The Gift Inside the Trauma

By Kendahl Millecam

Sexual abuse changes everything. It changes the way you relate to your parents. It changes the way you think about yourself. It changes the way you think about God. It changes the way you relate with those to whom you were previously attracted. It changes the way you experience people in positions of authority. It changes the way your very mind thinks. And continued and sustained sexual abuse, especially over periods of adolescent development, wreaks havoc on the entire process of maturation and development. It changes the very mechanism of your consciousness. Every survivor of sexual abuse I’ve ever known has been deeply, irrevocably changed.

Yet they are people that I want to have in my world, in my community. They are people I’m willing to go out of my way to accommodate. Abuse isn’t something that you simply get over because you’ve decided to not take it personally.

Sexual abuse changed me forever. Or, rather, it is so tightly intertwined with all my other experiences that I claim it as part of me. I don’t mean that in a martyred kind of way. I simply mean that abuse will be a part of who I am forever—the same as my eye color and my native language. So if it is an irrevocable part of me, how can I keep hating what happened without also hating myself? Something has to give.

Just as I will always have my memories of giving birth to my children, or learning to ride a bike, or walking for the first time into high school, I will always remember how the sexual abuse began in my life. My father abused me starting when I was eight and later moved on to my younger sister. As a therapist pointed out, “Sexual abuse doesn’t just happen. It’s usually part of a much bigger web of dysfunction in the family.”


History of Abuse


My father sexually abused my little sister and me. My mother emotionally abused all the children in our family. Both parents were physically abusive. In 2005, when I found out that my little sister had also been sexually abused, I called the police and my father was arrested.

I idealistically imagined that this would be the turning point my parents needed: my mother would divorce my father, see the error of her ways, seek for the truth of the situation, and stop hiding from everything. My dad would hit rock bottom and realize the full extent of what he had done, enabling him to rebuild his life in an honest, authentic way. He would repent, she would repent, and all the children would receive heartfelt, meaningful apologies. It would be difficult, but they would see the light. Right?


Reality was that my mom wanted me to the drop the charges, saying that we needed to just let the Church handle things. This sent me a message: the family unit was more important than I was; my parents’ marriage was more important than the truth; our standing in the church was more important than authentic relationships with one another. I was wrong to speak the truth and call the police; if I had been more faithful, I would simply have gone to my bishop and he would have been inspired to make the right decision. My parents stayed together, and all their children stopped speaking to them, the two sides retreating from each other and drawing battle lines.

But over the years, I had told my bishops. Many of them. For years, they invariably told me not to call the police. “Keep going to therapy,” they said, “there’s no need to tell anyone; it will just break up your family.” It is quite remarkable that I kept telling bishops at all. I like to think I somehow kept a spark of self-respect alive in the face of being told: first to confess to and confide in bishops and leaders, and second to keep silent about the abuse that was running through my everyday reality.

I had been taught that I should go to my bishop because he had stewardship over me just like Christ or God did, that he would be inspired about what I should do. I felt that I needed to name the abuse out loud in order to move forward emotionally from it, but church, the place that I called my sanctuary, was the entity telling me to keep quiet. I see clearly in retrospect—and even sensed vaguely at the time—that my emotional, mental, and physical well-being were far less important than the family unit staying intact.

Sometimes I wonder if all those bishops told me to keep my problems to myself because any revelation from me about the abuse could make my father, a respected priesthood holder, ineligible for callings. Of course there could be other reasons. Silence is such a common expectation for women in general, and abuse survivors in particular. Abuse is an ugly reality, and people do not like talking about it. But those who have lived through it need vitally places to say, out loud, what happened to them. All too often, victims’ rights are sacrificed for the greater comfort of those around them.

