I was a five-year old, middle-class kid, growing up in Oklahoma with an acre out my backdoor when my grandfather came to live with our family. As an innate nurturer, I would help my mom and dad take care of him by doing simple things like bringing him a bowl of cereal, keeping him company, and reading to him. We spent hours on our front porch swing talking, laughing, and watching the people in the park across the street. He was my friend and a quiet companion.
One day, glowing from having just turned 10, I was hangin’ out – watchin’ some cheesy 80’s TV when I heard my grandfather coming down the hall. I knew he was heading outside, so I hopped up, and went to the door. Usually, my grandfather hung out by himself for a while then knocked when he was ready to come back in. But this day was different.
When my grandfather pulled my arm and dragged me with him to the porch swing, I didn’t think much of it. It was a nice day; I imagine I thought he wanted some company. I’ve always been a snuggly person – at that age I still loved to crawl in behind my dad in his chair while he watched game shows. So, when my grandfather put his arm around me – I snuggled in close to his fuzzy brown and orange sweater.
And then it happened. This day was the first day my grandfather molested me. I was terrified, frozen, and confused. I remember thinking that he just didn’t realize that he was touching my breast and so I shifted my body, but his hand returned. This was the first day of many that my grandfather would violate our friendship and rob me of my peace and innocence.
It went on for months and got worse, but no one noticed and I didn’t tell. I just knew I’d done something to cause it. To everyone else, I was the same ol’ Rachel – laughing, crackin’ jokes – but in my room all alone I’d sit trying to fight off all of the confusing new thoughts that had become a part of my everyday life, “I deserve it. It’s my fault. I’m ugly. I’m worthless.”
One day, my Aunt drove up unexpectedly while he and I were on the porch. He withdrew his hands so quickly that I finally knew for sure, that what was happening was wrong. But that made things more complicated. I thought I should know how to stop it and therefore I must have been doing something to cause it. This was the first day I felt deep shame about what I experienced.
Then, on another day, here I was again – on the porch, being yet again violated. Then all of a sudden, my mom came flying out onto the porch yelling, “Rachel, get in the house!” I jumped up so shocked and scared – I mean, this was my mom’s best “You’re in trouble child” voice. She had been walking by the window and saw him touching me. What I vaguely remember next is her standing over me, not aggressively, not in anger, but just her presence. What I do clearly remember is in that moment thinking, “It really is my fault, I’m the one in trouble.” Of course, this belief is one that I struggled with for years and years until I eventually was able to challenge that belief by recognizing that my mother was just scared and wanted to get me away from him.
Fortunately, when my parents discovered what was happening, they immediately removed him from our home. Unfortunately, that didn’t make the thoughts stop. My mind was quickly becoming my worst enemy: You made it happen! No one loves you! Why bother living? You must have liked it or you would have done something to stop it.
My parents wanted me to get help and even found me a counselor, but I wasn’t having it. I didn’t want to talk about it – I would literally run away to the woods so they couldn’t force me to go. I just wanted to pretend that everything was okay. So, I buried my head in the sand and tried to be a “normal” little girl.
I spent my teen years learning how to “perform” – how to keep the outside looking great while everything fell apart on the inside. I was a straight A student for the most part. I had a job and played volleyball and did a lot of writing and acting. That was all a part of the performance. Behind closed doors, I was full of fears about my self-worth and value. I was confused about relationships and intimacy. I felt very alone most of the time, and felt that no one could truly understand me.
In my early twenties, I was trying to have my first “real” relationship, and it became pretty clear pretty quickly that I was completely ill-equipped for this. I was distrustful, antagonistic, created drama all the time, and was in constant fear of the relationship ending. I became fed up with feeling this way and began doing all of the things we do when we want to get better—talking to friends, seeing a therapist, reading books. I was starting to feel better, but in many ways was still going around and around the same mountain of self-doubt, anger, shame, acting out, and living a life with nonexistent boundaries.
By my late-twenties, I was going through a divorce, was in a new city with no friends or sense of community, and was still in pain and feeling ashamed as a result of the abuse that had occurred 16 years before. I realized that I could not keep going in the same direction, that something had to give or I was going to live out the rest of my life feeling alone, broken, and miserable – merely surviving.
That is when I had my “ah ha” moment. The thought occurred to me, “I don’t want to just survive my life, I want to live it!” I also had the realization that I now saw my abuse as an experience; that I had successfully made connections between being abused and how it affected my current behavior. I could understand why I didn’t trust others, for example. However, the most critical question remained unanswered by any of the books, therapists, or friends I'd come across: “So, what do I do about it?!”
So I started asking this question, and I was shocked by the answers I got. It was as if everyone believed this was a life sentence and I was just going to have to deal with it. I thought, “Man, wrong answer!” And that’s really what spurred me on to do my masters in counseling psychology and to study how the brain is impacted by abuse and what that tells us about how we really heal and move on.
So, I started using myself as a guinea pig. I would think about an area in life that I was struggling in and try to figure out what I was missing, what was going on in my brain, and what needed to happen in order for me to heal. Ultimately, this all came together into what is now the Beyond Surviving program.
Today, I am Beyond Surviving. It’s been a hell of a road, but today my new “normal” is that I am confident in who I am, able to connect with others and ask for what I need, feel unburdened and joyful, and have the skills and tools needed to successfully navigate any bumps in the road. And the best part of it all is that I get to share this with other survivors and walk alongside them in their journey!
Rachel's program, Beyond Surviving, has been specifically designed to change the way we think about and heal from abuse. Based on her educational training, study of neuroscience, and lessons learned from her own journey, she has successfully used this program since 2007 to help her clients break free from the past and move on with their lives.
Rachel holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology. She provides a compassionate and challenging approach for her clients while using coaching as opposed to therapeutic models. She is also a member of San Francisco Coaches.