Building a Firm Foundation

This past Saturday, I had the privilege and honor of attending Triad Ladder of Hope’s Fundraising gala as the keynote speaker. For nearly two months, I prayed and sought the Lord’s direction for the words that I would speak. When I was ready to back out or change my words to a less vulnerable topic, God would remind me of His plans and purpose. I am so thankful that God has allowed me to reach a place of healing where I can take the deepest places of pain within me and use them to show people how mighty and powerful He is.

I wanted to take the time to share pieces of my speech. I know many family and friends wanted to attend the event and were unable to. The theme of the gala was “A Firm Foundation.”

Childhood sexual abuse fractures the foundation upon which life has been built. Your body no longer belongs to you. It becomes difficult to distinguish whether a person is safe or not. Hope for a future without being hurt, deteriorates rapidly. Your foundation is now built on lies, fear, and survival.

This faulty foundation does not crumble over night in most cases. Many times, the fractures in the foundation occur over time through the grooming process that abusers use to gain control over their victims. My abuser began chipping away at the edges of my foundation not long after he married my mom. He began by blurring the lines between normal and abnormal, safe and unsafe, right and wrong. Because he was a person deemed safe and trustworthy, I held on to the belief that he would not do anything wrong to me. He was supposed to love me, care for me, and protect me.

Therefore, when he began exposing himself to me at various times, I did not feel the need to run in fear to the nearest adult to tell. When he once tried to kiss me on the lips, I just thought it meant that he loved me or maybe it was an accident and he was trying to kiss me on the cheek. I ignored the pulse of fear that jolted through my body, because I thought he loved me.

I shared at the Gala that I experienced an overwhelming and breathtaking moment when I was asked to be the keynote speaker. I was so honored to be asked. What took my breath away was being able to witness how God allowed part of my story to come full circle. I never fathomed that I would be speaking for an organization founded in the exact city where about 18 years ago I was abused for the first time in the back of an 18 wheeler truck. I am so thankful God gifted me with this opportunity to see firsthand His redemptive efforts in my life. The little girl that was terrified and confused in the back of an 18 wheeler truck got to bravely speak.

My foundation began crumbling when the ongoing sexual abuse began when I was 8 years old. In my speech, I shared how this faulty foundation impacted my understanding of my purpose in life. The rules my abuser enforced began to carry into other environments as well. I detailed in a previous blog post about an incident in a hotel pool area where I became so conflicted about whether I was supposed to “service” a man in the sauna when he began exposing himself to me or continue swimming with my siblings. I was 9 year old and believed that my duty/job in life was to sexually satisfy men.

While I was freed from the physical presence of my abuser at the age of 13, my foundation remained in dangerous condition for many years. If you knew me in my teenage years, you likely saw a girl that worked hard in school to keep straight A’s, played hard for any sports team I was a member, and attended church fairly regularly. I did not let people see the foundation rotting away within me. My sister recently reminded me of one of our “mixed/burned” CDs that we would jam out to in my little Chevy Cobalt. These CDs so perfectly represented my life and I did not know it at the time. The first few tracks on the CD consisted of some of the most degrading and objectifying lyrics I have heard in my life. Then the next few tracks would be the top contemporary Christian hits. This pattern would repeat. I so badly wanted to my life to align with the contemporary Christian tracks, but my foundation was still built on the lies that the earlier tracks supported.

It was not an overnight process to rebuild my foundation. It took years of counseling to get a grasp on the ways that abuse was continuing to impact my life. My foundation was not made strong until I was able to reach the point where I was able to see myself, my worth, and my purpose through the eyes of Christ. It involved a complete lifestyle change. Today, Satan still attempts to fracture using the lies that I once believed so strongly. But my foundation is now built on truth that reminds me that I am a Beloved daughter of the King, my worth is priceless, and my purpose is to serve the Lord in all I do.

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Connecting the Dots

             As I have been preparing my speech for the Gala, I have reflected on different chapters of my life. I remember as a young girl I would sometimes get activity books with connect the dots and color by number pages. There were many times I would draw lines between the wrong numbered dots which would sometimes significantly alter the intended image. I was quite a perfectionist, so usually a “missed connection” would result in me wadding the page up and moving on to another activity.

