My life was chaotic for as long as I can remember. I thought that was how all families lived — I didn’t know anything else. There were two sides to our family. One was the public and church side; everyone outside the walls of our house saw a happy, loving family. The other, real side was anything but that.

My baby brother was born right after my third birthday. Mom never brought him home from the hospital — he died several hours after his birth. Everyone was sad, even my dad. Soon after the baby died, I was in bed snuggled under my warm covers, almost asleep. My father slipped into the bedroom to kiss me goodnight. Sitting down on my bed, the mattress sunk under his weight.

He started to talk to me, but I don’t remember what he said. I only remember what happened next. He proceeded to touch me in ways I couldn’t understand. Tears immediately escaped my eyes and landed on my cheek — not because it hurt, but because I was frightened and confused by what had just occurred. When the tears began to flow, he whispered, “Shhh, don’t cry. You’re my special girl.” Immediately after I “hushed,” he made me touch him inappropriately. I jerked away and hid my hands under my stomach. Without saying a word, he got up and left my room. I had no way to understand what had happened, other than the feeling that it wasn’t right.

I had no way to understand what had happened, other than the feeling that it wasn’t right.

The next morning was no different from any other. I blocked what my dad had done the night before from my mind.

My dad began to groom me for his evil desires. I became his confidant. We went fishing, to the movies. He took me on special trips to the store. And the abuse continued. He isolated me from my mom, telling me that she had two other children who needed her more than me. I was the baby of the family. For most of my life, I heard, “Nothing ever bothers Yvonne. She always has a smile on her face.”

Mom ignored how Dad blatantly and physically abused my older brother right before her eyes. My brother took beating after beating from Dad, who would taunt my brother by saying, “I know you want to hit me!” He would watch my brother open and close his fists to resist his taunts. Dad gave me power over my brother because he knew I wouldn’t lie. If my brother had cigarette smoke on his breath, Dad would confront him, and my brother would deny it. I was told to smell my brother’s breath and tell Dad if I smelled smoke. I often did, so I told the truth, and my brother would get beaten. One day when I was about 10, Dad told me to smell my brother’s breath again. I said, “No, I don’t smell anything.” I was told to smell again, but I told him the same thing. My brother didn’t get beaten that time!

I stayed silent for over two decades.

My dad was a master manipulator, threatening me about what would happen if I said anything. He said my grandma would die if I told. I would be all alone with no place to live, my mom wouldn’t believe me, and I would be responsible if he went to jail. One night he told me he would molest my friend, who was sleeping over, if I did not do what he wanted. He promised to never touch me again if I cooperated “one more time.” Of course that proved to be just one of many “one more times” to come.

On several occasions when I refused to do what he wanted, he tried to give me a knife. He said, “Go ahead. Kill me. Then you can explain to your mother why I’m dead.” I felt responsible for all these lives, so I stayed silent for over two decades.

My life was a mess after college graduation. But I was blessed to meet a man, my husband of 37 years, who loved me no matter what. God brought our family to a church filled with people who believed in the power of prayer. They supported us as I struggled through all the necessary therapy to bring much needed restoration.

They also offered a class for people who wanted healing from anything that prevented them from experiencing the abundant life. It was also recommended that I attend a class for women who had suffered sexual abuse. To say I was anxious the first night I walked into the class is putting it mildly. However, the evening ended up being pretty uneventful. The next 11 weeks were more difficult, but worth the effort, as I took the first few small steps toward a very long journey of healing in my mind, soul, and spirit.

Unforgiveness affected me, not him.

Through the class, I met Lisa, who would become my personal Christian counselor. For 13 years, she walked with me through the healing process. Many times I would sit in her office and barely speak, because the shame and self-hatred I owned was overwhelming. I learned that there was no timeline for how long therapy would take. Lisa emphasized that forgiving my dad was a process. As I worked through all he had done, I gradually made decisions to forgive him. It wasn’t a one-time choice. Just as Lisa had said, it took time, and it was a very long process. Forgiving my dad was for my benefit, not his — unforgiveness affected me, not him.

To be honest, forgiving myself was often more difficult. I had to stop believing the lies my dad had told me and quit shouldering the blame. One of the biggest steps I took was to hold him responsible for his abuse. I pressed charges against him and he went to jail. He experienced the consequences of his actions, but that didn’t mean I was unforgiving or vengeful.

Though I have been able to forgive my dad, I never had a healthy relationship with him. After his death, God restored my relationship with my mom. It isn’t what I always desired and it probably never will be, but it’s good.

My identity is not defined by the crimes.

I haven’t just survived the abuse I experienced; I’ve thrived in spite of it. I know my life could have taken an entirely different path. I struggled with suicidal ideation for more than 20 years. I’m alive today because of the grace of God. I didn’t rebel or become steeped in addiction. I didn’t repeat history by marrying an abusive man. I didn’t turn away from God — rather, I clung to him. He was and is my only hope.

I don’t wear the shame that was never mine to carry in the first place, although sometimes those feelings still come up. My identity is not defined by the crimes that were perpetrated upon me. The lies I believed to be truth are broken. The chains of secrecy, which kept my mouth shut to protect the family image, are gone. It’s not my fault my dad went to jail. It’s his.

My identity is being the beloved, honored daughter of God, and that, above all else, is why I thrive.

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Tags: abuse
Photo Credit: Marivi Pazos