying to solve all their problems.
Once again, I became the enabler. I began creating happy situations to keep things pleasant, many times at my own expense. The dysfunction I was conditioned to tolerate as a teen was venting its anger on me once more. I honestly believed I deserved it. And of course, I never forgot that I didn’t matter anyway.
Before long, I was in way over my head. Overwhelmed and afraid, I fought to keep up appearances. I kept working hard to be successful at everything I did. I kept the facade, I kept the smile, and I never talked about it to anyone. Not one single person on the face of the earth ever knew what was going on in my head or behind the closed doors of my wrecked life. I desperately wanted to believe that if I could pretend the situation wasn’t that bad, and if I could paint the pretty picture I wanted everyone to see, then perhaps everything would turn out all right eventually. And that was my goal—to make it all work out.
I sincerely wanted to resolve these difficulties, and I thought I could, if I just didn’t quit. The problem was, my heart was taking a beating. I wasn’t black and blue physically, but emotionally I was being destroyed. I would go to bed at night with a knot in my stomach, knowing what I would have to face the next day—and face it I did. Because it never stopped. These people in my life—these authority figures—sought day by day to manipulate me through verbal and emotional abuse. It was heartless, relentless, and brutal.
Outside the influence of the controllers, I did find some happiness. I had many great friends, and I did well as a realtor. The brightest spot in my life was my children—three delightful daughters (a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead!) who were the light of my life. My love for those three little girls was the reason I was able to face each day and keep going.
We attended a wonderful local church with a great children’s ministry, and I was the praise and worship leader there for some years. All my girls were active in school events, and they were also involved in church activities. I was committed to raising my children right.
The time came when I began to collapse under the weight of the emotional strain. About the time my girls entered their teens, that facade of success began to crack. I could feel a deep-seated anger beginning to rise up in me, and I began to despise the controllers. I stopped making excuses for them. I was furious with them because of what they had done to me. Instead of getting better, the abuse had escalated as they returned my love with contempt and my kindness with cruelty. I questioned God, and I began to be angry with Him too. I didn’t want to be angry and bitter, but I didn’t know what else to think.
I had submitted to authority, I had served God faithfully, I had done the “right thing,” and I had gotten badly hurt—steamrolled in fact. I had come to realize I didn’t deserve that kind of abuse; I had never deserved it and, at that juncture, I didn’t know how to make heads or tails of the mess that was my life. Something had gone wrong somewhere, but I had trouble reconciling that raw reality with my attitudes, convictions, and efforts. I was so confused. I had tried so hard! How could anyone who had tried so hard fail so completely?
But failure is precisely what I was looking at. No longer willing to allow the controllers to work their self-indulgences through me, no longer yielding to their criticism, I began to fight back, and things started falling apart. The years had passed. All three of my beautiful daughters, now young adults, were rebelling. My finances flatlined as my body weight soared, and my career appeared to be all but over. In this setting, a series of events quite effectively demolished the rest of my life’s efforts—like a hurricane, a tornado, and a tsunami all at the same time. I think I felt a little like Job.
I had nowhere to turn. Disappointed with everything and everybody, all my dreams shattered, I realized with an increasing sense of dread that my resources for recouping were dwindling as each year passed. My life was burning to the ground, and I was powerless to stop it. I wondered how God could stand idly by day after day, month after month, while the months rolled into years, allowing me to get beaten up by bullies—controllers—people I was supposed to “submit” to. (How I had come to hate that word!) Didn’t He understand that if I saw one of my daughters getting pushed around, I would step in and start swinging if I had to? Why wouldn’t He do that for me? Where had He been during all this time? We’re talking about a lifetime of pain.
God, why have You allowed all this to happen to me? I knew I would always love God, but I could not locate His love for me. It appeared that He was passive toward me. It seemed I just didn’t matter to Him, and I didn’t understand it. I had served Him for so long, and yet He was silent to my cry. He seemed remote, a million miles away. In my hopelessness, I grieved in the hard fact that the Lord had waited so long to help me. So much time had passed! Even if He did eventually come to my rescue, wouldn’t it be too late?
I withdrew from serving God. For five long years, I stopped going to church (and for me, that was a big deal). I wanted God to come find me and rescue me, to tell me He loved me. I felt I was staring at God, questioning. Waiting for some kind of answer, some word of explanation, anything—but there was nothing. Just empty silence. I did hear a voice, however, a voice from my past. It was an accusing voice, and it told me again what had been so painful for me to hear all through the years: See, you really don’t matter . . . You don’t even matter to God.
