The Longing to Be All Of Me

Today’s guest post comes from Theressa Schroeder, who has been writing since she was six years old.  Originally a Northeasterner, she spent five interesting years in Utah picking up a B.A. in English. In the two years after that, she somehow found herself falling in love with a submariner in the U.S. Navy and now finds herself on a quiet island in the Bahamas with their two little boys. Luckily, she enjoys traveling nearly as much as writing, so this life is working out just fine.

Catching the news one night, I found myself captivated by the latest on the Elizabeth Smart trial. Her perpetrator had been recently sentenced, and she and her family were appearing at a news conference. I felt great sympathy as I watched this now grown-up, tall blonde young woman bravely face the on-going scrutiny into her very public past trauma. I wondered how difficult it must be to be unable to hide her past. Then, as her parents looked on proudly, and admiring reporters commented on how she’d taken her tragedy and turned it into something strong, I found myself rethinking her situation. By being unable to hide her past, this clearly courageous young woman could only grow into it, while those watching couldn’t help but see all that she’d become because of her struggle. I found myself wishing I could be just a little more like her.

Because I know some of what she’s been through. As a very young girl, I was molested by my father. I don’t think I’m that different in how I’ve taken my own experience and grown from it. Yet, I only rarely tell people even a small fraction of my true past. I carefully talk around the darker stories that color my childhood and often end up creating a picture of something that isn’t quite true. When people try to fill in the blanks, I let them do so.

I typically walk away from these conversations feeling as if I’d managed to keep a secret all to myself, a secret that I’d never meant to keep. Because I’d like to be more open about my past. I’d like people to see where I am today and truly understand what obstacles I’ve overcome along the way. I’d like to not be asked one more time whether or not my parents enjoy being grandparents to my children – children that they have never met. I’d like to know, once and for all, that I’m still acceptable to those I meet if they know of my past.

Much of my reluctance has come from witnessing what seems to be this general sense in the world that some stories should not be told. And if they are, they shouldn’t be so clearly tagged to the people they happened to. For instance, I’ve never read a story in the Ensign that dealt with past abuse where the writer was identified. Names are always changed or withheld, even if the story is clearly that of someone who has come to terms with their past. The message to me has always been: “We want to hear your story, but we don’t want you to own it”. Why is this? Is it because our stories make other people uncomfortable? Is it to protect us, or to protect our listeners that we aren’t encouraged to talk?

Further feeding my fears are the numerous exchanges I’ve had with people over the years where we both ended up feeling awkward and weird if I spoke truthfully of my past. Sometimes, I walk away feeling as if I had done something wrong by talking. More maddening are the times I find myself trying to reassure someone that I really am okay after only the briefest mention of the abuse I suffered. Silence seems so much easier sometimes, and maybe just a little bit kinder to people around me who seem shaken when I reveal even a tiny bit of my story.

Here’s the real heart of the problem, however: Just as I cannot erase what happened to me, no matter how much I move on and live a better life, I cannot suddenly become someone who was unaffected by it. So many of my choices, from how I raise my children, to what I want to do with my life, to the way I approach my marriage stem from those terrible years when all I could do was hang on for dear life and hope I would somehow survive. Pretending it didn’t happen leaves me with a strong sense that all I am doing is putting on a show for people around me. It sets me apart, and leaves me feeling always the outsider.

Perhaps I’m wrong about Elizabeth Smart. Maybe being known as a victim haunts her, and prevents her from being anything else. Maybe every time she walks into a room, she has to shut out the whispers and furtive looks sent her way. Maybe it’s a burden to be unable to hide her story.

You know what, though? Having stood on the other side, I hope that isn’t the truth. I need to believe that part of the reason she has come through with such grace is because she doesn’t have to explain herself every where she goes. People just know, and they either accept it or they don’t, and there is no hemming and hawing around the edges. I want that. I want to be known as who I truly am, not just a part of who I have become. For I am a survivor, and I will forever be marked and shaped by the incest in my past. It does not cripple me today, and talking about it does not harm me. In fact, I think my story is pretty amazing, and I enjoy sharing it. I hope that someday, I will feel the freedom to own it that has been forced upon Elizabeth Smart. That would be pretty incredible.

