The Devastating Wake of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Childhood sexual abuse leaves a continual path of destruction long after the crime has ended. Most people acknowledge child sexual abuse is heinous, but when we educate others or use legal terminology to describe the crime, we rarely capture the devastation it brings. Many avoid reckoning with the long-term impacts of sexual abuse because it is uncomfortable, frightening, and a reality they do not want to believe. It is a lot easier to dismiss a victim’s story when you do not think about what the future holds for them.

Through counseling, medication, and most importantly, my faith in Christ, I have experienced brighter days and I have rebuilt many parts of my life that I initially believed were permanently compromised. Each time I find places mutilated by my abuser’s crimes; it feels like I die another death. Because of Jesus, I am still here. It is through the assurance I have in God and His promise of redemption and goodness, that I press on, using this space and my voice to fight for greater awareness of the dynamics of abuse and its impacts, stricter laws, more victim-centered judicial processes, and for others to know that their voice matters and deserves to be heard.

I hope you will read the rest of this post, despite the discomfort it may cause. I hope when you hear about childhood sexual abuse occurring in your community, you will think about what the victim’s healing will involve before you think about what the perpetrator may lose. I hope you will have greater insight into why we cannot simply “get over it.” We did not choose this path- our perpetrators chose it for us.

I will never forget the day I realized my imagination had been broken, destroyed. I loved playing with Barbie dolls as a child. I could spend hours with a hundred different narratives to play out. When my abuser forced me to do things that a child should never know exists, it altered the lens through which I saw the world. The world was no longer a safe place. My playtime was interrupted by the new reality of what I believed (step)daddies and daughters were to do. When I looked at the barbies after the abuse started, I did not see a safe, loving, Barbie and Ken doll to take care of and nurture the little Kelly doll. That narrative was no longer my reality. Children need to engage in imaginative play for healthy cognitive, relational, and language development. Abuse steals imaginations.

I have shared in several previous posts about my experience of a man exposing himself while I swam in a hotel pool, and he was in the nearby sauna. I keep sharing it because it so clearly demonstrates how abuse destroyed the way I saw myself and my responsibilities. Though I was still in elementary school, I wholeheartedly believed that it was my duty to enter that sauna to do the same things with that man that my abuser had done to me. Had it not been for my younger siblings in the pool with me, and my desire to protect them, sweat and tears would have poured from my face in that sauna. I struggled to see a future beyond what abuse required of me. Abuse defaces self-image.

As I moved into my teen and young adult years, it became evident that the rules I lived by because of the abuse dismissed my desires in relationships. It is without question that childhood sexual abuse causes difficulties in trusting others, but it also causes difficulty in trusting oneself. I was taught not to trust my gut. My gut instinct as a child told me that what my abuser did to me was uncomfortable and maybe wrong. But the prevailing belief was that adults do not hurt children. The only way I could reconcile these conflicting experiences was to reject my gut feelings. In later relationships, I did not trust my gut instinct because the abuse narrative would hijack my cognitive processes and pressure me to yield to the desires of others. I did not believe I had the right nor the authority to reject what others wanted from me.  Abuse maims autonomy.

I think one of the most disheartening impacts of childhood sexual abuse is the sensory triggers that we literally cannot control. Over the years, many of the triggers that once plagued me daily have been desensitized- thanks to time, distance, therapy, medication, and God’s mercies. I can remember the days in high school and college when I would experience multiple triggers in a single day. Trauma triggers activate our sympathetic nervous system resulting in the perception of danger. Our fight or flight response takes over and our sense of safety evaporates. It sometimes feels like the abuse is happening again. Over time, I have learned to identify many of my triggers, but I am not always able to prevent them and I discover new ones each year. Triggers can disrupt a seemingly normal day at the most inopportune time. It is hard not to feel defeated because, in some ways, my abuser’s choices still impact me. Abuse dismantles felt safety.

