Reclaiming My Voice And Power
Hope and Healing After Sexual Trauma
My Story—When Tragedy Struck
I was born to teenage parents in Monroe, Louisiana in September of 1958. In 1964, at age six my great aunt on my mother’s side of the family became my guardian and I lived with her for six years in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1970, I then was moved to Dallas, Texas at the age of 12 to live with my birth mother and younger siblings. The sexual abuse began immediately upon my arrival. My mother’s significant other who would later take on the role of stepfather in my life chose to sexually abuse me and in the process betray my trust and violate my boundaries. After several outcries, I was abandoned in the confusing world of incest by non offending adults who failed to believe, protect and support.
I was subjected to chronic and ongoing sexual abuse in an environment where I expected and should have been cared for, protected and safe. Sexual abuse isn’t just physical, as some believe, it’s also verbal and visual. Sadly, I experienced all three forms that continued for a period of five years. While stranger rape is a reality, sexual abuse is frequently committed by someone the victim knows and trust. As the abuse escalated I took matters in my own hands and ran away to Louisiana in March 1976 at age 17.
A child can never provide genuine consent to engage in sexual activity with anyone. Children are not psychologically or emotionally developed to comprehend the consequences associated with sexual activity. Adults are 100% responsible for their behavior when a child is in their presence.
Upon returning to Dallas, Texas, in August 1976, I graduated with honors (National Honor Society) from high school in May 1977 at age 19 while living with extended family members. No longer being abused, I tried to move forward with my life as best as I could, however, without proper guidance and direction, I was making a lot of unhealthy choices and mistakes about life. You could say, “I was looking for love in all the wrong places.” I was in a constant battle with feelings of low self worth, guilt, shame and self defeating thoughts that there was “something wrong” with me. After all that’s why the abuse happened, I incorrectly reasoned. Relationships were difficult because I wouldn’t allow others to get close to me out of fear of being hurt again. I put up a wall, controlled or attempted to control people and my environment which only led to additional problems. Somehow I never connected the dots to the troubles I had in everyday life to the past sexual abuse from childhood.
Sexual abuse of any kind is never your fault!
You didn’t “ask” for it, and it wasn’t sex.
It was abuse.
Healing & Recovery
As a young adult, I didn’t realize the impact those childhood incidents had on me. Sexual abuse wasn’t talked about as openly in those days as it is now. The magnitude of its impact would become painfully real to me as I matured. My disclosure of the sexual abuse was met with silence and secrecy and the issues were swept under the rug and never addressed openly and appropriately. Like many survivors, I adopted the false belief that once I left the abusive environment and the abuse had stopped I could move on with life as normal. Little did I know the damage that had been done to my soul. The unaddressed emotional pain festered over time and would manifest itself in my life in the following ways:
1. false beliefs I believed about the abuse “it’s my fault” and a negative view of myself
2. plagued with destructive emotions of fear, anger, guilt, grief and shame only kept me in
emotional turmoil and were my constant companions
3. a distorted body image
4. troubled interpersonal relationships
5. distorted view of the Creator
I married in 1980 at age 22 and we have two children together. For years I carried the trauma and pain into my relationships and projected my past pain onto the people who were currently in my life. I viewed life and spiritual matters through the distorted lenses of sexual victimization instead of the wholeness and healing God had for me. For years I wore the mask of denial and pretended I was OK, but in actuality I was suffering with deep internal pain. I wasn’t in denial of what happened to me, I was in denial of the impact to my life. Then in 1994, at age 36, my life began to unravel and I hit an emotional wall when the person who chose to sexually abuse me passed away. I didn’t understand the emotional crisis it put me in which left me even more confused, angry and depressed. Sharing my dilemma with a personal friend she suggested I go see a counselor at our local church. When things were not getting better I heeded her advice and weeks later walked into a counselor’s office for the first time who diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and clinical depression related to the sexual trauma in childhood. The effects of the abuse also manifested itself in my body through Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome (TMJ) which was revealed by painful jaw movements due to stress and teeth grinding during sleep.
