How Do I Cope If I’ve Been Sexually Abused?
From the time I was about 7 until I was a teenager my step dad (who married my mom when I was 6 months old) sexually abused me. He also, at times, was verbally abusive. Even though I grew up abused I felt I was in a normal childhood. I never knew anything else. My mom was incredible but I sometimes feel she should have known want was happening. My mom passed away several years ago, and left a note to my sister and I and asked us to be good to our dad because he loved us. How could he? I tried to forgive, I can’t. I know the Bible says we need to forgive, but how?
My heart aches as I read your tale of navigating the horrors sexual and verbal abuse. You are articulate about your experience, almost sounding detached, until the pain of betrayal—by both mom and step dad leaked out—and then I knew otherwise. My guess is that you haven’t sought counseling; but, even if you have, complete healing has not yet occurred as evidenced by the continuing bitterness and lack of forgiveness that still haunts you.
In my experience sexual abuse, childhood abandonment and/or neglect are the “big three” that need special counseling attention. Most life issues can be addressed by a competent counselor—except these three. Only an expert with much wisdom, experience, and spiritual sensitivity can help you navigate the treacherous water to safety.
Several years ago one of our counselors and I surveyed a women’s Bible class of over 100 women of our church and were shocked by the results of our informal survey. Fully 42% of the women in the room reported some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18.
Unfortunately, your experience is not unusual. Some leading authorities believe 1 in 10 families is involved in incestuous abuse (Personally, I find that number rather high. But whatever it is, it is way too high—especially if you are the one being abused.). Researchers estimate that for every case of incest that is reported, at least 25 cases remain hidden. 9% of American men were sexually abused as children. This trend is increasing. 16% of American boys will be sexually misused before high school.
Who can begin to count the buckets of tears shed by children (and adults) who were abused by those who should have loved them the most? Only God knows how many are mired today in emotional distress because of the traumas of their childhoods.
Fortunately, all is not lost. With the proper care I believe you can find complete healing—and peace.
I have heard abuse victims relate many different strategies they utilized to handle the conflicting emotions, mental onslaughts, and pains of childhood abuse. Most try to escape reality. Some invent imaginary worlds where all is well. Many begin to neglect personal looks and hygiene, often subconsciously, to make themselves unattractive to boys (men) because of their fear of ever again trusting a male or having a relationship with one. Acting out is common. I counseled one girl who was abused during her high school years. In college she became quite accomplished at the sport of fencing. She told me that one of the ways she stuck back at men was to occasionally aim low at a male opponent’s private parts. Unfortunately, most of the abused eventually begin to feel guilty about what happened to them. Of course, this is false guilt. In reality, the sexually abused are the victims of crimes.
Whenever I preach on this subject the church building is eerily silent. Not only because sexual abuse is such a “heavy” subject; but because some fathers and step-fathers are seated beside their victims. Unfortunately, I know dads who are in prison and others who’ve committed suicide rather than face their own pain and shame. They leave behind a trail of emotionally cut and bleeding people.
By the way, the Bible is overrun by examples of sexual abuse. Abel was murdered by the physical abusing of his brother, Cain (Genesis 4). Jacob abused his wife, Leah (Genesis 29-30) Lot and his daughters engaged in incest (Genesis 19:6-8; 19:30-38). Jephthah committed premeditated murder by slaying his daughter (Judges 11:30-40). David was the victim of emotional, verbal, and physical abuse at the hands of King Saul (1 Samuel 18-26). David’s family was filled with rape and incest (2 Samuel 13) and massive neglect (1 Samuel 13-18).
Sexual abuse is by far and away the most severe type of abuse. It goes to the psyche. I have always felt that if someone wanted to scar a child for life then sexual abuse is the way to do it. In many ways, the scars of sexual abuse never go away. A life has been sacrificed on the altar of another’s sinful motives and nasty behaviors.
However, as we acknowledge the dastardliness of the crime, we find hope that through Jesus Christ, good counseling, and supporting friends and family, supernatural healing can occur. Healing is elusive but can be found.
Sexual abuse victims struggle in multiple areas.
