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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 chains that were on my heart 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 was staying at my grandparents’ house in the country, as we had just moved back to my mother’s hometown in Arkansas where she grew up. I was excitedly telling my mom all about my new friends at school when she stopped me. Looking me straight in the eye, she told me that the people in our community did not 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.
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 really 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 true, because she had spoken it over me. It became as she had said.
An incredible sadness overcame me, a heaviness I couldn’t explain. 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.
As my childhood years passed, I unknowingly began building walls of protection around me. My self-worth was badly damaged. 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 own value, I wrestled with the daily struggle of living with a mentally ill parent. My mother, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was crippled by depression so severely 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 my mother into having a good day. I would try to make things pleasant so she wouldn’t take a dive into depression as soon as she walked out 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 in my life.
My mother’s illness stretched throughout all my teen years. Her dark days were frequent, but on her good days she appeared quite normal, like any other mom. Sometimes, however, she would rant, or go on a tirade, of which I was often the target. She seemed to take her anger out on me (but not my siblings.) I was never beaten or harmed physically, but she would harass me verbally, sometimes for hours — and would only stop when I dissolved in a heap of tears. As time went by 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. It’s interesting that I never told anyone what it was like for me at home. I never spoke a word. I harbored one secret hope: “If I can ever just grow up…”
Finally, I did grow up. Immediately upon graduation from high school, with the help of grants and loans, I was able to go away to college. I moved into the dorm that September, looking forward to starting a new life. Escaping the negative influences of home was a huge relief, though I felt guilty for leaving. But I knew very well that I could never resolve the difficulties at home, and this was my chance to gain my freedom and live my life the way I had dreamed. I had high hopes! I was a good student, I made friends easily, 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 realized I was still hindered by feelings of shame and unworthiness. I felt like I was dragging a ball and chain. While I knew that I was pretty, and I was smart, and I was capable, I couldn’t operate like a pretty, smart, capable girl. I knew good things about myself in my head — but in my heart I still knew that I was a nothing, I was a nobody, and I didn’t matter. And I was absolutely certain that nothing could be done to change that. The alarming sensation struck me that this condition was permanent.
Whatever it was that had affected me back home had followed me to college. I had mistakenly assumed that if I could just escape from my environment that I could escape from the heaviness and the shame. But it wasn’t about my environment, it was about me. It was actually in me — no, it was me. It was me! I tried not to panic.
I wasn’t sure exactly what I was dealing with. 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 that I was stuck with the ball and chain — whatever it was — I decided that I would just out-perform it. I would succeed! I would work harder than anyone else. And I would be really, really good at everything I did. I would try hard to look prettier than all the other girls, and I would put on a big smile so no one would ever know… that I was ashamed. I was utterly ashamed of my own identity.
The main thing was to keep anyone else from finding out. I had to hide who I really was. I felt I had no choice, that the only solution was simply to fake it. Deep down I was a genuine person at heart, but my dark secret could not be known to anyone — and that is how, on top of the walls I had already built around my heart, I constructed a facade of success and happiness that would fool pretty much anybody.
Several years later I graduated from college. I had done a good job of keeping up the facade, and it had become second nature to me by then. I’d had a great time during those college years, and I made many friends. But 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, and also a narcissist. His mother was a controller as well, and he was an only child.
Heartache and pain followed. The verbal abuse and the emotional abuse started out at a relatively moderate level, but before long it was completely 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 trying to solve everyone’s problems and making everyone happy. Just as I had done as a teen, I tried to create happy situations that would keep everyone pleasant. I became an enabler to the dysfunction that was venting it’s anger on me once more. And of course, I never forgot that I was a nothing, and a nobody, and I didn’t matter anyway.
Before too long I was in way over my head. Completely overwhelmed, I fought to keep up appearances. I kept working hard to be successful at everything I did. I kept the smile, I kept the facade, and I never, ever talked about it, not to anyone. Not one single person on the face of the Earth 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 the situation wasn’t really that bad, and if I could paint the pretty picture that I wanted everyone to see, then perhaps it would all 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.
Amazingly, I did manage to have a happy life outside the influence of the Controllers. I had many great friends, and I was successful as a realtor. The brightest spot in my life, however, was my children. I had 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 that had 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 very involved in church activities. I was committed to raising those girls right and giving them a quality upbringing, no matter how difficult it might be for me.
