The Shrapnel of Sexual Abuse
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Bill and Pamela Ronzheimer tell how their marriage has been affected by Pamela’s past sexual abuse. Find out what pushed Pamela to finally reveal her past abuse to Bill.
The Shrapnel of Sexual Abuse
Bob: As a child, Pamela Ronzheimer experienced a series of traumatic events/events that scarred her soul and affected her life for years.
Pamela: From the time I was nine, all the way through to that ten-year point of our marriage, I had terrible nightmares/nightmares, where Satan would stand in front of me and say, “You will never be free from me.” I knew verses; I would quote Scripture in my sleep to fight that lie, but I did not connect it to the sexual abuse.
This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, June 8th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. The trauma of childhood sexual abuse is a big deal. It has a significant impact on someone’s life. We’ll hear more about that today from Bill and Pamela Ronzheimer. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re going to tackle a tough subject this week. It’s a subject—I remember Dennis Rainey would often say to me that the subject we’re going to be talking about is one of the hardest stones that the devil can throw at someone. The issue of sexual abuse leaves scars, in such a profound and remarkable/dramatic way in a person’s life, that it leaves shrapnel; and it leaves [need for] healing that can go on for years.
You know a little about this; it’s part of your story.
Ann: I do; it is part of my story. I thought that God would heal me instantly, but it became a journey of years and years.
Bob: We’ve got some friends, who are joining us today; this is a part of their story as well. Bill and Pamela Ronzheimer join us. Welcome to the program, guys.
Bill: Thank you. Delighted to be here.
Pamela: Thank you!
Bob: Bill and Pamela live in Minnesota. They give leadership to Marriage Reconstruction Ministries, helping couples, where sexual abuse is part of the story, and a lot more. It’s not just sexual abuse, although that’s where a lot of your emphasis has been; right?
Bill: Correct; yes.
Bob: Bill is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University/39 years a pastor. Pamela, your story includes a personal history of sexual abuse. You were abused when you were growing up.
Pamela: Yes; first of all, let me say that when I was eight years old, I accepted Christ as my Savior. That’s very important for how my story ends. I had grandparents, who knew the Lord, and particularly a great-grandfather, who lived across the street from me when I was a four-year-old. Every day he would come over to our yard, and he would talk to me about Jesus all the time. By the time I was almost eight, he was dying from cancer and had gone into a coma.
Two weeks before my birthday, whatever they talked about in children’s church that Wednesday night, on the way home, my mom asked, “What all did you learn?” My response was, “I found out that I’ve never asked Jesus into my life.” She said, “Well, you can pray right now.” I did in the back of the car; and immediately, everything changed.
Ann: You were eight years old.
Ann: And yet you remember this.
Pamela: Absolutely. I was so aware of my sin as an eight-year-old: I knew that I told lies to keep from getting a spanking; I knew that I was very jealous of one of my siblings. So, with that prayer, that transformation was instantaneous. I felt that my life had started all over.
I was so excited to tell my great-grandpa Linscheid. I told my mom, “I really need to talk to Great-grandpa.” She took me after church on Sunday the following Sunday. We walked into the room. It was dark; he was quiet, sleeping. She tapped him on the arm and said, “Grandpa, Pamela wants to tell you something.” Opening my mouth, immediately, there were the emotions of joy and tears; and I said, “Grandpa, I asked Jesus into my heart.” He said just as clear as could be, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” with all [awareness]/firmness. Shortly after that, he went to be in heaven.
I’m telling you—knowing that his prayers have followed me all of my life—take a story of trauma and tragedy and completely transform everything. So, at eight, I had that great joy.
A year later, my parents moved us from public school to private school. I had a little brother, who had heart problems and was very ill; that seemed to be the path God had for us. As soon as I began fourth grade, as a nine-year-old, I was sexually abused by the principal of the school. He went to my church; he was really good friends with my parents. He knew how traumatized our family was. Of five kids, three of us would stay with Grandma for six weeks, then someone in the church. The other ones would go to Grandma’s, then someone in the church.
So nobody would suspect, if I started behaving poorly, that something other than the upset in the family was causing the problem. He knew my family. He knew that, in my family, disobedience was punished, probably with a good little spanking; and that I would be fearful that I wasn’t living at home, so there was no one to tell right away. Within hours, it seems, from that happening, he started asking me to go to different parts of the building, or outside the building, where children were not allowed to be. It started out with him wanting me to take a friend and lift our dresses. From there, it went to the unthinkable.