I could continue with more examples of the long-term impacts of childhood sexual abuse but I do not like for these posts to be too long. I hope this post has provided a greater understanding of how childhood sexual abuse affects a person long after physical freedom from the abuser has been granted. I believe when we think about the future of survivors and the path they will travel toward healing, we are more likely to hold abusers accountable for the choices they make that leave such a path of devastation. Maybe then our courts will wield heftier consequences for this crime. Maybe then perpetrators’ futures will not be considered more highly than victims. Maybe then, more disclosures will be met with belief and support.  

Photo by Jim Richter on Pexels.com

Making Room for Grief

I was not prepared for the losses I would experience as a result of my disclosure of the abuse I had endured. I do not recall what I believed would happen after I told a teacher at school about my life at home. Disclosures are not often accompanied by a long-term plan, most of the time, we are just hoping we survive breaking the chains of secrecy. If I had known what loss would include in the aftermath of my disclosure, I am not sure at 13 years old, I would have had the same courage to tell. I only share this thought because I still see in media and hear in people’s stories how negligently disclosures are handled. Disclosures are costly, but they are worth it.

Many emotional responses manifested before grief showed up after my disclosure. It was not until probably a decade after my disclosure that I realized there was grief in my healing. Sure, I recognized the sadness, anger, confusion, and fear. But I did not recognize the grief that accompanied the losses until much later. It is vital that anyone who works with trauma survivors creates a space for grief as part of the healing process.

On November 9, 2004, I had a large extended family. I never considered them my step-family. They were my aunts, uncles, cousins, grandma, and neighbors who were more like family. Before I closed my eyes to go to bed on November 10, 2004, what felt like an enemy line had been drawn. In a single day, fifteen close relationships were severed. The magnitude of the loss did not hit me all at once, thankfully. But I quickly learned that I would never again ride four-wheelers or hang out with the cousins or take the boat out on the river for water sports with an aunt and uncle. When I would see my former cousins at school, there was an unspoken understanding that we would no longer interact. At 13, I struggled to understand why the people I grew up with now seemed to hate me. All I had done was tell the truth. Throughout my healing journey, there have been many times I wished I could have one more conversation with the people who played a significant role in my childhood. Someone does not have to die for you to grieve the loss of the relationship you once had with them.

Grief after trauma encompasses much more than the loss of relationships and people in our lives. In previous posts, I have discussed some of the different types of losses, so I am not going to go into detail here. Instead, I want to share what has helped me make room for grief.

1. Gain an understanding of grief. It was not until I was an adult that I learned what grief looked like outside of experiencing death. Understanding the emotions and thoughts that often accompany grief helped me put a name to what I noticed within me. I found that many of the beliefs I had about grief were simply myths and expectations people typically hold about what grief should look like and how long it should last. Grief is often much more complex than we imagine.

2. Identifying the losses. I do not believe grief can properly begin until we are able to name exactly what has been lost. Relationships. Homes. Pets. Material items. Dreams. Safety. Naivety. Wellness. Economic status. Self-esteem. Trust. Job. Faith. Identity. Hope.

3. Identify what can be reclaimed. Some of the losses may be temporary or time-bound. Some losses may be reclaimed through counseling, time, and God’s provision. Some losses are permanent, and we move towards acceptance. There are some relationships that will never be safe or healthy to pursue reconciliation. My pets that were left in the care of my abuser are likely no longer living. While thoughts sometimes try to sneak in and convince me that my pets suffered in his hands, I choose instead to believe an alternative narrative that they all found loving homes in my absence. In this situation, I have no way of knowing what happened and I do not see any harm in choosing a more comforting narrative of what likely happened to them. The feeling of safety took a while to re-establish in my life. Trust has taken years to rebuild and often takes me longer to form in new relationships as a result of the way my abuser shattered my trust. My faith in Jesus Christ took years after my disclosure to establish.

