Survivors’ Retreat

I recently learned of a retreat for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It’s put on by The Younique Foundation (and, no, you don’t have to sell the stuff to go. But it’s also open to those who do). At first I though, “yeah, probably not something I could actually go to. Besides, I’m mostly OK and I’m still in therapy, but functioning.” But then, I started looking into it more seriously.

Here’s the lowdown:

  • It’s FREE. Lodging, food, classes…everything. Free. You just have to get yourself there, either to the meeting spot or to the SLC airport (they’ll even pick you up!).
  • The only requirement is that you were a victim of childhood sexual abuse between 0-18 years old and that you are now at least 18 years old and female.
  • The retreat takes place in a canyon in Utah, nestled in the mountains where participants can feel safe.
  • Several classes are offered–yoga, nature walk, cooking classes, journaling, group therapy, and some other cool sounding stuff.

Most of this info, I got from a video about The Haven Retreat. <—–You have to watch this! And then this is the Younique Retreat Walkthrough.

I sent in the application to attend. Then they follow up with a second form to gather a little more information. Next, you’ll receive an email with possible sessions to attend. It appears that they do these retreats 3 weeks out of each month, starting on a Monday and ending on a Thursday.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. Survivors' Retreat.png

Even though I’m a bit scared/nervous, I’m also really excited to experience this and push myself forward into further healing.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in therapy or have yet to take that step, this retreat is for you. It doesn’t matter if your abuse happened one time or repeatedly over years, this retreat is for you.

I’m going in about a month and half from now. I can’t wait. I’ll do another post after I’ve attended to let you know how it goes. 🙂 And if you go (or have gone already), I’d love to hear your experience.

Here’s where you go to get started: The Haven Retreat application and additional information.

I think this is a beautiful thing to offer victims of childhood sexual abuse. It seems unbelievable, but it’s real.

Go. Sign up and take advantage of this resource.

Do it for yourself.

Therapy is Good, but so Hard

 

We’re all a work in progress, right? And unfortunately, healing doesn’t usually come at the pace we’d like it to.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to be done with this whole mess, which basically just leaves me frustrated and mad. And then when I think I’m making pretty good progress, something new comes up.

Something new came up a few weeks ago after an EMDR appointment. I was given a little homework, which isn’t the norm, Therapy is Good, but so Hard.jpgbut I was struggling to break through some pretty big barriers (like, I started laughing uncontrollably and couldn’t stop. Laughing is my defense mechanism, and the level of my laughing was up there, so we figured I was covering for something pretty big). She wanted me to write down what happened during a specific instance of abuse. The problem? I was 3 years old at the time, so it’s not like I have a ton of memory to go off. But, I was still willing to give it a try.

***WARNING*** Some of the following content may trigger some readers. Please be mindful to your personal well-being.***

The next morning, while I was alone, I sat down and just let myself go into that place, the place of abuse that I’ve fought hard to avoid. I made progress, for sure. But I was a little shocked at everything that came up during this exercise.

Hate.

Fear.

Physical pain.

Raped (twice).

Pornography.

Gross.

Dead inside.

Wanting to die.

Disgusting.

No one cares.

Diseased.

Can’t trust.

Not lovable.

Broken.

Confused.

Alone.

There’s something wrong with me.

Fear of people knowing I’m not normal.

These were the intense emotions my 3-year-old self had to deal with, yet couldn’t and shouldn’t have had to. Some of this I’ve known, but didn’t want to believe it. With the intensity of what I was feeling, it became undeniable.

I moved in a daze the rest of that day, crying easily. It was if I was a thin sheet of glass with cracks all throughout it, and one small thing was going to shatter me to pieces and I wouldn’t be able to get myself back together. The next two days were filled with more of the same. Like everything was happening around me, and I was watching it all from a distance, trying to not fall apart. And then I went to therapy again and was able to work through some of it.

Knowing more fully what happened doesn’t change who I am, I know that. But…it really just felt like the whole foundation of who I thought I was shaken, like my whole life has been a big lie. As if that fear of people knowing something is wrong with me ballooned into something bigger, where even I questioned who I am. Luckily, I have a great husband and some friends who told me I’m still me. This knowledge doesn’t change who I am or make them think of me any differently.

Things are a bit better at the moment, however I keep hitting a barrier with my therapy because some part of me is unwilling to just let go. I think after the abuse happened, that toddler part of me checked out and another part came forward to protect, take over, and has worked hard to keep all the awfulness at bay. But now I’m an adult and I’m working to heal from those decades old wounds and it’s not easy to get that part to relinquish its control.

I don’t mean for this to sound like a downer, but it’s a good reminder that therapy and healing take time. It doesn’t come all at once, and it’s definitely not easy. I so much so wish it were easier and faster! Sometimes it even feels like you’re not progressing at all, but you are. Give yourself permission to take the time your soul needs to heal. Sexual abuse is no small thing to recover from.

Don’t give up. It’s worth it and it will get better.

 

Building Healthy (& Intimate) Relationships After Sexual Abuse

When you’ve been sexually abused, it’s not over even if the actual abuse is. Sexual abuse affects us long after the incidences have occurred and have a negative impact on most, if not all, aspects of our life.

It goes without saying that dating and marriage relationships will also be impacted because  of sexual abuse. Not only is sexual abuse a betrayal of trust, but it also attacks how we feel and think about sex, making intimacy and sex within marriage often difficult to navigate. Being touched, hugged, kissed, and engaging in sex require vulnerability and trust. It can be scary to let someone get that close physically and emotionally to you after being hurt so deeply.