Finally, however, one bishop called the Church’s help line and received legal advice to tell me to report the abuse, since that was mandatory in the state we lived in. Of course, he was the very last bishop I told; after he gave me the necessary and appropriate advice, I did not need to keep confessing, in secret, what had happened. Immediately the legal system stepped in to protect victims and punish perpetrators in the ways our society has determined are just. But I am puzzled as to why there was a help line for my bishop, but not for me. Surely there were and are other children and adults who need that kind of support from their church. Surely the prophet and the brethren would be inspired to support victims of abuse. After all, aren’t they inspired directly by God?


The Story I Told Myself


Of course, it’s a matter of apples and oranges to compare formative moments like riding a bike with the trauma of being touched on my sexual organs, or being slapped into silence and acquiescence. But even though traumatic moments are different from my other childhood memories, they are not necessarily bad. There is often a gift inside of them.

I think of myself as a survivor of abuse, so I believe that I am strong. But I also think of myself as having been damaged by the abuse, so I believe that I am weak. Trying to reconcile such diametrically opposed beliefs about myself is a challenge. But it goes deeper than that. The story I told myself to make sense of the trauma went like this: “I don’t matter. I don’t have a voice. I am an object to be acted upon. I need to be compliant and quiet and sweet. I cannot be angry. I just need to hang on until I move out of the house so that I can go to therapy and ‘fix’ myself.”

One of the best things I ever learned was that I am not eight years old anymore. Because I experienced trauma at that age, parts of me were arrested there, and I had relived that time and those experiences in different ways for years. Seeing that I was no longer as helpless as I felt when I was being abused was a major revelation. I had to acknowledge that I had every right and even the obligation to move beyond who and what I was at age eight. I am not responsible for what my father and mother chose to do to me. But I am responsible for the story that I told myself in order to cope, and it is my responsibility to change it. No one can change it for me, and no one knows the story better than I do. Plus, who cares the most about my letting go of the story? Me. It’s my life that will change. I have the most invested.

The process of accepting this attitude is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I knew I was right to call the police. I knew I was right to consistently distance myself from those who habitually try to damage me. But I was confused. I got a clear message from church culture that I should forgive my abuser at all costs—and that doing so was spiritually necessary if I wanted to be a good and happy person. But I wasn’t ready. I could say I wasn’t angry and that I had forgiven them, but any such statement would be mere words—hollow and meaningless. I hadn’t even felt angry yet! I was putting it off because I thought it was bad to be angry. Plus I was still in shock. I hadn’t truly comprehended the magnitude of what my parents had done for all those years and what it meant. I realized through therapy and painful reflection—and a lot of cathartic honesty—that I might not forgive them for years. Because I had to do things in their natural order.

First, I had to be brutally honest about everything that had happened and the consequences that had grown from it. Second, I had to let the emotions come. I was hurt, angry. So angry. I had to give myself over to it. I had to be angry because I had been so violated and wronged. You have to be angry in order to respect yourself. As threatening and destructive as many people find it, anger became a profound force for good in my life. It was the only way to measure the difference between what I am worth and the way I was mistreated. It was the only way to travel through the experience to a place that was peaceful.

After anger came a gradual acceptance of the utter impossibility of changing anyone but myself. Things fell into place, and I became less angry, less caught up in fixing anyone else, less bound by other people’s choices. The truth was finally setting me free.

This process took a long time, longer than I wanted it to. I didn’t know if it would take months, years, or decades of anger—or if it would be more work than I could finish in a lifetime. I remember wanting to get the anger over with, like ripping off a band-aid. I had bought into the idea that anger was to be avoided or sped through. It was so . . . unattractive, unpleasant, and unwanted. But I could not deny that it was necessary. So I waited. I went to therapy, read books, and performed my assigned writing exercises. It was maddening waiting for anger to arrive, and then to leave. But I knew I couldn’t skip it. It was as much a part of me—just as important, just as valid—as the acceptance I was seeking in the end.

The most important thing I learned from the anger was not just that “anger is essential,” but that it was okay to be wherever I was in my process without wishing to be somewhere else. The gift was that I became comfortable with anger and pain.

