A Refuge for the Oppressed

For many years the abuse I suffered as a child kept me from understanding that God is perfect in his love.

“I want you to know that you’re not alone. There are many other sisters with much the same story.” That is, in effect, what the kind bishop said. He reassured me that I had no need for repentance in this instance. I was a victim.

And so I remind myself that it is not my fault and that I am not alone. The Lord has taught, “I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions” (Mosiah 24:14); and he has promised, “Bear with patience thine afflictions, and I will give unto you success.” (Alma 26:27.) There are times, however, when I feel very lonely as I try to deal with my feelings about the sexual abuse I suffered as a child. I look around at other sisters and wonder if they, too, are dealing with similar challenges. And I wish we could talk about it, share with each other, support each other, and learn together as we grow.

Though I’m not alone, sometimes I feel very lonely. I bear a grief that is difficult to discuss. My trial is not evident—no one rushes to my side to be sure I make it through.

I am not alone, but I am anonymous. And so, anonymously, I share with you my feelings.

I was born into a Latter-day Saint family and have always been active in the Church. I’m in my early thirties. My family seemed like a typical large Mormon family. There were lots of children, and we got along well. There was always a brother or sister somewhere who had time to play, joke, tease, advise, or just listen. I grew up as oblivious to my parents’ marital strife as my mother seemed to be to the ordeal her children were living through. Looking back now, I believe that deep down, everyone knew the truth. But the truth was too painful to admit, so we lived a lie.

Dad was so well-liked. He had friends no matter where he was. People felt at ease around him. I suppose that’s what helped him in business. He seemed to put his customers first—their likes and interests. He was a hard worker, too. He worked long hours to keep the business going and provide for us. Most of us were grown and gone our own ways when the business failed. I suppose that’s when the other side of him became more evident. He withdrew from people. He was depressed, and a lot of his hidden stresses surfaced. Still, we kids were shocked when he was excommunicated (not for abusing us, but for other sins). This ultimately led my parents to a divorce.

As I watched my father deal with these challenges, I realized that there was a tremendous problem when it came to my relationship with Dad. It was a slow process, however, for me to put two and two together—to start remembering a part of my life that I had completely blocked out. But it was after I remembered that I began to deal with the lessons I’d learned from Daddy.

It was my father who taught me to turn off my feelings. Like water from a faucet, I control the flow of grief and joy, of shame and pride, of anger and fear.

In fact, I learned at a very young age to completely separate my mind from my body. I still struggle with this when I sense the onset of an emotion that I don’t feel capable of dealing with. I travel, in my mind, to other places or other events. I focus on problems, projects, fictional characters from books or movies, worries about other people in my life. I am so expert at distracting myself from the realities of the present that, until a short time ago, I was unaware that I was even doing it.

When I began to deal with some of the unhappy issues in my life, a kind therapist pointed out to me that at times, my eyes would glaze over and I would stare out the window, oblivious to the passage of time or the place I was in. I soon realized the many situations in which I employed this method of self-protection. It never made sense to me until I began to remember some of those things from my childhood—my father’s touch, the shame, the fear, the revulsion, and then the mental escape. How else can a small child cope with such abuse?

To my horror, I found that I also did this mental escaping at times when I prayed. I wanted to love God and to believe that he loved me. I wanted to trust that he would listen to and answer my prayers; however, from my early Primary years I was taught that God was my Father. The older I got and the closer I came to the truth about my own childhood, the more difficult it was to trust God. I felt a great need to pray, but my mind would wander away from the prayer. I didn’t recognize it, but I was scared. Part of me was afraid that there was a lie lurking behind what I had always believed. Part of me feared that this God, no matter how hard I tried, would not be pleased with me and could not love me back. After all, wasn’t that the way my earthly father felt about me?

Always my hand is on the faucet, ready to slow down the flow of feelings—or cut them off completely. I am a musician, and this inability to feel or to freely express feelings, good and bad, has stopped me from reaching my full potential. And I’m now recognizing how this unhealthy control has limited me in other areas of my life—as a wife, mother, teacher, friend. Anything I’ve done has been deeply influenced by my experiences as a child.

