This story is also posted in the OurStoriesUntold blog.

This may be an unfair assumption, but many people are probably only reading this post to hear about my experiences with Luke Hartman. My story is so much bigger than him though, and writing this post has involved revisiting some of the hardest moments of my life. Please don’t cheapen that long and painful process by skimming to the “gossip.” My story may be long, but grab some caffeinated coffee, maybe a cookie or two, and keep in mind, however long it takes you to read this, it took literally hundreds more hours and tears for me to write. 

I’ve heard rumors that ‘the truth will set you free’.… I suppose I’m about to find out. But by the grace of God, just as my story did not end with Luke Hartman, it sure as hell did not begin with him either. 

laughing-girls

My story begins with laughter; with parents who put unimaginable time and energy into creating a haven of safety, love, and happiness for my sister and me. My sister loved me fiercely (despite her slipping soap into one of my drinks to teach my seven-year-old self a “lesson on manners”) and that fierceness is at present, an understatement – I have no truer friend in the world.

I grew up on a safe street surrounded by close friends and we thrived in our world of imaginary adventures. Was there ever a moment when the pavement on our cul-de-sac wasn’t covered in elaborate chalk castles and chalk markets (or my attempts at chalk dogs that resembled scary chalk mole rats)? In my mind, no. I look back on my childhood and see a kaleidoscope of color and beauty. The stage for the rest of my life was built out of love and heading into middle school, I was set up perfectly by everyone who raised me to flourish into a young girl who could conquer the world with kindness, compassion, and creativity. 

The problem is that every person on earth possesses metaphorical matches. Take such great care, my friends. We all hold the gift to bring a flicker of light into someone’s darkness. We also hold the power to burn and destroy someone’s world. Parents (not to scare the heck out of you) but there’s a possibility that all your hard work and that elaborate stage you set up for your child to succeed can be burnt to the ground by those matches, despite your best efforts. My family deserves a standing ovation for showing up time and time again to pull me out of my rubble and ashes, wrap me in their love and promise, “we’ll rebuild this thing together.”

you__re_uglyThe first match that set my world on fire was struck in sixth grade when I was quickly labeled as “ugly” by many of my classmates. My red hair and pale skin became a constant source of ridicule. I was then confused but quite frankly relieved when a boy in my class asked me to be his girlfriend. I figured, “Okay, I can live without being all that and a bag of chips –  I’ll just be the chips. Heck, even one chip. That’s fine. I’ve got this.”

That boy told me he loved me and his acceptance balanced out the mockery. Then an entire room of our peers zeroed in on us holding hands one day and decided to convince this boy to break up with me in front of everyone. They laughed at him for dating someone who wasn’t “pretty” or “popular” enough for him. They called him blind and stupid; they called me boring and said “she’s not even that skinny.” This boy who “loved me” let go of my hand and listened intently as his friends suggested girls who were a “better option” than me. 

The next day I walked past him kissing his skinny, tan, gorgeous ‘better option.’ I felt something so much worse than feeling ugly; I felt unlovable. I should look back and think that was just sixth grade, it was all so silly! But I can’t. That moment triggered my habit of squinting when I looked in the mirror so I could blur out my flaws. I began to have trouble looking people in the eye because my mind would wonder which part of me they were deciding they hated most. I also began to struggle with such a bizarre assortment of eating disorders that no one could have ever picked up on the fact that I actually had one. 

I was further confused and frightened when an eighth grader exposed me to pornographic material several times at school and then continually offered to pay little sixth grade me for sex. In fact, I began to realize that the only genuine interest and attention I received from boys was from those simply keen enough of sight to notice (and inappropriately comment) on my growing breasts.

I know I had some good friends and good memories from middle school, but I can’t remember them. What I do remember is a much older boy exposing himself to me. I couldn’t understand why ninety percent of boys found me repulsive and the remaining ten percent felt this strange need to expose themselves to me in some sexual way. I remember feeling that every conversation being whispered was about me. I remember that no one stood up for me when I was backhanded across the face by a boy twice my size while trying to defend one of my friends on the bus.