4. Acknowledge grief when it shows back up and leave room for the ambivalent feelings. I was driving back to New Orleans after the holidays and was just a few miles from the house I lived in with my abuser when I passed a potbelly pig in someone’s yard. While it did not look like my sweet Petunia exactly, I was quickly hit with a wave of grief, wondering what happened to her and wishing my story with her could have ended differently. I have learned that if I recognize those emotions that arise in the wave, allow myself to feel them without judgment, acknowledge the thoughts that surface, and challenge any unhelpful cognitions, the intensity of that moment of grief relieves itself more quickly than if I try to shut the grief down. It does not mean the grief does not hurt, but it does not get to control the narrative of my life.

By providing space for the grief as it showed up, I noticed over time it no longer took up as much room as it once required.

What Survivors Really Want

The song, “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth,” popped into my head earlier this evening and I began thinking about what it is that survivors of sexual abuse actually want. Too often, I see news stories plague social media feeds and news stations where people are making assumptions about why survivors take certain actions and the motives that lie behind them. Quickly, I noticed a list of things flowing in my brain that better reflect what we want- and the list, it might surprise you.

Some of the wants on this list are, in reality, needs; but, needs can be wants too. While I am speaking from my personal experience, I believe what I will share reflects the thoughts of a large percentage of, maybe even most, survivors as well. So, let’s get started:

1. BELIEVE: many of us are told by our abusers that no one will ever believe us. The unfortunate reality is that they are often right. Many of us will experience the trauma of not being believed when we disclose our abuse. Some of us will experience this disbelief on more than one occasion. When the abusers are truthful in one statement, it makes their other statements seem more truthful as well. So, when they have threatened to harm or kill us and those we care about, the reality of that happening as well, seems more apparent. However, if our disclosure of abuse is met with belief, that challenges what the abuser has said, and it makes us question the truthfulness of other threats that have kept us quiet for so long.

2. JUSTICE: think of a time when you or someone you love has been sinned against, harmed, or threatened. Did you want that person held accountable for the pain they caused? There is nothing different about a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. We want to see justice served. As a Christian, I rest assured in the fact that my abuser will have to answer for his sins against me (I will also have to answer for my sins) and that is the ultimate justice that I can imagine. However, that knowledge did not diminish my desire to see earthly justice as well. Unfortunately, most of us will not see what we (as humans) perceive as adequate justice. Many times, it will feel like a slap in the face when our abusers are handed out meager penalties for their crimes. Others will never see an ounce of criminal justice take place. Please avoid chastising us for fighting for justice.

3. ADMISSION: more than anything, I wanted to hear my abuser say, “I sexually abused Kendall Marie Wolz for multiple years on a regular basis.” I wanted to hear my abuser admit his guilt. While his admission is not a requirement for my healing, it is something that I believe is important to include on this list of wants. In a majority of the situations where I was abused, the two people physically present in the room were my abuser and me. Therefore, he and I are the two people who know what happened. When we (survivors) are not considered credible, or our cases are labeled as “he said, she said,” the desire grows for us to hear our accusations are truthful.

4. HUMANITY: we don’t want to be seen as a case number or referred to as some victim in a news story. Despite the crimes we have had committed against us, we are still humans, just like you. See us as more than a victim. Help us see ourselves as more than a victim. Remind us of our worth and our wholeness.

5. COMPENSATION: this is probably the “want” that we receive the most flack for wanting. In many states, survivors of sexual abuse have the opportunity to file a civil suit which will typically involve financial compensation. Too often, I hear men and women filing civil suits for sexual abuse labeled as “money hungry” or “greedy.” But, when someone loses a limb due to malfunctioning equipment or someone loses their life due to another person driving drunk, we don’t ascribe those titles to them. So, why do we call survivors names and accuse them of having malicious motives when they have lost something too- some things you cannot see. Being a sexual abuse survivor is expensive. Many spend hard-earned money on therapy visits and medical expenses that they would not need if they had not been abused. I’m not saying we wouldn’t ever need therapy or have medical expenses, but we have these expenses that are directly related to the abuse we experienced. It is not wrong for us to want compensation for our losses. For many of us, this is the only place we will ever see justice through a judicial system. For many of us, the motive isn’t even the compensation, it’s the opportunity for justice to be served where it hasn’t been previously.

