Lesley’s Story

Lesley Shea Gustafson shared her story as the Generosity Experiment continues. I so appreciate her openess and honesty. It is a bit long but life stories usually are. Please read it to the end, you will be blessed by it. By the way, Lesley is the one who sang at the end of my message. She sang out her testimony over people. If you were at Freedom House Church that Sunday you will remember her. She is simply amazing!
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To those that don’t know, a challenge was recently given to “share your story”. You never know the impact of your life on another,even if you feel like you don’t have anyting special or unique. You are.

I was born in Mesa, AZ 1982. I have one sister, 7 yrs older than me from a previous marriage before my father. The first thing that comes to mind is that I was “unexpected” . My father had told my mother that he could not have children because of an injury in his younger years, then “ SURPRISE and I’m sorry it’s a girl.” From the very beginning of my life, my sister and I were at odds. I was the baby of the family, and as a result, received more attention. I was the happy 3yr old girl who wanted to dance and sing and put on a show for anyone who would watch. Show me the camera and I would become your muse. Give me a topic and I would be the best skit writer,actor and story teller ever! I remember being absolutely fascinated with my Dad. He was the most perfect person in the world to me. He was strong and funny and hugged me. My mother however, was the opposite. I think as a very very little girl she probably hugged me, but I honestly can’t ever remember a time. My sister and I were opposites. She was the kid who would push me into cactus and beat me up, often. She was hurtful and mean, and as a little girl I could not understand why she hated me so much.

My parents divorced when I was around 5 or 6. I can’t really remember. I do remember the screaming in the house. I remember my Dad not coming home and my Mom telling me that he wasn’t coming home anymore. And that was it. There was never an explanation. I was devastated. This meant that I was alone with a sister who hated me and a mother who I felt didn’t care if I even existed. I missed my Dad. I only saw my Dad a couple times before he left the state. Still nothing had been explained to me and I didn’t know why my Daddy left me. We’d moved from a beautiful house to an apartment and everything changed. My sister got older and more defiant and physically and verbally abusive. My mother’s physical absence from the home became longer and longer. By this time my grades in school fell dramatically. I was an honor roll student for years, and the very next, flunking all courses except music.
Music class was my escape. It was my only happiness. I still don’t know why. ( I began taking piano and singing lessons at age 4). In elementary school I started playing viola in the second grade. I excelled in this quickly because I had previous experience with music. I began to do to city symphonies and youth orchestras, competing with state wide musicians and putting on public concerts. I got involved in every sport and extra curricular activity I could. I remember being the only girl on several teams. I was a busy girl. Busy enough to get away from home.

I remember hating to be at home so much that I would stay at a friends house overnight in the 3rd and fourth grade, without asking my mom, because I believed my mom really wouldn’t notice I was gone. She was busy. I have a lot of traumatic memories that involve my mother. I realize now that she didn’t intend to shape me in such a way. She came from a family filled with pain and abuse. When you don’t stop the cycle in your life, it only keeps revolving down and down through generations. Hurt people hurt people, and they don’t even know it. My mother was(and still is) an accountant. She had excelled in school and believed that relationships that take work aren’t worth it. She viewed parenthood like the military.( She told us this) She is the Drill Sargent and my sister and I are only there to follow orders. There is no such thing as affection or family unit. We didn’t celebrate holidays or special events. We NEVER did anything as a family. This whole time I craved my Dad and he wasn’t around. I couldn’t get over him. Why would he leave me.? I remember that my mother told me once that he was coming into town because they had to go to court ,so she could get more money from him. I was so excited! I had a distant memory of talking with him about the Little Mermaid movie, and that he had said he liked that movie. So I set it in my mind to learn the best song from that whole movie and sing it for him. I practiced my heart out, and when the day came, I sang it for him. “ Part of Your World” by Ariel. I was hoping he would be so proud. In the middle of my song, my Dad just started crying. I couldn’t figure out if it was because I was really bad or what. He never told me. He left and we wouldn’t speak again till years later.

