Gaining a Renewed Sense of Self

    Note: This is a real experience shared from a survivor of abuse. Names and identifying information have been changed.

    Around the time I was 8 years old, my father started physically abusing me. I can’t remember the first time it happened; I just know that by 4th grade, being hit by my dad was a part of daily life. For several years, I accepted it as normal, even something I deserved. My dad frequently told me it was my fault I was being “punished” this way. He would tell me I was such an awful child, worse by far than the other children he knew. If only I were more obedient, if my room was cleaner, if I had better grades, if I didn’t make him so angry, if I were a better daughter, he wouldn’t have to hit me. He said he was only doing so to teach me a lesson and make me better. In fact, he would say he only beat me because he loved me. And as a young girl who loved her dad and desperately wanted him to love her back, I believed him.

    I worked as hard as a young child could to do everything he asked me to do. During this time of life, I was very quiet—docile, even. I tried very hard to be obedient, to be polite, to be smart, but it never worked. The rules always changed, and I was always on the wrong side of them.

    My attitude started to shift in my teenage years. I began feeling angry that nothing I did seemed to work out. As the anger and frustration mounted, I started fighting back when my dad would hit me. This only intensified the violence, and I would sometimes miss school, church, and social events because of the abuse. My anger spilled out into the rest of my life. I fought with everyone—siblings, friends, schoolteachers, and Church leaders. I could be like night and day—happy and loving one moment, mean and cutting the next.

    That wasn’t the only thing that changed. My grades at school plummeted. Before the abuse began, I was placed in an advanced school with accelerated learning programs. By the end of high school, I was struggling to qualify for graduation. The quiet, studious, confident person I started out as had turned into an insecure, unruly ball of anger. Despite all this, I never told anyone what was happening at home. I thought it was my responsibility to keep it a secret. Although by high school I knew that abuse was wrong, I felt responsible to keep up my family’s appearance by not talking about what was happening behind closed doors. It was up to me to make sure our family still looked normal to our neighbors and ward members.

    Life continued to spiral out of control in young adulthood. I left my parents’ home as soon as I could and thought life would get better once I was on my own. But it didn’t—and in many ways it got worse. The darkness in this part of my life is not something I like to think about. Depression, anger, and anxiety increased. I consistently found myself in emotionally volatile relationships that I didn’t know how to get out of. I wanted desperately to have a normal, peaceful life, but I had no clue how to do that or what it even looked like. I felt like a broken misfit who lived in the dark fringes of the world. I could look on and watch as happy, normal people lived happy, normal lives, but I would never, ever be allowed to join them. I just didn’t belong.

    Around this time, I started receiving spiritual promptings to go on a mission. I had no desire whatsoever to serve a mission and therefore resisted the promptings for several years. I finally conceded and received a call to serve in eastern Europe. My mission was hard, and because of my own internal battles, I was sometimes difficult to serve with. I was blessed greatly by very kind companions and a compassionate mission president whose wife was trained in mental health counseling. It was during my mission that I decided to seek counseling for the abuse I experienced growing up.

    Shortly after I returned home, I called the LDS Family Services office near my home. I had no idea what I was doing; the receptionist asked me what I needed treatment for and I very awkwardly said, “Well, my dad used to hit me a lot.” She assigned me a counselor and gave me a date and time for my first appointment.

    I remember standing outside the LDS Family Services building before that appointment. I felt incredibly stupid. “I’m making a big deal out of this,” I told myself. “I should go home.” I was certain that when I explained why I was there, the counselor would roll his or her eyes at me, talk about how therapy was for people with “real” problems, and suggest that I was being a bit overdramatic. I almost didn’t go in.

    I am so, so glad I went in. I can pinpoint the moment my life’s path changed to my first therapy session.

    My counselor was the first person to listen to my story with genuine understanding and empathy. She validated the difficulties I had been experiencing for years. I didn’t realize how much I needed validation until that moment—it felt like fresh air in a room that had been shut for almost 20 years. She identified much of what I considered my “brokenness” (my anger, depression, and knack for terrible romantic relationships) as symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and typical, normal responses to traumatic environments. I was normal? Not defective? I hadn’t been told that since I was an 8-year-old. For the first time, I felt palpable hope that I could be happy. I walked out of that therapy session with a lightness in my heart I had never before experienced.

    My therapy lasted for about a year. Some sessions were intense; some were light. Over the course of that year, I worked on undoing the mental damage done by my dad’s abuse. My therapist helped me identify new ways of thinking and behaving that I would not have considered on my own. My thoughts slowly started changing from negative and self-deprecating to more positive and proactive. I cried a lot during therapy, both in my therapist’s office and alone by myself. But I also started to laugh more naturally and feel more genuinely at peace with myself and life. By the end of my treatment, I was able to think and talk about the abuse without feeling sad, scared, or ashamed. I had made several important breakthroughs, including realizing that the abuse was never my fault and that I was a competent and valuable person.

    I went into therapy with an entire world of private pain on my shoulders. If I hadn’t gone and had stayed on my original course, I know the downward spiral would have continued. I would have tried my best to “keep it together,” but as it had before, that pain would have driven me further and further into painful situations and decisions. I came out of therapy with a repaired sense of self and the life skills I would normally have gained in a healthy home environment. I had a better sense of who I was, how to handle conflict, what trust felt like, and what to do when dark and negative thoughts clouded my mind. I came out of therapy ready, instead of scared, for life.

    It’s been almost 10 years since I first started therapy. Since that time, I completed college and graduate school, started a career, and married. I work my hardest to be an advocate for mental health and encourage those who are struggling to seek professional help. I still occasionally have rough patches; I don’t imagine those will ever go away entirely. But I know how to handle them now so they aren’t as intense and they don’t last as long. My life is infinitely happier, richer, and more fulfilling than it would have been without intervention. I’m so grateful for the blessing of therapy.

    If you or someone you know has been abused, seek help immediately from civil authorities, child protective services, or adult protective services. You may also seek help from a victim advocate or counseling or medical professional. These services can help protect you and prevent further abuse. See the “In Crisis” page for more information.