Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much is taken from survivors of sexual abuse and how much is out of our control. Although it feels as if the abuse has robbed us of everything, the reality is that there are some things that abusers cannot take from us and some things that we do have control over. Before we get to those, let’s look at the devastation sexual abuse leaves in its wake.
When we are sexually assaulted, sexually abused, or violated in any way, we are robbed to our core. Whether we were physically raped or not, sexual assault acts as a rape of our soul. We don’t just lose external things such as friends, communities, and jobs, we lose crucial internal things, as well—our very sense of self, sense of safety, and sense of belonging. Some of us feel robbed of our God-given right to exist and take up space. We feel forever defective, forever marked.
When this abuse occurs in childhood, we carry that mark with us into adulthood. I wasn’t sure how abusers knew but they always found me, seeking me out like a heat-seeking missile. It’s no wonder I was abused by seven different people by the age of 41. The last assault as an adult, however, was unlike any other. Like the aftermath of a tornado, everywhere I looked I saw utter destruction.
I was working with a “Christian” therapist/psychiatrist. He was an elder at my new church and being a fresh, naive Christian I thought I was in great hands. He had academic knowledge, spiritual knowledge, and 36 years of therapeutic clinical experience. He began grooming me right away, but I had no idea. I’ve honestly never encountered this level of evil before so although I noticed some concerning behaviors, I dismissed them. It was much more likely that I was being over-sensitive than that he was an evil predator.
The abuser spent a year creating the illusion of a close, trusting relationship, so when he ultimately assaulted me, I was beyond shattered. I lost my supposed safe place and adoring therapist. I lost my closest friend and mentor as she was the pastor’s wife and sided with the abuser. I lost my beloved pastor because although he helped me at first, his agenda quickly changed to that of damage control of his precious church and reputation.
I had to walk away from my church because the congregation was not afforded the truth about what happened so the gossip mill combined with a lack of internal support forced me out. I almost lost my marriage. My sweet, innocent children almost lost their mom. I lost friends. But worst of all, I lost my very foundation, those core beliefs I mentioned earlier.
We Lose our Sense of Self After Sexual Abuse
My sense of self became engulfed with self-blame and self-hatred. I’m not sure if I was more enraged at the man who harmed me or myself for somehow allowing it. I seemed to freeze every time he hurt me. So, did I allow it? I was an extremely conscientious person who always tried to do the right thing and who was very concerned with pleasing God.
During one of my last “therapy” sessions with the abuser, I can remember numbly going through the motions while he assaulted me, tears silently rolling down my cheeks while I whispered, “God, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Why the apology? Because I told God if He would give me more time, I would fix it. I would make the doctor see he was hurting me, and he would stop behaving inappropriately and then I could have my father figure and safe place back.
We Lose Our Sense of Safety After Sexual Abuse
My sense of safety was destroyed. I will never see a therapist in the same way. I will never see a religious leader in the same way. When I see elderly gentlemen, I imagine what is lurking underneath the cane and the cardigan sweater. I am leery of anyone who claims to be Christian although I still identify as a Christ-follower. All I can think about now is that big cross necklace the abuser wore (and bragged that he never took off). I recall the priest who molested me and my sister as children. I think of all the so-called religious leaders who have harmed countless children and adults.
Another way my sense of safety was affected is the issue of personal boundaries. After my experience, I found myself questioning how vulnerable I should allow myself to be in any given situation. I have a better sense of that after ten years of healing, but I will always struggle with finding that delicate balance. I crave closeness, but I am not so sure closeness is worth the risk anymore. The price I paid when it did backfire was immense. I’m not sure I’ll ever have an answer for that but for now, I err on the side of caution and that is okay.
We Lose Our Sense of Belonging After Sexual Abuse
My sense of belonging was already shaky as someone who was molested for the first time at age 3, but this adult abuse intensified that feeling of being on the periphery of life. At first, I simply felt broken. I assumed I had a label on me somewhere that all abusers could spot that read damaged goods. I assumed that I belonged with all the other damaged goods. After almost a decade of healing, I do not believe that about myself anymore, but I still struggle with belonging.
I used to belong in my church, in my Celebrate Recovery group, and with my friends from both groups. But I had to leave all of that behind. It was too tainted, too contaminated. Friends felt pulled between supporting me and maintaining their own sense of belonging and safety.
I am still searching for safe places to belong. I may never find another church family, but I do know that I belong to Jesus and that is more than enough. I also belong to my sweet husband and precious children and with them my cup overflows. I do have friends, but things are different now. Maybe I’m just wiser, and maybe that too is a good thing.
So, if this is just some of what we lose as survivors of abuse, where does that leave us post-abuse? What can we hold onto and what can we control? We actually have more choices than we realize. And the more we heal, the more options become available to us. So let’s list a few…
Choices that Remain Post Abuse
We can set the pace for our healing. Many will try to rush us, but no one gets to tell us when we should be “over it.” Hint: We are never fully over it but that doesn’t mean we can’t move beyond it.
