As a kid I was strong willed, informative, and anxious about everything. By the time I was eight years old I had nearly perfected the skill of always knowing what was going on. I would take one piece of information and my brain wouldn’t stop until I knew everything about it. I would listen to my parents talking in the car, while pretending to be asleep, I would hear who they were talking about or what they were talking about it and later they would find out that I knew everything they knew. When the twin towers fell, my parents had to pull me away from the screens. I was obsessed. I had to know what was happening. I had to see it with my own eyes. If there was an impending storm, I had to watch the news to track any potential tornadoes. My anxiety, my need to know everything gained momentum and by the time I was a teenager I had perfected pretending to be fine even though it constantly felt like I was out of control- all because of anxiety.
I grew up in a decently normal home, my parents divorced when my brother and I were still very young, but they both remarried when we were still young and since that time, we have been fortunate to have a set of four awesome parents who have always put us first. When my Dad gave us a sister, she was just added to the mix. I can’t count how many times my sister had come over to my mom’s house to spend the night with my brother and I. Since we have both moved out, my sister still goes over to my mom’s to help her with my kids. We did dance and sports and church and family dinners. Despite me always knowing things I shouldn’t at such a young age, I would say we were sheltered from the evils of this world quite well.
When we first moved during my first grade year, I was enrolled in an awesome school and we started a new church. It was a small church and one we would attend regularly for the next nine years. I always did so well in school. Until I was introduced to calculus and chemistry in high school, I nearly always made honor roll. I didn’t have to work at it much. I made a lot of really close friends through school – most of which are still close today. We all grew up and got husbands and now they are all nearly as close as that small group of girls that met as early as elementary school. I was involved in dance and some sports, but from the time I hit double digits on, I was mostly involved in church and youth group.
If you’ve ever attended a small baptist church you will learn that they do things their own way. It becomes a very close knit group – much like a family would be. Essentially, that’s how we felt about our home church. My Mom became the children’s director there and did amazing work bringing kids closer to God but also making their programs exciting and inviting. By the time I was a teenager, we were so involved that we went every Sunday morning for both Sunday School and Church, Sunday nights for evening service, and Wednesday nights for youth group and children’s programs. For a week straight in the summer we practically lived at the church for VBS week. Eventually, we started doing mission trips to West Virginia to host a VBS at a smaller church there. I was on fire for the Lord and bringing others to know Him. Despite being so full of uncertainty and anxiety – I loved being around my church family. I was the “good girl” – I wasn’t into what other teenagers were into. Yet, my parents were able to see the wall I put up around myself. They knew that I had internal battles that I didn’t know how to deal with – before any kind of abuse had touched my life. Still though, I was a teenager – which are pretty much aliens because no one really understands them. Everything was decently “normal” until the end of my freshman year of high school.
My abuser was the pastor of the church I had called home for nine years prior to the abuse. This man did not spend 9 years grooming me to be his victim. For many of those years, he was, by all accounts, a normal pastor who seemed to be on fire for God and his mission in his role. He was an active, charismatic, energized human. People genuinely loved to be around him because his attitude and zest for life were contagious. He was the perfect predator. He didn’t have to seek out victims. They were always there for the picking because he constantly had people who loved to be around him. Many people, including myself, my mom, the church family mistook this zest for life and fire inside to be the work of God. Certainly, being a pastor of a church for so long, this man would have a “light” inside of him only available by God.
When you start being manipulated by someone, you really don’t see it. It’s a process that starts so very small. It’s intentional by the manipulator but done in a way that seems very normal by the manipulated. In cases of sexual abuse, this is generally referred to as the grooming process. A predator will “groom” their victim by way of manipulation so that by the time physical abuse starts, their mind – or at least most of it- is already being controlled or swayed in a very unhealthy way, by the predator. It is for this reason that I can’t exactly pinpoint when it is that the man who abused me started his abuse. I remember the very first time the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I remember the first time I had to force myself to breath. And I remember the very first time I felt trapped- both physically and mentally. But for the life of me I cannot pinpoint the first time that he intentionally sought me out and made that first move to start his grooming process.
Here’s what I do know: after my freshman year of high school my family was to go on vacation for a week and I was so involved at church, that I was actually upset about missing out for just a week. That seems so silly now but I can recognize that because it made me happy to get texts from this man while on vacation with my family (harmless texts for now), remembering the way it made me feel special – I know now that the grooming process had started so long before that.
Because I was already so good at putting up walls around myself and keeping my emotions and thoughts to myself- he found me a challenge. He told me that multiple times. That eventually, he would breakdown that hard exterior I had. Looking back now, I see that, like most child sexual abusers, this man would find excitement in successfully breaking me down and being the sole person I trusted. Like a spotlight, he focused solely on how he could win his game. Not surprisingly, this is exactly how he gained my mom’s trust- I was a teenager, having normal teenage behavior, but maybe he could get through to me for her.
