out of the darkness: the lingering damage of sexual abuse

so far we’ve heard 3 out of the darkness stories – self-injury, brave thoughts from a former abuser, and hope and healing from sexual addiction.  i am thankful for my courageous friends who are willing to share their stories here on the carnival for the benefit of others.  one of the worst things about pain & shame is the feeling that we’re the only ones who struggle.  i have said it many times before, but i will say it again:  we are meant to participate in each other’s healing & spiritual transformation. Christ, in the flesh, is what the word incarnational is all about and i believe that one of the most powerful things we can do for others is to be a safe place to let what’s in the darkness be brought into the light. ultimately, God’s spirit does the healing, but i think he flows through people in ways sometimes we don’t even understand in the moment.

today’s story is one near and dear to my heart—the lingering damage of sexual abuse.  i hate– and i do mean hate–the ravages of sexual abuse.  i can’t stand the way it messes with our relationships, robs hope, and tries to steal God’s image in us over and over again.  the statistics keep changing on sexual abuse.  i remember when it was 1 out of 5 people, then it was 1 out of 4 people.  i don’t know what the latest is and i don’t have time to check, but i know that in the crowds i run in, it is much closer to 80+ percent, in some shape or form, who have experienced sexual abuse.  i have shared here before that i was sexually molested when i was 14 years old by someone i worked with who was married and had a child.  the seduction was very methodical and looking back on the whole thing it was a classic predatory situation of a young, vulnerable girl who was the perfect victim.  for years afterward i always framed it as somehow being my fault and that because i had somehow partcipated in the whole thing that it wasn’t abuse.  i spent several years in a very open and vulnerable women’s group where i still would say out loud “no, i was never sexually abused.” then, about 11 years ago i was reading wounded heart by dan allender “so i could understand women who had been sexually abused” since i was working with so many that had been.  the Holy Spirit swept in and the realization of what had happened to me and the terrible damage that it had done became clear.  i am still healing. i still have a tendency to minimize it because it wasn’t continual or in my family.  i still try to forget, but the memories ignore me and come roaring in at the weirdest of times. i still can’t believe that something so important got taken from me and i felt like i had nowhere to turn for help.  i still wrestle with feeling unprotected by God and people. and i know many men & women who know the same feeling but continue to seek God’s healing & hope.

meet “teresa”, one of my dearest friends & a sexual abuse survivor.  she has had a huge impact on my journey & many others along the way.

  • share a little bit about what your spiritual journey, what your family background and experiences with God have been like.

I grew up Pentecostal, Assemblies of God, with Christian parents who are still married.  Preachers screaming at the pulpit made a big (negative) impact on me.  I learned about God’s grace once I started recovery in my adult years.

  • what did your abuse look like?  what did you do with it (tell someone, hide it, etc.)

 I was sexually abused by a very distant relative while my family was visiting on vacation.  I was pretty young – about 8 or 9.  During the visit I never once considered telling anyone because I knew it would upset people and “rock the boat.”  As we drove away I was relieved never to have to face him again. Later on in life, I was sexually abused by my boyfriend/husband (yes, it can happen).  I kept quiet then, too.

  • how did the damage affect you, your relationships?

It affected me in many ways.  I didn’t see myself as having a right to make my own choices. I lived by the motto “suck it up” while in reality I was imploding.  The damage done by sexual abuse is so extensive it’s hard to put it into words.  The shame is so powerful, always lingering underneath.  I think it just cemented in me the pattern already in place—being quiet, playing the part of the good girl, putting up and shutting up.  I saw that played out in my marriage later.

  • when did you start to realize, “i need to begin to process some of this pain and hurt”? what did that journey look like?

When my marriage was falling apart and I couldn’t go on living like I had been, keeping everything under wraps.  I went into counseling to get help with my part of the marriage and there I uncovered (rather quickly) the sexual abuse damage.  It was a long journey—I was in intense out-patient counseling, went to a recovery group, read tons of books, filled many, many journals, and finally let myself cry.

  • what is the hardest part about saying out loud “i was sexually abused.”

Feeling like I was damaged goods and it was all my fault, also thinking people wouldn’t believe me.  Those were the hardest parts in the beginning.  Now the hardest part comes with the memories of the abuse and everything I went through to heal. It’s not right in front of my face anymore since I’m not married and not dating.  Sometimes I almost forget about it.  But it’s never that far away (i.e. writing a blog like this!)

  • how has your experience affected your relationship with God?

I grew up feeling drawn to Jesus, but scared of God.  Through my recovery I’ve experienced a God that is sad and mad for what was done to me and wants to comfort me.  That’s still a hard question to answer because there’s so much more to my relationship with God than just the sexual abuse.  I still struggle with feeling close to God at times, even though I know his truths.

  • you grew up in “church” but it didn’t turn out to be a safe place to share what you were really struggling with.  why?

The biggest thoughts I had growing up in my church was “I shouldn’t say anything to get anyone upset” and “no one would believe me anyway.”  I don’t understand why they were they way they were.  All I know is I never felt safe to talk to anyone until much later in life.