Then, as a young adolescent, I was sexually assaulted by a group of boys in the back of a van. These boys were not ski-masked hooligans who drove me into some shady alleyway. They were “well-behaved Mennonite boys” from good old Mennonite families and we were in a setting that was supposed to be safe. 

The humiliation and trauma of that experience changed me. In the following months I was taunted by some of those involved for my “inadequacy” during the assault with comments such as “you can’t even get a guy hard.” I was hurt and exhausted from being bullied, devalued, and to some extent or another sexually harassed by many of my peers. I felt like I was in a constant state of hurt, anger, loneliness and embarrassment that I couldn’t process or understand. I hid it well, because as a teenager the only thing more embarrassing than being mistreated is acknowledging that it’s happening (even to your closest friends).

After a while that devastating level of hurt became normal to me and then, once it was normal, I didn’t even realize it was pain anymore. It just – was. Like breathing.

The first time I remember meeting Luke Hartman was in Sunday School when I was 15. He was my Sunday School teacher and in his mid 30’s. My family often arrived at church early, so I typically had about 15-20 minutes alone in the classroom with him each Sunday before everyone else arrived.

Church – an establishment that far too often tries to pound the importance of sexual purity into your brain with a Thor-like hammer of holiness – leaves those of us who have experienced sexual abuse and trauma with nothing more than a detrimental migraine. Once through church doors, I couldn’t hide my pain well enough to prevent my early Sunday morning conversations with Luke from erring on the heavy side. He was so open with us in Sunday school about the bullshit of the world that I felt I could be honest back. We discussed church hypocrisy, world hypocrisy…hatefulness, loneliness – all the weapons the world has to use against you. He never judged my comments or the dark, sarcastic humor I had developed. He listened and he empathized. From those short conversations, I grew to trust and respect him more than any other adult in my life. He felt like a safe and nonjudgmental presence in my otherwise dark and frightening little world.

In Sunday School, Luke asked us to write down our struggles on a piece of paper. I wrote down “I’m having sex with my boyfriend and I don’t feel guilty about it. I could use someone to talk to if you would be open to that.”

I had thought long and hard about talking to Luke, and believed if I confided in him he would never use my confessions against me and he would never judge me. Luke emailed me immediately following church. He said something along the lines of “Lauren, I’m sorry, it would be inappropriate for us to have that discussion.” That’s all the email said, but I took away from it that if seemingly nonjudgmental Luke was reprimanding me for inappropriateness then it must truly be inappropriate to have that discussion at all. I felt embarrassed and confused and I never attempted to discuss sex in a healthy way again. I also never shook that feeling of being outside looking in on a world that I just didn’t understand or fit into.

I recently found out I was wrong in my belief that Luke would never use my vulnerability against me. I learned he kept that note of mine from Sunday school for 11 years and just one short year ago he showed it to others in church leadership in an attempt to prove that I had been the one who “seduced him” and was sexually immoral. I was 15 when I wrote that note and it was one of the first and only times I allowed myself to be open and honest and reach out for help, all on my own. No words exist to describe the grief and betrayal I felt when I realized he had tried to demonize that remaining innocent and trusting part of my soul. I felt helpless and have spent the past year struggling to accept the fact that at no point – ever – was my trust in Luke sacred or safe. 

Soon after I turned 18, he contacted me and offered to take me to Wendy’s. We met and initially Luke painted the exact picture of his life that I had gone into our meeting expecting; white picket fences, fantastic opportunities, a wonderful life, a wonderful family…all the fun Mennonite topics. I smiled, laughed along and pretended I was doing great as well, instead of expressing to him the truth – that the girl sitting across from him was ruined from hurt and on the verge of total self-destruction. Then, towards the end of our conversation, he confessed to me an extremely private, personal story about himself. I don’t know what lesson he hoped I might gain from his story, but I walked away feeling honored he’d chosen to confide in me. I felt a flood of relief that it was clearly okay and safe for us to go beyond pleasantries again like we had when he taught my Sunday school class, and I fell immediately back into trusting him.

We did not meet again for another year or so. I was trying to cope with my disastrous downward spiral. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had never recovered from that early sexual assault in the van. I had also never recovered from the deep wounds left by bullies and harassers who left me feeling emotionally isolated from everything and everyone.

