Disclaimer: What follows is a raw and emotional retelling of the trauma I walked through as a child. This is in no way written to impart blame or anger upon anyone involved. I have made my peace with this. I have asked for forgiveness for my actions and thoughts. I have forgiven others for what I was put through. Please note I am intentionally leaving names out, but know that my parents are innocent in this. They had no idea what was happening and are fully absolved from any guilt real or imparted.
Thirteen, to some it’s just a number, to others it’s a time of coming of age. But to me, 13 signified so much more.
13: The number of years the abuse went on for.
13: The age I was freed from the abuse.
13: The years I would never have back.
13: The age that I became angry and turned my back on God.
13: The day I turned into a statistic because I was abused and I survived.
No one would ever have guessed that I was abused. If you had seen my family when I was a kid, we were the typical church family. Five kids, two parents, all went to church and participated. All the kids were homeschooled. Everything seemed fine. Everyone from the outside looking in thought that it was the perfect Christian family.
If only they could have seen the truth. The truth that in the midst of perceived perfection lay broken people grappling with a horror few would ever want to counsel.
The abuse started when I was young. In fact, I don’t remember a day without it. For thirteen years I was abused emotionally, verbally, mentally, and physically. I remember being told I was worthless. I remember being beaten for angering someone. I remember living in fear that if I breathed wrong I would be hurt and hunted for what I had done.
Each day, I tried to steel myself towards the very real pain I would endure. I found ways to remove myself when it would happen. I would think about life outside of who I was. I would imagine myself in a world free from pain and hurt. I would immerse myself in the fairy tale worlds of the books I so sought to be a part of. I would run and hide. At times I ran away. I tried to tell people at different times but recanted my testimony soon after because I would be abused even worse. Each day I would tell myself to “just survive”.
The hell that I endured seemed to be never ending. The physicality of the abuse left very tangible scars. My hands still shake to this day. I have little feeling in parts of my body. The emotional wounds run deep. When I see people abused and hurt, I grieve and weep. The depth of their pain I feel and it takes me back. Back to when I was young, innocent, defenseless, and a different person. The images of what happened still flash through my mind periodically and invoke various emotions.
13: I remember the day when the abuse was no more.
The person responsible was arrested that day. An episode of COPS played out at our home as the person was tackled by multiple police officers after threatening harm to someone else. I stood there watching as a thirteen-year-old boy mesmerized by how quickly it was over. The threat was gone. Removed for good. I should have rejoiced. I should have come clean. But like many who have experienced trauma my response was quite the opposite.
13: The age at which I became a radically different person.
I lashed out. At family, specifically my parents. At siblings who weren’t abused. I alienated friends. I didn’t trust anyone. I cursed God for the hell He had put me through. I cursed my abuser. In fact, I went so far as to not only curse that person, I vowed to hurt them and to kill them.
This was not an idle threat. I had planned it out and knew exactly what I would do if I could just get close enough. Even typing this out sickens me to think of how hurt and lost I was then. For years, I allowed the hate and anger to control who I was. It dictated how I responded to those around me. How I maligned those I perceived as weak. How I became the bully. How I became the person I had hated.
18: The year that all changed.
I had gone through thirteen years of abuse and five years of anger-fueled rebellion and reaction. I had also put on the easily-seen-through facade of the “good youth group kid.” I will never forget the night when our youth pastor spoke about forgiveness and loving those who hurt us. I laughed. Out loud. I was that kid. I couldn’t stand hearing such hypocrisy and blatant disregard for the hurt and broken. Love one another? Love those who persecute you? I laughed and screamed at God. I got into my car and drove home at speeds that could have killed me if I took one turn incorrectly.
The entire way home I yelled at God. Screamed at Him. “HOW COULD YOU LET THIS HAPPEN TO ME?!” “YOU DID THIS! I WAS innocent…” The words just stopped. I was wrecked with sobs. All the hurt and pain came rushing out of me. I felt God say in that moment, “Nick, so was I. I walked through that with you. I sustained you. I brought you here.” I tried to argue back, “But you don’t understand the pain, the hurt. I am used and broken.” God replied, “You are not broken, you are MY child. MY son. MINE.”
God convicted my heart that night. I confessed my anger and hate. I apologized for my evil thoughts of murder. I asked God to renew my heart and to help me live as He lives for us: as a sacrifice. I wrote my abuser a letter that night absolving them of guilt and telling them that I forgave them. Since that time we have worked toward healing our relationship. They have gotten help for a variety of issues affecting them and we have reconciled much of our past. It isn’t perfect but what relationship is?
Why share my story?
So why write this out? Why now? This post isn’t simply a story to share about my life, it is a story that is meant to instill hope and understanding about an issue that is happening all around us and in our churches. It is a way to encourage youth workers to care for the abused in their communities and churches, to be on the lookout for those who cannot fend for themselves. To be fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters to those who have lost them.
No one knew what was happening to me. To most, I was the hard, antagonistic, and rude student. But one youth pastor continued to love me, to preach Christ crucified, dead, and alive, who taught on forgiveness and compassion. That youth pastor broke down my walls and helped to shape me into the minister I am today.
This is our mantra. This is our calling: to minister to those that others won’t. That means the abused and the abuser.
Resources and suggestions
This is a list of resources and suggestions to help you in caring for these individuals. It is not exhaustive, but these do work:
- Listen to people. Listen to what a student says, if they talk of fear, not wanting to be at home, or they talk about being away from everything.
- Watch your students. Watch for behavior changes. Did the once outgoing student suddenly withdraw? Did the quiet kid become rowdy and disruptive?
- Show empathy and sympathy. You don’t always have to cry but let your students who come to you know that you love and care for them and that you hurt with them. As the body of Christ, we are all united in our love and care for each other so this should be a natural outflow of that.
- Don’t not respond. If someone comes to you with this type of scenario don’t brush it off or have something better to do like check your phone. Pay attention and address it.
- Prepare to counsel the victim, the victim’s family, the abuser, and the abuser’s family. This may mean purchasing counseling books, attending or watching seminars, or having a crisis counselor on your church staff. The point is, be prepared.
- Network and build resources within your community. There are hundreds of national resources for youth ministries with this type of situation, but what local sources are there for you? Have you reached out to others? Are these people members of your church? Networking helps more than you can imagine.
- When you don’t know, always refer. Referral is a good thing, not a bad one. You wouldn’t go to a pediatrician for major open heart surgery. They refer out for your benefit. Do the same for your students.
- Provide a safe place to be and to share. Let students see you as honest and loving. Let them know you won’t air their stories everywhere. Let them know you always have their back.
- Love well. Love the abused, the broken, the hurting. Love those who hurt others. We are called to love by the Father of Love. God is our very definition of love. If we do not love across the board to all then we are not following the calling of loving others.
- Pray. Pray hard and pray often. Pray before it happens. Pray when you become aware. Pray for healing after you find out. Pray for protection. Pray for the enemy to be banned from your ministry. PRAY.
- Don’t be silent. Speak on the topic. Speak on helping others. Speak about being a safe place.
- National resources include: Door of Hope 4 Teens, Crisis Chat, Teens Helping Teens, The National Domestic Violence Hotline, RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Child Help.
- Remember to research mandated reporting for your area and ministry. Many people in ministry positions will be the first to hear about abuse and as such you may be required to report on it to the authorities. It would be wise to know what must be reported and who you should report it to.