Over the past 18 months, as the MWP volunteers and I have asked over a hundred women to tell us the stories of their lives, we’ve been repeatedly surprised by how often childhood sexual abuse has been a part of their pasts. Because many interviews at the MWP examine women’s reactions to challenging circumstances in their lives — from disease to infertility to family losses — we felt that examining faithful LDS responses to childhood sexual abuse would be in keeping with our mission. Below, you will find three very different anonymous accounts of childhood circumstances, followed by an interview with Julie de Azevedo Hanks, an LDS therapist, who discusses themes and similarities among the three accounts. Julie, LCSW, is the director of Wasatch Family Therapy where she specializes in helping LDS women create emotional health and fulfilling relationships through therapy, workshops, writing and educating through the media. Married 22 years, Julie and her husband Jeff reside in Utah with their 4 children (ages 4-20).
We sincerely hope that the stories offered here as well as the professional LDS perspective will help open the doors to healing for other LDS women who might be searching for answers within their spiritual framework.
– Neylan McBaine, MWP Founder and Editor-in-Chief
I was sexually abused by my father from the time I was six until I was twelve or thirteen. A close friend of my mom’s approached her to tell her my father had molested her daughters. I remember her taking my older sister and me in turn to talk to us, to see if it had happened to us as well. I have three sisters and I only know that my older sister and I were abused. I have never talked about it with my younger sisters.
What was your mother’s reaction?
It broke my mom’s heart; she was abused as a child. To find out her husband had abused her children, it was devastating. We only ever talked about it that one day because it was such a shameful thing. I am not sure why things didn’t get taken to the police, either by her friend or her. Maybe that is how things had been dealt with in her experience. I do remember her taking us to talk to the stake president soon after she had talked to us.
Why did she decide to take you to see the stake president? What was the purpose of the visit?
He asked me if I had any hard feelings towards my father. I assumed he wanted me to say no, so I did. Of course I had hard feelings! My father lived with us for a few more years until he was arrested for molesting a neighbor girl.
Were you scared of your father? What was the relationship like at home after the abuse was discovered?
He tried once more to abuse me to see what he could get away with. I honestly didn’t hate him until then. After that I wanted as little to do with him as possible. I never told my mom about that either. It turned out he molested many, many children.
Were the victims all neighborhood children? Did you testify at his trial?
He was arrested in the middle of the night and that was the last I saw of him. He was in and out of jail and finally put into prison. He’s been in and out of jail for twenty years. I wish we had been part of the trial, I don’t know why we weren’t. I know that there were neighbor kids he sexually abused. He worked at a hospital as a tech and I think there were accusations from the hospital too.
Have you struggled with how it was handled by the stake president? Do you wonder if it had been handled differently if it would have protected other children?
I haven’t struggled with how it was handled. I think it was such a different time, and I think people did the best they could. Things were a lot better around the house when he was gone. It was hard on my mom as she had been a stay at home mom and she now had to work to provide for her children, but the mood around the house was much better.
You were a sophomore in high school when your father went to jail. Did you ever tell anyone or seek therapy?
I never told anyone about the abuse. Not a soul. A couple of my closest friends knew he was in jail, and maybe they suspected, but I never told them why. I think it felt so shameful because no one ever talked about it. I wasn’t told it was okay to be mad or okay to be upset. I wasn’t told it was even okay to talk about it. It was a secret. When I got engaged, I knew I should tell my fiancé, but I wasn’t sure how.
Why did you feel it was important to tell him?
I am not sure why I felt the need to tell him. It was like divulging some huge secret. It was like I felt guilty for having it happen to me. It was such a big part of my past. He knew my dad was in jail and that I hated him. A few months before our wedding I noticed the Ensign was looking for submitted articles on forgiveness. I wrote something up, but didn’t send it in. I think I’ve gone back and forth at different times in my life in the degree to which I have forgiven my fatherI wrote my article on trying to forgive. I gave what I had written to my fiancé to read. It didn’t give any details about the abuse, just that I had been abused. That was the most I’d ever told anyone.
What was your fiancé’s reaction? Did he have questions?