False smileSo I surrounded myself with friends who gave me free access to methods of ‘coping’ without actually having to cope. Alcohol and painkillers were so much easier than remembering situations that caused me so much mental harm. I was weary – and I followed the path of least resistance. That path (the path of post traumatic stress disorder) led me further and further away from my friends and family who truly DID love me. That road had already destroyed most of my relationships with them in high school but I had very little energy left and lacked the courage to turn back and choose a different route. So I continued on.

Then at 19 I was raped – by someone I had trusted – by one of the last people remaining who had made me feel sheltered and protected. I went home, collapsed on the floor and screamed at God to just end it. It was the first time I’d talked to God in years and I was begging him to kill me. He did not, obviously, so I simply curled up on the floor and spent the night sobbing into the fur of my fluffy white husky. I gave up on caring about myself that night.

It was hard to wake up but even harder to fall asleep. I experienced a few terrifying hallucinations due to phases of insomnia. I often forgot to eat and it took actual effort to breathe. It’s almost (but not really) humorous that I don’t even remember attending radiology school; but I do remember, at certain times, focusing on every breath I was taking. It was like my body was in survival mode, taking  me back to basics. 

I tried to tell my boyfriend at the time that I had been raped but he ended up punching a hole in the wall and accusing me of cheating on him. So I gave up on him as well. I used sex to cope and allowed myself to be used for sex. I drank and popped painkillers like tic tacs provided by friends I can hardly remember now. I’m grateful to still be here. Most of my friends were the kind of “friends” who would splash some cold water on your face and smack you a bit when it appeared you may have accidentally overdosed, but never once think to call 911.

When it was necessary (and around those who mattered to me) I learned to act fine and funny, but I left those encounters feeling exhausted. Around those who provided me with my various forms of “coping,” well it didn’t really matter much how I acted around them, did it? I knew at some point I would lose my battle against myself, but I pictured the looks on my family’s faces if they’d have to endure the news that I’d committed suicide, and the thought of causing them so much pain stopped me in my tracks many times. Cheers (if you happen to have a glass of champagne handy) to a childhood so happy that I still had just enough hope left in my reserves to carry on – for them.

Light in hand

One night, one of my truly best friends at that time was back in town and he reminded me that I was special to him – so at the risk of having another hole punched in my wall, I told him I was raped. No one could have responded better. He encouraged me to go to the police but I was exhausted, suicidal, and far too frightened of what that process may ultimately involve. He asked me who I trusted in the church and insisted I needed to go to that person and get help immediately. I told him Luke Hartman was the only adult I would ever trust with that information, but I knew back in high school Luke had told me it was inappropriate for us to discuss sex. My friend said “Tell him it’s important. He can help you figure out who to talk to.”

I emailed Luke and told him I was struggling and needed to talk. He had us meet a few days later in his office at Skyline Middle School, but the suit and tie setting combined with the sounds of kids laughing on the other side of that closed door didn’t feel like the right moment to discuss rape. I simply repeated to him that I was going through a hard time. He kept bringing the conversation around to my boyfriend. He asked me if I had ever cheated on him. We talked for a long time but never got around to the conversation I needed to have, so I asked him if we could meet again soon. He said yes and came in to give me a hug. I stepped to the side and gave him a side hug.

When I got home there was an email from Luke saying how great it was to see me. He made fun of me for the “camper side hug.” He mentioned how beautiful I’d gotten and how much I’d grown up. He asked how old I was. We continued emails back and forth. They steadily became more and more sexually charged, although I truly don’t remember how that progression happened.

We very soon ran into each other at a basketball game. Luke was sitting behind me and I got a text from him that told me to turn around. We made eye contact and that was that. He emailed me after the game saying what he was feeling was so wrong but he couldn’t help it because we had such an undeniable energy between us. At the time I had to agree and the sudden flood of affection from one of the last people on earth that had the ability to make me feel safe became one of the only barriers between me staying alive and me giving up.

