Coming Up for Air
Learning to thrive after childhood sexual abuse
By Nicole Braddock Bromley
Think of your deepest, darkest secret. The one that makes your palms sweaty and stomach churn when you imagine admitting it in public. The one you intend to carry to your grave, if it doesn't kill you first.
Too many of you are thinking of childhood sexual abuse.
The statistics are horrifying. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one out of every three women and one out of every six men have been sexually violated, and America is home to an estimated 39 million survivors.
Childhood sexual abuse shatters many areas of a victim's life. But for most survivors, the more obvious results of injury don't even compare to the relational damage that can last far into adulthood. Whether it was a one-time exploitation or long-term trauma, the effects impact relationships for a lifetime.
Trapped in Silence
Healthy bonds with other people are what get us to a deeper level of healing. But as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I understand the fears and anxieties that come with trying to build close friendships. My stepfather molested me for nearly a decade until, at age 14, I finally found the courage to tell my mom. Unlike many survivors I've met, I was fortunate to have a mother who believed me and did everything she could to protect me and seek justice. But a week after I broke the silence, my stepfather committed suicide.
In one sense, I was free; I would no longer face his debasement. I could bury the past right along with him. But the wounds he left on me didn't heal; they just festered quietly. On the outside, I looked like the perfect girl who had it all together: straight-A student, star athlete, homecoming queen. Yet on the inside, I was dying. I felt dirty, damaged, and alone, and was afraid of what people would think of me if they knew the truth. I deeply feared close relationships and struggled to trust anyone—especially men.
I now know I was not alone in this struggle. So many stories—all unique and yet painfully similar—attest to this fact:
- Molested by his uncle, Parker never felt he could talk about what happened or how it affected him. Although he desperately wanted his parents to notice what was happening and help him survive, he bottled up all his anger toward his abuser, himself, and his mom and dad. Isolated by pain and loathing, he vowed never to trust or love again—or get close enough for anyone to love him.
- Stacy was abused by a cousin and eventually went to her grandmother for help. But the woman didn't want to "ruin the family name" and demanded that she never mention it again. So Stacy grew up believing the lie that what her cousin did was her fault, and that she was worthless, undeserving of love, and good only for sex. Based on those misbeliefs, she fell into a cycle of one promiscuous relationship after another.
- Jennifer's school principal chose not to believe her when she reported being raped by the gym teacher, a highly successful and influential coach in the community. So Jennifer grew up believing that she wasn't important enough to be listened to or protected. As a result, she isolated herself from others and tried to drown her pain in alcohol and drugs.
I can relate to these stories because I was also there for a season of my life. It wasn't that I isolated myself outwardly. In fact, I was quite the social butterfly. But inwardly, I wasn't willing to let others know me too deeply and would never soften my heart enough to have an emotional relationship of any kind. I was a "tough girl" who would never let herself cry or be vulnerable. After all, I couldn't give anyone an open door to bring more pain or betrayal into my life.
I thought that if I could wall off my heart from others, no one could get close enough to hurt me. Putting on a mask of toughness, perfectionism, and people-pleasing compulsion seemed to be the only way to conquer my fears and stay safe. But in the end, I found that this approach only fueled my fears and prevented me from finding the life of freedom and the healthy relationships I longed for.
Out of Hiding
Trust and open, honest communication are the basis of all healthy relationships. But when life gets difficult, survivors of childhood sexual abuse often stop communicating. Just when we most need to connect with the people who can support us, we withdraw, clam up, and try to go it alone. Safe and healthy friendships are the very breath of life that can help us survive hardship; in isolating ourselves, we take a step backward from the path to recovery.
In my own experience, sexual abuse had the greatest impact on my relationships with my parents, friends, mentors, spouse, church, and God. At the same time, it was these connections that, when I was open to them, helped me vanquish the past.
I call the compassionate people in a survivor's life a "circle of inspiration." Because they care, they inspire us, breathing new life into us by encouraging us to let go of dysfunctional coping mechanisms and embrace new ones. By surrounding us, they create a protected space where we can become all that God intended for us to be. We desperately need such a circle. It's our habitat for healing—a place of mutual speaking and listening, learning and teaching, supporting and being supported, giving and receiving unconditional love. It's where we can share our story, build intimacy, and learn healthy communication.
We can't do this alone. God wants us to lean on each other as we seek healing. We need each other. We need community.
We need friends with whom we can talk about our day-to-day struggles. Yes, it's frightening to think of laying out all of our "junk" and our burdens for others to see, but we'll never find true freedom if we keep all that inside and try to deal with it on our own.
To break free, we must be willing to pursue authenticity. We have to remove our masks, come out of hiding, disentangle ourselves from the addictions we may have used to replace relationships, and learn how to tell others the truth about what we've been through.
Learning to Breathe
It will take a lot of fortitude to begin seeking your own "circle of inspiration." Abused children are told time and again to hide their greatest pain. Even if you are an adult survivor, your mind may still be telling you to hush. I understand that. But I also understand some other things that can help you overcome your fear.
First, consider that courage isn't the absence of fear; it's the willingness to act in the face of fear. It's what enables you to tell your story despite your fear.
Second, consider how telling your story to someone you trust can aid in rebuilding your life and establishing healthy connections with others. Doing so will help you:
- Validate your feelings and experience.
- Understand your innocence and your abuser's guilt.
- Realize you're not alone.
- Open up to others so they can comfort and encourage you.
- Experience healthy emotions and honest relationships.
- Restore your trust.
- Affirm your self-worth.
- Become a source of comfort and encouragement for others.
A survivor named Elissa wrote, "I've been blown away by how telling my story brings people closer together. As much as I trusted the women in my Bible study group, I was terrified to tell them my story. At the same time, there was a nagging in my mind that just wouldn't leave me alone. It kept bugging me to tell the secrets rotting deep inside my heart for 37 years. I thought that revealing these terrible truths would destroy me, but God had other plans. Once I told those trusted friends my story, something miraculous happened: others started telling their stories."
Speaking out is the first step toward coming to terms with the past—and toward breaking its power over your life. The fact that your suffering was kept in the dark in the first place was part of the wrong done to you. Find someone you trust who will listen. If you need to, write your story down first and read it. And then, as you grow in strength, tell your story again. When a skeleton in your closet—especially one imposed on you—comes into the light, it loses its power over you.
You deserve to be whole, safe, and in fruitful relationships. Remember that the past you have endured is not who you are—it is something done to you that doesn't have to define you for the rest of your life.
And if you've never been a victim, chances are you know someone who has. People holding in a lot of private pain walk by us every day, and it would give them great relief to talk about it with a friend who will really listen. We all have baggage in our lives, and many of us are just waiting for a person who cares enough to reach out and provide us a safe place where we can set down our burdens and talk it out. We can profoundly impact the lives of others when we each refuse to turn our eyes and hearts away from them—and choose to be a part of their journey forward.
May the silence be broken.
Nicole Braddock Bromley is the author of Hush: Moving from Silence to Healing and Breathe: Finding Freedom to Thrive in Relationships After Childhood Sexual Abuse.