It’s important to note here that this is not uncommon for child predators. In most cases they will isolate you from those you are closest to. It’s important for them to complete this task well and as fast as possible. They have to do it in a way that makes them the “hero” or the “helper”. They, of course, want what is best for your child too. By the time this man was abusing me, I did not hang out with kids my own age outside of youth group. I did not have a trusting open relationship with anyone, especially any of my four parents. I was lying, daily, to everyone – and I was scary good at it. The only time I had a relationship with anyone is when he used it for his game. When it seemed to him that someone may find out what exactly what he was doing, he insisted that I get a boyfriend. I was encouraged to find a boyfriend but not “do anything” with him. Again, before the abuse even started- he had found one. A family member of his, even. This boy, slightly older than me, was living with my abuser and had had a rough life. My abuser encouraged a friendship between us. He offered to drive us places or come pick me up to come back and hang out with this boy. Ironically, this boy found out about the abuse before anyone else did. I guess that is the downside to choosing someone to both the abuser and the abused- they are bound to pick up on it eventually.
From that family vacation in June until the weather turned cold, the grooming continued. We got back from vacation but the texts never stopped. They became more frequent. With each passing day, I isolated myself more. This man was so interested in everything I thought, everything I said. By December I trusted him implicitly. He would hurt my feelings by acting as if I didn’t exist in person sometimes, and then he would build me back up by acting as if I was the only other human on the planet. It was mind altering.
Just after Christmas of my sophomore year, it all changed so quickly and so drastically. The youth group left for a mission trip. The head pastor – my abuser – helped chaperone. The very first night we were there, he stayed up late and used the time to get me into a room no one was using, away from the other sleeping adults and awake teens playing games. We talked for hours. I remember feeling guilty. Guilty for kissing boys before. Guilty for normal teenage behavior. He was “counseling” me through my guilt… guilt that HE induced. The next day he told me that when I showered that night – I should wash all of that away and ask God for forgiveness. Then it happened. Once we all got back to the church we were staying at during our trip – he asked me about my shower. My stomach turned. He asked in a way that made me feel dirty. He had a smile and the minute he saw that I didn’t know how to react, he laughed.
The days after we got back – everything went into hyperspeed. He was sending me texts about leaving his wife. Not for me, but because he wasn’t happy. She didn’t fulfill him anymore and he wasn’t happy. Within days he was sending me texts about what he liked done to him – things he wondered if he could do to me. He was sending me texts asking me to send him the same kind of texts. He would tell me that he has never talked like this before – to anyone. It was weird. I was alone in my bedroom the first time it happened and I remember thinking that I must be 10 shades of red. I had no idea what to think. But at this point – this was the only person in the world who knew me. Who knew about all of this new guilt I had about things I had done (which in hindsight- was nothing to be ashamed about). Suddenly, I was insanely insecure. I felt like no one could possibly love me if they knew the real me- but this man did know me and he made me feel like I was the only person in the world he cared for. I did what he wanted. I was embarrassed and confused, yet I complied. I needed someone to care. I would do what he wanted because if not, maybe he would stop caring. The worst part looking back now is knowing how scared and confused that girl was and knowing that she had so many people ready to love her completely that she had spent so much time shutting out.
The texts weren’t the only thing that went into hyperspeed once we returned from the mission trip. It was as if he tested the waters and found out that since I didn’t tell anyone… he could unfold his plan. The church had a new years event a couple days after we got back. I was playing Euchre and he was sitting next to me. We were all just playing cards. There were so many other people in the room and yet he dared to put his hand on my knee under the table. I froze. I couldn’t think or move and I had to be visibly shaken as I couldn’t breathe.
I excused myself and went to the restroom. My stomach was in knots. I felt like puking. I couldn’t process it and looking back now- that’s the exact moment I stopped processing anything. For a long time after, I wouldn’t process much of anything. Over the next 5 months and even then on, I became a professional at shutting off. Shutting off my brain, my feelings, my reactions – I could shut it all down like a flip of a switch. I became compliant. I did what I knew was expected of me. I ache writing this because I remember that little girl and I can see now that she lost so much that day. A part of her died and so much more of her became broken. What I didn’t realize then was just how long it would take to rebuild those pieces.
For the next four months things would escalate quickly. He nearly was caught once- but this charismatic, trusting, skilled predator lied his way out of all of it. The more physical he became, the more I shut down. After he was nearly caught, he got me a different phone for contact with him. I was hiding notes. I was lying to my parents about where I was. I was in too deep. I knew this was my fault too. I didn’t quite know how but I knew for certain that if anyone found out, my life would be over. I was embarrassed and confused and hurting. I knew nothing about sex and he talked of it often.