Within a month, he had gotten a hotel room somewhere along 81 and asked me to meet him there. Soon after we had sex the first time, I confided in him that I had been raped. He told me that he wished he knew who had done that to me so he could kill them. He comforted me and reassured me of the safety I’d always have in him.

It was reported to me that when Luke was confronted, he claimed our relationship lasted for only three months. That is wildly inaccurate. In reality the relationship  lasted for over a year. Looking back, I feel sad and embarrassed that I wasn’t healthy enough to believe Luke was using me. He had a secret email account, the only one I was allowed to use to email him. I was under strict instructions to delete every email and text he sent to me. I honored those requests. At the end of each phone conversation, he reminded me to delete my call history. He had me in his phone under a fake name and he told me to send him vague, innocent texts of greeting when I wanted to talk. If anyone was present, he would shoot back an “N” (for no) which meant that I could not text him again until he first texted me. If he sent back a “Y” (for yes), then I could call him. It makes me so sad and disgusted at myself to think of all the ‘toasts’ we did to him (and me) lying his ass out of trouble time and time again. However, he poured love and affection on me so I always followed his advice on how to keep us a secret, because in my mind those were temporary measures that had to be taken until he finally left his wife for me. That’s where he assured me we were headed, even though he acknowledged that the process would take a few years and that we’d have to pretend we started dating after his divorce was finalized to keep it from looking bad.

We saw each other roughly 3 – 5 times per week. When we weren’t together physically we were talking on the phone or texting. In church he would text me from across the room about how hot I looked and what we should do together. He even took me on a business trip to Pennsylvania with him so we could spend an entire weekend alone.

EscapeLuke had neck pain and was receiving painkillers for it. Due to my painkiller addiction, I’d ask him for some occasionally and he’d happily oblige. When he ran out he would try to get more because “he’d do anything for me.” We’d drink bourbon together and in my little corner of the world where I had addictive substances and Luke Hartman to depend on, I felt numb – and when I was 20, numb was the closest thing I had to happiness – numb felt like an escape. Numb felt safe.

Then I was invited to meet one of his close friends. Luke encouraged me to go and I was excited – Good Lord, SO excited, because being acknowledged by one of his friends made everything feel so real finally. His friend sat me down in his office and essentially said, “Luke knows that I am meeting with you, but not what I am saying to you. I see why he brags about you all the time, but you are so young and you deserve better than this. Luke is not going to leave his wife and based on my conversations with him, it seems you are under the impression that he will. Do you want this to be your life?” I felt sick following that conversation but decided his friend must not fully comprehend how serious we were about each other.

A day came where Luke mentioned he was in possession of a gun. I never saw it, I only know that the same friend who warned me away from him showed up on one of our dates to convince Luke to hand the gun over to him. He seemed concerned and I felt unnerved by his determination to get this gun away. I do not know what happened with the gun or if it even existed – I only heard about it’s existence. But in my mind, from that point on, Luke was in possession of a gun.

He began to trust me with a lot of information about himself. He said that because we were going to get married eventually he needed to be honest with me. He told me how many times he had cheated on his wife. He gave me details about many of those occurrences. He gave me an estimate of how many times he’d paid for prostitution and told me specific and troubling details about some of those encounters as well. He cried as he recalled certain stories. He provided me with detailed information on many aspects his life; information that should have been discussed with a therapist – not with me. At the time though, I thought I loved him even more for his honesty.  Now years later, when I heard that he walked away from a solicitation of prostitution charge on a mere technicality, I felt defeated, and scared of his ability to manipulate the truth.

Luke also admitted to me that he spent most of our time at Wendy’s (when I was 18) hoping I’d invite him back to my new apartment I’d mentioned at the time. He also told me that he loved the tight white pants I wore to church when he first met me (when I was 15) and that he would always wonder what I was wearing underneath. I was in no way aware that he viewed me sexually at either of those points in my life, but there you have it.

I started to get annoyed because it seemed all he wanted from me was sex. At one point I realized he’d been keeping score of how many times we’d had sex. I went along with him out of town for his dissertation meeting, and he wanted to have sex in the car before going inside. I told him I was getting frustrated because it felt like sex was his only priority. He laughed and said I was silly, that of course sex wasn’t the most important thing to him. He pointed out all the other things we did together that weren’t sexual. He then went to go inside for his meeting and told me to wander around campus until he was done. He winked and said, “Don’t worry – we’ll finish this later.”

