Thursday, December 11, 2014

Early Rumblings and Earthquakes

Something happened when I was 11 years old that changed my life forever. I had the opportunity to go to a Bible Conference in Ashland, Kentucky the summer I was about to turn 12. It was Memorial Day weekend, the weekend of the Indianapolis 500 and my father, mother, older brother and I drove to Ashland, Kentucky for the Bible Conference. What happened there was that I learned the truth about God.

As I sat in the church auditorium in Kentucky, it was a pleasant, safe feeling. I was listening to the speakers and suddenly I heard something I know I had never heard before. The pastor who sponsored the conference, Brother John Gilpin, was speaking. He told us in the audience about a God who sent His only son to earth to die on a cross to save me. To save me?! Mark Phelps, 11 year old boy from Kansas! I couldn’t hold back the tears. I was overwhelmed. It was as if a light had been illuminated in the core of my soul and suddenly I could see. And hear. And it was true. I had been dead but God saved me and He made me alive. Could it be? Why would He send His son to die … for me? But He did! And now I knew. Now I had heard. Now I could see. I will never forget the day, the hour, the place. The beginning of eternal life for me!

My father had taught much to our little congregation about hell. A lot! In fact if you were to ask me what my father “majored on” it would be hell. Or maybe he got a Ph.D. in it. I know I must have heard the words about Christ dying on a cross before but there was no life to the words and certainly no life in my heart in response to my father’s words. But now I understood. I got it. God had made me alive and I knew I would never be the same. It was simple, and wonderful, and glorious. But after that amazing experience of being born into the Kingdom of God, now I would travel back in the car to Kansas and back to my father’s church. And back to business as usual.

And what that meant was returning to the same old preaching that had no life in it. Going back to that same fear-inducing message was very disheartening for me who had just been born into the Kingdom of God. I now had an awakened spirit and a real hunger for nourishing preaching and teaching! After an amazing weekend that changed my life I would come back to an environment that fed neither my soul nor my spirit. There would simply be no wholesome or life-giving teaching after that for me.

There is a condition that occurs when babies are not getting their needs met. This condition is called “failure to thrive.” Researchers understand that this condition is primarily a lack of love and physical expressions of love (cuddling and holding) more than it is a lack of nutrition. It can create serious health risks for the child; in fact, many children in orphanages who are fed adequately can still die from this “lack of Love.” I was what you would have called a “failure to thrive” new believer because the life giving teaching I got in Ashland KY was not going to come to me again until I left my father’s church over eight years later, and would be another ten years after that.

I was growing up in a home of abuse, so this beautiful, amazing bright spot in my spiritual growth was to be crowded out by many more years of terrifying and horrific experiences of abuse at the hand of my father. It is very hard to hear just one message of the beautiful truth that God loves you and laid down His life for you personally if you are immediately going to be told day after day how much he hates you. And hates the human race! Unbelievably that is what happened after my Ashland experience. I honestly have no idea why my father allowed me to hear the beautiful, glorious, amazing truth that God loved me as a son only to bring me home to spend years undoing that truth with his words and his actions as a physical and verbal abuser. It makes very little sense.

It would be very hard even then for my father the hater to try to undo the amazing gift of new life his son got that day. But he would dedicate his life to doing just that, to his children, his church and later to his community and country. After many, many years of trying to “succeed” in a system that was rigged by the Abuser/Pastor/Father in my life, I gave up trying and left. I left my family when I was 19 ½ years old late one night, in secret, to escape the realm of my father and try to remain safe in the process.

When I left my family I had no grand plan. I had read enough by then to know that all the things my father taught were not true. And that was an important part of what it would take to get me out the door. Truth is so powerful even in the face of repeated lies. But I had no specific, clear basis for leaving except for one. I had begun to sense the love of God in the life of the young lady I had met, and, though I still felt it was wrong to leave, her love was attractive to me and I could not forget it.

My father had begun to be more and more violent and abusive to my brother Nate, my sister Katherine and my brother Fred Jr. I had a sick feeling inside as I stood by and watched the way he treated these three, in particular. Why couldn’t I do something to stop him?

This question was barely beginning to surface to my awareness. Of course, I knew I couldn’t do anything and I was too ‘smart’ to try. But watching this increasing abuse toward these three dear siblings of mine did have one effect. It allowed me to feel able finally to leave because I sensed, even at this point in my life, that what my father was doing was terribly wrong. Even with all his carefully and maniacally laid plans to the contrary.

But, as I said earlier, there was no grand plan. I was just running for my life. Yes, that was the plan. I was running for my life and hoping God was not going to kill me. That was the only hope, at this point in my life. I hoped that God would not kill me for leaving my father and his ‘church’.

