Celebrating 15 Years of Freedom

November 10, 2004. The day before Veteran’s Day. The day freedom arrived for me. Freedom from abuse. Even though the years seem to fly by, on November 10 of each year, I am keenly reminded of just how far God has brought me in my healing journey. One month ago, I shared my story of finding my voice after abuse silenced me, with over 500 amazing individuals at a Child Abuse and Neglect Conference in Michigan. Fifteen years ago, I could not see past the day that was before me. My life was filled with uncertainty, fear, and confusion. Fifteen years later, my days look much different. However, I would not be where I am today without the incredible support system God has placed around me.

When I spoke in Michigan, I listed all of the people who have advocated for me in various ways, identifying them by the role they played. Teacher. Guidance Counselor. Social Workers. SBI Agents. Coaches. Youth Pastor/Leaders. Professors. Friends. Family. The list goes on. I have never had to walk this healing journey alone.

I do not believe healing from childhood sexual abuse simply ends one day. I do not believe it is something we can just check off our to-do list. My body and my mind will always remember what happened. But, living in freedom, I have a choice.

Daily, I get to choose to keep pursuing a life of light, renewal, healing, and learning. I refuse to fall back into the place of silence where shame and fear once held me captive.

I am committing my 15th year of freedom to the continued fight for reform of the NC sex offender registry legislation. It is a fight for survivor’s voices to be honored and heard a decade after a court case is closed when abusers are provided the opportunity to petition for removal from the registry. Until all voices are heard and honored, I will fight.

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One Room Where It Happened

The room that haunts me. The room where I spent hours upon hours with my abuser as he used me for his sexual pleasure. The bed where I laid during so many episodes of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

The drawing that you see below is a recreated image of a task I had to complete during the forensic interviews when I was thirteen years old. When my disclosure of sexual abuse was reported to the local authorities by my middle school, the local police department decided not to investigate because of a conflict of interest. The case was passed to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation; a move that, in hindsight, I am so grateful occurred. Through the SBI, I met two of my biggest advocates, the agents who were responsible for gathering all the details of what had transpired over the previous six or seven years. In my longest interview with K, one of the agents, she asked me to draw the locations where the abuse had occurred in our house. I meticulously placed every single detail of that room and that trailer on a piece of paper. It was a task I was able to complete with ease. So many nights I had looked around that room just waiting for the episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to end so that I could retreat to the safety of my own bedroom. I struggled to understand how I could remember what seemed to be such unimportant information when I absolutely could not answer how many times I was abused.

What do I remember?

I can remember that there were almost always three blankets on the bed- a sheet, a light blanket, and the comforter. I can remember how the tv sat on top of the tall bureau filled with my abuser’s clothes. I can remember which direction the doors opened to the bathroom, closet, and bedroom. I can remember there was a gun in the desk; though I was told it was just a “scare gun,” I believed it could kill. I can remember the two framed pictures hanging on the wall by the bathroom door. I know there was pepper spray in the top drawer of the dresser. I can map out, not to scale, every room of that trailer even though it has been nearly fifteen years since I stepped foot in it.

I spent hours with K and S as they asked me questions and allowed me to share my story. In each of my interviews with the agents, K and S, I felt safe, heard, validated, and supported. Though I often wondered what they were doing with the pages of notes they wrote, I knew, without a doubt, they were fighting for me. They were advocating for me.

The way our brain encodes experiences of trauma can be extremely frustrating- at least it was for me. As a young teenager, I could not understand why and how I could remember every detail of that trailer, but I had absolutely no idea how many times the abuse occurred. I could remember all the emotions I felt and the words my abuser spoke, but I couldn’t recall what year my abuser confronted me about my first disclosure.

