Statistics vary on this subject, but the average conclusion is that between one out of three and one out of six women have been sexually abused. Those figures are staggering. Much of our society is literally walking wounded, and we must be able to offer them hope.
In an effort to offer healing for victims and help for those whose friends have been abused and don’t know what to do about it, we talked to Becky Batton, a sexual abuse survivor who is an expert in this area.
BTG: How have you been able to overcome the abuse you experienced in your past?
Becky: I will forever have sexual abuse victim as part of my history. I am a survivor, but more than that, I am a thriver. It is part of my history, but it doesn’t define who I am. I want to become more than what my past would say I am.
BTG: In general, what obstacles do abused women have the most difficult time overcoming?
Becky: Trust and forgiveness. Trust is built within us from a very young age, when we are dependent on others. When trust is broken by someone we know or love, it distorts our perception of being able to trust. It’s as if trust has been dipped in oil, and we’re not sure what to do with it because it’s slippery; we can’t grasp it. It’s been defined in a false way.
Forgiveness deals with the fact that our anger is the only thing we have that is actually our own. If we forgive, we feel that we are actually giving permission to our abuser(s), saying that what they did was okay. But that’s not the way it really is. For me, when I was able to forgive, I was able to let go of any hold the abusers had over me. That being said, forgiveness is a process, it’s not a moment. Anyone that says that it’s one size fits all is badly mistaken. Somewhere along the line, I realized that real freedom for me was in no longer allowing the abuser to have power over me.
BTG: How do you recommend that women should deal with the triggers (reminders of the abuse) that occur?
Becky: Triggers will be different for each person – the smell of cologne, sight of a color, all kinds of things that are associated with where they first experienced their pain. Having an appropriate response to emotions is a key that needs to be learned. Our emotions get trapped at the age we were wounded. We have to tutor that child within us and tell ourselves that it’s okay for us to grow up and let it go.
Triggers always tripped me into anger. If anything less than perfect happened, my anger was right there. I had to discover what appropriate emotions were. My emotions escalated dramatically. For instance, my daughter broke a teapot one day. The first words out of her mouth were, “Mommy, I am so sorry. I know this was your favorite.” I realized that she was terrified, and it was only a teapot! My emotions had been overcompensating with anger as a response to the triggers in my life. Anger is an appropriate emotion for the person who abused you. But it’s not okay when you fail or when you burn dinner. Sexual abuse stunts our emotions, and we get stuck.
The interesting thing is that our negative emotions are attached to the pain areas in an area of the brain called the amygdale. That part of the brain stores all our painful and negative memories and emotions. When we can find our triggers and separate ourselves from the actual minute the abuse occurred, the trauma becomes a simple act (like spilling milk) that can be cleaned up.
BTG: Healing is a process. What are your recommendations to start or jump-start that healing?
1. Name it – call it what it is. The brain has the ability to cover over our darker emotions and wall them off, so that sometimes we don’t even realize they are there. Some well-meaning, but very wrong, friends told me to pray and it would just go away. What I found (thanks, God) was a counselor that said she wanted to give me tools to learn and not to hide. Finding someone I could say it out loud to and that could help me was amazing. I told my husband, but he didn’t know what to do about it, which is a completely normal response. For a man, the response is to want to fix the problem, and when they can’t fix it, they often ignore it instead.
2. Tell someone you can trust and break the silence. Recognize the fact that as it rises up within you, you are not a bad person.
3. Get counseling for the purpose of equipping, not ensnaring. I believe in counseling that is partnered with accountability. Community is a key thing. We can’t have our eyes so tied to our belly buttons that we can’t see ahead. God doesn’t give us insight for introspection, but to set us free! I was safe. It was powerful; it was bathed in prayer.
Be cautious, because just like pus in a wound, that pus has to come out for the wound to be healed. As we are being refined and poured into by God, the fullness of what he is doing in us pushes things out because his image will not be compromised.
BTG: What if the abuser is still involved in our day-to-day life?
Becky: Right now, she needs to set up some healthy boundaries, and separate herself a bit. Ultimately she needs to do what’s best for separating herself from the past so she can have hope of there being a healthy future of living in relationship. It will be painful. But pain doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” Spousal abuse is a completely different subject. Also, forgiveness is not based on whether or not someone admits their need for it. Even if the abuser denies the abuse, it’s better for the victim to be able to forgive and to allow healing for that pain. There can be freedom.
BTG: Is simply listening the best thing a friend can offer for help?
Becky: Listening is probably the best thing, but not coupled with enabling – and that’s a fine line. Listening for the purpose of walking through it with someone to get to the other side is very healthy. So often people want to help us walk around the issue, but the reality is that we need to walk through the muck. A friend said to me, “I know you see no hope right now, but I’m willing to hold hope for you until you’re ready to hope again for yourself. I believe God wants to heal you, regardless of what you feel.” God is into abundance, not partiality. My best friend at the time I was walking through it always said to me, “That’s the dump side of it. You’ve dumped it all out. Now see what God is saying. Are you willing to let him fill you up?” Someone wasn’t just patting me on the back; friends were willing to be respondents to me, and not just be in agreement with me.
