December is often a month of reflection. Some folks start to think about New Year’s resolutions and some of us just try to get through to the next year. 2019 was full of highs and lows and now that we are almost at the end of it I’m looking back.
This year has been a year of reunions. The CGC survivor group became a reality. We found each other and found strength in each other’s stories of resiliency. We comforted each other, listened when we needed to vent, and laughed at silly memories from childhood. I am grateful for this little island of hope and support. Who knew that from all of the pain we suffered would come this group so full of love and friendship for each other. Calvary Gospel taught us pain but we cultivated love, where there was shame now there is acceptance and mercy. For those CGC survivors reading this I feel so blessed to have you in my life. Thank you for walking this journey with me.
Over the summer I was able to do so many things I never thought possible. I spoke to the media and spoke at a press conference about my experiences. I allowed myself to bloom instead of keeping myself small and allowing the shame of what happened to me keep me quiet. I allowed my truth to be told in a very full-throated way, unfettered by worry about what CGC might think or do. This was a very liberating and healing experience. I learned that when you share your story you might get some blowback but more than that you open the door for people to support you.
I was on a podcast! It was amazing! I am a podcast junkie and so this was a really big deal for me. Again all I found was support and understanding. I realize I keep using the word support over and over but it is the best word for what I have experienced over 2019. My network has grown so much and put me into contact with so many wonderful people. Ronna Russell has helped me keep my dream of writing a book alive and stoked the fire when it was growing dim. Thank you Ronna.
I have no idea what 2020 will hold but I have a feeling it is going to be a big year. I intend to keep fighting. I want to see the Mandatory Reporter bills pass here in Wisconsin. I also want to continue to tell my story both here and as I attempt to get a book on paper. Is there a podcast coming? Maybe…Who knows? I’m keeping all options on the table that don’t involve quitting.
I hope 2019 has been good to you and I hope 2020 brings you much happiness!
When I speak with survivors one topic comes up over and over again. The people in their lives who love them cannot understand why they continue to suffer from trauma and pain from the past. Friends, co-workers, and people they interact with online often seem to want to give them the same advice. They want to offer you a quick fix and often that fix comes with a warning about not forgiving or holding onto negativity for too long. What they don’t realize is that the process for working through trauma can take a lifetime. Forgiving and “moving on” is not going to resolve the trauma responses coming from the survivor’s body. It can seem like someone has moved on but if you’re not inside their head and their body you can’t really understand. Triggers can make it hard to not think about things and can effect the body in some very real ways.
When first leaving an abusive group you’re probably in survivor mode. You’re trying to figure out how to get away and then how to live without the community you may have been in since birth. People who have known you all your life might shun you or feel the need to warn you about hell and the coming end times. You may lose family and will most certainly lose friends in the process. Often you end up feeling much more alone than you could have ever imagined. You may not have the social skills needed to maneuver in the new world you find yourself apart of and you may lack job skills or be poorly educated. Add to this a fear of hell and the rapture and you can see why just getting out and acclimating to the world can be a very tall order. Once you’re out you may find yourself dealing with depression, anxiety, insomnia, and loneliness. I consider this to be phase one of three phases.
When I started phase one I was a teenager. I went from a very insular community out into a big world that I was not ready for. When I left the church no one came looking for me. I struggled through the realization that they didn’t care. I always suspected that but when it became a reality it hit me hard. I went to public school for a year and found I had nothing to talk to my peers about. When I was in the church I felt weird like I did not fit in and then when I went into public school I felt the same way. Everyone was planning for their future. I thought I had good grades and could have gotten into college but I had no one to help me navigate that journey. Neither of my parents attended college. By this time my mother was already pretty sick and preoccupied with raising my bother and dealing with her abusive husband. My father’s attitude was that if I had a husband I did not need an education. He felt the same way about driving which meant I did not learn to drive until I was much older. I discovered that I had missed many of the milestones that my peers had experienced and would continue to miss them because I had no way to know what was normal and how to get those experiences for myself. Over time I came to realize that my Christian school had supplied me with a subpar education. If I had someone to help me navigate the gaps I could have taken classes to fill in what was missing, the issue is I did not know what I did not know. I worked in restaurants for a long time and got a little apartment for myself. I did what I had to to survive and tried to tell myself that I had time and everything would be ok. I was always afraid of a wrathful god. When I cut my hair and pierced my ears there was this moment where I was just waiting for lightening to strike. This new world was both exciting and scary.
