As I speak from my own personal experience on how to heal from therapist and clergy abuse, please take what benefits you and leave the rest! Healing is not a one-size-fits-all journey; however, I hope you will find value in at least some of these stages.
How to Heal from Therapist and Clergy Abuse
Did you know?
- That you are 37 times more likely to be raped by your psychiatrist than the general public? (https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2019/10/17/1931441/34707/en/CCHR-Warns-Psychiatric-Sexual-Assault-of-Patients-is-all-too-Common-Occurrence.html)
- That 12% of male therapists and 3% of female therapists have admitted to engaging in sexual activities with at least one patient? (Holroyd & Brodsky, 1977; Pope, Levenson & Schover, 1979)
- That over 6,000 people a month search Amazon books for the phrase “when therapists abuse clients” and another 5,000 a month search the phrase “therapists who abuse women?” (Publisher Rocket)
For those of you who don’t know me, I am Amy Nordhues. I am married and have three beautiful children. In 2013-2014 I was groomed and abused by my “Christian” therapist. I tell my story in my memoir entitled Prayed Upon: Breaking Free from Therapist Abuse.
Now I advocate for adult victims of therapist/clergy abuse.
We talk a lot about childhood sexual abuse, but little has been written about the abuse of adults leaving many adult victims to suffer in silence.
I have to tell you that when I was taken advantage of by a Christian elder and therapist in 2014, I thought I was the only one in the universe to be taken advantage of as an adult.
Much less by a therapist! Somewhere we go to deal with our issues surrounding sexual abuse, somewhere we are at our most vulnerable and trusting.
I can tell you the consequences of this kind of betrayal are devastating.
Pope and Vetter published a national study of 958 patients who had been sexually involved with a therapist. About 1/3 of these victims experienced incest or sexual abuse as a child. Results:
- 90% of patients are harmed by sex with a therapist;
- 80% are harmed when the sexual involvement begins only after termination of therapy.
- About 11% required hospitalization;
- 14% attempted suicide;
- and 1% committed suicide.
I know I didn’t think I could survive it. I thought about taking my life. I worried I would lose my marriage, my family, my church, and my life. And I did lose some of those things. I felt like I was at the bottom of a pit with no way out.
So how did I heal from therapist and clergy abuse?
First, I’m gonna give you 4 key points, and then we will dive a little deeper.
- God-God is the reason I am standing before you today. Cling to Him. Surround yourself with Him. He will be like the cast that holds your broken parts together until you can fully heal and can stand on your own.
- Good ‘ole passage of Time-Healing takes as long as it takes. A huge building needs a solid foundation, or it will crumble as soon as it encounters a stressor. True healing is the same. The work you put in now will benefit you years down the road.
- Getting out of bed/Effort-We do our small portion and God does the rest. Initially, that might mean you take a shower. Later that might mean seeking out a support group.
- Grace and Patience for ourselves-Just as an abuser’s trap takes time and persistence to craft, layer upon layer of lies and manipulation, healing happens in slow increments or layers. So slow sometimes that we cannot even see it happening. I liken it to hiking a mountain. As the trail zigzags back and forth, the trail seems almost flat. It is only after we stop and look back that we can see how high/how far we’ve come.
*Healing from therapist or clergy abuse doesn’t look the same for everyone. Today I will be speaking from personal experience, so please take what’s helpful and leave the rest.
How to Heal from THERAPIST and CLERGY ABUSE
Step 1: TELL SOMEONE YOU TRUST and KEEP TELLING UNTIL YOU ARE HEARD
- Don’t try to escape an abuser alone because you feel ashamed or embarrassed. I tried and failed. Predators exert extreme control over their victims.
- Also, you need to tell and continue to tell until you are heard. The first person I told ignored my cry for help and I sunk deeper into despair.
- Telling is biblical. Growing up I was taught never to burden others with my problems. We were not made to do life alone. The Bible says: “Bear one another’s burdens and therefore fulfill the law of Christ.” Gal 6:2
Step 2: REACH OUT TO SOMEONE WHO GETS IT
- After breaking that initial tie with the abuser, you need to find others who understand.
- I sought out other adult victims through:
- organizations like TELL (https://www.therapyabuse.org/contact_us.htm)
- Facebook groups
- Do not be ashamed to use the suicide hotline. That is why it exists! (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/)
- Know that: You are not alone, and the abuse was not your fault.
- All I needed in those early days was to know that it wasn’t just me and that maybe it wasn’t my fault.
*It is impossible to give consent in a relationship with an imbalance of power. It took me a long time to accept this truth, so start telling yourself now!
Step 3: SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
- Implied rule: Make a decision to trust again. Not all therapists or religious leaders are sociopaths!
- Remember we were not designed to do life alone and refusing to trust keeps you imprisoned (don’t let your abuser take any more than he has already taken!)
- Friends and family are not capable of providing the level of care we need with this type of trauma. Healing from therapist abuse requires professional help.
- I highly recommend EMDR for this type of abuse.
Step 4: CONSIDER LEGAL ACTION BUT BE AWARE OF ITS STRESSORS
- At first, I only wanted help getting out.
