31 for 41: The Little Girl in a Tree

Dear Donovan,

When I was a little girl, something bad happened.  I won’t write the details in a letter, but it was a sexual assault.  There are images and words that I can never forget.  There were bad days, but one day in particular was the worst.

For so many years, I would not even think of sharing this information as I am doing now.  I did not even voice it to another human being until I was seventeen.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have the best parents ever or good friends or a loving church family.  I had all of those things.  I did not tell anyone because of shame, guilt, and the conception that I was protecting other people.  I did not tell anyone because I could not expect any single person to hold on to my secret.

I paid a price for someone else’s sin.  I hated myself at times.  I tormented myself over whether I should tell or not tell.  My OCD and perfectionist tendencies were exacerbated to the point that I had to have physical therapy in eighth grade because my muscles were so tight.  It is possibly the reason, at least in part, that I now have Fibromyalgia.   And I will remind you that I had a wonderful home, extended family, school experience, and church family.  So many victims do not get all of those things, or any of them, as they try to learn how to survive their trauma.

Like countless other sexual assault victims, I never had the opportunity to confront my abuser or have my day in court.  I did have the benefit of receiving free counseling services in college, which helped me to direct anger to my abuser.  You see, I had thought that if I was angry about what happened, that anger would be wrong and the abuser would win because I was an angry person.  I did not want him to win.

I had to learn that anger is not sinful, as long as it is managed in healthy ways.  Jesus showed anger.  While I thought I was conquering anger, it was actually all being directed back to me and hurting me.  I had to picture another little girl my age and ask myself if she would have known what to do in the same circumstances.  The definitive answer is “No.”  I had to then allow myself that same consideration, and release myself from the responsibility and guilt of what happened.

Since I am now very clear about the fact that I do not have to feel ashamed, I do not fear sharing my story with others.  As a teacher, I especially like to help other people learn about triggers resulting from sexual trauma.  For me, there is a certain color that triggers memories of the worst day.  There is a certain combination of smells that triggers unwelcome memories as well.  Only Brandon knows what these triggers are.  I do not want anyone, even you and the twins, to feel like you have to tip-toe around me about a certain color or smell.  If you can understand this issue of triggers, though, it will help you to be a kind and compassionate man.

A young mom once shared with me that as a little girl, she was repeatedly sexually abused by a male family member who wore a certain cologne.  That cologne seemed to disappear from stores for a while, but then made a resurgence years later.   As this lady was shopping in a store one day, a man walked past her wearing that cologne.  It was a scent she had not experienced for many years, but at the moment she smelled it, she immediately vomited right there in the store.

That is the power of a trigger.  It is a smell, a sound, a phrase, a voice, a song.  It can sucker punch you at any given moment.  I was once in a meeting with a Sexual Assault Response Team, something I routinely did each month with no issues until this particular day.  There was a review of a certain incident with details similar to my own experience.  I suddenly could not breathe and the walls seemed to be closing in around me.  I was able to recognize it for what it was, and started consciously taking deep breaths until the walls seemed to back away.  No one else in the meeting knew what was going on with me internally, but when I left, I physically felt like I had been repeatedly punched all over my entire body.

Now imagine a child being triggered.  She doesn’t know why or how.  She doesn’t know to take deep breaths.  She cannot remove herself from the situation that triggered the triple punch of a physical, mental, and emotional response.  Imagine an adult who is aware of his triggers, but still lives with this terrible gift that may keep on giving for the rest of his life.  This is why I say a victim of sexual abuse should never apologize for wanting justice, for even when justice is served, the victim will still pay a lifetime price for the abuser’s selfish and vile actions.

As you go through life, there will be so many people around you who have experienced sexual assault.  People may suddenly have a strong reaction to some circumstance, or may suddenly withdraw.  You can choose to be judgmental, or you can consider the possibility that the person was triggered.  Give people time to process their own stuff, and try to be as consistent as you can in your own behavior.  You don’t have to allow others to treat you badly, but you can be aware that so many behaviors that we take personally were really about the other person’s private struggles.  You can be the man who speaks up to remind others that not everyone wants to hear a lewd joke, or be exposed to certain images, or smell alcohol on someone’s breath.

I want you to know that the man who hurt me is no longer living.  Only because God has done a work in my heart, I can say with all sincerity that I hope that man received Christ’s atonement before leaving this world.  Christ’s death was sufficient to pay for all the sins of the world, regardless of whether or not individuals ask for forgiveness.  The sufficiency of The Cross provides healing for me, even though that man never apologized for all of the ways that he hurt me.  And the beauty of healing is that it places me in a position of strength and understanding, from which I can help others who have been hurt in similar ways.   

I am not always strong.  All these years later, there are still days when I feel really weak, and then I get mad at myself for “letting it get to me” again.  There is still the fear that my own lifelong battle with this will somehow negatively affect my ability to be a good wife and mother.  I fight against that.  I need God’s help.

Sin is ugly, but Christ is beautiful.  Since I have experienced evil things done in darkness, I have the opportunity to appreciate beauty and light in a very special way.  I choose to see beauty all around me, and I think my quality of life now is actually better for having gained that skill.

When I was that little girl, going through bad things, I had a favorite tree.  I would find my safe haven in its branches, and I would write fantasy stories that carried me away from reality.  I no longer need an escape, as my reality is so rich and includes three beautiful sons.  I still love trees, though.  And I love you so much.  You don’t even know how much God used the gift of you to help me heal.  I determined to be healthy so that I could love you immensely.

Now go into the world, love God first, and love others.

He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.  Psalm 147:3

The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.  And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee: for thou, Lord, hast not forsaken them that seek thee.  Psalm 9:9-10

I love you forever,

Your tree-loving mama




5 thoughts on “31 for 41: The Little Girl in a Tree

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