Waiting for Luke to leave his marriage was killing me. I went home crying after our evenings of sneaking out together because I knew he was going home to someone else. I did not believe I could live without him. His seemingly intense devotion to me was the only thing masking all the pain I had festering just under the surface. But I couldn’t stay on the side any longer. So I gave Luke an ultimatum. And he didn’t choose me.

I was devastated and desperately wanted to unwrap myself from around Luke’s finger, but my gosh darn broken malfunctioning soul, brain and heart thought I loved him so painfully much. Luke continued to give my heart just enough hope to hold on to him. He would ask me to meet him so we could talk things over. We’d meet. Talking more often than not led to sex. Sex typically led to me hating myself and I’d go home feeling nothing but guilt and anxiety. I don’t know how long this went on. It felt like forever, but one minute can feel like a lifetime when you’re hurting.

I tried to say goodbye and move on. Some days were more successful than others, but Luke seemed to sense me pulling away. He became frustrated and angry when discussing the “walls I was putting up.” I’m sure I furthered his frustration by reminding him those walls were created by his decision to refuse to make an actual decision regarding me.

One day two guys from Eastern Mennonite University were giving me a ride to campus when Luke began texting that he could see me in a car with shirtless guys (we had been swimming). I looked back and saw him following behind us in his vehicle. I texted him to leave me alone. His car turned and disappeared, so I didn’t worry about him further. Once we arrived at campus, he immediately began texting me again, accusing me of wanting to fuck both the guys I was with. I called him and he told me I was a slut and a bitch and that I might as well “go fuck everyone inside.” He told me “all those guys want to do is fuck you.” I cried and yelled at him that he had no right to my life anymore. He said, “Do you even know what I can do to you? I can see you right now, and you can’t even see me!” He described what I was wearing and told me what I was doing as I began to scan the area for a glimpse of him. He laughed and told me to look all I wanted, I’d never see him. I told him he was scaring me and that I was going to call the police. He very calmly replied, “Do it. See if they get here in time.” I hung up on him, went back inside, and slid down onto the floor behind my friends’ couch shaking. They asked if I was okay. I kept repeating “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.” But clearly I wasn’t. Someone who is fine doesn’t jump at every noise for the rest of the night and use jello shots to forget she has a reason to be afraid.

Luke apologized to me in the next few days, but the damage was done. I suddenly realized that Luke could hurt me and that he possibly wanted to. I also believed he could turn the world against me. I knew him as someone who always got what he wanted. He was so well respected and seemed to know everyone. Everyone loved him. Everyone trusted him. Hell, that’s exactly how I had felt about him. He also liked to casually mention his connections to important, influential people (including policemen) and he made it clear quite a few times that someone close to him is a former gang hit man who would do anything for him. I also never forgot he had claimed to have a gun. 

Realizing I was afraid of Luke stripped back that pseudo layer of protection I had depended on to survive for the previous 2 years. In fact, it stripped me down to nothing. There’s no pretty or poetic way to describe where that feeling of ‘nothing’ left me. I was ready to die and I made a plan to do so. God had other plans however, and he shoved my future husband into my life.

Luke was watching me the moment I met TC. I had just moved into a new place. I had no money, the only thing in my fridge was a frozen pizza and my oven was broken. There were no other girls in the building and TC was one of the only boys who hadn’t tried to hit on me since I’d moved in, so I went to his apartment and asked if I could borrow his oven. He smiled and said, “Sure, but I’m heading to get pizza with my friends if you’d like to come along.” I told him I was too poor but thanked him for the offer. He replied, “My treat.”

That night TC somehow broke through my years and layers of fake okay-ness and I remembered, for the first time in a long time, how pure and healing it is to genuinely laugh. TC and I couldn’t get enough of our conversation (a non-stop laughter fest) and following dinner with his friends, the two of us ended up talking in the parking lot for a few more hours. During that conversation we discovered that we had something so much more important in common than our sense of humor; we were both truly, deeply hurting.