Then one day I hit bottom. This magnificent event occurred on a quiet Sunday afternoon, during a Fourth of July weekend, as I was working in my laundry room. Through a small, insignificant incident, my eyes were opened, and I had to admit to myself that I could not fix my life. I couldn’t fix myself, I couldn’t fix the controllers, I couldn’t fix anything. That I’d ever thought I could suddenly appeared to me as sheer foolishness. I had to acknowledge I had been lying to myself because I didn’t want to see the truth. I had ignored hard evidence that was right in front of me so I could hold onto what I wanted to believe: that I could create a beautiful life through my own efforts and make myself into the kind of person others would accept. So I made a decision for truth that day. I pledged never to lie to myself again, ever. About anything.
At that same moment, I made a decision to renew my relationship with Jesus Christ. I decided to stop worrying about whether or not I was important to God; He was important to me. I wasn’t at all sure that God loved me as much as He loved others, but I couldn’t worry about that anymore, and I couldn’t be mad at Him anymore either. I’ve always had a supernatural love for God, and I was so hungry for His presence. I just wanted to worship with His people. So I made yet another decision—to go back to church. I would serve God regardless, no matter what. Once I made that commitment, I never missed a beat. Soon I was serving on the praise team, playing the keyboard again.
Several months passed. Except for my attitude, not much in my life had changed since that day in my laundry room. I was uncertain about my future, which looked a lot like a black hole. But I kept putting one foot in front of the other. Life was different for me now, because I refused to lie to myself anymore—although I was still dealing with my ugly facts. The landscape of my life appeared to be just a heap of ashes. However, I no longer allowed myself to view my circumstances through rose-colored glasses. I refused to make excuses for anything or anybody. I was trying to go forward, but much of the time I felt I was tripping over all the baggage. That intense anger was still with me, and I fought daily to keep it from consuming me.
One Sunday morning, my pastor spoke in a sermon about trusting God. His honesty touched me. He said because of a tragedy that occurred in his teens, he’d lived for years knowing that he didn’t trust God, even while serving as pastor. He shared how he finally did reach a place of trust through God’s grace and mercy. His admission struck a chord in me. It made me feel a little less ashamed of what I already knew: I didn’t trust God. I had tried to convince myself that God is good like everybody says, but to me, it just didn’t add up. My life experiences did not paint a reassuring picture of the Lord, and I had to be honest. I saw God as a God of judgment, not a God of love.
I went home that Sunday afternoon, still thinking about the pastor’s story. I planned to take a nap because I’d recently begun working at night, and I had to get some sleep. As I laid my head on the pillow, I whispered, “God, I wish I could trust You.” Immediately I heard the words, “Can I trust you?”
Speechless. I was speechless. God had spoken to me! I had finally heard God again, and it was specific—that is, I heard the exact words, not just an impression. I heard it plainly, so clearly that it might have been considered audible. (I would describe it as telepathy.) Hearing from God meant that He was there, that He had been there all along. It meant that He was aware, and He had not forgotten me. A fleeting revolutionary thought struck me that perhaps I’d been wrong, that maybe I did matter to Him after all. Maybe I had been too eager to entangle God with my own mistakes.
I knew exactly what God wanted: He wanted me to trust Him, and to make a declaration to that effect. Somehow I understood I would go no further until I did so. Also, the Lord’s question to me—Can I trust you?—implied I had not been faithful. That question was a challenge. I saw that it was time to do some real soul-searching, to take a long, hard look in the mirror, because the weight of responsibility was swinging in my direction, and I wasn’t about to run from it.
Now this was a big jump. Just the thought of trusting God was tough for me because of my experiences with the authority figures in my life. I had never really trusted anybody, and I was seriously afraid of God. However, this trust challenge was thrown down by none other than the Lord Himself—how could I say no?—and I decided to take that leap. It would be a stretch, but I knew I would do it. God had gone to the trouble to make Himself known to me in my disappointment, so I decided right then and there to risk it all. So I made the declaration.
Aloud, I said, “Okay, God, I trust You. I decide to trust You.” Immediately I went to sleep. When I awoke later that night to go to work, I felt a tingling expectancy in the room, almost as if the atmosphere was charged. For the first time, I seriously suspected that God might be up to something.
About this time, I had begun praying every morning at 3:00 a.m. I was working nights, so I was up at all hours anyway. But there seemed to be something special about that 3:00 a.m. prayer, during which time some things began to move around in me. Especially after I made the decision to trust, there was a marked change. My perspectives began to shift—totally unexpected on my part—as I started to view things differently, and many burdens lifted off me through no effort of my own.
The Lord began to do some housework in my heart. Much of this involved repentance, but not necessarily as one might expect. Most of the time it was about past situations I wouldn’t have considered sinful at all. Sometimes I hadn’t exactly done anything wrong, yet God showed me how my thought processes had been in error. He repeatedly took me back to specific occasions in my past, some years and even decades earlier, and led me to see where, time after time, I had been upside-down in my thinking. I had been defensive, viewing life through the eyes of brokenness. But through His gentle correction, the Lord helped me to see why my perspectives were off, and what a healthy perspective would look like in each situation. The Holy Spirit was reteaching me how to think.