First, you need to make sure you’re seeking healthy connections. It’s easier for victims of abuse to fall into future abusive relationships. Healthy relationships are based on mutual trust, respect, love, compassion, and safety. Those who abuse physically, emotionally, verbally, or sexually are not candidates for a healthy relationship. Watch for red flags suchBuilding Healthy Relationships.jpg as times where you are made to feel less-than or your significant other tells you that you deserve the poor treatment for whatever reason. Those are major indicators of an abusive relationship that should be avoided.

One you’ve found someone who will love and respect you, whom you can trust (or maybe you already found this special one), you may be dating heading toward marriage or already married. This is when intimacy naturally increases and we may begin to notice problems we have in regards to intimacy, yet another negative impact of sexual abuse.

According to healthysex.com, the 10 most common sexual symptoms of sexual abuse are:

1. avoiding or being afraid of sex
2. approaching sex as an obligation
3. experiencing negative feelings such as anger, disgust, or guilt with touch
4. having difficulty becoming aroused or feeling sensation
5. feeling emotionally distant or not present during sex
6. experiencing intrusive or disturbing sexual thoughts and images
7. engaging in compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviors
8. experiencing difficulty establishing or maintaining an intimate relationship
9. experiencing vaginal pain or orgasmic difficulties
10.experiencing erectile or ejaculatory difficulties

How can we overcome these and build healthy, intimate relationships?

  1. Realize the abuse is not your fault and the abuse is not a part of who you are, but is something that has happened to you. Feelings of shame, embarrassment, disgust, discomfort, etc. that come from being sexually abused are normal, yet not something we want to feel. As you learn about how abuse has affected you and begin to heal, these symptoms will begin to alleviate. Being a victim of abuse does not change who you are. It’s not your fault.
  2. Establish healthy boundaries. As relationships progress, intimacy usually does as well. While dating may only involve hand-holding and kissing, and marriage takes intimacy steps further, any type of intimacy can be triggering. You need to know your personal limits and honor yourself by sticking to them. You probably don’t want to tell every person you’re dating “Hey, I’ve been sexually abused, so don’t do XYZ” but you can simply say you’re not comfortable with this or that yet, but such and such is OK. In marriage, it is probably a good idea to tell your spouse about your abuse so he or she can pay attention to your cues–if you tense up or disengage mentally–then whatever is going on during that moment needs to stop. Don’t be afraid to ask your spouse to stop doing something or say you need a break because you’re being triggered by past abuse. It’s not your fault if you struggle with any aspects of intimacy.
  3. Learn to ground yourself in the present. When flashbacks and memories creep in during intimacy, make a plan for yourself that will help you snap back to the present with your spouse. Take a deep breath and latch onto your current surroundings. Communicating and being deliberate with thoughts or touch during intimacy can help keep your focus straying to past events. It’s not your fault you experience flashbacks and triggers.
  4. Learn to trust. Trust is a huge part of intimacy. Sexual abuse is a huge breach on trust and sexual boundaries, so reestablishing trust takes time. Hopefully, you’re in a situation where you have every reason to trust your spouse and you can allow yourself to open up to trusting your partner. Building trust and being vulnerable takes time, so don’t get discouraged when it doesn’t happen overnight. Start with little things that require trust and build to bigger things. It’s not your fault that trusting others is hard.
  5. Avoid behaviors that trigger unwanted memories and feelings. Flashbacks and triggers can be unpredictable, but when you notice that certain acts or touches cause you discomfort–physically or emotionally–avoid them. You may need to tell your spouse that touching you here or there or doing this or that makes you uncomfortable or triggers memories so he/she can avoid it in the future. It’s not your fault that some kinds of touch are difficult.
  6. Take charge of intimacy. This can seem a bit scary, but it’s actually empowering. Learning what does or does not feel good and allowing sexual exploration between husband and wife is a healthy way to get more comfortable with intimacy and sex. Sex should be fun, enjoyable, and bond a couple closer together. Taking charge of bedroom activities means that you get to decide what happens when and for how long. While being sexually abused, we had no control over our situation. By taking that control back, we are giving ourselves permission to be intimate in a safe environment. You are not broken if you don’t experience sexual pleasure the way you want to. It’s not your fault intimacy is difficult to navigate.
  7. Understand the difference between healthy sexual intimacy and abuse. On healthysex.com, Wendy Maltz states: “The first step in sexual healing is to learn to distinguish abusive type sex from healthy sex. If you commonly use words like, “bad,” “dirty.” “overwhelming,” “frightening,” “hurtful,” and “secretive” to describe sex, you need to realize that these are descriptive of “sexual abuse.” Healthy sexuality is something very different. It is characterized by choice, consent, equality, respect, honesty, trust, safety, intimacy, and sensual enjoyment. In the books that you read and the movies you watch, decrease your exposure to abusive sex images and increase your exposure to examples of sex in which partners are responsible and express love and caring for each other.
  8. Seek professional help. Healing from the trauma of sexual abuse is very difficult and requires therapy. This may also include seeking marriage counseling. Getting therapy is a healthy step. It means you recognize there is a problem and you want to solve it. Healing from sexual abuse will lessen the negative effects on intimacy and other aspects of your life. This is a huge step in having healthy relationships after abuse. Including your spouse in the therapy process can help him/her understand what has happened and what you’re going through better so he/she knows how to help you better. Please consider taking this big step toward becoming more whole and healing. Being sexually abused and the subsequent effects are not your fault. You should never feel ashamed for needing help to heal from these traumatic experiences.

This list isn’t all encompassing, so please continue to seek for ways to improve your relationships–especially with your spouse. There are other resources available. Healthy relationships are possible and vital to your well-being. Look for websites or books with more information and ask your therapist for recommendations as well.