The next phase comes when you finally feel free from the group and you try to convince yourself that you can live without them and just get on with things. Many people I speak to can be stuck in this place for decades. They convince themselves they are doing great and have just left it all behind. Reality is usually much different. Sometimes during this period addictions will show up as a coping mechanism. Many survivors try to fill their lives with activities, family and work in an attempt to forget about the trauma, but the unresolved trauma is still there like a ticking time bomb. During this time if you talk about your trauma or pain people will often slap you on the back and say something like, “But you’re away from them now so life must be good!” This is phase two.
I left my abusive group and then jumped right into another one. I hear that is not uncommon. I only stayed in that group for a couple of years before leaving. During this phase, I reveled in my freedom and filled my life with having children and experiencing as much as I could after a life of real restriction. The pain of my past never went away. It was always lurking in the background with it’s best friend fear. I tried to listen to what pop psychology told me. I tried to release the past and I tried to forgive. I tried to get on with my new life. Now I’m not saying those are bad ideas, all I’m saying is that they are a very simple answer for an extremely complex problem. They did nothing to address my C-PTSD and in the end, I just ended up feeling more broken because I couldn’t just get over it. Over time I got more and more sick. I have always had insomnia but as I’ve aged it has become much more constant. The underlying stress and anxiety brewing within me caused me to have severe stomach issues that I am still trying to heal. I also have asthma which I do not think came from the trauma but it is well documented that mental health has a big role to play in how severe asthmatic symptoms are. My body was trying to send me messages and I just kept turning the music up louder and trying to convince myself I was ok.
Phase three is what I like to call the “wake up” phase. Sometimes it happens suddenly and sometimes in little things that add up to a creeping realization. By this time the addictions are at a breaking point or maybe you just don’t sleep anymore. However it displays, you reach a point where you can no longer ignore the toll the unresolved trauma has put on your body. Things will pop into your head that you just can’t shake and you can no longer make excuses for. I feel people often reach this stage when they are in midlife and things slow down a little. They have age and experience which causes them to view the world differently. They are fully adults now and are in a better position to judge where they came from. This is usually a crisis breaking point. Illusions fall away and the past you have been hiding from is waiting there for you.
My phase three went on for a very long time. Over the years the creeping realizations would make it hard for me to ignore what happened in the past. When my oldest child reached the age I was when I was molested I realized how little she was. I could see how sweet and innocent she was and I had a bit of a crisis. These things would happen from time to time over the years. As I matured I could see clearly the past decisions that the adults made around me during my childhood as monsterous and cruel. For a long time I would make excuses for them and try to find ways to not face up to how bad things really were. Once I started writing this blog I started to really wake up. It felt like blindfold after blindfold was ripped from my eyes forcing me to look at the trauma I suffered and get real with myself about the repercussions of it. This can be really hard, when you get to the point where you can’t look away. You can no longer deny the truth in front of you or make excuses for people’s bad choices. It forces you to change the way you think and can really change your life in profound ways. Some people lose what remaining family they have, some people just realize the depth of what was done to them in childhood. With all of that comes fresh waves of grief, anger, anxiety, fear, and so on.