             When I was a young girl, my understanding of the abuse that was happening to me was much like that of my connect the dots activity sheet. There were some segments that simply were not connecting. Honestly, I am still somewhat perplexed that I sat through health education classes that detailed abuse and the types of actions that constituted this somewhat ambiguous topic. I could pass tests at the end of the chapter requiring a detailed definition of abuse. I wish I had an explanation that would satisfy my mind, but I don’t yet. Unfortunately, I know this is a very frequent occurrence- a person knowing what abuse is but not being able to connect the dots in his/her own life.

             Maybe the dots were not connecting because my abuser had warped my mind to near oblivion about the wrongness of his actions. Maybe the dots really were connected but out of necessity for survival, I refused to look at the image created. I know many other factors that played into my delayed disclosure. I no longer feel guilt or anger with myself for not disclosing sooner because I know I was a terrified little girl just trying to survive.

             My heart just aches knowing that there are so many girls and boys each day that have not been able to disclose to someone the abuse they are enduring. I have been spending more time trying to think about ways we can empower others to speak. Here are my thoughts:

             First, we must ensure action will be taken and that someone will hear and believe the child. This is something we can all do. Believe.

             The second thing we can do is to empower children with a detailed lesson on abuse. For me, the standard definition and examples used in books didn’t work. Be willing to take it a step further and have conversations about abuse. Acknowledge the discomfort and fear a person may experience when talking about abuse. Invite a guest speaker or someone from law enforcement that specializes in forensic interviews or investigations to talk if it is a group setting. Discuss the types of threats an abuser may use to maintain control of the victim. The mental impacts of sexual abuse can be more crippling at times than the actual crime committed.

             Third, provide opportunities for disclosure. When I disclosed the final time, a teacher made herself available for me to talk to her during her planning period. Normalize the fear the child will probably experience when thinking about disclosing and reassure the child that you will believe them.

             Last, know the actions you may be mandated to take following a disclosure. Visit my previous post on disclosure here to learn how important your response is for the child.

             Evil exists in this world and I do not know that sexual abuse will ever cease to exist. But that does not mean the fight is a complete loss like my wadded up activity sheets. Instead, it means the fight against abuse is even more needed. I know that if we all take a bold stand against abuse by talking about it more, educating our children, and creating environments where disclosure can happen and be met with belief and action, then maybe there will be one less child impacted by abuse.

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Be someone she can tell the nightmare she endures. Be someone that will stand up and fight for her, every single day.

The Second Hand Keeps Ticking

I can’t believe today is the last day of 2016. This year has challenged me, strengthened me, molded me, and made me more brave.

A little over a year ago, in December 2015, I sat in my local District Attorney’s office at the court house in the center of town. I anxiously watched the second hand move slightly with each tick as I waited for the ADA to call me back. As I reflect on this year, this particular meeting served as a launching point for some of the pivotal events of this past year for me. The meeting led to the creation and publication of my blog, which is now on the verge of 4,000 views. The meeting led to further research of laws governing the sex offender registry and allowed for contact to be made with a NC Senator. The conversation with the Senator placed me in contact with the North Carolina Conference District Attorneys. Nearly a year after my meeting with the local ADA in December 2015, I sat in another waiting room watching the second hand continue ticking. This time I waited for my appointment with the Child Abuse Resource Prosecutor at the NC Conference of District Attorneys office. It was somewhat surreal to meet and discuss further legislative efforts to better serve victims of child sexual abuse, not just through the court proceedings but in the years after when offenders reach the date of being able to petition for removal from the registry. During this meeting, I was given a copy of the publication in which my impact statement was featured. I was overwhelmed with emotion to see not just my statement, but line after line of words contributed by the local ADA I met with a year ago as he detailed the impact of our meeting. I hope to be able to share the publication soon, so stay tuned. I thank God for preparing me, strengthening me, and giving me the courage to sit in that office a year ago, bravely waiting for my name to be called as the seconds kept ticking.