Resources (remember to take what you want and leave whatever doesn’t resonate with you. Not everything is for everyone.):

Healthysex.com

The Sexual Healing Journey by Wendy Maltz

And They Were Not Ashamed by Laura M. Brotherson

My Story: Nightmare

***TRIGGER WARNING: Some of the content in this post may be difficult for some readers because it is a story of sexual abuse. Please be mindful of your well-being.***

“I’ve hit delete and rewrote this several times, wanting to keep what I know needs to be said a secret. Still wanting for the events that marked my life to disappear from reality. I’ve spoken about the sexual abuse I experienced as a child with counselors and family members, but only snippets. Never the entire thing. I’m hoping by sharing my journey, those who share this kind of tragedy find hope.

“I was six the first time it happened. My parents had a very strict no sleepovers rule; they didn’t allow my siblings and I to go to anyone’s home, and no friend could ever come and stay at ours. I hated this rule. It was especially unfair when my favorite cousins moved into town. It took weeks of begging, doing extra chores and a convincing speech from my eldest cousin, promising absolute safety, that my mom finally let her guard down. After all, we trusted our extended family. What could possibly go wrong?

“The day of the sleepover, my mom surprised me and my sister with a new set of footed pajamas for the special event. A yellow for me and a red for my sister. Excitement filled the air, and I rushed to get ready.

“Upon arrival, my cousin *N*, a thirteen-year-old girl, rushed to my side and said she was mad at me and wasn’t going to let me stay over; to comeback in the morning.*N* had never looked at me so frightened and speak to me and with such harshness prior to this day. I had no idea what I’d done to make her so mad at me.

“My aunt heard the small exchange and punished my cousin, sending her to her room with no dessert.  I remember being sad and feeling guilty for getting *N* in trouble, until my seventeen-year-old cousin promised to let me watch a movie on his brand new beta-tape player, if I camped out in his room.

“Looking back, I should’ve seen *N* strange behavior for what it really was. A warning. She tried to warn me, but I was too young to understand. For years, I blamed myself thinking I made the choice to go into my cousin’s room, but in reality it was his doing. He forced me to look, touch and be touched in ways that still bring devastation into my heart.

“I can’t say I was relieved when it was over; after the physical part, he turned on the lights and forced me to stand naked in front of him. I tried to keep my eyes on my yellow pajamas, but his snickering made it difficult to tune him out. He then made me clean all traces of the assault all while threatening me to keep quiet about what had just taken place.

“I was terrified that my cousin would find his way into my home and assault me again, so I vowed to keep quiet.In the days that followed, I was convinced that what happened to me was my fault. This was the consequence for making my mom break the no sleep-over rule.It was too much; I was overwhelmed and to my delight my mind just tuned out, detaching itself from life and reality. My grades began to slip, but since my parents worked two jobs each, I never got in trouble.

“I don’t know how I managed to tune life out, but this went on for years.

“At twelve, my parents opened our home to my mom’s second cousin. He had recently lost his job and needed help getting back on his feet. After about a week or so, I remember being uncomfortable with the way he stared at me. I tried to avoid him, but it made no difference. The night both my parents worked the late shift, he molested me. I don’t remember too many details of that night, my mind’s ability to detach from reality was a true blessing.Nightmare.png

“Life was a blur, during my teenage years. I was depressed, had very low self-esteem, suffered from severe anxiety issues, and an eating disorder. I went in and out of treatment for what my parents and doctors thought was clinical depression and anxiety issues.

“My past was a painful and humiliating stain, I didn’t want anyone to know about, so when doctors considered there were things I was hiding, I stopped going to treatment around the same time I met my husband. Now more than ever, I needed to keep the abuse a secret. I feared that if anyone, especially the man I loved, knew the truth, he would be disgusted by me or think of me as damaged goods.Every day was a struggle, the secret I kept festered. It consumed so much of my spirit, making me even more depressed and anxious. I hated myself for it, but I was determined to succeed and keep my past behind me.

“The charade was up on our wedding day, the thought of allowing anyone near my body terrified me. After the reception, I ended up locking myself in the bathroom of our honeymoon suite–where the broken child inside me sobbed in agony. I had no choice; I had to tell him the truth. To my surprise, he understood and was patient. But even his love and patience couldn’t erase the deep rooted pain, disgust and blame I had for myself.

“We lasted 3 years before he filed for a legal separation. Feeling lost and alone motivated me to come clean to my parents and to commit to a long term psychological treatment. At the hospital, I poured my heart unto my Heavenly Father, and asked for help. I needed him and our Savior’s atonement to patch my shattered pieces back together. For months after, he carried my spirit and answered my prayer. A wonderful doctor said the words that my mind and soul needed, to start the healing process. “Stop punishing yourself, the abuse was not your fault. You are a daughter of God, and you are of great worth. Stop letting the memory of what happened, keep you emotionally and mentally hostage. Stop allowing it to keep you from living.”

“It’s been 15 years and I’m doing better than I thought possible. Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle from time to time, but thanks to the atonement, the power of prayer, great doctors, the miracle of forgiveness and a loving family, I have moved on with my life to enjoy along with my hubby and my kiddos.

“It’s still difficult for me to talk about the specifics of the abuse, and I know that it’s something that I will have to deal with for the rest of my life. But I know that there’s hope. For those who are struggling with the sting of abuse, know that this is not your fault. You are a beautiful son or daughter of a mighty Heavenly Father who knows your pain, your trial and your heart. He loves you and will never forsake you.”