For years, I struggled with feeling like my brain had failed me. I thought something had to be wrong with my brain because I could not recall what I believed were the answers to the simplest of questions. I believed the criminal case against my abuser wasn’t “strong” because my brain was not cooperating. Through counseling and education, I have learned how the brain works and why some memories are easily accessed and crystal clear; whereas, other details of the abuse, I will never know. I discovered that my brain actually worked really hard to protect me as much as it could from the impacts of the abuse. With this knowledge, I was able to stop blaming myself for not remembering. I rest knowing that God designed our brains to work in this manner, it is no mistake.

If you want a quick overview of how trauma impacts the brain, I encourage you to watch this video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-tcKYx24aA&t=290s

If you want one of the best resources on how trauma impacts the brain and the body, I suggest you read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.

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The purple marks indicate the places where the abuse occurred

Master Manipulator

**Trigger Warning**

When I was a young girl, I would have to ride with my abuser on Sunday nights to take my friend home after sleepovers. I dreaded these rides so much that I would often offer my younger siblings any good I had that I thought they may want- from toys to candy to my allowance- if they would simply prevent me from being alone in a car with my abuser. They hated being stuck in the car and to a kid, 30 minutes is a LONG time; so I rode alone. Most of these rides were quiet and benign; however, one night my abuser executed his art of manipulation and made my fears become a reality.

I can’t tell you the month, much less the year this particular ride home occurred; however, my guess would be that I was in the 5th or 6th grade. Although I can’t tell you the date, I can still take you to the exact location on Hwy 903 in Magnolia, just after you passed the apartments on the left, that these words came out of his mouth; “so why’d you tell?” As quickly as he said those words, tears began pouring from my eyes. I knew my silence indicated to him that I had told someone about our secret. I did the one thing he told me to never do. Because nothing in my life had changed since my first disclosure, my abuser now knew that he could continue to get away with using me for his sexual pleasure. 

Rather than ending the conversation there, he continued. As tears poured from my eyes and fear that he would kill me before I could get home overwhelmed me, he continued his manipulative tactics. He calmly proceeded to explain to me that “that was our little secret” and that he “was only trying to help me out because he knew how curious little girls are.” He was telling me that he was doing me a favor, that me sexually servicing him was beneficial for me- a child… I was “learning.” For an already confused sexual abuse victim, this wreaked havoc in my mind. As if that was not enough manipulation for him, he continued before we could reach our driveway.

As he was driving down Hwy. 903, he exposed his genitals and asked/told me “if you want to touch or see it again you can, I’ll let you.” I clutched the passenger door and slid myself as far from him as possible. As soon as we reached the house, I barreled out the door and to my room and did not come out again until the next morning. Then, things went back to “normal.” 

I recall this experience so vividly. As you can see through this encounter, my abuser continued to implant the beliefs that what was happening to me was normal and okay. An abuser strives to do this. If they can manipulate the mind of a victim into believing they (the abuser) are actually helping the child out and doing him/her a favor, they gain significant control and the likelihood of disclosure lessens. An abuser may first use threats, such as “you better not tell anyone or else,” to gain the submission of the victim. If abuse is ongoing, the abuser is going to continue to manipulate their victim because eventually, the threats do not carry the weight they once did. At some point, injury or death may begin to appear more desirable than continued abuse. This is why the abuser works to normalize the criminal behavior and make the victim feel “special” because the abuser is “doing him/her a favor.” Once a victim begins believing the abuse is normal, it takes a major breakthrough for them to realize that what is happening to them is not normal.

We need to do more to equip our children with the education of normal behaviors and abusive behaviors. We need to create a better dialogue with them so they can come to us as soon as something feels uncomfortable even when someone tells them what they are doing is okay. Most importantly, we must hold those who choose to abuse children accountable for their actions in a manner that will deter future child victimization. 

 

This is an updated version of a post I first published in 2016.