6. HEALING and FREEDOM: I am finally at a point in my healing journey, seventeen years later, where reminders of my abuse are not ever-present. I’ve been able to receive many of the “wants” on this list, but it has taken seventeen years to receive them. I recognize that I am one of the few who will receive these things. There is no timeline for healing. Perhaps the things survivors want most, after belief, are healing and freedom from the pain the abuse causes. We don’t just hurt during the time we are abused. The pain doesn’t end when our disclosure is believed. Too often, we are hurt again and again, by individuals, institutions, and systems, that don’t care well for survivors of abuse. I have always considered my journey of healing as lifelong because as I reach different developmental stages in my life, I recognize new ways the abuse impacts my thoughts, emotions, and behavior. But, there does come a day when the pain begins to subside, it dulls; though, in a moment’s notice, the throbbing can return. We long for the days before we knew abuse, for some, there are no memories of the before. We desire freedom from the trauma triggers. We desire a life filled with hope, joy, and trust- don’t you want those things too?

I’m sure there are more “wants” than this, but I hope this gives you insight into what survivors typically desire and the motives behind them. I hope you will challenge others when they spread false narratives, particularly when it involves civil suits. I hope you will support the survivors in your lives.

She wanted more than her missing teeth.

My Body Remembers Before My Brain

When I woke up this morning, I noticed that I just did not quite feel like my usual self. I had my coffee, dropped PJ off at the groomer and jumped into a busy morning of work. I initially chalked it up to left-overs from the migraine I had yesterday or the congestion I began feeling over the weekend. It was not until I looked at my Facebook memories for the day that I figured out why I felt off.

3 years ago today, I was packing my suitcase to fly to North Carolina the next morning as I prepared to face my abuser as he petitioned for removal from the sex offender registry. When I think about the moments before I left, I can still feel the anxiety and fear that filled me. The two days I spent in court for the petition hearing revealed brokenness in our judicial system. My breath literally escaped me and I gasped when the judge granted my abuser’s petition for removal from the sex offender registry. In shock, I turned to the victim advocate to ask “he’s off?”  

I broke for a moment. But I did not stay broken. During those two days in court, the same amount of time my abuser spent in jail for his crimes, my voice and my presence was unavoidable. I cannot imagine having to face that battle without the support which surrounded me. People across the United States and maybe even the world prayed for me and left words of encouragement that helped strengthen me. Benches were filled by “my people” who had walked this journey with me for nearly 12 years. When I took the stand, I looked in the eyes of those who believed me and were willing to sit with me on an uncomfortable bench in a crowded court room for two days and I knew I could continue with what I flew to NC to do- to have my voice heard. I am forever grateful for each person who was me with in person and in spirit.

While the pain still cuts deep when I think about the moment the judge made his ruling, the pain has largely been transformed into advocacy. 3 years ago, I had no idea the SAFE Child Act would be passed in my home state which would later allow me to pursue civil action against my abuser. I could have never imagined the opportunities to speak to audiences across the US and internationally that would be presented to me. If I had let the judge’s ruling and my abuser’s petition defeat me, I would have missed out on a lot of beautiful blessings in my life.

If you are in that broken place, please find a way to keep fighting, to keep healing. For me, my faith in God has been the ultimate source of healing; however, counseling has played a huge role in my life as well. It has been important for me to have safe, healthy people within my support system that I could turn to on days that were harder than others. I have learned to be patient with myself when I have days like today where everything feels off. I have learned that healing continues if I keep the momentum moving forward.