First, simmering anger and bitterness are hard to cool down. The hurt to an abuse victim is merciless. Somebody has stolen their happiness; part of their lives is missing. They are angry because emotional paralysis does not allow them to function in a healthy manner. Many seethe because their abuser likely got away with it. Many are angry with God: Once I was counseling a young woman who spit out the question: “Where was Jesus Christ when I was being raped at 17?” I looked at her with compassion and said, “He was reliving His crucifixion. We live in a fallen world and you were betrayed by the very persons Jesus brought into your life to care for and protect your. In a fallen world people do dastardly things. Fortunately, Jesus is in the business of helping us pick up the pieces, get healed, and get on with our lives.
Second, almost all victims feel responsible and guilty for the abuse. These feelings often result in tremendous shame. Children often believe that the abuse was their fault—because they did nothing to try to stop the abuse; because the abuse was sometimes pleasurable, because they feel special favors were received; or because they are so bad that they deserved the abuse. A child who has been sexually abused feels dirty, unworthy and ashamed—like damaged goods for life.
Third, most grow up with damaged emotions and distorted self-images. They feel worthless, rejected, and insignificant.
Fourth, trust in men is eroded way or nonexistent. Either consciously or subconsciously, all men are potential threats. Victims of incest perceive that their parents are not trustworthy. If other adults further abuse them, they may conclude that there are no adults who are trustworthy. If this cycle of abuse continues, the adult victim may become unable to develop trust in anyone.
Fifth, they struggle with relationships especially if a relationship becomes too personal and intimate. It is common for victims to sabotage the relationships they desperately need. Their behavior, emanating from a rejection perspective, often insures even more rejection. Those married to abuse victims often feel that they are “walking on eggshells” around their spouse. I call these triggers. The triggers are often unknown to either partner; but when one is stepped on, the resulting explosion hurts everyone. I have dealt with women who have so buried their pain that it is not until their thirty’s or forty’s that the symptoms or pain finally ooze out to allow the partners look inside and understand what is really happening and hopefully find spiritual and emotional healing.
At the end of your letter, Anonymous, you spoke of your struggle to find healing and forgiveness.
Jesus’ model for forgiveness worked well for Him. It will work just as well for us.
First, Jesus mourned and received comfort: Matthew 26:37-38: “He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’” Notice the pain and grief in His heart as He poured out anguish and sorrow. The reason He took the three disciples is because He needed their comfort in His hours of greatest need. Unfortunately, they fell asleep. Fortunately, angels came and comforted Him. The best healing comes when the people around us grieve with us and bring comfort to our souls. Thank God that when no one else is around, He has angels available to meet our deepest needs.
Second, He understood the truth of what was happening. Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Often we are the victims of people who just “don’t know what they are doing.” That does not mean that they are not responsible for their actions. However, sexual abuse at the hands of a step father means that the perpetrator is obviously “screwed up” mentally somehow. No one in his right mind would ruin a child’s life by a conscious choice if he or she had any sense whatsoever. Parents often hurt children with no idea of the pain inflicted. Often they are simply acting out their own pain and rejection—and sin. Remember, hurting people hurt people. While this in no way excuses them for their sin, at least it helps us put in perspective that those who abuse us are often sick—mentally, emotionally, and sinfully. Abusers are sick people.
Third, Jesus forgave those who were abusing Him: Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Notice all three steps are important; and the order is important. While these three steps often occur in a linear fashion, they more often occur concurrently until final healing is accomplished.
The fact that you have not yet reached the point of forgiveness tells me that you have yet to complete the process of healing. Let me recommend that you spend time with your closest friends and ask them to mourn with you and grieve your hurt.
Then, have them comfort you. Comfort is not encouragement, advice, explanations or reasons. If all they can do is reach out and hold you and say with truth and meaning, “I am so sorry,” you are on the way of healing.
Next, spend some time rationally sorting out what really happened to you—including the sins and sinful motives of those who hurt you. It is easier to do this now that you are an adult. How we view things as adults is often quite different from how we perceived them as children.
Finally, by a choice of your will, forgive them. This will not be hard if you have successfully completed the first two steps mentioned above. Forgiving is a process which may take months or years to properly mourn the loss and be comforted until the pain no longer hurts. It may take a long time to sort out the issues; but, the day will come. You will finally be free from the clutches of your abuser.