As we said goodnight and I went to head to my room, TC stopped me and said, “I want to spend a lot more time with you.” So simple – but that comment saved my life.

phoneAs I headed to my room, Luke called me. I picked up my phone to a bombardment of questions and accusations. “Who was that guy?” “You like him, don’t you?” “You’re going to have sex with him, aren’t you? I can tell by the way you were looking at each other.” “Hope you had fun on your date tonight.” “Have fun fucking your entire building full of boys.” I screamed into the phone at Luke as I realized that he had been watching me that entire evening. I told him he was scaring me, he needed to back off and leave me alone. I reminded him he’d had me completely wrapped around his finger for over a year and he was the one who shook me off.

The next evening, TC took me into a nearby parking lot to teach me how to skateboard (or as I like to call it: screaming on a board on wheels). We spent all evening together; talking, joking, and screaming on a board on wheels.

When we finally said goodnight and parted ways to our separate rooms, I glanced down at my phone and realized I had countless missed calls and texts from Luke. He began to call again and I answered to tell him to leave me alone. He started yelling and described to me every single thing I had done that night with TC. He had very clearly been watching me all evening and even repeated parts of my conversations with TC that he would’ve had to be terrifyingly close to overhear. Luke said “I’m outside right now. Just go fuck every guy in that house. I know everything you did tonight. I know you’re going to sleep with that guy. Fuck you. Fuck him. You’re a slut. You have no idea what I’m going to do. You have no idea what I can do to you. I thought you loved me.” He said, “You’d better pray I don’t come inside.” He told me that no one else was going to have me. I yelled at him that I was going to call the police. He kept repeating “Are you kidding? They can’t protect you!” He would laugh, then he would scream, then he would cry. He threatened to kill himself — he said no one could save me and no one could save him.

TC heard the commotion and came downstairs to check on me so I hung up the phone, but I was shaking uncontrollably and could barely speak. He watched as my phone continued to ring and read some of the messages being sent to me. I stuttered out a brief enough explanation for him to realize the severity of the situation. He took me to his apartment, locked the door, put a blanket around me, settled down by the door with a baseball bat, and promised he wouldn’t let anyone hurt me. Looking back we both know we should have called the police, but at the time I was under the impression that all cops in the world were Luke’s drinking buddies and I somehow convinced TC that calling them wasn’t necessary. I also thought no one would believe me and I felt indescribably ashamed.

I didn’t hear from Luke for a few days, but he soon called, apologized and told me that watching another boy fall in love with me had pushed him over the edge. He insisted that if I had hung in there for even two more weeks before giving him an ultimatum on our relationship, his answer would’ve been the opposite and we would be together. I told Luke how badly he had scared me and that we couldn’t talk for awhile. He told me he understood.

However, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was being watched. I jumped at every sound and shadow. I soon decided to call Luke to get a feel for whether he was following me or not. After we spoke, the comfort I felt in knowing how he was doing (mentally) gave me the smallest feeling of power back. I decided I had to stay in touch with him, that way I’d at least see it coming if he got it in his head to murder me. I told him plainly we could only go forward as friends. He agreed.

TC and I started dating and Luke checked in occasionally to “make sure he was treating me well.” Luke also occasionally dropped by my building and gave me money to “help me get by.” He told me he was happy we could at the very least be good friends.

TC and I got married 7 months after meeting each other. Six months later we had a baby. Yes, that math is accurate. Having a baby, it turns out, is tough. So is postpartum depression. So is being poor! I told Luke we were trying to find jobs and he offered to help TC get a substitute teaching position so we’d have money coming in. TC (not knowing that Luke was the one who’d threatened me in the past) went to him for guidance on the teaching position and Luke offered him financial assistance. He was by this time a vice president at Eastern Mennonite University. TC accepted, but not wanting to overload my ‘postpartum-ed’ mind with our financial struggles, he asked Luke not to tell me we were having so much trouble. Within half an hour of that request, Luke called me and said “Hey, don’t worry about paying me back.” I asked him what he was talking about. He said, “TC just came by here to get money from me. He didn’t tell you?”