~Anonymous

My Story: Silent No More

***TRIGGER WARNING: Some of the content in this post may be difficult for some readers because it is a story of sexual abuse. Please be mindful of your well-being.***

“I was 10 when my neighbor friend, Thomas took me into his backyard. We’d played there a million times before. They had a playhouse. He took me inside the playhouse and blocked the way out. Then he told me to take down my pants. I’ve blocked out most of what happened, but I vaguely remember him touching me and me touching him.

“The one thing I do remember is his words. They are burned into my brain. “You don’t touch girls older than 10 because you could get them pregnant and then you’ll get caught.” I don’t know why he said it. It doesn’t make sense but I heard those words and I knew he knew what he had done was wrong. That was the first time I was assaulted. I was 10 years old. 10! I feel rather lucky because I spend the next 6 years without incident. Isn’t it sad that is my attitude? Because I know people who haven’t been that lucky.

“I was 16. It was August. I was super excited because a senior boy had asked me to a concert at the high school. He didn’t have a car so my dad let me take the van. I picked him up and he asked to drive. I’m sure now that he was already thinking and planning what he was going to do to me. I was enamored with him so I agreed.

“He didn’t take us to the high school. He took us to a remote lookout point. Then we talked for a while. When we first got to the lookout point I was anxious. I knew it was bad. But then he didn’t try anything. I let my guard down. That’s when he first put his hand on my breast. Under my bra! I was shocked. I hit his hand away. He laughed. I don’t remember anything he said to me. I don’t remember how he got my pants and underwear down. I just remembered lying on the middle bench seat staring out the window at the stars. Crying. At that point I stopped fighting him. I prayed. and looked at the stars. Trying to take myself (if only in my mind) to another place.

“I don’t remember taking him home or getting there myself. I do remember feel shame. Worthless. I remember going straight to my room, shutting the door and crying. I don’t understand my choices, but the next evening I snuck him into my room and let him have sex with me. He had already taken anything worth having, right? I continued to “date” him for about a month. Who else would want me? I was soiled. More than when Thomas touched me. When we broke up I continued down a dangerous path.

“I talked to my bishop. He told me I needed to repent. Clearly I had done something terribly wrong. My church leader was telling me that. I didn’t feel I still have only told a handful of people that I was assaulted..pngworthy of my Savior’s love and forgiveness. Which I was also told meant I wasn’t doing something right and needed more repentance. I lost hope. In myself. In those around me. And I strayed. Far. I slept with most of my boyfriends. Why not? I wasn’t worth anything anymore. How could God forgive me? I couldn’t forgive myself. And that was part of the process. It wasn’t until I met my husband that I learned about love and forgiveness.

“I remember the night he asked me to marry him. I heard an angel shout, “Yes!” So I told him yes. I remember telling him about my past in the following days. I remember the hurt look on his face. I remember feeling like everything was falling apart. Again. I remember him taking me home without telling me if he still wanted to marry me. I remember the joy I felt the next morning. He had prayed or the spirit had talked to him. I’m not sure. But he learned that I was not broken. And that was the first time I learned it too. From him. He read me his patriarchal blessing. The part about his wife. He told that part was about me. What a great blessing to my soul at that moment! I still struggle with everything. But I have a partner that I can lean on through the hard times.

“I still have only told a handful of people that I was assaulted. I think that’s going to change. There is strength in numbers. God will never abandon us. We are his children. He loves us. I was married and sealed to my husband 16 years ago. I am blessed to be a mother to 4 children. I have been blessed with an education, which I think has helped me find my voice. I know that I have been forgiven for my actions after this trauma. I know that my experience helped me handle my daughter’s sexual assault. I know that I’m worth so much. I’m a daughter of God. I’m strong. I’m kind. I’m Denise.”

~Denise Stiegmann

 

My Story: The Broken Child

 

***TRIGGER WARNING: Some of the content in this post may be difficult for some readers because it is a story of sexual abuse. Please be mindful of your well-being.***

“I remember it like it was yesterday.

An orange, floral couch and wooden rocking chair were the only furniture in the family room of the house.  Ms. Brown* sat on the couch, cuddling Jennifer*, a five-year-old of her home-based preschool. My five-year-old daughter, Annie*, was seated in the rocking chair, rocking back and forth, back and forth.

I sat across the couch in a rickety chair I had pulled from the kitchen table in the next room. Jennifer’s mother sat in another kitchen chair to my left.

Ms. Brown spoke first, “Something very serious happened today.”

“Ok,” I said, not knowing what to expect.

“Today on the playground Annie touched Jennifer in an inappropriate way.”

I listened to Ms. Brown as she explained the details of the situation. Unsupervised. Compulsive. Forceful.

I know what it is like to be the mother of a victim. I had been through that when Annie came to us a few years before. She had been touched by someone else, and it was heartbreaking. I thought it was every mother’s nightmare. Add now, my daughter was not the victim; she was the victimizer.  Now, I was the mother of the person behind the cause of pain.  I felt sick.

Jennifer sat on the couch, retelling the incident in her own five-year-old-words.

Annie listened to the story as she rocked in the rocking chair, emotionless. Robotic. I hardly recognized her. Who was this child?

And what of me? How does a mother come to understand and accept? How does a mother love a child who does this? How could my daughter do this?The Broken Child.jpg

Jennifer’s mother sat in her chair listening.  I watched her, waiting for her reaction. I expected her to yell and cry, because that’s what I would have done.

Ms. Brown sat on the end of the couch, stroking Jennifer’s hair as she spoke.

Annie rocked back and forth, back and forth, staring at Jennifer like a robot.

When Jennifer finished with the story, her mother told her how proud she was that she had the courage to tell a grown up. Jennifer beamed.

