As I tore up the gravel road leaving Little Forest Refuge, the camp that I lived and worked at, I felt a sense of ease. The way my tires kicked up the gravel under my car sounded a good deal like popcorn kernels popping on a hot stove in a tall pot. The smell of dust coming through my vents was not as appeasing, but no matter. Dylan would be back at the Refuge when I got back from my job at Diamond Grove, a full time gig at a local mental hospital for adolescents. I hated it, but it gave me money and insurance. I worked the third shift, sitting up all night making sure none of the patients did anything crazy.
My unit was long-term care, and they were so doped up on medication that they almost never stirred. Because I liked to read, I would read all night. I went through book after book sitting there in the silence. The acute unit, however, was like boxing match, there was never enough time between rounds. The people that worked over there went home sweaty. I did not envy them.
Shift change was always an exciting time for the patients because the doors were opened. It doesn’t take much in a lock-down facility. That night I let myself in and made my way to my unit. The facility was set up as four separate buildings, like a cross, with a rounded atrium in the middle. A large cement wall connected the building and enclosed the atrium.
Pulling into the parking space next to a black Jeep Grand Cherokee I giggled. Beef was there. Beef, as everyone called him, was my boyfriend, kind of. We met in February when he started working at the mental hospital. He held the door open for me one night and we hadn’t looked back. It was the end of June, and I was not in love with him, I really liked hanging out with him. He gave me what I needed—a distraction. I gave him what he wanted—sex.
I checked my hair and got out of the car hoping to run into him. He worked the second shift on the acute unit, which meant we hardly saw one another at work. We made up for it though on the nights I was off of work. I made my way inside and I was just coming out of the main building door and into the atrium when he caught my eye.
“Hey Michelle! Come help us over here!” His voice was panicked. He was dark and handsome in a Carolina blue polo shirt that was just tight enough to show off his muscular body and just loose enough to still be masculine. They don’t call him Beef for nothing, I noted.
“What’s going on?” I called as I made my way across the grass.
“Katrina is going crazy over here.” Katrina. That explained everything. Katrina was a tall, stout seventeen-year-old girl who was a regular at our facility. Her parents didn’t want her and she was given to her aunt at the age of seven. She remembered it, and it was the driving source of her anger, which was the driving force of her psychotic episodes. Apparently she was having another one.
When I walked onto the floor there were three men holding her down. She was kicking and screaming and trying to bite them. Curse words were flying out of her mouth like debris in a tornado.
“We need to get her into isolation,” Beef told me. “Hold the door for us.” I nodded and threw my purse down. I watched as four grown men picked up this poor girl, who was out of her mind, and slowly began to walk toward me. Holding the door open with my left hand and foot, I pressed myself against the wall to give them as much space as possible. The other patients were locked into their rooms, a feature of the facility for emergencies such as this one.
As they made their way past me with their writhing cargo, Katrina’s hand locked onto the front of my scoop necked shirt and she didn’t let go. There was a scuffle for several seconds with shouting. I had to keep the heavy door open with one hand because they were half way in and half way out. Beef grabbed ahold of her hand and tried to pry her fingers from my gaping shirt. That made her flail all the wilder and that’s when my shirt ripped at the seams exposing my sheer black bra and pale skin. The room stood still, shock filling the dead silence. I looked down at my body and up at the men. They were all staring at me standing there half naked. My eyes met Beef’s.
“Let’s go!” he shouted at my colleagues, who were sure to have the vivid image of my bare upper body in their minds every time they looked at me from that day forward. The men recovered and moved Katrina, into the isolation room. They put her on the floor and locked the door behind them. I stood there wide-eyed and trying to cover myself. Beef pickup what was left of my shirt and handed it to me.
“Thanks,” I said without looking at him, and I continued awkwardly, “I don’t have another shirt with me.”
“I’ve got one in my car you can have,” he offered. Mortified I walked out to his car with him. It was dark by then. He grabbed a Mississippi State t-shirt out of his back seat. Tears were running down my cheeks. He put his arms around me and held me for a moment. “Shh, Boo. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
He kissed the top of my head and moved back just enough to wipe my cheeks. It was the first time I had been so vulnerable with him. I did not like to cry, which left me feeling extremely uncomfortable. I was not a girl who let myself go to my emotions. I was always fine. And with someone like Beef, with whom I had an emotional business relationship, I did not want to appear weak.
“No. You’re not.” He shook his head and I looked away. “I’m going to go tell them that you need the night off.”
“Okay, well you can just be fine with me tonight.” He left without saying anything else. I stood there in the heat of the southern night embarrassed by what had just happened. I felt something so familiar and infuriating—weakness. I did not like to be weak. I did not like to cry. There was nothing wrong with me. I was fine!
Convincing myself of how fine I was, I felt the memory of that horrible night slipping. Relief began to wash over me. I wouldn’t talk about it. I wouldn’t tell anyone. I was fine. It was no big deal. I was fine—until I woke up the next morning still wearing Beef’s shirt.
I stood there looking back at myself in the mirror. Seeing Beef’s shirt reminded me that I was not in mine. A shiver crawled up my spine. Remembering how exposed I felt, how utterly out of control it all was. Things that I wanted to keep hidden were revealed without my permission. I was victimized.
Victim. It was a role I played well. It was something I could hide myself into. I could get lost talking about what went wrong, instead of focusing on how I was in the moment. Because in that moment, I was queasy and terrified. The thought of all of those people seeing me exposed like that was horrifying. How would I recover when I went in tonight to work? Maybe I could avoid all of them. Maybe they would have pity on my and not mention it, but probably not.
