If You Want to Help Us. . .
by anonymous guest poster
We believe those who want to understand and help and love abuse survivors in their lives can benefit from the clear and intelligent thoughts this author presents. Though our desire is certainly not to cause anyone to despair—because there is always hope as long as there is life—for the sake of those who want to understand the serious nature of this issue, we’re including the information that four years after writing this, the author took her own life.
In order to promote good self-care and be sensitive to survivors, we encourage anyone who may have similar feelings, or who may feel triggered by the death of another survivor, to contact a mental health professional.
I am a survivor of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse from the childhood and teenage years, and therapy abuse, which included sexual, verbal and spiritual abuse, from the college years. Since childhood, I have struggled with a variety of problems that have arisen in large part from the abuse: eating disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts and attempts, mood swings, anxiety disorders, psychological fragmentation, self injury, and prescription drug abuse.
Having experienced different forms of abuse, and having listened to others tell of their histories of abuse, I have found that all abuse is wounding, but that sexual abuse is particularly destructive. It creates a wound of depth and pain, filled with the debris of shame, brokenness, and despair. It is a wound like no other.
Some of the effects of the sexual abuse I’ve experienced
Feeling . . .
Alienated and alone, as if no one could ever understand the pain.
Afraid of men, wondering when they are going to start abusing me.
Ashamed of the sexual nature of the abuse.
Shattered as if my soul is scattered across the floor in thousands of slivered pieces.
Ruined and contaminated.
Broken beyond repair and hopeless.
Destroyed in my sexuality and capacity for intimacy.
Ignored by God, who could have stopped the abuse at any point.
Responsible for the abuse, of which I have no clear memories of resisting.
Misunderstood by those who have never been wounded this deeply.
Resentful that the healthy childhood and adolescence that I deserved were stolen from me, and that my young adult years are being consumed by the aftermath of self-abuse, addictions, and depression, along with the painful work of trying to recover.
And the memories . . . being triggered on a daily basis by the most innocuous events at the most inconvenient times: in class, in a crowded hallway, during a conversation, at church during a message. A word, a smell, a tone of voice, and within seconds I am seven again and under the blankets being raped by my babysitter or twelve and trying to fight off my enraged brother or nineteen and being forced to give oral sex to my therapist. And in the case of the early memories, a compartmentalization that has left me with memories split into bits and pieces. A bit of visual memory here, a piece of emotional memory over there, another bit of tactile memory out there. Bits and pieces flying everywhere, some days attacking me all at once, making me feel as if the slender thread that is connecting me with reality is about to snap.
What Has Helped and Harmed Me
When I began to work on this project, my initial idea was to create a list of Do’s and Don’t’s. But as I thought about it, I realized that each survivor is unique and what has helped me may be less than helpful for the next survivor. So, my suggestions are not suggestions as much as thoughts of what has been helpful and harmful from supporters in my healing.
What I have found harmful
Having my abuse referred to as a “trial.” A trial is when you lose your job or your car breaks down. Sexual abuse, or any childhood abuse for that matter, is not a trial. It is the destruction of the soul.
Being given advice when I haven’t asked for it. I already have a counselor; what I need from the church is love and support, not counseling or psychiatry.
Having my experiences minimized. When others compare the abuse to situations that are clearly not life-altering and traumatic, I am offended. Or when the abuse is referred to in a casual manner or I am told to not let it bother me anymore or to just get over it, I feel like I am being emotionally abused all over again.
Being pressured in any way. In my case, and I imagine the same probably is true for many survivors, the pressure to say, perform, believe or feel certain things was a central, destructive force in my life. I was not allowed to have boundaries in some of the most important areas of my life, such as my sexuality and my thoughts and feelings about being abused. . . .
Being quoted numerous Bible verses. An occasional reference to the Bible may be helpful but for the most part, I feel like the serious Scripture-quoters out there are hiding behind their Bibles. I would rather a person speak to me in his own words, one human being to another.
Being pressured to “put it all at the foot of the Cross” and after doing so, being told that my problems should now be gone. My wounds are deep; they go all the way to the bone. Short of a miracle, they are not going to disappear after one prayer.
Being told that my problems are a result of not believing enough or having enough faith. At times, my faith is weak. Often, I do not believe with the intensity that I should. But that is not why I have problems. I have problems because others have chosen to abuse me in some of the most soul-destroying ways, and I have had trouble coping with it, as I believe nearly any normal human being would. . . .
What has been helpful
Hearing words of affirmation on a regular basis. It’s hard to express how helpful a sentence of affirmation and encouragement here and there is for me. It takes very little thought or effort on the part of someone else, but may help me through an entire week.
Being told that I am being prayed for. Knowing that others are praying for me helps during the moments when the feelings of isolation and alienation descend.
Having my feelings validated. I feel validation not only from direct statements, but from hearing how my story has affected my listener. To me there is something so validating in hearing that my listener finds it horrible and unjust as well. I grew up in a home where the abuse and rapes from my babysitter were swept under the rug and the abuse and harassment from my brother was considered “no big deal.” I then received from my therapist four years of sexual, verbal and spiritual abuse and was continually told by him that the abuse would strengthen me and build my character. After a lifetime of having the abuse distorted, minimized, and ignored, I find that I need more than ever to hear confirmation from others that it was bad and that I have a right to feel deeply hurt by it.