Making my blog public earlier this year was a frightening choice, but I knew in my heart it was the next step God was calling me to take. Clicking publish has opened the door for me to educate others about laws governing the sex offender registry and the impacts of abuse that are not always discussed. It has given me the opportunity to be a safe person for people to share their story. Clicking publish has resulted in being given the honor of speaking at Triad Ladder of Hope’s 3rd Annual Gala Fundraiser on January 28, 2017. If you live in the area, I hope you will pray about attending or supporting this amazing organization. You can find out more information about the event here.

I am incredibly excited for what 2017 may hold. The blog will continue. The fight for strengthened legislation will continue. Thriving and braving this world will continue.

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Braving the Holidays

Traveling home for the holidays always fills me with excitement as I look forward to spending time with my family and friends that I do not get to see often. There are so many wonderful memories that outweigh the difficult ones. However, if I’m honest, the excitement of returning home intersects with a fear of the reminders of my past. Traveling home for the holidays can be difficult for anyone, for a person with a trauma history- it can become even more complicated.

Navigating the excitement and fear can create an inner chaos that is tough to put into words. Emotions can range from pure happiness of being surrounded by those you love to profound sadness or anger when you see a place that reminds you of trauma. It can feel like a rollercoaster that does not stop. This week, I traveled 15 hours to my home state. I have been piecing together this post for some time now. It was not until I passed a restaurant that used to be a Western Sizzlin’ that the pieces of this post felt like they connected.

As I drove past the restaurant, my thoughts immediately went to the many times I rode in the “big truck” to this restaurant on Friday nights with my family, which included my abuser. However, as I continued driving I remembered a hilarious moment inside that restaurant and I was able to smile. I feel like the story deserves sharing because even in the midst of ongoing abuse- there were many “happy” moments in my childhood.

So, I was probably 9 or 10 when we stopped at the Western Sizzlin’ to eat before we went to the port to pick up the next shipment. After eating my dinner, I filled a bowl with Cool-Whip to eat as my dessert. Nothing else- just Cool-Whip. As soon as I put a large spoonful of it in my mouth, I knew something was wrong. I remember saying “I think something’s wrong with this Cool-Whip.” Initially, we thought maybe it had spoiled or something. Upon closer inspection, I was asked where I got the Cool-Whip from. I innocently pointed to the hot bar for potato fixings. Apparently, I was so excited for the Cool-Whip that as soon as I saw what resembled Cool-Whip I rapidly fixed my bowl without taking into consideration I was not at the dessert bar. I had indeed mistaken sour cream for cool-whip.

I share this story because when it came to mind I realized that the triggers and reminders from my abuse as a child no longer hold the power they once held over my life. I will not say they are gone because I don’t think I will ever be able to travel around my hometown without the nagging thought that there is a possibility I could run into my abuser. Today, I feel much more apt to handle that situation in a healthy manner if I face it. I am thankful the physiological responses to these triggers are no longer paralyzing as they were for many years. I contribute this part of my healing journey wholly to my faith in Christ and my time spent in counseling as a teenager. 

If you are currently in the process of battling triggers as a result of trauma, I hope that you will trust and know that you can overcome them. It is not an easy process and it certainly does not happen overnight. But hold on to the hope that one day, you will be able to pass by that restaurant or see that person that resembles your abuser or that vehicle that looks like the one they drove, and you will not experience the heart-stopping fear that you may feel now. One day, you may even be able to recall a positive experience and smile. aircraft-1362586

Riding in the “Big Truck”

Recently, a trigger reminded me of one of the earliest abuse experiences I can recall. I am so thankful that this trigger no longer causes emotional turmoil and strong physiological responses. Instead, I could reflect on the incident and consider how I might provide useful knowledge that may help someone today.

My abuser’s profession when he first entered my life was driving trucks. I have many pleasant memories of traveling down to Wilmington on Friday nights with my immediate family in the “Big Truck” to eat at Western Sizzlin and pick up or drop off a trailer at the port. My siblings and I would ride in the cab on the bunk bed and occasionally we would get the chance to blow the horn. I can remember walking to and from the truck feeling like the coolest kid in the world. Unfortunately, that truck soon became a place I feared to enter.