Though I had viewed my problems as external (the controllers), God wasn’t dealing with that. Instead, He was rearranging things in me. It wasn’t my actions He was correcting as much as my heart—the way I perceived life: my thought patterns, my attitudes, my preconceived notions, my unfounded beliefs and assumptions. As the Lord corrected my thinking in each situation, I listened with the ears of my heart as hard as I could, and I never argued with Him about anything. I took His every correction and adjustment with gratitude, and I genuinely repented in each instance. I made sure I reconciled my thinking to His as He directed me.
As I complied with the Lord’s corrections, He made permanent adjustments in my heart, and my perspectives kept changing. God was correcting my thought processes, which were so damaged as a child. He was effectively walking me out of the past.
These God-corrections came one at a time. The Lord waited for me to get each one right before He moved on to the next lesson. Soon I saw that one completed lesson would open the door to a new one. I understood that it was essential to be explicitly obedient. I had to get the lesson, accept the correction, repent, and gratefully receive the attitude adjustment before we could proceed to the next God-correction. I absorbed the Lord’s gentle corrections like a sponge. For someone who’d been trying to get it right for decades, learning life lessons from the Giver of life was the ultimate in solutions. When I figured out how God worked, I began to respond faster. Soon I was responding daily.
We began moving fast. I had the sensation I was running in the spirit. I wasn’t sure exactly where God was leading me, but I knew we were going somewhere. I had decided to trust Him, so wherever we were going, I wanted to get there as quickly as possible. I found I liked this trusting God thing, and I wasn’t looking back.
Then one evening, something began to happen. Toward the end of a Wednesday evening church service, our praise leader began to sing “I Surrender All.” Standing at my keyboard across the platform, I couldn’t stop the tears. For the first time ever, I was able to sing that song from my heart. I had been a Christian all my life, brought up in the church—had even been a leader in the churches I attended and had been sincere in it. I had been the walking definition of faithful. I had sung “I Surrender All” countless times, but I had never truly surrendered to Him, nor had I even understood what that meant. I had been so determined that I was not going to fail, that somehow I would make it happen on my own.
I had believed if I were patient enough and loved the controllers enough, they would finally get it. I thought if I just didn’t quit, it would all work out; if I worked a little harder, it would all come together. But finally, faced with utter failure on all fronts, disappointed to the core, with no hope in sight and nowhere else to turn, I was forced to look to Jesus. And in doing so had arrived at the place where He’d wanted me all along: the place of surrender.
A few hours later, I was at work. The clock said 2:30 a.m., just a half-hour before my scheduled prayer time. Caught up on my duties, I thought I’d listen to a quick video, so I clicked on a sermon by Bishop T. D. Jakes: “If you want to see a move of God.” The video started and Bishop Jakes was already in the middle of his sermon. He was under a heavy anointing, and he said: “If you want to see a move of God, you’ll quit messing with these folks that haven’t been through anything.” Suddenly I was locked onto his words. My feet were rooted to the floor, my eyes glued to the screen. It seemed my heart had stopped. He continued, “If you really want to see the anointing flow, you have to have somebody who has been crushed.”
Then—at that moment, right there, an understanding instantly swept over me. I got it. And every chain, every device of bondage the enemy could ever use to shackle a little girl of eight years old, fell to my feet. I felt it over my entire being—a pulse, a quick invisible flash—a pop. I was stunned. Tears sprang to my eyes, and I knew. I knew! Yes!!! This is what is called being set free! I felt I could soar. The relief was incredible.
You can probably imagine what my prayer time was like that morning. Thankful, so thankful, I could only vacillate between sobs and laughter. Where there had been sorrow, now there was joy. Where there was disappointment, now was hope. Where there was confusion, now understanding. I saw that God had been there all along, with a divine plan that gave my suffering significance and purpose. I found that God really is good, and He truly does love me. He loves me! And God is faithful. He never gave up on me. The flames of shame had all but destroyed me, but even as my life lay in ruins, He saw me as worth saving. I knew He would help me go forward.
In the days and weeks following my deliverance, I felt I was walking out of the bondage. The chains no longer held me captive, yet they were nearby. I sensed they were lying at my feet. I had the extraordinary opportunity to step over them and walk away. I was free, but I had to train my mind to be free. Thinking and acting like a free person was no longer difficult, but it was not something that came naturally either. I had to practice freedom until it became second nature.
My thought processes continued to change and evolve over the coming weeks, even months. I discovered a love and respect for myself which I had not known before. I felt lighter. Eventually, the wounds in my heart healed. And that is how, over time, I was able to experience yet another miracle: that of being made whole, which is the inner healing that follows emotional deliverance. I was whole, finally! I joyfully connected with my true identity in Christ—who God says I am—and I learned to exercise my own personal authority. With gratitude and delight, I discovered the right just to be me.
And I was not ashamed.
Author, The Armor Series and The Freedom Class
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