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Words. They have the power to bless and curse. To build up and tear down. To heal and destroy.

More than 20 years ago four little words kept me silent. I was held against my will by a ruthless pimp. I will kill you. He warned me that if I ran away or told a soul about him he would find me and kill me. Over and over he reminded me. And over and over he made good on his threats with the beatings. Silence insurance.

Even though I ran 3,000 miles away and escaped the hell of prostitution, I knew he could find me if he wanted to. He knew people who knew people. And he had my parent’s address. Made me write a letter to them when I first met him. Telling them I was “okay” and not to worry about me if they didn’t hear from me. I was too young and naive to even think about giving him a fake address.

Since I couldn’t tell, I hid. Hid from my friends and family. I kept them at arms length. Couldn’t let anyone know what really happened; it was too dangerous. I wore a mask of false bravado to make others (and myself) believe I was doing fine. But I lived in constant fear. Paralyzing, post-traumatic fear. Every loud noise sent me reeling. An unexpected touch brought me to tears.

On the outside I looked like I had it all together. I even went to college and earned my master’s degree. Got a great job. Was well liked among my peers. But no one knew the real me. No one knew the woman too afraid to sleep at night for fear he might find me and make good on his threats. No one knew about the bulimia and how I believed the lie that if I could just control my weight then I would be able to get a good husband. One who could protect me. From him. No one knew that I abused pain pills. And that I drank every single night. Anything to keep the memories away. And certainly no one knew that I wanted to end my life.

Having my voice silenced all those years ago changed me. Formerly confident, I became unsure. Once bold, now hesitant. Naturally trusting, I became suspicious. Of everyone. I felt like my adrenaline was always pumping; I couldn’t relax. It took me years of counseling to be able to function somewhat normally. I still struggle with irrational fears because of his threats (not to mention the rapes, assaults, arrests and other humiliating parts of life on the streets).

But God is restoring and renewing me and I now mentor other women in their journey of healing from being silenced. As a Christian counselor, God has allowed me to take off my mask and use my voice to help others find their voices. I continue to be amazed at how many women have forgotten what their voice sounds like and have believed the lies (from themselves and others). Lies that tell them they are broken, damaged goods. Lies that tell them they must be thin and beautiful to be loved. Lies that tell them they are only good for one thing. Lies that tell them they will never amount to anything and that the world would be a better place without them.

Author and Life Coach Jo Ann Fore knows all about having her voice silenced. She has walked alongside hurting women too, and has helped them not only find their “voices” but live life unmasked. Her latest book, When A Woman Finds Her Voice is full of stories of hope. Stories of brave women learning how to use their voices for the first time. A funny things happens when we find our voices: the masks fall off. We no longer need them.

So what’s the big deal about finding our voices? What’s wrong with wearing our masks? Why can’t we just tuck our painful memories neatly away? Relegate them to some dusty corner of our minds? Jo Ann puts it this way:

The painful after-effects of emotional wounds permeate our souls, negatively impacting the choices we make and the way we live. The longer we push aside these wounds, the greater the chance they will become contaminated. Infected. These wounds then weep, leaking and spreading into other areas, requiring additional care and taking much longer to heal. Gone unchecked, these infections often become much worse than the original wound.

No, we must allow our infected wounds to be opened, scrubbed clean, and given proper ointment to heal. The healing balm of trustworthy friends.

We can heal from being silenced.

But we cannot heal if we continue to deny that we have been wounded.

What wound are you hiding?

What mask are you wearing?