Anger was essential, and therefore nothing to be ashamed of. It was not even something particularly awful to “get through.” I sometimes relished the anger. It made me feel alive, and worth more than I had thought. Anger was not negative. Pain was not “bad.” They were simply anger and pain. I see them as old friends now. They gave me the gift of authenticity.


Parenting as a Survivor of Abuse


Thus we come to the question of how I deal with parenting when my childhood was so fraught with trauma, abuse, and manipulation. My parents’ example taught me two destructive ideas: 1) I should deal with my emotions by ignoring them. 2) Children are the appendages of their parents.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of parenting is a mirror. My elder son is just like me. He is passionate and sensitive, self-aware and fun-loving. He is my constant mirror, showing me myself every day. This can be a source of amazement and connection when I believe that I am good and worthy. But when my son catches me on a day when I am telling myself that I don’t matter or that I’m not good enough, his mirroring can be tremendously painful. Honestly, he terrifies me. What if I don’t get myself healthy in time to nurture him? What if I harm him and he ends up in therapy just like I have, with painful memories of his broken mother? The answer is this: my son is not me. He is my son. And there is nothing wrong with me, or him. In fact, there might not even be anything wrong with my mother. She is herself. And we can all let go of our drama and simply be where we are and who we are.

Because of the pain of abuse, parenting has been extremely difficult for me. But again, it also contains a gift. I struggle with thoughts that I am perpetuating abuse if I yell at my children, or if I can’t look them in the eye because of my PTSD, or if I treat them like they are my appendages. A lot of my therapy as a parent and an abuse survivor has revolved around my terror of becoming my mother—that I will repeat everything my parents did to me, even if I don’t sexually or physically abuse anyone. I fight the demon in my head who says that even if I can break the cycle of abuse physically, I don’t have the power to change it emotionally. I know that this is a lie, but it is still constantly insinuating itself.

I feel guilty that I don’t truly see my children as complete people. It is true that they are still learning, but they are full and complete just the way they are. And that means that I must see them that way. But when I’m in the midst of a very busy day, I can forget this truth. I get angry at my children for getting in my way, which I understand is normal, but I am haunted by my family of origin, where children were obstacles or objects not occasionally, but almost always. The ways my family taught me to see the world and other people are more ingrained than the new ways I am trying to establish. It takes a great deal of conscious effort to acknowledge, dislodge, and replace those early unconscious assumptions about the world—even now that I know how harmful those assumptions are.

The only thing I can rely on is the truth. I have to be honest about what I have been through. That means that I talk about it openly. I don’t hide it as if I am ashamed. I also have to be honest about who I am as a parent. This means that I don’t apologize for only having two children. I don’t pretend to be happy when I am not, and I ask for help when I am overwhelmed by the demands of staying home with two small children all day.

Finally, I have to be honest about who my children truly are. They are not demons coming to haunt me, and they will not be irreversibly harmed because I am supposedly damaged. The self-awareness I’ve gained from working through my abuse is a gift for my children, not a liability. I talk openly with my children about what happened to me, though of course I don’t spell out the gory details. Nor do I apologize to them for who I am.

My being a normal human being who experiences a range of emotions—including sadness, disappointment, and anger—will not damage my children. It is beautiful and wonderful to see your mother having thoughts, feelings, and emotions, to see how she owns them rather than foisting them on her children.

I try to give my children the same emotional space. I frequently tell my older son that it is okay to feel angry, but it is not okay to choose to hit. I tell him it is okay to feel sad, but it is not okay to choose to slam doors and scream. That is what I did not have when I was their size. And that is where my true parenting lies. I honor their rights to be angry, happy, sad, silly, and vibrantly energetic at six in the morning, every morning. They are not my pawns to be moved about on the chessboard of my life.

That is how I will truly break the cycle of abuse: honoring their humanity every day as they live as the main character in their own individual lives.