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Why I Started Praying For My Abuser

Recently, I found my thoughts slipping back to the “what-ifs.” What if we had chosen to go to trial instead of accepting a plea deal? Maybe he would have received a heftier sentence. What if I could have told the investigators EVERYTHING my abuser did to me instead of the things that brought slightly less shame? The charges would have been greater. What if my abuser’s punishment had been more severe? Maybe he would still be on the sex offender registry. These what-if questions stemmed from my rational fear that my abuser will abuse again.

I struggled with feeling like I had not done enough to protect other children from my abuser. In reality, I have done everything I can possibly do to protect others from my abuser- disclosed the abuse, appeared in court, stayed up to date on everything sex offender registry related, and raised awareness through my blog. I may not be able to do anything physically to protect children from my abuser, but there is one powerful way I can take action.

Prayer.

I used to hate my abuser and I would wish for him to spend eternity in hell. Even that would not protect little girls from my abuser during his time on earth though. Thankfully, God has done a lot of work in my heart as well.

God is the only one who can truly change my abuser’s heart. My abuser’s repentance is the only way he can “not abuse.” If I want little girls to be protected from my abuser, then I must pray for my abuser. Ya’ll, that is no easy task.

I am not at the point where I can pray for his repentance on my own. Right now, it looks like this: “God, I know that you can change the heart of even the most hardened. I know that you can change my abuser’s heart and open his eyes to the destruction he causes when he abuses. Praying for him is not easy, but I know the only way little girls can be safe from him is through you. Please change his heart and lead him to repentance and redemption…”

God has helped me realize that there is no punishment he could have received here on earth that would have changed him. I absolutely believe that punishment and consequences for crimes are necessary. I believe that right now, punishment for abusing a child is not severe enough. But earthly punishment will not end child abuse. However, a repentant heart and a redeemed soul might keep one child safe.

This insight has granted me freedom from feeling responsible and peace in knowing that I am still taking action to keep others safe from my abuser every single time I pray for him. It’s not a prayer I excitedly pray, but I am trusting that God will continue molding me through this process and I trust that God will hear my prayers and work according to His will.

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I am praying for the protection of little girls like her.

An Unexpected GPS Route

I don’t make the drive to NC often enough to be confident enough not to use GPS. There have been a few times I had a little too much confidence in my capacity for directions and the trips took much longer than they should. On my most recent trip to NC, I realized my GPS was taking me a different route than usual; however, it was not until I was miles off the exit that I recognized the road I would travel down.

The new route would take me right by the place I called home for several years.

As I got closer to the place I used to live, my heartbeat quickened, and I got that feeling of unease in the pit of my stomach. Those feelings calmed as I remembered that the house was not always a house of horror. My mind was flooded with memories of both the good times and the times of greatest pain. When I think about that place, I first remember the abuse that took place within those walls. But then I remember the huge backyard, fields, and woods where I spent hours playing on the weekends with my siblings. I remember the twenty-something cats that were all named and loved. I remember my pet potbelly pig, Petunia, and how excited I was to get her. One of the things that makes disclosures even more complicated than they already are is that there are going to be a lot of painful losses.

I can recall my very first disclosure when my hope was that my abuser would simply stop abusing me. I didn’t want to have to leave my home. I just wanted the abuse to stop.

I know I have touched on this subject in previous blog posts, but I think it deserves being revisited. Disclosure is HARD.

Abusers aren’t always going to be the “bad” person committing crimes. An abuser is often personable, caring, loving even, and he/she creates positive memories with his/her victim too. My abuser attended my sporting events, he took my family out to eat on occasion, he played baseball in the backyard with us, we went to the lake and beach sometimes. He was there for holidays and birthdays. This dichotomy further confuses the victim and keeps him/her silent- how can this person be bad and good at the same time. It is a lot for a child’s brain to comprehend and the child often assumes the “bad person” role, thinking he/she must somehow be causing the bad things to happen.

When a child discloses sexual abuse and is believed, the common response by others is sadness over what has happened but thankfulness and joy that the child will not be abused by that person again. This response is completely appropriate. There is a focus on this newfound freedom. However, we often overlook the many losses the child will grieve in this new freedom. Don’t get me wrong, that freedom is EVERYTHING. It is the only way the healing process can truly begin.

