Finding Freedom From Shame
About the Guest
Studies show that one in three women will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Sexual abuse survivor Nicole Braddock Bromley recalls the moment when she told her mother of her sexual abuse from her stepfather, and the steps they took in order to protect themselves.
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Sexual abuse survivor Nicole Braddock Bromley recalls the moment when she told her mother about being sexually abused by her stepfather.
Finding Freedom From Shame
Bob: Nicole Bromley remembers the day clearly when she spoke up—told the truth / came clean—told her mother about how her stepfather was sexually abusing her.
Nicole: We were in the car—my mom and I alone. My mom began to express to me for the first time that she might not have been as happily married as I thought she was. She said to me that she was afraid of him. Then, she said: “He has been acting so weird lately. Has he done anything strange around you?” I knew that, if I was ever going to tell my mom, this was the time; and I took it.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, March 3rd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Ephesians, Chapter 5, [verse 11] says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”
That is what Nicole Bromley decided to do. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition. You have already shared this week, Dennis, the statistic that one in three girls, before the age of 18, will experience some kind of sexual abuse as they are growing up. And for boys, the number is one in six who will experience sexual abuse before they turn 18.
I remember having a conversation with Dr. Dan Allender on this subject years ago. He said it really depends on how you define abuse—what those statistics are—because he said there are a lot of girls in their teen years who are sexually abused by boyfriends who become more aggressive than they ought. He said, “Frankly, at some level, in the culture today, there is sexual abuse that’s taking place all around us.
All you have to do is turn on your television and watch a few hours of prime time; and by the time you’re done, you have been sexually abused.”
Dennis: Yes. As a result, there are all kinds of impact on interpersonal relationships occurring between girls and guys; and they have no idea what is going on.
We have a guest, here on FamilyLife Today—Nicole Bromley, who has written a book called Breathe. Nicole, as I welcome you back, I want you to explain the title of the book, Breathe, because earlier you shared how your stepfather—over a period of ten years, beginning at the age of 5—sexually abused you. You finally told your mom when you were about 15 years of age. That resulted in your stepfather’s suicide a week later.
I am just wondering here—as you share this title—how much of it is tied to what you experienced as a result of sharing the truth with your mom.
Nicole: Breathe is all about the fact that sexual abuse survivors feel like they can’t breathe. I mean, when we keep this secret of sexual abuse—which most survivors do—it’s almost like we are not able to really freely engage with the world around us. We are not able to breathe deeply. We are not able to engage in relationships the way God meant them to be. We are suffocating ourselves because we are keeping this secret. It is impacting everything in our life—our choices / our relationships—everything.
Breathe is about finding that freedom to just thrive. For me, I think that I was able to get my first real breath when I told my mom at 14. Her belief in me helped me to be able to breathe freely—to know I am not alone, to know that I am safe now, and to know I can be free of the shame that I carried for so long.
That was the beginning of a healing process for me and finding my breath again.
Bob: We talked about Dr. Dan Allender and his writing and counseling on this subject at the beginning of today’s program. I think it would be helpful for you and for our listeners just to hear a part of the conversation we had with him on this subject. He has written on it extensively and has done a lot of personal counseling and workshop counseling with folks who are victims of sexual abuse. His insights, I think, help give us a broader perspective on what is going on in the human soul when sexual abuse is happening.
[Previously Recorded Broadcast]
Dan Allender: Whenever we are dealing with that topic, it brings up such strong emotions that it is easy to either run from it or miss the reality of it. The issue of abuse can be put very simply.
Whenever a child or adolescent is used by a powerful child or older adult, then, we have the reality of sexual abuse. There are a lot of people who have been involved in physical contact—that would have been abuse.
One of the strong points we have made already is it can also be interactions that did not involve any touch whatsoever—an uncle who comes into a place where a child is showering, clearly for the sake of ogling her body. He observes—it’s not a mistake / it’s not an error—but indeed, he doesn’t leave / he watches. What we are dealing with is not just a “dirty old man” but a man who has the effect of damaging that child’s heart.
Dennis: From a Christian perspective, our response, as we look into the Bible, means we need to take these circumstances—that perhaps we had nothing to do with, that we didn’t invite, that we didn’t cause—but use these circumstances to move us toward God and toward knowing Him and knowing His Word better; right?
