When you first meet Heather, you meet a warm-hearted, kind person, who is quick to share a friendly laugh. Her personality is confident with a relaxed strength, and an electric smile. You would not guess that Heather is a Complex-PTSD survivor of extreme and severe childhood abuse. You would not think that her trauma would desperately lead her to join, and eventually escape, a religious cult. She has overcome more than any person, let alone a child, should have to face, and has freed herself to be the fierce and authentic woman that I met this day. She bravely shares her story on social media, including her blog, Trekking Peaks and Valleys, in the hopes of reaching others who have faced similar struggles, to know that they are not alone, and to help them find their voice.
I reached out to her via instagram and asked if she would allow me to share part of her story. Heather did not hesitate. She fearlessly detailed her experiences from her terrifying and loveless childhood where she was relentlessly abused by her father, mother, and others close to her. She opened up about her tumultuous teen years, which followed a childhood devoid of love and acceptance, and primed her to be a perfect target for a religious cult. It would be ten years before she found her way out.
We met in person for the first time in downtown Norfolk where we held her portrait session and then sat down to talk about her life. I didn't really know what to expect going into this and I'm not sure she did either. Within minutes of meeting Heather, I felt confident that this could be another way of helping forward her purpose, which is to help others who struggle with the aftermath of abuse.
As we walked through downtown Norfolk, she explained she had never had a portrait session by herself. As a mother of two young boys, Heather had taken family portraits but this was different. She was excited to have updated portraits for her website and social media. We effortlessly chatted about life as we walked along the city sidewalks.
The air was crisp and there were dark, looming clouds in the sky. Thankfully, the rain held off and we ended up having a great portrait session. Afterwards, we found a bench to sit down and talk. As she started to share her story, the clouds, as if on queue, uncovered the sun, brightly lighting her face, spotlighting her as she courageously shared the threads that formed her life story.
I WANT TO PLACE A WARNING HERE BEFORE WE PROCEED.
The following paragraphs are transcribed from Heather's very frank and heartbreaking personal accounts of childhood sexual abuse and emotional trauma. Her courage to speak openly about these very sensitive matters may trigger deep-seated feelings and unexpected emotional responses. Please proceed with care and awareness.
For most of Heather's childhood, she was severely abused by her own father, as well as different people that they lived close to, like other family members or neighbors.
The developmental years of Heather's life were exceptionally traumatizing. Her own father started molesting her when she was just five years old. She vividly remembers the first time it happened, with her mother was asleep in the same room. The abuse continued for years, but as a young child, she had no way to grasp the damage being inflicted upon her.
She said, "When you're young and something terrible is done to you, don't know it's wrong because no one has told you that it is. You assume these actions are just part of being a child, so there's no way to know that being sexually abused is wrong." Sadly, this distorted her ability to identify harmful situations, which left her a helpless target for additional abuse from other family members and even close neighbors.
"As you get older," Heather explained, "if someone else does the same harmful things to you, you don't know it's wrong because it's already been done to you. As a child, you just think it's normal."
In the fear that the systematic normalization of his criminal behavior would eventually not be enough, her father also threatened "to bury her in the woods if she ever told a soul what was happening". Unable to understand the evil inflicted upon her, she was also now a young girl living in fear for her own life, with no real comprehension as to why these things were happening.
Her mother provided no safe harbor from the daily trauma. Instead, she worsened the situation with verbal and emotional abuse, continually degrading Heather and calling her every terrible name that she could conjure, speaking to her daughter in language not fit for a child. Whenever her mother was presented with any hint of wrong doing, she chose to take the father's side, calling her child a liar.
When Heather was beginning elementary school, she was placed in special education classes because she had "issues regulating her emotions". The school system was not able to identify that her dysfunctions stemmed from systematic trauma, and instead of saving a child from terrible suffering, it would eventually become part of the problem.
The night before she entered fourth grade, her parents had stayed up all night partying. They overslept, causing young Heather to miss her bus on the first day of school. Her mother was angrily beaten by her father for making Heather late to school. When she arrived late to her fourth grade classroom, the Special Education teacher, Mr. R, pulled her desk up next to his. He whispered in her ear that he would take really good care of her and that he was glad she was there. Again with a distorted sense of acceptable behavior, she didn't realize that this was inappropriate. He kept her desk next to his for the remainder of the school year.
He groomed her for abuse over several days. He began by putting his hand on her knee, while the class was busy or distracted. Weeks went by and he would continue to progress his hands up her leg, assuring her by whisper that this behavior was fine. Eventually, he was sexually molesting her while movies played in the dark classroom. He would take turns taking Heather and a few other female students to the copy room, which was in a separate building. This afforded him privacy and less risk of being caught. Heather recalls one particularly awful day where he had taken her to the copier room and started to choke her. This terrified her, and even with a warped sense of right and wrong, she could identify this as something dreadful. She told her mother immediately after returning home from school. The next day, they made a trip the principal's office where they confronted the teacher. Mr. R denied everything, claimed that Heather was a liar, and her mom sided with him, deciding her own daughter was dishonest about the situation. Her abuser was deemed the victim and was allowed to continue his destruction of a child's soul. His terror reigned for an additional year as it was decided by the school, despite the allegations, that Mr. R was also to be her fifth grade teacher. (She blogs about that experience here.)
Her dad left the family, but the relief was short-lived. Heather's mother started abusing her mentally, psychologically, and physically, in conjunction with her step father, who also did terrible things to her. Another chapter of torture, yet again, from the hands of those who were supposed to nurture and protect her.
Heather's teenage years didn't start out any better.
