dear father ryan

“Ask her how she’s doing sexually.”

A strange question for a priest to pass along to a friend to pass along to me (follow that?). She told me about it months ago, and we laughed. Strange, though, that the question still echoes in the back of my mind. How am I doing sexually? As a woman previously active, now alone? As a woman redefining womanhood? As a person redefining my relationship with my body? My heart? My mind?

I thought I was fine. I missed sex, sure, who doesn’t? But as my youthful I-better-not-die-while-I’m-a-virgin phase was over, I didn’t feel it’s absence quite as keenly as I thought I would.

Something changed last week. 

As usual, I was working on my annulment paperwork, the familiar cluster of moths waking up in my chest, fluttering away in a panic. I’m annoyed; I appreciate that anxiety shows up to send it’s own weird little message- Something is amiss! Protect yourself! This time, though, I can’t figure out what the heck today’s offending object might be. The writing was emotional, but not impossible. Maybe it’s not psychological this time, maybe just a hormone imbalance? Nutritional deficit? Too much coffee? Not enough sleep? Nothing stood out, so the herd of flapping wings took up happy residence in my throat and I carried on.

Enter Scene: Therapy

We circle through the chit-chat and Thanksgiving plans until we come around to the strange, unname-able, unblame-able anxiety. We work through EMDR and, voilà, like magic, the knots unravel. It seems my poor little mind was more upset than I realized by the disturbing process of filing through my poor little marriage. The offense this time? Sex.

In general, I thought we had been having fine sex. Good, even. We had chemistry, I thought he was hot, it usually worked out fine. I was, in general, satisfied, and felt pretty smug about being the sexually-enlightened and active wife he so longed for while we were dating. 

It only took a month or two before things started taking a weird turn. Irregularly, unpredictably, he’d be completely uninterested. I’d try to make the moves until it felt like begging, until it was too embarrassing and I walked away. Some nights I’d be wrapped up in hardly anything but a Christmas bow, and he would look at me and groan, with a smirk and a half-laugh, he was too tired, did he have to? Of course, on other days, he’d be in the mood, but my body would not (recall, he adamantly did not want children, and I adamantly did not want birth control). Those days, he would either get a fix his way or leave me feeling deservedly alone (Useless wife! -Another joke that stopped feeling like a joke). Occasionally, on stranger nights still, I’d wake up the next day with bruises or sore throats or other evidence of a night too-rough. 

We unravel the stories again, me ever-baffled at the inconsistency of it all. He wanted me so badly when we were dating! Could hardly be moved when we were married! Had such lazy, inattentive sex he couldn’t even tell when I orgasmed. Refused to talk about it at all. Wouldn’t when I wanted, wanted when I couldn’t, left me feeling used, at worst, unseen, at best, and all more often than I preferred. 

But there were nights that seemed good, we felt close, it felt real! Until he would hold me after, joking that I was gross.

How dare I feel wanted or seen for more than the moment required for him to get off.

I needed love. He needed control.

Hearing that for the first time – He Needed Control – hits in the sore spot that makes the most sense, and now I find myself grieving for the sex life I thought I had. I thought I knew what good sex was, but now I’m coming to terms with the reality that just because it felt good doesn’t mean it was good. 

Where I thought it was safe to be vulnerable, I was disposable. Where I thought I was seen, I was hardly noticed. Where I thought I was loved, intimately, completely, passionately – I was nothing but an urge met. I was competing in a battle I’d never win- to fantasy, perfection, endless flexibility and excitement. 

I grieve the small pockets of our relationship that I mistook for love. Those smallest of moments, when not riddled with dysfunction, were something I thought, occasionally, we got right. We’d had fun, it’d felt good, I felt noticed, enjoyed noticing in return. Now even those moments are gone. They never were.

So, Father, I am not doing well sexually. I am realizing that I was living in my own fantasy of sorts, and now I’m facing the possibility that I’ve never really known great sex, and maybe I never will. It’s a bit of a let-down.

Mostly, Father, I’m worried I’ll never actually be seen. That’s all I want, really, in the end.

Sometimes I’d like to run to the next man – that’ll be the time it comes together just right.

A faulty urge, on my part.

I’ll only ever be seen by One, I know that theoretically, but I can’t help but want it ever so badly from a man. It annoys me, how much it distracts me.

Maybe you can pray me through that bit, if you’re up to it.

Thanks,

Me

recovering safety & sight

Last year, the day I moved home, my mom came to me with a handful of miniature nativities. All small enough to fit in her palm, one was meant for me as a gift from her recent trip to Italy. She was surprised by my choice, the little wooden family, carved as one piece and painted with muted colors. The most rustic, least detailed, least dazzling of the group. 

