I used to be afraid to show up in my own life. I've stood on the sidelines watching my life unfold like a spectator at a parade. I’ve retreated to the corners and shadows, afraid of criticism, of being judged, of being an embarrassment or disappointment to myself or others.
I cannot remember a time when I have not thought of myself this way, but last January I became consciously aware of my mindset and of how I show up in the world as a result.
A simple question posed by a colleague triggered my awareness. We were in a small-group leadership retreat and had been given an icebreaker question a few days prior. “What’s your story?” We could respond however we pleased. Some prepared PowerPoints. Some shared family photos. What surfaced for me was a story I had buried but had been living unconsciously for five decades.
I shared how my first memory of life was of prayer at age 4. I’m a preacher’s kid from a large family. Prayer was a nightly bedtime ritual with all of us children kneeling at our parents’ bedside, heads bowed, eyes closed. Our mother would pray fervently, laying hands on each child as she called us by name, praying God’s guidance and protection over us. From my earliest memory, I knew God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent – all-powerful, all-knowing, and always present – an ever-present help in the time of trouble.
So, at age 5, I couldn’t understand where God was the day a man raped me. I didn’t understand why God didn’t protect me when it continued to happen. The God who knew what was happening, was there when it happened, and had the power to save me, did not. The meaning I ascribed to that experience was that God did not consider me worth saving. That became my truth, my story. The shame of being raped became my identity. I thought everyone knew, as though a scarlet “R” were emblazoned on my being.
There was no criminal pursuit of the rapist once the act was discovered. No counseling. The sense of worthlessness I felt at age 5 was reinforced at age 9 when a relative repeatedly sexually violated me. My family never talked about either violation. Just silence and avoidance of the subject. I felt like damaged goods to be discarded, disqualified from being used for any higher purpose.
I have carried that trauma-rooted identity for the last 50 years.
That disempowering story has cost me greatly. I have diminished and played small. I’ve chosen predatory partners and abusive relationships. I’ve given up before achieving goals, haven’t spoken up to contribute worthy ideas, haven’t shown up when opportunity did. I’ve not published research that helped overhaul a university system policy. I’ve been frozen by perfection paralysis, doubting my abilities, petrified of failure. I’ve viewed mistakes and the criticism of others as evidence of unworthiness while I’ve dismissed my many achievements.
The question caused my mind to shift.
I’ve spent last year challenging my limiting beliefs. I realize I have been driven by a story I told myself as a terrified 5-year-old to help make sense of things that made no sense. The story served me then but does not serve me now. So, I have written a new story.
I cannot change events of the past. What I can change is the meaning I give them and how I respond to them. I live aware that I am no longer in those traumatic situations and do not have to react now as I did then. I have redefined and re-framed those past events. I have redefined “me.”
Today, I live my life by design and not by default based on false beliefs or the opinions of others. I am triumphant over childhood sexual trauma and the life choices I have made as a result. I have survived emotionally, verbally and financially abusive marriages and professional relationships that would have me shrink and play small. Today, I breathe deeply and exhale, knowing and believing I am safe. I am loved. I am valuable, deserving, and worthy. I am strong, capable, confident and certain. I have the ability and intelligence to create the life I desire. I deflect and release any rejection of me or of my ideas and neither personalize nor or internalize it. I forgive those who caused me pain and forgive myself for allowing others' opinions of me to matter more than my own.
I live my life with courage and passion, and I release fears that have held me back from living my life fully. I am grateful that I have become the woman I have always desired to be. And I share my story, knowing that as I do, I continue to heal, and I give others who have experienced relationship abuse of any kind permission to share and heal.
If you reasonably suspect a child is being abused in any way or is at risk of being abused, make a report to the county's Child Protective Services or local law enforcement. The damaging physical and psychological effects of child sexual abuse can last a lifetime. If you are a survivor, know that you can overcome the trauma, no matter how long ago or how recently it occurred. Don’t be afraid to seek professional counseling from a therapist, social worker, or psychologist; one-to-one or small group coaching, and/or begin intentional, focused self-care practices and strategies.
Information, support, and resources for survivors are available through the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, and through RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Evelyn Young Spath, Ed.D., is chief of staff to CSUB President Horace Mitchell and an advocate for domestic violence awareness.