The Cost of a Disclosure

Last week, a presentation I recorded in December went “live” at the International San Diego Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment. In my presentation I discussed the often-overlooked needs and losses experienced by family members after a disclosure of intra-familial child sexual abuse. I have decided to share parts of this presentation in this post for a few reasons: 1. Clinicians need to be aware of these impacts so they can help their client process them during treatment 2. Churches have the opportunity to minister to hurting families post-disclosure 3. Understanding the inevitable losses debunks myths about false accusations.

Relational Loss: many perpetrators do not act “all bad” within the family unit. In fact, they are often loved and trusted by family members. Following many disclosures in which law enforcement and child protective services become involved, the perpetrator and other family members are separated. In my family, my mom and siblings and I moved from the home we shared with my abuser. Despite the horrific crimes my abuser committed, he had been a constant in our lives for over 7 years. My siblings and I loved our cousins/aunts/uncles/grandma on that side of the family. In what seemed like an instant, those relationships were irreparably damaged. While the relational loss to my abuser was absolutely necessary and what we needed, the rationality of it did not squelch the pain of losing family. Young children will likely have great difficulty comprehending why they now can’t go visit Auntie who lives just up the street. Clinicians need to be prepared for complicated grief when relationships end abruptly due to child abuse. Churches can minister to families by increasing social support, filling the void that now exists.

Economic Loss: when the perpetrator is a primary caregiver/breadwinner, the family will likely incur significant financial impact. Because I grew up in a small, rural town where “everybody knows everybody,” I was signed up for counseling an hour away from home. This meant at least once a week, we were traveling over two hours round trip for mental health services. Gas money, co-pays, and time off from work = financial loss (though it was well worth the expense). Families may no longer have extra Children may not be able to participate in extra-curricular activities due to the loss of income. Eating at a restaurant may become a rarity when before the disclosure it was a regular occurrence. Birthdays may not be as extravagant anymore. Clinicians may consider offering a sliding fee for families seeking counseling after a sexual abuse disclosure. Even if the discounted rate is for a limited time, it will significantly help as a family begins rebuilding their lives. Churches can offer financial assistance to the family or sponsor a child’s fees for an extra-curricular activity. Churches can hire counselors or sponsor sessions so families can access mental health services without the additional expense.

Environmental Changes: the non-offending caregiver and children may have to move from the home once shared with the perpetrator. If the non-offending caregiver is unable to care for the children, they may be placed in state custody, potentially separated from one another. Children may have to change schools, sports teams, churches, etc. My siblings and I went from each having our own bedroom to all living in one room with our mother for about a year. We were incredibly blessed to remain together and live in a home full of love; however, it was a major adjustment for us during a very stressful time. The part I grieved the most was the loss of my pets due to the environmental change. We left home one morning for school and never saw our pets again. We went from having way too many cats (in excess of 20, though they all had names and were loved dearly), bunny rabbits, and my sweet potbelly pig, Petunia (pictured below), to praying they would survive without us. To this day, I still refuse to let my mind wander about my Petunia because the pain is too great. Clinicians can help kids and families explore how their environment has changed and what impacts they notice. Churches can support families with supplies to make the transition smooth. Providing families with care kits that include hygiene items, clothes, food, toys, and other basic necessities can lift some of the burden. Sponsoring a month or a couple of months rent for a storage unit so the family can retain some of their belongings that can be retrieved when stability is established.

Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list of the losses experienced by families after a disclosure of abuse. However, I hope it provides a starting point for how you consider supporting families in need. The prevalence of false accusations among children who disclose abuse is minimal. Most children who make a disclosure realize there will be a cost associated with telling the secret. This post reveals a glance at some of those costs.

