The Cost of Engaging Stories of Sexual Abuse

This week’s conversation dives into a difficult but essential topic: addressing past experiences of sexual abuse. We understand the weightiness of this subject and approach it with sensitivity and care. At the Allender Center, this work is central to our mission, and while it’s undeniably challenging, we’ve also witnessed its profound goodness. Our journey toward healing doesn’t involve bypassing the pain but rather moving through it.

Dan and Rachael navigate the complexities of addressing sexual abuse, acknowledging the costs – both internal and external – that survivors face. They compassionately explore the impact trauma has on the body, relationships, and spirituality. Rachael eloquently expresses the intricate nature of this process, recognizing the need to navigate the debris of past harm while holding space for the potential for growth and beauty.

The conversation extends to the ripple effects on relationships, including disruptions within familial, marital, and friendship dynamics. Dan emphasizes the importance of having supportive allies who understand the complexities of the healing journey, even as it may challenge existing relational dynamics.

In the spiritual realm, Rachael and Dan delve into the complexities of wrestling with faith in the aftermath of sexual abuse. They bravely confront questions and doubts about God’s role in suffering while also acknowledging the possibility of deepened intimacy and connection with the divine.

We invite you to find solace, insights, and encouragement in this discussion. We recognize the immense courage it takes to embark on a journey of healing and restoration. It is our firm belief that it’s possible to reclaim your identity and discover hope amidst the pain.

Please note that this episode contains discussions of sexual abuse and childhood sexual abuse, as well as brief explicit language that may be offensive to some listeners. Listener discretion is advised.

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Episode Transcript:

Dan: Rachael, we’re going to talk about sexual abuse, but before we do, and we’re going to talk about in some ways the cost of engaging the reality of our abuse, whether it be your initial foray into addressing it or your hundredth, there’s always a cost, and it’s so very important to know what the cost is. You have a passage in Luke chapter 14 that says, before you go to war, before you build a building, count the costs. And we want to at least ponder that when we address sexual abuse, all sorts of proverbial shit hits the fan. Does that seem true?

Rachael: Absolutely, absolutely true.

Dan: So we know there’s a cost, and we also know, without going into a lot of detail on this particular podcast, that the Kingdom of Evil does not want us talking about this, and we spend a lot of time talking about a lot of other matters that are very important. But certainly as we step into this topic, I’m just aware that it is hard and there will always be something opposed to you to us engaging, going further in addressing these matters. But simply there’s a cost. And so we want to, in one sense, do a good Luke 14 on our and your behalf, and that is to think through something of the implications of cost. Now, before we get into it, what I want to say is it will sound certainly initially like the cost exceeds any benefit or the potential benefits. And obviously we would not be doing this if we questioned at the deepest level that there are great benefits, but if you’ll stay with us, we’ll get to the benefits. But nonetheless, there has to be a hard search and a faithful, true search. What’s the cost of stepping in to these matters? And so as we begin curious where your heart goes.

Rachael: Yeah, I think at the very baseline my heart goes. And therefore, if we need to step into some of the hard matters to put language to them, which I think is very beneficial, and we’re naming there’s great opposition, then I can only enter these waters knowing that the one who goes with us, not just an idea, but in Spirit, an intercession holds that kind of death-defying power to bring beauty out of our ashes. And so I think I feel a real sense of needing to name as we step in to naming some of the cost that we don’t have to spiritually bypass. Like oh, so we don’t have to talk about the hard stuff cause God’s with us, but we don’t also have to enter alone or on our own will or volition or capacity.

Dan: All I can say is even just hearing, even if I know and could almost predict it word for word there is something that happens for me in my body as I hear you say that, and it’s like, yeah, yeah. So let’s jump in. What’s the cost? And I’m going to reflect from my own and certainly from the lives of others as you do as well. So I would say there are three primary categories we want to talk about, the effect with regard to your body, the effect with regard to relationships and what happens and the key relationship and as your relationship with God, what’s the cost in that process? And again, what I want to also underscore is this is generally true, but there’s going to be kind of English about a trillion exceptions to every so-called rule. So start with a body, what would you say is involved, excuse me, in that cost?

Rachael: Well, and just to clarify, Dan, the cost of sexual abuse or the cost of engaging sexual abuse.

Dan: Yeah, the latter, but it’s so tied to the former that we in some sense can’t, yeah, we can’t escape both.  

