Dispelling the Darkness of Abuse
February 2000

“Dispelling the Darkness of Abuse,” Ensign, Feb. 2000, 37

Dispelling the Darkness of Abuse

For years I wondered if I could ever overcome the effects of sexual abuse, but as I learned to apply gospel principles, I found acceptance, peace, and happiness.

When I was 11, authorities took me from my home in Washington state and sent me to live with an aunt and uncle in Oregon. This effectively ended an ongoing nightmare of abuse by a stepfather and others that began when I was a baby. During those early years, any misbehavior became a costly mistake: out to the woodshed, sexual abuse, then spanking. I lived in a world beyond fear—I was terrified all the time.

Before I was sent to Oregon, my mother, an alcoholic, contracted multiple sclerosis and became bedridden. In our small town her condition was well known, and in time a number of religious people began visiting in an effort to help her. Friends also came to visit, and one day a Latter-day Saint neighbor stopped by and offered to read to her from the Book of Mormon. My mother, hungry for answers about life, agreed. I listened through the wall. Although I could not hear the words clearly, I felt a good spirit, as if someone had placed a warm blanket over me.

Missionaries began visiting our home, and my mother and I felt drawn to hear the discussions. All her life my mother had been searching for something. She had sought happiness in the wrong places—in alcohol and in worldly places and pursuits—but she finally found it in the gospel of Jesus Christ. My mother and I were both baptized, and because of her failing health I was sent to Oregon. She passed away six months later. Escaping from abuse was one of the first blessings that came to me after baptism.

I lived with my aunt and uncle, who were also Latter-day Saints, during my teenage years. My uncle, who was gentle and kind, was the first good man in my life. In his gentleness I felt safe. My aunt was less demonstrative, however, and I felt my stay with them to be burdensome. Partly for this reason, I moved to a foster home. Then two years later, at age 19, I married a Church member, hoping that at last I would have a real home just as I had learned about in church. How was I to know then that I could not ignore my past—that there were many issues and fears I brought with me that would haunt my best intentions?

Looking back from a perspective of 20 years, much of it spent in therapy, most of the problems I dealt with ultimately came down to dealing with paralyzing fear, which was causing me problems on a number of fronts. In looking for answers, the gospel of Jesus Christ was like a road map to follow. The gospel became my source of wisdom and love to draw upon as I began a journey through many stages of healing that included finding self-worth, learning to be a parent, giving service, and establishing intimacy in marriage.

Searching for Self

After I married, I felt like a child being controlled by someone bigger than I was who didn’t care about my feelings. I did not know then that victims from abusive backgrounds often marry for the wrong reasons. In my case, I believed a temple marriage automatically assured a warm, loving family—something I desperately wanted. But my fears soon surfaced. I was terrified I might make a mistake, and fear plagued my every moment. I even felt I needed to ask permission to leave the house to buy groceries. Over time I realized that fear controlled every aspect of my life. It dominated my marriage, my parenting, even my Church callings. Fear led me to suffer intensely from feelings of worthlessness. I often felt paralyzed. What if I make a mistake? echoed relentlessly through my mind. Although I didn’t know it, the experiences of my youth were haunting me.

I gave birth first to a son and later to a daughter. During those years I was active in my ward, and as a result I began to slowly understand what ought to be happening in a good home. I became increasingly concerned about my husband’s temper and language toward our children. And I began to realize I had a temper too. I knew I must do something, but I was afraid to say or do anything.

In church I heard many times that I am a child of God and that He loves me. Teachers often encouraged us to read scriptures daily. So in my early years of parenting, I began arising by 6:00 A.M. to use the hour before the children woke up for personal scripture time.

When the Topical Guide first came out, I began searching for answers under every subject I could find that had to do with caring about one’s self and family. I discovered “children of God,” “self-mastery,” “self-improvement,” and others. As I read the gentle words of the scriptures about the worth of souls, my world lit up. I mattered! It felt like fireworks had gone off, with sparkles of light descending on me everywhere. My skin prickled with goose bumps, and I knew I was being taught holy principles.

That day with the scriptures was my first actual healing experience. I knew I mattered to God and that I really did have a powerful advocate in the Savior and that although He would not take away my problems or solve them for me, He would show me how to take care of myself. Through this life-changing experience, I finally believed I really had value.