He asked a couple of questions, but he was mostly just sad for me. I think I thought I had forgiven my father, but honestly, I am not sure if I have fully even now.
How is your relationship with your mother?
I have no issues with my mother. She has always been my rock and I know how hard life has been for her. We had still never talked about it until a few years ago when I told her I was going to therapy. She was glad for me and said she’d tried to find something for us earlier, but couldn’t find anything. She also wished there had been something for her, that she could have gone to therapy.
How has your life been affected by the abuse you suffered at the hands of your father?
I have always struggled with self-esteem. I have never been able to truly love myself. I was very insecure in junior high and high school. I think I went on two dates during all of high school. I was a huge bookworm; in therapy we learned this is one way to escape reality.
Before and after my mission I was doing very well. I liked myself then and had a lot of fun. Sometimes I feel like I tricked my husband into marrying someone I am not because I was in such a good place when we got married. About two years after we got married, we started trying for a family. I got depressed when we struggled with infertility. My husband was the one who noticed my depression. I just thought everyone was being insensitive. He wanted me to go to counseling; I didn’t want to. We had moved and I met a friend in our new ward. She and I were talking one night after a get together. We soon figured out that we both had issues with our fathers. The fact that we hated them bonded us.
My friend was in counseling at LDS Family Services. She was getting ready to go to her dad’s trial. Her counselor suggested she go to a group, Adults Molested as Children, or AMAC. It was an eight week commitment. My husband thought I should go, but I wasn’t thrilled.
Children who have been sexually abused often feel shame for what happened to them as children. Could you explain how you explain how that shame felt for you?
Twelve years later it was still a shameful secret. Somehow I felt that because I had been abused, I was defective. I felt like I wasn’t as good as someone who hadn’t been abused. I think because it was so secret it felt like it must something horrible
What was your first meeting like? How were you feeling?
Before the group started I met with the social worker and had to tell her my story. It was a big deal for me. I had never told anyone details. I felt yucky all day before and after.
I remember our first group meeting. It was all so awkward. There was a girl there who had been in the last therapy group. She was there to kind of show us the ropes. We started with a prayer. Then we made group rules, like you couldn’t tell anyone what was said in group. We talked about what to do if we ran into someone at a church function, should we acknowledge them or not? The girl who had been through it before said, “Don’t worry! By the end you’ll be able to talk about it to anyone.” I remember thinking, “Riiiight.” But she was so right. Look at me now! Although this interview is anonymous for my family’s sake, I am usually pretty open about it.
What was the process of the group? How did it work?
Each week one woman would share her story with the group and then we would go around the table and give her positive feedback. There were also guided discussions with our social worker. When it was my turn I was terrified because I had never told anyone other than my husband and my therapist about my abuse. I had to write notes out the night before so I could be sure to share all I wanted to. Once it was over one woman called my dad a pedophile. I had never though of it like that, but she was right.
I didn’t feel great right away; it was a rough day and a rough class. Each week I would take those women’s stories with me and take them to heart. My friend and I called our headaches and heartaches the day after group ‘AMAC hangovers’, which we often cured with Krispy Kreme donuts.
In spite of all the heartache, in the telling of my story I went from being a victim to a being a survivor. It was no longer a horrible secret. It was now something that had happened to me in the past that had shaped my life, but no longer was the defining element. Our therapist said our energy in life is like a 100 watt light bulb and hiding your abuse uses 80 watts. That felt right to me, I had always been tired and drained. I was excited to have more wattage now. It didn’t happen overnight, but I feel like my life has just been heading up ever since. I am a survivor.
Was telling the story what made it less shameful?
I think so. I think it was the whole process, realizing you are not alone. It was the therapist telling us it was okay to have the feelings we did, all the validation.
Did you also understand and internalize then that it wasn’t your fault?
Putting a real label on my dad, realizing he was a true pedophile helped me. We talked about how predators stalk their victims, how they look for certain things. The therapist taught us that it was not our fault no matter what. Even if we didn’t tell, it was not our fault.
What part did faith and your relationship with Heavenly Father play in your life at that time?