Rachael: I mean, initially what comes to mind for me is, and we talk about this a lot in all of our work, is you can’t engage the impact of harm we’ve experienced without engaging the trauma that’s left in its wake. And so to even take one step toward engaging reality of sexual harm or sexual abuse is going to have to be engaging the trauma that your body bears. You can’t actually sidestep it. And for many of us who have known sexual harm or sexual abuse, especially if it happened in our childhood, there’s a lot of debris that’s come even in the wake of the initial harm. So it’s not only are we addressing maybe a really particular moment or a chronic complex ritual of moments, but we’re also having to hold just all the debris that’s come in the wake. And I don’t think that the debris just leaves brokenness. I think there’s also a really beautiful things we’re given, but you can’t actually engage the beauty without engaging the heartache. So you have to feel some of the impact of the harm all over again.

Dan: So well said.

Rachael: That’s where I would start.

Dan: Yeah, no, it’s so true. And to say two more things. The one is you can’t deal with the heartache of the past, let alone sexual abuse, and think you’re dealing with an abstraction like a fact, like, oh yeah, I was sexually abused when I was eight. And there are a number of people who have done the beginning good work of naming the reality that what they experienced was sexual abuse. That’s a huge first move. Nonetheless, there are ways to engage that, that are, I’ll use the metaphor, at 30,000 feet, but the closer you get to the dirt, and what I mean by dirt is the particularity of what occurred as the grooming occurred, as the beginning of the abuse occurred, and through the process of the plot of what occurred until the finish, again, the question that many people will ask is, do I have to be that close to the reality? And the answer in part is, well, healing is something that you are entirely in control of. If all you can bear right now is sort of the facts at 30,000 feet, then honor that it is good, but there is more. And so to move at 20 10, 5, et cetera, means that you’re entering more into indeed what your body, your being, your presence suffered in the particularity of the moments because shame is bound not to abstraction, but to the particularity of moments. And so the closer we get to indeed what happened, not abstractly generally, but in a way in which we are narrating for our younger parts, for our very being, we are going to secondly experience some of what we experienced in that actual moment. And I think that’s where people are very surprised that in one sense, the event isn’t 20 or 30 years ago. It’s actually right now as I begin to enter into that 250 feet above it or literally in the dirt, my body is going to feel the terror, the fury. I’m going to feel the temptation to a kind of dissociative structure that’s probably enabled me to survive back then. And yet as my body experiences the wide panoply of feeling sensations, those moments where there was some degree of touch that felt either tender or kind or arousing, my body is going to experience to a degree, all of that debris,

Rachael: Yeah, I just feel really tender. This is still, because I think in some ways what some people could hear is, oh, so I just have to get to the graphic details, and that’s not what you’re saying, and I hope people can hear well, the nuance of no, no, we’re talking about honoring what the body has suffered and giving voice to what the body has suffered in all of that so that there can be a movement toward a more cohesive story where we’re bound by shame or tormented by fear and powerlessness stuck because that’s some of the ways we’ve come to learn the impact of trauma is it almost freezes in parts of our body. And there’s no way to get that unstuck without giving some kind of voice to how it got stuck in the first place and in the presence of a safe enough, kind, wise witness or witnesses.

Dan: And even as you use the word graphic, what I hear in that word is kind of like, I’m just going to tell you the worst parts of it. Just get it over with. And that’s why the labor is reiterative. You’ll likely begin at 30,000 feet. But over a season of telling that story, often again and again, there will be new factors, a new smell, a new sound. There will be a sense that senses are more open to taking in and something of what we experienced in the process. And it’s just again, crucial that people hear, you need to tend to your body not demand that you suffer virtually. I don’t care what it takes, I’m going to run this marathon. The kind of the no gain, no or no pain, no gain, you go, no, there will be suffering, but there is a no, this is time to stop and tend to, care for. And that’s why I often go back to Psalm 1:31, I know how to soothe myself like a ween child. It’s so important to be able to know as my body feels terror, feels rage or feels something of the humiliation, and yet the arousal, all of those combinations intersecting, which are such a conglomeration of contradiction, as I bear all that, can I put my hands on my chest and start to lower my heart rate? Can I breathe in a way that begins to lower some of the stress bio chemicals or can I rock and I’m a rocker. Can I rock forward and back side to side? Can I take a walk.    Again, only to say we’re not trying to keep you from entering, but to know that this entry doesn’t have to be harsh, demanding. It has to bear what you couldn’t bear, what you couldn’t do on your behalf in the moments of the abuse itself. And that is to tend to your body with truth and reality, but also with the presence of mercy and kindness.