I’d wait for TC to tell me about the money but due to his misguided good intentions, he didn’t. So I stewed in anger and distrust until that same sequence of events occurred one too many times over the next few months. I then blew up at TC until I realized his intentions truly were an attempt to look out for my well being. He explained that he had asked Luke not to burden me and didn’t understand why he had called each time and phrased their interactions in such a way to me. I decided it was time to tell him my entire history with Luke. 

TC never spoke to him again.

Despite my anger toward Luke for what appeared to be an attempt to manipulate distrust into my marriage, his actions confirmed to me the necessity to continue following the “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” mantra. We went through varying phases in how often we communicated, but rarely did 3 months go by without one of us reaching out to the other.

The problem with pretending to be someone’s friend is how easily they can become a friend. I spent the next 4 years maneuvering the nearly invisible line between the version of Luke I believed to be my enemy and the version of Luke I believed to be my friend. There were really hard times in my marriage where I took my eyes off Luke the enemy. We never met in person, but I reached out to Luke the friend for a verbal fraction of the comfort and confidence I thought I’d found through him years before. He was always ready to shower me with praise and kind (although occasionally inappropriate) comments and at times, I let his words get into my head.

Then Luke made a comment my brain wasn’t ready to handle. He said, “I promise the day is going to come where your husband cheats on you, and on that day you are going to wish you chose me instead.” Dear readers, my biggest fear is that I’m not worthy of love and the horrific thought that I’ll be cheated on…chosen over…has a tendency to consume my mind. I can’t describe how much harm Luke’s small little sentence has done to me since then.

I needed Luke out of my life. I told him I was changing my phone number. I didn’t want to call him anymore. I didn’t want him to call me anymore. I didn’t want the exhaustion of trying to be friends anymore. It was such a damn burden to navigate between appeasing him enough to keep him from going crazy on me again and trying to keep healthy boundaries between us. I begged him to let me go. I told him not to contact me anymore. I said “This is goodbye for us.” He acknowledged that he understood and I changed my phone number the next day.

I was walking into work one day when Luke drove up, rolled down his car window and yelled “Hey!” I shook my head and walked inside. I hid in a corner and stayed there shivering and trying not to cry until his car had left. He immediately sent an email saying how great it was to see me and how good I looked. He reminisced about our past and special energy. I did not respond to him. Over the next few months he continued to drive by my workplace, which was one road over from the street he lived on. He’d speed into the cul-de-sac, slow down and stare at the house I worked in as he drove by, then speed away. He sometimes did this as late as 11:00 at night. He used a few different vehicles so I soon felt frightened each time a car turned up the street. My shift ended at midnight and I worked in a dimly lit neighborhood setting so I started asking my co-worker who took over for me each night to walk me to my car. I even did thorough searches of my car (including the trunk) before getting inside to ensure no one was there.

Then Luke left me $20 and a note under my windshield wiper while I was at work. His boldness (parking, jumping out of his car in broad daylight and leaving me those items in full view of the street he lived on) was too much for me. I saw his actions escalating and I decided it was time to get help in case his persistence turned angry or violent again.

I met with Dawn Monger (a friend of mine and a pastor at Lindale Mennonite Church) in August 2014 – a few days after Luke left the note and $20 on my car. My sister went along with me and I asked Dawn to bring one other person she trusted so she wouldn’t have to process my story alone. I didn’t go to them for moral reasons. I didn’t go to them to get Luke in trouble. I was simply scared of him. I just wanted him to leave me alone. I told Dawn everything and Dawn passed the details of my entire story with Luke on to Duane Yoder (the lead pastor at Lindale) and the Elders. Then (with TC on one side and my sister on the other) I sat down with my parents and broke down crying with fear and shame as I told them my entire story. They hugged me, cried with me, and more important than anything else – they believed me.

