psychological sexual abuse

Putting My Wounds Into God’s Service

This is the seventh of seven posts in the Becoming a Wounded Healer: My Story Through Abuse series. All posts available here.

I am finally coming to the point where I am more comfortable talking about what happened. I want to use it as a source of healing for others. 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 (MSG) sticks out to me.

“All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us. We have plenty of hard times that come from following the Messiah, but no more so than the good times of his healing comfort – we get a full measure of that, too.”

As I wrote this series, I really wondered whether there is anyone else out there who has experienced something similar. I doubted, but statistically, it was likely. I have already had a number of people reach out to me with similar experiences in the past few weeks. I’m saddened by how common this is, but I also have hope that each of us can experience healing.

When I was five years old, I had my appendix taken out. I remember how painful it was at first. My activities were restricted. I couldn’t go swimming, which I loved. After some time, the butterfly closures were removed, and I could slowly go back to normal. I still had to be careful, and I often noticed the angry red mark staring at me. Months and years went by, and the scar faded. Now, I hardly remember it’s there. This experience gives me continued hope of what can happen on an emotional level with my past experiences, and those who have experienced similar things.

Going forward, I know I will face new situations that bring up old wounds in new ways. I also know that as I pursue healing and wholeness in Christ, the scars will fade. Maybe one day I will hardly notice it at all, and it will simply be a mark of the past. Whatever happens, I know that just as God has been faithful in the journey so far, God will continue to be faithful into the future. May you have the same hope in your journey.

Trusting God Again

This is the sixth of seven posts in the Becoming a Wounded Healer: My Story Through Abuse series. All posts available here.

As I began meeting with my counsellor, it seemed the painful layers of what happened were being peeled back. More and more came to the surface that I didn’t know was there.  It was as if I was at the checkout in a store, about to pay for my item. Just before the payment was finalized, the price was increased. Over and over again. I didn’t think I had anything left to forgive, but suddenly I was angry. There was no clear-cut process to follow with a start and an end. It all felt so unfair. Dealing with everything was taking so much energy, and John was probably living his life as if nothing ever happened.

November 2016

I really struggled through counselling, and even kickboxing couldn’t get me out of my funk. I was crying out to God on the drive home – actual tears, swearing, etc. Why do I have to suffer because of someone else’s actions? It’s not fair! He’s fine and I’m still suffering. If it was my own bad choice I wouldn’t complain…Then I sensed God speak to me clearly that he understood, because that’s what the cross is all about. Jesus punished for sins he didn’t commit (ours). I was personally experiencing something of the cross. Somehow that calmed me down and gave me peace.

My counsellor’s specialty was biblical counselling, so she often connected what we talked about to Bible verses, and encouraged me in ways I could pray about the situation. I remember one meeting in particular where she told me I should pray boldly for justice. I didn’t want to because I didn’t believe there was any hope for it, and I thought if I focused too much on that, I would get angry again. I knew eventually he would experience the consequences of his actions, even if not in this life.

God doesn’t usually speak to me in dreams, but shortly afterward I dreamed as I hadn’t before. I was in my apartment and John was there too. Initially I was afraid, but he began to apologize. For the first time, he acknowledged what happened and was truly sorry for it. I began to weep uncontrollably. It felt like a massive release in my heart of all that had happened. When I woke up, I felt like I had been given a gift from God. Although none of the events in my dream have happened, I experienced some healing in a way that is hard to put into words.

In another meeting, my counsellor asked me if I had problems trusting God. Initially, I thought my trust problems were more with other people, but I realized I struggled to trust God, too. I didn’t blame God for what happened, but I still didn’t understand why it happened. I had gone into self-protection mode. Subconsciously I thought that if God wouldn’t or couldn’t protect me, I would do it myself. By putting up walls, avoiding vulnerability, and appropriating a high level of skepticism in my interactions, I was removing any possibility of being hurt again, as much as was in my power. In short, I was a control freak.

I was angry when my counsellor suggested my reactions were sinful and I needed to repent. I preferred to see them as opportunities for growth, because that didn’t engender feelings of contempt and dread, but rather opportunity and possibility. However, as I worked through the chapter on repentance in the Wounded Heart book, I realized she was right. I had confused repentance and penance. “Contempt (self- or other-centered) is the energy behind penance. It produces a sense of being downtrodden and worthless and leads eventually to rage and murderous hatred. The result is an unredemptive sorrow that is full of self-pity and despair” (p.206). But “genuine conviction of sin, on the other hand, leads to a softening of the heart that dispels other-centered contempt in the wake of the recognition that we are no better, at core, than those who have abused us. Self-contempt is Satan’s counterfeit for true conviction. Contempt attacks the perceived source of the problem to gain control and then attempts to regain relationship with others and God through penitent deeds. Conviction humbly recognizes the need for grace and embraces a sorrow that leads to life and sacrificial love” (p.206).