Dan: Oh, absolutely. That is the whole point of the Scriptures taking us into reality. So often, sadly, the Scriptures have been used to deny the fact. So many of the people I work with have been told: “Just forget about it. Don’t even think about it. Just get on. Just press on,”—which is really a misunderstanding of that Philippians 3 passage, where Paul does talk about not lingering in the past—but what he is underscoring is not lingering in the past of remembering a basis of self-righteousness but moving on to the high call of maturity in Christ. A whole lot of believers are told they ought not remember/ they ought not have those memories—they ought to move away from them.
Bob: Are you saying they need to enter into those memories at some level?
Dan: Absolutely! In other words, you cannot deal with reality by escaping it. That is not biblical. You must enter back into the reality of the damage that was done—the memories that, in fact, circulate through you.
Those are difficult issues because, as we deal with this topic of memory, there is a whole lot of controversy as well as a whole lot of complexity; but I think we can get to some very simple points. One of those points would be: “You cannot deal with the past by escaping it. You can only deal with the past by entering it and asking some very hard questions about it.”
Dennis: I think it is important that our listeners hear this because the response of the human heart, typically, is to deny that this has ever happened—we push it down in our memory bank. We kind of put it in a jar, and compartmentalize it, and then, screw the lid on top of it. It remains there inside of us, but it is alive; isn’t it, Dan?
Dan: Absolutely. Remember, as we talked about the issue of powerlessness—“I hate to feel helpless. Anything that makes me feel that way, I want to run from.”
On the other hand, abuse always involves betrayal. So, to open the door to feeling like: “I was a fool for having trusted someone who used me,”—I want to escape that. But that core issue of having felt ambivalent—there was a part that felt aroused / a part that felt horrified by what occurred.
That complexity, right there, causes me to want to turn my eyes / my thoughts away from what occurred so that I can kind of get on with life—but it lingers.
We bear the baggage of the past until we can come to the point like Joseph, who looked at his own past and said, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” That is a great paradox; and, yet, I think it is possible for any victim, if they have the courage, to enter back into that damage.
Bob: You know what it is first-hand, though, to suppress memories of sexual abuse.
Dan: Oh, absolutely. When I began writing The Wounded Heart, I was in the middle of writing it without even facing the fact that I had my own history of abuse. I simply had not done what many victims need to do; and that is, to put 2 plus 2 together—hit the sign that says, “equals,”—and then 4.
I had known that I was abused—so many of my memories were very, very clear. As I dealt with those issues, I have also had memories that have come back in particles.
A lot of memories will come back like puzzle pieces that aren’t full / that aren’t complete.
One of the questions that I know a lot of our folks are asking is: “What do I do with those memories? I have this particle / that particle. What do I do with it?” And that’s crucial to say that you can mishandle it by doing too much with it. You can be worried about it—sitting back and saying: “Was I abused? Does this memory indicate that I might have been abused?” The issue, bottom line, is: “Are you open to the data and what it might point toward?”—not whether you have come to that conclusion.
But the memories that I knew indicated abuse—I simply did not want to face. There were other memories that had particles that I didn’t want to really explore, to pray about—to ask God: “What is this? Why do I remember this memory of being in my grandfather’s tack room?” Yet, I remember part of it; but then, my memory fades. I can’t even, to this day, get a full handle on it.
Now, what am I to do with that fact? Well, I am not to do much other than to pray.
Am I open? Psalm 139 [verses 23, 24]—“Show me those secret ways,”—those ways in which I may be moving myself or others toward harm.
Now, once I have those memories / some particles, then, I am going to ponder, pray, sometimes journal—think those things through—but then, leave them for God to bring more particles—which He might two weeks from now, two months from now, two years from now. I am not to over-generalize / I am not to overwork them; but I am to honestly look at them.
Bob: You shouldn’t necessarily, then, go to a counselor and get him to help you unveil those secret / those hidden places?
Dan: Well, I don’t think any counselor is a soothsayer. I am a therapist, but I don’t, so-call, tell people what their memories are. I help them think through the themes of their lives. That is one of the reasons we look at the past—is that the past makes clearer something about my present. That is why I want to look at the themes of my own life.
One of the themes of my life has been—it is easy for me to isolate and to isolate in the context of reading books.
Well, as I look at that path of isolation, I can also look back to the fact that the way I handled some of the struggles of my past was to sequester myself—put myself in a position where I didn’t have to deal with people because people were so very, very painful.