I realized later that, even when I was unable to know for certain or see clearly, the Lord was leading me out and away, for my future good. My life had been like an adult who has been drugged but with just enough awareness to get away from his captor. I am honestly so grateful for that glimmer of awareness I had that allowed me to see the truth of things. As powerful as the brainwashing was that my father perpetrated upon us, the Lord allowed in enough light to get me out! He did!

I had learned to cope at such a very young age, and had skills and powers of intuition and awareness that I needed to stay safe to live in my home with a violent father. I believe the power and image of God in me knew there was something so wrong and He led me to leave, or at least made a way out. And by doing this, the Lord set me free to heal myself. But one day he would give me a passion for the healing of others on their journey of healing from abuse. Now I am again making the choice to write of my experiences to help others on their healing journeys by this labor borne of love for hurting ones. I know because I have walked this path that there will be some who may require help being lifted out of their darkness. I hope to be able to be some small part of lifting that burden of darkness.

I had never had a plan for my life. The plan was my father’s. But me? I had no plan. Not for education. Not for independence. Not for a family. My father had made it clear to us as his children that we were not going to be allowed to live our own lives. In fact I believe my father did not expect us to even think about our lives as belonging to us, or that we had an obligation to live them well. He saw our lives as belonging to him . . . in a usurping, grabbing, commandeering kind of way. He not only believed he was in control of our lives but sought to have us agree with him and relinquish whatever minor control we had over them.

My father seems so maniacal to me now that he could not even allow us little areas of our lives to have our personalities and choices and preferences come out. When I think about the joy I have had as a father to watch my children blossom into the special people God made them to be, my father’s actions seem even more twisted to me. Looking back, I realize a person is unable to plan for their future when they fear for their lives. All my energy was expended on trying to figure out what I had to do to stay safe, and stay off my father’s radar screen. It took all my mental and emotional energy to monitor my environment and figure how to stay safe within it.

If staying safe meant beating my younger brothers at the command of my father, that’s what I did. If staying safe meant standing by and watching my father beat my sister Katherine within an inch of her life, that’s what I did. When my father wanted ‘good words’, I would manage to come up with something that sounded like I was in agreement with what he was doing to one of my brothers or my sisters, or to someone in the community. I was the ultimate ‘yes man’. I had observed and studied this sick man, my father, so carefully that I knew what he expected and I knew how to say and do the right things to stay safe, down to the very formulation and order of words in my sentences.

When I was not in his physical presence or at the house, I would behave in whatever way I wanted to, as long as I didn’t think he would find out. There were a couple of times where I miscalculated and almost got onto my father’s radar. One of the times was when I was so overwrought when he was beating my sister and raging at my mother and beating my brother, I yelled, ‘What is your problem!?’ I quickly backed off and I got by with this slip-up somehow. I guess this was because he was in such a rage at others.

The other time was when my father found an empty candy box under the mattress where I slept on the floor. Sometimes at night I would eat a box of candy (the candy we children were selling for our father’s ‘church’) because I was hungry and because it gave me emotional comfort. If it was really late, I would simply put the empty box under the mattress and throw it away in secret the next morning. One morning I had forgotten to throw the box away and for some reason that day, he was in my room throwing a fit about something and he threw the mattresses to one side. He saw the empty candy box. Since it was only one I just told him it must have been from one night when I had not had time to eat. I must have gotten by with it because he didn’t say anything further about it. Apparently being my father’s yes man allowed me to occasionally be hungry, be human and get away with it!

When I left my father’s house late one night, I found myself in the same circumstance as anyone else in the world. As with any young person around age 20 I had to get busy and start making a living. So I got various jobs for over a period of a few months and was not able to get back to the university for the remainder of the school year in 1974. I ended up getting a job at a print shop where I was able to settle in to stay a while. After I got past my fear that God was going to kill me for leaving my father’s ‘church’, I was able to begin to accomplish some things any young person would by making simple steps forward into independence and making my own way in the world.

In January 1975 I started back to the university full time and continued working about 60 hours a week. I could afford a place to live and a vehicle, or an apartment and a vehicle, or an apartment and school. But I could not afford all three. So I chose to get a vehicle, and I purchased an air mattress, joined the YMCA and lived on an air mattress on the floor of the print shop where I worked, for about 10 months. I kept my clothes in the trunk of my car and showered at the YMCA. By doing this, I was able to get started back to the university and still have enough money for a car to get back and forth to the university. I also worked Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays at Flaming Steer steak house as a waiter.

I was trying to progress and make a little money to start my life. There were days when even though I was juggling a job and school and a unique living situation there was enjoyment, and an incredible sense of discipline and accomplishment in being able to do what I was doing. For the first time in my life I was able to make decisions, follow up on them, and learn about how to get along in the world. For a young man who had never been allowed to think or reason out a plan for taking steps to go forward in an endeavor, this was an incredibly important time for me. It is very gratifying to live your own life and I was learning this!