Petunia loved birthday cake, potato chips, and mudholes

The Road of Justice

All too often the concepts of justice and revenge are equated. In some circumstances, people may truly mean revenge when they talk about “getting justice;” however, in my personal journey and in talking with other survivors of childhood abuse, justice ≠ revenge. For us, the penalties our abusers face for the crimes they commit rarely amount to what anyone would consider revenge/penalty/justice. What length of a prison sentence would ever be “enough” for the pain a child experiences when the person they trust assaults them in the most repulsive ways possible? When journeying toward justice, our primary goal is rarely penalty for what an abuser did to us because there is no penalty a court could give that could undo the agony and pain we experienced during and after the abuse. When our abusers do face consequences for the crimes they committed, it facilitates the healing process and makes it a little less complicated.  However, we will face a lifetime of continued healing in the face of any judicial outcome. Therefore, our fight is not seeking revenge for the penalty we paid. Instead, our fight is for justice so no other child will experience the pain we felt.

Our journey toward justice is forward-looking. Our desire and motivation to seek justice is most often found in the experiences of our past, but our goal for justice is future oriented, for the children now. I once was the little girl that looked up to and trusted the man who ended up abusing me. I once was the little girl that crawled up in his lap to watch a television show with the family. I once was the little girl eager to spend one-on-one time with him. I fight for justice so the next little girl who desires those things from him does not experience the nightmare I lived and the trauma which continues to heal. I fight for justice so the penalties he may suffer will be a deterrent the next time he considers sexually abusing a child.

Justice is not sought only in the eyes of the court. I move further down the road of justice each time I hit publish on this blog. Each time I use my voice for the voiceless child I once was, justice occurs, because I’m no longer bound to muteness, living under the threats of secrecy.

Justice also comes when others use their voices with us. When elected officials and voters choose to enact laws that better serve survivors of childhood abuse such as the SAFE Child Act (S.B. 199) in my home state of North Carolina, they are seeking justice with us. To each official who supported this bill and each person who voted for it, I thank you. If you experienced childhood sexual abuse in North Carolina, I encourage you to read more about this bill at the following link: https://ncdoj.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/SAFE-Child-Fact-Sheet_Final_Nov2019.pdf Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about how it may impact you.

This is not an individual journey. It is one we must take together to ensure the protection of children who deserve a life free from abuse.  

Back to Blogging

I may have been silent for the previous six months on my blog but that is because my voice has been loud in other places as I continue to fight against childhood sexual abuse. The blogging hiatus is coming to an end and I will soon be sharing some life updates. Until then, I thought I would share some thoughts I had when I came across part of a poem, I wrote a while back.

Come to my room, my dear

You have nothing to fear

It’s our time together

Please, let me float like a feather

Through the air, with the wind

I can’t get away, I’m pinned

What is happening, I don’t understand

Don’t worry my dear, this is all planned

What happened in your bed

Where my mother laid her head

Took what was mine

When I was just nine

Secrets unspoken.

Imagination broken.

Innocence stolen.

When my abuser invited me to his room, I entered with enthusiasm, fearlessness, and an imagination strongly intact. When I left his room, my enthusiasm was replaced with confusion, my fearlessness was replaced with immense fear, and my imagination was completely shattered. His choices changed the trajectory of my childhood. His actions essentially ended my childhood. My ability to play with Barbie dolls or stuffed animals ended.

Trauma not only impacts a person physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually; trauma also closes one chapter in the book of life and opens a new one. Now, there is point in which life is measured in the before and after.

Experiencing how abuse drastically changed my life fuels my desire to fight this injustice. The chapter I now enter involves fierce advocacy and a continued fight for children still being abused. Little children should never be forced to hold secrets. A little one’s imagination should never be shattered. Innocence should never be stolen.

Stay tuned for more #bravegirlspeak

9/10 years old

Four Letters.

I was not planning on publishing another post so soon. The words you will read in this one, have been sitting in the draft folder for years. Even though I wrote the draft, I was never planning on sharing. I actually tried to share excerpts on twitter a few times, but it never felt like the time was right to share everything. I was not ready. We all have those experiences in life where we tell ourselves, it’s just not something others really need to know. But this draft is another chapter in my story. And I can’t deny the influences it has had on who I am today. I can’t omit a chapter, especially when I have seen the miraculous ways God has worked. Tonight, God gave me the nudge and I felt the peace that I need to know, it is time to hit “publish.”

