The last three weeks have been incredibly emotional for me. Many of you know that when the subjects of religion and politics come up in conversation, I keep my mouth shut. It isn’t because they’re not important to me, it’s quite the opposite. As a child, religion (and thus political views) were oppressively held over my head and used to control all aspects of my life; because of this, I walk carefully and sensitively when it comes to a person’s irrevocable right to believe differently than I do. After 20 years of freedom, I am finally proud of who I am, free to stand in my own beauty and in my own strength. Sparing the details, today I sat down and wrote about one of the life changing events of the last three weeks.
Life has a way of surprising us with unexpected opportunities to grow, to heal, to live fully. I seem to be one of those special people who has been given those opportunities aplenty. Some of them I’ve used to the fullest, and others, well, I just wasn’t ready to grab onto and make the best of them so they flew by, and I beat myself up for it.
Traumas from childhood are often left where they occurred, hidden behind the city limits of our hometowns, behind the closed doors of houses that other people now live in. The pain doesn’t hide itself, though. We, the survivors, carry it from town to town, from relationship to relationship, from job to job. Some of us have worked hard to forget about it, to ignore its effects, to believe that it hasn’t touched us – that it never touched us. Then come the moments in the dark, lonely, quiet corners of everyday life when we sob. The pain of the abuse is overwhelming. We feel weak. We believe we haven’t survived. We feel like we’re lying to everyone we love and to everyone we know. We feel we’re barely holding onto the silk threads of sanity that are threatening to break at any moment. We know we’re losers. We know we’ve lost ourselves to the power that we once depended on for our very existence, for our sustenance, for our life – however miserable it was. We hold onto the secret that “They WON.”
Outwardly, we try to stand tall. We tell people we weren’t touched. We hold on to whatever it is we tell ourselves is “normal” and strive to be that. Sometimes we tell the story to present ourselves as unique and strong, even if we don’t really believe we are. Inwardly, we work overtime to convince ourselves that what was done to us “could have been worse.” We try our hardest to keep things together, and to believe the people who grew up next to us who don’t seem to have been touched by the brutal emotional and spiritual abuse. Most of all, we strive to be accepted – first off by others, and secondly, much more subconsciously, by ourselves.
Acceptance is a big one for us, I think. But I think it’s more than just wanting acceptance by those who grew up outside of our community. There’s something to be said about having grown up in a family of hundreds. But it’s not just that we spent everyday together – under intense circumstances – there was a network of support that is not something that people on the outside have every really experienced. It’s confusing when I look back. On one hand, we were taught to turn on each other. We were taught that we were responsible for the spiritual well being of each and every person there which often times meant exposing the actions of our peers to our abusers – and then waiting for those people to turn on us. Yet on the other side, we were taught to support them, to love them, to accept them, and to be selfless when they really needed us. The conflict of loyalty and betrayal stripped us of our individuality, broke us down, and in many ways killed us.
When news of George Mellone’s passing flashed across the screen of my phone, my first thought was of concern for his sister Beth. Beth and I wouldn’t necessarily have considered ourselves close friends in childhood – we were separated by a year, and in Winham, that was like a lifetime. However, when we found ourselves living in the same city, we reconnected, and discovered that we had a lot in common – especially in our tastes in music. We became concert buddies, and she was one of the people I could talk with honestly about my struggles and the process of healing that I was forging forward with. She understood some of the complicated emotions I was experiencing without my having to explain the dynamics of the church and its control over us even years later. Her practical and phlegmatic personality was extremely helpful as I was struggling to separate the “understanding” part from the “emotional” part. She “got me” without my having to explicitly expose parts of myself that I wasn’t ready to send out to the world.
I knew that she was devastated by the passing of her brother, and there wasn’t a hesitation anywhere in me when I offered to support her “in ANY way”. In times of such shattering loss, no one should be alone. For me there is rarely a Cost/Benefit discussion internally when it comes to my commitment to my true friends. I give simply for the benefit of them, not for what it will bring to me. I put aside my own fears to be the best support I possibly can be to someone who is hurting more than I. I had no idea what that sincere and genuine offer would bring me, but I was willing to stand by my promise.
When Beth sent me a text message saying, “The service is at YFT,” I felt as if I was being forced into an olive press: squeezed, compacted, with no room to breathe. To return to the building where so much of my trauma had occurred seemed unbearable – undoable. I had hit rock bottom several months prior and had just begun to climb up, to rise, to heal. How could I find the strength to walk into the very building, to see the people from the past, to smell the smells, hear the creaks in the floors and still stand in my new found confidence, my new place of healing. Even with all the self-doubt, I knew I’d have to find a way. I couldn’t let her face it alone. My plane ticket was booked in a few hours, and I began gathering my support contacts – putting them on alert. Thankfully, I have several people who are loving, caring and understanding. People who believe in my strength, but love me in spite of, and maybe even because of, my weaknesses.
