Telling Our Story Empowers Us and Others
Sometimes, horrible things happen to us that shouldn't. The tendency is to keep these things to ourselves - perhaps because we're concerned about how others will view us, or that we'll only make things worse by talking. But sharing our stories makes a huge difference: it actually is the first step in healing, according to Pastor Teresa, who successfully overcame depression, domestic violence as a child, and sexual abuse as a young adult. Here's a bit of the journey she took to reach the point of telling her story.
What has made the most difference in your life?
Choosing to tell my story and not to keep it secret. When I was getting my Doctor of Ministry, my denomination required us to take a sexual ethics class, which was very distressing to me. I had been sexually abused when I was in college and had gone to counseling for it. I thought I had laid it to rest, along with the guilt and shame that comes with being violated. But everything came flooding back. I couldn't believe it had that much power over me.
So I went back to counseling. The difference this time was that I decided to confront the perpetrator. I wrote to him, saying, "I've carried this a long time. Now it's your turn to carry it. I won't be silent."
The next set of Doctor of Ministry classes was transformative for me. The woman sitting next to me in class was also a survivor of sexual abuse. She had written a Doctor of Ministry paper about growing up being sexually abused. Reading her story and meeting her gave me a feeling of solidarity. It gave me a sense of release to have somebody listen to me and not say, "That happened to you?" or, "Couldn't you have done something about it?" Those are the kind of reactions that would have caused me to put my skeletons back in the closet. She was able to respond with, "I've been there. It's a terrible place." I could see from her life that she had not let it consume her. So it gave me hope. This not only released me from the hold that the past had on me; it released me to confront the perpetrator and make his name known to the denomination.
The person who had abused me had been my youth and young adult director. Many people knew him. To tell the story out loud was to step past the part that said it must be my fault. I was clinically depressed at the time that it happened, and this person had a responsibility to see that I got treatment. Instead, he preyed upon me. It wasn't something I sought out or caused to happen. The problem was not with me, as I learned later.
Telling someone our story is like slaying a dragon: SLAY: S-See; L-Learn; A-Act; Y- Yes! (celebrate). First we see there's a problem – there's a monster there. Depression can be a monster. It's a disease; it's not who we are. Then we learn about it so we can slay it. Then we act on what we know: we tell someone. And then, whether the action we took was successful or not, we have to congratulate ourselves. We have to give ourselves positive reinforcement.
I believe that my classmate, who was a victor over her sexual abuse, was sent by the Holy Spirit. I needed her example. I had never told my family. Only my husband, a girlfriend or two, and a counselor knew about it. When I wrote my dissertation for the Doctor of Ministry program/degree, we had to write why we chose the subject. I had to share why I chose to focus my dissertation on the psalms of lament. Thesis papers become public works. I knew I would have to tell my family personally, so they wouldn't hear the news second-hand. Telling my family and receiving their positive response gave me courage and empowered me.
Telling my story freed me from the sense of shame and embarrassment that comes with having been sexually abused and having a chronic mental health condition like depression. It changed me from victim to survivor, and from survivor to victor in Jesus Christ. The victory is that my suffering can help others find hope and healing.
Psalm 77 begins by saying, "I cried out for help." The psalm moves from first telling the story out loud to God, to finding refuge, and to God responding with great power. Then it concludes with peace and solidarity:
Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (19, 20 NIV)