Q. In recent years I’ve been remembering things from my childhood that I had totally forgotten. I’m having flashbacks and nightmares about being sexually abused by my step-father. I went to counseling but it made me feel worse. The counselor wanted me to confront my step-father. I quit treatment because I couldn’t do this. All this has affected my marriage, too.
What can I do to get over the sexual abuse? I’m depressed, I have horrible nightmares and I’ve almost lost faith in God. I go to church but I’m just going through the motions.
A. You need to find a Christian counselor you can trust. Most counselors will allow you to move at your own pace. You had no control over what happened to you as a child. To feel safe in counseling you need to have some control over the process. A Christian counselor is also very important for you. A Christian counselor will help you lean on God through the pain. You need to revive your relationship with God in order to in regain confidence and peace of mind.
You do not have to do anything in counseling unless and until you want to and are ready to do so. Some survivors of sexual abuse find it helpful and necessary to confront their abusers - but not all do. We are each unique.
Counseling about sexual abuse of necessity involves some pain. It is essential to face some of the buried hurt and anger about the abuse. However, I don’t believe it is necessary to recover and explore every memory of every instance of abuse.
In addition to counseling there are a couple of things you can do. Select a small object, such as keys or a stone that represent the here and now. Use this object to remind yourself that you are safe now. You could hold this object in your hands as you talk with your counselor or whenever you feel threatened.
Make a list of the qualities you like about yourself and of the things or relationships that you want to continue in your life. These should be written down and can include qualities such as a sense of humor, kindness to others, competence at work, enjoyment of reading, etc. Under relationships list your husband, children, dog, friends, co-workers, etc. Objects you want to keep can include your house, favorite clothing, books, etc.
Keep this list with you at all times and use it to help balance the focus on the abuse. Remind yourself that this is where you are now. This list gives you a bridge back to the present when you have a flashback or a nightmare.
Persons who have been sexually abused have learned to dissociate their feelings from what is happening. This is how they survived the abuse without being overwhelmed. A child’s fragile ego could not withstand the abuse otherwise. Rigid compartmentalization may have saved your life.
Now you are grownup and are a stronger, more competent person. Even though it feels scary and overwhelming you will be able to gradually face the feelings that could have destroyed you before.
To become healthy you need to build bridges between the past, present and future so that you have access to all three. You need to be able to remember and let go of the past. You need to feel safe in the present and have hope for the future. And your relationship with God will change your life in every way as you grow in knowing Him.
Many pastors are skilled in counseling. Ask your pastor if he can help with this or ask for a recommendation to a Christian counselor who can help you. Two books can be helpful for you and your husband. Healing Memories by David A. Seamands and When Victims Marry by Don and Jan Frank.
“For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.” Isaiah 41:13