Once you can see the trauma you suffered clearly then you have to get to work on healing yourself and figuring out how to live in your new reality. This is where I am right now. I left the UPC when I was 16, I’m now 49, that’s 33 years to get to this point. I am one of those people who is always working on myself, I’m introspective and I’m always seeking self improvement and it still took me 33 years. This is not a quick process and I suspect I will be healing from it forever. I am ok with that and I hope that you can be too. One of the hardest things is when the people you love or just the people you want to like you seem annoyed that “you’re still dealing with that?” They question why you can’t just forget and be happy. If you love me or even just like me some the best thing you can do for me is accept me where I’m at. Understand that this isn’t something that is just going to go away. It is something I’m working on all the time. Sit with me when I’m sad and don’t try to fix it, just let me know you’re there. Take me out for coffee and listen even if you’ve heard it a million times. Lastly try to remember that I’m doing my best.
Roy, it has been a long long time since we have spoken or really had any contact with each other. I have thought about reaching out to you many times but something has always stopped me. I know instinctively that any interaction between us will be painful because neither of us is who we were when we knew each other.
When I was a child I looked up to you as a big brother. You were an adult but just barely and at the time I believed that you understood me. As the youth leader and school monitor, you kept us within the lines without seeming authoritarian. I felt like you understood how oppressive it could all be and so you tried to bring the fun with you when you could. For a long time, you gave me rides to school along with as many kids as you could fit into your old Blazer. I’m sure my mother almost never gave you gas money. It makes me smile now to think of how Norman and Tim would have to hoist me into the truck because I was so tiny and it was so high up. My childhood was a dark dark place and the times when I was having fun with you shine bright in the midst of it all. Even now it makes me smile to remember watching Star Trek in your basement after church and doing donuts in the empty parking lot. I was so scared we would crash and you and the boys would laugh at me. Silly kids stuff but when your home life is so bad things like this make life bearable. When I won a place on the honor roll field trip and my shoes developed a hole I told my mom I would just skip it. She called you and you called around until you found a pair of shoes for me. We never talked about it but you came through for me and it was a big deal in my little life.
I don’t think you singled me out and to most people, these things might not seem like much. Speaking from my child self they were important to me. You just never know how a small act of kindness will impact a child. I always try to remember to smile at kids because I recognize that my smile might be the only adult smile they see that day. Once you stepped back some and John Seidl took over youth group and Sunday school things became harder. He was much sterner and I never felt like I could not let my guard down around him. I’m sure you were not perfect but I always felt like you wanted everyone to feel included. When you were not around school or the youth group as much I felt like there was no adult I could turn to who wouldn’t immediately judge me. Sympathy and compassion were impossible to come by.
This brings us to now. I know that I am probably not your favorite person due to the things I have exposed within my blog. I am sure that you and I disagree on most things. I know that this will probably not bring about the change that I and so many others wish to see but I feel compelled to try. I’m sure it has felt like I’m attacking the church and your family. It has never been my wish to attack anyone. I have only been trying to shed light on my experiences in order to help others and maybe get a little bit of justice for myself. If I thought your father would listen I would be directing this towards him. You are the pastor now and so I’m directing this towards you. I’m writing this to plead with you and Calvary Gospel to change. I’m asking you to acknowledge how bad things were handled with regards to Steve Dahl and countless other abusers. I’m asking you and the church to apologize to all of the people who have been hurt by policies that go a long way towards protecting the church but leave in their path, countless victims. I’m asking you to develop church policies that include going to the police first when a victim comes forward because this is the only way the community at large can be protected from predators and physically abusive people. Lastly, I’m asking that the church no longer tolerate older men dating underage women. It is one of those things that everyone knows about but no one does anything about. By acknowledging the church’s role in the pain of so many survivors you could help bring a tiny bit of healing to my community. We could all rest easier knowing that you are committed to reporting abuse and protecting children. We could all rest easier knowing that another Becky or Debbie is not being groomed within the walls of the church.
I know how hard this kind of change would be and I understand that my posting this publically is going to make things even harder. I’m posting it publically because I don’t believe the church or you will respond any other way. I am also concerned about my words being twisted and this way it is all out in the light for anyone to read. I’m going to sign off for now and I hope that you will be the hero this situation needs. To the other pastoral staff, I’m sure you will see this and I hope you will also be a part of bringing some healing into the lives of so many who have been devestated by Calvary Gospel.
