Today’s guest poster is choosing anonymity. She says, “First, I want you to be able to read this story for what it is. I’m not a fan of ‘charismatic’ experiences pointing to anyone but Jesus. Second, I want to respect the stories, dignity, and privacy of others referenced.”
Here is her story, in her words. (Caution: child sexual abuse.)
I have a childhood trauma history of my own. Then, as a young adult, I spent several years living in a location where all of those middle-aged and older had survived a genocide, everyone older than about twenty-five had survived a civil war, and those younger had grown up hearing the stories and witnessing the mistrust. Mental health resources were sparse.
Within my friend/neighbor circle, one lady had just escaped international labor trafficking. Another illiterate friend had a special needs daughter who spent her days on a literal chain so she wouldn’t wander off into the nearby vicinity of evil people. My landlady and her husband sometimes wondered aloud if there was any chance her first husband had survived both the genocide and the civil war. What if he found her eventually? All but one of the children from that first marriage had starved in the genocide—she had watched it happen.
Stories like these lived in the bones of almost everyone around me, except the foreigners. My mental health was prepared for that.
What I don’t know if I could ever have been fully prepared for are the memories of children in school clothes with backpacks on, walking into places of business known for prostitution. Once at a resort and another time at a border town, we witnessed child trafficking in the middle of the day. I saw a man examine a toddler before handing the caregiver money—a police officer was closer to the transaction than I was, and both the man and the trafficker disappeared almost as soon as the money was exchanged. Another vacation was interrupted in the middle of the night by sounds of distress somewhere in the building. By the time we fully woke up, the sounds had stopped. Any illusion of heroism—“I’d always rescue!” met the blunt edge of the reality of human limitations. Sometimes, I did not have the resources, understanding, or ability to rescue in the moment.
Those things added weight to my mental health. I did the self-care things: the retreats, the days spent in coffee shops, the journaling. I got really, really good at finding goodness in the dark stories. I noted the resiliency, the shared struggle, the maternal instincts of the women who’d adapted to substantial danger for themselves but still sought to keep their kids safe. Quickly finding the goodness in humanity, even in the dark and broken places, became a skill that kept me strong mentally.
But then I witnessed an act of violence against a toddler—and due to both cultural and legal factors, I was very limited in how I could intervene. To this day, I don’t think I could have done anything beyond the education I did do in that community. I stared, shocked, asking if my eyes are lying to me, and before I could figure out how to intervene, the moment was over. I couldn’t find one shred of goodness in what I’d witnessed or in my shocked response.
My mind, wearied from it all, no longer had a category or the wherewithal to process that.
That night, I had a nightmare from hell. My mind had absorbed the shame and horror of that moment, and placed it on me, instead of placing it on the adult who’d perpetrated the harm.
I woke from my nightmare, and irrational questions poured out.
“What if I’m a terribly evil person and just don’t know it yet?”
“Is it possible to be a genuinely good, kind, and safe person now but years from now become evil?”
“I have toddlers. What if they’re not safe around me and I just think they are?”
“What if my fears are real, and my moments without the fearfulness are the lie?”
“Is there any way, any shred of reality behind my nightmares?”
My husband was adamant that my brain was coping with the incomprehensible by coming up with utterly irrational fears, but I couldn’t shake them.
My internal world became a series of hellish nightmares at night, intrusive thoughts by day, self-loathing and shame covering all of it.
I was a believer, but not one who’d been raised in settings rich in grace. I thought this was anxiety, and anxiety was a sin, so if I’d just repent enough, God would answer. He said He’d cleanse us from “all evil,” and even if it was just anxiety, He’d cleanse me if I repented enough.
I fasted. I prayed, and prayed, and prayed. I expected God to address my anxiety, but instead, it intensified. I wondered if God abandoned me, if I was truly truly evil after all, and if that was why He wasn’t answering. Was I so far from Him that there was no hope? At some points, that seemed to be a plausible thought. (Did I mention irrational fears?)
I didn’t have access to the level of mental health I needed in this location, and I was convinced that people outside of this location would not understand. I can tell you stories, but I can’t make you understand. Oddly, one of my driving fears was that if I told people how dark things were getting mentally, they’d move me out of there. Yes, I saw and heard terrible things, but I loved the people and the place, and I just wanted a clear mind—not a big move. I was very careful who I told and how much I said.
