In her profound story of personal healing and renewal through her relationship with the Lord, HDH describes a 30-year process of recovering from sexual assault when she was ten years old.
Can you talk about your experience at the YMCA when you were a little girl?
I had just turned ten, and I was in 5th grade. The YMCA in my town was having a lock-in for Halloween. I had never been to a lock-in before. I lived in a part of the country where there were lots of working moms. My mom stayed home and I was always kind of jealous of the kids who would get on the day care bus after school and would go off and, I thought, have a great time. They all went to lock-ins, and they were always involved with lots of community activities, and I wished I could participate. So when the YMCA was having this lock-in, I begged my mom to go. She said, “Sure.”
I could draw you a diagram of the exact layout of the space, almost 30 years later. There was an activity room that was done up as a haunted house; there was spaghetti for brains and grapes for eyeballs, that sort of thing, each in its own space, separated from the others by curtains. I had never been in any kind of haunted house. It was dark, the music was blaring, I couldn’t see anything. There were these curtain-like screens and things hidden behind them. There were strobe lights. All the little girls kind of lined up because they were scared, and I was the last in line. Everybody was paying attention to what they were doing and not paying attention to anything else. The whole purpose of the activity was to terrify children. In retrospect, I can see it’s the perfect place for a crime because it’s just so well hidden. So, I was the last one in this little line – easy pickings – and whoever he was grabbed me. I had no idea if he was 18 or 65. I have no idea who he was. He grabbed me and took me behind a screen and raped me. I didn’t understand what was happening, and I fought him really hard. When it was over, I remember going into the locker room, and everybody was getting their stuff and going out to the next activity. There was laughing and kids running around, and I was just sitting on a bench like a statue. I don’t even know if I was thinking anything. I was numb and watching this excitement go on around me. I had this sort of feeling of “Don’t you see? There’s something wrong here. Is it not wrong with you? Because it’s wrong with me.” I remember they all went to the next activity, and I sat on that bench in the locker room for a long time. Maybe a couple of hours. When it was time to sleep in the gym, I remember it being vitally important to me that I had a space up against a wall. I sat up against that brick wall all night and watched everybody sleep on the gym floor.
When my mom came the next day to pick me up, the very first thing I told her when I got in the car was that a man had taken me behind a screen and sat on my lap. I hadn’t had the maturation talk at school yet, and I had no idea what happened to me but I knew it was horrifying. I don’t know if she didn’t believe me, or if she thought it couldn’t have been what she thought it was, or if she was paralyzed by fear. I have no idea what her reaction was based on, but my parents did nothing. There was no response. It was never spoken of in my family, never again mentioned or alluded to. It was totally ignored. As an adult who’s been through therapy, I can see that a child who doesn’t know what has just happened, but knows that it’s bad, goes to the people she trusts most in the world, wanting to know, “Should I be worried about this?” When they do nothing, that tells the child, in this case me, what happened isn’t interesting, what happened isn’t important – which is at direct odds with what your spirit knows. So then it creates conflict. You’re always conflicted because you feel like what happened is important. But wait, it’s not important. But wait, I know it’s important.
I had nightmares for years. In the early 80s, when this happened, there was a Kal-Kan cat food commercial on TV. I remember there was a little round can of cat food, and there was a long, blue vitamin pill. You could see the vitamin pill above the can, and then it went “schoomph,” and penetrated the can. I dreamt about the Kal-Kan vitamin for 8 years. It all happened in this terrifying, very slow motion way that’s also too fast. I don’t know how to describe it other than that. It’s like you’re locked in and you can’t get out. It’s like a silent scream. That went on for years.
Eventually, I just forgot that all of it had happened. You hear in the news about forgotten memories or retrieved memories. I can’t speak of anybody else’s experience, but I know for me, that the memory wasn’t gone. I hadn’t really lost the memory, but because nobody talked about it, it was just kind of involuntarily put away.
How did that experience affect you as an adult?
I was a BYU student in the early 90s, and I had that horrible, semi-typical experience where I was 20 years old, and everybody I knew was engaged. I had never had any desire to serve a mission, but I had this thought, “Okay, I don’t want to serve a mission, but I don’t want to decide that on my own. Maybe I’ll talk to God about it. He’ll tell me that I don’t need to go, and that will be that.” I prayed about it, but not really earnestly, and I had one of the strongest spiritual impressions I’ve ever had. I don’t know that I necessarily heard an actual voice, but I felt like I was being shouted at, “Go on a mission!” And I thought, “Oh man, I shouldn’t have asked.”