Abuse victims don’t feel that they have a voice. No matter how much we may or may not have protested, we feel that we couldn’t say anything at the time. The pain is so deep…
There is a chemical in your brain that is released when you share the details, and it causes an emotional high just from being able to break the silence. We can live so long in the details that we get stuck in this patterned cycle and that creates a dynamic of needing to relive the details instead of finding a new pathway into healing. Continuing to tell others the specific details can actually send you further away from healing. Live in the tension that God is in the healing process with me.
BTG: What recommendations do you have if the trauma she experienced has caused her to turn to destructive behaviors such as cutting, drugs, promiscuity, etc.?
Becky: Break the silence; she has to tell herself the truth. The silence strangles us, and the truth will literally initiate the process of the motion of freedom beginning. The reality is that just saying it out loud to someone brings it out of her brain, and that has already knocked off 50 percent of the power it has over her – just by getting it out of her head.
The second thing is community; you cannot do it alone. And you need accountability; someone who really cares and will ask you the hard questions – not for judgment, but for healing. Our brain tutors our body and tells it what to do. If we don’t break some of the brain cycles, the patterns will just continue.
BTG: How can someone find freedom from the heaviness of her pain?
Becky: Never, never, never give up hope. I don’t believe that God has made us to live a mediocre life: I believe he truly means for us to be free. And I think that looks unique for each person, because each person is unique. The reality is there are many things that can aid in our healing. God used science and the study of the brain to bring me back to scripture.
Here’s what I know about God: Whether or not you can see him, he can see you. And no matter what, he will stop at nothing to pursue you. I’m always leery of people who say they know the formula for healing. God is not about a formula, he’s about foundations. And I believe that he wants to rip away anything that is hindering your foundational view. We are made in his image, and nothing can take that away. We have to get to the place where we can understand that.
There is a story from the Holocaust that is very special to me. Many of the amazing oil paintings in the museums were being destroyed because the artist was Jewish or was somehow related to a Jew. Even though it pained them, some of the museum curators started painting over the pictures with watercolor paints right on top of the original, hoping that one day the truth would be revealed. These masterpieces were discovered in attics and basements as they began to decay and the top layer chipped away. What the curators had done to preserve them was eventually discovered. I believe that is a picture of each of us. The world paints over us, and gently God is chipping away at the untruth to reveal what is truth.
I know I can’t erase my past, but I truly believe that what the enemy meant to take me down, God has transformed to make me something more. God is the ultimate transformer. He’s not recycling – he transforms us into something new. Just like a caterpillar is surrounded by a chrysalis to eventually become a butterfly.
BTG: What if a woman can’t afford counseling – any recommendations?
Becky: I ate a lot of peanut butter and learned how to make a lot of things with potatoes to be able to afford counseling. It’s really about re-evaluating priorities, I think. Do you really need that cell phone plan, etc.? I personally went through two years of counseling, plus follow-ups. We couldn’t afford it, either. But I look back now, and I know that I couldn’t have afforded not to. I went into it thinking, “I have only so much money, and I have to make it work.” Sometimes people with lots of money go to counseling and camp out. Every week I did my homework. I was determined not to stay and live my life in that counselor’s office; I wanted to live my life.
I also hounded a woman I respected for months till she agreed to mentor me. That relationship, in community, helped so much.
I would encourage people to get some counseling and find out what they can afford. One newer option is seeing someone trained in group counseling, which is seeing great results. While it’s usually cheaper than one-on-one counsel, it also affords other people as accountability partners to your healing process. That can really be valuable.
BTG: What if her abuser was a supposedly “Christian” figure?
Becky: Get out of the situation for sure. Here is the reality: that person is not God. God abhors it. When someone in a place of spiritual authority hurts someone, God’s wrath will be doubly harsh. You have to see a separation. You have to see that it’s not God, and it’s not God’s heart to you. We are all human, and this person has no absolution from sin – everyone is a sinner.
Trust the red flags: our intuition is huge. If you sense a red flag, obey it. When in doubt, ask a friend. Repentance means to turn and change your course in both Greek and Hebrew. I no longer believe that I made this happen to me. I’m going to believe that someone else made a poor choice. I’m going to turn. It’s a choice.
Becky Patton is a teacher, pastor, and founder of Truessence Ministries, an online resource that provides a safe place to explore and embrace the beauty of female sexuality. Her team addresses areas that often hinder, healthy, whole sexuality, and base their perspective on scientific study, personal experience and Biblical truths.www.truessence.net