Think of your deepest, darkest secret. You know, that one thing that makes your stomach churn and your palms sweaty when you imagine admitting it out loud. It’s that one secret you intend to carry to your grave if it doesn’t kill you first.
Too many are thinking of childhood sexual abuse. For a long time, that was my secret too. I grew up in a small town. Many who knew me may have considered me the “perfect girl” from the “perfect family.” I came from what seemed to be a happy Christian home, and I excelled as an athlete, student, artist, and leader. My life seemed ideal. But behind my bright hazel eyes, my super-achiever persona was masking a girl who was carrying the silent pain of childhood sexual abuse and was afraid to tell. My silence, like the silence of so many survivors of abuse, helped hide the truth that sexual abuse is affecting millions of people just like you and me.
I believe childhood sexual abuse is one of the best-kept secrets in our world today. And I believe that breaking the silence is the key to healing. But it isn’t easy. If you have been abused, sharing your secret may very well be your biggest fear.
I know how you feel. It took ten years for me to tell my mom that my stepfather had been sexually abusing me for nearly all of my childhood.
He silenced me in so many ways, telling me no one would believe me and that if anyone did find out about “our little secret,” my mom would hate me, divorce him, and I would never see her again. I believed it was my responsibility to keep our family together; I had to protect my mom. I had to do whatever my step-dad wanted. I felt as if I had no choice. I was scared, confused, and felt trapped. So, I forced myself to believe that it wasn’t that big of a deal and that it was better if I suffered through the abuse and remained silent.
I was fourteen years old when I finally broke the silence to my mom. Seven days after I told, my step-dad committed suicide.
I felt lost, ashamed, and broken. I not only needed rescue, but I also needed hope. I needed to know that I was not alone, that my story mattered, and that the shame I felt wasn’t mine to carry.
But throughout much of my life I wore that shame like an uncomfortable undergarment. It seemed I always knew it was there–closely covering my body, almost suffocating me at times, and affecting the way I felt from day to day. My shame not only stemmed from a childhood marred by the painful secret of sexual abuse but also from the betrayal of my stepfather who abused me, the false belief that it was all my fault, and the unhealthy ways I tried to cope.
Shame is often rooted in lies we believe about ourselves and, for an abuse survivor, it is especially entrenched in the lie that we are somehow to blame for the pain we have experienced. As a result, we are left feeling dirty, unloved, and afraid of what people would think about us if they knew the truth.
Just as I tried to keep the secret of childhood sexual abuse hidden for years, I also tried to cover up the shame I felt. My outerwear consisted of coping mechanisms such as perfectionism and people pleasing–anything that would hide my shame from others and instead would show them the person I thought they would love and accept.
Shame and anger also caused me to hide from God. I falsely believed He had abandoned me when I needed Him the most and that He certainly couldn’t love someone as dirty or as damaged as me. But during a season of dark nights, I found myself crying and pounding my fists into the pillow, writing in my journal, asking God to show up and tell me where He was in the midst of my pain.
What I came to understand through my personal healing journey was that God was with me through it all. He was angry when I was angry; He cried when I cried. At times, I envisioned Jesus holding me as a little girl, weeping over what had been done to me.
Through those times of crying out to Jesus in my lowest moments of hurt and despair, I began to understand that God’s heart isn’t to bring pain or leave us when life gets hard. His heart longs to love us through the most painful, evil circumstances and to turn them into something beautiful. With Jesus as the Author of our stories, we can bring light into darkness, freedom to captives and radiance in place of shame.
No matter how complicated my life got after I told my secret, I knew that it had been the right thing to do. Telling released me from my past so that I could embrace the future.
As I invited Jesus into my journey, I gave Him freedom to not only bring me healing but also to use me to make a difference in the lives of others who were like I once was: lost and hurting. I eventually found the courage to share my story with others, and in doing so, I realized I wasn’t alone. So many others began telling me their stories too!