I knew I needed to call sin, sin, and not try to make it nicer. My attempt to control, to be in control, was trying to protect myself, rather than trusting God. It was an avoidance of vulnerability, which decreases my own life, and my ability to love God and others the way I was intended to. It was seeking comfort apart from God. It was sin. Sure, it came mostly out of being sinned against, but my reaction to that was still sin. I asked God for forgiveness again.

I wondered for some time what it meant to trust God if there was no guarantee I wouldn’t be hurt again. I realized that trusting God didn’t mean nothing bad would ever happen to me again. It meant that God was still good and still enough even if it did.

Dr. Dan B. Allender. 1990. The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Admitting Weakness

This is the fifth of seven posts in the Becoming a Wounded Healer: My Story Through Abuse series. All posts available here.

I continued to struggle with an intense fear of vulnerability. Constantly questioning peoples’ motives was exhausting. As a youth worker, I was afraid that somehow even I might also be manipulating others, especially the teens I worked with. Two journal entries spaced nearly a year apart show continued struggles in my relationships.

May 2014

Sometimes I want so much to believe but I can’t.  What if it is not what it seems?  What if I’m being played again?  In reality that seems unrealistic.  I’m much older now and I should be able to spot it.  But all that caused me to doubt myself too.  In some ways I still feel like a child.  This is all so confusing.  When I think I’ve put it behind me, new situations bring it up again and cause me to experience it in a different way.  I can never escape it.  It’ll always be a part of me I guess.  Like you can’t erase your scars.  Sometimes that makes me really sad.  It’s hard to constantly experience new aspects of a painful past.

I think it’s also become a ‘role’ that is harder to trust.  People in Christian leadership, pastors, etc…they are hard to trust. 

March 2015

I realize again how scary it is to be vulnerable, even a little bit, and how hard it still is for me to trust people. I’m still experiencing the effects of what happened before. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely free of it. Even with physical wounds the scar remains. I just wish it was easier. I don’t want others to pay for his mistakes, but the reality is that it still hurts sometimes and I’m still discovering the effects. I don’t really like thinking about it because it brings me down. It already took so much from me, and I don’t want it to take more, but maybe I have to face it again to move on. I’m sick of feeling down though. It feels like a rock and hard place…maybe I have to sacrifice short-term to benefit long-term.

Finally, in the summer of 2016, I had two breakthroughs. For the first time, when I shared my testimony with friends, I included the story of abuse. I was finally ready for it to lose its power over me. I had no need to be ashamed for someone else’s actions. I also went back to counselling. It took three years after I came off medication for depression. I was self-aware enough to see the continued effects of the abuse in my life, particularly an inability to trust, a skeptical nature, and self-doubt in my interactions, never knowing if there was cause for concern, or if I was just transferring past reactions to current situations. I knew I couldn’t fix it on my own. Even though I had been to counselling before, I still struggled with feeling like it was giving in to a weakness. I should have fixed things by now, or gotten strong enough to fix it myself. I had to convince myself that the only weakness would be believing I didn’t need help.

Finding a Name

This is the fourth of seven posts in the Becoming a Wounded Healer: My Story Through Abuse series. All posts available here.

November 5, 2012

The other day I had a dream with John in it again.  He kept coming closer to me, hovering over me.  I kept pushing him back and he asked me why I was doing that.  I said it made me uncomfortable and I didn’t want him to do that.

I thought this was pretty momentous.  Most of the dreams I’ve had with him in it I’ve felt overpowered and helpless, frozen.  Some of them I may have got aggressive, but I never set a boundary like I did in this dream.  I know it is just a dream, but it felt so good.

In some ways, I was seeing healing in my life, but in other ways I saw that those years affected me much more deeply than I initially thought. I was intensely afraid of vulnerability with others and with God. I thought I would be taken advantage of again. I would see people who reminded me of John and all the memories would come back again. I couldn’t feel safe.

A friend mentioned how he noticed I was suspicious of people and couldn’t trust that people were actually being nice to me and wanting to help me. I wrote in my journal on February 25, 2013:

I guess to some degree I thought that was over…gone.  By not thinking about it, it was like an unfortunate event of the past that is IN THE PAST.  But I see that it still affects me… I don’t know how to process that.  I don’t know what to think about that.  It’s like I can’t escape.  I remember when I was really starting to face my depression, all of this came up and it just seemed like too much.  Now it seems like when I am doing a bit better it comes back again.  Will I ever be free and able to be really happy? I’m sick of being down, angry, irritated…I want to be happy and enjoy life.