- Eventually, I gained the courage to tell my husband everything.
- As I healed and grew stronger, I was ready to think about stopping this predator from hurting others, so I decided to pursue a medical board investigation and later a civil suit
- Overall, it was healing to stand up for myself for the first time in my life. For more info on reporting your abuser click: https://amynordhues.com/resources/
Step 5: GRACE AND PATIENCE FOR OURSELVES AND LOVED ONES
- I had to give myself grace for how long the pain was lasting. Healing takes as long as it takes.
- I had to give my spouse grace as he wrestled with the confusing scenario. I didn’t understand it so how could he?
- I also had to accept that I still felt attached to my abuser. With trauma bonds, this is very normal. It will pass.
- I had to be patient with myself as I accepted the harsh reality that I was never special to my abusive therapist, that I meant nothing to him, and that the entire relationship had been a sham.
- And I had to be gentle with myself as I grieved the loss of the person I thought he was, the illusion. Remember, we were not attached to the abuser but to the fantasy they created. Fantasies are powerful. This too will pass.
Step 6: REFUSE TO COWER IN SHAME
- All victims of sexual abuse experience shame to varying degrees.
- The belief that not only did we participate in something bad, but we are bad. Maybe something inherently defective in us caused it to happen.
- We have to fight the urge to accept this and continually give the shame back to where it belongs-the abuser.
- Shame silences victims!
Step 7: WALK AWAY FROM OLD TRIGGERS AND UNHEALTHY PEOPLE and PLACES
- Don’t let pride keep you in an unhealthy place!
- I had to accept that my old church, my old friends, and my old support group in CR were too painful and too triggering for me. I had to walk away from literally everything I knew.
- It was lonely but I knew I would rebuild.
- My husband and I found a new church and began making some new friends together.
- Remember, God can and will help you rebuild.
Step 8: DO NOT FEEL OBLIGATED TO EXPLAIN OR DEFEND
- Every time someone looked at me I thought they were judging me, and I needed to explain, to defend myself. You don’t!
- Victims don’t owe anyone explanations.
- A wise psychologist asked me if I had told my husband about the abuse yet. I said I had told him everything. He said, “Well that’s a shame because the first thing I do in these cases when I sit down with couples is to explain that your wife was the victim of a crime, a felony.”
- Do victims of crimes owe explanations as to why they were victimized? No!
- What happened to you is between you and God. What you choose to share is up to you, but you do not need to explain yourself to anyone. Resist this urge!
Step 9: CLING TO SCRIPTURE
- I clung to scripture whenever I felt the need to defend myself…like when the rude bystander at the medical board hearing rolled his eyes and said, “please that was mutual not abuse.”
- “He will make your innocence radiate like the dawn, and the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun.” Ps 37:6 NLT
- “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Ex 14:14 NIV
- Every time I felt afraid…like when I was mocked and belittled for six hours in the deposition for my civil suit…
- “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. 2 Tim 1:7
- Every time I felt it was unfair that the doctor got to pretend to retire and go on with his life…
- “For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish.” Ps 37:28 NIV
- “But the Lord turns his face against those who do evil; he will erase their memory from the earth.” Ps 34:16 NLT
Step 10: The F word: MAKE A CONSCIOUS DECISION TO FORGIVE ALL WHO WRONGED US
- This is not a feeling but a choice so that I could be free.
- I had spent enough of my life imprisoned by anger and bitterness. Refuse to let your abuser keep you stuck there.
- But how do I forgive? Ask God and He will show you.
- I asked God to help me with this and he showed me how through a friend. I began praying for my abuser’s salvation.
Step 11: EDUCATE YOURSELF ON WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU
- Analyze what took place. Through writing or talking with a therapist or a close friend.
- Note the red flags and the pattern of manipulation.
- I needed to see what happened before I could begin to think about forgiving myself. Was I a victim or a participant? That answer was key.
- I found that answer as I wrote out my story or shared it with others.
Step 12: FACE YOUR ANGER TOWARDS GOD
This was not a big issue for me, but for some, it can be a huge stumbling block.
- God is big enough to handle your anger and he already knows how you feel. Tell Him! I wrote to Him using poetry to express my anger and disappointment.
- Do not let this trauma take away the very person who truly knows you and loves you inside and out.
- You will struggle in your healing journey if you do not make peace with God and trust with all of your being that:
- he did not cause what happened,
- he was deeply grieved by what happened
- and he will seek to avenge the harm that was caused.
- “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Rom 12:9
- “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Luke 17: 2 NIV
Step 13: RECOGNIZE THAT TRIGGERS ARE NOT SET-BACKS
- A trigger is simply a biological response by the body to keep us safe. Fight, flight or freeze.
- Every time I was triggered, I beat myself up for not making progress. I probably didn’t even forgive.
- Recognize them for what they are and keep on truckin’!
Step 14: STEP INTO THE LIGHT AND BE OPEN TO GOD’S LEADING
- I put my story online for the world to read. It was a first step in lessening my stigma and shame. I felt God calling me to share my story with a bigger audience, so I set up a website.
