This is a difficult post to write. For some time I have considered sharing my experience with sexual assault and the healing I experienced through quality therapy. I have ranged between wanting to keep this experience private to wanting to shout to the rooftops. Ultimately, I have decided to finally share my experience because sexual abuse is far too common, and while I am one of the lucky ones who has found a measure of peace, my hope is that by sharing my experience a few more people will begin the path to healing.
I hope that in sharing details of my story you will find something that you can relate to. If you can see parts of yourself or your loved ones in this story, hopefully it will help you to find peace.
This post will be separated into three parts over two weeks:
1. Why I avoided therapy for so long and what finally changed my mind.
2. What therapy was actually like.
3. How my life changed once I finally started to heal.
Before we start, three things: First, I will not include any graphic details in this post. Second, I am not a therapist. The purpose of these posts is not to provide therapy but to encourage you or your friend to seek it out. I will use some clinical terms, but ultimately this is written from my perspective. And finally, I will speak specifically to those who were abused as little girls but the concepts apply to any age or gender.
Here is my story.
Part 1: Why I avoided therapy for so long and what finally changed my mind.
I was sexually assaulted by an adult baby-sitter when I was a little girl, somewhere between the ages of 2 and 6. I did not tell anyone and eventually forgot about what happened. Over the years, several people suspected I had been abused but no one ever said anything to me until I was 18. At that time, a fragmented string of memories finally connected and I realized what had happened. Over the next ten years, I saw a therapist once, preferring to deal with my problems myself.
My biggest reason for avoiding therapy was denying I needed help. From my earliest days I had believed in a God who loved me and had given me commandments as a guide to happiness. My whole life I had done my best to be a good person. I worked hard, tried to be kind to everyone, tried to be unselfish, and tried to make good choices. For years I had been working diligently to improve my self-esteem, to be courageous, and to relate well to others. I hated that I might be falling short in any of those areas when I was honestly giving it my very best. I feared having glaring deficiencies that others could see but I could not. I was embarrassed to think that, in spite of my best efforts, the actions of another person against me might be manifesting in some public way. I avoided therapy so as not to face the potential of being found broken.
Another major reason for avoiding therapy was that I assumed my experience was not that bad. I had heard of people going to therapy for more extreme cases of abuse – either more prolonged exposure to abuse, or abuse by a close family member. I reasoned, “My experience was a one-time thing, and it wasn’t even a family member, I barely remember it, and I have God and a naturally cheery disposition, so I should be able to get over this fairly quickly, right?”
A third reason I avoided therapy was simple ignorance. I didn’t know much about therapy. I didn’t know anyone like me who went to therapy. I didn’t know anyone who had been through my experience. Truthfully, I just had no clue how to handle the resurgent memories, the insecurities, or the fears. So I just kept doing what had helped me in all my past trials – I had faith in God and tried to be a decent person.
And so I continued for another 10 years. Over that time I had many difficult experiences, many good experiences and I grew as a person. I continued to make progress on my self-esteem and I learned a lot about self-care. My nightmares (which had plagued me since childhood) were less frequent – I’d even gained the power to recognize when I was in one of my nightmares and could sometimes change the outcome. Overall, I was managing. But there were still a lot of problems in my life, and I had a constant nagging feeling that I would need to address this dark memory.
Then one night, in the midst of a particularly lovely weekend, I had a different nightmare. For as long as I could remember I had a recurring nightmare about being chased by “bad guys”. The setting and characters constantly changed, but the plot remained the same; I was being chased, I ran through as many twists and turns and trap doors and secret passageways as possible, and just as the bad guys caught me, I would wake up.
On this particular night though, I did not wake up. I did not wake up when the bad guy caught me. I did not wake up until after the terribly violent assault was finished.
When I was finally released from the nightmare, I scrambled from my bed, collapsed on the floor, and sobbed for almost an hour. I was horrified that my own brain would conjure up something so terrible against me – how sick and broken I must be to have something like that lurking in the dark recesses of my mind. The nightmare had felt so real that I was terrified – terrified of myself and terrified of everyone around me. I felt like I had actually been physically victimized in my sleep. And what’s more, I had no idea what triggered it. Usually my nightmares got worse if I was dating someone, or if I watched too much TV, if I experienced run-of-the-mill street harassment, or if there was some other negative influence in my life. Nothing of the sort was occurring at that time. My life was peaceful and it terrified me that such a nightmare could reach out and attack me out of the blue.
Thankfully, after my nightmare, I had many nourishing activities planned. I put on the bravest face I could muster and went to a dear friend’s home for a breakfast and choir rehearsal. I lead my choir in a deeply moving song that was all about love. I then spent the entire day with friends watching General Conference. I heard Jeffrey R. Holland give a talk about mental health entitled “Like a Broken Vessel”. In it he stated, “If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation.”
Those words stirred something in me. The world had changed tremendously since I was a little girl; science and art had progressed. Maybe now, in my late twenties, there were resources available to help heal a wounded mind which had not existed before. Maybe there was more available to me than having a good attitude, forgetting myself in service, and hoping for the best. Maybe God wasn’t going to wave a magic wand over my head and give me instant healing because maybe He wanted me – and the rest of His children – to really learn about the brain, learn about trauma, learn how to heal, and learn to stop the cycle of abuse. While I wasn’t ready in that moment to commit to getting help, I was finally ready to seriously consider it. I committed to spend a whole week praying about whether to see a therapist. I would make a decision at the end of the week.
Six days later I was at a Relief Society retreat. One of the guest speakers, an articulate and powerful woman, made several casual references to working with a therapist to face some of her personal fears. She spoke about therapy as if it was a mundane part of healthy self-care, like eating your vegetables, exercising three times a week, or bathing regularly. The way she took therapy for granted, as if everyone should do it, gave me the courage I needed to face my fears. I wrote a letter to myself the next morning committing to doing whatever it took to face the abuse in my past, to face my fears, and finally rise above it. I made inquiries the next day and within a month I had my first appointment.
Please join us December 27th for Part 2 – My Experience of Therapy