Honestly, this was a time I wasn’t feeling all that close to Heavenly Father. But it’s interesting because the therapist always used scriptures to validate and help us. She was very spiritual about it and could always bring the spirit in. The manual we used in AMAC had lots of articles and talks from church leaders.
Have you struggled with the abuse since going through the group 7 years ago? Do you feel you’ve been able to forgive your father?
Yes, I still struggle with self worth. Our therapist taught us that your brain develops differently if you are abused as a child. I think I will always struggle with that. I still struggle with forgiving my father. How could someone do that to their own child? I am upset about the lingering struggles with depression and self worth that he caused in my life. I blame him for that.
How is your relationship with your family now? Have you been able to help your older sister who was also abused?
I get along well with all my family now. My older sister still struggles a lot. We finally talked about my AMAC about a year ago. She said she’d love to go to something like that, but it wasn’t offered where she lives. I wish it were everywhere; I can’t stress how amazing it was. The Atonement helps because I know Heavenly Father and Jesus understand my struggles. They love me and understand that things aren’t easy for me. They are patient and won’t give up when I fail time and time again. The resurrection gives me hope that my brain can be healed one day and I can come to love myself as they do.
My childhood sexual abuse lasted for about 10 years, between the ages of 2 to until about 12 by people who I trusted would love me and take care of me. It was always very secret and behind closed doors and no one ever said anything. So the fact that it was with people that I loved and trusted made it really devastating for me.
Tell me about your home environment growing up. Did you come from a stable home?
Well, I came from a home where my parents really loved me and they were doing the very best that they could with what they had at the time. My father was an active alcoholic until I was about 7 and still had some other problems after he stopped drinking. My mom worked hard to keep our family together and pay the bills and be a mom. Honestly, she had no idea what was going on with me.
I have two younger siblings. I don’t know if they had the same experiences. They really weren’t there when I was in the middle of my experiences. It’s a unique, individual thing so I can only speak for myself.
Did you feel that you could ever trust your mother or tell her what was going on?
To people who haven’t had their own experience with sexual abuse, it seems obvious that you should want to tell someone what’s going on. But when you’re going through it yourself there’s a part of you that is so ashamed and feels so broken, damaged, wrong, just because you were there, even though it wasn’t your fault. “Dirty” is actually the word that comes to mind. It’s almost a feeling like you want to protect yourself too cause you don’t want anyone to know you were a part of it, even if it was forced on you, even if you didn’t want it.
A lot of women I’ve talked to have these layers upon layers of false beliefs. And the first belief is “I don’t have any value, I don’t have worth.” Another thing you internalize is that somehow this is my fault. Somehow I’m a bad girl, and the whole thing becomes this entwined yarn of lies and it’s almost like you start to protect the secret too. You don’t want people to know. When you have those experiences as a child, and you’re told not to tell, you feel so helpless that you believe those lies. You don’t have the words to explain it to an adult. If I ever did try to tell my mom, it was in such a vague way. I just knew that I felt that I had to keep the secret. I know my mother: if I had told her, she would have done anything to help me and protect me.
As a child, how do you know that this is something that’s wrong? Is it just that people tell you it’s a secret, or is there a conscious voice telling you it’s wrong?
The body might be five years old, but the spirit inside of you is eternal. And the spirit knows and has a feeling of what is safe and not safe. Any time there’s activity like this there is so much darkness around and involved in it, that the spirit is sensitive to those energies. I remember once, somebody walking into the room and I felt their intention and I felt that darkness and immediately went into fear. It’s more than just a physical experience because it is such a violation of the love of God and light and sanctity, the spirit knows because of it’s level of intelligence. So you experience it on lots of levels because even if it’s new physically, emotionally you know something is wrong.
What kind of a child were you?
I was a very resilient child. I had straight As. I was always trying to be a good little girl. I was probably one of those kids that no one would ever suspect would be a victim of this kind of behavior. I was the first female seminary president in my high school. I had a full-ride scholarship to Ricks College. I was just carrying these deep, deep secrets that I was very good at covering up.
Let’s talk about your healing. When did you realize that this was something you needed to address directly?
