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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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

A Letter to my Abuser

So, I just finished writing this letter and I am still in somewhat of a shock that these words came from my heart. They literally just poured out of me. The first line was probably the most difficult. How do you address the person who abused you for years? I figured out what works for me. Here it goes…

October 19, 2016

To the man who stole my innocence.

Years ago I wrote you a letter. I never mailed it, thankfully. Although, it may have been good for you to read it. It was filled with hate and pain- a disastrous combination. I was at my lowest point of despair. I wanted you to witness how my life was ruined because of you. I do not regret writing that letter. It felt amazing to throw all the overwhelming emotions on paper… temporarily. I quickly learned that my hate and utter disdain for you did not change a single event that occurred in the past, it had no impact on you, and it was preventing me from living. I was existing, but I was not living.

With the help of a phenomenal counselor, I discovered how to live again. Slowly, those feelings of hatred faded. I learned that my life was not ruined, despite the really horrible things I endured. I made the decision to take back control of my life- my emotions, my thoughts, and my behaviors. Then, I chose to place my life, my trust, and my faith in the hands of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It may appear that this was an easy transition, when reading my words, but it was far from that. It may appear that it happened over night; however, it actually took years.

At eight years old, my life was forever changed. I continue to encounter circumstances that demonstrate yet another way the long term sexual abuse impacts me. I believe this will be lifelong. Trauma can’t be undone. But, that is no longer a disparaging truth for me. New neural pathways have formed. I have the tools to cope with the triggers and nightmarish memories of the many nights of my childhood. And, in moments when coping and pressing forward is difficult, I have a support system and a counselor that I can reach to for support. My life is not ruined. My life is so worth living.

I never imagined I would consider forgiving you. However, as I grew in my faith and learned about the act of forgiving, it did not seem so foreign. Many times I tried telling myself that I had forgiven you because it was the “right” thing to do. But, it was never authentic and truly from my heart. I can still recall the exact date that I finally “felt” like I had forgiven you. I forgive you.

I believe there are many misconceptions about forgiveness. It does not undo the sexual abuse. It does not remove the sadness I still feel when I think back to when I was just a child- how little I was, how scared I was, how confused I was. It does not mean I no longer hold you responsible for your choices. And it certainly does not mean I want to join you for dinner. In fact, I still pray I never see you again. It does not mean that I will let you petition for removal from the sex offender registry without fighting with every ounce of strength I have for that not to happen.

Forgiving you has allowed me to not just live, but thrive. It has provided me with the ability to accept what happened to me as a chapter in my book of life. It is no longer the conclusion. Forgiving you grants me the ability to turn my focus towards the future- towards strengthening legislation that fights for and protects children, towards completing my degree in counseling so I can hopefully impact lives like my counselors impacted my life, and towards removing the stigma surrounding sexual abuse and creating conversations that need to occur.

Some say the pivotal moment of forgiveness occurs when a person reaches the point of being able to extend appropriate grace to the perpetrator. I’m not there yet. And honestly, I’m still trying to figure out whether that is something I agree with or not. Maybe one day I will reach that place. For now, I have peace with my level of forgiveness for you. So, whether you are wondering or not, my life is not ruined. I forgive you.

Sincerely,

A Very Brave Woman

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For anyone struggling with forgiveness, please know that it truly takes time. Don’t beat yourself up for not being at that point yet in your journey. Healing takes time. Forgiving takes time. In one of my favorite books, Mending the Soul by Steven R. Tracy, the last chapter is on forgiveness. The LAST chapter. In a coming post, I hope to further explore what forgiveness has looked like in my life.

Not My Shame, Impact Statement Part 2

***Trigger Warning***

I am going to be authentic at this moment and tell you that it is scary posting the second part of my victim impact statement. I am definitely experiencing some anxiety just thinking about pressing “publish.” That feeling of shame resurfaced as I read back over the words I typed months ago. I choose to overcome and rise above because today I know it is not my shame.  

This part of my impact statement focuses on what I want the judge to know regarding my abuser’s actions. I did not want the judge to simply look back at the charges and see three counts of indecent liberty with a minor. The title of that charge does not convey, in my opinion, what really happened. If I ever stand before a judge to read my statement, I want the judge to hear what my life was really like during the years of abuse. I want the judge to know, it didn’t happen just three times. What I did not want to do though is recount every detail of the abuse. Because, I am so much more than what happened to me. I don’t want the judge to see me as a victim. When I go before that judge, I want him/her to hear the reasons my abuser should not be removed from the sex offender registry and I want him/her to see how strong I am today and how I am thriving. There is hope. Always.

So here is the first part of my statement, if you missed that post, and part two follows it:

Today, when I entered this court room, I did not come in as a victim like I did ten years ago. Today, I am standing here as a survivor. However, being a survivor does not mean that I am freed from the effects of long term sexual abuse at the hands of Jeffrey, my former step-father, my abuser. Rather, being a survivor means that through the flashbacks, depression, anxiety, guilt, and shame, I will choose to keep living, thriving, and healing. Ten years ago, as a victim, I did not have the courage to stand before the court and speak about the heinous acts that were committed against me. Today, as a survivor, I have a voice that is ready to be heard. And it begins with that August night I watched “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” with my then step-father which forever changed my life.