I landed in San Jose, not knowing how I’d be helping Beth, but ready to respond if she called. When I got the request, “Can you help me with the organization of the reception? I need your expertise. It’s in the basement of the church.” I turned to the friend sitting next to me, and I suspect lost all color in my face.
“Holy S***,” I whispered as my head dropped into my hands. I pressed my palms into my eyes. “I guess there’s no time like the present to face that place, but, Good God! if we only get what we’re strong enough to handle, I must be superwoman.”
I was to meet Beth at 11 am at Winham Street Chapel, the building that held so many memories, where I had more than likely spent more time as a child than in our family home. It was the physical location that represented so much abuse, so much pain, so much trauma, and had inundated every part of my life. I parked my car, and stared at the entry. My limbic system was on overload. My body was shaking from my very core – the only silver lining that I could think of was that my abs were getting a work out from the shaking. I sat in my car, feeling my blood turning to stone, my muscles petrifying, I was being held from the inside out. I stared at the doors I had walked through every morning except Saturdays. Where a bike rack had once been, stood Kerry, the new ‘pastor’ who had been an elder when I was in captivity and had been the one who told me I couldn’t return home from Hungary when I had practically been on my deathbed – and not just physically. My hands were still gripping the steering wheel, its coldness seemed to be the only thing keeping me tied to reality and the only thing preventing my mind from cracking. I listed the things I perceived physically – the leather of the car seat, the music on the radio, the shininess of the paint on the hood of the car. It was a tool I had learned years ago that kept me from losing myself in the chaos of my disjointed memories and emotions. It was keeping me from floating out of my body, from shaking to death.
Kerry looked so sad, so broken, so defeated – but either it didn’t matter, I didn’t care, or I was actually glad to see him so miserable. The muscles in my abdomen were quivering so deeply, I would never be able to describe it as “shivering” or “trembling.” The strength of the motion rattled my intestines and jostled my kidneys. Every organ was fighting to do their job in the midst of the earthquake that was ripping through my body. Just when I thought I’d lose my lunch, Beth drove up behind me, and my focus shifted. The shaking didn’t stop, but I had a job to do. I do well with responsibility.
Minutes later, I was summoning all the graciousness, elegance and strength I could, shaking the hand of one of the few people in this world I despise. As he unlocked the door to the church and held it open, we stepped through. He directed us into the basement where the reception would be held, and left.
As we made our way down the stairs, Beth’s careful words comforted to me, “How does this feel for you, Melissa?” Even in her time of sorrow, she was a true friend.
“I’m ok, actually…I am…But wow…I’m here…And I’m ok.”
The words were disjointed, and but they were true. They were finally true. I wasn’t just saying them for her sake. I wasn’t having a panic attack (something that even in recent years would have happened). I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t overwhelmed by horrific memories. All the effort and focus and work I had put into facing my traumas had actually been effective. I am quite sure that part of what gave me the strength to walk through those doors, though, was the real purpose of my visit. We weren’t in the church building to face it. We were there to celebrate the life of someone who had not only overcome the obstructions that people had actively placed in his path, he had conquered them.
George had crawled over the massive pile of “shit” that people had tried to squelch him with, to become a man who had accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime. For me personally, while I hate that he’s gone, if we had to say goodbye to one of ours in that building, I am thrilled that it was someone who WON. I’m glad that the one who is representing us didn’t self-destruct in a puddle of self-pity and pain. He had a dream and single-mindedly – single-handedly – made it happen. His accomplishments give some sort of vindication for those of us who have fought to stand and thrive. He proved that the past had no control over him. His commitment to and the resulting fulfillment of his dreams prove that just because we were taught that we were nothing without the church, that we would fail if we didn’t rely on its teachings, that we were inherently worthless were WRONG. My abusers were plain wrong.
Thank you, George, for giving me such an amazing gift, you have inspired me to follow the truth that I historically I have been afraid to follow. I wish I had known you as an adult, but even with the sadness of your passing, your life will continue to touch people. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to follow your example and say, “I will conquer. I HAVE conquered – now I will SOAR.”
RIP George Mellone, III. I promise to continue your legacy of stretching the rules, of following my heart, and of touching people all along the way!