I’m a theory and research type person, so I thought it would help to read up on what happened to me. If I could understand it, I could overcome it, or so I thought. I went through various books and websites, but couldn’t find anything that described my situation. There was sexual abuse, but John never actually touched me. There was emotional abuse, but it didn’t quite seem to fit. There was verbal and spiritual abuse, but that didn’t click either. It made me wonder if what happened was really a big deal at all, or even if I was going crazy.

Finally, I came across a book called The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Dr. Dan B. Allender. The different types of abuse were described, and I found a name that fit. Psychological sexual abuse. It was hard to wrap my mind around, but naming it afforded much needed credibility and legitimacy in my mind.

Psychological sexual abuse “will occur through verbal or visual means (usually both) but will involve more subtle (nonspecific, more mood-generating) communication that erodes the appropriate role boundaries between a child and an adult” (p.33). It is a “sexual/relational boundary violation” and can involve the “use of a child as a spouse surrogate (confidant…counsellor)” (p.34). As I kept reading, I could make some sense of what happened to me, but I also saw the long road ahead to healing. I felt hopeless.

June 9, 2013

I really don’t trust my own judgment. I was reading the Wounded Heart book again and I think it’s connected to what happened. I judged a person safe, that they had my best interests in mind, but I was so wrong. I feel so lonely on the journey through this, as most people who know about it just tell me I need to move past it. I can’t. I’m still understanding what happened and trying to process it. I can’t go faster because it hurts and takes time. It’s hard to remember and be in that place. It brings up anger again, even though I’ve forgiven. I already struggle with depression and this just brings me down again. I don’t want to be down; I want to be happy for once…but if I don’t confront this it will just be worse.

A few months later, in September 2013, I finally came off medication for depression. I had been taking various combinations for three years. I was elated that I had made it through some of the toughest years of my life. I was so sick of feeling sad and down, that I had no energy to deal with anything that might make me sad again. I knew the abuse was still affecting me, but I had no capacity to deal with it.

Dr. Dan B. Allender. 1990. The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Finding Forgiveness

This is the third of seven posts in the Becoming a Wounded Healer: My Story Through Abuse series. All posts available here.

My anger was quickly turning into hatred and bitterness. It was eating me alive and I knew I needed to forgive. Even so, I felt like if I were to forgive, I was saying that everything John did was okay, and I was giving up any hope for justice. I was not trusting God with the situation.

Two of my friends confronted me about my struggle. They reminded me of the book of 1 John in the Bible, where it says you cannot love God and hate your brother or sister. I had not thought of that before, and it scared me. I knew that with the intensity of what I felt, I didn’t have the strength to forgive on my own. I remembered a story from Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place. Corrie was imprisoned in the WWII concentration camps after being discovered for hiding Jews in her home. Miraculously, she survived, and went on to tour the globe, sharing about God’s love and forgiveness in the darkest of places. After one speaking engagement, a man came up to her and identified himself as one of the guards in her camp. He reached out his hand and asked for her forgiveness. She had just preached about forgiveness, but felt powerless to forgive this man. She told God she would stretch out her hand, and he would have to provide the strength. God did, and she forgave him. I figured if it worked for Corrie, it would work for me, too.

I remember kneeling on the floor in my parent’s living room and sobbing loudly. I asked for God’s strength, and finally forgave John, the church, and myself. I asked for God’s forgiveness for how I let hatred and bitterness grow inside me and come between me and God. I even called the pastor of the church to ask for forgiveness for how I acted in the situation. He was speechless. Even though they hadn’t treated me well, my reaction was still my problem. To say I found it hard to forgive is an understatement, but I knew I had to be obedient and trust God with the outcome. One of the things that held me back from forgiving was that I didn’t know what would happen. I realized that wasn’t up to me and I wasn’t in control. Once I forgave, I felt such peace and joy. I didn’t fully realize at the time that I would need to continue to choose to forgive.

Forgiveness was good, necessary, and Biblical, but it didn’t sort out all the problems. It took the poison out, but didn’t heal the wound. That process would continue.

Feeling Powerless, Seeking the Powerful

This is the second of seven posts in the Becoming a Wounded Healer: My Story Through Abuse series. All posts available here.