Soon after, with new strength and increased belief in myself, I was able to face a longstanding fear that I could never survive on my own. I acknowledged I needed to change my situation, and after much prayerful consideration, I finally found the courage to leave my painful marriage. During the following three years I found an LDS therapist and entered my most intensive years of professional therapy.

In time I met a good man with three children of his own, and I married again. Together we had another child, giving us six children to raise.

Problems with Parenting

As a child, my only idea of motherhood came from reading books in grade school. With six children, it didn’t take long to realize how unrealistic my ideas were!

I found myself losing control and sometimes treating my children badly. What I was doing seemed so contrary to the loving feelings I had for them that I couldn’t understand why I acted as I did, and I was afraid of my own temper. Therapy helped, of course, but it was while attending church that I found role models to observe. How did other mothers handle their children?

Relief Society lessons became a valuable help to me. Teachers who shared windows into their family life taught me in ways they did not realize. I felt I was being taught from the wisdom of those who had been there, from those who honored their motherhood and their children. I learned that part of honoring motherhood was disciplining children instead of letting them do whatever they wanted out of fear they might no longer love me if I intervened. I learned that discipline could be a nurturing and loving time, not a time of terror. I didn’t need to be angry to discipline. As I applied new concepts, I found that my husband was a great support. He offered a valuable perspective and let me know when I had gone too far. I came to trust and appreciate his judgment. It felt good to be lovingly firm with my children, talking to them about the importance of learning a particular lesson rather than yelling.

Still, I had to summon tremendous self-control to keep my anger from creeping out when I was having a bad day, especially when one of the children needed discipline. For those who have never seen loving discipline in action, it can be difficult to know how to keep anger in check. When I failed, I would think of the scripture that said, “Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be thy enemy” (D&C 121:43), and I would tell the children my anger was my problem; they didn’t “make” me angry.

While I couldn’t fully erase the effects of the abuse I had received, in time I was able to recognize when my anger was triggered unexpectedly by certain things—a sight, a smell, a sound, a word. At first I found it difficult not to let emotional bullets wound me to the core, but over a period of time I learned to recognize when my mind was overreacting and halt those journeys down dark and angry lanes. One day at a family picnic, for example, I felt a deep rage at my husband over an inconsequential matter. Before I could react, the phrase Don’t do it came to mind. I stomped off to the car and sat alone trying to understand my feelings. I had been praying for some time to know how to listen and recognize the Holy Ghost. Another phrase came to mind: It’s not him; it’s you. With those impressions, I felt strongly that my prayers were being answered. When I returned to the picnic, my husband asked, “How can I help?” His understanding and patience at such times helped us weather through a number of tense situations.

Experiences such as these helped point me in a new direction. Learning to listen to the Holy Ghost helped me control my thoughts, my anger, and eventually my fear of losing control and hurting someone. Through those promptings I came to realize that my anger stood between me and deeper, tender feelings. Once I understood that, I forced myself to think about what was triggering my emotional outbursts. In time I came to view my anger as a guide that alerted me to issues buried deep that needed examining.

As my children grew, I came to see that part of me longed for the childhood I never really had. Here Relief Society taught me an important lesson: children often learn through play. It was a treat for me to share in my children’s childhoods—six times over. I learned to enjoy having a friend spend the night, the happiness in laughter, and the sweetness of childlike innocence.

Learning about Service

As I began to deal more calmly and realistically with the challenges of motherhood, I noticed I was also having problems with giving service.

For many years, accepting callings in the Church scared me. I was afraid even to attend church much of the time.

What if someone asked me to do something? What if I couldn’t do it? What if I failed? I trembled even to think about it. Many members did not understand what they perceived as my lack of responsibility or commitment. I made excuses and ran away from chances to serve. Going to church some Sundays required sheer force of will.

One day I was extended a new calling. It was a great test even to accept it. Many fears plagued me, but my husband encouraged me, and I decided to try. However, when my family came down with the flu, I was wrapped up in caring for one or another of our six children for several weeks. Then I heard that a ward member was saying I was using my children as an excuse not to fulfill my calling. Her criticism hurt deeply, and my fears ballooned again. I hit a crisis and prayed—pleaded—for help.