  • what are some dumb things that people have said to you about healing from abuse?

I guess I’m fortunate that people that walked with me through my journey of healing really didn’t say anything dumb.   I was the one that was the meanest to myself, even while healing.  I would minimize the abuse, tell myself I was making a big deal about nothing.  Thankfully I had people in my life that didn’t let me camp there long, but it would still be a struggle.  And when I surveyed the damage in my life I couldn’t even argue with myself that I had been pretty beat up emotionally.

  • what are some things you have cried out to God?

“Why did you let this happen?”

“Where’s the justice?”

“Help me really know you are with me”

“I want you to be here with skin on, right in front of me”

  • how has the damage done affected your relationship with God?   with people?

I think my struggling relationship with God is not just because of the sexual abuse.  That would be too simple. I have had a lot of other experiences that make our relationship rocky.  The biggest damage to my relationship with people comes mostly with romantic relationships.  I have a hard time believing I’ll ever have healthy intimacy with a man.  That seems overwhelmingly impossible to me.  I’ve been scared to death to be on dates, even to hold someone’s hand.  The panic starts that early.

  • what are some things that have helped you the most on your healing journey?

Believe it or not, having safe men in my life that I can trust not to cross that line.  Working through Wounded Heart (NEVER do this alone–find a group or a counselor).  Journaling, journaling, journaling. Exposing the lies in my head outloud.  “Kissing the monster on the nose” and confronting it head-on instead of tiptoeing around it.

  • what are some things that have been the hardest?

Dating.  Thinking about dating/marriage.  I always say I feel sorry for the man I get involved with. He’ll have to have the patience of a saint. There’s still so much crap that can only be uncovered and worked through when it happens.

  • coming out of the darkness and bringing shame to light is a huge step.  what has given you courage to integrate the truth of your story into your relationships?

Having safe people in my life that didn’t run away has been one of the most healing parts of my journey. At first it was incredibly hard to tell people my story.  It’s still not a walk in the park but it’s my story and has impacted who I am today.  Knowing other people in the same boat as me and struggling with the same things in their relationship with God, with themselves, with other people helped me feel much less alone.

  • what have you been learning about God in the midst?

That he’s “close to the broken hearted” and sexual abuse survivors are definitely broken hearted.

  • what have you been learning about yourself?

That I will always be a “work in process.” I’ll never be completely healed this side of heaven but God has done an amazing thing by saving my life.  I can’t imagine what my life would be like if God hadn’t stepped in to stop the hell I was living in.

  • what has safe, redemptive christian community been like for you?

It’s been my lifeline.  Pure and simple. Can’t and won’t live without it.

  • what words of hope do you have for men and women who have been abused and wonder if restoration and healing is really possible?

Restoration and healing IS possible.  It’s a hard road (sometimes it gets worse before it gets better) but the road you’re on now isn’t all that easy, either. Take the steps to heal from the damage of sexual abuse. It doesn’t have to control the rest of your life.

  • anything else you want to add?

Healing from sexual abuse is full of ups and downs, progress and setbacks.  It’s messy, complicated and painful, to say the least.  And it’s a life-long process, I’m guessing.  But healing from the abuse is a much better option that staying stuck in it’s grips.  It will suck the life out of you – at least that’s what it was doing to me.

thank you, teresa, for this glimpse into your story.   every time you tell it, someone else is reminded that they are not the only ones.  i, too, hold on to God’s promise that he is close to the brokenhearted.  and as i think about this painful issue, i am reminded that  those who have not been sexually abused need to remember:  never, never underestimate the damage that sexual abuse can have on someone’s life.  the ravages are deep & wide and it takes something that can never be replaced. and for those that have been sexually abused:  you are not alone & there is hope for healing.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

10 Comments

  • Excellent post. Thanks for sharing this, Kathy, and thanks to Teresa for breaking the silence for the benefit of others.

    A dear friend of mine started a blog a while ago where people are given the opportunity to break their own silence regarding domestic violence and sexual abuse. The stories shared there are heartbreaking, and some are filled with the kind of hope Teresa shared.

    You can check it out here: http://violenceunsilenced.com/

    Reply
  • thank you, teresa, for sharing your incredibly hard story. being a man, who has struggled with sexual addiction and used women for my own selfish gratification, i never realized how damaging my actions were. my heart breaks as i realize that i’m responsible for causing such lasting pain.i thank God that i can now see women in a different light, and i pray for all the ones my selfish actions have hurt. know that you aren’t now and never have been damaged goods. your future husband might need a little patience, but the blessing he will receive in return will be exponential. i pray that as you continue to heal that God will bring into your life that one special man who will have the eyes and the heart to see what a treasure you are.

    Reply
  • As a man who was in bondage to sex and pornography and as a result used women for 23 years for my own gratification I apologize on behalf of men who are/were like me to you and all women. I am so proud of your openness and honesty.