When I first started this blog four years ago, I desired for this to be a place where God would use my voice to shine His light in very dark places. I knew that some posts would push me out of my comfort zone into a place of vulnerability. Over and over again, I have listened as God reveals to people with similar experiences that they are not alone. It is worth every ounce of fear I feel prior to pressing publish, and every minute I fear judgment, for one person to know they are not alone. So, here I am tonight, questioning why God wants me to publish this now, when there is so much pain being felt by so many, and so much uncertainty about what tomorrow holds.

Brene Brown says “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.  Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy- the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” Here’s to taking the time to explore the darkness, experiencing healing, and shining the infinite power of God’s light into the darkness so others will be led to the only place where ultimate healing occurs. You are not alone.

Four Letters.

How can a single word evoke such deep pain?

When I say it, my lips tremble with disdain.

Filled with shame, I cried.

As I looked the pharmacist in the eyes.

That judgmental stare crippled me.

As I swiped my card and bought Plan B.

But there wasn’t a Plan A.

I wish I could say.

I have to remember, she does not know.

I begged and pleaded, “please no…no…no”

With the hopes of my memory being erased

I swallowed the pill, just in case.

The commercial made it look so easy.

So why am I now feeling so queasy?

That summer night, a piece of me was taken.

It was the very piece that should only ever be given.

I felt like I was left with a huge, gaping hole in my soul.

But, my Lord reminded me, that with Him, I am forever whole.

And clean and worthy and redeemed.

And all the things that I dreamed

could be achieved

If I stepped out of my grave

and kept trusting, and believing, and being brave.

IMG_2958

 

 

The Return of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”

I was met with a rush of emotions as I watched a preview for a newer version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (WWTBAM). I have not kept up with the show since the first few seasons with Regis Philbin as host. I figured it had found its place on Game Show Network. I nostalgically reflected on the same excitement I felt as an eight-year-old eagerly awaiting the show’s premiere. I still love a good trivia game show. A little over two decades from the original air date, the current preview still brought sadness, anger, and confusion.

At eight years old, my excitement met my worst nightmare as my abuser destroyed my enjoyment of the original WWTBAM. The episodes of WWTBAM morphed into regularly scheduled abuse sessions at the hands of my abuser. My abuse revolved largely, but not solely, around this gameshow that so many grew to love. Despite how much I hated this show on the inside, if you had asked me when I was eight or nine years old, what is your favorite television show; I would have readily answered with certainty, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I had no choice but to adhere to the façade my abuser created. So, I felt sadness, when the new preview aired, for the little Kendall that simply wanted to watch a new tv show with anyone who would watch it with her, competing to see if we too could “win” a million dollars.    

Next, came a pang of anger because, for this new season of WWTBAM, my abuser is no longer a registered sex offender. I immediately began thinking- what if there is another little girl who wants to watch this show with him. Will he abuse her too? My anger at the justice system was reignited as I questioned- why was his punishment not greater? Why did they let him off the registry? Who is going to protect the next little girl? In my prefrontal cortex, the logical part of my brain, I have somewhat satisfactory answers to those questions that help me maintain a level of peace with the past. However, in this moment, my limbic system, the emotional part of my brain, was triggered and these are the questions it generates in that state. If you think about the fight, flight, or freeze response, I was definitely experiencing a desire to fight.

The most troubling emotional response I experienced was confusion. I questioned how I could feel excitement now for a show that has been associated with so much pain in my life. Am I allowed to watch this newer version and maybe even enjoy it? If I can watch it now, what does that say about my childhood abuse? If I refuse to watch the new show, does that give my abuser power over my present and future?

A child is completely powerless when he/she is abused. The child has no voice in those moments. The powerlessness is created through the threats abusers often use, reliance on the relationship for basic needs and survival, strength differentials, a desire for cohesiveness and stability in the family unit, and disbelief when we do tell another person. Part of the counseling process for trauma, particularly abuse, is recognizing our powerlessness as children and reclaiming that power, where we can, as adults.

