Trauma. Traumatic. “I was traumatized.”

While we use the “T” word so freely, sometimes we only consider one singular manifestation of trauma: the visible kind. If you barely escaped a kidnapping with your life or lost a close family member or friend, most people would readily agree that you had indeed suffered a traumatic experience. However, if I am in my twenties and find myself repeating toxic patterns due to decades-old emotional abuse, will people also readily recognize my trauma? Will I? I hope that by reading a piece of my story you will not only learn to check in with the why behind your actions, but you also develop a new grace for yourself.

Picture me, 5-year old me. She is innocent and unaffected by the attention of boys and boys-posed-as-men. I think about her often and marvel at how life can take some turns that the younger version of you could have never imagined.

It was in my fall semester of senior year that God started trying to get my attention through my health. I was drowning in stress and anxiety, and depression had started to seep its way into my consciousness. I wasn’t eating, my sleep cycle was off, and even my vaginal health started to flip out with a constant cycle of yeast infections. I had no peace in my body, yet I refused to let go of the situationship that was wreaking havoc on my life.

Why? Why do smart, gorgeous girls, full of life and potential continue to lower the bar until said “bar” becomes merely a figure of speech? In my case, it’s because I lacked the foundational knowledge of who I was. Not just the cliched “you is kind, you is smart, you is important” idea of self from the movies, either. But a true, deeply rooted knowledge of my gifts, talents, assets, struggles. I didn’t know that I was called or uniquely chosen by God. I didn’t know that my voice had value and that when I left a situation, the atmosphere became insufficient.

Without this sense of self, when I entered a relationship, I subconsciously waited for the man I was with to tell me who I was and what I deserved by the way he acted. It breaks my heart to know that I was such a shell of myself. I gave myself away to anyone who showed even the slightest interest, and was too afraid to verbally say “no,” even if my entire soul was screaming “NO!” I was so desperate for this one, finally, to stay. For this one, maybe, to think I was worth it. But how could he when I didn’t believe it myself?

I was in the 8th grade when I had my first boyfriend. He was my first kiss, my first “I love you,” and my first heartbreak. He was the first one to expose me to infidelity and with that, he planted the seed that someone can love you today and choose someone new tomorrow.

I took this new and tainted worldview into high school. I found myself in two more long-term relationships before graduating, each one following the pattern of the first: lasting no longer than 14 months and ending in cheating. Each time, I let only a couple of months pass before falling into the next. Failing to self-reflect on the origins of this pattern, I put a bandage on the fragments of my heart and went away to college.

New people, new environment, new me right? Not quite. Here’s the synopsis: I had a boyfriend or situationship at all times until my senior year. The cycle went a little something like this: girl meets boy, boy doesn’t reallyyyyyy meet girl’s standards. Girl isn’t secure enough in herself to really commit to her standards so girl dates boy. Girl falls for boy’s words and insubstantial validations. Boy turns out to be exactly who he was at the beginning (go figure). Girl stays anyway, her standards drop with each passing day. Pitfalls of this perpetual state of settling include: losing my virginity after explicitly stating that I didn’t want to the day before, being with a guy who sold drugs, being with men who didn’t have authentic relationships with God, staying without a real commitment or title (see: situationship), men who were emotionally abusive and toxic, the list goes on. Not to mention the guys who got access to my space who weren’t even ready to be in a relationship. I sought male validation and affirmation so much that it nearly cost me a friendship. A mess, I know.

Ultimately, each man walked away. Either for someone else or simply because he did not see my value due to the lack of value I had in myself.

Or so I thought.

There is a God who is gracious and merciful even in my wandering, and now, I truly know that none of those men could stay no matter how much I wanted them to. I know now that they had to leave so that I would get to a breaking point so low, I would be forced to reach down to my childhood church roots and call out to a God I wasn’t even sure still wanted me. Looking back I realize that no experience was wasted, and it is my wandering season that makes me relatable to those I want to see free.

So what was my solution? How did I go from cyclical soul harm to this woman now grounded in her identity and vocal in her “take me or leave me” high standards? The answer is pretty simple: I made a choice. One day, after yet another fight, and another threat to leave, I just did it. One day, I told God “I never want to feel this way again. Whatever it takes, I’m willing to try your way now.” It was hard. I cried so much. I went through a year of no dating and cutting all interactions with men. To have a true system reset, I needed a drastic change—nothing that even remotely resembled my old ways of thinking.

In that year alone, I moved to a new city and began to journal almost daily. I found a therapist and a church, and I committed to the work of finding me. I owned up to the fact that, aside from physical violence, people only did what I allowed them to. I apologized for the ways that my toxic need for validation had even caused me to hurt some of the people closest to me. I wrote a letter to my father, unsent but healing, telling him my love languages and how my 5-year old self lacked verbal affirmation and physical touch which drove her to overly crave it from insufficient counterfeits. I forgave him for what I thought I missed as a child.

But most of all, I talked to God. I studied Romans 8 top to bottom for weeks, trying to understand how a God so perfect could choose someone as broken as me. Slowly but surely, He put me back together. Slowly but surely I learned that I could have really good days, and even hard days and still maintain a sense of joy. My life had a purpose outside of anyone choosing me. I found myself grinning at myself in the mirror and saying “you are amazing, you know that?” or “He thought you were to die for!”

My brokenness led me through a cycle that could have ended with a pregnancy, STD, or worse, so I am remarkably blessed. Not everyone suffers from an unmended heart in their relationships. Everybody doesn’t even believe in God. And yes, I still have work to do on myself. I still have days when I catch myself gravitating toward situations that validate me but don’t feed me. Always progressing, never perfection.

Still, I want to encourage you that no matter how long you have been self-medicating or living life blinded to your brokenness, you are worth true love, respect, peace of mind, joy, and safety. Your life has a purpose and value that is not determined by any human. You were created intentionally, and masterfully. Nothing sent against you has been able to take you out up until this point. Let that be a sign that you have a life worth living. And as hard as it may be; as alone as you feel, you are not alone. You owe it to yourself to see who you can be at your most whole. If not for you, do it for the girl coming after you.