Some experiences change you forever. When I was fourteen, my first boyfriend raped me. I was forever changed, and I didn’t tell anyone — especially not my mom because she had forbidden me to see him. I had disobeyed her when I went to his house with no one else home.
In the short term, this trauma propelled me into a life of drinking and smoking marijuana in an attempt to erase the pain and shame. Gone was the girl who loved school, got straight A’s, and had dreams to follow. A depressed, powerless girl replaced her, though this new me still got good grades — just with less joy.
My choices put me in situations where rape happened again. And again. And again. The darkness surrounding me grew deeper with each successive blow. The last assault left me pregnant and scared. The final thread of my once ambitious dreams was about to unravel.
So I did the only thing I could think of to tie up the frayed strands of the life I still hoped for deep in my heart. I chose death for my child and a promise of freedom for me. Yet this choice proved to be another trauma shrouded in pain and shame that I tried to bury.
It took decades to heal from the repeated wounding I endured in my teens. There is no straight-line, easy cure for sexual trauma that runs deep in both mind and soul. Even healing from a single rape is much too complex for simple remedies. It doesn’t happen all at once.
Drugs and alcohol are certainly not the answer, and only delay the hard work of coming to terms with a life no one would wish for. Keeping the trauma a secret compounds feelings of guilt and shame.
Such secrets also worm their way into relationships and make them harder. I met my husband-to-be one summer during college. We married a year later, and I believed I’d found happiness at last. Thinking that burying my pain deep in my heart and mind was the same as putting it behind me, I kept the truth from my new love. Consequently, he couldn’t understand my sudden flashes of anger or my panic attacks when he left me sitting alone in a bar or at a friend’s party.
I saw my first counselor nine years after my boyfriend raped me and a year after I married my husband. I don’t remember her name, but I remember she was a good listener. She didn’t fix me, but she provided the first important step toward deep wounds mending into scars. But with that one step forward, I feared the path ahead and retreated.
I decided returning to my academic roots was the answer to the sadness I didn’t fully understand. I enrolled in law school and determined to put my past behind me at last. It worked (sort of) for the three years I spent most waking hours in class, in the library studying, or writing papers about the foreseeability factor in contracts. I graduated cum laude, proud of my achievement and the fact that I had a job with a small firm lined up before I even graduated.
Six or seven months into that less-than-my-dream job, I took a nosedive into major clinical depression. Academic success does not guarantee on-the-job success, especially when you work for a man with the same name as your teen rapist. Thoughts of my past plagued me again and again and again. There was no escape.
Eventually, with time and more counseling, with prayer and patience, my wounds began to heal. I learned that keeping my trauma secret allowed it a power over me to tell me lies about my shame. I learned the truth that no matter what poor choices I had made, someone assaulting me was not my fault. My worth is not determined by what I’ve done or what others have done to me. My worth is safely ensconced in the fact that I am made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that Jesus is my Savior (1 John 4:13-15).
I also learned that forgiving those who had hurt me was key to my healing. I resisted this lesson for a long time, believing the counselor who told me I had a right to be angry. Because I’m a bit stubborn, God finally made the lesson as clear as possible. He gave me a dream in which my first teen rapist was everywhere I went, down on his knees asking me to forgive him. I awoke with the certain knowledge that if I wanted to heal, I had to forgive. And I had to ask for forgiveness for clinging to my bitterness for so long. As King David wrote:
When I kept silent, my bones grew old
Through my groaning all the day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah
I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I have not hidden.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
And You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah (Psalm 32:3-5).
Witness of wounds
Often I’ve prayed God would grant me complete healing. For years I prayed to forget every detail of being violated by boys and men who seemed indifferent to the pain they caused. Those prayers seemed to have gone unanswered. Now I see that God answered with a resounding, but knowing, “No, My daughter.”
Christ retained His scars in His resurrected body. Without their witness, Thomas would not have believed it was really the Lord. “He said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing’” (John 20:27).
My own scars help others believe I understand what they are going through. Without their witness, my testimony that God can bring enough healing for today would not have the same power.
Questions on healing
As I walk closer to Jesus and trust Him with my story, He has encouraged me to share openly with others. Most times when I tell it, I experience a little more healing. But sometimes the telling is met by another one saying, “Me too.”
I reply, “Tell me about it, if you feel up to it.” And then I listen to their story of rape and pain and shame. This is when my carefully tended scars begin to bleed again. The wound is torn open, but the pain I feel is no longer for myself but for the one whose story I’ve entered into.
I know now I will never forget. And I wonder if I should want to forget if I could. Would I walk away, pretend it never happened, that I was never assaulted, violated, and made to feel shame and doubt?
Could I ignore the very truth of what I know was wrong — pure evil? Could I simply walk away and cease to bear witness for those who came after me — or maybe for those violated before my own innocence was vanquished, but are yet to heal at all?
If I could be healed completely in an instant, but doing so meant leaving my sisters, my friends — even strangers — without the hope of knowing they aren’t alone, could I? Should I?
Because to heal 100 percent is to forget every ounce, every moment of the pain and struggle. And to forget is to lose compassion. So perhaps it is worth the ups and downs of scars that appear healed but sometimes — more often than we’d like — bleed tears of understanding, helping others feel not so alone.