Do you have a secret?
If it is true that “we are only as sick as our secrets” then sexual abuse is one of the most lethal secrets in our society today. There are an estimated 60 million adult survivors in the U.S., and one in 10 young people will be sexually abused by age 18.
I am one of these statistics. And, I just published a book inspired by true events, about a friend who also was victimized, but did not live to share his story.
Many survivors will tell you their abuse was the worst thing that ever happened to them. From my perspective it is not; denial is.
Denial perpetually re-victimizes, extending pain’s power over victims’ lives and adding fuel to a fire of self-destruction that can include substance abuse, relational brokenness, and pornographic and other sexual addictions.
Why We Hide
Why do sexual abuse victims hide the truth about what happened to them?
Unlike in other crimes, victims of sexual abuse experience an intense, if misplaced sense of responsibility for what happened. In my conversations with survivors I’ve been repeatedly stunned by how often I hear a version of this statement:
“What happened to me wasn’t sexual abuse; it was my fault because I __________.”
How victims fill in the blank is not important if you understand that “sexual abuse involves any contact or interaction whereby a vulnerable person (usually a child or adolescent) is used for the sexual stimulation of an older, stronger or more influential person.” [“When Trust is Lost,” by Dan B. Allender]
The shame we feel creates the secrecy, but sadly even when we find the courage to break our silence, those we choose to trust often are unprepared and ill-equipped to receive such a difficult disclosure in a life-giving manner, at least initially.
The questions asked or the emotions expressed can serve to confirm victims’ worst fear — that what happened to them really was their fault — so rather than bringing freedom, disclosure can lead to a deepening of shame, self-contempt and denial.
- When I first told my future husband that I was abused by my high school teacher he asked, “Was it consensual?” Now a strong supporter and advocate, he deeply regrets his initial response, which didn’t reflect a lack of love, rather a lack of understanding of sexual abuse.
- My friend, Paul, was an adult when he told his parents about his abuse by a priest in high school. When they learned of his intention to join other classmates in taking the allegations public, his parents questioned why he would “cause trouble for the church.” It took months for them to process their fears and anxiety and join him in his quest for justice.
- My friend’s sister visited her aunt and uncle for the summer as a teenager. She called her parents and tearfully plead to come home because her uncle was molesting her. They dismissed her claims and told her to “stop being dramatic.”
The Secret Cost
Victims eventually escape their abusers, yet many live in fight-or-flight mode. Who is the enemy they fear most? Intimacy.
As human beings we were created to live in intimacy with each other and with God. Survivors find themselves locked in an internal conflict against this God-given desire. And as with any battle, it leaves a trail of destruction—self-destruction in this case, in the form of relational struggles, divorce, substance abuse, sexual addictions and far too often, suicide.
My friend, Paul, looks for these battle scars to identify likely victims among his high school alums. Netflix’s “The Keepers,” reports these outcomes were common among survivors of the abuse scandal at the center of this series. And The Boston Globe Spotlight team has showcased myriad cases where such fallout plagues survivors.
Secrets Don’t Keep
In Mark Chapter 4, 21-23, Jesus says to his apostles:
Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand?
For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.
If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.
Secrets don’t keep. Sooner or later they find their way into the light…and that is for our good.
As difficult as it is, the first brave step for a survivor of sexual abuse is to speak up about what happened. Bring it to someone you love and trust to come alongside you in grace and truth, even if imperfectly. Pursue recovery; I’ve created a short list of resources to help you get started.
And most importantly, bring your abuse to the Lord. Admittedly, this is no small step, especially for those wounded inside the church. Yet we serve a God who promises, “You will find me when you seek me with your whole heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)
If you’ll take the risk, God will heal your broken heart. And in the process, as only he can do, he will use your brokenness to become a light to others.
It’s in this way that we discover our purpose, our value to one another and our infinite, unconditional value in the eyes of the one who created us. And that’s when something truly incredible happens:
…and we hear two of the most healing words a hurting person can hope to hear from another person:
You are not alone. You are forgiven. And not only can you be delivered from the darkness of your suffering, but you can become a brilliant point of light in the lives of others.
About the Author
Nanette Kirsch is author of the Faith Runner blog and of the just-released book, Denial: Abuse, Addiction and a Life Derailed, based on a true story, of how denial of childhood sexual abuse led an outwardly highly successful man into a secretive and dangerous double life.