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Below is Debbie’s awe-inspiring testimony of how God set her free from the bondage of shame and hopelessness. If you prefer to listen rather than read, watch Debbie’s story in the video.
The name I would call the heaviness I felt is shame. Shame is feeling bad because of who you are — as opposed to guilt, which is feeling bad for something you have done. The fetters of shame are often associated with people who have been sexually molested or physically abused, or with those who have suffered horrific childhood trauma. I had none of those things in my history.
I came from a two-parent home, and my parents loved each other. Although we were poor, 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, so 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 gifted child, and by the time I was twelve, I was regularly playing the piano in church services. I always had a heart for God and loved to serve Him. Even at a young age, I felt 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. My family had just moved from Texas back to my mother’s hometown in South Arkansas, where she grew up, so I was the new kid at school. I began telling my mom all about my new friends when she interrupted me. Looking me straight in the eye, she told me that the people in our community didn’t think our family was as “good” as they were. She said that I could play with the other children at school, but I needed to understand that they would never accept me.
Stunned, I stole away to a quiet part of the house where I could be alone. I was devastated. Sitting on the edge of my grandparent’s bed, I felt the room was reeling. I 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 that 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, I knew she had the authority to make it real 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 walls around my heart. I didn’t realize I was building any walls, but within a short time, those internal defenses were impenetrable. My self-worth was severely damaged. Outwardly I appeared bright and outgoing, but on the inside, those walls were a fortress that protected that shameful place from exposure and created a barrier to keep others out. Without a doubt, I knew that 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 would try to make things pleasant so she wouldn’t plunge into depression as soon as she walked out of her bedroom door. 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. 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, and I moved into the dorm that September with great expectations. 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 was excited about starting a new life. 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 like I was dragging a ball and chain. While I knew that I was pretty and smart and capable, and I had my whole life before me, 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 sure that nothing could ever change that.
I had assumed that if I could escape my childhood environment, I could escape from the heaviness and the shame. But whatever it was that had affected me back home had followed me to college. It wasn’t about my environment or my geographic location, it was about me. And it wasn’t just in 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 that 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 that I was stuck with the ball and chain — whatever it was — I decided that 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 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 so I could appear to be the kind of person others would accept. Although I was a genuine person at heart, I believed that the only solution was to fake it. 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 by then had become like second nature. I’d had a great time during those college years, and I’d made many friends. Then, several years after college graduation, an amazing thing happened: I managed to marry a man who turned out to be very much a controller! (He was a narcissist, although I didn’t know what that was at the time.) His mother was a controller as well, and he was an only child.
Heartache and pain followed. The verbal and emotional abuse started at a relatively moderate level, but before long, it was entirely out of control. The criticism was vicious, the demands unyielding, the threats excessive — and all a part of daily life. I made excuses for the behavior of these people, taking on the responsibility of making them happy and trying to solve everyone’s problems. Once again, I became the enabler. I began creating happy situations to keep everyone pleasant, many times at my own expense. The dysfunction I had been 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 wanted desperately to believe that if I could pretend that the situation wasn’t that bad, and if I could paint the pretty picture that I wanted everyone to see, then perhaps everything would turn out alright 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, it was relentless, and it was brutal.
Outside the influence of the Controllers, I did find some happiness. I had many great friends, and I was quite successful as a realtor. The brightest spot in my life, however, was my children — three beautiful daughters (a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead!) that 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. 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 to think. I had submitted to authority, I had served God faithfully, I had done what I thought was right, and I had gotten badly hurt — steamrolled, in fact. I finally realized that 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, my convictions, and my 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 had begun to fight back, and things had started falling apart. The years had passed. All three of my beautiful daughters, now young adults, were rebelling. My finances flatlined as my bodyweight soared, and my career appeared to be all but over. It was in this setting that there occurred a series of events that quite effectively demolished the rest of my life’s efforts. It was like a hurricane, a tornado, and a tsunami all at the same time. At the risk of sounding humorous, I think I felt a little like Job.
I had no hope left. 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. The foundations of my life were crumbling beneath my feet, 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 that 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.
There was one question in my heart that I could not silence. God, why have you allowed all this to happen to me? I knew that I would always love God, but I could not locate His love for me. It appeared that He was passive toward me. It seemed that 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 questions. 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 that 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.
Finally, 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. The fact that I’d ever thought I could suddenly appeared to me as foolishness. I had to acknowledge that I had been lying to myself because I hadn’t wanted 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 the 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. Finally, I made the 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. 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. 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 that, 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 the grace and mercy of God. His admission struck a chord in me. It made me feel a little less ashamed of what I already knew: that I didn’t trust God. I had tried to convince myself that God is good, as everybody always said, 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 had to get some sleep because I’d recently begun working the night shift at the front desk of a local hotel. 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 that He had not forgotten me. A fleeting revolutionary thought occurred to 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 that I would go no further until I did so. Also, the Lord’s question to me — Can I trust you? — implied that 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 that 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 that I would risk it all. So I made the declaration. Aloud, I said, “Ok, 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 am. I was working nights, so I was up at all hours, anyway. But there seemed to be something special about that 3:00 am 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 perspective began to shift — utterly 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 as one might expect. Most of the time, it was about situations in my past that I wouldn’t have considered “sinful” at all. Sometimes I hadn’t done anything wrong, yet God would show me how my thought processes were in error. He repeatedly took me back to specific occasions in my life, some which were 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. Through gentle correction, God helped me to see why my perspective was off, and what a healthy perspective would look like in each situation. It was as though the Lord was teaching 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 it was 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 that I reconciled my thinking to His as He directed me. As I complied with His correction, He made adjustments in me, and because of that, my perspective 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 would wait for me to get each one right before He would move on 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 thing. 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 that 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 that I liked this trusting God thing, and I wasn’t looking back.
Then one evening, something began to happen. It was toward the end of a Wednesday evening church service, and the 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 not ever truly surrendered to Him, nor had I even understood what it meant to do that — until now. I had been so determined that I was not going to fail, that I would make it happen somehow. I had believed that if I was patient enough, and if I loved the Controllers enough, that they would finally get it. I thought that if I just didn’t quit, it would all work out, that if I just 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 He’d wanted me to be all along: the place of surrender.
A few hours later, I was at work. The clock said 2:30 am, just a half-hour before my scheduled prayer time. Caught up on my duties, I clicked on a sermon by Bishop TD 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 spoke: “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.” It was then — at that moment, right there. Instantly an understanding swept me. I got it. And every chain, every device of bondage that 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 like 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 there 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. He was patient, and He went to all lengths to line up everything just right so that when He started pushing down the walls, they all fell in one big crash.
In the days and weeks following my deliverance, I sensed that I was “walking out” of the bondage. The chains no longer held me captive, but I sensed that 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 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. It was with gratitude and delight that I discovered I had a right just to be me.
And I was not ashamed!