I have been away from this blog for a little bit. Truth be told I think I needed to take a break from thinking about it all for a while. I have been working hard on political activism all spring and summer, pouring all of my energy into making the world a better place. I really try to keep politics out of this blog because I do not want to alienate any survivors who might find help here. That being said I am also devoted to honesty and telling my story from that place and current events definitely have affected that.
All of my social media is awash in Kavanaugh coverage. Because of the volunteer work that I do within my community, I am on social media a lot. I connect with others online about actions, events, and the news. When I’m away from it for even one day I feel like when I return I have all of these fires to put out and folks to support. This summer has required me to give all the emotional support I can both to those I love and to myself. I count myself lucky to have such an amazing partner who makes sure that I eat, sleep, and smile as much as possible. It helps to know that he is beside me every step of the way. He also keeps tabs on my abuser which is very comforting to me. Knowing that Steve Dahl loves Madison and visits often has made my home feel unsafe.
As I have observed everything going on with Kavanaugh I hear echoes of things that have been said to me regarding my abuse. It weighs heavy on my chest like a large boulder that I cannot lift off. Some days rage threatens every moment and every breath I take, other days I have to try desperately to keep the tears from flowing because I know that if they start I will not be able to turn them off. Then there are the days when I sit and stare into space, those days are the worst. I feel immobilized, frozen, like prey trying not to be detected by a world that feels unsafe to me.
I have heard people say they do not understand why Dr. Ford did not report when everything happened to her all of those years ago. I cannot say that reporting would have helped. Often when someone is caught not much happens to them and the accuser pays a very heavy price if she is even believed at all. What I hear those in power saying is, we believe this happened to her but we do not care. That was my experience. No one ever said they did not believe me, they just did not care. They still do not care. What they care about is protecting their male ally. They care about male authority and the sacredness of their organization. They don’t care about me and they never did.
I hear some floating the idea that maybe she is just mistaken. It was really some other guy who just looks like Kavanaugh. I’m here to say that is unlikely. I remember my trauma very well, in fact, I remember it better than almost anything in my life. That is how trauma works. I remember what I was wearing, what he was wearing, where we were, what it smelled like, and what music was playing in the background. I might not be able to tell you the date but I know what season it was and what grade I was in. C-PTSD will ensure that you never ever forget.
The survivor knows that when she comes forward she is about to stand trial. There is always a price to be paid when you are a truth teller. Dr. Ford has paid and will continue to pay a heavy price for coming forward with her truth, for trying to do the right thing. When I started writing this blog last winter I braced myself for the backlash and it came like a storm into my life. I was accused of trying to ruin a good man’s life. They said he has led a clean good life since taking my childhood away. Apparently, the crimes committed against me mean nothing because he has been a good guy ever since. Remember these men rarely offend only once. Some questioned whether I even attended the church at the age I claimed all of this happened. All they need to do to figure that out is to look at their Sunday School, School, and Baptism records. The worst part is who came at me. Men mostly, many who have never met me, and some who knew me throughout childhood. Some of them wanting to protect the church and worst many who wanted to protect their friend. They have tried to shift the blame to me and my parents. They are happy for anyone to bear the blame as long it isn’t pastor Grant or Steve Dahl. They have been full of advice for me about how I should forgive for my own sake, take it to Jesus, and get on with my life.
The silver lining to this storm is women so many women and a few men. By telling my story I have opened the door and now I have so many allies. I have been telling my story since it happened but when I brought it completely out into the sunlight women came from all over to give me love, support, and even better they stood beside me and confronted my abuser. I hope that Dr. Ford sees all of the women protesting, holding vigils, sending her postcards, and sending her love and support. I believe her and I’m hoping my silver lining can be hers as well.