I graduated from the university in May of 1976 and my fiancée (yes, my girlfriend from the skating rink) and I were married in August 1976. I continued working at the print shop for another year or so and then went to work for another printing company in St. Louis, MO from October 1977 to July 1978. On the first day of August, 1978 I started my own printing company and our first print shop in Prairie Village, Kansas. Then I opened another shop in Topeka, Kansas January 2, 1979. We traveled to southern California in late 1980 and I expanded our company with print shops in southern California starting on March 2, 1981. We opened 6 print shops in southern California between 1981 and 1983.

Having print shops in several cities spread between Kansas City and San Diego began to build a bit of pressure in our lives. My wife also lost three babies to miscarriage during these years, which added to stress and emotional pain for both of us. In the move to California, I had not shown any regard for my wife’s needs or preferences. Honestly, it never crossed my mind! I had just said we were moving and we moved. This was a pattern that had certainly been modeled for me by my father towards the needs of my own mother and it was one that would take me many years, much insight and discipline to undo.

My wife and I traveled a lot and took care of the business side of our lives just fine. We had no children during these years. In 1982 we registered with the county where we lived and started the adoption process. We opened a shop in Phoenix, Arizona in May of 1983 and lived in Arizona for a while. We were making progress and had bought a home in southern California.

All of these circumstances began to build stress in our lives and in our relationship and it began to take a toll on our marriage. I began to experience issues with anxiety and anger and was beginning to behave in hurtful ways toward my wife as the strain and stress of our lives increased.

I was not ready to begin attending church again. I am sure this comes as no surprise to many of you when you think about the level of abuse I suffered. Instead, I really focused in on reading books like ‘Think and Grow Rich’ by Napoleon Hill, and ‘How To Win Friends and Influence People,’ by Dale Carnegie, and other motivational books like this. I bought a book entitled ‘University of Success’, a book containing fifty short chapters related to positive thinking, proper mind discipline, having a positive attitude, and the virtues of goal setting. Following the advice of these books, I hand wrote pages and pages of goals and affirmations. I read these pages in front of the mirror, out loud to myself, for an hour or two a day, to help me keep my mind positive and focused.

But my anxiety was building more and more, even with all these efforts and attempts to manage stress and life responsibilities. Some of you who have suffered abuse know that the effort we abuse victims put forth to keep our abuse and its aftermath stuffed inside our souls takes great effort anyway. Then when you add on top of that the normal stresses of a busy life, you can see the set up for serious issues for those of us who have not properly healed. I was having quite a bit of success but I was experiencing more and more anxiety from trying to keep the time bomb that was ticking in my soul from exploding. Still, at this time, I had not become aware of how my actions were affecting my wife; how I was hurting her. I realized this later as she began to experience difficulties, herself, from simply living with me. Reading those words even today makes me cry!

I hired a business consultant to help me improve my employee hiring skills so I could hire more effective employees for our business, and I had a lot of success with this. In fact, I began to do some consulting for other business owners who owned small to medium-sized businesses. It was around this time I began to realize my wife was having some personal difficulties with some of the effects of living with me, as well as other difficulties and pressures in her life. Before this time, I was completely unaware of all of her hurts because I lacked empathy and understanding and sensitivity toward other human beings, particularly my own wife. I had no knowledge at the time that many of these behaviors were consistent with adults who had been abused as children. When an abused child spends years “stuffing” their feelings or attempting to not feel at all it will not be an easy process to undo, even if one is married and to have feelings once again would be helpful for the relationship!

My focus had been to drive myself hard in my work so I could be financially successful. This is what I thought I was supposed to do, as a man and as a husband. And I had seen the immense stress placed on a family when my father was unable or unwilling to be the breadwinner. All of these things; starting a business, reading and educating myself, setting goals, working hard to be successful in my work each have good aspects to them. But not for the reasons I was doing them; and for the motivations and reasons that were driving me. That was the issue for me. I am not suggesting it is wrong to work hard, or have a business, or make money in itself, but each of us has to examine our motivations. What motivates us is very important. My motivation was to overcome the wretched feelings in my soul, and to run from my own pain, through business and financial success. I believe from the time I was a child work had been my primary solace and even safe haven from my abuse.

By 1984 I began to get back involved with a church. Unfortunately, I picked a church with similar qualities to my father’s church that I had grown up in, though not nearly as severe. It definitely was an environment of spiritual abuse where a couple of people were attempting to over control everyone else. This was affecting people in the congregation in negative ways. This spiritually abusive environment began to concern my wife, and some of the other women in the church were calling my wife expressing their worries and concerns and fears. Their concern was that I was going to join the other abusers and make circumstances worse. They also were concerned about me. They did not want me to get hurt since they knew some of what my background had entailed.