For me to be able to write and be a voice on this topic today (www.iamonevoice.org) has taken a journey of healing–a journey that I believe is lifelong–and one that has empowered me to not remain silent about the crimes facing children. I am now a wife, mom, author, and speaker, leading a world-wide ministry as a voice on issues of childhood sexual abuse and sex slavery. I no longer live with my childhood secret; instead, I share my story to empower others to share theirs, to heal, to reach out to others, and to prevent the cycle of injustice.
For the past twelve years I have been traveling all over the U.S. speaking on college campuses and writing about sexual abuse and trafficking. But recently I began to pray what I call “dangerous prayers.” I asked God to use me as a voice for those enslaved in foreign lands.
A year later, I was invited to go undercover into the brothels of Southeast Asia with a small film crew from Life Outreach International. I met children who were locked up, starved, beaten, and being sold for sex. I interviewed them, showed them the love of Jesus, and brought their stories back to the States to shed light in the darkest areas of the world and inspire others to help us stop this injustice. I comforted moms who had lost their daughters to the trickery and torture of traffickers. We lead many to know the hope and love of Jesus, as I myself have come to know; and all of the girls I met in those locked rooms were rescued.
It was amazing work, and I was grateful to be a part of it, but to be effective, I had to believe I had a role to play in ending abuse and trafficking. I had to believe that if I stepped out of my own silence and even out of my own story, I would be stepping into Kingdom purpose. I also had to believe that changing the life of one single child was worth it.
I returned home from that film project in Cambodia and realized that God had not only answered my “dangerous prayer,” but in doing so, He had also broken my heart for what breaks His heart. He began giving me a vision of how I could be part of His work here on earth in stopping child sex trafficking before it starts. I was confident that if we could just beat the traffickers to the vulnerable villages and educate them on the evil trickery of these traffickers and provide resources and hope, we could save many lives.
I immediately began raising money to return to Cambodia, to translate and print my book Hush and other resources in their language, to buy shoes for village children, and to build a school there. Nine months later, I was back there, doing everything God gave me the vision to do: sharing my story and anti-trafficking education in schools and rural villages, giving away shoes, books, resources, building a school, and loving the girls in brothels. We reached a few thousand last year, and I am confident many kids’ lives will be spared. I want to do this over and over, so I started a nonprofit organization, OneVOICE4freedom (www.onevoice4freedom.org), in order to help raise funding for this mission and the vision God gave.
Ending something like modern day slavery, or sexual abuse, or the fact that one in five American women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime is not something that will happen because God calls a few people like me to do something—it is going to take each and every one of us. In my book Hush: Moving from Silence to Healing After Childhood Sexual Abuse I write:
“If no one sheds light on what is being done in the darkness, it will never stop, and survivors will never know the truth that will set them free from the lies that keep them in bondage. Every time we bring abuse into the light, we help prevent more abuse while we help its victims heal.
Victims need their own voice to break free from their silent pain. But they also need your voice. They need my voice. Together, our voices become one voice, one that rings loud and clear as it speaks words of love and truth, of validation, acceptance, and comfort. Our voice will penetrate the darkness to expose sexual abuse for exactly what it is. Our voice will lead wounded hearts to a safe, open place of healing. And as we speak out, our voice will reduce the risk of abuse for the next child, and the next, and the next.”
Finding the courage to tell my secret put me on a journey to healing with Christ where He helped me discover the life I’d been longing for. It can be the same for you, too. What Satan hoped would be the problem or pain that would end your life and your hope, God will use to give you purpose and bring a solution into the world.
Everyone’s story matters. There are people around you who are going through something similar to what you have experienced but are silently hurting and afraid. They need someone–they need me and you–to get real, to reach out, to encourage, to give hope, and to remind them that they are not alone. You may feel you don’t have much to give, but what you do have may be exactly what someone else is desperately searching for.
So, be courageous. Find your voice. Share your story. Listen to someone else’s. God’s Kingdom is advancing here and now, and He invites us out of hiding to be a part of it!
You could change a life. You might change the world.