28 thoughts on “The Longing to Be All Of Me

  1. I can see what you mean about Elizabeth, and how you wish you were like her. I’m in the same situation as you…only, instead of wishing everyone knew about it, I’m still childishly wishing it just wasn’t part of my history.

    I don’t want to be this person…the woman who survived and is “doing so well considering the things that happened in the first half of my life”. I’m mad about it, and it is still affecting me in the present.

    I don’t like the me that has resulted. I try to imagine how I might be if I’d had a safe, healthy, “normal” childhood…because that seems like who I really am. At least that’s who I hope I really am…and if I could just somehow be her, then it would be like that past never happened.

    It would mean I’m not a survivor or a victim. It would mean I’m not held back or impacted by those horrible years. That no one would admire me or pity me or feel sorry for me because of those things that weren’t my fault, that I didn’t want to have happen. It would mean I’m better than I am right now.

    But I can’t find my way there still. And I don’t know if it’s even possible. And that makes me terribly sad. I thought maybe somehow the atonement could get me there, but I still haven’t figured out that piece.

    I can’t figure out who I really am inside all these filters and messages from those experiences. But that yearning to be ALL OF ME, the real me that might have been…that is something I think about every day. I used to think if people knew everything, that I’d be a little closer to where I’d like to be. But now I’m not sure.

    I’m still in scabs, working my way towards the day when those scabs become scars that don’t hurt any more.

  2. I don’t want to be this person…the woman who survived and is “doing so well considering the things that happened in the first half of my life”.

    For what it is worth, after burying three children in five years, I found myself in a similar place. Wish I had a good answer to share.

  3. “Names are always changed or withheld, even if the story is clearly that of someone who has come to terms with their past. The message to me has always been: ‘We want to hear your story, but we don’t want you to own it’.”

    That is an interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way. It is so much more empowering to let your story out and own it, by telling it the way you want to and surviving it.

    I remember studying trauma theory in literature classes in college. Learning how the story bleeds from the survivor, that part of the survival is in the telling of the story. Sharing a story without owning it changes things.

    I can’t say how that is for each individual person, but I know what owning my own story did for me. I went for years not talking about my eating disorder. And when I was finally ready I wrote about it and the essay was published, it felt so cathartic to me. I wonder how that would be different if my name had been withheld. I think I may have not felt the same, since no one would really know what I had been through and how I had survived if I had shared anonymously.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It has enriched and broadened my life today. I appreciate hearing how you have dealt with and grown from the abuse in your past. It gives me courage to face the challenges in my life!

  5. Thank you Theressa. The comment from Blue (love you Blue!) illustrates how important it is that you speak up and share your story. We need to hear that people can go through something horrific and lead happy lives. I honor you for your strength and courage.

    Elizabeth Smart is my emotional hero. I look at her and think “she’s been through worse than me and she’s standing tall, I can do it too.” And you Theressa, are now another hero to emulate.

    A huge risk we take in telling our stories is that blame is often thrust back upon the victim. It’s horribly unfair, but I think we do that in an effort to think we can escape heartache if we don’t make the same dumb mistakes. That tendency makes it harder to tell the truth. We all have a need to be heard and understood.

  6. This was a powerful post, and a brave one. I think we are afraid sometimes to show our inner struggles, our challenges, our battles, because so many are so quick to label and so quick to judge. But when people are open to both sharing and to hearing, our relationships become more like I picture those in Zion.

    We all have wounds. Some of them are enormous, like losing a limb. (I personally think childhood incest would be like losing more than one limb.) Even if we don’t all suffer from the same wounds, there are hidden places in many of us that only fester when away from the light and the fresh air.

    I think being open about our weaknesses is also helpful, as long as we don’t end up in a “woe is me, there’s no hope” sort of discussion.

  7. I’m the author, and I wanted to jump in and say thank you for the thoughtful comments. I sort of had to talk myself into looking at the comments because this still scares me. But, I knew that was the biggest reason I had to write it, and I had to use my real name. And it feels good to do it. I think I’m at the scar point in my life, and the wounds don’t fester anymore, but it’s so hard not to hide them.