The saddest part, for when I look at that little girl that had joy and a smile that went from one side of the world to the other, it immediately was gone. In its place was horror. I think the biggest thing he took away from me, besides the innocence, he took away my ability to believe that I could be loved.
In that instant of abuse, I could not believe that God could love me; and if God didn’t love me, then how could my mother and father love me? How, eventually, could my husband love me? How could my children, who I adored, how could they really love me? So when someone said, in any point of life from—I would say nine until eighteen—that I did something well/that they cared about me, in the back of my mind, I thought, “They must want something.” Satan grabbed ahold of my ability to be loved and kept it hidden for a good long time.
Dave: That started at nine?
Dave: And did it continue until 18?
Pamela: —on and off. I functioned fairly well; but if you would talk to my classmates, like in high school, they would probably all be able to say, “Something was a little off; we just don’t know what it was.” I was involved in dramatics; I was involved in music, but I couldn’t study. I had a lot of difficulty, right away as a nine-year-old, losing time and not having my work done. I had a lot of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, so I have an extreme startle reflex. Most often, I scare other people more than I scare myself by that startle reflex if I don’t know you’re behind me or talking to me.
Ann: And you didn’t tell anyone?
Pamela: I did; immediately, I told my mom, the next time she was home. But she had a critically-ill little baby. I was the oldest, and she felt like maybe I was looking for attention. Back in the ‘60s, nobody even called it sexual abuse. I would tell classmates, “Please stay with me at recess so that he can’t get me to go away.”
Bob: This was years of ongoing abuse—
Bob: —and people not hearing or not believing what you were telling them.
Pamela: Yes; right. When I started seventh grade, my family/all of us children went back to public school; and that kind of gave me some breathing room. I didn’t know what an eating disorder was, but I was bulimic.
I got involved with Youth for Christ. I did some singing/I did a lot of singing in my church. My mom was very, very musical. Though I didn’t play piano, I would hear how music should be arranged; so I’d say, “This is what I want you to do for our trio.” She would write it; and then we’d sing for Youth for Christ, and she’d play for us. Lots of things, where I was finding great joy in serving the Lord—but this underneath junk—I didn’t know what to do with it. I just sort of ignored it, thinking it wasn’t impacting my life.
When I was 18, it was the very first time I heard that the Holy Spirit is the part of the Trinity that gives us the power to live the Christian life/to have peace. My smile returned. I went to college. I did not think the abuse had any impact in my life anymore. My smile was completely there; I felt fully alive.
Bob: You thought you’d been able to compartmentalize it.
Pamela: Yes, not knowing that that’s what it would be called, exactly. I thought: “Oh, that was bad. Maybe it didn’t even happen as bad as I thought,” and “It’s done.”
Bob: I’ve talked to women, who have experienced this, and have heard two different reactions to their abuse over time. One has been that some women become promiscuous in an attempt to try to normalize the behavior that they experienced: “Maybe if I do this, I won’t feel the pain anymore.”
Other women become so afraid of anything to do with sexuality—now, that follows them into marriage, and that becomes a challenge—but anytime a boy leans over to kiss them, they pull back. Was one of those two responses your response?
Pamela: Not at first. I did a lot of dating. I didn’t want to ever be married; I had never seen a marriage that I thought would be loving enough that I’d want to be in it. I didn’t realize the impact that my abuse was having in that perception.
I had a two-date rule: I would date a guy twice, whether I hated him or loved him. It was like: “I wouldn’t date him again,”—that protected me from falling in love until I met Bill.
Bob: How did you get to three dates, Bill? [Laughter]
Bill: Yes, yes. I’m trying to remember right now. In fact, I actually haven’t thought of this: “What was that third date? It must have been the winner.” [Laughter] Truthfully, I had to just talk her into the idea: “Let’s keep dating; let’s consider marriage.”
Pamela: We were best friends for months and had talked endless hours before we ever would’ve been considered dating. By that time, he knew he loved me. I was like, “You tell me you love me, and I am so out of here”; and that’s what happened.
Dave: What did “out of here” look like? Did you stop dating?
Pamela: Well, I disappeared for a week! [Laughter]
Dave: —a week?
Bill: Yes, yes.
Pamela: Then I found out I was missing his wit, his intelligence, his sparkle, how he brought such a perfect wholeness to my life by being different than I am.