If you knew me as a child, you may be aware that my favorite word was “go.” I was always excited to travel. One day I was given the opportunity to accompany my abuser to work, riding with him in the big truck to and from his destination for the day. We left the house around 3 or 4 am because the location was about three to four hours away. On the way, I slept in the cab of the truck. We arrived before the warehouse opened where we would deliver the shipment. During the time between our arrival and the opening of the warehouse, my abuser abused me. While I can identify grooming behaviors prior to this time, this incident is the earliest remembrance of being sexual abused.

What stood out to me recently, after being triggered, is the immediate feeling of fear, confusion, and guilt. As a child, I felt like I was thousands of miles away from what I considered my safety net and support system. I thought my abuser was a member of the “safe people” in my life. Yet, this incident caused me to question his status. I was conflicted with feeling like something was bad and wrong with the situation, yet I also believed that adults in my life would always do the right thing. I became confused about whether this was just a normal part of life. The guilt response has resulted in much reflection this last week.

This was the first incident of sexual abuse. All it took was this one incident for life to be forever altered. The entire ride home I felt like I, a 7 or 8 year old child, was going to be in the worst trouble when I got home. I can remember hoping and praying that my abuser would not tell my mom what had happened between us. I could not see this single event as a crime my abuser committed, instead I believed that I had done something wrong. One of the questions I’ve been pondering is how do we equip our children with protection from the response I had (and my others have had) as a result of being abused? I was trying to think about what I could have known or been told as a child so that when my abuser abused me for the first time I would have been able to tell an adult immediately rather than feeling like I would be the one to blame.

Honestly, I am not totally sure what the answer is to this question. I know my responses were normal for a child experiencing abuse, especially with an abuser that is a master manipulator and expert groomer. However, I want something different for other children. I want them to know that acts of abuse are never their fault. I want them to know (and I want to know) that a trusted adult is going to hear them when they speak up and believe them without hesitation and take action to provide them with safety quickly. When I was a child I was able to connect wrongdoings with consequences, generally some form of punishment. If I hit one of my siblings, I was going to be sent to my room for timeout. If I got in trouble at school, I would lose some of my extracurricular activities for a period of time. I had a feeling the abuse was a wrongdoing, but I was not able to perceive it as something my abuser was doing wrong.

I believe one of the important lessons to teach children at an early age is what to do if someone does something wrong to them. It will accompany educating our children about good touch/bad touch and ensuring they know who to turn to for help. I think we need to specifically state the abuse is never the fault of the child. If a person engages in bad touch- whether the abuser touches the child or the child is forced to touch the abuser- it is not the child’s fault (there are a multitude of other crimes against children that can be listed). The child is never to blame and they need to know they will never be in trouble for telling an adult about such incidents. If children fear adult’s responses, their opportunities to speak up about abuse are limited. An environment that fosters safe, open, and loving communication is absolutely necessary for children to acquire the courage to speak.

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Sexual Abuse in the Presence of Others

As Thanksgiving and Christmas are quickly approaching, I felt like I needed to share how abuse can happen despite being in the presence of other people. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that “approximately three quarters of reported cases of child sexual abuse are committed by family members or other individuals who are considered part of the victim’s ‘circle of trust.” I know it is hard to imagine anyone in your family or extended circle of trust harming your child, but it has happened too many times to too many people and we can’t ignore this any longer.

I believe many people have the misconception that sexual abuse can only occur behind closed doors or when the abuser is alone with their victim. It’s interesting that I started this post the other night and today while scrolling through twitter, I saw a very similar post. We sometimes have the thought “well no one will try to do anything with so many people around watching.” Unfortunately, this is not the case. Abuse can happen in your presence and abusers are so powerful in their manipulation skills that no one will be wiser. 

