One phone call shattered everything in my world.
“Who are you, and how long have you known my husband?” I slumped to the floor beside my morals as guilt hovered over me.
Her voice boomed through the phone as if she were standing outside my door. It echoed in my mind: Husband. Husband! HUSBAND!
My heart felt as if it were on fire. What signs did I miss? Am I this naive?
I knew it wasn’t love, but I most certainly didn’t think it was adultery.
My voice trembled, but I had to defend myself. I tried to explain I was unaware he was someone’s husband. Her husband.
He called later to refute her story. He said she was his ex. She sent a text days later to admit his side of the story was true. She was his ex. She was angry with him and wanted revenge, so she lied.
But it was too late. Too late for apologies all around. It would be impossible to un-see the A on my chest.
When the dust settled, he was just another name on my laundry list of men. Another failed relationship. Another label.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that list, and that’s when something finally clicked: How many times am I going to end up here? In every relationship I had been in, I always found myself at this same spot on the floor, filled with guilt and shame. I didn’t want to be this girl. Twenty-something, broken, used, alone and always left to pick up the pieces and try to fit them together again.
By the time I graduated from high school, I had given myself to more boys than I wanted. College is a blur, and my 20s hold forgotten names, one-night stands and plenty of lessons learned. I freely squandered what is taken forcibly from so many women. But I convinced myself I was young, wild and free. I could do what I want, be with whom I want, and no double standard was going to stop me from expressing myself.
The biggest lie I believed was that I was free.
The Wake-Up Call
The first time I laid down with a boy on the carpet of his parent’s living room floor, I just stared at the ceiling. My eyes periodically darted to the window, looking out for headlights in fear of being caught.
I think I was thirteen.
It seems like decades ago. It seems like yesterday. I didn’t understand the pressure that would weigh me down once I gave it up.
The ex-wife’s voice on the other end of the phone was the wake-up call I needed. All I had known was sex and broken relationships. I knew what I needed to do to make a change, and I had already tried to stop living so recklessly.
Low on hope, I knew the things people said about me. The names they called me. Their rude stares and whispers when I entered a room made it painfully clear.
And I knew what I thought about myself. I didn’t know I could live any other way. Not sure of what I needed or wanted, I just prayed. There were no other options. I didn’t ask for forgiveness. I did not repent. I said those prayers many times, and I still found myself sinking.
“God, I don’t know what else to do,” became my fight song.
Lonely. Desperate. Searching.
From one frustrating situation to another, I scoured job sites daily for any opportunity to get me out of the suffocating walls of Alabama. I was sinking further into a sin-filled life and barely getting by on the paychecks from a job I hated. I was grasping for any opportunity to survive.
“God, I don’t know what else to do, but I do know I can’t do it here. Nothing is helping. Please, do something,” I prayed.
Another phone call shifted everything and gave me a chance to leave. I could only make out every other word of broken English from the voice on the other end of the line. It was an opportunity to get out of town. Way out of town.
I gathered up the shattered pieces of my heart, mind, body and spirit, packed two suitcases to last six months, and boarded a flight to a small city north of Milan. You know—Italy. The deepest desperate prayer I’d ever spoken opened a door I never fathomed to be an option. I was terrified, but the thought of what my life would look like if I didn’t leave Alabama was more harrowing than the unfamiliarity of Milan—the way God made for me to escape.
Leaving proved to be the hardest part of the journey. Tears poured the first two to three weeks. I was lonely in my land of unknown. I craved the familiarity of sex, even if it was sin. Sex was easier than being vulnerable and having to reveal myself. Sex was easier than being alone and having to face my real self. It allowed me to hide.
Shutting Those Doors
God took me to Gallarate, Italy—a place where I had no one to talk to but Him. I could not hide. I was in a place where people only saw me as the unique-looking, American girl in this small, Italian town. Those were the only stares I had to endure. There, I wasn’t Barbara’s daughter or Chrystelle’s little sister. I wasn’t the girl messing with some random boy. I was isolated, and I had to face it all.
As I sat alone in my purple-painted room, I quickly understood I didn’t have to beg, plead and scream for God’s attention once I stopped giving so much of mine to everything but Him. I realized, just because mercy covered me, it didn’t exempt me from dealing with my past.
I had a bird’s-eye view of everything I had done. As I daily navigated my way through the cobblestone streets, marveling at the wonder of this beautiful country, the Lord whispered to me the things I needed to change. As I waited in the entry of the Duomo di Milano, He showed me the doors I would have to allow Him to shut. Climbing the 250 steps to the top, He showed me what it would take to overcome my struggles. I had to surrender. I was oblivious in how to do this. There were so many feelings I had masked and so many secrets I kept.
From a place deep inside of me, I had thoughts that had never seen the light of day.
I had been everything to everyone, good and bad, for so long. Now, the only thing required of me was to let go and have faith He would catch me. Tears of sorrow eventually began to cleanse me. I gave Him the pieces one by one.
Bitterness surrendered in Bergamo.
Shame cast out in Venice.
Guilt removed in Turino.
Brokenness submitted in Bologna.
Anger turned over in Sesto Calends.
Loneliness stayed in Lecco.
Low self-esteem left in Naples.
Everywhere I went, I found more of Him. There was nowhere I could go where God didn’t reveal Himself to me.
Purity Restored in Parma
Soon, my six months were up. The same fear I felt before going to Italy attacked me as I received details about my flight home. So many fears and unknowns. Will I fall back into my old ways? Will I see someone I used to know and immediately give in to temptation? Will my old friends want to be around me anymore if I wasn’t willing to live the same way? Will I see him?
I decided to take one last day trip to a little town named Parma.
Parma’s city center was my last stop for the day. I sat on a bench inside of the Baptistery of Parma, staring at the domed ceiling. It was covered in 13th– and 14th-century paintings, stretching across 16 arches all the way to the top. I sat and stretched my neck all directions to see every one of them.
And another voice called out to me. I didn’t faint, and I didn’t have to strain to make out the words. “You are free,” it said.
Then and only then, did I know God did something.
He set me free.
The tourists looked at me strangely as I cried. I didn’t care. All I knew at that moment was it was done. I was done.
I’m certain I cried more times than was comfortable for the woman in the middle seat during the two-hour train ride back to my Italian hometown. But those tears were different—full of joy.
She was Italian, so even if I wanted to tell her, I couldn’t. It was a story best saved for another day.
Whole. Transformed. Free.
I could never find myself in the Bible. I never related to the stories of women like Esther, Ruth, Mary. I did always wonder what happened to the woman at the well, the woman with the issue of blood, or the woman caught in adultery. You know—those scarred women. After they met with Jesus, and He forgave their sins, and He healed them, what happened to their scars?
On my flight back to Alabama, I got my answer as I stared at myself in the tiny bathroom mirror as I freshened up. He gave them a new life.
Their scars, just like mine, are proof that God heals.
He gave me back everything.