At RAACE, our mission is to PREVENT child sexual abuse before it begins. Unfortunately, oftentimes people can’t truly wrap their head around the need for prevention without understanding the impact abuse can have in both the short- and long-term. That’s why it’s so important that we provide a resource for survivors to share their stories. Our hope is that they underscore the need for those who have the opportunity to prevent it from happening in their family, and also to provide a safe place where your journey as a survivor is met with healing and hope.
For those who’ve been abused as a child, talking about what happened even years after the abuse has stopped can be as painful as the day it first occurred. Our heart goes out to all abuse survivors, and we are so very proud of you for your efforts to end the silence and share your story so that others may learn from it.
I didn’t start the healing process until about 3 years ago, even though I am in my mid-50s. I began by connecting with other survivors online at Dailystrength.org, a website that hosts online support forums for a large number of different physical and mental health issues. I wasn’t ready to discuss my abuse with people I know, so it was a place where I could get support and still remain anonymous. The biggest and most important revelation I got from that experience was that I was not alone. It was eye opening to connect with 100s of people who were experiencing the same feelings and had gone through similar situations. Talking to this group of people online is what started me on my path to healing.
I began to write poetry as a way of expressing my feelings about the abuse, and eventually wrote an entire memoir in poetry that other survivors encouraged me to publish. The writing process was very therapeutic. It gave me a different way to look at the abuse. I had always pushed it away and tried not to think about it, but writing about it was a release. It took power away from the experience. I found I was able to work through my feelings once they were in writing. It was as if putting it on paper was a way of giving the experience away. When I read it, I could look at it from a mother’s perspective rather than from my perspective as a child. It allowed me to get angry for that child, something I couldn’t do before I found this new perspective. When I first read what I wrote, I cried. But over time, the act of writing and letting go has given me distance. I don’t cry when I read my writing anymore.
Another tool that has helped me on my path to healing is becoming an advocate fighting against child sexual abuse and for victims. I’m a member of RAACE and the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. I’m also a regular guest host and panelist on a local talk radio show. I’m on the air about 4 days a week, working to help people prevent child sexual abuse and to expose the epidemic. I also recently spoke to a church group about prevention and healing. There is tremendous power in helping others. It’s true that when you give, you get ten times more back.
I encourage anyone who has been a victim of child sexual abuse to find some way to talk about it, whether that’s with an online support group, a psychiatrist or a friend. It’s a way to start healing and to finally know that you’re not alone.
“Although I certainly am proud of all I’ve achieved after enduring what no one should have to, it took me quite some time to be able to let the words come out of my mouth and tell people what I had been through.
It started when my mom married a man when I was 3 years old. Soon after they were married, the sexual abuse started. It started with him touching me and quickly led to him making me touch him. In no time he was making me perform oral sex. What 5 year old should even know that oral sex is a possibility? I was so young when all of it started, that I sadly thought this was what all step-fathers did.
It wasn’t until I was in 4th grade, the secret finally came out. Years and years of silent suffering and he was finally arrested. It wasn’t until I started college that I finally figured out that what I endured should only be embarrassing for him and not me. Something inside me finally let myself off the hook and I can now openly express what I went through knowing it says nothing about me as a victim but it says everything about my abuser.”
JoAnn Kerschner, survivor and founder of Hopes4Healing, an organization that provides group education, clinical expertise, and support for survivors of child sexual abuse, as well as public speaking/education for the community, shared her story with RAACE.
Throughout my childhood, I was sexually abused by my father. That abuse created a pattern of abusive, negative relationships that repeated through my life. I didn’t really think of myself as a survivor. I knew I was different from other people, but I didn’t know why. I used to hope that I would find out I was adopted. You get kind of brainwashed. The relationship with my father was all I really knew of love. I found solace in the outdoors, nature, it was my safe place.
Although my abuse led to depressive episodes throughout my life, I knew I had to keep the secret. I graduated from college majoring in nursing, married, had two sons, worked as the Director of Nursing Operations at a large community hospital, providing coverage 24/7, and working 12-16 hour days.
When my father was dying of melanoma a few years ago, I made sure he received excellent care and set up home hospice for him. I cared for him around the clock during the four days he had on hospice so that he could die in his own bed. We were frequently alone together during his hospitalization, and once at home, and I kept hoping he would apologize for what he did to me, but he never did.
I supported and cared for my mother during this time and for the next year after my father’s death. We never had a close mother-daughter relationship and I hoped that would change. We talked about my Dad’s manipulative ways and she was shocked to hear what I knew about my father. My Dad told me everything and would always say, “Remember this is just between us.” He lied to other family members about me, always making me look like the crazy one. Nothing changed between my mother and me. I was still not chosen.
