In my early twenties, I started therapy (again) because I could not figure out why I kept doing things that I didn’t want to do. At the time, I did not understand how much past trauma impacted my day-to-day life, relationships, and choices. At that time, another well-meaning Christian counselor gave me this verse on a piece of white paper:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.[i]
While I connect with this verse now, at the time the words tasted bitter. It read like something painted on faux barn wood in suburban kitchens. The words looked good on paper, but in truth, in everyday, in the grit of my human experience, they felt too good to be true. Surviving two sexual assaults, one in high school and one later in college, led me into a dark season (almost a couple decades worth) of deep shame and despair and addiction. I knew nothing of hope or a future and did not think I would live past thirty.
Jeremiah 29:11 was spoken to people in the midst of hardship and suffering: Jews who had been living under enemies and then brought into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. These were likely people who wanted immediate salvation. Rescue. Jeremiah tells the people that they’ve got some time to wait (like 70 years) in captivity but that hope is coming. In His beautifully merciful way, God promises that he might not remove their current thorn—but they can be certain He has a plan and a future and a hope for them.
Now I’m as guilty of cherry-picking encouraging verses as the next person, but when I look deeper into the words sometimes God reveals just how upside down—yet miraculous—His ways are. While God’s people might have wanted immediate rescue, He had other plans.
Getting rid of the remnants of my traumatic past has been more than challenging. It has taken me years to get to a place where I can speak about some of my experiences without my face flushing crimson. It’s taken much longer than I would have liked to start to see myself as a woman of dignity with confidence and self-respect, a woman free from the grip of addiction. Like the Jews, my captivity lingered.
When this counselor handed me the verse, I remember feeling so alone. I thought that there was no way she understood what I had been through. No one knew about my journey through addiction, despair, obsession, and sin—not even my close family knew all the gritty details. So, when I sat down with this strange woman, I was afraid. I was so ashamed of my sexual past, in particular, that I thought the counselor might run as fast as she could in the opposite direction or lock me out if she got to know me. Really know me. I worried that my muddied past and list of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) might scare her away.
After reading aloud the verse from Jeremiah several times while crying for some time, she asked me to tell my story.
I recall sitting in her chair, feeling the scratchy material of the arm rests. Smelling a gentle breeze of vanilla from a nearby candle. I took a sip of water and began. I told her about how my drinking and drug use took off in high school. I told her about being at a party and being vulnerable to the attack. I shared with her how I lost any feeling of agency or control over my own body. And how then again, it happened in college.
She did not get up or run away. She listened; her lips pressed into a closed smile. As I told more of my story and struggle, her eyes welled with tears that she tried to hide. I sensed compassion, even though I knew her own experience growing up had been much safer. Softer. Kinder to her.
I am not alone. Current research suggests that over 80% of women in addiction recovery have experienced trauma.[ii] There are countless women with longer lists of adverse experiences that make it a miracle they are standing today. Many women—too many women—know my pain [and BTW, if you are one of us, I'd love to hear from you. Drop me a message if you'd like].
Jeremiah knew struggle, too. He despaired over the world he lived in with its hardships and sin—just like we do today. Just like women with trauma histories, women like me, try to wade through the mess and hopelessness. Yet God spoke a word to him. A word about hope. And future. And possibility. A word that He wanted Jeremiah to share.
One of the incredible things about being a woman in recovery today is that I know I am not alone. My story is not unique, but it is valuable. It can be shared so that others know they are not alone, too. Another blessing of the recovery journey is connection. I learned this from this counselor in my early twenties, and I have learned it—am still learning today—from countless women who walk alongside and encourage me. Even if they cannot relate to every piece of my story, other women have spoken healing words to me, just like the words that Jeremiah spoke to the Jewish people in captivity so long along. Words like this:
No matter what your past looks like, or your struggle in the present, or if the future feels impossible, you have an advocate. There is someone in your corner who pours into your heart so that you can receive this bold proclamation, ferocious love, and gracious hope. You can find freedom in the face of whatever you are experiencing, have experienced, or will experience. It is Jesus who brings this precious, healing, beaming hope.
This is my life today: it’s not always easy, but it is beautiful.
This January I’m celebrating eleven years living in recovery. I have a family of my very own and loving husband. I have a roof over my head and a safe and warm place to sleep. We have more food than we need. Today, I have healed relationships with my extended family and I pay my bills on time. I get to work with other women in recovery and share my story. I even started an online storytelling platform for women in recovery from addiction, trauma, and other mental health challenges called Bright Story Shine. Today, I can say with boldness and awe that I am a woman in recovery. I am a woman with hope. I am a friend of Jesus.
We know that according to Romans Chapter 5 verse 5: “…hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” And we can accept this love. We can receive this love. Even women like me who have lived in the shadow of shame can embrace what G.K. Chesterton has called the “furious love of God,” a tremendous hope.
My recovery journey has been an uphill climb, with steep and treacherous summits. But it has also been and is overflowing with the most precious gifts. My heart has been opened to the transforming power of love and to the amazing truth that God does have a plan. He does have a future. He does have a hope for me.
And dear friends, God has a hope for you, too.
Thank you for eleven lovely years living in recovery. Today, along with celebrating my sobriety, I honor your story. Your story makes my own possible.
[i] Jeremiah 29:11 [ii] Hien, D., et al. (2009). Multisite randomized trial of behavioral interventions for women with co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology 77(4):607-19. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2795638/.