    Blue, I do get what you are saying about feeling so conflicted about it. Sometimes it seems that no matter how happy I am with my life today, there is still this thread of anger because I am not who I might have been. It’s tough to reconcile that.

  8. I had an experience with this sort of thing once. A man broke into a dear friend’s house and raped her. She “cooperated” because she was hoping he’d just be done with it soon and leave without her little children waking up and being in danger.(and the children were safe) When I chanced to talk to another person about this event some time later, this third party jumped in with lots of brave statements about what she would do in this circumstance and how she would defend herself and why didn’t my friend do this and that? I was so traumatized by the criticism of the victim that I didn’t talk about the incident again for years. My friend, the assaulted one, also keeps this information from most. Elizabeth Smart might be better off because she doesn’t have to choose; it’s out there. She shows so much grace and power by simply living her life in front of everyone. Secrets are often corrosive. Thanks for the truth, Theressa.

  9. Brave and so insightful. Thank you for this post. Sometimes as I am preparing or teaching a lesson in church I think about the statistics of sexual abuse and how many sisters there must be struggling with this whom I don’t know about.

    Blue-loads of cyber love coming your way.

  10. Theressa,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I’m glad we’re having this discussion.

    “Just as I cannot erase what happened to me, no matter how much I move on and live a better life, I cannot suddenly become someone who was unaffected by it. So many of my choices, from how I raise my children, to what I want to do with my life, to the way I approach my marriage stem from those terrible years when all I could do was hang on for dear life and hope I would somehow survive.”

    I think that’s the hard part, and really, I think it will be even harder for Elizabeth Smart. Even in this discussion she is praised for being graceful and brave and strong in light of everything. Would she be less magnificent if she showed some of her brokenness? Will it be harder for her to admit how affected she has been because of the praise for being strong?

    We victims of abuse walk a fine, strange line. You live a fairly normal life. You don’t want to be known as broken, but you don’t want to have to pretend it doesn’t affect you, so what do you do?

  11. In an odd way I relate to this article, even though I have never been abused sexually. I know what it feels like to have something very traumatic happen to you–to be the one that everyone else is grateful not to be. And to face embarrassed or awkward conversations after sharing even a small bit of what the experience was. My son Benjamin died 6 days before his scheduled C-section, due to a cord accident. He was still delivered by C-section, weighed a beautiful 7 lbs, 3 ozs, and had light, curly hair. He was so perfect and so precious, and I know he is part of our eternal family. Yet whenever I get the questions about how many children I have, how old they are, etc, I face the quandary of sharing truth even though it may make people uncomfortable or withholding truth at the expense of feeling like I am not being my whole self. After all, that experience changed me completely. And that son IS one of my children, even though he lives in another sphere. I usually side on the more truth end of things — I wish people understand my experience better, and maybe, one by one, people will if I am willing to share it gently but honestly.

  12. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry for the pain of your past, and I appreciate the insights you’ve shared.

    I’d always thought the “Name Withheld” tradition was done more with an intent to allow the victim the freedom to share personal details and to spare their family members (and sometimes the perpetrators) the casting of stones or misunderstandings that might result from the story (can you imagine being the sister of someone who shared about her father’s sexual abuse and being subjected to curious questions about your family life you weren’t ready to confront?). Especially in the cases where the perpetrators have passed on or repented, I see it as an attempt to “turn the other cheek” and react compassionately to a horrible situation.

    I know that there are some things in my life that are best shared carefully and personally, and I don’t have the demons to wrestle with that so many others do.

    I think in some ways Elizabeth Smart has a tougher road to travel having everyone know about her past right up front. In dating situations, I’m sure that’s on the mind of the young men and it would be hard to get past that to really get to know her. I think it would be much easier for someone whose abuse happened privately to allow people to know them for who they are, not for what happened to them. Then when the relationship had reached an appropriate place, they could share some of the terrors of their past.

    Thanks again for sharing your story and giving me much to think about.