Then she turned to Annie.  I froze and I anticipated an attack, ready to protect my daughter—the daughter who just violated hers.  But she didn’t. Rather she spoke just as softly and kindly to my daughter as she did to hers. She told her that sometimes kids were curious, but it was never ok to touch another child there. She was glad they were friends, but Annie needed to know that that was not OK.

Then, it seemed in unison, all eyes turned to me. It seemed it was my turn to say something. But what does a parent say in this situation?  I didn’t know how to feel, let alone respond.

I felt light-headed as I spoke, a thousand voices in the background telling me what to say and how I should act. I told Jennifer that I too was proud that she had the courage to tell Ms. Brown.  I told her I was glad she was OK. Then I turned to robot Annie, still rocking.  I leaned forward and stopped the chair. I wanted to yell at her and tell her what she did was sick and wrong.  I wanted to scream and ask, How could you think it’s ok? But I knew I couldn’t.

I had to think of the perfect thing to say; the one insightful and amazing thing that would make it all go away. I wanted it to all go away.

All I could say was, “Annie, I still love you, but that was not OK.”

Jennifer’s mother looked at me with kind eyes. Why wasn’t she angry? Why wasn’t she yelling at me? She was so kind.

I felt like a terrible person. So mad, so grateful, so sick, so lost.

There was my daughter, or the child that looked like my daughter, rocking and staring at the wall.  Do you have something you want to say? She stared and rocked.

Then fear and sorrow pressed through. My daughter was damaged. I knew when we adopted her that she had some issues, but nothing like this.  I thought I knew her. We had spent hours talking, playing, going to therapy, and I never would have expected this.

The dam broke, and the tears could no longer be stayed.

I apologized to Jennifer’s mother; I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Again, she was kind, too kind. It made the tears come harder.  I couldn’t breathe.

Ms. Brown said, “Annie, do you know why your mom is crying? It’s because she loves you so much.”

No! The thought blasted in my head.  I am crying because what she did was wrong, so wrong. I am sorry for Jennifer, and I am sorry for Annie. I’m sorry that I don’t know what to do.

I stood up, apologizing to the sweet mother. I grabbed Annie’s hand and tried to leave.  The knob of the front door had a child-proof covering on it. My hands were sweaty and shaking.  I struggled to open it, but I couldn’t. I felt trapped. I wanted to get away from Ms. Brown, Jennifer, and the kind mother. I wanted out.

I tried again, finally opening the door to the outside, away from the ambush, away from them. But Annie was still there.

I whisked Annie to the car. Ms. Brown followed me out. I couldn’t hear her words, but her face showed sadness and regret.

I drove, silent except for the stifled sobs. I knew I should have kept it together, for Annie’s sake, but that wasn’t my Annie.

Half way home I finally glanced at her in the rear-view mirror. She was staring straight ahead, unemotional. Then the anger came, and so did the questions. A switch flipped in
my mind. One after another I spat them out through the tears in rapid-fire succession, “What were you thinking, Annie? How could you do that? Haven’t we told you that was wrong? Do you remember when that boy touched you at your old school? How could you make someone else feel that way?”

She only stared.

I stopped and tried to compose myself.  Annie had never seen me cry before.  She spent the first five years of her life taking care of a drugged-up mother with abusive boyfriends; she didn’t need to take care of me, too.  It was her turn to be taken care of. But how could I take care of this?

I couldn’t hold back my anguish. I looked at her in the mirror and asked, “Why?”

She simply shrugged her shoulders.

I yelled, “Why?”

Nothing.

The tears continued until we arrived home. I sent her upstairs to her room. I stayed in the garage. Thoughts swirled in my mind: What kind of person touches someone else? I wasn’t expecting this, so what other surprises are there? Just how damaged is she?

Emotions tore at my heart. I felt anger, betrayal and despair. I was angry because I didn’t
want a damaged child. I felt betrayed because when I prayed about adoption, I felt warm inside. How could God make me feel so good about someone so bad? I felt despair, because I knew giving up wasn’t an option: We adopted her and were sealed to her: An eternal commitment had been made. I was stuck being her mother; and right then, I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want complicated. I didn’t want difficult. I didn’t want her.

I didn’t want to be the parent of a broken child.

There are myriads of resources for mothers of victims of sexual abuse. But what about mother’s of the perpetrators? What about us? What about me? I was hurt, angry, and afraid.

I did things I thought I’d never have to do, like call and report my own daughter to CPS (which is mandatory when adopting a child through our state). I prayed for the girl my daughter had touched, that she wouldn’t be scarred—that she wouldn’t continue the cycle my daughter was on. I prayed to know what to say, what to do.

I prayed most fervently that God would hold her in His arms, but when I did, I felt cold. She wasn’t my daughter. I didn’t know this girl, this girl who could do that to someone else.

We took Annie to counseling. Turns out I needed it just as much.

Through months of counseling, praying, studying, talking, and purposeful decision making (choosing to love her despite her choices, etc.) I began to learn what it was like to be the mother of a victim and a victimizer. I learned how to recognize my anger and accept it. And I learned how to keep her and others safe. No one was allowed to go into her room. She must play downstairs when friends came over. We made sure nothing even remotely salacious would appear on our TV, as to not trigger her. We locked down all computers and left her with one hand-held device that was not internet-capable. Our home was as safe as it could be for her.

Oh, how I wish I could have kept this incident within the walls of our home. But I understand that with my knowledge of my daughter’s past choices, came the responsibility to not only keep her safe, but to keep others safe from her. It was a painfully delicate and sobering responsibility. I had to protect other children from my own daughter. I met with the school psychologist and principal, who enacted discreet rules at school to ensure the safety of those around her. I spoke to the parents of the few select friends we allowed Annie visit in their homes. Heaven forbid she do this again.