I was to call him every single day after school at 3:30. Even to this day – seeing that time on a clock can be a trigger for me. I’m not even sure what I did but he became really angry one afternoon. I felt terrible. I was only good enough for one single person in the world and I had done something to anger him. I apologized repeatedly. Another time, he was telling me how much he loved me, how much he needed me in his life – and then he said that if anything ever happened where he couldn’t have me- he would take the handgun he had at his house, walk out back to the field behind their house, and kill himself. He told me in that call that he was wrong, that it was wrong what was happening and that if anyone ever knew that it would end and he would be in trouble and that he just couldn’t take it.
In the four months of physical abuse, I became a pro liar. He would have me run to the back of my neighborhood where he would drive to and meet me. On the Wednesdays that I set up for children’s church while my mom ran to take my brother to a sport – he would take me to the back room of the sanctuary and every week, he would move the line further. I remember staring out the window to hide my discomfort. I remember focusing on my breathing and mentally checking out. I remember acting the way he had taught me to. He would leave the church before anyone else got there – he drove the church van that picked up students for church. In the time between him leaving and everyone showing up for church, I would sit alone and replay it like a bad movie. After being literally physically trapped, I was sitting alone mentally trapped. That was just my life now. Then he would text again. He would build me back up with attention and praise.
For all the fault I felt, I never initiated any physical action. I either allowed his touch or I complied with what was expected of me. Each time the abuse happened, I became increasingly numb. When you’re experiencing trauma, your body, mind, and spirit will respond accordingly. Mine just decided to stop. I wasn’t awake in life, it was as if I was drifting from day to day, waking up in the same hell and pretending to everyone to be someone I wasn’t. It was necessary because at this point, I didn’t even know who I was. I was lying to everyone around me- including him. I pretended to like what he was doing. I pretended along with him that in some messed up world – this was okay. He made me a great liar and if he knew I was ever lying to him too, he was okay with it. Likely because, he was getting everything he wanted from his abuse.
The texts and calls never quit. In fact, they became pretty much constant. He had planned a date where he would take that line as far as it could go. My parents had an upcoming trip and I was going to be home alone most of the time during the daytime, and it was summer break. I was scared to death. Because he was the only person in the world I could talk to, I told him about my fears. I didn’t know what to expect. I had no point of reference at that time. Everything we had been doing was already over my head and I was drowning as it was. My anxiety was on high alert. I was in too deep and had no life vest. I continued to shut down completely.
I find no coincidence in the fact that the date he had chosen came just barely after my 16th birthday. For those of you unaware, in the state I live in – like most states, the age of consent is sixteen. If he held off the worst possible abuse until after I was sixteen, then he wouldn’t likely get in as much trouble once he was caught, if he got caught.
Thankfully, that day would never happen. God sends angels and though I didn’t figure it out for years – God saved me from my own personal hell.
One day when I had stayed after school to utilize the school’s treadmill, he had texted me to meet him on the outdoor trail near the school grounds. It was so cold outside. I went out. We walked and talked. A woman, also walking on the trail came into view. He quickly said good-bye and went the other way. Though nothing physical happened, she didn’t have a good feeling.
That “not quite right” feeling in her saved me. God’s impeccable timing saved me. She called a connection to my parents and that person called my parents. A whole new hell started. My parents, all of them, along with my grandparents and my entire extended family knew. They were all so insanely supportive. My parents immediately went into action – contacting the police, searching my room, my locker at school. I didn’t know all this was happening for a couple of days. They had their action plan together over the weekend and first thing Monday morning, I found out that a police officer and my step-dad was at the school searching my locker because when they searched my room over the weekend, they found all the notes. The only thing they had yet to know about was the extra phone and SIM card to go with it.
From that moment – I. was. Falling. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I certainly couldn’t move. Walls made of stone went up all around me. I went into survival mode. My anxiety was out of control. I was absolutely terrified. I went to my room. I stared at the computer screen. I turned on music – my saving grace in life, no doubt. My parents – all four of them – came to my mom’s. My dad came into my room. My Daddy. I didn’t have to wonder what he saw in me at that moment. I was so ashamed. He was loving and he told me that shortly we would be going to the police station, all of us. I turned my music up. It wasn’t even 8 AM and my boombox was blaring music. He told me to turn it down. I turned to him, and with tears in my eyes, I cussed him out. I talked to him like I had never talked to any adult ever. It was hateful and cruel and he deserved none of it, but he took it anyways. And I turned my music down.