So I put in my papers, and I got a call. I was fine until I received my endowments. I had not had a temple prep class. I grew up in a part of the country where there wasn’t a temple nearby, so I never saw my parents go to the temple. I went to the temple having no idea what to expect. The woman who sold me my new temple garments gave me garments that were about ten sizes too big. That felt kind of like a costume, to say nothing of temple clothing. There was a locker room as well as a dark room with a closed door. And there was a curtain. The initiatory was awful for me. In hindsight, it was like a perfect storm of subconscious trauma. There were any number of ways that the experience freaked me out. I didn’t know why I was upset; I just sat there and thought, “Get me out of here!” The only reason I didn’t leave was because my parents were there, and I knew it would embarrass them if I left. That’s a horrible reason to make a covenant with God, but there was a lot of pressure.
The next day, I had a body-racking stomachache that lasted for six years. I was terribly ill on my mission. They weren’t even sure they were going to let me leave the MTC. I had no idea what was wrong. They thought I had Giardia or anthrax or an ulcer. They tested me for cancer. I had MRIs. They could never find anything wrong, but I was desperately, desperately ill. When I did get to go on my mission, I worked really hard. I really tried hard. I didn’t think of myself as emotionally ill – I didn’t feel that way at all – but just physically sick. I didn’t think I had any emotional issues to deal with. Eventually, they sent me home from the mission early.
I’m confident that a mission was something God wanted me to do because He wanted me to deal with my emotional pain. He wanted to shove it in my face and force me to see it and address it and heal from it. He wanted me to deal with it well in advance of getting married and having children.
Did you find any spiritual comfort during this time when you were so ill?
After I came home from my mission, I stayed at my parent’s house. I went to the temple all the time – three times a week. I prayed and read my scriptures constantly and was just trying to find comfort and answers and direction. I knew it had been God who commanded me to serve a mission – it hadn’t been my idea at all – and so I then also knew that it was no surprise to Him that I was sick and unable to serve. It was terribly difficult to understand and reconcile. So many questions, so much beseeching. On one fall day – a beautiful, crisp fall day – I was getting some groceries out of the trunk of the car for my mother. I was standing on the driveway, and there was this tree right next to the driveway. I could hear really loudly what sounded like applause. Not just one person applauding but 30,000 people applauding – roaring applause. I thought, “What is that?” My parents lived on a cul-de-sac away from other people, so there were really only a couple of choices of where the noise could be coming from. I looked around, and there were no windows open. There was nobody around. There weren’t any cars around. My attention was drawn to this tree. It was waving in the wind and making this rustling noise. It sounded exactly like applause. I thought, “Wow, there’s a wind.” I looked around and nothing else was moving. There wasn’t a wind at all, everything was totally still like before a storm, but this tree was waving, and it sounded like applause. The best way I can describe it is to say that the applause was in the tree. I just stood there for two minutes and soaked it up. I realize I sound crazy when I say, “A tree applauded me, and God was speaking to me through this applauding tree,” but that tree absolutely applauded me. The Spirit was incredibly powerful and sweet and testified to me that I was hearing exactly what I thought I was hearing. I took so much comfort in that. I just stood there and allowed it to wash over me. I went into the house, and wrote it in my journal. God told me through the tree that He was pleased with me. It was the most holy and profound communication with God I’ve ever had.
A year later, to the day, I was at church. My calling was in the copy center. I had to be there early on Sunday mornings to make copies for meetings, but nobody ever came. I was using the time to read copies of articles from the previous week. There was an article lying on the table called “Lighten Up!” I believe it was a chapter from a book called Lighten Up! by Chieko Okazaki. I was reading this article, and I got to the part where she quotes Isaiah 55:8-12: “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater.” It’s not for nothing – everything done in obedience and righteousness accomplishes God’s purposes. The scripture passage then says to go forth with peace and that, “The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” I cherished that. I felt that seen and heard. I felt that God was using hardship to teach me, even though I didn’t know what He was going to teach me, that it would be revealed bit by bit, and to keep trusting Him. I felt comforted that He saw me. Also, that I was good in His sight. That He would move nature to comfort my heart. During all of this, I had still put that YMCA experience away mentally.
Did your memory of being sexually assaulted ever resurface?
It did. In my late 20s, I had worked in the top global PR firm and then another mid-size firm. Working in these firms was like cloak-and-dagger intrigue. The politics and stress of it was enormous. I didn’t eat or sleep for years. I didn’t own a pair of jeans because I had no place to wear them; I worked seven days a week. My boss at that time was the kind of boss who threw things and screamed at people and slammed doors. We were all expected to do brilliant communications work. The new CEO ran the business into the ground, and we all lost our jobs.