I never considered that leaving was an option. There were several reasons for this, one of which was my upbringing and the view of divorce from that direction. Also, I had seen children from other families suffer in the backwash of divorce, and I refused to subject my daughters to that. Truth is, I had nowhere to go. But also, I knew that in a divorce a judge would grant some degree of custody to my children’s father, and during those visitation weekends I would have to hand my girls over to him and his mother. I wouldn’t be able to protect them from the verbal abuse to which I knew they’d be subjected, and I wasn’t going to let that happen. In light of that decision, I was trapped. There was nowhere to run, and there was no way out.
When I was in my early forties I began to collapse under the weight of the emotional strain. That facade of success was cracking. 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 angry with them because of what they had done to me. I began to question 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 like I’d been taught, I had served God faithfully and done what I thought was right — and I had gotten badly hurt. I didn’t know how to make heads or tails of the mess that was my life. Something had gone terribly 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! I didn’t deserve this! How could anyone who had tried so hard fail so completely?
But failure is exactly what I was looking at. No longer willing to allow the Controllers to work their manipulation through me, no longer willing to yield to their criticism, I had begun to fight back, and things had started falling apart. The years had passed, and by this time, now in my fifties, my youth was gone. 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. Then there occurred a series of events which totally wrecked whatever was left 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. I was disappointed with everything and everybody. Every dream I had ever dared to dream was dashed. Everything I had worked for my entire life was gone, and 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.
“God, why have you allowed all this to happen to me?” 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? We’re taking about a lifetime of pain. Why had He not come to my rescue?
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 so remote, a million miles away. In my hopelessness I grieved in the hard fact that He 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. I stopped going to church (and for me that was a big deal.) For a period of five long years I waited for an answer, for a rescue. I felt that I was staring at God, questioning and 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. Something suddenly occurred that made me realize I could not go on. It wasn’t a big thing that occurred, it was just a small thing — but it was the last straw, as they say. At that exact moment something clicked in my mind, and it was as though a door opened somewhere, and all my baggage poured out. For the first time in my life, I allowed that to happen. I didn’t scream and run. I didn’t try to push it back. I simply stood and watched as it came…and it kept coming. As I surveyed all the baggage I’d had to deal with during the course of my life, I realized that I could not fix that mess. No, this wreck was far beyond me. 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 now appeared to me as utter foolishness. I had to admit that I had been lying to myself for years because I was afraid of the truth. In my heart I’d always known that this mountain of dysfunction was far bigger than I could handle — but I didn’t know what to do with it, so I’d told myself that I could fix it, that it would all work out. I had ignored hard evidence that was right in front of me so I could hold on to what I wanted to believe — that I was enough, that I was strong enough to bear up under any weight, and that I could repair my life on my own. And I was wrong. So on that day I made a decision. I pledged: I will never to lie to myself again.
Next 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 next, I made the decision to go back to church. Once I made that commitment, I never missed a beat. I was going to serve God regardless, no matter what. Soon I was serving on the praise team, playing the keyboard again.
I was uncertain about my future, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other. Several months passed. Life was different for me now, because I refused to lie to myself anymore — although I was still dealing with my ugly facts. I no longer allow myself to view my facts through rose-colored glasses. 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 daily I fought 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 which occurred in his teens, he had lived for years knowing that he did not trust God, even while serving as pastor. He shared how he finally reached 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 been trying to convince myself that God is good, as everybody says, but to me it just didn’t add up. I had to be honest with myself. My life experiences did not paint a rosy picture of God. I saw God as a God of judgement, 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 had recently begun working night shift at 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? “
I was speechless. Hearing from God in such a way made me know that He had not forgotten me, after all! (A revolutionary fleeting thought occurred to me that perhaps I did matter.) And 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, God’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 I did 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. Making the decision to trust God was really hard because of my experiences with the authority figures of my life. I had never really trusted anybody, and I was seriously afraid of God. However, this new challenge was thrown down by none other than God 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 the midst of my disappointment, so I decided right then and there that I would risk it all. I said the words aloud: “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, 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 3:00am. I was working nights, so I was up at all hours, anyway. But there seemed to be something special about that 3:00am prayer, during which time some things began to move around in me. Especially after I made the decision to trust God, there was a marked change. My perspective began to shift — totally unexpected on my part — as I began to view things differently, and many burdens lifted off me with no effort of my own.