I grieved deeply following my disclosure that resulted in my freedom. I never saw my sweet Petunia again. I missed my bed and my room. I missed a big backyard. I missed my pool. I missed riding the four-wheelers through fields. I missed my cats. I missed everything as it was except for the abuse. These things may seem trivial to an adult, but they are the important things in a child’s life.

If you are a trusted adult in a child’s circle following the disclosure of sexual abuse. Remember to make space for the grieving process of those losses the child has experienced.  Encourage him/her to talk about the things he/she misses about his/her “old life.” Remind the child that it is okay to have positive memories that involve the abuser (though it does not in any way make that person safe or justify the abuse). Doing these things will have long-term impacts on the child’s healing process. Doing these things will allow that child to one day drive past that house and be able to remember the good times and bad without feeling guilty, ashamed, or overwhelmed.

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This was home.

A Roller Coaster Year- 2018

2018- where do I even begin?! This year I have felt like I was riding one of the fastest, scariest, most exhilarating, and most breath-taking roller coasters ever invented. It has been filled with twists, turns, ups, and downs. But as this year comes to an end, I am left with excitement about the future. I am walking into 2019 with the “feel goods.” It is not because I anticipate great things happening in 2019; instead, it is because of who I have grown to be in 2018. My spirit is stronger, and my hope is greater. I have seen God’s promises fulfilled. I have experienced the renewal of strength that comes only through Him. I have rested in His comfort and goodness.

At the beginning of 2018, I found out I would become an aunt for the first time. Pure elation is the only way I can describe my feelings following that phone call. My excitement grew each month we got closer to welcoming my sweet nephew into the world. Though Emerson’s arrival was a whirlwind, he has brought nothing but sweetness and joy to my life. I take the role of aunt very seriously and I am grateful that in 2018 it became a part of my identity.

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Early in 2018, I started playing volleyball for a club in the city. It has been the best form of self-care I have afforded myself in many years. I am so thankful for the friendships that have formed on the court. Being back on the court allows me to connect with some of the best memories of my teenage years. Though I can’t jump as high or dig as quickly as I could at 16, playing volleyball again has been so much fun.

After 5 years of balancing graduate school and full-time employment, I finally graduated with my MA in Counseling in May. There is no feeling like graduating with a degree that will enable you to do exactly what you are called to do. Getting to walk across the stage with friends by my side and in front of family and professors who supported me through this journey was certainly one of the biggest moments of 2018. While I have definitely enjoyed my last 6 months of “no school work” and I will certainly enjoy the next 8 months of “no school work,” I am eager to begin the next phase of my education and hope to begin working on my Ph.D. in August.

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In late 2017, I took a leap of faith and submitted my first abstract to present at a national conference. In June 2018, I had the honor of presenting at the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children 25th Annual National Colloquium in New Orleans. It was an incredible opportunity which allowed me to connect with people who are devoted to protecting children from abuse.

July is the month that still feels like it’s a puzzle piece that doesn’t belong. But, it does belong and the events of July are a major component of what made me stronger this year. At the start of 2018, I had finally found rest and comfort in the belief that maybe my abuser simply was not going to petition for removal from the sex offender registry. It had been nearly 2 years since he became eligible so there was evidence to support my belief. In July, I got the phone call that crushed that belief. Over two days, I walked in and out of a courtroom multiple times. I spoke the truth of what happened and the ways the abuse impacted me. I was able to do exactly what my blog title encourages, “Brave Girl, Speak.” It was traumatic to go through the “courtroom scene” again. There was no outcome that could be in my “favor.” Either way the judge ruled, there would be pain. Had the law prevented my abuser from being removed from the registry, I would have had 365 days of respite before potentially reliving the scene again. The pain of hearing the judge grant my abuser’s petition for removal was indescribable. I am finding greater freedom in the judge’s ruling than I ever believed possible. I have now gone through the legal proceedings I desire to change. Though I never wanted to face my abuser in court again or experience that type of hearing, I needed to so that I would know what HAS to change. In 2019, I am determined to make progress towards seeing that change happen.

