Matt Pavlik is a licensed professional clinical counselor who wants to see each individual restored to their true identity. He’s written two books: Confident Identity and Marriage From Roots To Fruits. He has more than 15 years of experience counseling individuals and couples at his Christian counseling practice, New Reflections Counseling. To learn more about identity check out his blog about identity at ChristianConcepts.com. Matt and his wife Georgette have been married over 18 years and live with their four children in Centerville, Ohio.
Healing the Wounds of Sexual Abuse
Suppressed memories, numb feelings, and a poor self-image are all evidence of incomplete healing at best or dysfunctional coping at worst. To heal, you must confront the abuse and the resulting consequences. Here are five steps to pursue complete healing:
- Stop avoiding the pain.
- Remember the trauma.
- Grieve the loss.
- Expose the lies.
- Experience the truth.
- Stop Avoiding the Pain
Make a commitment to stop avoiding your pain
Unfortunately, there are no short-cuts to healing. You can’t go around the mess. You must directly confront what happened to you.
To heal, you don’t have to be retraumatized. Recovery doesn’t mean being abused all over again. But healing does require experiencing the abuse you’ve already been through.
Reconnecting with your abuse should be done in a calculated way when possible. When you experienced abuse, you were out of control. As you seek healing, you need to experience that you have some control over what happens to you.
Remember the Trauma
You need to assess the damage before you can heal. Before you can assess the damage, you must remember what happened.
Collect the Pieces
Give yourself permission to remember the trauma. This usually happens in pieces. So, don’t worry. You don’t have to re-experience your abuse in one long time of remembering.
Abuse leaves you broken. God wants to stitch you together again. Remembering means collecting the pieces of your experiences because they hold clues to your behaviors and who you are. You’ve already suffered the abuse, so you might as well take advantage and recoup the benefits.
Assess the Damage
Revisit the lists of symptoms and behaviors and notice they can range from mild to extreme — even extreme opposites. Which symptoms are you exhibiting? What coping do you employ?
All human beings experience intense stress following an event that involves serious injury or death (actual or threatened) or that involved witnessing others in such a situation.
Normal stress reactions generally decrease as time passes. If you experienced a traumatic event more than a month ago and your symptoms aren’t decreasing with time, you may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If this sounds like you, consider seeking out a diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional to determine whether or not you have PTSD.
A history of childhood sexual abuse doesn’t automatically mean a life full of suffering. The extent to which abuse effects an individual varies significantly depending on the severity of the abuse, the duration of the abuse, and the relational context of the abuse (who the abuser was).
Whether or not you develop PTSD depends on many things including:
- How intense the trauma was (or how long it lasted)
- The type and severity of injury sustained or threatened
- How much you felt in control (or how much you felt a lack of control) during the event
- The type and extent of support that you received immediately after the event
Grieve the Loss
After you realize what your abuser took from you, the next step is to empty yourself of the pain.
Abuse is a relational wound. So, healing is also a relational process. You must lament and grieve the pain in the presence of those who care.
Feel the consequences of the abuse in as big of doses as you can handle. This will be life-disrupting but remember that you can exert some control over the process. You can choose when and under what circumstances you want to grieve.
Expose the Lies
Overpowering evil leaves behind lies that infect your identity. What happens to you can only define you if you let it, by agreeing with the lie. To heal, you must expose the personal lies you believe about yourself, others, and God.
The number of lies possible is as numerous as the number of people alive. But the common lie that everyone needs to overcome is God hates me because He allows me to suffer.
You can only find peace when you’re able to adjust your perspective from this present moment to all of eternity. This is nearly impossible to grasp as a child in the midst of abuse, but the Apostle Paul presents this idea to adults:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
—2 Corinthians 4:16–18
Your spirit can thrive, but some of the consequences of this life might not be fully addressed until the next life. At some point, you have to confront your worldview. How can you trust God when He allowed you to go through such horrendous abuse?
Another lie is believing hating your abuser is necessary. Start considering your need to forgive your abuser. You can start the process now but probably won’t feel you can finish it until you complete the final step, experiencing the truth.
Experience the Truth
Experience the truth while connected to God in prayer.
An important question to ask yourself is, Do I see myself as God sees me? God sees you as a child He made for a specific purpose and not one of those purposes was for you to be abused in any way, shape, or form.
