HEALING FROM SEXUAL ABUSE
It was the summer of 2017 when I met her. She wanted to see me following my talk on healing. As we chatted over coffee, her dark reality unfolded. She was a victim of sexual abuse, from a tender age of 8. Unable to comprehend her veracity, she lived under a tyranny of lies that left her feeling ugly and wrong, propelling her to hide from the world; hide, because it needed to stay hidden, because of ‘her’. “For many years, I believed it was because of me” she uttered under her breath as she revealed, for the first time, secrets about ‘him’, a well respected member of their community, someone she looked up to as ‘uncle’.
She described her pain as she had looked to her mother for support, but had found none. That rejection over the years would spiral into deep depression, self-harm and eating disorders to numb the pain. She described herself as an “emotional zombie” devoid of feelings, putting on a boisterous self-defending demeanor to protect her heart. “Why should I believe in a God who allowed this to happen to me”, she said as fragile details of her childhood unfolded, cutting through my heart like a knife. Her scars were evident, both in body and soul and left me stoned, shocked, angry and helpless. She was 17 when I met her.
The Secrets of Shame
It is no secret that women from all walks of life have been affected by this heinous crime. Abuse is not for a select few, though we often see it that way. It hides in the shadows of the most successful, confident and corporate women. It lurks among those trying to balance lives between home and career and it penetrates among the hearts of those broken and marginalized, those who are victims of power and those who are told they will never amount to anything. The outcome is always the same. It is shame.
Sexual abuse of any kind harms the victim on many more levels than only the physical. (CCC 2356)
Shame hides in the shadows of darkness, demands secrecy and hates the light. It wraps its deceitful tendrils around our hearts and whispers “I am unlovely. I am unlovable. I am worthless. I am ugly”….and the list goes on. These are lies. This is the power of shame. It eats away at the heart, isolating the person or pushing them to choose numbing mechanisms like alcohol, self harm or destructive relationships.
Wounds and Victory
In the case mentioned above, the 17 year old latched on to eating disorders, temper and cutting herself. They say if guilt tells us we made a mistake, shame tells us we are a mistake. The more she bled the better she felt, because she believed ‘she’ was responsible. She was responsible because she wasn’t enough. She was responsible because she was unworthy. She was responsible because something was wrong with her that fueled that abuse. In prayer and leaning on the Holy Spirit, it became evidently clear that far greater than the forgiveness that was due to her offender, was the responsibility to forgive self. She faced herself for the first time – as she was: Lovely, Lovable and Worthy.
That moment was the first of many moments and the beginning of what I believe is a lifelong journey of healing and restoration. In John 10:10, Jesus accuses Satan of being a thief because he steals the most sacred part of our femininity – our worth, and reduces it to shackles of shame. But this is not the end of the story.
In the grand overwhelming love of God, Jesus offers us abundant life and in its healing, redemption and transformation of our wounds. In Jesus, our place of wounds becomes the place of victory.
After a few meetings, the glimmer of new life was seen. She was calmer, curious about faith and more candid in her conversations. As she continued to open parts of her story, she discovered that her narrative found itself in His Story. Her pain entwined in His and her losses now consumed by His victory. Over the years and after meeting several young women like her I am convinced that there will be some aspects of our lives that will only be uncovered on the other side of eternity, when we meet Jesus face to face. For now however, we see dimly, as if through stained windows, and this is enough because we are not alone.
The Hard work of Healing
I wish there was a magic formula to rewind the past and undo the effects of sexual abuse. But I know there isn’t. From the story of the 17 year old, I know there’s no escaping it. She counted how it lived in front of her, behind her, before her every single day. Worse still, it lived inside her. She believed it was inescapable and she settled in its power. It was not until that afternoon that she was made aware that she had never considered the possibility of healing. She had never asked for one.
Jesus waits to heal us but He cannot without our cooperation. He respects our freedom and waits for our consent.
In John 5, in one of the most startling conversations Jesus asked the man born blind, “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus didn’t presume that he wanted sight; He waited on the man’s free-will. He opened his spiritual eyes to expose how comfortable he had become around his wounds, how he had clung to old memories and how he needed to rise from his victim mentality.
Silence has the rusty taste of shame. A significant part of healing is exposing shame, because shame loses power when it is expressed. As we trust God’s Grace we can come to Him unashamed and unafraid. We can trust that He knows the most intimate parts of our story and waits to make us whole. That Jesus is profoundly concerned about us, is perhaps the most, if not, freeing truth that will propel us towards the healing we desperately need.
It’s Okay To Feel Not Okay
As a survivor, living with the memories and impact, you have the right to feel and mourn. Denying a traumatic event will only aggravate the symptoms and make you physically sick. If you need to be angry, be angry. You can tell the Lord like it is; that you are a frayed survivor covered in ash in a fallen world; that your feelings are one of rage, even extreme sadness. The Lord understands them. The only way to get out of your dark emotions is to enter into them and work through them. Through prayer and counseling, you can choose to expose the secrets that hide behind the shame and you can accept that it was not your fault. You can choose to believe it. Yes, you must, for in this reality lies the gateway to the floodgates of heavenly healing.
Sister, we cannot undo our past but we don’t have to let what happened to us define our future. We can rest in the Freedom Christ offers and then let Him moment by moment, step by step, experience by experience to tenderly heal our heart.
Healing is a journey, not a destination. Healing begins at the place of surrender and keep coming to this place, again and again.
In this place we meet the One called man of sorrows, one very familiar with pain. He rose for our sake and manifested our wounds, made glorious in His body, for us to see and touch and believe that He is for us, not against us. From His wounds emanates a bright light, for all to see, for all to come just as we are, yes, with all our wounds and scars. Here we can unite the suffering and experiences of our body with His body, for our redemption and we can unite our hearts with His Resurrection for new life.
Here we see, even if dimly, that in and through His wounded body, our wounds become carriers of a story, of both the trauma and triumph, beginning first with the victory that comes from the Cross.