“You can’t heal a wound by saying it’s not there,” —Jeremiah 6:14 (TLB)
After working with me for six months the counselor suggested I locate a sexual abuse support group to further my healing. Much to my dismay the groups were not readily available in my community and I had given up hope of ever finding a group until an intern at my local church started a sexual abuse group, using the Shelter from the Storm© curriculum in January 1995. Although excited, I had my reservations upon entering the support group because I couldn't comprehend at the time how being a part of a group would address the effects of sexual abuse in my life. Surprisingly, the support group was everything I needed!
As I began the healing process, I realized that what I needed more than anything was—a safe place because I never felt safe growing up. A safe place to be accepted and encouraged to address the issues I needed to face and to not face them alone. A safe place to learn the truth about my experiences because for the longest I was blamed therefore I blamed myself, thinking I had done something to cause the abuse. The support group gave me community with other women who had similar experiences. It gave me a safe place and safe people to share my thoughts and feelings with as I was able to without feeling rejected, blamed and condemned. It gave me the tools I needed to address the trauma and emotional pain from the past and over time I began to heal and advocate for myself and others.
The recovery process identified the source of my pain, my negative thoughts
and emotions—child sexual abuse. Emotional healing is not an overnight event.
Recovery is a process—it will take time, commitment and work.
Thriving—Not Just Surviving
In 2007 while on my healing journey I established ARISE! International, Inc as a faith based nonprofit 501 (c) 3 organization whose sole mission was to raise awareness of the devastation that sexual abuse has on individual lives, families and communities. The organization operates on Christian principles and utilizes Scripture and prayer for truth and guidance.
When I facilitated my first support group in the Fall of 2008, support and recovery was added to our mission. To date I have led over a hundred clients through the recovery program, Shelter from the Storm© Hope for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, the same curriculum that led me to truth, healing and freedom. I’m passionate about making support groups an available resource for survivors who are ready to begin the healing journey because of the difficulty I had in locating a support group when I needed one.
Today, the mask is off and I’m not afraid to speak my truth. I know personally there is hope and healing from the aftermath of sexual abuse because I’m living it. I know my value and worth, I have healthy boundaries in all relationships, I know the truth about my past and I have assigned responsibility to those involved. The reality is, the experience of sexual abuse will always be a part of my personal history, however, I’m proud to say the devastating effects of the criminal acts perpetrated against me don’t control my life any longer. I didn’t choose it, nor want it, it was something that was beyond my control. The past doesn’t define my present or my future—it wasn’t my fault and I wasn’t responsible, my stepfather was.
People don’t want to think about sexual abuse—let alone talk about it especially the abuse of children. However, it is a global pandemic in our society and it’s occurring at alarming rates. Sexual abuse is the most unreported type of crime. My case was never reported to the proper authorities. In fact, 99.9% of clients I see in the recovery groups cases were never reported. To be sexually abused is to be touched by evil and evil always has a negative impact. The experience creates wounds in a person’s soul and emotional wounds need to be addressed and attended to in order to heal properly.
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive:
and to do so with some passion, some compassion,
some humor, and some style.” —Maya Angelou
I’ve put in the work and I now have the tools I need to address any depressing thoughts, memories and feelings that may surface as I "do life" with healthy thinking and behaviors based on truth and not false beliefs. I have a comprehensive support system around me to continue to encourage me as I move forward in life. I’m a firm believer in the process of recovery that I’ve devoted my life to helping survivors reclaim their voice and power. Today, I speak at various meetings and conferences about sexual abuse, I’ve written articles on the topic, wrote the foreword for memoirs of those who have reclaimed their voice and I have received several awards and recognition from various organizations and community leaders. Today I’m thriving in an area that brought so much pain, frustration and heartache into my life.
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse, the good news is you don’t have to continue to live with the devastating effects. Help is available. Too many people are suffering in silence needlessly. Healing is a choice. You can choose to not address the pain and continue to hurt perpetually or you can choose to address the pain appropriately and experience healing and freedom. I hope you will choose the latter—like I did and so many others have. It’s never too late to heal.
“When we deny our stories, they define us.
When we own our stories, we get to write the ending.” —Brene' Brown
Gwendolyn's work has been recognized by the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, DeSoto City Council,
Lancaster Police Department, Domestic Violence Advisory Commission (DVAC),
Genesis Women Shelter & Support, Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship and other community groups and organizations.
LEARN MORE - Voyage Dallas Magazine