Although anger weighed heavily, I had little energy to deal with it given my depression and preparing for final exams before graduation. In one of my theology classes, I came across the image of God as warrior, and Exodus 15 became one of my favourite passages. I could relate to the Israelites being between a pursuing Egyptian army and the Red Sea. It looked hopeless with no way out, but God did a miracle and let them pass through the very thing that represented chaos and death. I was inspired one evening to write another poem based on Exodus 15, which became a sort of prophecy for me of what I wanted God to do in my life, too.

Song of the Sea
It came out of nowhere,
though I know it happened over time.
A slow, halting journey into entrapment.
Now caught, ambushed, shut in on all sides.
There’s no way back into slavery;
to the right, to the left, I am surrounded by death.
Looking ahead to see the surging waters of chaos,
hearing the roar of hopelessness crash into my ears. 

Oh God, my divine warrior, show yourself!
Gain glory for yourself among my enemies!
Look on me and have mercy, for I am undone.
Fight for me and go before me.
Part this churning flood of turmoil and let me pass through without further harm. 

Faltering forward, the only way yet one full of uncertainty.
Closer, closer to the edge, the noise is deafening.
My feet feel the tug of swirling sea, as it sprays distaste at my skeletal form.
“The end! THE END!” screams my scattered mind,
falling forward in surrender to the roiling pandemonium. 

As surely as the next step would seal my fate in the heartless watery grave,
I feel the sure, steadfast piece of land beneath my feet.
Looking up I see straining arms a cross, holding the quaking walls of chaos at bay.
Surrounded still, but safely stumbling toward the other side.
Step by step, slowly, the snarling masses tower from the right and left, but
are powerless to consume me with their wrath.
Closer to the end, but looking back to see enemies in relentless pursuit,
Out to enslave their victim once again. 

Not knowing how, but that it’s true, I reach the banks.
Crumpling down into a heap of exhaustion, but not safe yet.
Through dim slits I watch the bloodthirsty mass move closer,
thinking the recent deliverance was only to wrench the sweet tendrils of hope from my frail hands.
But as unbelievable and fantastic was the dry land, deliverance was not too far away.
The unfaltering arms disappeared,
and the trembling embankments thundered down with a crash!
The sea covered my adversaries in its terrible embrace,
and they sank to the heart of the deep. 

Oh God, my divine warrior, who is like you?
You stretched out your arms and parted the raging waters for your servant.
You took them away and it swallowed my foes!
You guided me through the depths of chaos and set me on you, my Rock.
There is no one like you, whose love is everlasting.
God will reign forever and ever.

Of course, the poem did not fix my situation, but writing was one of my outlets for years, and I needed it. Despite the church’s promise to keep me informed of the investigation, I heard nothing, and felt even more powerless than before.

I graduated at the top of my class in April 2010, though I could not truly celebrate. The church offered to pay for counselling, and though it felt to me like they were only trying to shut me up, I agreed. Periodically, I suffered from nightmares where John, my old youth pastor, was still coming after me.

Shortly after graduation I began working as Youth Director at a different church. Some of the teenagers that came to my youth group also attended a youth drop-in, where I found out John was volunteering. I was afraid for their safety, so I went to talk to the drop-in leader, Pete. I tried to share my concerns without telling Pete it related to what happened to me, but part way through the conversation he figured it out. He ended up using Matthew 18, a passage about church conflict, to tell me he couldn’t do anything about the situation, because I refused to meet with John and explain how he hurt me. I later found out that he recorded the entire conversation without telling me. I felt re-victimized, powerless, and afraid for my teenagers. Thinking about it now, I don’t believe Pete was trying to hurt me or anyone else, but nevertheless he misused a Scripture passage about church conflict in a case of abuse, and put teenagers within his responsibility at risk.

Shedding New Darkness on the Past

This is the first of seven posts in the Becoming a Wounded Healer: My Story Through Abuse series. All posts available here.

I remember exactly how I found out. It was winter in 2010, and I was living in my college dormitory, just over an hour’s drive from my family home. I was in the last semester of my bachelor’s degree, and though I was doing well academically, I was also coming to terms with having depression. My parents had planned to come visit me that weekend, but a surprise snowstorm meant the driving conditions cancelled their visit. They called me on the phone, instead. When my mom began the conversation, “I didn’t want to tell you this over the phone…”, I knew it wasn’t good. A youth worker from my old church youth group had confronted the church leadership: the youth pastor, John, had been abusing the teenagers. I was one of them.

At first I was incredulous. Surely they had gotten it wrong. Surely I would have known if I was abused for seven years. But as my mom continued to explain, I started to reinterpret my past in this terribly dark and twisted light. She was right, and I had had no idea.