Rachael: That’s right.

Dan: Well, yep. Got more. And that is, if you’re going to address this and ongoingly address it, you’re going to have to take into account that likely there will be some degree of disruption in your core relationships as you’re dealing with the past abuse. And again, where does your heart and mind go regarding that?

Rachael: Oh, so many places, because I think where some people might jump to right away is, oh, I mean, because we know statistically so often the primary abusers are people we actually are already in intimate relationships with, whether it’s a teacher or a parent or an uncle or a sibling or a neighbor. So there’s that very basic sense of it might disrupt familial relationships or family systems, or a lot of times that’s where our brain goes. But I would say, oh, but it also is going to affect how you’re parenting and how you are in your marriage, and being able to tell more truth in friendships. The people who are in relationship with you are going to be impacted by your own journey because the journey of moving toward integrity, meaning bringing together of the parts tends to look a lot messier and feel not great before it starts to feel healing. And I think part of that is God wants us to actually be a part of the journey and be a part of… So much of what’s lost in sexual abuse or sexual harm is a sense of volition, a sense of choice, a sense of power, a sense of autonomy and personhood and honor and dignity. So we don’t skip over all the mess because we actually need to have some choice and some personhood in the midst of all of that. But you can’t step into healing work without it being disruptive, not only to relationships that it should be disruptive to, right? If you’re confronting an abuser who’s still in relationship with you or still connected to your family or to a system that’s obviously going to be disruptive, but it should in a very honoring way, also be disruptive to your primary relationships that might actually be very loving and very caring.

Dan: Oh, preach it. Preach it. It’s like, oh, this is so important.

Rachael: Well, I think that’s why a lot of people maybe step in and then go, oh, I am too much. I need too much. I’m bringing too much. This is costing too much.

Dan: Yes, it’s one of the reasons why when I did the 25 year sort of anniversary of the Wounded Heart and wrote Healing the Wounded Heart, we did a workbook. And one of the things I was really adamant about was, yes, I want the workbook to be of aid to the person addressing directly their own abuse. But I said, it is just as important for the spouse or good friend, companion, partner to have a process they’re going through to understand some of the rises and falls, some of the tight corners and likely where some black ice is going to take you out if you’re not aware. So that’s so important to hear. And again, it’s tragic to think that there are people hearing this who don’t have allies, don’t have someone with them. Again, it just makes it harder. It doesn’t make it inevitably you can’t. But to have someone who will join you but also aware there’s going to be a cost for them and there will be disruption, likely communicationally, sexually, there’ll be times where the relationship will change. Again, there are many factors, but back to this one single one, you’re not dissociating. You’re not in some ways living for the comfort of the status quo quite in the same way you might have been before. So things that were there before, it’s not that this causes new problems.

Rachael: That’s right.

Dan: It’s that it exposes some of the fragmentation, the unaddressed issues in a marriage or in parenting or in friendships that now can’t be ignored because you’re more alive. And again, being alive means you’re more in pain, you have more as you put it, so well, more volition, more agency, more grief, more anger, and all that at one level is going to cost your spouse, your friends, something that they need to hear as part of a gift, maybe a difficult portion to walk through, but as a gift that will enable the relationship to grow to a whole new level. We’ll come to that in a little bit, but when you think about how Michael or Becky or others have engaged some of this, where does your heart go?

Rachael: Well, honestly, where it goes is the more you have the courage to engage your own heartache, if you have people around you who want to grow and want to know you, it’s going to invite them to more deeply engage their own heartache. And so in some ways, it more sets up that like, wait, we’re both needing a lot of care right now. Who’s going to care for us? And we can get into like, well, that’s part of the lie of the nuclear family as being enough and what it’s cost us being so disconnected from our families and our villages and with all the dysfunction that’s there, we still need our people to come along with us. So my experience has been, I’m really grateful that I have a companion who cares about my healing and anticipates that that will be a part of our journey. And also, man, to be exposed in your humanity in a healing process. And again, anchor doesn’t typically look pretty when it’s finding its voice. Grief doesn’t always look contained and lovely when it’s finding a way to move and take up residence. So it brings a lot of vulnerability and it brings new opportunities for, I think I would say this new opportunities is for deepening relationship with God, which I know we’re going to get to part of the cost because you have to actually depend on something beyond your own capacity to both give care and receive care. But I think it has in some ways, it’s that sense of any kind of healing is a part of the gospel. So it reminds me what Paul says to some, the aroma of the gospel will be a fragrance of life, but to others like a stench of death. And so it will be any healing journey, but especially with regard to sexual abuse so bodily, and it’s so connected to our desire and our sensuality and our sense of personhood and our sense of hope, it’s going to reveal real quickly, who are the people who genuinely want your healing and growth, and who are the people that actually want you to stay with the status quo because that works for them. So there might actually be relational loss.