What should have been an innocent bonding time turned into a nightmare that I lived every time the show aired and my abuser was home- sometimes five nights a week. While that August night is when the ongoing sexual abuse began, the intentional grooming process began long before that. When I was just six, seven, and eight years old, my abuser was preparing me for that night I would come lay in bed beside him to watch a television show- but leave a victim, terrified by his threat and feeling completely ashamed and broken. That August night I could have been covered from head to toe in manure and still I would have felt cleaner than I did as I washed my abuser’s semen off of me, at eight years old.

During the years of abuse, I would go to school every day and come home knowing what my abuser would expect of me that night. The threat and fear he instilled in me on that August night, and the years of grooming broke me down to the point that my abuser never once had to tell me to come back to the bedroom and perform sexual acts. I reached the point of believing that this was my duty and my abuser reinforced this belief by telling me that he knew “how curious little girls are” and that he was just “helping me out.” My abuser was never drunk, high, or under the influence of any mind-altering substance when the abuse occurred. Those things would not have excused the crimes, rather I say it to clarify that my abuser consciously chose to abuse me hundreds of times.

It is still hard to see the words I have typed and to know that is a chapter in my book of life. But I find hope in the many chapters that follow. My chapter of accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and the journey of faith that follows. My chapters of graduating high school and college. My chapter of becoming a missionary through the North American Mission Board. My chapter of starting graduate school. My chapters of playing sports competitively. There are so many chapters in each person’s life. We can’t just look at one chapter and decide that’s what defines a person. We are more. 

In the coming days, or weeks (cue graduate school chapter of life), I will post the final part of my impact statement. 

Check out this song by Natalie Grant called “Clean

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Deal or No Deal

One of the hardest and lengthiest parts of the healing process has been coming to peace with the decision to accept the plea deal the defense lawyer and prosecutor agreed upon instead of taking the case to trial. Any time I think back to the year and a half or so working with the court system, the “what ifs” creep into my mind. In my head, and sometimes even in my dreams, different scenarios play out. What if we had gone to trial and the jury found my abuser guilty? What if we had gone to trial and the jury found my abuser not guilty? What would it have been like to face my abuser on the witness stand? Would my abuser have ever admitted his guilt? The questions can keep rolling. Thankfully, I am getting much better at preventing those thoughts from permeating my mind. I am able to rest assured that despite any decision I could have made that day in March 2006, I live for a God that is just and He loves me, His daughter.

So I must admit, this is probably the 10th time in a week that I have changed this portion of my blog. I have just continued to pray for the words I’m supposed to write to come to me. I refuse to post anything on my blog page until I have peace that it contains the words God has provided for me to share.

I am not sure how many people have witnessed a child sexual abuse case as it moves through the court system in its entirety. My goal with this post is to share what it was like for me as a 14-15 year old. Every single case will be different, but I believe there will be some similarities as well. My hope is that the conversation can continue in regards to how we can make the process of facing an abuser in court less painful for the child that has already suffered more than they ever should. I’m very thankful for the strides that have been made by many courts to adopt a trauma informed, victim centered approach.

In the weeks following my disclosure, I endured hours of interviews by state bureau investigators and forensic psychologists. They were great at their job, but there is just no way any person can make talking about your abuse experiences tolerable at this point in the journey. Eventually, my abuser was arrested and charged with three counts of taking indecent liberties with a minor; thus, the start of the court case.

Much of the time leading up to the actual day in court remains a blur. Between delays in the case, a change in Assistant District Attorney, and all of the stressors of moving and starting high school, I simply do not remember each meeting at the court house. However, in the midst of all that, the District Attorney’s office was working on my behalf to work out a plea deal with my abuser’s attorney.

When the court date arrived, I remember being overcome with fear. The only knowledge I had of what court was like came from watching Judge Judy and Judge Mathis. I truly had no idea what to expect. Before we entered the court room, the ADA called us to a room and explained that my abuser’s attorney had submitted a change to the terms of the plea agreement. At 15 years old, I had to choose between accepting the new terms, which reduced the jail time to 48 hours, or take the case to trial. If I said “deal,” it would all be over in less than an hour, they said. If I said “no deal,” the outcome of a trial was uncertain as the case was a “he said, she said.”

At this point in my journey, I had not regained my voice that was taken from me by my abuser. I had the opportunity to make a victim impact statement, but I declined; barely able to mutter the words I accepted the deal. I just wanted the nightmare to end.  It did not take long for me to realize the court experience was just one chapter in the healing process that was closed. And truthfully, the chapter isn’t completely closed today. With the way the law is written, there is the possibility I could have to face my abuser in court once every single year for the rest of his life.

In North Carolina, many sex offenders are allowed to petition for removal from the sex offender registry after 10 years. If there petition is denied, one year from the denial, they are allowed to file a petition again- year after year after year. But that’s a side note and I can discuss the implications of that law in another post.

As I’ve taken a week to write this post, I’ve tried to explore what is the right decision to make? I don’t think there is a right decision. In some ways I have discovered that I am actually very lucky (weird to say in this context) to have had the chance to decide which route my case would take. Many never get the opportunity to have charges pressed against their abuser, due to statute of limitations or other reasons. Some have the opportunity to press charges, but when a plea deal is unsuccessful they are forced to withstand a trial, which is a trauma in itself. How can we make this process easier for individuals who have endured so much and are trying to continue on the healing process? In some ways, I guess I am beginning to learn that while we should aggressively pursue hefty penalties for committing crimes against children, I’m not sure there is any punishment a judicial system could hand down to an offender that will “feel enough” for the stolen innocence of a child.

God is just. That truth is enough.857178_10202918029376585_155563210_o