    What men need to know is even look’n at your neighbors wife or daughter with desire to use her to gratify yourself is sexual abuse even if or when it is pornography as even if the people in porn do it voluntarily they are selling themselves into slavery. Therefore it is still human trafficking.

    Men we need to understand this is critical and it is death.

    What lead me to repentance 9 years ago was a vision God gave me after the last relationship I had ended. In that vision I saw a dark road with corpses lining it on both sides. Those corpses represented the relationships I had that were destroyed by this sin and the relationships I had that were affected by it. The wages of sin is death! I cried out to Father I am tired of the death I have poured into my life, the women’s lives I’ve been involved with and of the relationships I have lost.

    At that moment I repented and I have not turned back being controlled by that sin since. That repentance opened my heart up to the light which exposed why I went there and the pain I was trying to cover up with sexual exploits.

    The healing is still happening as I deal with my own sin and the sins committed against me. The shame and guilt of both and the other my sin and regarding others against me.

    However I can tell you can be free! You can be healed and be whole. It may be one piece at time, but believe me that’s better then all being completely in pieces.

    Tom Wilson

    Reply
  • Teresa & kathy, thank you so very much for sharing your stories. It is nuts how similar shame impacts survivors, and how so many people can feel so isolated, despite those similarities with many around them.

    Teresa, I am a big journal-er too! I loved this line in response to :what are some things that have helped you the most on your healing journey? , ” Exposing the lies in my head outloud. “Kissing the monster on the nose” and confronting it head-on instead of tiptoeing around it.” What a great visual, as it is sooooo easy to shove that crap away, which is futile, as it doesn’t really even go away that way anyways 😉

    When I first got in touch with my sexual abuse story in college, it was all-consuming. I really felt like I was the only one in the whole world who felt so so damaged. The road is crazy long, but I at this point in my life and with lots of healing, I honestly rarely even think about it/go there. (plenty of other new issues to focus on, ha!)

    I know that things may re-surface at different stages, and I love, love, love that you both recognize the breadth and depth of safe community as necessary for survival. I heart community!!! Keep on fighting, Teresa, as it is clearly making a difference in your life.
    🙂

    Reply
  • Wow! Kathy I can’t thank you enough for posting this! I was just randomly searching through WordPress and I found this post and I have no doubt that it was God who lead me straight here.

    I’ve was also sexually abused through out my childhood, but I only realized a year ago that that’s what it was…abuse. Before then I would hear about sexual abuse and talk about it and read about it in classes (I’m a counseling major), and I would have NEVEr identified it with myself or myself as EVER being sexually abused. And then one day while talking to a friend it just kind of hit me. I’ve been really struggling with the fact that I didn’t see it until abuse untill a year ago and it’s been making me doubt myself and making me think that maybe I’m making it into “too big a deal”. I felt crazy. I felt like you either knew you were abused or you didn’t. You just don’t realize one day years later that it was abuse. But my counslor this week told me that that’s the way many surviors realize their abuse. And hearing your story just made me feel less alone and less crazy. Thank you soo much!

    Reply
  • Thank you. And now I’m going to go on a walk so I can cry without alarming my children.

    Reply
  • brian – thanks for sharing this site. i saw it when you wrote about it a few weeks ago and it is really good! i encourage others to check it out & we must, must, must keep raising awareness of how prevalent and real these issues are.

    conrad – thanks for what you are doing to help heal so much woundedness, because you have gotten so in touch with yours. it is very powerful & it restores so much faith in me of what is possible with a willing & humble heart who fights the ravages of shame & hiding and enters into healing community and renewed relationship with God. i am privileged to know you.

    katherine – thanks for reading. i am glad you are part of this online community.

    tom – thank you for your honesty; it is very powerful to see up close and personal men take responsibility for the wounding that they have done & experience Christ’s healing.

    stacy – yes, i too, love the “kissing the monster on the nose” thought. so powerful…thanks for your honesty, too. it is beautiful to see healing in action…

    fragile4life – thanks for stopping by. i am so glad that you did and that through teresa’s story you feel less alone. it takes so much courage to enter into the healing process like you are now…i definitely know that feeling of all of a sudden the lights coming on & the painful awareness of the damage becoming clear….may you continue to seek hope & healing & find peace and strength in the midst.

    minnow – love & peace to you from afar.

    Reply
  • Teresa & Kathy….thank you. Of all the interviews this was the hardest for me to read as it hits a place in my heart that is tender & real. I too love the line about “kissing the monster on the nose,” don’t know about you guys but for me as healing as it is to tell my story it still takes a while to recuperate from doing so. It’s one of those funny things, it makes me angry to learn that others have been abused as well and it makes me feel good to know I’m not alone at the same time!!

    Reply
  • donna – yeah, that was my fav line, too. but yes, i know the fall-out afterwards can be really tiring. i agree, sometimes i am SO MAD that there’s been so much damage, so much carnage for God’s precious children, and then i find so much hope in my friends who are honestly facing the pain and seeking healing and change. it’s definitely beauty from ashes. love ya, we had a blast with todd and angie, btw!

    Reply

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