Continuing this healing journey, I walked through these steps this week. Where I did not have the power to choose whether or not to watch WWTBAM when I was a child, I could choose now if I wanted to watch the show, where I wanted to watch it, how I wanted to watch it, who I wanted to watch it with, and when I wanted to watch it.

Not only did I allow myself to watch the show, I allowed myself to feel everything that emerged as I watched it. I am choosing to create new associations with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to replace those that immediately take me back to my abuser’s bed. The show did not abuse me. My abuser used the show as bait for his heinous acts.

Will I watch the next episode that airs this coming week? Maybe I will or maybe I will not. It is a decision I get to make.

That is the power of healing that God allows us to engage. He created our brains in a way that allows us to form new associations and connections. Those things that used to conjure nightmares can once again be enjoyed or at minimum, tolerated. Realistically, there are going to be many more times when the familiar sounds of the show take me back to a place of pain, but leaning into God’s truth and using the power I have to choose my thoughts, I do not have to remain in that painful place. And as time goes on, those familiar sounds may one day bring a joyful smile to my face as I think about new memories the show generates. Healing is real, ya’ll. Let your final answer be, keep on the journey.

Fighting the Drug that Calls Your Name

Last night, I was scrolling through old documents on my computer and I came across one document titled “Running.” I’m not sure when I wrote it, but it grabbed my attention. It was the start of a blog post but it was unfinished. So maybe now is the time to share.

When healing from trauma, we often find ways to cope with the overwhelming pain. Unfortunately, these attempts can sometimes be incredibly unhealthy. At the time, we often do not realize these efforts to cope are maladaptive and complicate the healing process. They often temporarily numb us to the pain or provide an escape we desperately desire. Something about the behavior produces the results we crave, otherwise, we would not return to it. Despite being provided examples of healthy coping skills when I was in counseling immediately following my final disclosure, some unhealthy coping skills just seemed to work better and quicker. As a result, many times I chose the “drug.” The drug created a new type of pain but the momentary perceived freedom (from the effects of trauma) it produced magnified its allure; however, there was never a time it contributed to my healing and growth.

The drug calls my name so strongly

I hope I can identify my trigger quickly

Do I need attention or to feel loved?

Am I startled by something that could be good?

 

I can predict the outcomes if I run

Even when I try to believe this time will be fun

I know deep down I will wake up feeling broken.

 

After years of sobriety, it can still be hard to choose

Lapses happen quickly and if I don’t bounce back I’ll lose

 

Don’t run, please stay and fight another day.

 

The drug in this poem represents the maladaptive coping skills I employed. When I chose to run to the “drug” I could expect and predict the outcomes. I often told myself, “even though what happens will be bad, at least you know what to expect. It is what you are used to.” Lies seeped through the drug. Lies such as: this is the best it’s going to be, this is “your” normal, this is the only way you can escape the pain you currently feel.

The truth is that the drug can be disempowered. We can learn to choose which way we will cope. It is not easy or quick, but it is possible.

Eventually, I faced the stark reality that if I continued to run to the “drug,” there would be a time that I would not be able to return to the life I most desired. Continued use of unhealthy coping tactics would result in my demise. The “drug” had the power to completely alter the trajectory of my life.

Here are some ways I was able to reach a place of choosing healthy processing and coping over escape, life over drug:

Recognize the reality and power of the drug.

Find a counselor and be honest with him/her.

Learn healthy, adaptive, coping skills and practice them regularly.

Remove all things (reasonably possible) from your life that tempt you to return to the drug (people, places, things)

Stay present with the pain and work through it.

Remind yourself about the reality of the drug and the pain it causes.

Discover God’s truths, His hopes and desires for your life (hint: it isn’t what the drug tells you) and always turn to Him

When you fall, let someone you trust know, and get right back up; commit to learning and adjusting.

You are not alone.

way-1371027_1920