There were many times my abuser was brazen enough to abuse me in the presence of others. Some evenings when I was a child, we would sit around and watch television together in the living room. It became expected of me to grab a quilt and sit in my abuser’s lap during what should have been a safe and innocent bonding time. He was bold enough to do this because he knew how much he had manipulated me. I was so fearful in those moments that I would sit and act as normal as possible while he abused me rather than pushing the quilt away and screaming. Sexual abuse occurred in the presence of others.

If you have children, I hope you will take the time to talk about body rights and healthy touch. Empower them. Give them the choice of whether or not to hug a family member. Maybe a handshake or high five is more comfortable for your child. If your child appears fearful or nervous around certain people, do not brush it off as shyness- ask questions. Fight through the discomfort this type of conversation may bring and have these necessary conversations now.

My intention is not to make you paranoid about every person your child comes into contact with, but to make you aware that abuse does happen in the presence of other people. It is not always isolated incidents.  And just because it is a holiday does not mean an abuser will abstain from abusing.

 

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Children deserve to know their body rights at any age. There are age appropriate ways to have these conversations. It is never too early to empower children.

 

 

 

12 November 10ths

Today marks 12 years of physical freedom from my abuser. It is a day that I never thought would occur and at some points during my healing journey I wished it never did occur. But today, I am so thankful that on November 10, 2004 I did not have to return to the same home as my abuser.

On this day 12 years ago, I got up like usual and headed to school, excited because it was an early release day. As I walked down the hallway after being called to the main office, I questioned every possible reason I was excused from class. While I knew I had disclosed the abuse at school in the days, or weeks, prior (my timeline is fuzzy), on this day it didn’t cross my mind that another social worker would be waiting for me. When I walked through the front office door, my heart sank. I immediately recognized the first social worker I had talked to standing next to my guidance counselor. A man I did not recognize was waiting to interview me in the office. I learned he was a social worker from another county due to a conflict of interest in the county I lived. I quickly realized this was going to be the day that my abuser would potentially kill me. Ironically, this male social worker I now had to share my “secrets” with, shared a name with my abuser. I’m not sure how long I was in that office, but it felt like forever. I shared some things with him, but not everything. And was eventually allowed to return to class.

As the school day came to a close, my fears of leaving the safety of my school walls resulted in tears falling uncontrollably. I was going to have to go home and inform my family that I told the secret. There were many events that occurred on this day, but my purpose in this post is not to delve into them.

My purpose in this post is to expose the reality that just because physical freedom from an abuser occurs, it is not always a joyous event that we would imagine it to be. It is an extremely hard day. While yes, I look back on that day now and have so much gratitude that I was safely removed from my abuser’s access, I also remember the losses I experienced and the grieving process it involved. The next few days were filled with chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. It was not until years down the road that I was able to function healthily on November 10.

For years November 10 brought with it a rush of memories and emotions that significantly impacted my entire day or week. I can remember one year particularly well because I sat in the social worker’s office at my school and cried over the few tangible possessions I had from my “old life.” Thankfully, healing can happen if you are willing to take the hard steps and work through the trauma.

I finally reached the day that November 10 was just another day in my book of life. After working with an awesome counselor and making my support system stronger, I was able to face November 10 and see the progress I had made. That was when I finally felt free. I reclaimed November 10 as my day, and not one that turned my world upside down.

Today, it has been 12 years since a fearful 13 year old girl went into an office and told a strange man the shame filled abuse she had experienced. 12 years later, that same voice is speaking.

My hope today is that anyone that has experienced abuse in the past or is currently experiencing abuse, will find the strength to use their voice to tell someone they trust what has happened or is happening. Fight through the fear, anger, sadness, shame, and guilt and speak until you are believed.

To anyone that is still persevering through the healing process, keep going and do not give up. Even on the hardest of days, there is hope. That freedom you are longing for will be attained.

To anyone that suspects someone is being abused, speak up! Too many people simply can’t speak yet. Ask questions. Educate others. And report abuse.

We all have a role in this continued fight against childhood sexual abuse and it will take each one of us doing our part to make a difference.

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This photo was taken in November 1999, not long after my voice was silenced. Today, I speak for her.