Trigger warning: childhood sexual abuse and aftermath
You’re reading the series If You Only Knew: Awareness, Healing, Hope. We began with my personal story of childhood sexual abuse and my path to healing. We then moved on to ways to keep your children safer. If you missed any, you can find previous posts here. Again, please note that I am not an expert in law or psychology. Ideas expressed here result from my own personal experience.
I don’t know what to do. He and his wife are leaving my parents’ house. Everyone hugs and kisses them good-bye. They’re in the kitchen, headed for the back door…And what am I supposed to do? I freeze, internally paralyzed, just like the times when he abused me.
Yet, I find myself kissing his cheek and murmuring good-bye. It’s almost out of body, out of pure lack-of-knowing what to do. He freezes too, seemingly as unsure as I am.
I turn off the bathroom faucet and glance at my reflection in the mirror. Momentarily pleased that my new, pink dress-tank fits my ever-fluctuating physique, I begin to worry. Is the shirt too flattering? In moments, I will be rejoining my family gathering in the basement. I don’t want him to look at me at all, much less to like what he sees. Maybe I can hide behind crossed arms…
I scan the walls of her house. We are there for Mother’s Day. It seems there are pictures of him on every wall. The sight of the open door to his bedroom nauseates me. Surrounding me, the family chats, laughs, eats…And I wonder, have they forgotten? Don’t they know I’m on the brink here? Even if he’s gone and never coming back.
But the alternative is not much better. Not attending family functions reduces emotional turmoil but robs me of the opportunity of celebrating with my family.
There is nowhere else to sit in the cozy living room, so I slide next to her on the sofa.
I tell myself I can handle it. That the abuse was a long time ago, and I am not being harmed right now. I can be pleasant and carry on a conversation with an aging woman who isn’t likely to ever acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room.
Until she begins speaking about the email account being in her husband’s name, as well as the computer information in general, the utilities, and on and on.
Until she describes how she’s sought counsel about leaving everything in his name. But her computer is acting up…and that seems to bother her.
And I don’t really care about her computer issues. Instead, I get all spun out that she considers it perfectly acceptable to speak to me about him. As if he was a perfectly normal, upstanding man.
As if I want to hear about the mundane details about the life of the man who shattered mine.
As if I would be sympathetic to issues she now has with online accounts that once provided a vehicle for him to indulge his penchant for pornography.
It continues to shock and silence me.
Photo from freedigitalphotos.net
In moments like these, I become an amalgam: equal parts frozen, spun out, afraid, hurt, confused and angry. The physical abuse has stopped, but continued exposure to an unapologetic abuser and those who support him–who have taken no responsibility for their actions–is emotionally traumatic. It feels a whole lot like ongoing abuse.
It makes me feel invisible.
Only the passage of time, continual prayer, counseling, processing, and grace–sweet grace–bring me to points of healing and forgiveness. After facing the ugly-messy oozing of wounds, desperately in need of cleansing, I can arrive at a place of offering grace myself. It’s an on-going process.
And it’s why handling situations of abuse “in house” is a bad idea.
It doesn’t work. Probably ever.
Because we are human beings. We fail. It takes incredible strength, clarity, and support to maintain a course that focuses on the healing of the survivor while holding the abuser accountable.
I don’t know if it is even possible.
Basyle ‘Boz’ Tchividjian, GRACE founder, former prosecutor and chief of the sex crimes division of central Florida, articulates this beautifully in an interview with Rachel Held Evans. Though he is speaking of sexual abuse in a church setting, his words can easily be applied to a family situation. He says:
I have yet to encounter an abuse situation that was handled “in house” where the consequences were not extremely harmful to the abuse survivor….The sooner a church can manipulate some form of “reconciliation” between the victim and the perpetrator, the sooner it can forget about this messy situation. Tragically, this rush to reconciliation will often guilt the victim into thinking that the harmful effects of the abuse are a result of his/her own spiritual weaknesses or failures and that a “godly response to abuse” requires the embrace of the offender while minimizing the effects of the abuse. Not surprisingly, this church-centered response leads to devastating consequences in the life of the abuse survivor. Such responses to abuse have nothing to do with the Gospel, and everything to do with placing the institution over the individual. *
What you need to know if you discover your child has been abused is this:
You must believe her. (Or him, but for purposes for this post, I am choosing one pronoun.)
