“Isn’t it time to move on?”
As survivors, we hear this question all the time: sometimes directly, more often in silence and a change of subject. Our loved ones may have many reasons for not wanting to talk about it. Maybe our experience triggers memories of sexual offenses that they have endured, or that they have inflicted on others. Maybe they don’t want to know the harm that their beloved pastor or church caused in our lives. Maybe they genuinely want the best for us and genuinely believe that we won’t heal until we can “leave it all behind.”
Whatever their reasons, they can’t understand why it takes so long for us to heal, and they get frustrated. I get frustrated too. When I reported my pastor in January 2010, I knew I was in for a few rough months, but I figured life would be back to normal by summertime. But that summer, I was still in treatment for an eating disorder brought on by the abuse. Nearly four years later, life still isn’t back to normal. I have gained substantial wholeness, but my previous “normal” is gone forever. My new “normal” is wrapped around scars. And four years later, the pain sometimes still feels fresh.
Why does healing take so long? Here are some of my thoughts.
1. On a pain scale, clergy sexual abuse is near the top. The Rev. Pamela Cooper White calls CSA “soul stealing.” Dr. Martin Weber, president of the board of The Hope of Survivors, served as a police chaplain for many years. At a survivors’ gathering two years ago, Dr. Weber told us about going with police officers when they had to notify next-of-kin. He would sit with the bereaved through the first shock of grief and loss, often in the middle of the night. Even after witnessing these searing scenes, he says he has never seen greater suffering than he sees in victims of clergy sexual abuse.
2. Our wounds may be invisible, but they are deep. I have a brave young friend who fell last summer while climbing a difficult rock cliff. “Cassie” may be tied to a wheelchair for life. How insulting would it be for me to insist that she “move on” and “put it behind her”? Yet that is what CSA survivors hear. Having struggled for years to “move on,” and having watched other survivors do the same, I have come to believe that our experience is the emotional and spiritual equivalent of falling off a 35-foot cliff.
3. We lose community. If we report our offending pastors, we are most often silenced and ostracized. If we quietly leave our churches, we become the butt of gossip. Even our most loyal friends may walk away when they realize the price they pay for standing up with us. We must face the most painful and confusing experience of our lives — alone. For many of us, the loss of community is more traumatic than the abuse itself.
4. Beyond the spiritual and emotional pain, we may have tangible losses. Survivors of clergy sexual abuse may lose our marriages. We may become estranged from parents or siblings still loyal to the church. If we worked for the church, we may lose our livelihood. If the abuse happened in seminary, we may lose our sacred calling. We may fall into addictions. The emotional damage may make us unemployable for months or years. We may suffer permanent changes to our health. We may even attempt suicide. (Please, if you have considered suicide, click here for hope and help.)
So what can we tell our friends and families? If they are secretly carrying baggage as victims or perpetrators of sexual offenses, we may need to just give them time to come to terms with their experience and ours. If they are so loyal to our offending pastor or church that they feel they can’t support us in our healing — well, there’s nothing we can do about that. We can be grateful for the other ways those people are a blessing in our lives. And if there are no “other ways,” we may need walk away from those friendships.
But the people who genuinely love us want to help us heal; they just may not know how. Here are some things we can tell them.
1. “Just by listening, you are helping me.” Our friends may want to offer tangible help. If we have husbands, they may want to “fix” our pain. We need to tell them how much it means to us when they are willing to simply listen.
2. “What I need now is …” a hug. Or a Bundt cake. Or a friend’s presence in a scary situation (my husband came with me to meet with the bishop in 2010; my friend S. came with me when I visited my former church last week). We can name our specific needs and boldly ask our friends for help. The chances are, they will love the feeling of being needed.
3. “I don’t know how long healing will take or what it will look like, but I am committed to healing.” Share the steps you are taking to recover: therapy, prayer, healthy friendships, twelve-step programs for addictions, meditation, singing, knitting… and ask your loved ones to help you see when any of these pursuits gets out of hand. Believe it or not, it is possible to knit too many scarves.
4. Finally, “I promise I won’t be this sad forever.” While you are saying these words to your family and friends, say them to yourself. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about emotions, it’s that they don’t stand still. What I’m feeling now I won’t be feeling even an hour from now. Some hours it gets better, sometimes worse — but over time, as we discover new resources, new ways of coping, and new people whom we can trust, it does get better. My friends tell me that they see me growing more whole every year.
We can never go back to the person we were before the abuse; we can only go forward. We will never trust anyone as unquestioningly as we once trusted our abusive pastors, and that’s a good thing. As we learn to discern whom we can trust, and for what, we can form friendships with more realistic expectations. And when we do find someone whom we can trust with our deepest hopes and fears, we’ll know exactly how blessed we are.