Luke has not contacted me since August 2014, after Duane supposedly dealt with my safety by threatening Luke to stay away from me…but I want to be clear on something; it has been far longer than that since Duane Yoder has reached out to me. He has not once walked with me through this process. In fact, according to the one church leader who did support me – it’s been quite the opposite. The past year and a half have been an eye-opening lesson for me on Church politics; a hard lesson that often left me feeling betrayed and re-victimized. I cannot remain a part of Lindale Mennonite Church in it’s current state. Lindale is full of incredible people who love and care about each other so profoundly. Our small group from Lindale helped raise me and I’ve known genuine compassion and love from them. They aren’t church, they are family. It is not because of the congregation that I need to detach. Predators, abusers…they swing hard against their victims. Once I’m brave enough to embrace another church again, I expect and deserve leadership that swings back even harder. Secrecy, silence, passivity; those protect the perpetrator, not the victim. I have not been protected, the congregation has not been protected, and the community has not been protected. I (and my story) have been hit back and forth like a ping pong ball between one powerful church leader who wanted to protect Luke, and one powerful (but silenced) church leader who wanted to protect me. 

Game over – I’m done.

I don’t want (or need) to be a part of any church right now. I want to be a part of the truth. God, for once, the truth. I want to empower anyone who has been abused by any aspect of this world. I want to stop hurting. Most importantly, I want to be a part of what God has in mind for me. I’ve prayed hard and no offense to the church, but God’s plan for me does not depend on my attendance in the pews. I don’t need the church to heal; I need faith. Lindale’s inadequate response to my abuse is part of the reason I’ve lost faith – but not in God, simply in the church – and this is an ongoing process. I’m thankful to have SNAP* to lean on and blessed that God has inspired other fierce advocates to surround me who are willing to fight for me in the church setting as I step back to heal. As much as I want to be healthy, I’m not there yet.

For the longest time I have insisted to my inner circle that all my past trauma (including the portion of my story that involves Luke Hartman) feels as though it happened to another person. I suppose to some extent that is true – I am a profoundly different person today than I was then. But I realize now that the moment I attempted to separate the girl I was then from the girl I am now,I made a huge mistake. I essentially tore my soul into pieces and forced the girl I was into the darkest corner of my mind in a disastrous attempt (and failure) to leave her and the pain she’d experienced behind. But that girl is not apart from me; she is simply Younger Me. And because of my decision to let go of her hand instead of embracing her, she has continued suffering all along, all alone.

In Glennon Doyle Melton’s book “Carry On, Warrior,” she writes:

“Love is not warm and fuzzy or sweet and sticky. Real love is tough as nails. It’s having your heart ripped out, putting it back together, and the next day, offering it back to the same world that just tore it up. It’s running toward pain and grief and brokenness instead of away from it.”

Younger Me, I desperately want to go back in time and hold you, cry with you, and promise you that although the road will be hard as hell, real love is here and you will never, ever be alone. I am not ashamed of you or your actions. In fact, I thank you. Thank you for fighting. Thank you for surviving. You deserve very real love.

My daughter and I

I was petrified to attach my name to this story – I AM petrified to attach my name to this story – but I’m willing to risk any amount of backlash for the sake of embracing my Younger Me who was willing to tough through a hell of a lot more to get me right here – right now.

My name is Lauren Shifflett and the only difference between me now and Younger Me is that Younger Me was known as Lauren Benner. We’re no longer “we”, we are “me”.

TC: Thank you for fighting for our marriage even when I told you it wasn’t worth it anymore. I was wrong. Our relationship is worthy of novels and a movie – complete with an epic soundtrack. You saved me. If you ever need it, I’ll save you too.

To my tireless, loyal, unconditional, fierce support system: You have shown real, true, honest, holy, hopeful love to me. Don’t be scared for me. Today, right now, our angels are dancing. 🙂

To anyone who wants to send me a personal message, please don’t hesitate to send an email to barbra.graber@yahoo.com. Barbra is my wonderful SNAP* advocate and she will ensure that your e-mails are forwarded to me and held in confidence. I would be so honored and humbled to hear your own words and stories.

*The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is the world’s oldest and largest support group for survivors of sexual abuse and their loved ones. SNAP was founded by victims of Catholic priests in 1988 and now has more than 21,000 members in 79 countries. Even though “Priests” is in its title, SNAP is open to religious and nonreligious persons who were sexually violated by anyone inside or outside a faith community. The Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of SNAP was established in early 2015. Contact: mennonite@snapnetwork.org