I hung up the phone, and walked back to my room, unsure of what to do next. My friend asked me if I was okay. In a hollow, confused voice, I told her I wasn’t, and tried to explain the conversation I had just finished. The next few weeks are somewhat of a blur as I tried to understand what my teenage years really meant.

Shortly after, I found out the church had formed a committee to investigate what had happened. They wanted me to meet with them and share my story. I agreed, and typed it up in advance to read at the meeting, because I knew I couldn’t explain anything clearly otherwise.

I walked into the church to face a panel composed entirely of men. Given that we were talking about a male youth pastor who had abused teenage girls, this didn’t seem appropriate, but I continued. Here is some of what I shared:

In many ways, the youth pastor to youth relationship was reversed between us.  It seemed more so that I was his counsellor and he told me his problems.  He always painted himself as a victim.  Everyone else was against him.  His relationship with his wife was bad, the church didn’t understand him, parents were giving him issues, and the volunteers weren’t doing a good job helping at youth.  He always said that I was the only one who truly cared and would listen to him and could help him.  That I was the only one who knew these things.  He told me many times that I shouldn’t tell others what we discussed…such as things about his personal relationship with his wife – their intimacy, that he thought she had a mental illness that she refused to seek treatment for, and that if things didn’t change, he wanted to leave her after his kids graduated. He told me of a time when he almost committed suicide.  He said he…had a noose tied to a part of the roof and a chair underneath.  He said he would have done it if he hadn’t had someone walk in before he did it.  Then of course he told me not to tell anyone about it.  That was something very hard for me. I thought that if I told someone else what he told me, that something bad might happen and it would be my fault. 

I feel used, dirty, and violated.  Sometimes I wonder why I feel this way because he never physically or sexually abused me.  But I know that these feelings are legitimate.  Even though emotional abuse has no physical mark, it still has strong consequences.  I have thought – “If only I were more perceptive and discerning, I could have seen this and stopped it so much sooner!”  Sometimes it is hard not to partially blame myself for what happened.

To give you a better picture of how this has affected me, I want to read you a poem that I wrote shortly after I found out.

Silent Rape
Did it really happen?
Or was it just an affair of the mind with yesterday?
Tell me what I want to hear.
Tell me reality was only a dream.
Was this abuse unwittingly done or,
menacingly exacted?
You raped me without a sound.
I was a fool.
But now I look down and see wounds appearing from thin air.
They keep coming, consuming my flesh until it is a carpet of blood.
My mind is a cheap carving.
Connections to rational thought severed by your crooked, desirous dagger.
Did you hate me or just love yourself that much?
Did you ever care or am I that good at believing lies?
Maybe you didn’t know but it’s still your fault.
I thought I could trust you.
My heart thumps – numb, anguish, numb, anguish…
You. You did it.
We’re not even. Can I kill you too?
What do these years mean now?
What was the truth?  What did you twist for me to believe?
Who am I?
You tramped all over me,
Emotionlessly rubbing dirt into my self-concept.
You never cared.
Now I wish I could say the same.
You used me for your own selfish ends,
Discarding me by the side of the road like I never mattered.
I hear you screaming “garbage” in every memory,
Though sometimes it looks like care.

As I finished sharing, I asked the church committee what they were going to do about the situation, and told them I thought he should be let go. I still remember my confusion when they asked me why I was so angry, and when I would be able to forgive John for what happened. I left the meeting naively believing their promise to keep me informed of the situation, and somehow trusting for a good outcome.

Becoming a Wounded Healer: My Story Through Abuse

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers. Jesus is God’s wounded healer: through his wounds we are healed. Jesus’ suffering and death brought joy and life. His humiliation brought glory; his rejection brought a community of love. As followers of Jesus we can also allow our wounds to bring healing to others.”

– Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer

For many years, I lived my life in answer to the question, “How can I hide my wounds?” The things that happened in my past were too painful to process, and too scary to share. Although shame was not my burden to bear, I was weighed down by its reality.

More recently, I have been asking myself, “How can I put my woundedness in the service of others?” This is a fundamental shift in response to years of processing with prayer and tears. It is in this spirit that I want to share more of my story. I am hoping that as I cast off the shame, my wounds may become a source of healing.

What follows will be a gradually released seven-part series detailing events in my past, and the path I have been on towards healing. Names have been changed. With forgiveness, there is no room for revenge or retaliation. These posts are intended to bring light into darkness, and perspective into confusion. They are not intended to target anyone, including the perpetrators.