The Lord began to do some housework in my heart. A great deal of this housework was about repentance. Much of it was about situations I wouldn’t have considered “sinful,” but God would show me how my thought processes were in error. God would show me where I had been wrong at times, and as I complied with His correction, He would make adjustments in me. Because of this my perspective kept changing. All my life I had viewed my problems as external (the Controllers), but God wasn’t dealing with that. Instead, He was rearranging things in me. I listened with the ears of my heart as hard as I could, and I never argued with Him about anything. Over and over again He would show me something, and I would repent for it. I made sure that I took His correction and adjustment with the right attitude.
I knew that it was very, very important to be obedient. Whatever God impressed on my heart, I acted on it as quickly as possible, and I did it in total compliance. These God-sent corrections came one at a time, and I understood that we weren’t going to the next thing until I got the last one right. So as soon as I would get direction toward any given area, I would make every effort to comply right away. Then, as soon as that was done, He would give me some new correction, with something else to obey. I wasn’t sure exactly where God was leading me, but I knew we were going somewhere. And I had decided to trust Him, so wherever we were going, I wanted to get there as quickly as possible. I had stopped asking questions about “why.” I found that I liked this trusting God thing, and I wasn’t looking back.
This was such a dynamic time for me spiritually. I was amazed, as the presence of God was so tangible. Every day was a new discovery, like walking into a new place and wondering what God is going to do today.
February 24, 2010. Toward the end of a Wednesday evening church service, the praise leader began to sing ‘I Surrender All.’ Standing at my keyboard across the platform, I could not stop the tears. For the first time ever, I could sing that song from my heart. I had been a Christian for many years, 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 even meant to do that — until now. I had never given all to Him — until now. All my life I had been so determined that I was not going to fail, that I myself would make it happen somehow. I had believed that if I was patient enough, and if I loved these Controllers enough, that they would finally get it. I thought that if I just didn’t quit — and believe me, I wasn’t going to quit! — that 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 by all, defeated by shame, with no hope in sight and nowhere else to turn, I had been forced to look to Jesus, and in doing so had finally arrived at the place He had wanted me to be all along: the place of surrender. I understood that whatever I am, or whatever I am able to accomplish in this life, if I ever accomplish anything at all, is because of Him. I understood that it is for His glory that we ever become or do anything, and that yes, He can receive glory out of the resurrection of the shipwrecks that our lives become.
A few hours later I was at work at the hotel. The clock said 2:30am, just a half-hour before my scheduled prayer time. I was caught up on my work, so I decided to listen to a quick message. I clicked on a sermon by Bishop TD Jakes entitled ‘If you want to see a move of God.’ The video started, and Bishop Jakes was already in the middle of his sermon. 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, and my eyes were 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, all fell to my feet. I felt it from my head to my feet, over my entire being — it was a pulse, a quick invisible flash. A pop. I was stunned, speechless. Tears sprang to my eyes as the realization hit me of what had just happened — and I knew. I knew! Yes! This is what they call 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 purpose in mind which meant that all I had been through would not be wasted. And I didn’t want it to be wasted! I wanted my experience with grief and despair and pain — the pain of a lifetime — to be used for something. I found that God really is good, and He truly does love me. He loves me! I got a glimpse of the patience He had employed to get me to the point of surrender so He could finally set me free. He was faithful. He never gave up on me. 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 had some idea that they were laying at my feet, and that I was stepping over them and walking away from them. I was spiritually free, but I had to train my mind to be free. I had to learn to operate like a free person, as my mind caught up with what my spirit already knew. This was not something I had heard about or read about or learned from anyone else, just what I felt in my heart.
My thought processes continued to change and evolve over the coming weeks, even months. I discovered a love for myself I had never known, and also a healthy view of different aspects of life. I was lighter. Over time, the wounds in my heart began to heal and they filled up. This is what is called being made whole. I was whole, finally! God showed me a new identity in Him, a vivid picture of who I am as His child. I began to learn to walk in my own personal authority, with the delightful discovery that I had a full and healthy right to be me. No apologies necessary.