During this dark mental season, my illiterate friend wanted to learn how to read her own language so that she could read the Bible. I’d thrived in language study, so I began to meet with her, reading children’s Bible stories with her. I remember reading with her about Jacob’s ladder, and she was intrigued that God spoke in dreams. I told her that any dreams from God will align with His Word, being careful to neither scorn the reality that God speaks in dreams nor to uphold it as superior to more ordinary ways we hear from Him.
Still, nightmares by night and intrusive thoughts by day.
I continued to repent of sins I hadn’t actually committed, continued to pray, continued to berate myself for anxieties I wasn’t choosing. What if I was not only an unbeliever, what if I was also demon-possessed, as one acquaintance I’d dared confide in had rather confidently suggested?
I was learning that unbelief needs repentance and faith, but distress needs comfort, yet I was too new to that distinction to be able to decipher what was unbelief and what was distress. To be safe, I just blamed myself. (Have I mentioned I didn’t understand grace?)
Another night—but this night was not the night for nightmares.
I don’t know if Jesus came and found me, or if I found Him. The dream began when we were already in the same space, the people and problems and darkness that normally surrounded me just a distant thought. It was just Jesus and me. So much light—it illuminated the entirety of the space, and it came from Him. His clothes were stark white. I stared in awe, realizing that the clothing was nothing special, it just reflected the incredible light from Him. I was speechless, and that was fine, because He could read my thoughts. If you say anything— anything at all—I will hold onto it forever. You are absolutely incredible, majestic. He said nothing.
I wanted to get closer, but I’d have to stand up to do so, and I didn’t want to do anything but take in His presence, stare at Him. He was—words fail me, but the closest might be absolutely magnificent.
In recognition of how much light He brought, I momentarily worried about my lack of it. Was there a shadow behind me? Have I infringed upon His light? The nightmares and intrusive thoughts were banished from the moment, but it felt as if He knew, and I couldn’t comprehend how someone like Him could be okay with me. Surely my mental health tainted things, even if it wasn’t sin. As if in response to my fear, I became aware that He already knew the darkness I came from, and I was welcome in His presence anyways.
I stared some more. The power, the confidence—I’d call it authority now, strong and healthy authority—, the tremendous kindness, the radiance. Another fear popped up. What if this ends and I go back to sheer mental darkness? What if I am worse off mentally for having had such an intensely positive mental experience? But He was bigger than even my fear of future darkness, and, not knowing how long I’d have to enjoy this moment, I stared some more.
I don’t want to wake up. I don’t want to go back to my own mental torment and the weight of heartbreaking stories everywhere around me. I just want this dream to be reality. I don’t want to ever leave His presence, or be distant.
Death seemed so much nearer than it usually is in our minds. Authors describe death as a river, or a door, or a step but those words, indicative of passage, are also indicative of a bit more of barrier than I felt in the moment. This time, death seemed to be only a wish away—but not my wish, His. If He wished for me to move from a dream of His presence, into His actual presence, it would be done.
Again, I waited for Him to speak but He had nothing to say. His silence wasn’t harsh or heavy; no, He exuded kindness, understanding, and welcome. Words simply were not His wish for me at the moment.
I’d wanted Him to speak, and He hadn’t spoken. I’d wanted Him to wish me into His presence, and it wasn’t His wish yet. But I was profoundly at peace, not angry with Him or disappointed. I had no inclination to be argumentative this time. (I tend to tell God bluntly where I disagree with Him.)
The dream ended. I woke up with the same mind, the same proclivity to irrational fears, the same country full of people with immense traumas. The darkness returned. But aspects of it had shifted.
I wondered if I was crazy, if that dream was actually a Jesus dream or if it was just a fluke. I told very few people about it.
Then, that illiterate friend had a Jesus dream—only in hers, He did speak, and in hers, she reacted not in delightful awe but in terror. But she quickly prayed and asked for a miracle for her daughter if the person in her dream was truly Jesus. Within 15 minutes, her prayer was answered.
She was left with two priorities: ask one of the Christians to help her believe in Jesus, and tell everyone she could what had happened.
She approached one of my teammates who lived closer to her, and he helped her place faith in Jesus the next evening.
She worked in a factory with dozens of others for hours on end. Her dream and the answer to her prayer became the talk of the workplace. Dozens of her coworkers began to believe in Jesus almost immediately upon hearing.
