This month, I celebrate 15 years since I started telling my story in public.
For the first 10 years of my healing, I felt responsible for the abuse I suffered. Since no one else was talking about it, it felt bad, dirty, and shameful. But I was lucky enough to find a support group early on in my healing that helped to change this narrative in my head. I quickly learned that the blame I was feeling was the same blame all of these other survivors were feeling. We all shared the same toxic thoughts about not being good enough or not being able to ask for support. We all had to teach ourselves a new language of hope and healing. I came out of this support group more empowered and certain than ever that the abuse I suffered could have been prevented and it could have been stopped by the adults around me if they had been more informed and more empowered through education. I realized that if the adults around me had known how to talk about boundaries, safe touch, and sex in a healthy and safe way, I would not have suffered as long as I did. So I began to look for a way to help the cause, to break the silence, to be able to teach people about child sexual abuse, to stop it.
As of this month, it has been 15 years since I moved my family to Iceland to educate adults about keeping kids safe. I was granted permission by Darkness to Light to translate their booklet, “7 steps to keeping your kids safe” into Icelandic. We then mailed a copy of this booklet into every single home in Iceland, about 110,000 copies. My hope was that people would be up in arms if they knew the facts, if they knew the prevalence of child sexual abuse and how it takes place, that they would want to learn about it and do something about it. And I did get a huge response after we mailed out the booklet. I started getting phone calls from people all over, thanking me for the booklet but sharing that they could not find anyone willing to talk about it. So they asked if I would be willing to. And that is how my public speaking career began.
I traveled the country with a presentation about the facts and statistics and prevention methods for CSA, where to go for help, and what adults could do if they suspected abuse was taking place or if a child disclosed abuse occurring. Over years of providing this presentation, I recognized that what people were really learning from me was not so much the words I used but that I was able and willing to stand in front of them and speak openly and honestly about a topic no one spoke about publicly. I was giving them the courage to do the same, and showing them how.
In April of 2004, I was asked to tell my story at a conference in Iceland. I still have this speech saved. I titled it, “I had to choose me.” I explained how the abuse I suffered as a child impacted me as a teenager, young adult, woman, mother, partner, and wife, and how I was healing each of those parts of myself. I explained how each part was frozen in time, that I was emotionally stunted and incredibly good at disconnecting from pain, at deflecting any questions about my past, and that I was still struggling with learning to trust the people closest to me. I was honest with them about the internal fight of trying to keep my marriage going while also expecting the worst from my husband because I still struggled with believing I was worthy of love. But I told them that there was hope and that hope started with me telling my story. If I chose to keep the secret for other people, I could not heal. I could not heal without speaking the truth, my truth.
After the past 25 years, after working on my own healing and helping others to find their own, I believe and I know in my heart of hearts that we can all heal from trauma, that you can heal your body and your brain. Trauma is a part of life but it doesn’t have to take away our ability to get back to the life we want and deserve.
We now know how common it is. (Click here to learn about the ACE Study) Over 60% of Americans had at least one adverse childhood experience. And if you had one, chances are very high (87%) that you had more than just one. More and more, the effects of childhood trauma are being spoken about and taken seriously. More and more, people are finally beginning to see how prevalent adverse childhood experiences are and how dangerous it is for us to brush it under the rug instead of bringing it out to the light, to talk about it openly as the public health issue that it is.
Now, as I celebrate 25 years of healing, my life is better than I ever could have imagined. Life is still hard at times. But getting here was so worth it. And I was even able to find a gift in my trauma, a gift in seeing how courageous and strong I am. Not just because I survived terrible things but because I was willing to take responsibility for my healing and for my future. No matter what happens next, I know I can handle it and I know I am not alone. I am not to blame for the bad things that happened to me but I am responsible for my life now, for each moment as I continue to build and create the life I want. I know who I am now and it was worth all the pain and struggle of my journey to get here.
So here I am, 15 years after telling my story to the public for the very first time. And I am still telling my story, to remind adults that are not talking about CSA openly in their circles that they should be. To remind adults that child sexual abuse is happening all around them, even if they don’t want to admit it or see it. To remind adults that if they think their communities, families, churches, schools, clubs, and cities are exempt, then they are in denial.
I understand that denial. That same denial kept me sane for a long time, it was how I survived. But one day, my body and my heart finally had enough and I felt that it was time to get educated or suffer the consequences of further denial. It was time to see the truth. Learning about the ACE study played a part in that. And it was the hardest thing I ever did. When I finally said yes to healing, I was able to find the support I needed and I was lucky for this. 15 years ago, there were very few resources available compared to the endless stream of information you can find today. Survivors of trauma can find help anywhere and everywhere. They just have to ask and it is our responsibility to make it easy for them to ask.
I also keep telling my story because if telling it publicly helps one person or one child know that they are not alone, that they can get help and heal their life as I did, then it is all worth it.
Because I know what happens when people find hope. It’s contagious and it spreads far and wide. I have led enough support groups to see this over and over and over. When one person finds their voice, it gives countless others permission to use theirs. And the truth is, your hurt is not who you are. It is something that you experience. And like all human experiences, we can learn from them to become stronger until we find a way to live wholeheartedly from the heart, not the hurt.
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