God’s good news trumps any bad news you’ve had to endure. Any experience of the truth through a real connection with God always overpowers any trauma you’ve experienced. God has rescued you from the dominion of darkness and brought you into His kingdom of light. For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Reach out to Him and let him replace your pain with joy, your shame with self-esteem, your anger with forgiveness, and your silence with your God-given identity.
Whatever traumatic experience(s) you have had in your life, the experience doesn’t have to define, control, or ruin your life. There is help and there is hope.
To facilitate your healing consider any or all of the following:
- Connect with God in lament and healing prayer.
- Read a good book (see suggestions below).
- Join a recovery or support group.
- Start counseling.
A Lament to God
I am overwhelmed by constant fear.
What did I do to deserve this?
Death, come quickly to end my misery.
Why did You allow my abuse?
I hate who I am.
God, where are You that I might hope?
I should have taken better care of myself.
I am in distress because of my failure.
Yet I haven’t completely forgotten about You.
You are faithful, strong, and protective.
But I am shameful and embarrassed.
God, You are so far out of my reach.
I am weak and exhausted.
I feel worthless, like trash headed to the dump.
May I never throw You out of my life!
Why is this happening to me?
Am I destined to be abandoned forever?
Is there a way off this misery-go-round?
God, why did You create me?
I lost my heart. I’ve lost my way.
I can’t see how you’re helping.
I wake up and go to bed lonely.
Now. Finally. Your presence stands out amidst my pain.
You haven’t completely abandoned me.
You’re delivering me from my despair.
My tears are many, and I’m not yet out of trouble.
But You hear me, and You will set me on solid ground.
For everyone who can hear me speak:
Your hope in God is not in vain.
My God is with me.
I am secure in His deliverance from evil.
I am secure in my God.
I will stand against the evil that stands against You.
I will be true to what You taught me.
I will fight with Your truth as my primary weapon.
Our enemy boasts of my defeat.
But the battle is Yours.
Your glory is my focus.
I have already won because You are forever on my side.
I take pleasure in doing my part.
I am hopeful as You fulfill Your plans.
If you have experienced traumatic abuse and are having trouble dealing with it — if you simply cannot stop thinking about it, if you cannot shake the emotional impact of it, if you continue to live in fear, or if your life seems to be on hold or stuck — consider professional counseling.
If you have been silently suffering the pain or shame of past abuse, then confidential therapy with a caring counselor can help you find freedom and relief in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. Don’t let painful memories rob you of a life of peace and meaningful relationships.
Face the past, find healing in the present, and claim abundant life for your future.
Healing Sexual Abuse
I recommend the following books for recovery.
The Wounded Heart by Dan Allender
Learning to Trust Again by Christa Sands
On the Threshold of Hope by Diane Mandt Langberg
Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse by L. Heitritter and J. Vought
Restoring a Healthy Sexual Relationship
The following books assist with improving a sexual relationship. These books are not necessarily focused on abuse recovery. Because the topic of sexual health is a diverse topic, I recommend you screen each book and choose the ones that will be most helpful to you.
Enjoy!: The Gift of Sexual Pleasure for Women by Joyce Penner
The Sexually Confident Wife by Shannon Ethridge
Intended for Pleasure by Ed and Gaye Wheat
Sheet Music by Dr. Kevin Lehman
A Celebration of Sex by Dr. Douglas E. Rosenau
Sacred Sex by Tim Alan Gardner
Red-Hot Monogamy by Bill and Pam Farrel
Intimate Issues by L. Dillow and L. Pintus
Marriage has a way of triggering the symptoms of your trauma. Sexual abuse is traumatic not only for the survivor but also for the survivor’s spouse if he/she doesn’t understand the impact of sexual abuse. Because sexual abuse requires so much energy to heal, it can drain marriage of its emotional, spiritual and sexual vitality.
Restoring sexual functioning in marriage is a significant part of the healing process. Having a healthy sex life after being sexually abused can happen. Separating the abuser from someone who loves you is a part of healing. Un-training yourself from what your abuser taught you is what it takes to make this happen. Your body is your body and you have the say in what does or doesn’t happen.
Marriage is already the most difficult relationship to pursue. Fortunately, marriage also has the greatest potential of all relationships. Pursuing healing to have a better marriage is worth the effort.
I wrote Confident Identity to help Christians understand and develop their true identity.