Here’s what I know for certain: you can create and you can work so hard to create a good life — I was active in the Church, I was married to a great person, and had two great kids — but you cannot get away from the poison that’s within you. What I found was that on the outside I was working really hard at this picture perfect life – getting the house clean, raising my kids, doing my own work – but I had issues inside that I didn’t have an explanation for. I was depressed a lot, I had really deep fatigue, there were times I’d be in public and I’d be overcome with intense fear even though I didn’t know why. I had mood swings and sometimes I’d be just fine happy one minute and then the next minute I’d be filled with anger and have to leave the room.
It was the same into my twenties until the level of that depression, those mood swings got so severe, that I had to ask myself the questions I was never willing to ask myself before. At that point, I had no memory of my childhood traumas. What happens to many victims of trauma is that, to cope with the experiences, your subconscious will bury them very deeply until you’re ready to heal. Until you’re ready to heal, it’s really a disservice to have them at the front of your mind because you don’t know how to cope with them.
In psychology it’s common for traumatic memories to be buried so we can cope, but sometimes that protective mechnanism gets in your way because you think that if you can’t remember the trauma clearly, maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe it was just a weird dream. You’re faced with the challenge of actually believing what you’re remembering and then getting other people to believe you. For example, post traumatic stress in soldiers will sometimes will result in their shutting out an entire year. It’s a survival mechanism, but it means that you also live in denial and it takes a lot of courage to even ask the questions.
The truth is that I had years of my childhood that I just couldn’t remember at all. My mind shut down the memory of all of it. Finally at age 25, I was having crazy dreams and memories were coming to the surface, and I finally prayed, “Father, I just need some type of healing.” I was praying to heal from depression and social anxiety, but I had a willingness to look at whatever was the real culprit and so the memories came back on their own.
What tools did you use at this point, when the memories started returning?
I had the feeling that I had been abused and I went to see a psychologist. As a young woman, I did not identify myself as a sexual abuse victim. That came in my late twenties. Before then, I knew that my dad was an alcoholic and that my family had problems and I had the deep fear that I had been a victim of sexual abuse. I also had random dreams sometimes that seemed really real, and I’d wake up in a panic, but I did not identify myself as a victim. I didn’t connect that the problems I was having at that time were related to those dreams.
The process of self-identifying as an abuse victim began about when I was 30, so five years ago. Initially, I went to see a psychologist for the depression and we just talked, and after I left his office the spirit said to me, “Now you are ready to remember.” And over the next couple of days I saw the memories in my mind, while I was awake, and then I acknowledged that I knew. It was no longer under the surface. That’s why it’s so hard for some people to heal because of that safety mechanism of forgetting. I think it was because I was finally in a place where I could accept some help.
I really want this to be conveyed so clearly: the Atonement can heal everything. At the time I went to seek help, I was using what I call the Key 5: going to church every Sunday, reading scriptures, praying, going to the temple and getting Priesthood blessings. I was doing those and it was still not enough to touch the depression and social anxiety. And at that point, the Spirit led me to someone who could help me. I don’t think people realize that depression and healing from abuse is like a disease of the mind.
Did you involve LDS services at all?
My first psychologist was not LDS. I never went to LDS Services specifically, but I’ve worked with one person in particularly who is LDS, a really gifted, devout person who had special understanding of my experience. She has a life mission of helping people heal.
Is there ever a time when you feel you’re completed healed? Or is that even possible?
It’s a process. The process is several stages. I would say for any person to know when you are truly healed is when you can think about the experience, you know that it happened, but you don’t have any anger anymore. No hard feelings. You have the learning and you feel the gratitude from that learning. And that was when I knew I had healed. Forgiveness comes from that feeling. Before that time, forgiveness feels really difficult.
There was a time when I was in this therapy process and I was still so angry and hurt. It was a lot of time to heal, a lot of money, it was a huge process and in the end, nobody had ever been held accountable. Not one of my abusers had acknowledged their fault. No one had apologized. No one had given anything back. It felt to me to be a ten million dollar debt over my life. And not only had no one paid back anything, but they had actually even denied it and never acknowledged that it happened. It’s like no physical thing can offer comfort when you’re looking at this depth of pain. The way you hang on to God, your relationship with your creator… that’s the only thing. There’s no money, there’s no apology, no reparations.