Being touched with my permission. For me, being touched in gentle, appropriate, non-invasive ways has been most healing. Being touched helps to lessen the feelings of contamination and reminds me that I am not alone in this journey.
Being given the freedom to feel what I feel as long as I need to. I am so glad that I have the freedom to be sad or angry or whatever else my mood of the moment happens to be without being pressured to feel guilty and without having a timetable placed on my grieving.
Being listened to. Over and over again.
If I can do a little preaching, I want to emphasize that we survivors have lived through numerous lies and acts of betrayal, often from those who were called to nurture and love us the most. There is no reason that we should trust you! In sharing with you some of our deepest, shame-filled hurt, we are taking an extraordinary risk, a risk that involves much fear and courage. Do not give us a reason to withdraw into silence again. Do not become yet another example of betrayal in our lives.
Be straight with us in all circumstances. If you cannot help in certain areas, let us know and explain the reason so that we will understand that we are not to blame. If you begin to feel overwhelmed with our need and that supporting us has become too great a burden, help us to find other supporters, and as always, be straight with us, emphasizing that the problem lies not with us, but with your ability to help.
Finally, I just want to add, if you can do nothing else, love us with the heart of Jesus.
Love us as you would anyone who has survived a tragedy.
Reveal God’s love through words and actions filled with kindness and compassion.
God’s love is the medicine for our deep, infected wounds.
Show us God’s love, and rejoice with us as the wounds begin to heal.
Even though she herself is no longer with us, our prayer at BJUGrace is that this author’s words will continue to reach the hearts of others.
So sad to hear that the author is no longer with us. I really appreciate the article, especially what she said about each survivor being unique.
Regarding things that are helpful, I totally agree with what the author said about being listened to and having one’s feelings validated, particularly the feelings of outrage. I’ve been wounded in Hell’s courtyard, so to speak. I have every right to be outraged with the servant of Satan who did this to me, and to seek earthly justice and pray for divine justice. Don’t just have a sob session with me and then turn around and tell me I have to be loving and forgiving and not “gossip” about the perp.
Also regarding things that help, I would like to make a few comments about self-care and what has been helpful to me.
1. Exercise. Exercise is really good for a person’s physical and mental health, no matter what they’ve been through in life. It makes the body produce natural endorphines, which block physical and emotional pain, and lift your mood, which can be particularly helpful for the depressed individual. The individual who is suffering from anxiety and/or PTSD often produces high levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, due to the body’s “fight or flight” response. These hormones in turn make the individual feel even more stressed. If you are having a strong fight or flight response, and then you spend all day sitting behind a desk, or sitting in a classroom, that’s a recipe for increased stress. But rigorous exercise will put those hormones to use, so to speak, even temporarily deplete them, and you will also be tired at the end of the day (a “good tired”) and get a better sleep that night.
Besides the biochemical aspects of exercise, there are also huge psychological benefits. The feelings of accomplishment can be really beneficial, whether it’s playing a team sport or running in your local 5K or marathon. It gives you a new way to think about your body. You start thinking of your body in terms of lifting weights, or running, or whatever, instead of in terms of the abuse you experienced in your body. It gets you back in touch with your body. You’re excited when you see improvement. You build self-confidence. You don’t have to be a super-athlete to experience all of these benefits.
I’ve never been very fast, but I ran a marathon in my early twenties. At the time I didn’t think of it as therapy that I was doing for myself as an abuse survivor, but it definitely gave me a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence, as well as building my self-discipline. Recently I’ve started studying martial arts. It not only develops self-discipline and self-confidence, it is a great outlet for the rage when you get to shout like a warrior and kick a punching bag with everything you’ve got.
2. Appreciating the small things in life, especially nature. There have been a few times that I’ve really despaired, thought maybe it would have been better if I had never existed. I’ve had to carry a burden that I was never meant to carry. A burden of sheer evil, sheer ugliness from the pits of Hell itself. But no matter how bad things have been or how bad they get in the future, I still believe that the joy and the beauty in life outshine the evil and the ugly. I’ve had the opportunity to watch my children take their first steps, to kiss my husband, to sit on the porch and listen to the crickets and watch the moon come up, to smell the fresh breeze as a thunderstorm rolls in, to see a butterfly dancing across the garden, to hike on the Appalachian Trail during a spring rain. The light outshines the darkness.
3. During the bad times, understanding that I won’t feel this way forever. Healing from childhood abuse has been a roller coaster ride for me. There are ups and downs. It is a cycle. There are times when I almost forget it happened, and other times when I am tormented day and night with the memories and nightmares. During the bad times, it seems that the darkness will last forever. But the storm will subside, the clouds will roll back, and the sun will shine again.
4. Getting enough sleep. I feel worse when I’m tired, as I think most people do. Enough said.
I hope that nothing I’ve said will come across as trite or judgmental to those who are struggling right now. I just wanted to share some things that have helped me along my own journey, in hopes that someone might find it helpful or encouraging.
Mom of 2 boys
Thank you for this very informative reply. Everything you said is very true for me as well.
Hope you are getting better and better each day!