I’ve been thinking more about my recent Facebook post and decided to expand on it in a blog post. This is part of what I wrote on FB:
Being sexually abused as a child damaged my mind in indescribable ways. Today, my mind felt irreparable and beyond hope despite the progress I’ve made through medication and therapy. This might sound like a ridiculous analogy, but the thoughts I have as the result of the abuse feel like “heart worms” of the mind. The despairing thoughts (i.e. “heart worms”) start small, but then they multiply and grow — each one of them thrashing around and swelling, destroying precious areas of my mind and memories until the feeling of suffocation starts. It’s all very discouraging.
That feeling of mental suffocation is dangerous. It tricks you into believing that drastic measures will save you from the pain: from what I can tell, those measures often look like substance abuse or suicidal ideation or various forms of addiction, all of which are self-destructive.
But just so the analogy makes sense, do you know how animals are infected with heart worms? I didn’t until a few months ago. They’re infected through mosquito bites. That’s it. That’s all. A little mosquito bite. But because an infected mosquito is able to reach the very source of an animal’s life (i.e. their bloodstream), the heart worm larvae is deposited on the skin and makes its way through the bite to the bloodstream and eventually into the heart: there it multiplies and grows and thrashes around, damaging everything it touches, swelling into a multitude that clogs the heart (and lungs) and, if untreated, will typically kill the animal.
I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. For years, I’ve tried to convince myself that what happened to me as a child wasn’t a big deal because it didn’t involve physical violence. How bad could something really be that wasn’t violent? And yet, even without physical violence, sexual abuse causes catastrophic damage that can feel like a slow suffocation.
Anyway, I could keep going with this analogy, but I won’t. Instead, here are a few things I wish I had known a long time ago that might have helped me. Keep in mind that every sexual abuse story is unique. What would have helped me may not help you, but here are a few things I wish I had known:
- Cry out to God for help, but don’t forget that he often uses means instead of miracles. I’m sad to say that I have used personal devotions in the past as an avoidance tactic. I prayed to get better. I read my Bible to find hope. I felt very spiritual about it, too. But instead of healing, I got worse and worse until it was almost impossible to read and pray. Was it good that I cried out to God and searched his word? Absolutely. He’s my father. He loves me. But I cried out to him with the expectation that he would heal me on my terms without the excruciating pain of facing my past and involving others (i.e. experts) in the process. I wanted to heal without using the means (counseling, medication, etc.) he had placed in front of me to help me heal. He refused to agree to my terms, just in case you wondered.
- Don’t assume that someone who is institutionally labeled “safe” within a church is actually a safe person to talk to about these things. Christian institutions award degrees, a level of knowledge, and public validation (in addition to other great things, I’m sure. I’m not knocking Christian institutional education. I really wish I had had the opportunity to attend seminary). But these institutions do not give wisdom and compassion in this area. Only the Holy Spirit gives that. As such, the same warning holds true for those validated in churches who haven’t been institutionally educated, but who were “approved” by the same institutionalized methods. Someone can have sound theology, be a fantastic teacher/preacher, but lack genuine wisdom and compassion in this area that would guard against re-traumatizing abuse victims. I wish I had known that.
Just to be clear, though, I am not casting a blanket judgement on Christian institutions and those who are approved by them. Pastors and church leaders often minster under intense pressure and unrealistic expectations from church members. This post is not intended to contribute to those unrealistic expectations. But there has to be a way to “validate” the differing gifts of church leaders and pastors without putting sexual abuse victims at risk of re-traumatization. What that way is, I don’t know. But maybe we can think through this together.
More on this later . . . .