  13. Thank you! Thank you! I was molested by my Uncle and everyone told me to keep it quiet. My father also molested me, and used every form of abuse he could on me. I have gone to therapy and tried to have my father a part of my life, but had to cut him off when he began to make advances toward my sons. There has been so much peace in my life since. My father is possibly dying of cancer and some of my siblings are asking me to let him in my life before he dies. I don’t think so.

  14. Wow. I am so grateful to see this conversation happening. As someone who was date-raped as a teen, I have minute insight into the issue at hand, but because my abuse extended over a relatively short period of time, and I was able to terminate any relationship with the perpetrator rather easily, I think there are parts of it I cannot yet fathom.

    I had the experience of wishing I hadn’t shared so much most of the instances that I tried to share what happened to me. Especially in subsequent romantic relationships. Sadly I didn’t tell my husband about it until we’d been married a few months. For some reason I still feel bad about that one.

    But even when I do manage to feel safe enough to reveal this baggage to someone, it usually only takes the briefest of summations to reach that point where I’ve clearly overshared. I can’t think of a single setting where anyone has responded to my information in a comfortably inquisitive way. I always got the sense that the less I discussed it the better. I don’t know how much of that was the intended message of the listener and how much of it was my own timidity about the whole mess. Despite having been determined to not give my perpetrator any more power of my life and my future than I can help, I still get significantly less secure in a myriad of ways just through the process of remembering the state of shock and fear I lived in while I was going through that. There was significant emotional abuse and gaslighting involved, which is typical.
    I joined the county rape advocacy group through the nearest women’s shelter when I moved to Provo for college, and the most therapeutic experience I’ve had yet was my training for that group. It was the only setting I’ve ever experienced where rape and sexual molestation were discussed in a rational, in-depth, and unapologetic way.

  15. I’ve never gone through what you have gone through, but I want to say first that I’m so sorry for what you and others have experienced. And I also want to say thank you for taking the risk here. I for one am grateful when people are honest with what they have been through. I think truth has power when shone in the light.

    I tend to agree with handsfullmom on the approach the Ensign uses. But I really appreciated understanding what it felt like *to you* to see anonymous stories over and over — as though it was somehow reinforcing an idea that you had to keep it all secret. I hope your experience here will help you feel more strength to share your story as you feel you need and want to…both so it can help you and also because I think appropriate sharing helps others feel safe in talking about who they really are and what they’ve really been through.

    “You don’t want to be known as broken, but you don’t want to have to pretend it doesn’t affect you, so what do you do?”

    This is an interesting comment, because I feel that way about being honest about some of my own journey (health issues, some mental health issues, going to therapy, etc. It’s hard to be vulnerable and ‘real’ because sometimes people don’t process it well and can be judgmental…I think often because some are uncomfortable with anything that is messy. And I *am* more than these parts of my life, but these experiences have had a significant impact on me. I personally believe that the more more of us are real, the more we’ll all realize how not alone we are in our struggles, even if the specifics may differ. There wouldn’t be a need for an Atonement if we didn’t all have some ‘broken’ parts of our lives, and we all have them.

    I also think that the more people can hear stories like yours and feel the confidence that can come from the process of healing, the less uncomfortable people will be. People can learn that there is more to abuse than just the awful. As you say, there are amazing parts to your story, and people need to hear that. I think that is why Elizabeth Smart is so admired — because people can see both the horror of the abuse and the wonder of her strength and healing.

    Anyway, you go, girl. I think all that you have faced and continue to overcome is something to be celebrated. I’m glad you are giving voice to more of who you are.

  16. Just wanted to respond to the comment about how difficult it may be for Elizabeth Smart when it comes to romantic relationships. It’s true that I could wait for them to “know” me before sharing, but I dreaded the time when I knew I’d have to talk about it. For one guy, it was too much, even though we’d been dating for a little while. Because of that, I got it out of the way as soon as possible when I met my husband, and thankfully he just shrugged it off and stuck with me. So, it’s true that some guys may stay away from her because of it, but it’s terrible to get committed to someone and then have them say no way when you tell them the truth about your past.