Dan: Yes, it’s so well said. Again, there’s an echo of redemption when you’re struggling yet growing, it calls forth for something of the same with everyone around you, especially those who are intimate with you. And when they, in one sense say it’s you, you’re the problem. You get healed. So our relationship can be as it was or should be. Then again, it’s such a heartbreaking image comes from 2 Corinthians 2 toward the end of the chapter, but that sense of, oh my gosh, for my beloved wife, I’m beginning to be this stench of death. And yet for those who engage this and hear that not everyone has a history of past sexual abuse, obvious. Here’s the other sentence. Everyone struggles to some degree was shame. And something about our sexuality has felt compromised or violated. And even if we view the issue as our own failure, the bottom line is we know that there is something raw with regard to our own sense of self and our sexuality. So with all that to underscore, you’re going to echo and awaken something in your friends and your beloved and how we do this work together complicates it, but it’s also part of the cost that redemption is not meant to be yours and yours alone. It is a larger communion. And ultimately I believe a larger collective that’s meant to engage this well open the door to the final category, the struggle that begins to occur with God. Where does your mind go?

Rachael: My mind goes to, if you’ve somehow made it this far in life without wrestling with God, this kind of healing will bring you to a place of radical honesty with the places you need to rage at God, where you need to grieve, you need to bring your agony to God. You need to enter a more Psalm lamentation. You need to learn the language of lament as a true language of groaning and hope that is not foreign to the God of creation. So that can be really scary if part of the ways we’ve been invited to construct our faith is almost as a way to protect God from having to be indicted in the places we need to understand why this kind of suffering is allowed to happen. So I think it leads to a much more, I think honest, filled with integrity, but complex faith that’s not going to always be as soothing, even though paradoxically will become far more comforting probably than ways you’ve experienced the presence of God.

Dan: You better go back, rewind a little bit, protect God from indictment, take a leap into that water.

Rachael: Oh, just how often when people are suffering are we that language of spiritual bypassing invited to be like, yeah, but God is good and God’s good. There must be a reason God’s going to work out the good that can sometimes logically work if you’ve lost a loved one in a tragic way, how in the world does that work when you’re entering the realm of sexual abuse? I don’t think it actually works with the tragic loss of a loved one if we’re honest, like we’re okay with cancer being a thing that, okay, I’ll stop because I’m aware of touching on people’s real true life heartache, but I just think you’re not going to be able to, there will become a huge fracture if you get close to the heartache and tell the truth as to why God would allow something to happen. What do we do with God? Where is God? That’s the question I hear so often when I’m working with people bringing forth these stories that have brought so much heartache and harm, like where was God? Where was God? And I actually have a faith that says, that’s an important question to be asked. God welcomes that question, and we may not always get, there is a lot of mystery to human suffering in this already not yet place of Jesus has made a way something of the beauty and goodness of heaven has come to earth, and yet death still remains. There’s a lot of mystery here, but we don’t have to protect God from having to reckon with the reality of being human in a creation that is groaning.