Step by step I found myself moving through various levels of understanding. Was my fellow ward member right? Did I deserve the criticism? I literally looked in a mirror and asked myself to be honest about it, but I was afraid of the answer. Then I thought of my six ill children, and I told myself that mothering was still my first priority and that my family really had needed me. No, I decided, I have not acted irresponsibly.

A wonderful cleansing freedom through the Spirit came with this truth. I didn’t have to believe what others said about me or my decisions. I could be true to my sense of values, which were based soundly in the gospel. I was beginning to learn that my point of view mattered. In time I was grateful to Father in Heaven for that experience, painful as it was, for out of it I learned to believe in myself and in my ability to make good decisions for me and for my family.

Learning to believe in myself was important and helped me move to a next step in learning how to serve. Because I wasn’t even sure at times how normal people behaved, I faced serious difficulties in learning how to give service outside Church callings. At times I wondered if I was selfish or had a hard heart. Just the thought of serving others filled me with deep anxiety. Then a newborn named Jonathan came into my life.

Jonathan was a sick little baby, and his mother needed help from ward members to care for him. When I picked him up for the first time I had to step out of my terror and focus on helping him. Through service to Jonathan, I found my fears growing less and less. This baby didn’t care where I had been or what I had done. He was completely helpless; he needed me. Unlike my own children for whom I also cared, I didn’t have to help him. In giving of myself anyway, I began to experience for the first time the joy that can come from service.

I have learned that those of us with abusive pasts must allow ourselves the necessary space to ease into serving others or we can scare ourselves away from giving service at all. In our abused pasts, we had been forced, sometimes in ugly ways, to serve others’ selfish wants or needs. Giving under those circumstances had not been an option. Long after abuse ends, just the thought of giving of ourselves can trigger shaking or nausea. I have discovered that ward leaders working with abuse victims will want to be sensitive in asking for service, allowing someone who is trying to ease into service a number of options to choose from.

Serving Jonathan became my breakthrough experience. I was 35 when I finally faced the misconception that service was scary and led to pain.

A Final Gift

As I progressed through the various stages of growth, from acknowledging my own responsibility in dealing with my fears to building good relationships in and out of the home, another wonderful blessing began to unfold. My husband and I had had disagreements over the years surrounding the sharing of intimate feelings. I realized my past was largely responsible. One thing that helped was a mutual acknowledgement that I neither wanted nor enjoyed the negative feelings that physical closeness sometimes triggered. Initially we both had believed worldly views held by some that a part of marriage encompasses “ownership” privileges over a spouse: that is my spouse; therefore I am entitled to intimacy. We were married 12 years before we each came to understand our individual worth as separate persons mutually choosing intimacy.

For my part, I prayed for a willing heart. In time I realized it was not intimacy itself that disturbed me but the haunting past of the woodshed and other episodes of abuse that stood between us. For his part, my husband prayed that his heart would be softened to give me the time and space needed to heal ugly wounds. By praying together and separately for answers, the issue was not treated as my problem but as our mutual challenge to overcome. We both exercised faith that the Lord would help us. Also, we came to understand that healing was an ongoing process, not an event.

I cannot emphasize enough the power that my husband’s patience and understanding brought to the healing process. He drew insight and strength from the scripture that says, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love … [and] kindness” (D&C 121:41–42). These scriptural principles truly helped because my husband chose to live by them.

At every step of my journey toward healing, the gospel illuminated my path and enlarged my view. Further, my world is now bigger, my thinking clearer thanks to gospel principles learned through scripture study, prayer, and priesthood blessings. Many times my understanding of ideas I learned in therapy increased significantly as I placed them within the framework of the gospel. In fact, a therapist once asked me where I learned how to be a parent, how to be moral, how to feel strong, and how to feel in charge of my life without compulsion. My husband, who patiently sat in on many of my sessions, answered all those questions with one statement: “She learned it from the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

I love the Lord and His gospel. I love the scriptures. I love Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary. I feel blessed to have had such wonderful influences in my life. I thank Father in Heaven daily for the gospel. I have seen the hand of the Lord guiding me, step by step, through a healing process centered in learning how gospel principles applied to me. I thank Him for a heart hungry to learn how to live life the right way, for a spirit that longed for knowledge. By choosing the gospel path, I have found acceptance, love, safety, and peace.

Illustrated by Keith Larson