The counseling helped all of us. We gained tools and insights that allowed us to cope. But prayer worked the miracles. Prayer allowed me to see Annie through God’s eyes. I realized that I had lumped my daughter into the same pile as adult habitual perpetrators: anyone that could touch another person beyond their consent was monster. The judgment was quick, naïve, and wrong. There had been no malice in her motives, no sexual appetite to feed at any cost. She had been a victim of circumstance, a follower of a twisted example. She was dealing with demons she couldn’t recognize, especially so young.

In the ensuing days, I began to catch glimpses of her through her cloaks of self-protection and fear. She was hurt, confused, and afraid—but not broken. Not a monster. She was my daughter, and I did, and do, love her.

I am not condoning what she did. It was wrong. Not natural—for a healthy person. But, for what she had been exposed to, it was normal. Normal and natural are not the same. And it’s been my job since that day to help her redefine what is normal and reset what is natural. And that was a great revelation for me: my daughter wasn’t broken; she was wired wrong. She was wired to sit on men’s laps and wiggle so they will like her. She was wired to be familiar with touching and being touched in private areas. She was wired to have no regard for personal space, and to live in squalor. She was taught by example and experience until all these things were wired in her brain.  It was my job then to protect others while I rewire and build up my daughter.

It still is my job. She has grown up into a beautiful young woman, filled with faith and hope and forgiveness. She has put this incident behind her, and has not done it since. Still, I cannot relax fully. Years later, the rule still stands: no friends in the bedroom. We always know where she is. Our watchful eyes have caused some to accuse us of being helicopter. They don’t know why, and frankly, I don’t care to explain that I am protecting their child. Yes, Annie is doing remarkably well, but the sad reality is that it happened: someone abused her, and she abused someone else. She belongs to an ugly chain whose links stretch wide.

But Annie and I share a few things that are key:

  1. The understanding that she is, first and foremost, a daughter of God.
  2. The Atonement can heal victims and perpetrators.
  3. The notion that rewiring a mind is possible.
  4. The determination that she is the last in that chain.
  5. That power of unconditional love.

I pray the wake of her dysfunctional childhood will be small, that the child she touched years ago has also experienced healing. I pray that she doesn’t feel shame. I pray that she will continue to develop healthy relationships. I pray that she will keep seeking the tools she needs to keep her mind and body in a healthy place. And I pray that her relationship with God and her family will continue to grow.

I love my daughter. She’s been hurt. And she’s hurt someone else. But, she is changing, growing, healing. With professional tools, hard work, and faith, she is becoming the young woman she chooses to be, not the one she was taught to be before she came to us. I’m changing too; growing and healing. Together we are learning the true meaning of the grace that the Atonement affords, and the hope it offers—hope that the cycle will be broken. Hope that she will not just be ok, but be happy, joyful, and healthy; not broken—but whole.”

~Anonymous

*The names in this story have been changed.

Note: It’s important to note that children may experiment out of curiosity, and that does not mean they are sexual abusers. We do need to teach our kids what is and is not okay conduct.

Additionally, children who have been abused may act out what has happened to them and unintentionally hurt another child. Please try to understand how this trauma of being abused has altered their perceptions. They may not understand what they are doing is wrong; it may seem like a normal action because that’s what they’ve been exposed to. Please help your child understand what is appropriate and what is not and make sure they get the proper professional help they need to heal from their abuse.

Some children, particularly as teens, may become abusers. Sometimes it’s because they have been abused, but often it stems from pornography use or other means of seeking sexual gratification. The abuser needs to receive proper counseling and therapy as well. Do not hesitate. The consequences of revealing this are far less then letting it continue onward without intervention, allowing the abuser to develop worsening behavior and harming more innocent lives along the way.

My Story: A Survivor’s Aunt’s Perspective

***TRIGGER WARNING: Some of the content in this post may be difficult for some readers because it is a story of sexual abuse. Please be mindful of your well-being.***

“I had just given birth to my first child, a girl, when our little 7-year-old niece came forward about her stepfather sexually abusing her.

“I’m forever grateful to her school that had the hard discussion that day. They had told the kids that if these certain things had happened to them that they should find an adult they are comfortable talking to and tell them about it.

“She went to her mom’s friend and told her what had happened. It all snowballed from there. The friend toa survivor's aunt's perspective.jpgld my sister-in-law, whose first reaction was to hurt this man who had wronged herself and her young family. He ran. When the police arrived they advised that any and all weapons be removed from the home so she couldn’t harm him or anyone else, including herself. Next she became depressed and began to drink. Our family stepped in and took care of her kids. Eventually, he turned himself in. This pedophile, who we learned
had committed similar acts as a teen, went to jail and legal proceedings began to hopefully keep him there as long as possible.

“Being a stay-at-home mom I offered to go up to my mother and father-in-laws’ to help with the kids. There I’d hear more details, though never specifics of what he’d done. I didn’t want to know those. The more I heard, the closer I held my sweet baby. The evils of the world were now a part of my world. This man who had been on family camping trips, had lived in my in-laws’ home when I first met my husband, he was right there. The “what ifs?” were terrifying. What if our daughter had been older? What if they had babysat her? What if my niece never said anything? What happens if he gets out of jail and is around again? Suddenly I didn’t trust anyone with my daughter, not even family. To this day that possibility is always on my mind. Very seldom do our kids get babysat. I just don’t trust anymore. I constantly warn my kids or look for signs that something might be wrong. A part of me is glad I am aware and the other part feels paranoid.

