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.