Right before I turned 11, the fighting, physical and emotional tension, had grown to such a degree that something must be done. I went to live in a Children’s Home in Arizona. There were 5 boys dorms and 1 girls dorm at the time. I lived with 10 other girls and one set of houseparents. The houseparents never stayed long and we’d get a new pair once a year sometimes several times a year. My grades were still horrible, all except for music class. My skills in music grew as people recognized them and encouraged the Children’s Home, and my house parents, to let me get involved with special musical groups. I couldn’t really have friends with kids at school because the rules at the Home were so strict that I couldn’t spend any time with them. I would carve things into my arms and legs using safety pins and thumbtacks. I had very large scars where I would display my latest act of “freedom and self proclamation” ,or a boys’ name. I also had a habit of “burn art”, where I would burn myself badly enough to create blisters, but skillfully and purposefully placed blisters.

I had one teacher, Mrs. Chilton, she was my orchestra teacher. She believed in me. She would pay attention to me and be my friend. She knew I lived at the Children’s Home and for some reason found it worth her time to to befriend me in a very impacting way. She made me feel like I was important. That I wasn’t just another face in a sea of hundreds. I was not an inconvenience to her. There was also another teacher whom I loved so much that I actually asked her if she would adopt me. My heart was completely broken when she said no. I just wanted to belong to someone who wanted me.

At 14, I lost my virginity to one of the boys in the High school boys dorm. I remember not wanting to, but not knowing what to do. Too scared to say or do anything, so I just “ let it” . Afterwards, the feelings of disgust and shame were overwhelming. I could not believe that I had lost my virginity at 14, to a guy I didn’t even like, and I hated it. No one knew, except my roommate ( who was the instigator). For 6 moths, nothing happened. Then one day, after I had turned 15, I got a call from the office. They knew. The guy had spilled it. I denied everything. I had become known as a sweet, caring girl at this Children’s Home, which I really was. I was the good girl, that everyone believed in. I had so much potential to be something. I denied it all. Eventually the truth came out. The things that were said to me after that, stayed with me for years. They never even asked if this was my first time or considered that I might be going through excruciating pain on the inside. They treated me as if I was a whore that had deceived everyone for years. I remember the day the Director told me I had to leave, I was on my knees on the floor, screaming, crying, pulling at his pant legs. Begging him not to make me leave. I had never taken such a place of humility in my life, and I was turned away. I was rejected. He wouldn’t even look at me. I knew that would mean I would have to live with my mother. And as far as I was concerned, she hated me and I hated her. I knew my life was going to change forever. And it did.

My mother came later that day, I piled my stuff in her car and we drove off the property. Needless to say, she wasn’t happy to see me, nor was I thrilled to see her. Over the next 24hrs, events emerged to result in my living with my sister. What a great idea! She was 22 yrs old and I was 15. What 15 yr old doesn’t want to live with a 22 yr old sibling, even if there was a long history of emotional and physical pain? She and I both thought that it would be a great set up. Well, here’s the set up. My sister rented a one bedroom apt. She rented out the living room to several men that she knew from work. They all slept on the couches, chairs and floor. My sister had the bedroom and I had the walk in closet. That’s where I slept, me and my prize possessions. My viola and my c.d. player with one c.d., Jewel. The only time I was alone was when I took a bath ( we didn’t have a shower curtain). I would take at least two baths a day, listening to Jewel. Then I would lay down in my closet, and listen to Jewel. I’m not sure there was a more hopeless human being on the face of this earth than me at that time. I looked a lot older than 15, thus resulting in the men of the house treating me like I was older. They would be nasty and make me feel unsafe and trashy. The house was filled with drugs and alcohol, and it didn’t take long for her friends to become my friends. I remember my curfew being 3am, unless I called my sister and told her I was staying somewhere else. When the school year rolled around, I went to a local high school and immediately got involved in the chorus and symphony programs. They were my lifeline. I was so behind in school and so distracted by pain in my life that I failed all my classes before the first semester was half over. All except my music classes. I dropped out of school my sophomore year, but would still attend my music classes. The teachers knew I was no longer enrolled, but still let me come and participate. Somehow they knew about my living environment and knew that it was my escape. I would hitch hike 10 mi. to school every day, just so I could attend my music classes. Afterwards, I would hitch hike back, or wherever.
Eventually I gave up on music altogether. I had always had boyfriends,even from pre-school. I could never remember being without one .And I loved the attention. I craved the feeling of being wanted. I had several boyfriends during the time I lived with my sister. I wanted to be wanted so badly, that I knowingly put myself in situations where I was deeply hurt. I didn’t think there was ever a possibility that a man would respect me and actually care for me. So instead of being alone, I would just let them “do what guys do”, and hoped that that was enough for them to stay and maybe someday love me. It wasn’t.