Heather's Grandfather had lived with them before she was born. She grew super close to him and looked up to him like a father figure, someone who would always be there for her. When Heather turned 14, her mother abandoned him and moved away, taking Heather with her. She ripped Heather away from the one stable influence that she had in her life, which left her absolutely gutted. He ended up dying a year later, at just 56 years old. (She documented her feelings about his death here & here)
Her mother's mental health deteriorated after her father had passed away. Her mother had given birth to Heather's brother and sister, who she treated normally, while she started to abuse Heather worse than ever before. She would force Heather to wear sweat pants and a sweat shirt in the summer heat to do manual labor, like clearing out the overgrown backyard. This would last for hours upon hours and when Heather was thirsty from all of the work in the sun, her mom would only allow her to drink from the water hose outside. The water would be scorching hot but she didn't care. Heather deserved less than everyone else and she never understood why. This post shares some of those memories and how they still affect her today.
Her mother would make her stand and scrub baking pans that had years worth of burnt metal & food with no possibility of every becoming clean, as a form of punishment for just existing. When she failed to get the impossible done, her mother would berate her with the cruelest of words you could spit at someone and then force her her to write definitions out of the dictionary thousands of times. She would explain she had to do these humiliating things because she was stupid. During the hot summers, they would put up a sheet in the hallway that would prevent the fan from reaching the area where Heather slept. She wasn't good enough to receive the cooler air that the rest of her family was afforded. When her mother would take her siblings out, Heather was forced to stay at home and wait for hours alone. Her mother would even go so far as to drop her off at Child Protective Services to rid herself of her own daughter.
After her Grandfather died, she realized she had lost the only person in the world who had deeply cared for her. She endured her mothers abuses for a year but was desperate for a way out. She reached out to a family member who had attended a Pentecostal church with her Grandfather and asked if she could try them out.
At this tender age, with everything crumbling around her, she felt her only option was church or suicide.
She was desperate for love and belonging and she thought this might the answer. She was willing to do anything to have someone take her under their wing because she was falling apart. This church preyed on abused people who had come from trauma. You are willing to try anything and are desperate to find somewhere to belong. Heather feels like she was the perfect candidate to be swept up in a religious cult by absorbing everything they taught because she needed to feel love and acceptance after years of severe trauma.
Members of the church drove her 45 minutes each way for her to attend church weekly. During her very first service, she realized that she stood out. All of the females around her wore dresses, had long hair and no jewelry or makeup. Heather wore pants and had short hair. She realized that she needed to change things by the next service so that she could fit in as quickly as possible. She started wearing dresses. She ditched the makeup and jewelry. Heather explained how they ostracize you from the world by banning you from doing things "normal" people do. This way you won't view your life as anything different and the world couldn't tempt you into sin. The church had rules that members couldn't cut their hair, go to movie theaters or theme parks. The pastor told you things you couldn't do and you just agreed. He explained how your salvation was at the forefront of his mind and the only way to salvation was through the man of God. (She documents her journey about joining the church here .)
As the years passed, she was working hard to make her way up in the church. She sang in the choir and she was excited to try and build a community. (Read about her experiences with the pastor here.) She was blinded by the red flags that presented themselves. When she was 38 weeks pregnant with her second child, she decided to trim her hair. She had permed long hair that had very damaged ends. She trimmed them just so that her hair could begin the journey to health. She felt guilty and confessed this to the Pastor. Immediately, he removed her from the choir and she wasn't allowed to be near the altar anymore. He told her that she needed to repent for her sins. This was beyond devastating because Heather was on the path to becoming a minister herself and was a major part in the prayer partner group at her church. They immediately cut her off from all of the things she worked so hard at achieving. Other members were having affairs and they called it the year of restoration, but she was being dismissed for a simple hair trim. This angered Heather's husband so he took it to social media. He was angry for her and decided to stick up for his wife. At first, Heather was so embarrassed because all of her church friends were on facebook and read everything he posted. This forced all of her former community to become bitter and turn away from Heather, which caused some tension between their marriage. She ended up leaving out of embarrassment, not even sure if she was in the wrong. It took her over a year before she realized that the things the church had taught her was wrong. They didn't believe in the Trinity, you had to speak in tongues to receive a baptism, you had to pay a certain amount of money to be able to go to heaven and you had to listen and obey everything the Pastor told you.
Only after she left did she realize she had escaped a religious cult.
It took her years to realize that she was wrong and to apologize. She couldn't believe she lived those lies for ten years and wondered why God would let her go through that. (She documents leaving the church here & here.) One of the hardest parts of leaving was realizing that everyone she had considered her new family would disappear. The community that she had worked so hard to find left her in an instant for something as simple as cutting her hair. She had a six week old baby and a two and half year old. With everything crumbling down at once, depression and isolation hit hard. Once she didn't have the church in her ear telling her what to do, she didn't know where to turn.
She ended up trying to commit suicide twice and even spent nine days in a psychiatric hospital last year. (Read about her experience here.)
Heather has since found hope and a new church that she trusts. She finally found a therapist and has begun her healing journey. She said that if she could have gone back in time, she would have found a therapist sooner. Finding someone to talk to, in a safe environment and to feel heard, has truly lead to healing within her mind and heart. She reads books on trauma and healing and has found that the most important thing is opening up and talking about her experiences. In doing so, she has found that people she knows also have a traumatizing story to too. If you open up first, others find it easier to share their stories.
She is speaking out to build that community of strength and acceptance.
By sharing your story, you're actually giving permission for your friends to also open up. Heather notes that sometimes you have to be the first person to open up and that gives permission for them to share their story. Once dialogue is started, healing can happen.
She wrote an entry here about how to find a trauma therapist.