As a chaplain with children in juvenile hall, you get used to the stories of how kids get caught up with the “wrong people”. How they make poor judgment calls all in the name of figuring out who they are in the world. But you never get used to the damage, the pain, the indelible marks of a short life riddled with abuse at the hands of someone who is supposed to love them. I never ever will understand how we can incarcerate a 14-year-old girl for prostitution as if she chose that career path and that broken arm she had when she was arrested. I can never erase from my mind the countless stories of sexual and physical abuse that many of “my girls” endure before their pain turns outward in anger, just hoping someone will care they are alive.
“I feel like I’m drowning.”
“What did I do to deserve that? “
“I’m mad at myself because I ‘fell silent’.”
These are the voices of young women who should have a bright future ahead of them, but instead are stuck in the quicksand of the remnants of abusive relationships. Repeating the patterns over and over again, letting the boyfriend back into their hearts because he cried and apologized, promising to never do it again. Choosing the “same guy” with a different name who is going to treat them the same way, eventually leaving them with the guilt that they brought it on themselves. That they must deserve to be treated this way because everybody does it to them. The words of disdain, of hatred, the punch in the face or the choke around the neck are stifling. So stifling that the next time some guy starts to go down that path toward abuse, with red flag warnings at every encounter, they fall silent. Their throat closes as if no words can come out. They just don’t know how to fight it off.
Enough years of this pattern and every man has control over them without even knowing it, or putting forth an effort to suppress them. They feel it in every job interview; that they will never be enough. They hear it in every flippant remark by a male friend who thinks he’s just joking when he calls her a bitch. They sense it in every aspect of their lives. And they fall silent.
In that silence their insides are crumbling. There is an illness that is literally eating them alive. Sometimes they can fake it with a smile, suppress it with straight As and a college scholarship, or create the demeanor of someone who has it all together. But it never goes away. Many times they learn to live with it…until someone sits across from them and invites them to say the words, “I have the right to be me”…and they fall silent. I fell silent too.