Your priority must be her, and not the perpetrator, no matter who the perpetrator is. Although some abuse happens by strangers, most happens by someone known, trusted, and even loved by the child. If this is the case, you likely know, trust, and love that person too. You may be related to the perpetrator.
That makes it very hard to hold him accountable. And he must be held accountable.
Why? If your child breaks a neighbor’s window while playing baseball, is it sufficient for him to merely apologize? Or do you require that he works to pay off the damage done to the window?
If a man embezzles from his company, is it sufficient to merely apologize, insisting that “it’s all in the past”? Or will he be fired and prosecuted?
The past is not in the past–not for offenders, and certainly not for survivors.
Actions have consequences, and criminal actions have criminal consequences. Even if you are related to the perpetrator of the crime.
As Christians, we know there is more for an offender. There is healing, rehabilitation, and restoration. Not only is true remorse and repentance crucial, but so is a commitment to healing the brokenness that caused the sin, and to avoiding anything that leads an offender back to that sin.
Many sexual offenders never even get to the apology stage.
Any person who has dared to face trauma, or any deep wound, has done a tremendous amount of hard work to get healthy and functional. It is a layered process that lasts a lifetime. Why would we not expect a perpetrator of a crime to do the hard work of looking at himself and doing what it takes repent and take responsibility?
How is it that we think we can handle it “in house”? On our own?
Photo from freedigitalphotos.net
And focus on your child. Sexual abuse strips a child of her worth and dignity in ways that few other things do. You can be a hero by facilitating her healing and not trying to protect her abuser!
In fact, what you do when you discover abuse can greatly affect the degree of trauma a child experiences. In other words, you have the power to dramatically reduce the trauma a child experiences by the way you handle the situation.
Short of any legal reason requiring you to do so, do not continue to expose your child to her abuser. While this may sound obvious, pressure to “reconcile” (or sweep it under the carpet) is great in families.
Give your child the gift of freedom from further trauma.
If you must expose her to him, prepare her ahead of time for what to expect. Ask how she’s feeling and if she has questions. Reassure her that you, or a trusted adult will be with her the whole time. Let her express how she’s feeling afterward too.
She needs to know that she is worthy of your love, protection, and allegiance. Expression of your unconditional love is critical.
Don’t wait for signs that she is struggling. I didn’t fall behind in school or have nightmares. There were no obvious signs of my emotional trauma because I strove to be the perfect, lovable child.
As a parent, you no doubt observe your child internalize and interpret things in ways that do not makes sense to you. Responding to abuse is no different. The way your child responds, or doesn’t, may not seem rational or follow logically as you’d expect. Children’s brains cope with trauma however they can, whether adults understand it or not.
For me, that partially meant not thinking about the abuse–living my life as though the abuse was never a part of it. That is not healthy, and it doesn’t facilitate healing. The power of silence that abuse has on all involved is so strong.
Break the silence. Talk about it with your child, and find a trusted counselor to both talk to your child and guide you in doing the same–in age appropriate ways. Let it be messy with the fiery emotions that will inevitably come. See what is infecting the wound so it can be cleansed and healed.
Bringing secrets into the light robs them of their power. It’s hard. It hurts. But not doing it hurts even more.
Keep talking–throughout your child’s life, as she cycles through layers of healing.
It’s not too late. If there is a loved one in your life who has been abused, will you show up for her? Will you be her safe place? Will you remind her that she is loved, that you will not blame her for what happened? Will you walk alongside her, impressing upon her that she is worth fighting for…and that you will not leave her to bear her burden alone?
If you only knew how much power you hold, you could be a hero!
*This interview with Boz Tchividjian is one of the greatest examples of a compassionate response for childhood sexual abuse survivors that I have ever come across. Though I highly recommend it for anyone, my endorsement is strictly for this interview and not for the site as a whole on which it appears.
Is there a time when you were afraid to speak up?
What happened when you did?
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