the Hope of Survivors

I Think It's My Turn to Shed the Mask Sarah McDugal

This blog of mine has sat silent for nine months.
For nine months, I ’ve wrestled with how to practically live out the principles from my own book.
How to shed the mask and live with one face when my heart clenches in fear of the fallout.

It didn’t feel right, to write while I was walking in the dark. As I’m gradually exiting the fog, I feel increasingly called to put pen to paper again (or fingertips to keys)—and this time to rip off the mask of my own fear.

But how?
Where do I start?shed+the+mask+sarah+mcDugal+author+live1face+one+Face+book
What does it look like for me, right now—to live with one face?

For me, shedding the mask starts with sharing the rest of my story. The story behind the scenes, the story known by only my closest friends and family.

Until two years ago, I was the wife of a senior pastor at a large church, mother of two amazing kids (that part hasn’t changed!), partway through international adoption of a third kiddo, and an entrepreneur successfully growing my small company in branding and marketing.

Then my life blew up.

It happened less than six weeks after I began writing ONE FACE.
Everything I thought was real suddenly shifted and shattered and left me stunned.
One day, he came to me and said “baby, come go for a walk, we need to talk.”

He started with something akin to an apology, although I didn’t know what it was for yet. For the next hour, the thunder pounded in my ears as I heard him saying things like “church elders caught me”, “on the church computer”, “in one of the church offices”, “really sorry”, “can you ever forgive me”, “one time slip-up”, “promise it’ll never happen again”…

I’d known since our first anniversary that he’d struggled with pornography addiction for going on two decades. I also knew it affected more than just “that area” of our marriage. Somehow I was always made to believe that our problems were my fault, that any aspect of accountability was actually a form of control. After five years of marriage, after begging years for him to get help, I packed a suitcase and drove away. But he promised the moon (plus counseling), so I came back.

Five more years later, it hadn’t gotten any better. I’d taken a media production contract job in another state for four months, so we could separate without our church getting suspicious. And because I needed to breathe fresh air and take time to figure out who I was again, who God had created me to be. It was during that time I realized I couldn’t keep living like this—in a hollow marriage devoid of real intimacy, in a family boomeranging on secondary cycles that addiction brings. I wanted our relationship and our family to be genuine, as God designed, filled with trust and affection and love.

But on this momentous walk, two more years down the road, I still had no idea how bad it was.

Two days after that long walk, he confessed to his board of elders. I fully believed it was just the one time slip-up he’d told me, and I stood beside him, vouched for him. (Ever watched The Good Wife? I know how Alicia Florrick felt as she stood beside Peter… I’ve trembled my way through that same nightmare.) Then I learned they’d searched his browsing history. It wasn’t just the one time. It was hundreds and hundreds of hours. Work hours. Ministry hours. Family hours. Spent binging in mental adultery with naked women on a screen.

He promised the moon… again.
And started counseling… for a while.

I was hopeful. Tentative. Clinging to God for a miracle that might bind up my battered heart and stitch the shreds of our tattered family back together into some semblance of what it had been meant to be.

I started counseling too. Until our counselor told him unequivocally that he was destined to jettison his career and his marriage if he didn’t take major steps to turn around.

He fired her.

We separated again.
Then he moved out for good.

I stood in the driveway of our home, one child on my hip and the other at my side—an indescribable mix of anguish and relief washing over me as I watched him drive away. We walked slowly back into our home. I stored up my grief until the children went to visit their grandparents for an afternoon. Then the tears broke loose. Gulping, ragged sobs shook my whole body and I wandered blindly through the empty rooms, wailing like a lost child.

Surely the worst is behind me, I thought.
I was wrong.

Over the next several months, I discovered that I’d only possessed a fraction of the facts. It wasn’t just a secret life on a screen. The addiction had crossed into real life infidelity too. Sex parlor prostitutes, dating websites, affair(s) with women I knew, a hidden collection of high-powered weapons purchased with secret money that had never filtered through family accounts… Everything I thought was real in our home, had been a carefully crafted house of cards.

Every time I thought I knew the whole story, some freshly revealed secret would tumble from a dark corner and I would be thrown back under pounding waves of heartbreak and confusion.

The tectonic plates of my identity shifted dramatically in those months…
Earthquake and tsunami style.

Painful new words now described me, ones I’d never imagined…
Single mother.
Sole provider.
Church charity project.
Object of pity.

We kept attending our same church, after he moved out of state. I tried to hold my head high and walk tall, but dear God was it hard. Excruciating. Crucifying. But staying was good for the kids. So we did it anyway.

My business momentum ground to a halt.
I had only enough energy for three things:

waking up + mommying + survival.

I lost my appetite.
Then I lost twenty pounds.
My hair started falling out by fistfuls.

Somehow—still don’t know how—I finished and published my book. Everything else fell by the wayside. I deeply believed everything I wrote, but I still masked my private heartache from the public world. How would anyone think I’m still successful, if I truly shed the mask and shared what I’ve been surviving? Wouldn’t that be counter-productive? I’ll admit, the irony of writing a book called ONE FACE while battling these thoughts, is not lost on me.