Things really began unravelling right before my Dad became ill. After his death I thought I could just move on, but I became severely depressed and realized that I needed to get help or I would die. I laid in bed for a week and on that Sunday I decided to search for a local therapist on my cell phone. I did this for hours and picked a therapist that spoke to me in his bio and I knew he was the right one. I emailed him immediately before I changed my mind. He responded right away and gave me an appointment the next morning. It took me months to actually tell him about the abuse. I needed to trust him with my secret. I had not ever told anyone, not even my husband.
I battled multiple episodes of severe clinical depression, PTSD, anxiety disorder, suicide attempts and was diagnosed with ADHD. No one who knew me would have guessed that I was battling all these problems. I’ve been working with my therapist for two and half years. He is an art therapist and art has given me a voice. I still receive four hours of therapy every week. His support and the art therapy allow me to confront and express the pain from the abuse and share my thoughts when there are no words to tell my story. I still suffer with depression, flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety, but now I have help.
I’ve “divorced” my mother and my family. Some people ask, “How can you do something like that?” but it’s been such a relief from the pain for me. I have no regrets. I wanted to be loved, valued, and chosen by my family for whom I am, but that was never going to happen.
I resigned my position as the Director of Nursing Operations on July 22, 2014; it was my gift to myself on the 2nd anniversary of when I reached out for help. I knew that losing my income would be a hardship. After all, who does that? But I have faith. I started Hopes4Healing, initiated a mental health scholarship at Harford Community College, and am working on writing a book. This is my passion. If I can make a difference in the life of one person, that would mean more to me than anything in the world.
When I resigned my nursing position, I shared my resignation letter with all 147 of my staff and shared my story in that letter. I wanted people I worked with in the health care field to hear how behind the smile, mentoring, and outcomes I produced every day, I was the face of mental health. Twenty associates came to me to share their stories of abuse; some had never told anyone before. You can never know what’s going on in someone else’s life. We all try to hide these experiences because the pain is so great and there’s a huge stigma attached to sexual abuse and mental health problems. I want to change that and bring these issues into the light so people can get the help and support they need.
If you’ve been sexually abused, know that there is hope. Believe in the fairy tale! You should trust yourself and find someone you can reach out to. There are people who understand you and what you’re going through. You will realize that other people don’t see you as you see yourself—as someone who is damaged. It can be hard, but reach out and get help. No one can do it for you. You need to do this yourself. It is hard and unfair, but worth it. You will learn so much about yourself. Your life will change.
“A.M” is smart, beautiful, successful, funny and sweet. One would never know that for years she harbored a dark secret: abuse at the hands of someone close to and trusted by her family. Her experience with abuse makes her all the more sympathetic to RAACE’s mission and eager to support the organization by sharing her story.
The physical abuse began when she was age 9 and continued until she became an adult of 18. The mental and emotional abuse continued for several years more. With only a child’s mind, she was ill-equipped to handle what was happening to her and too scared to tell anyone.
“He threatened me often, warning me not to tell anyone about the abuse. He once hit me just because he suspected I had told someone—which I hadn’t. I thought if I did, it would make my life worse than it already was,” she says.
It wasn’t until she was a freshman in high school that her best friend noticed bruises on A.M.’s body. Terrified that she and/or her younger brother would be removed from their family, she downplayed the abuse to guidance counselors and Children and Youth authorities, and claimed the bruises were the result of playing four sports, which she did so that she could remain safely at school for as long as possible.
“He was careful. He did such a good job of acting like he truly cared about me in public that no one could believe what he was capable of when we were alone,” recalls A.M.. “People would say he was just disciplining me and that I didn’t like it and was making it up ‘for show’. Friends completely deserted me and things got awful in school for several months. I was devastated. Home was a living hell and now school life was too. I have never felt more isolated or alone.”
Despite the physical abuse ending when A.M. turned 18, “I guess he felt I could do more once I became an adult”, the name calling, insults and mind games continued until he left town when she was 23—after he had pulled a knife and threatened to kill her mom.
Though several years have passed, A.M. still struggles with the memories of her youth, which caused her to associate negativity with relationships and be scared of commitment.
“It bothers me sometimes to hear people recall their childhoods because I didn’t have one. I was trying to save my life, protect my brother,” she says, tears flowing. “My kids are going to have the most wonderful childhood someday because I know what it feels like not to.”
Though she regrets not doing more about it at the time, A.M. thinks her experience has made her a better physical therapist.
“I do home care and work a lot with the elderly, people who are debilitated and depressed. It’s helped me be more empathetic and connect with them better,” believes A.M.. “If I can help one person, it’s worth it.”