That’s another challenge I face. Somewhere, deep inside me, is the happy, trusting, loving, curious child I was. That child learned early in life—out of fear—to be a good girl and not to get into trouble. I learned to play that role, and I felt satisfied in my performances, but I could never understand why I wasn’t happy. There was always a dull ache, an emptiness.

It is only now that I am recognizing that scared, angry little girl, crouching in a corner of my soul while I go about the business of playing the roles. As I learned about my past and began to understand the reasons for some of my behavior, I started looking for that little girl. In small moments I have been able to coax her out of the corner and to begin to give her the safety and love she never received as a child.

Safety and love—two more challenges. How could I believe God loved me? I blamed myself for the experiences I had gone through, believing that I must have done something bad and that I deserved the situation I found myself in. It hasn’t been until recently that I have recognized the helplessness of an innocent child.

Why do bad things happen to such innocent souls? This is not a new question. It is asked by all kinds of people experiencing all types of trials, and I have asked that question many times through the years.

As a teenager, I learned from the scriptures that “the Lord … will be a refuge for the oppressed.” (Ps. 9:9.) No matter how heavy our burdens are, God will help us bear them. Psalm 55:22 [Ps. 55:22] promises: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee.” And Jesus offered this consolation: “Come unto me, all ye that … are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28.) Those scriptures are true. That principle is true. Our Heavenly Father is perfect—perfect in his love, acceptance, patience, and support. He is always there for us and can give us the help we need if we will continually turn to him, seeking guidance, direction, and love.

In the past year I have grieved my way through my childhood experiences and the resulting lessons I am learning now, with the Lord’s help. I have said good-bye to the man I thought was my father and have taken a realistic look at the man he truly is. I have seen myself in a new light—understanding, finally, why I feel as I feel and why I act as I do.

It hasn’t been easy. At first I was angry—angry at my father for taking my trust and love and turning them into something perverse and repulsive. I was angry at my mother for not protecting me from him. I was angry at the Church—the bishops and others who were taken in by Dad’s smooth facade. He had lived a lie. I was angry that God had let it all happen. And I was angry at myself.

I finally allowed myself to turn on the faucet and let these feelings out. With the anger came feelings of hurt and rejection. I cannot describe how painful these emotions were and still are.

But with the bad feelings came good ones. As I recognized God’s pure love for me, I began to feel joy with a greater intensity than ever before. I started to care for others in a new way. I quit being so afraid and found courage to take charge of my own life. I quit finding fault with everyone and everything and realized that I must change myself or my situation when I was unhappy—or I must accept what was and be happy anyway. I grew up. I began to resolve some of the anger and sorrow stemming from this part of my past and to question how my experience might help me to better serve others in the future.

One of the most difficult yet most rewarding aspects of this entire experience has been my quest to reach a point where I could forgive my father. In the early stages of my grief, the Holy Ghost revealed to me over and over that God does indeed love me. I began to pray more often and more earnestly. I read more scriptures and sought comfort, hope, and answers. I knew I couldn’t forgive my father on my own, so I asked God to help me. And he has.

I have realized that my father’s repentance is his job, not mine. I’m not sure Dad understands how much he has hurt his children and others. When the day comes that he does, I know he will truly mourn. Should the day come that he approaches the Father with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, I do know this: Like the father of the prodigal son, God will open his arms and welcome him home. And I, like the brother in the story, have learned to open my heart and love again.

A year after my first confrontation with Dad regarding the abuse during my childhood, I called him on the phone. I told him that I wanted us to start all over. I felt a peace in my heart that I have longed to feel. I began to believe that it might be possible for me to forgive and to love him again. I realized that I wanted that. I wanted to feel whole again—to put the grief behind me and get on with my life.

It has been a learning and a growing process. It is in no way finished, and I still have moments of hurt and anger, and of disappointment in myself when I allow this part of my past to determine so much of my behavior. But I am more able to trust in God now. I like myself and have dreams and plans for my future. I can trust more and love more and laugh more. My marriage is much stronger. My children are much happier. I have accepted the good feelings in my life and I have learned to let the emotions flow—not altogether freely, but each day I’m more courageous in allowing for these good, healthy feelings. I am gradually reaching the point that I know the truth, and it has indeed made me free.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Keith Larson