  17. Theressa, thank you for writing this.

    This is an incredibly important topic, for many reasons – not least of which is that most of us have something about our past that we don’t like to talk about publicly, even if it isn’t something like sexual abuse. I don’t mean to trivialize that type of horror in the slightest, but there is a very broad principle that I believe we need to understand MUCH better as a people:

    We can’t mourn with those who mourn or comfort those who stand in need of comfort if we are unaware of the mourning and the need for comfort.

    I believe Zion is not created fully until we know each others’ “warts” and accept each other anyway – when we truly know “all of me” and love “all of me” more than we love “part of me”.

    Again, thanks for writing this.

  18. “We can’t mourn with those who mourn or comfort those who stand in need of comfort if we are unaware of the mourning and the need for comfort.”

    Amen.

    I also think we can’t fully understand and appreciate the Atonement together as a people until and unless we testify more freely to each other about how the Atonement has helped us through our hard stuff. And we can’t do that without talking about the hard stuff.

  19. I think Elizabeth Smart is a remarkable young woman; however, she has an advantage over you, Theresa, in that the person who molested her is clearly bad and is being punished. He wasn’t someone she loved and depended on for life and sustenance.

    I’m often bothered by the “Pollyanna” approach to difficult subjects in the Ensign. There’s a lack of authenticity that makes me wonder what’s wrong with me.

    Recently in my ward, two young-er members spoke. Both married, one with children. Both spoke of unhappy childhoods. Openly, honestly, no euphemisms, no preaching. They owned what had happened to them and didn’t try to sugarcoat their pain. Their talks were the kind where you forget you’re listening to a talk–where you feel kind of floaty and good inside. Glad to be a human being. Both gave hope to those who might be struggling now. I applauded their honesty and strength.

    God needs us to be who we are. That doesn’t mean dropping the “I was beaten and raped as a child” bomb in light conversation; but it doesn’t mean hiding it, either.

    I worry about traumatizing people with my story, but I think I worry more about those silent sufferers out there who need to hear “me, too.”

    God will guide you when there’s a need to share and you will be flat out amazed at how many people need to hear your story.

    Not catharsis, but educating.

  20. Theressa, thank you so much for this post. Thanks for your honesty and your candid thoughts. You are very brave.

    My older sister was sexually abused by an uncle. We didn’t learn of the abuse until she was an adult. My extended family circled the wagons around my uncle while my sister, the victim, has been left to deal with the horrible aftermath of the abuse.

    As a result of the reaction of my extended family, I’ve cut them out of my life. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. do not have a part in my life because I will not countenance acceptance of abuse in any form. I will not allow my children to be put into danger. I want to scream at people who insist that reconciliation be a part of the forgiveness process. It’s one thing to forgive and reconcile with someone who hurt your feelings–quite another to forgive and reconcile with an abuser who refuses to be held accountable for his actions.

    I will never say that the pain I’ve felt on behalf of my sister comes anything close to what she has experienced or still experiences, but I have felt wounded and damaged in ways that still astonish me.

    While I appreciate the insights of Handsfullmom about keeping the identities of victims private, I also find much validity in Theressa’s feelings. It’s a conundrum, I suppose best answered by each individual author as they determine what works best for their family and circumstances. I’ve often wanted to explore my own feelings about what has happened in my family in a public forum, but want to protect the privacy of my sister.

    I also think that we all heal and work through healing in different ways. Some find great peace and comfort in the sharing, while others find that sharing in certain instances only excerbates the pain.

  21. Thank you for sharing this beautiful message. It resonates with me loud and clear.
    The trauma I have been through and triumphed over makes me who I am today, yet too many people are uncomfortable to hear the details or make inaccurate judgements.