“Their story took interesting twists. For reasons we don’t fully understand, my sister-in-law chose to support her husband throughout his trial and for some time while he was in jail. She defended him, removed herself from the family for a time and even hindered her daughter from truly receiving the professional help she needed. Perhaps she didn’t want two failed marriages, she likely didn’t want to be a single mom to three kids, and she probably didn’t want to be alone.

“I’m not sure what changed, but they have since divorced and he has legally signed away any parental rights he had. He is still in jail with a possibility of parole or an addition 10 years. He may be gone, but his influence is not.

“Seven years later she’s doing alright, but as someone who has benefitted from therapy I see warning signs that our sweet niece didn’t get all of the help she needed. She struggles establishing healthy relationships and has already abused drugs and alcohol. She’s already had community service hours and is in the legal system and she’s only 15. She’s already taking part in premarital sex and those are just the things I can see. It makes me sad to see. I wish this hadn’t happened to such a young, sweet, innocent girl. I wish she didn’t have to deal with something that wasn’t her fault and that she stopped as soon as she was able. But if nothing else, I wish she had the help and resources she truly needs to be able to have the best life she can. But experience tells me that it will always be a part of her. A part she’ll always fight and struggle with. It will never truly go away, but I just hope she can learn effective ways to deal with it.”

~ Anonymous

For more related information, visit these other posts:

***To share your story, either anonymously or with your name, please submit using the “Contact/Submit a Story” tab at the top of the page. Thank you!

Can You Prevent Sexual Abuse?

Whether you’ve been a victim of sexual abuse or you’re a parent who wants to do their best to protect their child from being abused, you may be wondering if sexual abuse is preventable.

The short answer is no, not really. BUT, you can be proactive and educate your children, and if/when an abusive situation arises, your child will know it’s wrong, know how to respond, and we can help lessen the negative effects immediately.

  1. Teach your children about their bodies. Can You Prevent Sexual Abuse.jpgUse the correct names for body parts (i.e. vagina, penis, buttocks) just as you do for hands, fingers, arms, feet, etc. Tell them what they are for and how they work. Obviously, you want to be age appropriate and let the child lead the discussion somewhat. You are the best judge of what your child is ready for, but start young – like as soon as they are verbal or around age 3. You can also start when you are changing diapers by saying out loud that you are going to clean their buttocks, which will help them understand that some touch is appropriate by caregivers or doctors. (There are books that can help!)
  2. Teach to your kids about puberty and sex. This sounds difficult and may be uncomfortable, especially for those who were victimized as children, but these are healthy and normal things that need to be discussed – everyone goes through puberty and will eventually have sex. Carefully explain changes in their body that will be or are occurring and teach them what sex is. We do this around age 8 – their bodies will start changing soon, and unfortunately, many kids already know more than they should about sex at this age. Hearing it from their parents – a source they can trust – is the safest way to learn. Keeping the line of communication open for any questions is key. Parents must be willing to talk about these parts of life with their children. (If this is hard for you, maybe practice with a friend or professional first.) Again, there are books available – even from religious perspectives – that can aid you in teaching these important parts of life.
  3. Teach about appropriate and inappropriate touching. Some touching is good and some is bad. A general rule for kids to know is that no one should touch them where their bathing suit covers. Some families may add a little more. Kids need to know they are in charge of their bodies. They should never be forced by any adult or person older than them to hug, kiss, or sit on someone’s lap that they don’t want to. Let them know they can say “no, thank you” and offer an alternative such as a handshake, high-five, or fist bump. Kids need to know they have control over their personal space and bodies. They do not have to submit to someone just because the person is an adult or babysitter.
  4. Help kids know how to listen to their intuition and/or the Holy Ghost. We’ve all been around people who make us uncomfortable. How do you respond to those people? Let your kids decide how to respond. If they for any reason don’t want to be around a friend or relative, there may be a valid reason. Don’t force them! If something doesn’t feel right, your child needs to know they can honor that feeling inside them and leave the situation.
  5. Don’t keep secrets. An abuser’s favorite tool is secrets. Secret games, secret friends… the creepy stuff I’ve been reading in my research makes my stomach turn. Instead of secrets, we should share surprises with our kids. Surprises are good – surprise parties, surprise presents, etc. Secrets signal danger. Help your kids know that there are no secrets between parent and child (or between one parent and child). Tell them if someone tells them to keep something a secret, no matter what bribe, threat, or other lie they may use, they are to immediately tell their parents.
  6.  Use “what if” scenarios to help kids know how to respond to a potentially dangerous situation. “What if . . .someone wants to take you to their house to show you newborn puppies?; someone wants you to play a secret game with them?; someone touches one of your private parts?; someone shows you their privates or a naked picture of someone else?; someone tells you they won’t like you anymore if you don’t do what they tell you?” By coming up with a plan before they need one – just like a fire escape route – they’ll know what to do if a situation arises.
  7. If something happens and makes your child uncomfortable or gives them a “funny” feeling, make sure she/he will tell you first. Along with the “what-if” scenarios, comes telling mom and dad. Parents, be ready to listen and not brush off what your child tells you as no big deal. If they’re concerned, it IS a big deal. Talk it out – discuss the situation (who, what, when, where, why, how), how did it make them feel, etc., and take appropriate action. Sometimes it may be serious like sexual abuse, other times it may be the child wasn’t sure. Tell your child she/he did the right thing by coming to you. Do not punish your child for brining something to your attention – give praise and love. Kids need to trust their instincts and know they can come to their parents for anything; the first time may be a test to see how you respond before they trust you with something more serious.