I was in prayer one time and I remember praying almost as if I was face to face with the Savior: “Who is going to account for this debt?” And the answer was, “The Atonement will cover this debt.” And I had to take that answer and surrender and say, “I don’t know how you will pay this, but I surrender it. I give it to you.” It was like at a cellular level, the decision to do that. At that point, a true feeling of healing took place. As soon as I felt that no one owed me anything anymore, that I wasn’t waiting for an apology, that the Savior could pay it, I really became free.
When I was nine years old, my mother took my youngest brother to visit her family and my other brother and I slept with my dad. And it was my dad who molested me. It was such a surreal, strange thing. One night we were sleeping next to him, and he just started to touch me inappropriately. At that age, you just don’t know what to make of that kind of thing. It only happened once.
There are a couple of things that resulted from that. One was that I never had a trusting relationship with my dad after that. The older I got, the worse I felt about it because I understood more the implications of it.
What was your response when you were 9?
I just knew something bad had happened, but I didn’t understand what it meant. I’m sure my dad felt guilty about it. I don’t know what causes a father to do that. He hadn’t done anything like that before, and nothing since. But I do think, looking back, he was a bit of a misogynist. Just comments he would make about women. I remember many years later getting into an argument with him about how he thought girls are responsible for boys’ sexual advances.
Did it occur to you to talk to anybody about this?
That’s the thing I’ve thought about a lot since then. Should I have told my mom? I didn’t really have anyone I could trust, I just didn’t. If I had told someone, it could have really had a huge impact on my family and my parents’ relationship. My parents are still married; I don’t know how happy a marriage it is. I think it would have really affected my mom greatly. She has a history of depression, which I didn’t realize until I was an adult, and she had a really harrowing childhood. I think knowing about this could have been really traumatic for her.
I also don’t think my mother would have believed me, and I think that’s pretty common. I think that’s why it’s so important for there to be Primary and Young Women leaders who young girls can trust. In the rural area where I lived, there was no LDS Social Services. It would have been really helpful to have those resources.
I never talked to anyone about it till I went to college. My dad and I had one conversation that alluded to the episode and he said that he thought I had forgotten about it. It was very awkward and I don’t remember much else besides the fact that I didn’t feel comfortable talking about it.
When I went to college, I talked to a bishop about it, and he was utterly clueless. He said, “Now that you’ve come to me and told me, you’ve done your part.” I left thinking, “I didn’t have ‘a part.’” I was nine years old, I didn’t need to do restitution. I was looking for peace.
Why did you choose that time to bring it up with a bishop?
I felt there was something wrong. I wasn’t getting ready to go to the temple or anything so I’m not really sure. I just felt I should try to talk about it. He didn’t have anything to say. I think he should have, at that point, referred me to a professional. I hope that bishops now are counseled to do that, that they’re much more equipped to handle things like that.
I had a very hard time trusting my husband and I didn’t realize it until we were having marital issues. I really believe in marriage counseling and therapy. That’s been the most difficult repercussion of my whole experience with my dad, the fact that it has reverberations in my marriage. At one point, our therapist asked if there might be something that had happened to cause the mistrust I felt. At that moment, it hit me like a tidal wave. I suddenly realized how this experience with my father had planted a seed of mistrust that grew and grew until it threatened my marriage.
That social worker really helped. At one point in my therapy I said, “I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to be abused for years, instead of just once!” The social worker gave such a great response. He said, “It actually doesn’t matter the extent – the pain and loss of trust that you feel is intense no matter how frequent it was.” I also appreciated that the therapist said, “Forgiving him doesn’t excuse it. Forgiveness is turning it over to the Lord and letting him carry that burden for you, but it doesn’t excuse it.” Reasoning like that really helped me heal.
You have several daughters. What are you doing to prepare or protect them?