You look at the themes of the present—looking, then, to the past to see what confirmation / what categories would help me better understand what is going on today. But we never go to the past / we never go to memories—bottom line—to justify what I have chosen to do with my past. My past doesn’t explain me nor excuse me; but it opens the door to better understand what it means to change today—what it means to really face the fact that, “Yes, with the damage of past abuse, something inside of me said, ‘I am never going to trust again,’”—back to that idea of a clenched fist that says, “Given how I have been harmed, I am not going to allow myself to be harmed again.”
Now, that needs to be repented of. We are right back to “What can I do with the past?” Nothing!
But what I can do with the past is allow it to help me see the energy and the demands I make upon God today and others today that really does not have a consistent path of living for the Lord.
Bob: That is helpful, I think, just to hear Dan Allender’s perspective on this subject and to hear how we process this when it is a part of our life. Nicole, I am wondering—in your situation, where you were the victim of childhood sexual abuse, perpetrated upon you by your stepfather—do you find yourself looking back at the past and going: “Where was God in all of this?” I mean: “Good God / unspeakable horror—how do I put the two of those together?”
Nicole: Yes. Well, for me, I think a lot of this wrestling came as a teenager. For a long time, I ran from God with these questions:
“Where were you, Lord? Why did You abandon me? You are an all-loving, perfect Father. Doesn’t seem like it! Why didn’t You stop it?” Those questions, I think, are typical of anyone who has gone through suffering and pain in their life, and I have heard these questions over and over from others. For me, I wrestled it out as a teenager. And like I said, I ran from God for so long with these questions. It was almost like throwing them behind me as I ran away from Him.
I got to a point where I realized, “If God is this all-loving Father, He would want us to come to Him with our questions.” That is what dad’s want—they want you to come to him and talk to him about this—to work it out and come to an understanding. So, I decided that was what I was going to try and do, and see who He really was, and what He thought about it. So that is when I began to seek Him. I began to read the Word / I began to pray and journal. I used to write out my prayers at night. They would be very hard-core—I mean anger.
I wanted His answers / I wanted to know.
It was through that time of crying out to Him—in those lowest moments of hurt, and despair, and feeling betrayed—that I began to see that He was answering me. His Word was speaking to my heart. Worship songs were speaking to me in a way and comforting me in a way that nothing else could. I began to feel safe. I never felt safe my entire life. I saw that He was bringing people into my life that were making a difference—that I could trust / that I could talk to. I wanted to give credit to where it was due, and I knew that it was Him who was meeting me in those moments.
Bob: But you still don’t have an answer.
Nicole: No—and that’s the thing. I’ve had to live with the unanswered questions because the fact is—we live in a dying, hurting, fallen, messed-up world. Sin is happening all around us. There is going to be pain and suffering. We have to acknowledge that and acknowledge that we aren’t God; you know?
But in the midst of all of that, God cares about us. He cares about the hurts that come from the sin of others. I think that there is purpose beyond our pain, and I am willing to seek that. And the things I don’t know the answers to—I am okay with because God is my Father and He saved me.
Dennis: Okay, Nicole; you are admitting that you have questions / you’ve got doubts still unanswered as you have gone through the process; but you made just a very quick statement, saying, “You wouldn’t trade your life.”
Nicole: No, I wouldn’t. No, because the God of this entire universe has allowed me to go through the things I have gone through to create me into the person that I am today. I have a heart to help people / I have a heart for justice—I have a heart to love others who feel unlovable. Had I never gone through the things that I had, I don’t think I would have that kind of compassion for others. This is the life that I have been given. I am going to do the best with it that I can.
Dennis: You are not going to let the evil that occurred to you define you.
Nicole: Exactly. So many times, people say to me, “What is it like to be known as a sexual abuse survivor to so many people around the world who do not know you?” To me, it is not about that—that is not my identity / it is not who I am—it is what happened to me. Yes, it will affect me for the rest of my life; and yes, I speak about it all the time—but it is not who I am to my core. I have had to come to understand who I am in Christ. That is what has really grounded me and kept me—kept my head above water, to be honest—to be able to be free to breathe in my life.
But the evil that has been done to me does not define me; but I can use it / I can let God use it—surrender all of that to Him to make it into something beautiful. I believe He’ll do that in anyone’s life.
Dennis: It is not just about receiving healing from that which occurred to you; you’ve actually turned it around into the offensive, where you are going out to help people.