Shortly thereafter, somebody let us know of audio Bibles in the local language, and these Bibles went everywhere the story of her dream and the resulting miracle had gone—into her workplace, into her home village, into villages of others who heard. I have no idea where all of this ended, or how many heard.
I couldn’t deny some of the parallels between her dream and mine. Mine was a believer’s dream: He didn’t have to speak. I knew Who He was and wanted to get closer.
Hers was the opposite: He spoke reassuringly and invitingly to her, but she didn’t know Who He was, and she was terrified.
That was the dream that penetrated the darkness. I realized that I had the dream because Jesus had decided it was time, not because I’d fasted enough, repented of “anxiety” enough, searched my heart enough. I had not somehow bribed Him into caring—He cared from who He is. He’d intervened because I needed Him, and He wanted to intervene.
Instead of the darkness seeming darker for having been in the presence of His light, the memory of Him sustained me. As time went on, the mental torment and anguish did return—but not with such a vicious “are you even His? If you are His, why doesn’t He lift the anxiety?”
There was tremendous mental darkness before and deep darkness afterwards, but He was undeniably with me in it.
I reread my journal entry of that dream in preparation for telling this story. Nowhere do I describe that as an experience of grace—like I said, I wasn’t raised in a grace-rich setting, so I didn’t recognize it as such even when I experienced it. I did label it “mercy” back then.
Years later, I entered a grace-rich church while I was suffering under the weight of hypervigilance due to the sheer amount of injustices I’d seen up close. Hyper-vigilant and especially mistrustful of professing Christians in positions of authority.
But in spite of that, I eventually ended up in a pastor’s office anyways, because I was just that desperate for help. I was determined to tell the full truth of some of the decisions I’d made.
The truth, as honestly as I knew to tell it, wasn’t too much for my pastor. He insisted that I wasn’t any of my habits or any of my struggles or any of my history. I am who Jesus says I am. He told me the things that are most true of me in Christ.
I was stunned. The things I’d confessed weren’t too much for him, and I’d even plainly told him exactly how much one of my children was hurting as a result of my habits. I was welcome there, despite the guilt and shame I brought.
My brain began to ask questions. Why does this feel familiar? Who in any church has ever treated me like this before? It feels like I’ve been here before but I haven’t, at least not that I can remember. I thought through my previous interactions with pastors and church in general. Why the familiarity?
And then I remembered my Jesus dream. The darkness wasn’t too much for Christ’s welcome in that dream, just like the darkness I was in wasn’t too much for the people who knew Jesus. My darkness didn’t infringe upon His light. It couldn’t begin to do so. I hadn’t told this pastor—or very many people at all—the details of this dream, so there wasn’t any knowledge of it for him to try to deliberately mimic.
My walls of hyper-vigilance and mistrust had a huge crumbling, I realized that God must have planned this all along, and I was more open than ever to learning grace from this pastor and others in the church who reminded me of Jesus. At one point, this pastor took me through a Freedom in Christ process, and my nightmares, which had become simply a regular part of life, lifted immediately. (Occasionally I’ll have a nightmare, but not the ugly ones that repeat the very worst I’ve witnessed, and not nightmares with the shame and self-loathing that used to fill them.)
Eventually, some evidence-based trauma therapy addressed the emotions with which my ugliest memories had been stored, so that when I do recall them, it’s not with the barrage of shame and self-disgust my brain once attached to those experiences.
I now have the advantage of hindsight: I’m not years-deep into darkness with more years of darkness ahead before I climb out. The intrusive thoughts, the nightmares, the shame, the rumination over what I could have done differently in the worst scenarios I’ve witnessed, the conflation of physiological symptoms of distress with anxiety—those have all found rest. My traumas are significant, but they don’t hold kingship privileges over me: I don’t have to believe the lies they tell me.
In Christ, I have authority over evil, not the other way around. I’ve found tremendous healing in Jesus, and that before He wishes for me to go be with Him after death.
But He isn’t just with me now when I have the advantages that come with a clear mind. He was with me in the darkness, when I did not know how to view myself with His kindness, His welcome, His understanding, His gracious and powerful authority that is for me and against evils and injustice.
He intervened in ways that only He could, and He intervened in ways that set the stage for the things He knew He’d do later, in His time.
Go here to download your free Guide, How to Enjoy the Bible Again (when you’re ready) After Spiritual Abuse (without feeling guilty or getting triggered out of your mind). You’ll receive access to both print and audio versions of the Guide (audio read by me). I’m praying it will be helpful.