Dan: Again, there’s only one Psalm out of 150 that ends like this, “and God, darkness is my best friend”, Psalm 88. But the fact that there’s one opens the door to the reality that we are at least invited through that door to end praise of God in rage. You see something of the reality of that as Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane and cries out after laboring to a point where his tears bear blood, my God, my God. Psalm 22:1, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Now, deed, it’s not the only sentence, and we can go further to make it sound more well spiritual, but the idea that God is at war with God, that the second member of the Trinity is in a battle with a Father. So when I hear people say God is good, yes he is. He’s even good in the midst of calling him a bad friend and one who has forsaken. So part of the labor that will come for anyone with a history of such harm is to be asking questions. And let me say it as just as well as I can that don’t have answers. They have a presence, a person, a face, and engagement. And what I want to say further is there are no answers to that question, but there’s the presence of a God who weeps on our behalf. And that may not take away the rage, but it is a presence. And again, it will sound too technical, but it’s the presence of attunement that our bodies, our hearts, our relationships desperately need. So what we’re beginning to already move toward is if you’re going to bear the cost, why would you do it? And part of the answer is to not be bound into a dutiful in many ways, fear-based, guilt based relationship with God that has to escape the harsh edges in order to smooth out the confusion we have with a God who’s both good and all powerful. And so to know that there is the possibility of a deeply held at times mysteriously built, but in some ways passionate engagement where God can hold all of me the good, the bad, the ugly, and can bear and engage with such kindness. That’s what I believe you’re going to find if you’re willing to open the door to the kind of suspicion and anger and in many ways, some of the agony that you really do hold with regard to God given the reality of past abuse. So when you think, Rachael, about what changes are possible in relationship, if you’re willing to step into the cost, what do you see?

Rachael: With God or with others?

Dan: I mean with both?

Rachael: Yeah. Well, first I want to say with God just a little more pastoral words. I know for me, part of what shifted too was so much of the imagery I had for God, and this is specific to me because so many of my abusers were men, and God had been given to me as an image, as just a man. And again, I do think Jesus is a man, so I’m well with that. But this groaning language we have in Romans 8 is such maternal, laboring, birth laboring and birth. And it’s been really powerful for me to experience something of a mother as I’m in a season of mothering, a toddler, of a mothering God who delights in being a container big enough, wants to know where I’m hurting, and not just in a, oh, I’m sorry that you’re hurting in a patronizing distant way or even an abusive way. I had the power to change, but I didn’t, but I’ll comfort you. No, in a God who labors for goodness on my behalf with agony and who cries out when I’m suffering and also is filled with fury to contend with all forces of death on my behalf, that’s just been a really powerful way in which being able to bring my full self to God and not leave parts of me out, which by the way, I still do all the time, this will be lifelong work for me. Not just because of the harm I’ve experienced, but because of the ways in which I’m shaped and a cacophony of things. I think what’s also possible just, I mean I already put words to this, but I think our relationships can actually grow in intimacy. And at the very minimum, I can exist more fully in them.

Dan: Oh, say it again.

Rachael: Because I can exist more fully. All the parts of me can come into relationship as I’m being healed and invited to a kind of wholeness. And again, that might not be for everyone. And so there’s some suffering involved. But you know what? There’s suffering involved either path. I think I’d rather suffer grief and loss of others than suffer the grief and loss of leaving myself at the door or cutting off or splitting off parts of me. I think there’s so much reclamation that’s possible because there are really beautiful parts of us that we split off when we’re harmed because it is shameful, it is terrifying. Our desire for care and connection and kindness and touch and all those things could come under a lot of indictment. And I just think we become more alive so we have more clarity and we have more hope because we’ve come back from the dead. So we actually become pretty dangerous people in a good way. Good danger, good danger.

Dan: Good danger, very good danger. And to say it as we come to an end, there is a degree to which the cost is death, but the reality is the resurrection is really true. And so as I enter into what feels like it will kill me, there’s a degree to which I’m testing as Pascal did the wager, the wager of faith. Is there a God? Is this God good? Will this God meet you? And so even in that sense of as we begin to be more authentic and the good, bad, and ugly with God, as we begin to see relationally that there is a deepened attunement, at least with some, with grief and anger, there is more connection. And I mean that more deepened connection, even if there has been a cost to get there to a point where we can say, almost ditto baby, with regard to your body. Your body becomes something not separate that you need to manage and control and shut down to keep from in one sense erupting, but it becomes something that indeed is you different than you, is you in a way that you get to tend to the garden, to the temple, and you get to indeed be informed, growing in awareness of how your body has helped you face and engage reality with even greater integrity. So I think as we come to an ending, I think what has to be heard is count the cost, and we hope that these few words have at least begun to enable you to have categories to begin to do so. But as you do so, you need to know that none of us, at least the two of us, would not invite you to this process without something of the promise of indeed. I would’ve despaired if I did not believe that I would see the goodness of God in the land of the living. And there is a land of the living and there is a taste of the goodness of God. And that, shall we say, roll the dice and see something of the goodness of God.

Rachael: Amen.