Some parents may fear that teaching their kids these things can heighten a child’s interest in sex or cause them to fabricate an abuse story. Neither of these are true. Just like we keep our kids safe by teaching them to look both ways before crossing the street, not to play with matches or touch a hot stove, or to buckle-up when you’re in the car, we also need to apply these safety measures to protect them from sexual abuse. Teaching with love and respect and honesty is the best thing you can do to prevent sexual abuse, or give them the tools to deal with it.

If your child does get abused, please remember IT IS NOT HIS/HER FAULT. Even if they were somewhere they should not have been. Even if they did something you told them not to and then the abuse occurred. Do not blame your child for something the pedophile/molester/abuser is responsible for. Abuse can happen anywhere…at school, on the bus, at church, at home, at a friend’s house, in a public bathroom, on a camp out with the scouts, at summer camps, or at sports practice and dance class. We do have resources such as the sex offender registry, but that only alerts us to KNOWN offenders – those who have been reported/caught. Abusers are more often family (dads, uncles, brothers, grandparents, moms, cousins, etc.) or people the child knows – less likely strangers. Anyone who has access to your child can be an abuser. No race, religion, social status, or gender is exempt – sexual abuse happens across all demographics.

Proper response is key. If your child is abused, respond immediately. Pray for help if you’re confronted with this situation. Tell your child it’s not his/her fault; you will help them; you’re not going to allow that person to hurt them anymore; you love him/her not matter what; you will protect them; they’re not in trouble because of the abuse. There’s a careful balance of talking about it too much or not enough. Take cues from your child and let the Spirit guide you. Keep communication open and watch for changes in behavior that may be harmful. Make sure they get adequate professional help. If you’ve been a victim, this may be extra difficult because you know how much the abuse has hurt you and don’t want your child to have the same experience. Try to relax and do your best. Remember to get your child help from a therapist, church leaders, and the police.

 

Sexual Abuse: Defined

Some may wonder what exactly sexual abuse is and if what happened to them is abuse, or something else. According to Pandora’s Project, “Sexual abuse is any sort of non-consensual sexual contact. Sexual abuse can happen to men or women of any age.  Sexual abuse by a partner/intimate can include derogatory name calling, refusal to use contraception, deliberately causing unwanted physical pain during sex, deliberately passing on sexual diseases or infections and using objects, toys, or other items (e.g. baby oil or lubricants) without consent and to cause pain or humiliation.”

Furthermore, child sexual abuse can be anything sexual between a child and an adult or older child, including but not limited to: sexual touching of any body part with or Sexual Abuse Defined.jpgwithout clothing, penetrating sex – including the mouth, encouraging of sexual activity including masturbation, engaging in sex acts in front of a child on purpose, showing a child pornography, and prostituting children, among other things.

With these definitions, I think rape also falls under the umbrella of sexual abuse, though it is more commonly referred to as sexual assault.

We as individuals need to understand what constitutes sexual abuse. We need to teach our children what is okay and what is not. We need to know that if something like this is happening, not only is it not your fault, but we need to tell someone about it – someone who can help it to stop (and assist you in getting professional help and taking legal action against the abuser).

*If you wake up in the night in your own home or at a sleepover or a youth camping trip and someone is touching you inappropriately – even if it feels good – it is not your fault; you have done nothing wrong.

*If someone shows you pornography, it is not your fault. If someone takes advantage of you sexually, it is not your fault.

*If someone “talks you into” sex, but you really did not want to do it, you are not to blame.

Often age is a factor. The person who is the abuser may be older, in charge of, or some sort of authority figure who uses their dominance or influence to convince the victim-often a child-to do sexual acts with them. There is usually an element of fear or secrecy or promise of gifts. Parents, please be aware of any adult who is spending an unnatural amount of time with your child or seems to have a heightened interest in them. These are red flags you should never ignore.

Sex, sexual touching, intimacy between partners is supposed to be consensual by both people. Even if you’ve consented in the past, if you did not want to at a different time and said so, this is still not your fault.

Children, as well as people who are drunk or otherwise unable to make a choice with a sound mind, cannot properly give consent to any sexual activity. If you did not or could not appropriately give your consent, this is sexual abuse.

For a little more understanding, watch this video, “Tea and Consent.” (Yes, I know us Latter-day Saints don’t drink tea as part of our health code, but let’s pretend it’s herbal tea.)

If you have been a victim of sexual abuse, or if you’re the parent of a victim, please seek help from a professional and/or church leader to start healing.

Survivors’ Stories Needed

I have a favor to ask of my survivor/warrior friends out there (if you’re reading this, I’m talking to you!). I need your stories.

A couple years ago, I felt like I needed to write a book about healing from sexual abuse with a gospel perspective. I searched unsuccessfully for such a book, one I desperately needed when I began my healing process.  It has been the hardest thing to write – mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting.

After submitting it to a publisher, they have expressed interest in it, but would like perspectives from other survivors or perhaps people with a close relationship with someone who has been a victim of sexual abuse. Particularly of interest to me is a small bit of what happened, but with a focus on the healing aspect. Survivors' Stories Wanted.jpg

For instance, was there something that helped you to forgive? Do you have an experience with therapy that really helped? Is there a quote or talk from a church leader that meant something special to you? Did a friend, church leader, or family member say or do something that was really helpful when you needed extra support?

Please know that I will handle your story with care and gentleness. I know how difficult it can be to share these stories and I appreciate your willingness.

If you would like to share you story for this website, the book, or both (in whole or in part), please specify which or all you would like and I will honor your request. You can submit your story here. You can include your name or remain anonymous (however, if your story is selected for my book, I will need written permission from you to use your story at some point).

Thanks in advance and please let me know if you have any questions!

-Wendy