  22. I know I’m coming a little late to this discussion. Thank you for writing this Theressa. I too share your position and have wondered how much to share with people. I can completely relate to “letting people fill in the blanks.” Sometimes I tell more, sometimes less, never knowing how the person will respond, how much they can handle, how much I want them to know about what makes me who I am trying to be/not to be. I was so grateful for Elder Uchdorf’s talk last week. When he talked about our weaknesses becoming strengths in a very long-term way it was exactly what I needed to hear because I had recently given up hope of being fully healed psychologically from the trauma and abuse I experienced growing up. I had pretty much given up on ever being able to get past it and just giving into being a person who is angry and hyper-sensitive all of the time. I still feel pretty overwhelmed by it, but I got a glimmer of hope from Elder Uchdorf that maybe someday in the eternities all of this I’ve been through can become a strength rather than a weakness. Thank you again for writing. You’ve given me some solid things to ponder about owning who I am.

  23. Segullah has enriched my life because of the honesty shared here. Like one commenter, it wasn’t me, but my three older sisters who were sexually abused by an Indian placement program foster brother who lived with us for years. The first memory of the younger of the 3 is of being raped. My older two sisters left the church because of it. The repurcussions have colored my life.

    My heart goes out to each of you who have had this experience of abuse blackening their past.

    I hope less sugar-coating continues to be evident in church magaznes. I guess they always want to show the ideal, but I agree it prevents growth.

    Thank you, Theressa and others for their honesty and for allowing us to mourn with you. God bless you in every way.

  24. It’s funny because I was extremely neglected and emotionally abused as a kid/all growing up (that whole “First three years” idea about trusting etc. actually means something!) and I’ve always felt badly after I’ve tried to explain my situation. I always thought it was because I’d done something wrong by talking about it, but really I think it’s just another effect of the abuse.

    It has definitely affected my life, especially my marriage! I have had PTSD, anxiety, panic attacks, depression. I’ve wondered, “Why me! Why has life been so hard and sometimes all I can do is hold on by thin threads?” But I’ve realized that great things that have come from it. I can look at a little kid that has been neglected and have complete compassion for what that child feels. I have a lot of empathy for people. I know what it’s like to hurt so much that all you can think about is the knife in the kitchen and how much it would help to just go get it and cut yourself. I know what it’s like to spend your whole life depressed and feeling completely alone while never recognizing it because you’re so accustomed to it, only to have the spirit point it out. I’m so grateful that I know, at least a little bit, what “hard” is and I know the experience has made me what I am becoming. It has been so difficult but I now have a strong testimony about the Savior’s healing power. I have healed in bits and pieces. I know what forgiveness is and is not. I know that at some point in my life I will be healed completely. I know that Heavenly Father and the Savior have been there the whole time and haven’t left me alone. I know to follow the spirit rather than other people’s advice on how to deal with my mother. I have discovered spiritual gifts that I wouldn’t have sought out otherwise because I’ve been so helpless emotionally.

    Life is hard but we can make it! The spiritual rewards will always be greater than the horribleness of life. I also know, when I lay awake for hours on end at night because of my anxiety, what it means to be suffering as Christ suffered–it was no fault of His but He suffered patiently, just as it’s no fault of mine what was done to me as a kid, but I can grow closer to Him by suffering a tiny bit like He did.

    But again, life is so hard. There’s no easy way around it. I think YAY for just keeping going because heaven knows that’s a feat!

  25. Oh Sally! My heart goes out to you and yet is also so uplifted by your strength and wisdom. Thank you for sharing.

  26. Thank you for this post. I know I am super late in the conversation, but I just want to say that reading this has given me a better perspective on how to respond when someone shares something tragic/personal with me. I have always wanted to ensure that they not feel like they have to share anything that makes them uncomfortable, so I don’t want to pry or ask too many questions, or maybe even seem too interested (though that isn’t exactly what I was trying to portray I can see now that it might have come across that way). Maybe I thought that them sharing would be like opening the wound again and feeling that pain again, or maybe I thought that things like that are so personal that I didn’t want them to share more than they wanted to. But after reading these comments, I think I may be giving the impression that I am uncomfortable, or that they have over-shared. This isn’t true; the truth is, I really want to hear more! I want them to share everything they feel comfortable sharing. But I don’t want to be so presumptuous as to assume that they know me well enough to share every detail, or that they have dealt with their feelings enough to want to share every detail with anyone. Anyway, this has given me a lot to think about, and I am certain it will change the way I respond the next time someone shares a personal story like this. Thanks again for speaking up.

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