I think it would have been really difficult for me to have sons instead of daughters because when I was having children I was really afraid that I wouldn’t be able to love a boy. That’s a strange psychological thing, but I think I was blessed that way, except of course I’m very fearful for my daughters. My husband does know I was molested and he knows that if I get the slightest feeling that something is not right with a friend, or uncle or guy around my girls, my husband simply has to trust me. There is no arguing about that. He has to trust my instincts. I try to know our neighbors well and not let my girls hang out at places that don’t have a lot of female presence. I have a friend who wouldn’t let her daughter go to friends’ homes for sleepovers. She’d just tell people, “We had an instance of abuse in our family.” I really respect that.
You didn’t feel like you could go to your mother after your incident with your father. What are you doing in your relationship with your daughters to make sure they feel they can come to you?
I really try to spend a lot of time with them just talking about their lives. It’s hard because I’m not a natural mother. It’s not easy for me to nurture them, but I try to be really open especially with my oldest, who’s 11, about everything. When I talked to my oldest about her sexuality, I fasted the whole day. In my own experience, my mom never brought up the subject with me.
I had a friend who said, “Anyone who touches a child inappropriately is bad at that moment.” It took me a while to understand that, that even if your dad or your cousin or someone you trust who is nice usually touches you in an inappropriate way, they are bad at that moment. I think that’s important to share that with your kids. They may think because that person is usually good to them, that a sexual advance may not be wrong, and then they feel guilty or confused about feeling uncomfortable. I rely on the Spirit when I’m teaching my kids these things. That’s the only way I can do it.
Conversation with Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW.
From your perspective as a professional therapist, what are the common threads that run through these three different accounts of childhood sexual abuse?
Shame is the most common theme. Shame is the pervasive experience of these stories and also of clients I’ve worked with over the years, this sense that because someone did this to you, you are bad and you hold some of the responsibility. And building on that, how that shame impacts their relationships with those close to them.
There were unique qualities in these stories given they were three different experiences, but to me as a therapist there were all very familiar. I’ve had clients who have mirrored each of these different types.
Let me ask you about Story #3. How often do you get a case in which there’s been a one-time experience that’s had such an impact on the victim?
It’s quite common! With people who have been abused only once, they struggle with the question, “I was only been abused once, so why did it have such an impact on me?” It’s hard to understand that the frequency isn’t the issue. Abuse is a violation of your body and your spirit, whether it happened once or multiple times. Similarly, there’s a belief among victims that it was “only” fondling or “only” touching so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. But the truth is that the level of abuse doesn’t matter; the response is what matters. I’ve had clients who have been looked at sexually, without any touching, and it’s still horribly traumatic.
What is your response specifically to the concept introduced in story #2, this idea that there could be deep-seated emotional traumas that eventually resolve themselves in adulthood through recovered memory?
As a therapist, I never do anything specifically to elicit traumatic memories but I believe that we recall and remember certain experiences when we’re ready to process them. I think they bubble up when the client is ready. The facts about what actually happened matter far less than the client’s subjective experience. As the therapist, I have to ask myself, “What does this emotional experience mean to them?” There’s little point in focusing on digging into all of the facts. When a child being abused at an age where they don’t have the language to describe what’s happening, sometimes they have to wait until they have a framework in which to process the experience.
Another thing that was interesting to me about Story #2 was that the woman was quite a successful student in high school. Often we imagine victims of abuse walking around with big stamps on their forehead, telling us they’re a victim. Is there any way someone from the outside can be sensitive to the needs of an abuse victim even if they don’t appear wounded on the outside?
There’s a whole spectrum of ways sexual abuse can affect people. On one end of the spectrum you have people who go into a perfectionist mode, overachieving, like they have to prove their worth. They have to prove that they’re good enough because there’s something deeper inside that feels damaged. That may describe woman #2. At the other end of the spectrum are people who are less functional, who continually get into relationships where they’re abused in some form, and the abuse keeps repeating and repeating. There’s depression and self-destructive behavior that goes with those continual patterns of abuse. Repeating the abuse is almost an effort to get it right: “Maybe someone will protect me this time or maybe I’ll stand up for myself.” Those are two ends of the spectrum, and of course most people fall somewhere in between. It’s all an attempt though to heal that trauma.
Let’s turn to the spiritual angle of your therapy approach. What do you think about Story #2’s statements that even as a young child, she knew what was happening was bad because her spirit is eternal. What is it you think speaks to a child and tells them what’s happening is wrong?