Bob: You went a long time, with the thought in the back of your mind: “This is who I want to get to know, who I want to date, who I want to be with.”
Bill: Oh, exactly. I had fallen into not being myself for awhile—that’s a long story—had lost the fun of life. When Pamela came along, I knew right away: “This is somebody I believe God has for marriage for me.”
Ann: You knew that pretty quickly.
Bill: Yes; we are really different in so many ways but “This is what I’m looking for.” I’ll never forget—when we drive on I-94 between Milwaukee and Minneapolis, there’s a spot where she first told me she loved me. Often, if we’re on a trip and take that route—
Bob: —you pull over! [Laughter]
Bill: It was a waiting time. I had no idea/none at all what was behind her hesitancy regarding marrying. She had talked about the bad example she had seen; but as far as there being something that was deeper rooted, I had no idea. And I had no idea when we were first married.
Bob: I think, for a lot of us guys, who would’ve thought that sexual abuse was as prevalent as it was? If that was happening, that was happening to such a minority that we wouldn’t imagine that a girl we knew had ever experienced anything like this. The reality is—it’s probably a third—you may know the statistics better than I do—but I’ve heard as many as a third—
Bill: That’s right.
Bob: —of women today have experienced some kind of predatory sexual abuse.
Pamela: Right, and that’s just the ones who are reporting.
Bob: Right, so it’s more common. But when you meet somebody in college, you don’t think, “I wonder if she’s been sexually abused, growing up,” even though that may have been a part of her past.
Bill: Especially in the years that we were going to college, it was/not much was known, back then, about the prevalence of sexual abuse.
Dave: Never in your mind, did it ever cross your mind.
Dave: No symptoms, no signal at all.
Bill: I had never known anybody, who was sexually abused; so I had no frame of reference regarding the whole thing. Pamela was just plain fun; that’s what I was looking for.
Pamela: I had never heard the phrase, “sexually abused.” I didn’t even have a vocabulary to talk about it other than if I would’ve described it. I honestly had no sense that any of the dysphoric feelings that I was having would be connected.
We had been married ten years. I had everything I every dreamed for. I was thrilled with my marriage; we had two beautiful little girls. Bill had been in ministry for ten years.
Ann: —and everything was moving along well.
Pamela: Everything was normal. And to your question—
Bob: You call it “normal” in the book.
Bill: Well, yes. [Laughter]
Bob: We should mention this—Bill, you’ve written a book called Help, My Wife Is a Survivor of Sexual Abuse—and you say, “We had a normal marriage for ten years.”
Pamela: —it looked better than most of the people we were with.
Dave: Yes, I bet.
Bob: But in the midst of that normalcy, prior to marriage or during ten years of marriage, did the thought ever occur to you: “I should tell Bill what happened to me”?
Ann: And were you happy, Pamela?
Pamela: I was, and that was the puzzler. I was happy, but there was this underlying anxiety that didn’t have any explanation. I loved being a pastor’s wife; I was so proud of Bill. I loved him; I was happy I was married; I loved my little girls; I was involved in the community. Yet, underneath, there was this kind of anxiety that would sometimes get so bad that I would think, “If I would not be here, everyone would be better.”
From the time I was nine, all the way through to that ten-year point of our marriage, I had terrible nightmares/nightmares, where Satan would stand in front of me and say, “You will never be free from me.” I knew verses; I would quote Scripture in my sleep to fight that/attack that lie, but I did not connect it to the sexual abuse.
So, when we’d been married ten years, I was really starting to feel depressed. Bill said, “If you stopped reading all those books on how to be happy, you’d probably be happy.” [Laughter] He didn’t know what to do with me.
Dave: Did you ever tell him about the dreams?
Dave: So he knew about that.
Pamela: Because he had to deal with that on our honeymoon; those came right out.
Dave: —those on your honeymoon.
Bob: Even though you had a normal marriage, you were aware, “There’s something in my wife’s soul that is restless.”
Bill: I’m not sure if I was that thoughtful of a guy back then, to tell you the truth, Bob. We can say that , in retrospect, looking back on those early years, we’re able to connect the dots and understand how some things that we did perceive or didn’t perceive were tied to the abuse.
Bob: You were thinking about other things; you were involved in ministry.
Bill: Yes, yes; too much so. I was a controlling husband during these years. Things were going the way I wanted them to go: “So we’re fine!”