It didn’t take long for my sister and I to begin fighting again. Things got very bad and friends worried that something very serious might happen. One day, my sister was drunk and began to be abusive and for the first time in my life, I felt extreme hatred. Rage so big, I was ready to murder her. I knew that if I didn’t leave immediately, I would kill my sister. I knew it. So I grabbed my viola, and my flip flops and I left. I walked about 15 mi before my sandals broke and then just kept walking barefoot. Me and my viola. It was dark now and I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I just kept walking. Eventually, a truck pulled over and offered me a ride, and I accepted. This was the first and only time, while hitch hiking, that someone touched me and offered me a “job”. I refused very politely and asked to get out. I was so scared, I was shaking and crying. Alone. This point in life started a string of living from person to person, place to place, not knowing if there was or wasn’t going to be shelter for the night. I had no clothes, no money and no one to call. All the friends that I had made, my druggie and alcoholic friends, happened to be “out of service” when I needed them.

One night I was walking around an apartment complex and asked a random guy if he had a quarter because I needed to call someone.( I was really trying to gather 4 quarters so I could get the .99 cent jumbo jack at Jack-in-the-Box) He recognized me as someone he had gone to school with. He had been a senior in the orchestra I had been a part of. He and his best friend had just gotten an apartment after graduation. They were good Mormon boys and their parents trusted them with their own apartment. They invited me to live there with them. I slept on the couch for a couple weeks as they did their best to convert me. They were very nice. It was all good and well until one of their mother’s found out I was living there and kicked me out. I was at my end. I wanted to die. I had NO ONE. And then I remembered Sean.

Sean was the Pastor and choir director at the Children’s Home. He and his wife had built a friendship with me while I was there. During the last of my days at the Home, when everything was crashing around me, he’d said to me “ Lesley, it doesn’t matter what happened. I love you.” He was the ONLY person that didn’t judge me. He loved me. He TOLD me.

I called Sean that day. He came and picked me up and I stayed with him and his wife a couple days. Two days later I flew out to Idaho ( which I thought was a city) to spend two weeks with my first set of houseparents from the Children’s Home. This was 5 years after they left the Home. They were Christians. Boy, were they Christians. We went on a trip to Minnesota to a“christian woodstock” called “Spirit Fest” It was nice and all, but I was bored. There was nothing about Christianity that interested me. I felt that it was a good hobby to join. Yes, I believed God was real,because that’s what we are suppose to believe, right? But I didn’t see the need to get all worked up about it. It seemed like just a big nerd fest, with Christian bands doing their best to imitate real musicians, but they just didn’t meet the standard. I was bored. Bored with these people.

One evening we went to a “group gathering” where everyone worshiped together. Some how, I still to this day don’t know how, but somehow I knew the lyrics to one of the songs they sang. “ I love You Lord, and I lift my voice, to worship You. Oh my soul, rejoice! Take joy my King, in what you hear. Let it be a sweet, sweet sound in Your ear.” I sang that song, not because I believed it, but simply because I liked to sing and knew the song. As I was singing, I felt an extremely tangible shaking inside my body. Something was physically going on! I felt something tangible coming through my mouth as I sang that song. It took my breath away and I opened my eyes. I looked around to see what happened. No one seemed fazed. They were all normal! WHAT!! That was crazy! Beyond Crazy! But did I tell anyone? Nope. I didn’t want them to give me the “ He’s knocking on the door of your heart” speech. I didn’t want to be expected to “get saved” and become like them. But I didn’t forget.
When the two weeks was done, I was suppose to return to AZ, but the people I was with contacted my mother. She told them I was not to live with her and rather than send me back to living on the streets, they let me stay. I should say that at the time I felt like it was “ MADE me stay”. I was angry. I was hurt. I was so confused. I wanted my Dad and I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t want me. I didn’t understand how a mother could simply not care anything about her children. I wondered what it was about me, because there had to be SOMETHING, that made me so unlovable. So unwanted. And NO ONE would just tell me what it was so I could fix it. Sometimes a child has one parent that doesn’t want them, but I had two. I, me ,myself, I had to be the problem. It doesn’t make sense. Am I too loud? Am I too messy? Is it because I got bad grades and I’m really bad at math? WHAT IS IT ABOUT ME THAT NO ONE IS TELLING ME!? Then it happened….