I remember going home and praying, “Lord, I have a great resume, I’m marketable, and I can find a job, but I don’t want another job like this. I want the right job.” Whenever you say things like that to God, it never works out exactly the way you think it will. It took six months for me to find the right job at the right firm, and that was definitely the hand of the Lord. During those six months, I moved to my former hometown, where I’d lived when I was ten, and lived with my beloved grandmother. A sweet aunt said to a friend of hers who owned a little boutique, “This gal has style. She’s looking for a little ‘something to do’ job. Can she work at your boutique?” and the friend said, “Sure.”
So I worked at this little boutique 20 hours a week. I had been working 70-80 hours a week for years, so to work 20 hours a week in a little boutique was like silence. Mentally, the noise in my head silenced for the first time in years. What came up in that silence was, “Oh yeah, remember that time you were raped at the YMCA?” I rolled it around in my mouth, so to speak, and got the feel for it and thought, “Yeah, I do remember that.” It wasn’t necessarily this memory retrieval thing where the memory was gone and then it came back. It was more that I had a lot of noise in my head, and that I had been told my experience didn’t matter. Then the noise in my head cleared because I had this really quiet six months. It wasn’t this momentous event where I thought, “Oh, it’s a memory!” It was just that I was surrounded by people and shops and restaurants and schools and street signs that all took me back to when I was growing up.
It took about six months, and the Lord found me a PR job with a mid-sized firm. I had been at this new firm for about a year, and I got an additional client. It was the YMCA system in the large city I was living in. I told the CEO, “You’ve got to give this client to somebody else,” but he wanted me to keep the YMCA on my client roster. I knew that I had to deal with it, so I found a counselor.
What role did therapy play in your healing process?
I found a counselor through LDS Family Services, and she was a godsend. She was brilliant, and she was perfect for me. She pointed some things out to me that I hadn’t ever noticed. When I would talk about what happened when I was 10, I would hold my breath. I had never noticed it. My body was tense. We talked about that. We worked through it. I felt immediately that my therapy sessions were holy; The Spirit was very present there. I looked forward to it every week. I felt like the therapy itself had a kind of sacred stamp on it. I always felt the Spirit there. I learned a lot about God there. I learned that the Lord loves his children and that He loves me. I learned that He’s able to keep the evil of the world at bay but that’s not His job. He can do it, and sometimes He does, but He didn’t that time. I learned that there was more for me in having the experience than there was in not. I felt peace whispered to me in therapy. I learned more about what it means to have a relationship with the Lord in therapy than I ever did in church. I learned that just as there are people in the world who will hurt you, there are people in the world who devote their lives to helping, and they can do that through the Spirit. I remember one session and my counselor said, “the Spirit is testifying to me that the Lord knew this would happen and has created pathways for you to use it and to make good from it.” He sees the ugliness and that there’s goodness to be had there, goodness to be made – we can be made holy from hardship and, with God, these difficulties can be the making of us. I remember how thick the Spirit was. I guess the feeling that I had was that He knew everything, and that He approved of all of the healthy and not-so-healthy ways that I had dealt with it. He approved of the non-healthy ways that I dealt with it because I did the best I could; I didn’t understand. And, totally without judgment, He offered health once I did understand.
Many years ago when my niece was a little girl, two or three, she had heard somebody say the phrase, “Soaking wet.” So she extrapolated that and said that she was “soaking warm.” She thought “soaking” was a descriptor that could be applied to many kinds of words. We were charmed by that and delighted at her mistake. I feel like the pain of life and the mistakes we make because of it are, to the Lord, kind of like the mistakes of an adorable child. We take the inferences from the world that we’re given and from the experiences that we’re given and from the family dynamics that we’re given, and we learn to behave. We live in a fallen world, so what we’re presented with, often, is wrong. What we’re presented with is often dysfunctional or hurtful or damaging, and it’s not good. We shouldn’t seek after or be satisfied with dysfunction or abuse, obviously, but I feel that for those of us who are trying to make good and are seeking improvement, the Lord views us like an adorable child who is working with what life’s given us and extrapolated it and gotten it wrong. That’s what I mean when I say He approved of me – I’ve always felt that His affection for me is greater than His concern over my mistakes.
My patriarchal blessing says that if I realize the past is behind me and the future cannot be touched at the present time, and if I focus on the present and how to behave right now, that it will be natural for me to live in full fulfillment of what was planned for me in eternity. It’s a formula for changing dysfunction and overcoming abuse. It’s a formula for faithfully going forward with new steps. The choice is now, every day, to get it right, to be faithful, to be functional, and to remember that, although bad things do happen and they’re serious, God sees them more fully than we do and provides a way for us to use challenges to create beauty.
At A Glance
Location: Western United States
Marital status: Married
Children: Two school-aged daughters
Occupation: Talk show producer
Schools Attended: BYU
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Be Still My Soul”
Interview by Krisanne Hastings. Photos used with permission.