We can choose who we share our pain with. Hint: People who are not able to sit with their own pain will not be able to sit with us in ours. Save yourself the heartache and make sure you find someone who can. Therapist/clergy abuse victims can find additional support here: https://www.therapyabuse.org/t2-how-do-i-recover.htm
We can feel whatever we need to feel for as long as we need to feel it.
We can be angry at God for as long as we want to. He can handle it.
We can forgive our abusers if we want to. We get to decide what forgiveness looks like. We are not bad people whatever we decide.
We can decide whether to find another church community or not. I tried to return to a church and was re-injured, so the church is still a big no for me. Hint: Jesus exists outside of church!
We get to decide what our faith looks like post-abuse. No one else gets to determine what our walk with Christ looks like. And despite what religion tries to tell us, there is no correct way to follow Jesus!
We can speak out about our injustice, or we can remain silent. Hint: Victims don’t owe anyone anything.
We can seek justice, or we can let it go. Hint: Seeking justice is NOT seeking revenge. It is empowering (although stressful) to pursue criminal or civil charges when a crime is committed. Sexual violence is no different.
We can press charges against another “Christian” and not be considered “un-Christlike.” My ex-pastor’s wife told me that it was not biblical to sue another Christian to which I replied, “He’s not Christian?!” Despite common belief, wearing a cross necklace does not make someone a Christian.
We can choose what we do after the abuse. Doing nothing might be the healthiest choice for some. Survivors, there are no wrong choices here. Remember, we are not responsible for stopping another’s evil. We are only responsible for our individual healing.
We can maintain our faith in God and/or Jesus. Abusers do not rob us of this. We give this away. Do not allow your abuser to take any more from you than they already have! Hint: I know it feels like these monsters have stolen our faith but in actuality, they cannot take it unless you give it to them. Don’t let them have it!
We can decide whether to trust again or not. I eventually sought out another therapist and had a positive, healing, and ethical experience.
We can decide whom we deem trustworthy.
We can walk away from unhealthy and triggering people. We can start over. Hint: We don’t have to continue returning to relationships that no longer serve us!
We can choose to stay angry, or we can decide to let it go. Again, when we are ready. Hint: Feeling anger is natural and it does not make us bad people.
We can tell God that we don’t know how to forgive something of this magnitude. We can also tell Him that we don’t want to forgive. I did just that and God showed me a workaround. If we are open to His help, He will show us a way forward.
We can forgive our abusers ONLY because we want freedom for ourselves. I forgave only because I was tired of my abuser robbing me of my energy. We do NOT have to feel ANY positive regard for our perpetrators EVER. What we are shooting for is indifference.
We can forgive our abusers, and still hold them accountable for their crimes. Hint: sexual violence is a crime despite the church’s attempt to minimize it as merely a sin.
We can realize that it is not our job to defend ourselves or prove our innocence. I used to believe everyone in the room was judging me until I discovered, one, they often didn’t know my story and two, their opinion is not my problem. Leave your defense to attorneys or better yet to God.
We can report our therapists or pastors to regulatory boards. I reported my abuser to the medical board, and they allowed him to surrender his license.
We can confront our abusers, but I do not advise this. Some survivors gain comfort by speaking their mind and others get hurt further. Again, you get to choose what is best for your healing and no one can tell you what you need to heal but you.
We can find other survivors and realize that we are not alone.
We can educate ourselves on abuse and abuse of power and understand that we were not to blame.
We can forgive ourselves and walk with our heads high without shame!
We can do the hard work to be free from all shame, even the shame we’ve carried since childhood.
We can decide who we are and who we want to be going forward.
We can let our past go.
We can rewrite our futures. The beginning chapters may have been written for us, but the ending of our story is up to us. The options are limitless!
We can use our tragedy to help others.
We can choose who and what gets our energy. Hint: Our energy is limited so choose wisely!
We can begin to define ourselves outside of the parameters of abuse. We no longer need to be victims. We are survivors. But even that is only one small piece of who we are. Discover all the other pieces. You might be surprised at what you find.
We can allow God to speak His truth into us and begin to see ourselves through His lens. Hint: I did this by writing love letters to myself from God in the form of poetry. You can also do this using mental imagery. Imagine your abuse scenario and then picture Jesus coming onto the scene. What would He say and do at that moment? Do not answer based on your emotions. Answer based on what scripture tells us about God’s character. This is a powerful exercise and brought me the most healing to date.
We can tell God that we hear His affirmations, but they are falling flat. Ask Him to allow us to feel them. He will do this for you. He did it for me. I needed more than the words on the page. I wanted to feel a daddy’s arms around me. I needed to see a father’s outrage at what was done to me. For the first time in my life, I deserved to experience a protective, strong father fight for his daughter.
When we stop and think about it, we have many decisions in our control post-abuse. No matter what our stories look like, no matter how deeply we have been wounded, there is still hope. Look at it this way—no matter what has been written on the pages of our life stories thus far, we can take the pen and change the narrative. We get to tell the rest of the story. We can design the ending. The options of how we’ll accomplish that are limitless. And we have a powerful God to assist us with that process. How awesome is that?!