Where my mother was surprised, I felt it was obvious, almost logical, to choose this little walnut-sized family. Look at baby Jesus! He was sleeping, tucked into the arms of His mother, enveloped by Joseph, their mantles melted into one. How could I not tuck myself into that little nativity? That smallest Jesus was the safest Jesus.

Months later, I began therapy. My journey towards healing began by addressing those underlying currents that had propelled me out of my marriage and, instinctually, towards whatever appeared the safest. 

I found I felt unsafe emotionally, having known a love that withdrew and told me I was a mistake. Unable to trust that a heart promised to protect me would continue to be willing. I had learned I lived in a world where I could give my all, over and over again, and I would not be good enough. I could be rejected, forgotten and unwanted. 

I learned I felt unsafe spiritually, unable to express the truths of my faith without conflict. Unsafe to pray openly at home. Unsafe to talk about what shaped my heart and soul and what I believed at my core. Unsafe to put God first, because that meant my husband would only love me less. 

I realized that, at times, I even felt unsafe physically, having lived with a man who’s rage frightened and shocked. Unsafe in intimacy, unable to trust my body to a partner who pushed boundaries. Leaving me with one eye over my shoulder at all times, in all situations.

Hour after hour was poured into therapy, claiming a new space where I could breathe. It was safe to exist, to take up room, and to trust my environment again. 

Okay. Great.

So I’m safe within myself. Within my heart. My mind. My home.

Where does that leave me and God?

It leaves me angry.

It leaves me feeling like God is dangerous. Because I prayed novena after novena after novena, made sacrifice after sacrifice, and endless, endless, loops on my rosary. Because I journaled and prayed and reflected and talked and asked for prayers and guidance and felt like I was in a good place, I was doing the right things, I wasn’t even having sex! I was even using NFP! 

All that, and, guess what, I got hurt anyway. My heart got broken. He didn’t see me or hear me or want me or convert or grow or treat me better. Nothing. I didn’t get kids or stability or healing or holiness. I asked for help and thought God was reassuring me, thought I was having peace, but really it was just moments of relief. No signs, no reassurance, just interludes in the cycle of abuse. 

And now I look into the face of the God I trusted, the God who led me to believe there were great things in store for me.

What great things? 

This?

Why?

I can’t open my hands, I can’t let You in, I’m angry and I’m hurt and I don’t understand. I think I find You untrustworthy. Because I used to trust, and the one meant to love me for forever, the one meant to make Your love tangible, abandoned me. Abused me. Ignored me. Withdrew from me. It feels like You did that.


I pause in my anger, and I see Mary Magdalene in my heart. I’ve always had a soft spot for her, the woman who struggled with sexual sin. I took on some of her shame in my own relationships, sometimes carrying a burden heavier than I was meant to, not realizing that ‘no means no’ still applies when he says he loves you. Not realizing that not everything was my fault. Not realizing that seeing Mary Magdalene as an adulterer was an unfair projection onto a woman who should’ve been known for more.

I think I finally see her now.

God didn’t love her ‘in spite of’ her sin. He loved her before the sin. He loved her for more than the evils we blame on her, before the labels and the embarrassments and the character she took on in the narrative we created. 

When she was called adulterer and stripped in the street and stoned by her neighbors, God did not see what we all saw- a sinner, a prostitute. He saw a woman abused. He saw a woman desperate and abandoned by her people, trying to survive in a culture structured to leave women dependent on men. A community where women were left with very few options or resources of their own. He saw a woman who had been taken advantage of, her weaknesses exploited, her body marked, her soul abused, her heart broken. 

He saw a woman out of options. 

He presented her with a new one.

He saw her on the ground, kissing His feet, and, no He did not begin by asking her for everything. Even less- he asked for nothing. In return, He presented her with love.

I imagine she was overwhelmed and tired. I imagine she had a multitude of reservations, and a heart in need of healing. I imagine she was afraid. 

I imagine she didn’t have a heart ready to abandon to a Savior. I imagine she was guarded. I imagine that was okay. 

All she did, all she needed to do, was look up, and look into the eyes of the One Who loved her. A small movement, but a movement of courage. Not everything, but a place to start.

Jesus, I don’t have much for You right now. I’m guarded. I’m hurt. 

Even still, even here, I’ll try to let you see me. I’ll try to meet Your gaze.

It’s not everything, but it’s a place we can start.

St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.