One day as I was walking to my room, I stepped inside my doorway and was literally smacked with a wall. A wall of revelation. It shook me so hard that my insides exploded with fear. I don’t know why, but at that moment, God revealed himself to me in a very extreme way. I believe it’s because God knew I wouldn’t pay attention unless it was completely obvious. I knew at that moment in my life, God was saying ‘ OK Lesley, it’s time” The physical presence of God ( please remember that I did not grow up with, nor was I educated about something like this) was so overwhelming that I KNEW I had to get saved right there. I HAD TO. It was a feeling of needing to be saved because I was aware of just how sinful I was, and the revelation of that left me no option. I screamed at the top of my lungs, partly to myself and partly to anyone in the house that could hear me “ I HAVE TO GET SAVE RIGHT NOW!” Just so happens that some friends of the family I was staying with were over. They all came running. I didn’t know what to do. I just knew I had to do it. So with a bit of guidance and a lot of snot and tears, I gave my life to God. Not just my acknowledgment that He is God, not just a Sunday morning lifting of my hands, but my life. It was all or nothing, from the very beginning.

Life changed so dramatically, starting immediately. When you have a revelation that God is real, and that He is personally interested, you can’t help but want to be around Him. I was in a great place for all of this to happen. A small , tiny town with a great little church and surrounded by people that love God. But as amazing as that experience was, I was still struggling with rejection and abandonment. I had God now, but I was still hurting. I was still confused and wondering why. Why hadn’t my father changed his mind? Why hadn’t he found me and whisked me away so we could be together again? There was no greater pain than that caused by my Dad.
After about a year, I went on tour with the Continental Singers. My show was pretty much a like a Christian Broadway. Huge sets and actors and singers and musicians. We went on a U.S. Tour followed by a European tour. This was my first taste of missions. Whoa. Incredible. I loved it and cried for 2 weeks after it was all over. Through the years, people came in and out of my life promising love, or commitment, or family. All of which I desperately longed for ( even though I knew I already had it from God), but for some reason, it never worked out. They moved away, or became too busy with their own families or forgot what they promised. My Spirit had been awakened and set on the things of God, but my heart was still broken.

I eventually went to Bible College in Florida and became so passionate about God, that I literally forgot about the pain I had in my heart. I loved hanging out with people that would just worship for hours and do evangelistic outreaches. I loved being in environments where God was so tangible. I longed for more. I had to have more. My personal worship times started to be explosive and overwhelming. There was no place like home, and home was behind an instrument, praying and singing my guts out. I felt that there, I was plugged into my source. I was insecure when I stepped away from music. I started going on trips to other nations and bringing worship to them, in their languages. My mentors at school started “forcing” me into places of worship leading. I hated it and loved it at the same time. While I was in school, I learned so much. There was a passion and fire etched into my makeup that has never, and will never fade.

Over the last two years of my life, God has brought me to a very sobering place. All the excitement and passion can only bring me so far. Unless there is true, deep authentic healing, none of the gifts that are in me can be of much use. Without healing, there is no maturity. Without healing , there is no testimony. Without healing, there cannot be true confidence in who I really am, because only God can tell me who I am. Not myself, not my Pastor, not my best friend. Healing is hard. Well, for me it was. I didn’t just sit back at “watch God”. I went to counseling. I let people speak some very hard things into my life, and I listened. I reopened my past and began to confront wounds and memories. I had to take risks, and consciously fight against lies that have been there. Lies that others have said, lies that I’ve spoken over myself and lies that I just believed, simply because I didn’t know the truth. I had to be willing to dig, and feel, and purposefully expose myself. And I’m not done yet. Just like diets, they don’t work You need a life style change. You have to be intentional and purposeful.

Does this mean that all the relationships in my life have been restored, and everyone loves God, and I have my blood family? No. But I am no longer defined by the actions of my parents, my family members, the people who have hurt me, and my own poor choices. And the next time a situation arises that brings pain ( and it will happen) , I know how to deal with it and it will not define me.

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~ by pennymaxwell on May 2, 2009.

2 Responses to “Lesley’s Story”

  1. Speechless…… Amazing testimony Lesley!

  2. Lesley, you are a beautiful woman of God – and you’re right – you are defined by who you are in Christ! You are so brave to share your testimony.

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