Note: This is a real experience shared from a survivor of abuse. Names and identifying information have been changed.
This letter was originally written for a stake training to help bishops work with sexual abuse survivors. It is shared here with permission.
I would like to help you understand what it’s like to be someone who carries an ugly secret—a secret that has lingered since childhood.
Each one of you has seen me, and many of you know who I am. Several of you have worked with me. I am told your perceptions are that I am a pretty well-put-together young woman. I served a mission and have held significant leadership callings. However, there is a part of me, rooted in my past, that can’t be seen through outward appearances—although at times I have felt that people knew about my past. People like me often feel that at any moment we will be “found out,” and then the result will be an ugly reputation and rejection.
I don’t know how old I was when it started—and I may never know—but I was sexually abused as a child, first by some neighborhood boys and later by an older cousin. Each time I felt worthless and tried to forget. I was quite successful in tucking those memories into a dark corner of my mind until my senior year of high school when I was in a situation that reminded me of the abuse.
After that, I remembered a few things from the past and shared what had happened to me with my best friend. She was the first and only person I trusted with my secret for years, because when you are sexually abused, you often perceive yourself as ugly, dirty, guilty. You feel deep self-loathing. You believe that if people knew about it, they would see the ugliness and look at you differently.
In high school, and many times since, I have gone through periods of anorexia—a condition that, I have learned, is quite common among sexual abuse victims. Sexual abuse represents a loss of control over something sacred and personal. I felt a deep need to control something. Controlling my appetite, I thought, would help me overcome my feelings of self-loathing. Of course, that didn’t work, and the situation only became worse as the starvation pattern cascaded out of control. I had other reasons for adopting this disordered eating behavior. During my second period of abuse, my abuser would say things about my body not being what he wanted. This trained me to feel negatively about my appearance.
I am also afraid people can tell what happened to me. So dating is hard for me. In relationships I have the tendency to become like a chameleon and adapt to the likes and dislikes of whomever I am dating. Positive assertiveness has been hard for me to come by. This is common among victims.
All my life I have struggled with my ugly secret. It is difficult to recognize my innocence before God and to separate that from what was actually wrong—the violation of me by the abuser. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that when I was molested, I was an innocent child and didn't understand that I wasn't capable of giving consent to the behavior. Why didn’t I stop the abuse? Why did I let it continue? Why did it have to happen? As I grew older, I projected my growing level of understanding onto myself as a little girl. I felt increasingly guilty as I erringly perceived my past capacity to choose as greater and greater with each passing year. Such thinking is common. It never helps that many of us, because we feel so bad about ourselves, gravitate to men who reinforce our negative perceptions by treating us as objects and not as daughters of God. Much of our self-loathing stems from this pattern of thinking and behaving.
My sexual abuse also caused nightmares. For years there have been periods of time when these nightmares have plagued me. I have learned to be careful about what I take into my mind so that Satan doesn’t have much material to pull from to create these terrible dreams.
These nightmares led me to discuss my sexual abuse with my bishop. The discussions were helpful. They led my bishop to invite me to participate in an LDS Family Services group. The timing and atmosphere were exactly what I needed.
I am grateful that my Heavenly Father taught me of my worth and was patient with me when I wouldn’t cry to Him on my loneliest days. Prayer is often difficult for sexual abuse victims. Trust comes with great difficulty—even trust in God, and sometimes especially trust in God.
When I was harmed as a child, it violated my innate sense of security and my belief in God’s protective hand. The process of praying with effort and purpose was fostered by a decision to venture and trust, an effort to cultivate humility, and a growing understanding that God loves me and wants me to be happy. Perspectives I gained from my mission, where I learned to pray with faith, were critical to my healing. Participating in LDS Family Services group counseling was also important in my healing process.
I had to learn that the Lord could help me heal. The wounds of sexual abuse run deep. Working with my bishop and the LDS Family Services group has helped open, cleanse, and dress my wounds. I am healing. I suspect there will continue to be moments when my wounds will hurt, but they are so much better than they used to be. I am grateful.
Bishops, know that you are examples in how you treat those around you and the level of respect you show women. Seeing righteous men in the gospel gives us hope that there are men in this world who can be trusted. One of the greatest helps for us is encouragement to find our individual worth. We all have the gift of being children of God and individuals of inherent worth. It is a treasure when we figure out that we have worth and when we find a path to the Savior, who confirms our worth by His sacrifice. We begin to understand how He can carry our grief and our sorrows.
I have found great strength in the Savior. I know He loves me and cares about me. I have also learned how much He can help me when I receive Him into my heart. I am a stronger person because of this knowledge. I still have a long way to go.
My prayers are with you good bishops. You carry a heavy load, but I know the Lord is with you and strengthens you. Thank you for being in a position in which the Lord can enlist your help. May the Lord bless you in all you do.
If you or someone you know has been abused, seek help immediately from civil authorities, child protective services, or adult protective services. You may also seek help from a victim advocate or counseling or medical professional. These services can help protect you and prevent further abuse. See the “In Crisis” page for more information.