By Pamela K. Orgeron, M.A., Ed.S., BCCC, ACLC
“If people only knew the damage they did whenever they molest someone, especially a child, they’d never do it. They’d never do it!” Elaine Baker, PhD, who was my professor of Human Sexuality at Marshall University, Huntington, WV, said (1984).
Little did I realize the significance of Dr. Baker’s statement to my life until years later whenever I realized I had been a victim of early childhood sexual abuse. Maintaining healthy relationships had always been difficult for me. I could not understand why until I broke through denial and chose to take the long road to recovery. (Orgeron, 2016, p. 160)
When I first heard Dr. Baker’s statement and her describing the symptoms of a person who has experienced past sexual abuse, I thought, she’s talking about me. At that point I contemplated deeply to understand why I exhibited symptoms of sexual abuse. The only memory I could recall at that time was of a co-worker at McDonald’s, my first job, trying to rape me. Thankfully, he was unsuccessful due to another employee showing up at the scene. I assumed that was the source of my symptoms and moved on with my life.
Fast Forward About Four Years
Sunday, June 26, 1988… At that time I lived in Nashville, Tennessee and was a member at Two Rivers Baptist Church. Life was good. However, I learned that day how quickly circumstances can change. On my way to church that evening I fainted and fell down a flight of stairs crushing my left ankle. Ten days later July 6 doctors performed surgery that included a bone graft from my hip and the insertion of 2 metal plates and 16 screws to rebuild my ankle. Doctors told me that I would probably never walk again. They said if I did, I would have to use a cane. As is evidenced now by my being able to walk without a cane and even run at times, I know The Great Physician can heal when modern medicine fails. Throughout my recovery after the accident, I struggled with depression but didn’t seek help at that point. Then November 12 of the same year my paternal grandmother passed away. Her death hit me hard as I was still in a cast and unable to return to Kentucky for her funeral. Less than 6 months later May 9, 1989 after my grandmother’s death, my cousin the late American country music entertainer Keith Whitley died. At the time of Keith’s death, I was feeling exceptionally low, even to the point of contemplating suicide.
“If you have a problem…It doesn’t have to be alcohol and drugs . . .any problem, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, psychological, or emotional, get help,” said Ricky Skaggs, country music artist during Keith’s funeral. “Don’t let this happen to you. I know this is what Keith would want me to say.”
The words spoken by Ricky penetrated deep into my soul. Shortly after the funeral, I sought professional help. Doctors diagnosed me with Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Codependency, and PTSD from the fall down the stairs. However over time after much prayer and psychotherapy I realized that there was more behind the development of PTSD than my accident falling down the stairs: the young man at McDonald’s was not my first perpetrator. For example, the neighborhood boy who raped me at the tender age of three years of age. There were others too. However, to protect the innocent and those whom the Lord has turned their lives around since what happened, I will not be giving names or identifying perpetrators I recalled at that time.
Making Sense of my Life Struggles
“What you are talking about, what you are describing is Complex PTSD. Have you read the book Complex PTSD written by Pete Walker?” H. Norman Wright, M.A., D.Min. said to me Friday evening, Sept. 29 at the Grief, Crisis & Disaster Networking Mixer at the American Association of Christian Counselors 2017 Break Every Chain Conference. I had just given Dr. Wright a brief account of a new realization of another trauma in my childhood and it’s after effects.
Flashback to Saturday, August 19 about six weeks earlier: Sitting at my computer catching up on email and the latest news about my friends at Facebook, I read that a first cousin had died not long ago. Oh, no, why didn’t someone let me know, I thought to myself. Sadly, I whispered to myself, “Paul is gone. Paul’s gone.” This statement to myself triggered the new memory of my witnessing a murder as a very young child about 3.5 to 4 years of age. The murder victim shared the same first name with my cousin. With that was the beginning of what psychologists call an emotional flooding experience. I began sobbing uncontrollably as I flashbacked to various memories indicating that I witnessed the beating of a childhood friend, a 16 year old boy, who was coming to the defense of his younger sister whom the perpetrator was trying to rape. I even tried to save the boy’s life before the perpetrator grabbed me and threatened to kill me if I told anyone what happened. I ran off in shock and unable to talk for several days. The perpetrator left the boy in the field to die. Others tried to cover up what happened. Not me. I wanted to testify. I was told I was too young. The perpetrator got off on a mentally incompetent defense. The doctor said he had hardening of the arteries and wasn’t responsible for his actions. I know that wasn’t the case. I saw what happened. I saw how angry he was at being caught trying to molest the girl. He had every intention of killing the boy: and, I honestly, believe he would have killed me had I not ran when I did.
How does a child so young recover from such trauma? My dad, who died February 17, 2016, did his best to try to give me closure after the final trial regarding Paul’s murder. Let me share an excerpt from a therapeutic letter I wrote to Dad August 28, 2017:
Seeing what happened and experiencing what I experienced hurt me and stole my childhood. I know you thought you were giving me closure when you took me to the scene of the crime to tell me I could not testify and to forget what happened. Closure for me would have been allowing me to testify and grieve Paul’s death. I know the last thing you asked me at the end of our talk was, “Are you mad at me?” I said, “No”. We both collapsed into each others arms crying. After that I was always “Daddy’s girl”.
