Note: The juicy stuff you might want to gossip about or think about or message me about or just generally know starts at the break part-way down this page. If you’re short on time, just start there. I know this is a longer post and your time and attention are limited.
Second Note: Feel free to share this with anyone who might be interested or who it may help.
I’ve been putting off this blog post for a long time now. While I do take pains to make myself vulnerable here as I sort through the crap of my internal and external life, I’ve been beating around the bush now for over a year, and I was just outright selective and silent about this before then.
But, if I’ve learned anything in writing and reading non-fiction,it’s this: The painful parts of the story are the most powerful parts.
They have power to connect with the broken, painful places inside the readers. They’re the moments when I read them, that I as a reader take sharp breaths in because, there before my eyes, I see that someone else knows pain like I know it. I know that I’m not the only one. That I’m not alone.
And that is the most powerful message I’ve ever read or ever written.
So all that to say, I have a story I haven’t put out there in writing yet. It’s the painful, shameful part of my story. And it’s not going to just be one blog post. But this post can usher in the era of freedom that I’m choosing to be ready for. I’m ready to start letting my story breathe on paper (or screens as it may be), not just in unrecorded moments in hushed tones at cafes and on couches in which I’ve previously chosen to share it.
So this is me letting the pain hit the page. Letting the image you have of me as a person be shaped as it may be by the truth, for better or worse. Because overall, I don’t think it matters what you think of me. I think it matters how my story makes you feel. And if it makes one person feel like they’re not alone, then it’s worth it. Consider this an era for that as well.
I’ve written vague things here before about “I lost everything.” About my distrust of people and of the church. And about deep grief. This is what happened.
The first time I officially saw him, he was on the lower stage at the front of our sanctuary. (I assume this, I don’t actually remember it, but I’ve seen the pictures). It was his wedding day, and I was 9 years old.
The first time I technically saw him up close was the next day when they showed up at Carl’s Jr. for lunch in the next town over from ours. I was next to him at the fountain drinks and went back to my table to ask my mom, “Do we know those people?” pointing to their table. “They were the ones who got married yesterday,” she said. And we awkwardly said “Hi” on our way out to the car, having committed the grave sin of seeing someone you know while they’re on their honeymoon.
January 6, 2013
The last time I officially saw him, he was standing on that same lower stage at the front of the same church sanctuary.
He got up in front of a crowd and read a confession and apology he’d written ahead of time. The crowd was our 900 person church. He was the pastor in charge of all of the ministries of the church. The confession was about how he’d been “inappropriately involved” with me for “a while now.” The apology was to his wife, his family, my family, and the church.
He sat on a stool and cried while he read it. Something I’d never seen him do before.
I sat in the congregation, tears and snot making a steady flow down my face while he spoke, and while our main Pastor (different man, just to be clear) took over and read an apology I’d written ahead of time. He’d had the foresight to not allow me to deliver it myself — something I’m endlessly grateful for now.
It felt like hell. Actual, living hell. I so wish there was a less cliche way to convey that. But those are the only words I’ve come up with in the two years since then. Hell. It-would-be-better-if-I-could-just-burn-to-death-and-let-this-end Hell.
This was my deepest darkest secret that had held me captive for years and years, and it had just been told to 900 people, including everyone I’d ever been close with. I thought in a surreal moment somewhere in one of those two church services that morning, “I’ll never be as free as I am right now. I have no other secrets.” But of course, those thoughts came in between the hyperventilation and the crushing grief of seeing my entire world collapse around me, seeing the people I was closest to in life filled with so much pain and betrayal.
This pastor of ministries and I, we’d been fully-fledged “inappropriately involved” since a couple months after I turned 18. But our relationship had begun to be inappropriate in nature since I was 16 and he was my youth pastor.
Let me say it as delicately as I can while also being accurate — What was happening when I was 16-18 would’ve gotten him fired in a heart beat, but not arrested. What was happening when I was 18 until I was 23 when someone found out would’ve been cause for arrest had I not been of age. (Not that it’s any of your business, by the way. But there was enough misunderstanding and misinformation that I feel it’s valuable to at least be accurate as I air out my dirty laundry here.)
2 weeks later
The last time I technically saw him up close, it was in the next town over again. It was 2 weeks after our public confessions. I was in a store walking down the main aisle when all of the sudden he popped out of one of the side aisles directly in front of me. There was no turning around unseen. So I took a breath and proceeded. “Jo.” He said. I felt ice and panic stall my heart. “Hi,” I managed, meeker than I ever am.
“See you later,” he said with a harshness in his voice that I was more than familiar with. Then he spun his cart around and fled in the opposite direction the way you do when you’ve committed the grave sin of seeing the girl you’ve been inappropriate with for years once the secret has come out.
His tone was the same one I’d heard in countless drawn-out arguments we’d had over the years from which I always emerged feeling smaller, and slightly trampled on and disregarded. This time was no different.
It is the only time where I’ve spent significant moments in the vitamin aisle. And it is the only time I’ve cried in the presence of gummy calcium chews. The supplements as my silent witnesses, tears and snot acknowledging the years of pain from that tone and that twisted relationship, I hoped he was wrong – that I would in fact never see him later.
And eventually, one day short of one year after what I’ve taken to calling “confession sunday,” I found myself unexpectedly forgiving him.
That story comes next time. (Read Part 2 HERE)
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Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
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