Helen shares her experience of attending an OPEN retreat and how she left resolving to take up photography again…

‘When I was a little girl I used to dream about being a ‘princess’. I used to look out of my bed room windows hoping that one day I would marry the ‘man of my dreams’ and have children. I dreamt about a different world to the world I lived in which was full of difficulties and trauma. As a teenager I battled with depression and self harm, and my brother was a violent drug addict. Life was challenging. At the age of 17 I was out of control behind closed doors, because I did not want ‘to be any trouble’. My boyfriend and I had been together for quite a few years. I held strong moral beliefs about life, until the day I realised I was pregnant.

I was alone. I knew if I told my Mum she would tell me to have an abortion, which years later she confirmed. My boyfriend told me to do what I liked, and I never heard from him again. Ever. I was alone. I was alone when I went to the Dr.’s, the hospital, and then the hospital again. And I was alone with this secret that absolutely no one apart from the above knew about. I built my life, moved on, holding this secret for 13 years. I didn’t think about it often. I hardened myself to the reality and I threw my self fully into ‘fighting for the feminist cause’ and other things. Life became very complicated, and very messy, and I found myself surviving another trauma. I walked away from God. I had had enough.

However, in 2013 I found myself back at a church, and rediscovering who Jesus is. And it’s been the best thing to have happened in my life. although I didn’t know what the journey was going to entail.

I didn’t know that as my life unraveled, God would start to re-ravel and start the healing process of my very fractured life. I also didn’t realise that the more I valued life itself the more I would really come to terms with that fact that I had had an abortion.

I started to grieve the child I did not have. The child I used to make myself believe didn’t exist because it wasn’t born. Yet I had names for it. A boy’s name and a girl’s one. Jack or Sophie. So they did exist.

The more I grew to love God, and life, and get involved with church, the more my sense of shame and guilt flowed over me. It covered me. I woke up thinking about what I had done. I called myself a murderer. I told myself I should be dead for what I had done.

Eventually I ‘confessed’ my secret to my closest friends and we in turn took it to my Pastor. I was expecting to be thrown out of the church. But I wasn’t. I was met with love and grace. And I journeyed a lot. And got to a place of realising that God forgave me. But I didn’t forgive myself and I thought I never would or could.

Not long after telling my secret for the first time I met Jenny Baines from ‘OPEN’ who incidentally had recently arrived in the area and to my church. It was a long journey to get there but eventually in January 2016 I made it to one of the ‘OPEN retreats’, to go through ‘Walking The Journey’. And what a journey it was.

It’s actually really hard to put into words what an impact it has had on me and my life. It’s hard to put into words adequately just how beautifully led and ran the whole weekend was, and just how safe and secure a place it was. To be able to open up, talk about some of the things I’ve NEVER spoken about, and to feel like no one was judging me for what I had done.

‘Walking The Journey’ takes you through 10 stages, and at the beginning of the weekend I thought it would not be possible to travel through all those different stages, and get to the end of it in a better place than when we started. But it is. It really is possible. I never realised how powerful some of the emotions attached to having an abortion were and how much it really had impacted my life over the

years. How my insecurities and who I am as a person has been shaped by that experience. The weekend was painful in places. No lies. It was really painful, to remember, to talk about it, to process, and yet there was time for it. And a time to do that in such a loving and gracious atmosphere without condemnation.

As we travelled through the weekend I discovered that with the people around me, and God, I was giving over to Him some of these issues. I already understood that God forgave me but coming to a place where I realise my baby forgives me too was, well, I can’t describe just how freedom giving that has been. Coming to a place where I can accept being abandoned by the father, and giving that to God too has been immense.

But what has been the most life changing thing was realising during this whistle stop tour of the journey that God forgives me, my baby forgives me, and actually I can forgive myself. And so I did. I chose that weekend to forgive the father of the child I didn’t have, and I chose to forgive myself.

I went for a walk and threw some stones into the pond (our venue was stunning!) and in those moments prayed. And I felt as I released these things to God, that He released me from those things that were holding me captive.

That night I slept properly without sleeping medication for the first time in years. And again the next night. And so far, with the exception of one bad night I have slept amazingly. The things that haunted me don’t any more. I’m not one for using ‘Christianise’ but it feels like chains were broken.

I left the weekend feeling forgiven, valued and loved.

I left the weekend feeling hopeful, and excited about the future.

I left the weekend with a stronger resolve to start doing some things that I used to enjoy in life, but stopped because I felt I didn’t deserve to do nice things. And I love it. I’ve picked my cameras up again. I’ve started writing and singing again.

I could write on and on about what the weekend with OPEN has meant to me, but I’ll end now. I am so thankful for it, and for the people who helped fund my place.

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