We went to the police station and the walls remained. The CPS interview was first. I told her nothing. One of my very favorite people in the world still to this day came next. He would be the detective on this case. He would spend the next three days not sleeping, spending all of his time trying to find something substantial enough to arrest my abuser because he KNEW what had happened but it would be three days before he could prove it. He would meet me and come out of that room with me saying nothing but more lies. They took my phone (my real phone, not the secret one). They took a fifteen year old’s phone AFTER she had very well made her point at just how ticked off at the world she was. If the walls had cracked at all by this point, they were well repaired when I lost my phone.
I get it now, guys. I’m a mom now. They did all the right things. I’m honestly surprised they allowed me to go to the bathroom by myself after this. Honestly, I don’t think I would stop hovering for months. They let me go for a run when we got home – a quick one. I still had the SIM card though, and I convinced them that since I was leaving by myself, I would need to take my brother’s phone in case of emergency.
I was spinning out of control and the man that abused me was the only person in the world who I trusted – even still. I called him and to date, that is the last time we have talked. I told him what happened. His final words to me when I asked “what happens now” were words that would ring over and over in my ears for years to come.
“Now I wait to get in trouble” he said. And he hung up.
It wasn’t until day three that one of the walls broke down. I was with one of God’s best angels, someone who remains a good mentor and such a very good friend. For the very first time in three days, I was with someone who didn’t pry. She was happy to see me. She just loved me, gently. She talked to me like a person as if she had no idea what was going on, when she knew very well what was going on. She didn’t get me to crack though. I was still holding on to everything, despite spinning out of control. Again, God’s timing comes into play. She just about has me back home when I get a call from my mom. Mom broke down a little bit. She was also out of control. She was and still is a fierce mama bear and less than 72 hours earlier she learned one of her children had been hurt, so very hurt, and worse – that same child shut her out completely. She couldn’t help and it was killing her.
Mom told me that everyone at the church we had called home for nearly a decade was supporting him and saying awful things about me. She didn’t exactly come right out and say it, but remember, I’m really good at reading between the lines and knowing everything.
Regardless- one wall busted. Cracked and fell into a million pieces. I. Was. Ticked. I knocked it down. I told that angel lady exactly how I felt (and I haven’t stopped since). I told her that I couldn’t believe he was letting that happen after all of it. I didn’t tell anyone anything. For three days straight and even a long time after- I lived in fear that this man was going to shoot himself because of ME! I couldn’t hold onto it all anymore though. I acted with fury. I told her to turn back towards my house (we had detoured once the wall broke) and I showed her what I had. I showed her the SIM card. I told her I needed to go back to the police. The detective had been working around the clock to find out more information and he did find some, but nothing substantial.
All my parents went. The angel lady stayed too. I started telling them what they had been waiting to hear. I gave them evidence that would later be used in court. I pulled in that angel lady to the interrogation room and while I didn’t shed a single tear that day (though shaking uncontrollably), she cried while she heard me tell my story. I think of that moment often – she had been staying so strong for me, knowing full well the hell she suspected was true. Then she heard it firsthand. It was the first teeny tiny sign that I was still loved, despite my own thoughts and emotions swirling.
Court lasted a year, through the pretrials and continuances- the plea agreements. All of it… in a way it was a whole new kind of hell. Because my parents agreed that it would be so much more trauma for me to testify, they agreed with the prosecutor for a plea agreement. I passed out in court once against a friend of mine. She quite literally held me up until I recovered. We were in the back of the room as the judge read the plea agreement and laid into my abuser about just how disgusting he thought he was. The judge wasn’t happy that it ended in a plea. I think he would’ve much rather enjoyed throwing the book at him.
He finally went away. Sentenced to ten years. I was a little bit free. I could start healing- and I did. I started allowing people in, little by little. I tried really hard to live a “normal life”. I tried counseling. I reconnected with friends. I was healing, little by little. Then, 2 years after he was sentenced- we received notice he would be released early. My whole world came crashing down again. I was unsteady. He lived and still lives so insanely close to me and my families. I couldn’t breathe. My walls went back up. I shut down.
For years after I faked my way through life. Few people knew how bad off I was. Anxiety ruled my life and I gave up. I started not caring about much of anything. I lived day to day- hiding the bad and pretending through the good. I didn’t get help because I didn’t want it. I didn’t understand what it was all for. I felt horrible about myself and gave up.
I could go on about my recovery, and some day, soon, I will. I think it is also such a monumental piece of my story, after all – it is what got us here. It’s what gave me the courage (even if twinged with uncertainty), to share this with all of you. Recovery from trauma is, put simply, the hardest path I’ve ever walked, and I’ve been up against some other big giants, y’all.
Thank you for reading this, for your prayers, for your support, and for allowing me your time to share my story. I hope you will feel led to share it as well. I hope you will feel led to reach out to me if need be. I hope you will feel led to make your own Impact. Whatever it is, big or small, I hope you choose to go after it – because the world needs your own brand of “good” too.