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During the fall months, I was privileged to focus fully on working and healing. I needed the time to heal the wounds that had been reopened in court and to rediscover my identity after it felt so lost following court. In November, I submitted my application for a provisional license as a professional counselor. In December, I received my approval and will now begin the journey towards being a Licensed Professional Counselor. I am excited to resume something I love and to continue growing in my counseling skills.

2019 will be here in just a few hours. I want to thank each of you who have followed my blog this year and who have supported me through the year’s ups and downs. I am excited for the journey that will continue in this new year.

Living the Serenity Prayer

ac· cep· tance | \ik-ˈsep-tən(t)s

Over the last few months, I have been learning what it means to live in acceptance of things that can’t be changed. I don’t like not being able to change things. I don’t like that my abuser is no longer a registered sex offender. But, I have to accept it. So, what does that mean? What does that look like?

Most of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer- whether you have heard it in some form of media or at a recovery support group. You can find it plastered on magnets for a refrigerator or on paperweights for an office desk. I can recall my first time hearing the Serenity Prayer recited when I was a very young girl attending one of my Papa’s anniversary chip meetings/celebrations for his recovery from alcoholism.

“God, grant me the serenity to

accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Merriam-Webster’s definition for accept: to endure without protest or reaction; to give acceptance or approval to.

“To endure without protest or reaction.”

Living in acceptance of the court’s decision to remove my abuser from the sex offender registry has involved choosing not to protest or react. The idea of appealing the court’s decision was incredibly tempting at some points in this healing process. However, it became unmistakably clear that if I chose to “protest” the decision, my growth and progress toward healing would be stunted. Appealing the case would give me, at most, 3 years before my abuser would inevitably be removed from the sex offender registry.

I have learned that living in acceptance of the decision the court made has granted me a freedom that I would not have otherwise. I no longer have to worry about the “day my abuser might petition” or how I would have the strength to face him in court year after year. It is by no means easy to live in acceptance, but choosing acceptance allows me to work towards the second part of the serenity prayer.

While I am living in acceptance of the court’s decision on my case, I am NOT living in acceptance of this being the outcome in future court cases.

“God, grant me the courage to change the things I can.”

Legislation CAN change. Because I am living in acceptance of my case outcome, I can pour my energy into seeking change. Fighting things that cannot change will result in fatigue, discouragement, and hopelessness. I don’t know what change will look like regarding legislation, but I know that my experience in the courtroom has provided me with the insight needed to fight for change. God continues to grant me the courage I need to reach out to lawmakers and to take steps toward ensuring survivors’ rights in the courtroom.

“God, grant me the wisdom to know the difference” of when things can be changed and when they cannot.

It is easy to get overwhelmed with all the things I desire to see changed and the what-ifs. I strive to seek wisdom from God in knowing where to pour my energy. Recently, I learned my abuser now has an active Facebook page, which was formerly prohibited when he was listed as a sex offender. While it frightens me to think about the children he now has access to through social media, that is not something I can change. I can raise awareness about sex offenders and social media; however, I cannot waste energy worrying about the people he may “friend.”

These days, I am learning the Serenity Prayer is becoming a way of life. Each time something “new” happens as a result of my abuser’s removal from the sex offender registry, I turn to God to determine whether I need to find acceptance or courage while always seeking wisdom.

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God grant me the serenity to

accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;

enjoying one moment at a time;

accepting hardships as a pathway to peace;

taking, as He did, this sinful world

as it is, not as I would have it;

trusting that He will make all things right

if I surrender to His will;

that I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with Him

forever in the next.

Amen.