I think it’s the light of Christ. There’s something in us that tells us something is good or something isn’t good. We all have that. It’s particularly confusing for young children when they’re abused by someone they trust, because children look up to family members as role models. So, if a dad is molesting a child and that child has a voice in them telling them something’s not right, the child concludes that it must be herself who is at fault. It can’t be dad because she needs him, she relies on him to survive to adulthood.
That’s why I like what woman #3 says: “If someone you trust who is nice usually touches you in an inappropriate way, they are bad at that moment.”
Your practice treats a large percentage of LDS patients because you market yourself as being LDS. What are some of the tools or strategies that you use when an LDS client comes to you to heal from sexual abuse?
As the therapist working with deeply spiritual people, I don’t try to separate the spiritual and the emotional. One thing I do is encourage the client to talk to God as a person. When children have been abused by a male, it interferes with their experience with God as a Heavenly Father. We tend to project onto Heavenly Father whoever our earthly father is. I try to help my clients spiritually separate their Heavenly Father from their earthly father, and explore the idea that He is entirely different from the wounded, imperfect earthly father. Even if the abuse wasn’t necessarily a father, the abuser is frequently an important male authority figure and so it is crucial to develop a personal relationship with God outside of the lens of the abuse.
That’s a theme I’ve seen with people of faith: they will experience Heavenly Father in the way that they’re experienced their earthly father and/or their abuser. He’s scary, he’s secretive, he’s punitive. And that interferes with their ability to have a loving experience with Heavenly Father.
Another intervention I use quite a bit is to encourage the client to have a dialogue with her younger self at whatever age she was abused. I tell her to be that adult nurturer that she may not have had in her youth. She is the adult talking to the younger version of herself, empathizing and telling the child that it is not her fault. This gives her a context to the abuse and the emotional nurturing that she likely didn’t have before.
How important is therapy to a spiritual healing? It’s less pervasive today, but generationally there has been the perception that if you’re doing those basic things you’re supposed to be doing spiritually – reading your scriptures, going to church, etc. – that you shouldn’t need professional therapy.
I honestly think that’s ridiculous. No one would say, if you were in a traumatic car accident, “Don’t get that broken femur set. If you can get to the temple your ribs won’t be crushed anymore.” This stigma of therapy is changing more slowly in LDS culture. I’m really passionate about this and I’ve spoken for a decade to LDS women’s groups about demystifying therapy and getting rid of the shame of therapy. We’re not putting on our dark glasses to slip into the dentist’s office unnoticed cause we’re ashamed of getting a filling. We shouldn’t be ashamed to take care of the emotional or mental health either. I always do a little cheer when I hear our leaders in General Conference that professional therapy is a needed part of healing.
If we have a reader here who has unresolved trauma from sexual abuse, what would you counsel her to do?
I would suggest she talk to someone about it. Share the experience with a friend, her bishop, her therapist, her spouse. It’s so important to start talking, to get it outside of you. It’s like a cancer that sits inside and grows. One of the first step to healing is actually sharing, getting it out of you, in a relationship of trust.
So many women think, “It happened so long ago, it doesn’t make a difference.” But I can’t tell you how often it happens that the mother is abused as a child, and then the daughter is abused as well. I’ve seen countless families where abuse repeats itself through generations if it’s not dealt with. The idea that if you don’t tell anyone about it is won’t impact your life or your children’s lives is simply not true. The best thing you can do to make sure it doesn’t impact your children is to heal yourself. It’s eerie how often a daughter is abused at the same age as the mother was abused. Life gives us chances to heal. Don’t turn away from opportunities to heal.
If you’re suffering alone because of sexual abuse, please reach out and share your story, just like these brave women have done. Part of why sexual abuse is so damaging is because it interferes with your ability to trust and can leave you feeling disconnected from yourself, and from the very people who can help you heal. We need each other. We heal through loving relationships with family and friends, with trusted professionals, and through our deep connection with Heavenly Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
If you would like to get in touch with one of the women in this collection, email mwpeditor at gmail dot com. Julie de Azevedo Hanks can be found at http://www.juliehanks.com/counseling/