In June of 1988 the man who had helped me start my business crashed his plane and died. In many ways he had been like a father to me.

As a result of a variety of experiences; getting back into the Bible and into a church, the loss of my business partner, the normal pressures of life; pressure in me was building and the pressure was growing. Then our first adopted daughter joined our family. It was around the time we got our first daughter that I began to realize I might need professional help.

Coming to an understanding of how my behavior was negatively affecting my wife was my greatest concern. I was experiencing unpredictable, arbitrary anger that kept coming out sideways. Sometimes there would be a pattern. For a while I seemed to be angry on Mondays. Then I seemed to be angry on Fridays. All this anger had nothing to do with my wife, but was mostly vented at my wife!

Even the pressures and stresses in a normal relationship were not ones I initially experienced with my wife because she was doing everything she could behind the scenes to keep those stresses at bay. My wife was so gentle and so careful with me and with our relationship because she knew how much I had suffered growing up. But what she did to compensate for my past abuse was more than what was good for her own needs. Because of the way my wife handled our daily lives, I did not even have what would be considered the normal pressures of life, and of a marriage relationship, during these early years. My wife had attempted to do everything she could to make things good and peaceful and normal for me, and to be supportive and helpful. And she truly did a phenomenal job of anticipating my needs and trying to be the shock absorber for anything that would be stressful for me. But her great strength in taking on far more pain and frustration than was hers to bear would ultimately be her undoing.

Yet I had arbitrary outbursts of anger towards my wife even in spite of her best efforts to absorb all the stress in our lives. I had irritation and impatience and just very hurtful emotions I expressed toward my wife; in addition to hurtful facial expressions and words. I was not violent. There was no physical abuse. I knew better than all those things. Thank God. But looking back, I realize I was unable to contain all of the abuse that had poisoned my heart during my growing up years, once I got into the pressure cooker of life. I was not able to contain all that was within me. The stuff I had never dealt with started spilling over. It was beginning to take its toll on my wife, first and foremost.

The single thing that, by far, had the greatest impact on me having the desire to change was the realization that I was hurting my wife. I realized, then, that though I was not the sole cause, I was the primary cause of her anguish and distress and sadness. Most of my wife’s distress was coming from my behavior. Once this became clear to me, and I had this awareness, I was determined to change. Though she did not overtly tell me these things initially, as she began to get some counseling she was able to start expressing some of what was hurting her. I am so grateful she got help and was able to finally express things to me she had long needed to say.

The truth is it took me about 6 months from the time she started getting some help herself, and seeing her process of what she was learning and realizing that she was having such difficulty, before I began to realize that her pain was, in large part, because of what it was like to live with me. You see, my wife did not tell me overtly or directly. She had been trying to protect me from this reality. Her reality! My wife is such an incredibly loving and self-sacrificing person! Only as she began to get some help for herself was she able to start expressing some of what was hurting her.

As I said, when she finally began to get this information communicated, it became the primary driving force in me realizing my need to change. I knew I needed to get some help! I needed to do something about all the strain and stress of life and the affects it was having on my behavior. And I needed to do something about all the garbage that was in my soul; in my heart; I needed to deal with that. And I needed to STOP hurting my wife.

I had a sense that this raging storm within me was not going to be something that could be dealt with within the context of my marriage relationship, or friendship relationships, or by throwing myself even harder into my work; and certainly not through more positive thinking strategies, or goal setting, or positive affirmations. None of this was going to be sufficient. I knew I had to heal my heart, and I was beginning to realize it was going to take a lot of work.

Then, when I realized we were about to welcome our first precious little one into our family, all the hurt in my heart surfaced so rapidly. I was so frightened of ever doing anything to hurt a little one. Within a period of less than a week we found out our precious little girl was available after waiting 7 years with the county. We found out she was available on a Friday and we had her in our home by the following Monday. Having her and knowing what my behavior had been, with the abuse I had experienced, and the affect it was having on my wife, I realized I needed some help. I began to seriously look for help!

Some of you who are reading my blog may have hung on for dear life without yet sensing the need to seek help for your soul. I understand how terrifying it can be to really consider tackling the bringing to surface of all the poison of abuse. In these next blogs I will be looking at the healing process. It is my story but I hope you can find hope and encouragement for your own life. As you hear my journey of being set free from the pain and the agony of my abuse you will want to be set free from yours. That is my strong hope for your life. It is so worth the pain of extracting the poison for the feeling of having a soul that is free!

Mark Phelps

2 comments:

  1. I am so sorry for your loss of your friend on the airplane.

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    1. Genevieve you are so compassionate. Thank you for your expression to me. This friend was my business partner and was like an older brother to me. He was a significant part of my life helping to lift me up and out and helping me to get my life started.

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