I took a quick shower and headed to eat. It was around five in the evening. I had slept most of the day, as I often did when I worked all night. It was a typically hot, wet day at Little Forest Refuge. The pine trees kissed the sky and sent the comforting smell of Christmas all year long. I took it all in under their canopy; the small cabins forming a crescent shape, the gravel roads, the man-made lake. Everything around me felt consecrated from another time period.
I popped into the kitchen through the back door that the cooks used. Ms. Katie was calmly loading up the platters with food, while Ms. Sarah was barking orders at the work staff. I stood in the door for a minute debating whether or not to wait for dinner.
On cue, in walked Dylan Myers. He was about my height, blue eyed and the most gentle gentleman I had ever met. He and I had similar wounds. I was like a sister to him, and he was like a savior to me. His wound was healed. Mine was continually leaking fluid.
He made his way over to me and gave me a quick hug. “Hey Sissy!”
“Hey!” My smile was present. My joy was missing.
“What’s wrong?” My eyes gave me away. “Hey, let’s get out of here.” I nodded, not trusting my voice. We left out the back door, and I was feeling a little more than needy. I was an all-out drama queen, Dylan my audience. I hated that feeling.
“Sorry,” I said, looking away as we walked toward the porch at Lakeview.
“No worries. What’s up?”
“I just…” Where to begin? “I just had a bad night.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
“Not really. It’s embarrassing.”
“What happened?” Dylan pushed, wanting to help me get it out. Today it was a good idea, but not always. I proceeded to tell him about my incident the night before, and when I had walked him through to the part where I was half naked at work he went bug eyed and his head jerked back slightly. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” was my only reply. I decided to leave out the part about my leaving work and spending the night with Beef. Dylan would not approve. He would definitely not approve. I didn’t want to complicate things between us. I just wanted him to love me and like me and want to be with me. If he knew about Beef and me, if he suspected that I was not progressing in my relationship with God, then I thought he would not love me anymore. I thought it would all go up in smoke, and I needed him to love me.
“Well, I’ve got to eat, but we could catch up later?” he asked. “I’ve got some time this weekend.” While it seemed like he was putting me off, he wasn’t. The demand on counselors was intense at the Refuge. Besides, Dylan loved me so well. He was gentle and thoughtful. He was not always serious or even at the whim of my emotional state. He loved me. His love for me was outside of me, and unlike any other love I had ever experienced.
At a young age I bought into the lie that I was not good enough for anyone at anything. Everything I did, everything I was, fell short. I was a size eight in high school, but not a size six like most of my friends—not good enough. I was making an A in all of my classes, but they were not AP classes—not good enough. I was on a NCA National Champion cheerleading squad, but I couldn’t do a full twist—not good enough. I prayed, but not without ceasing—not good enough. I read my Bible, but not everyday—not good enough. There was nothing that I did that I believed was good enough.
When Dylan came along and loved me no matter what, I was terrified. I kept trying to avoid him around the camp, but he pursued me. In the end I gave in to him and quickly became enchanted. What kind of man is this that loves so freely and so openly, without regard for his heart, only mine? I had to keep encountering him and testing the limits of that love. I needed to know what made him tick.
As our friendship grew, so did his insistence on me seeing myself the way he saw me. He would talk about the beauty that I had within, the love of a Savior that would hold me close living inside me.
I tried, oh I tried, to see it. I caught a glimpse one morning in the pouring rain. I was standing by the lake thinking of my dear friend, Vanessa. I was missing her and thinking about how she let me be, how she didn’t push or hover. Vanessa was a soft-spoken force of love who carried with her grace and beauty, enough to hand out. I was powerless against her accepting nature. I was in, she was sure of me. That’s how Dylan treated me, leaving me addicted. I was addicted to being accepted by these people, but they were the only ones. Well, they were the only ones I believed.
So, I was leaving the Upper Room one morning and it was raining and while everyone else ran for cover I stopped short and let it soak me. I stopped and took in the rain and the lake and a God who would call me Beloved. What did that even mean? I was busy running in my private life, inside my head, but here in the rain and my aloneness by the lake I felt the Lord wash over me. I felt Him tell me He was delighted in me, and I didn’t believe Him. I lost myself in that rain. I had a glimpse of myself as desirable, and I was terrified. I didn’t believe Him. I couldn’t.
I grew up believing that I was bad until God saved me, and then, I better get my act together make Him love me. I grew up believing that God was out to get me, that He enjoyed it when I hurt and despised me when I sinned. This belief created a culture of fear within my mind. My will began to perform, and my emotions were uninvited to my life. I was allowed to be happy. I was not allowed negative emotions.
With this view of God, I lived my life. I went to church every chance I got, because if God was a loving father, then I wanted to be His favorite. I led Bible studies and prayed for people. I…I felt it was never enough. I was never good enough, so what did it matter? And even if Dylan was right, even if I was desirable to God, when would that wither away? My desirableness was only skin-deep, it always faded. I was waiting for it to dissolve in Dylan’s eyes.
In mid-summer of 1999, it happened. I was with Vanessa on a road trip when I walked into a dirty little gas station bathroom along Highway 55 somewhere in Mississippi with a pregnancy test. The filth was evident, and the filth was me standing there holding a stick with two blue lines.
Two blue lines. Two little lines glowing and shouting and telling on me. My secrets were revealed, my shirt ripped off by two blue lines.