You are going on the college campus to speak to groups of young ladies, who are victims of date rape and sexual abuse. As a result, what are you finding out as you tell your story?
Nicole: Every time I share my secret, I find myself in a room full of secrets. You know, the faces / the stories might look different; but the fact is still the same that there are thousands and thousands of young men and women, who are silently suffering from the pain of sexual violence—whether it be date rape, harassment, childhood sexual abuse, sex trafficking. All of these kinds of issues are affecting us. The numbers are staggering.
Honestly, I don’t think it is just me who is called to be on the offensive—to just receive healing and just sit on it. I think it is taking advantage of what God has given us. Second Corinthians 1:3-4 says that we are called to comfort others with the same comfort we have received from God. To just receive the Lord’s healing and just be grateful for that, I think, isn’t enough.
We have got to reach out into the next life and change the next generation. That is our call as Kingdom people—is to impact the lives around us. God created us for relationship; and we have got to create an atmosphere in our churches, in our schools, in our families, in our communities, and our work places, where we are willing to reach out to the next person with what we know.
Dennis: You know—Nicole, I really like what you said. I also like what you are doing here. You are going on the offensive to help others who have been damaged. People, today, need a safe place. The church—a community of believers—ought to be a trustworthy community to be able to get real and get honest about how we’ve been impacted—
Dennis: —by sin and by evil. Your authenticity, I think, helps create some of that safety if there are some relationships that can surround a person who is getting real.
If they get real, in response to what you are talking about—and there aren’t good people surrounding them—that can be dangerous as well.
Nicole: Yes; exactly. I think we have to cultivate relationship. We have to acknowledge the impact we can have in the life of another person. Just as one abusive relationship can completely distort a child’s development, so can one healthy adult relationship really set a broken person on a path for healing. I think, if anything, that is what my second book, Breathe, is all about. It is encouraging people to be a part of that circle of support—I call it a “Circle of Inspiration” because they are literally breathing life into these broken people, who have been living in silence for so long.
They need people to come alongside them. They need good, healthy parents, who are willing to hear this secret, and be willing to stand beside their children, and help walk them through healing. They need friends. They need mentors and counselors. They need fellow followers of Jesus.
Like you said, the church is such an important role—the example that the church can set on this issue alone is huge.
Dennis: I really like how you put that—where if one person can bring evil to another person, so it is that God can use one person to bring healing and hope to them.
Nicole: I have seen that in my life. My mom was the first one, but there have been many others who just compounded that for me.
Dennis: So, to that person who is listening to this story today—and they may have had some unspeakable evil done to them, and they may feel imprisoned, and they haven’t brought their secret out yet—the hope for them dealing with their secret and receiving that healing and redemption is, I think, the body of Christ—a community of believers / safe Christians—or beginning with just one, like you talked about, who is trustworthy to be able to share your story with.
And that may take an enormous amount of courage, Bob; but it is where Nicole found hope, and ultimately, healing.
It is where others can as well.
Bob: When you stop and think about the ministry of Jesus toward the broken—it was always compassion, and love, and grace, and restoring what was broken in their lives. That ought to be our response, as followers of Christ, when we hear about the brokenness of other people in the body of Christ—is to be ministers of compassion, and grace, and healing, and hope, and restoration for those who have gone through the kind of experience that you have gone through, Nicole.
I think, frankly, the books you have written give us tools we can use. So that, when I hear about somebody who has experienced childhood sexual abuse and the scars are still there, these are books I can put in their hands and say, “I think you will find help and hope here.”
The first book Nicole has written is called Hush, and it recounts a lot of the story that you have shared with us this week. Then, the second book is called Breathe: Finding Freedom to Thrive in Relationships After Childhood Sexual Abuse. We have both books in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on how you can request copies of these books from us. Again, FamilyLifeToday.com is our website. You can also contact us by phone at 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329. Ask about the books by Nicole Bromley, and we will let you know how you can have copies of them sent to you.
Now, we want to take just a minute, Dennis, and say, “Thank you,” to those listeners who make programs like we featured today possible. FamilyLife Today is listener-supported. If it weren’t for listeners—who pitch in occasionally or those who become Legacy Partners and help sponsor this program each month—
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Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear from Nicole Bromley about how her experience of childhood sexual abuse impacted her life as an adult. Hope you can join us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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