We couldn’t afford to stay in our home, so I thinned down our belongings and put the rest in storage. I packed one suitcase apiece—three lonely bags in the back of my SUV—and we hit the road. For three months we were homeless, bouncing from friend to relative to friend, trying always to leave before we wore out our welcome. Sometimes we slept on floors, other times on couches.

My friends and family and counselors were amazing. I went to therapy. Devoured recommended books. Discovered that I’d spent years on the receiving end of behaviors that psychologists have official names for, things like compulsive lying, gaslighting, projection, and other terms like narcissistic supplies. Putting names to them helped with the healing process.

We eventually moved into a tiny country house with affordable rent and a big fenced yard. For months, my son had prayed to God for “a yard with a big pile of dirt to play in, because I know that’s really expensive, Jesus”. Now he had it.

I worked for a while in a nursing home—routine and guaranteed. There’s something healing about every day being mostly the same, even if you have an entrepreneur’s heart. The pay was just enough for the bills, the people were lovely, but the hours? Brutal. My kids had me home for an exhausted 4 days of uninterrupted, not-on-call time per month.

Finally, I realized something had to give. I needed to leap off another cliff of fear and make a change. Take a risk.
Go back to writing.
Relaunch my company.
Crazy, right? What single mum in her right mind quits a steady paycheck, no matter how small?

But the more I thought and prayed about it, the more I knew it was the right thing to do. Because in ten years, what will my babies remember from the years when they needed me most? That we could buy new gym shoes (on clearance at TJ Maxx, duh), or that mommy was. never. home? Every day they stood at the front porch sobbing when I drove away for work. I couldn’t live with that.

The same day I decided to turn in my notice, there was a voicemail on my phone, a new potential client asking me to consider a branding contract. Didn’t matter whether I accepted or not, the message was clear. Whoa—in case I was worried that You wouldn’t take care of us, God.

So I quit.

For a brief while, I took time to recalibrate.
To rest and think and swing in my hammock and ponder how to move forward.
To take naps in the middle of the day and soak in a hot bubble bath whenever the mood struck.
To interact with friends and invest in new relationships and rebuild old ones.

In these months, almost every week I’d get a message from another stranger, another woman whose marriage was falling apart just like mine. For the same reasons. I don’t know how they found me – but they just kept coming. And every single one would say something like “when are you going to share your story? Women like me need to hear it! We need to know we can survive this hell. We need to know how to help our kids stay healthy. We need to discover how to forgive and keep loving so these wounds can heal instead of making us bitter.”

*****

Sponsors made it possible for the kids and I to travel to Greece and spend two weeks with a volunteer dental clinic working in refugee camps—to remind us that even when life is upside down, we exist to serve others.

We celebrated a quiet Thanksgiving. And then a quiet Christmas at our little country home together—reveling in our own little place and our own simple tree and the priceless gifts of being little bit silly but a whole lot safe and at peace.

On Christmas Eve, I wrote a raw and vulnerable journal entry about being a single mom at Christmas. Shared it with a friend. Who published it on her blog. Where it got shared some more. My inbox filled with more heart wrenching messages about how it resonated, how the words reached into their hearts and connected with their souls and made them feel less alone.

That clinched it. I could hear God speaking to me in the wakefulness of my early morning quiet.
My calling is to write.
To share the lessons I’ve learned while walking hand in hand with Job. Not just the glossy(er) public version.
To shed the mask of fear and insecurity.
To follow my own book’s advice and pursue the journey to #live1face.

So folks, this is me:

  • mother of amazing children
  • survivor of 13 years of marriage to an addict
  • former pastor’s wife
  • divorcee who still truly believes marriage is meant to be forever
  • author of a leadership book to which I often find myself challenged to live
  • speaker about the hard stuff like leadership and integrity and recovery and forgiveness
  • mentor/coach to women in marriages where addiction and/or abuse is present
  • just an everyday girl trying every day to #leadwisely and #lovewell (oh, and pay the bills!)
Am I totally healed? Bwahahahah—nope.
There’s no such thing as totally healed on Planet Earth.

Do I think I’m perfect? Snort.
I pretty much certain that I’m flawed and filled with mistakes. But I’m surrounded by friends and mentors who are brave enough to call me out on my growth areas and hold my feet to the fire.

Am I healing? Absolutely.
Every stage brings a new layer to that one broken, beautiful face I’m choosing to live. And if I can walk this road toward redemption, I believe you can too.

Tomorrow begins 2017… the onset of a new year.
A year of potential.
A year of promise.

A year in which I am choosing to go way WAY outside my comfort zone. I hope my journey inspires you to do the same.

Will you shed your masks—whatever they are—and join me?

[END OF STORY]

If your pastor husband has been unfaithful (including through porn!) and/or otherwise abusive or ensnared by sin, we would be grateful to hear your story and possibly make it available on this website for others to read and renew their hope. We recommend that stories be under a pseudonym or anonymous, and constructed to avoid openly identifying any specific pastor/pastor family. You may rest assured that all personal information will be kept private and strictly confidential. Please contact us.

Please note: We do not necessarily agree with or endorse all the information contained in the pastors’ wives’ stories. We do, however, feel they have some valuable information that could be useful to you in your recovery. It helps to know you’re not alone, that others have shared your pain and have healed, by the grace of God, in their own time and way.

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18