- And I continued to write my book.
- You don’t have to start a website or write a book to heal. But listen for God’s whisper as to what you can do. Share with one person. Join a support group. Start a support group.
- Don’t let others shame you for coming forward. God wants evil to be brought into the light.
- “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Eph 5:11
Step 15: ADDRESSING THE NEGATIVE TAPES/SELF-HATRED
- My negative self-tapes were placing a target on my back that predators could spot.
- And if I didn’t address this, I would be free from this abuser, yes but still trapped by my own self-loathing and still susceptible to further abuse.
- Make a list of the rules you are believing. If you are not sure where to start backtrack.
- Think about a relationship that you stay in that hurts you or that no longer serves you. As yourself why do you stay? Why do you feel too guilty to walk away? Dig deeper than it would hurt their feelings. You stay because something in the relationship is meeting a need albeit an unhealthy one. Fear of abandonment maybe? Fear that you won’t find anyone better? Fear you don’t deserve better?
- Think about times when you get frustrated or annoyed with yourself. For me, it was when I got emotional. Try to determine what you are saying to yourself in those moments. “You are so…If you weren’t so emotional you would…Get over it.” Likely these are messages you received in childhood. They are no longer serving you. They must go.
Step 16: COMBAT THESE MESSAGES WITH GOD’S TRUTH
- Once you have identified some of these messages, combat them with God’s truth.
- You don’t have to believe it for it to work. You don’t have to feel it for it to work. Do it anyway.
- God does not lie and scripture is infallible. So just do it based on pure faith.
I wrote love letters to myself from God. I did this over and over until His professions of love for me began to penetrate my armor. If writing is not your thing you can also use imagery.
First, imagine the scene in your mind where you were harmed. Remember how you felt and what the other person was doing and saying. Now envision Jesus coming into this space. What would he think of what just took place? What would he say back to you at that moment? Is he grieved?
Answer with what you know he would say based on scripture not on how you feel. Your feelings will likely say I deserved it, or something is wrong with me, or it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t…these will never be God’s answers.
Step 17: CREATE A NEW SET OF RULES BASED ON WHO GOD SAYS YOU ARE
- Next to your list of negative tapes, write a new message based on how God sees you.
- Example of an old rule: “Your emotions are the source of your problems not the result of them. Stamp it out.”
- Example of a new rule: “I love that I am an emotional and sensitive person. It allows me to enjoy deep and meaningful relationships.”
- These will take time to develop. I wrote my book over a period of years and watched these new rules creeping in. Celebrate them! You have just changed one of your core beliefs that often form in early childhood. Some never do this.
Step 18: PATIENCE AS YOU FIND A NEW TRIBE/MISSION
- You are in the process of changing who you are. You will want and need different things than you did before.
- You are now interacting with the world in a healthier way. You are viewing yourself through a different lens.
- Be patient as you navigate these new waters.
- Find friends and mentors who support this new version of you.
- Accept that your life will never go back to the way it was, but it can be just as rewarding or more so than before the abuse.
- OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD MAY NEVER BE JUST AS IT WAS BEFORE THE ABUSE BUT IT CAN HEAL AND BECOME SOMETHING EVEN BETTER IF WE ARE OPEN.
- I am currently close to Jesus but my relationship with the church has been shattered. For now.
- “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Rom 8:28
- It will be lonely for a while. It has been years and I am still in this process.
- What could have been the end of my life has become a new beginning.
Regardless of whether or not you are struggling with how to heal from therapist and clergy abuse, true healing comes when we see ourselves through God’s lens instead of the lens that the world gave us. I want to close with one of the love letters I wrote to myself from God when I was wrestling to accept God’s view of me. I hope it touches you as much as it did me.
“The Very Best”
Father, why did you make me?
I’m not like all the rest
You knew I’d never be good enough
Even at my best
I cannot be forgiven
Did you see what he made me do?
Even though, Father, I…
I didn’t want to
But that doesn’t matter!
Failing as I am
Speak to me, Father!
An answer, I demand!
My child, my child, I hear you
You think you’re a disgrace
But give me just a minute
Let me see that tear-stained face
These people who are telling you
Who you ought to be
Let me ask you, do these people
Do they know you as intimately as me?
Did they form you in the womb?
Every intricate part?
Child, these people who are defining you
Can they see your heart?
If you can answer yes to that
Well, perhaps this talk is done
But if the answer is actually no
Then I think it’s just begun
What I make is beautiful
Without fault and strong
So these messages you’re getting
Child, they could not be more wrong
I am angered at what he’s done
To such an innocent one as you
For his sins, he will pay
My child, I am not through
For I intend to show you
Who you really are
You cannot take a blanket
And cover up a star
Your light, it is still burning
Although you cannot see
But, child, oh how I wish you knew
Just how you appear to me
You are magnificent, for
You radiate shimmering light
And for you, my precious one
I will put up quite a fight
And I won’t give up until the day
That you can look up to the skies
And see yourself as I see you
And know the rest were lies
And, child, you are correct when you say
You are not like all the rest