Pamela: And I was the perfect match. My perception of my parents’ marriage was different than my siblings. My perception was that my mom was the boss; I felt bad for my dad. In my mind, I thought, “Okay, I will never be bossy to my husband.” That’s just the perfect storm, because I didn’t tell him how I really felt about anything. Even though I have a really strong sense of who I am, and I’m a good thinker, I shrunk that/made it small on purpose; because I wanted him to be the one that shined.
Bob: And that felt good to him; that felt good to you.
Pamela: —until it didn’t. [Laughter] When we’d been married ten years, and I was hitting that point of feeling depressed, I told Bill—we were going to a pastors’ wives’ retreat—I said, “If we don’t get help with this, I don’t know what will happen.” So, after a prayer meeting,—
Bob: So hang on; hang on. It’s been normal, and everybody’s fine; and it was this—kind of like, “Where did that come from?”—when she says, “If we don’t get help, I don’t know what’s going to happen”?
Dave: Did you know what “help about” was?—or it just—
Ann: No; and you didn’t either, Pamela.
Pamela: I didn’t either. I did not know it was about the abuse. I thought, “I need help to not be so anxious.” At that point, after a prayer meeting, a man came up to us and said: “God has told me that I should pray with you. Is there something I could pray for you?” Bill was quiet, and I looked up at him; and these words came out of my mouth—and I was as shocked as the world—“I was sexually abused when I was ten.” I’m going: “Holy cow! Where did that come from?”
Dave: You did not pre-think, “I’m going to say this.”
Pamela: Had no clue. God just brought it out of my mouth.
Ann: What were you thinking?!
Bill: Well, I’ll tell you who I was. It’s easier to tell you that than to remember what I was thinking at the time. I didn’t know what to think. I was totally ignorant as to the ramifications of being sexually abused. She said it, and I thought, “That must be a problem.”
Bill: The other problem was—I was arrogant. As a controlling husband, I wanted it my way; and it was all pride. Ignorance and arrogance—you combine that together—I totally lacked empathy of what it was like to be in Pamela’s shoes, which is something I’ll want to talk about later—and what empathy means in a marriage, especially in a marriage where there’s been abuse.
Bob: You’ve laid a foundation for us here. There’s obviously a lot we want to dive into and dig into. I’m wondering how many women are listening, who have never told/maybe never understood for themselves, that what they experienced was a bigger deal than they even thought it was.
Or how many men, who are listening—who maybe their wife said, “I experienced sexual abuse,”—and like Bill, they were like, “Oh, huh?”
Dave: That was me!
Bob: —when Ann shared it with you?
Dave: Oh, yes.
Ann: I had shared it with Dave before we were married, but—
Dave: I was like Bill; I was like, “Oh, huh.”
Bill: “Data point.”
Dave: “That was years ago, and it doesn’t sound like that big a deal.”
Ann: And I didn’t think it was a big deal either, because it was/I had suppressed it; I thought I had dealt with it; I felt happy. It wasn’t until we were in seminary, where we were taking classes on how to counsel people, and we started getting into our own past, that it came up.
Bob: For me, it wasn’t until we were talking—this was years ago, with Dr. Dan Allender, who wrote the book, The Wounded Heart, about sexual abuse—that I started to realize the level of trauma, and damage, and injury that happens when somebody experiences sexual abuse.
You’ve done us a great service by opening up your story to us. Bill, you, in coaching husbands to understand this is huge! We need empathy, and we need understanding. If we’re going to apply 1 Peter 3—“to live with our wives in an understanding way”—we need to understand this better.
Your book is a great tool for husbands, whose wives have experienced sexual abuse. We’ve got copies of the book, Help, My Wife Is a Survivor of Sexual Abuse: Answers to Your Most Important Questions by Bill Ronzheimer. Go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to order your copy; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. The number to call to get a copy of the book, Help, My Wife Is a Survivor of Sexual Abuse—the number is: 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
I know the subject we’ve talked about today has hit uncomfortably close to home for some of you, who have been listening. At FamilyLife®, one of our goals is to have honest conversations about the real issues that we face in our marriage and in our family relationships. FamilyLife is here to provide practical biblical help and hope for the issues all of us face as we navigate life in a broken, fallen world.
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Tomorrow, we’re going to find out more about the process that Bill and Pamela Ronzheimer went through that led to healing and liberation in their marriage; and ultimately, how the two of them decided to share with the church what was going on in their marriage. We’ll talk about that tomorrow. I hope you can be with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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