“Removing the Debris”
Recovery from any type of past abuse is similar to the grieving process depicted by Nehemiah. In Nehemiah 1:4, Nehemiah began his journey with weeping, mourning, fasting, and prayer, all key elements in the recovery process. Nehemiah 1:6 reveals how Nehemiah continued his journey with repentance for his sins and those of his people. Repentance involves breaking through denial, which many individuals prefer to live in after being abused.
Before anyone can move on from being a victim of abuse, the damage from that abuse must be surveyed as Nehemiah went from gate to gate viewing the devastation of the temple walls. This scene is depicted in Nehemiah 2:13-15. On any road to healing, you can expect opposition just as Nehemiah (v. 2: 10, 19; vs. 4:1-3; vs. 6:1-14) faced opposition on his journey. Nehemiah responded to opposition with four things.
- Nehemiah turned to prayer for deliverance when faced with opposition.
- Nehemiah called for help and unity among the Jews (vs. 2:16-18).
- Nehemiah and the Jews building the wall kept watch for their enemies and were always ready for battle (vv. 4:16-18).
- Nehemiah and the others helping persisted in working to complete the task (vv. 6:15-19).
With Nehemiah the scriptural basis for needing to ponder the effects of abuse, how can others apply Nehemiah’s journey to their recovery process? Let me make a few suggestions. First, the recounting process for me involved journaling, psychotherapy with a professional counselor, and talking to a supportive group of friends.
- Complete recovery of “removing the debris” left by abuse requires a connection with and release of one’s emotions. Recall how Nehemiah wept over the devastation.
- Emotional connection and release can be found through journaling.
- Journaling helped me discover my feelings and unlock repressed memories.
- Journaling also helps a person keep track of his or her progress through recovery.
- Emotional connection and release can be found through psychotherapy.
- Different therapists have different styles. I recommend others in recovery find a qualified therapist they are comfortable with preferably one who incorporates Christian ideology and techniques.
- Emotional connection and release can be found through the help of a support group. Recall how Nehemiah recruited and organized other Jews to help him complete the building of the wall.
- My primary support group became my church family.
- Other support groups include the numerous 12-step groups, such as Celebrate Recovery, Codependent’s Anonymous, Overeater’s Anonymous, etc.
Before a person sets out to rebuild a life that was damaged by abuse, the losses and damages to that life must be surveyed. Recall how Nehemiah surveyed the damage before rebuilding. Abuse can result in losses in five different areas of life:
- Losses from abuse can come in the form of missed opportunities. I think of how the chance for having a “normal” life was stolen from me.
- Negative effects of abuse may be cognitive in nature. For example, sometimes I experience problems concentrating.
- Negative effects of abuse may include stress-related physical illnesses. I have had problems with TMJ, gastroesophageal reflux, nervous bladder, and other similar health issues.
- Abuse damages an individual’s emotions. For example, I often felt that I could never be good enough so I became a perfectionist, which is unhealthy because perfection is impossible to attain on earth.
- Relationship problems also occur as a result of abuse. The lack of trust created during abuse is a key factor here.
The “surveying” process should include education. A person who has experienced abuse needs to be continually educated on his or her particular issues. Education can come from reading books and articles, viewing documentaries, and tapping available community resources (for example, support groups and specialized counselors).
A quick “forgive and forget” mode encouraged by some does not lead to ultimate peace. The injury and its consequences must be acknowledged. Offering forgiveness does not condone the actions of the offender. Forgiveness acknowledges the complete work of Christ’s blood on the cross.
Even with the help of a therapist, a support group, etc., relapses will happen. A person in recovery can expect to face opposition on the journey to wellness. For example, opposition can come in the form of family or friends embarrassed by the abuse. When I first entered psychotherapy, family members begged me to not look back. However, I knew I had to in order to find peace and the answers I sought.
Another example of facing opposition in recovery is how Satan will throw stumbling blocks on the road to recovery (I Peter 5: 8). Just as Nehemiah faced attacks of criticism and ridicule (e.g.: vs. 4:1-3) and even an attempted assassination plot (v. 6:10), we too can protect ourselves from Satan’s attacks. How? There are three ways to guard against Satan:
1. First, put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:11). Our spiritual weapons of defense based on Ephesians 6:10-20 include truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God.
2. Resist the devil (James 4:7)
3. Never compromise your convictions and try to deal with the devil. Note how in Nehemiah 6, Nehemiah held fast and refused to give in to the enemy’s tricks.
In my concluding remarks about recovering from sexual abuse or any other type of abuse, I stress that when a person has been victimized or experienced loss similar to Nehemiah, he or she must recount the experience and survey its effects before offering forgiveness and moving on with one’s life. I would add two important points to remember:
1. Although circumstances may seem to get worse before they get better in recovery, it is only through Christ that you can grow to become a survivor rather than a victim of past abuse. I base this on John 15:5 (NKJV): “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing”.
2. Although relapses occur, it’s important to move on and not get stuck along the way. I found motivation to move on from my past in Philippians 3:12-16 (NKJV):
12. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. 13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. 16 Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.
Just as Nehemiah and the Jews reached their common goal of rebuilding the wall, I believe anyone with the help of God and others can rise above any type of past abuse. On an end note, I too highly recommend the book entitled Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving to anyone in recovery from any type of past abuse.
Orgeron, P. K. (2016). The New ABC’s of Life for Children and Adults: Short Stories, Essays, and Poems Promoting Christian Concepts. Nashville, TN: ABC’s Ministries.
Walker, P. (2013, 2014). Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. USA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.