By the way, forgiveness does not mean that what happened was okay. It does not mean that what happened is forgotten. It especially does not mean that family members should excuse the wrong behavior because they are “family”. It does not mean that we should hide, or not talk about the abuse or shy away from conflict by not talking about the abuse. Forgiveness does not mean that if we “truly” forgive, we will “trust” each other implicitly. A sacred trust is broken, it takes time (often years) to rebuild trust with your abuser. Frankly, my experience is that such trust seldom is restored. In Romans 12 Paul encouraged us, “as much as it is possible, to be at peace with all people.” The implication here is that it is not always right or healthy to have a relationship with some people. Sometimes, relationships cannot be restored and that is OK.
Should your abuser be exposed and held accountable for his or her actions? Most certainly, “Yes!” Every research available shows that an abuser will continue to repeat until the roots of their problems are uncovered and healed. If the abuser is the father or the stepfather of the abused, he must be separated from the home until he has been declared “safe” by those who are qualified to discern.
Sometimes it may be necessary to confront the abuser. Unfortunately, this confrontation often results in more rejection and hurt because 80% of those confronted deny they did anything wrong. If he (or she) denies it, you might say, “You may deny it, but God and I both know you are guilty. I transfer to you all responsibility for what happened.” In this case, reconciliation in this life is impossible. If he (or she) admits it, healing and reconciliation can perhaps occur.
Sometimes it is not worth it to confront the abuser. Again, consider whether or not he or she would admit and take responsibility for what had happened? Would he or she stand the emotional pain that would come with a confession? Would he or she admit anything with the possibility of criminal charges and prison? If not, leave them with their guilt, shame, pain and seared conscience. You are not responsible for their healing or forgiveness before God.
I wholeheartedly agree with the advice of many counselors to further healing by writing a letter to the one who victimized you, and then not send it. Another healing tactic is to pretend that your abuser is seated in an empty chair while you say everything you would like to if he or she were actually present. By the way, I often counsel those who choose this option to imagine that the abuser is chained tightly and silenced by a big piece of carpet tape so they no longer are a threat in any form or fashion.
Some of you who are reading my answer to Anonymous are even now being sexually abused. To you I will make the following observations. The truth has to be exposed. We’re dealing with a terrible sin and Satan wants to keep it hidden. Stopping the abuse and finding help only comes with exposure. There is no way to make exposing the sin comfortable. By the way, when a sexual abuser has been identified, he or she must be reported to the proper authorities. This is a requirement of law. All too often those being abused are in a Love-Hate situation. They “love their dad” and would hate to see him go to jail; but, he is responsible for his actions—and being a dad gives no right to abuse a child and scar them forever.
We have talked long about you as the abused; but, what about your abuser? Jesus offers forgiveness if your abuser seeks it. If you are now sexually abusing some one, STOP IT and get help. You are a sick person. Get help now. Don’t ruin their life anymore. You have already done enough.
One of the greatest obstacles to our emotional wholeness is the unfairness that the one who ruined our lives goes free. God promises that justice will eventually be done (ISAIAH 61:2). This is why you can forgive without surrendering justice. God will deal with him or her accordingly. Whether your abuser receives Christ or dies in sin, Almighty God will have the last word.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the all-time best healer of broken hearts. He healed the broken heart of the woman at the well who was on her sixth live-relationship in John 4. He forgave and restored the woman who was caught in the act of adultery in John 8. He so restored the prostitute Mary Magdalene that God granted her the privilege of being the first individual to see the open tomb and the resurrected Christ. In John 8 Jesus teaches that He is forever in the business of picking up our pieces and helping us to start over again. In Joel 2 God says that He can supernaturally restore again the years the “grasshoppers have eaten away.” None of us need be shacked in bondage any longer.
In Isaiah 61:3 God comforts us by “replacing the ashes of our mourning with a crown of beauty”. During times of mourning, those in Biblical times often threw ashes on their heads as symbols of their pain and grief. You may have been sexually violated by a brother, father, friend, or someone you never saw before and will never see again. My heart grieves for you. I am so sorry for what happened. Life is not supposed to work our like that. But, we thank God for healing and restoration. Symbolically, you have ashes on your head; but Jesus Christ makes you beautiful. There is hope and good days ahead, even after abuse.
Well, Anonymous, I hope that my answer is helpful to you. You are not alone; so many others have been injured like you. Many have found healing and I trust you will, too.