heather

 

I was born with an incurable illness that has caused chronic pain and disability throughout my life. After many years of struggling, I’ve come to embrace my disability and find happiness, not just regardless of my physical circumstances but because of them. My illness is a part of who I am, and I can’t imagine who I would be without it. It’s made me more empathetic, more patient, and more willing to rely on God. I’m so grateful for the person I’ve become because of my disability, but it’s also made me vulnerable. 

I met the man who would become my best friend and my abuser shortly after I started college. He seemed like the ideal friend– he was friendly to everyone, and I was inspired by his willingness to drop everything and serve the people around him. Looking back, maybe I should have recognized his attitude about my disability as a warning sign – early in our friendship, he began encouraging me to pray for healing and dedicate all of my time and energy to becoming physically stronger. He would frequently tell me that he had received impressions and even visions from God about the things that I could do with my life if I could just stop being ill. I wished he could accept me for who I was, but after a while I began to believe that maybe God really was speaking to him about me. 

Over time, there were drastic and frightening changes in my friend. His mood changed drastically, and he went from the kind and service-oriented man I knew to someone who was often angry and unpredictable. It was glaringly obvious that he was mentally ill, but few people seemed to recognize that it was a problem. Fearing for his life, I spent as much time as I could with him, gradually becoming more and more isolated from our other friends. I try not to beat myself up for not making him get professional help. Maybe if I had, none of this would have happened. I knew he needed help, and if I had somehow forced him to get it, maybe it wouldn’t have gotten so bad. I know I shouldn’t blame myself, but it’s hard not to. 

My memory of the abuse is fuzzy. All I really have are flashes that come back to me at the worst possible times. I remember being backed into a corner and accused of being an agent of the devil. I remember that any time we read scriptures or prayed together, he would hit me for saying anything that went against his delusions. I remember being held down on my bed with one of my church’s conference talks playing in the background. I remember feeling his hand inside of my shirt and being ordered to put my hand under his underwear. I remember being afraid of what he would do to himself and to me if I did the wrong thing. I remember laying on the floor praying for someone to find me because I couldn’t get back into my wheelchair after he refused to help. I remember begging for my life while being told that if my faith was truly in God and not the devil I would be healed. I remember the friend who found me weeping by myself and made me begin to tell my story so I could be free. I remember the anguish on the faces of my friends as I told them what had happened, my male friends’ horror proving that not every man wanted to hurt me. I remember the incredible friends who stood by me through it all. 

It took me nearly a year to completely break away from that relationship. I had become increasingly dependent on my abuser, so isolated from my other friends that I didn’t realize I didn’t need his help with the few things I couldn’t do on my own. I eventually came to understand that wasn’t true, that I had many other friends who were willing to help. I finally know in my heart as well as my mind that I deserve to be treated well. Nobody can ever earn the right to hurt me by helping me with the things I can't do.

I know there are women with disabilities being abused by their caregivers, relatives, and friends right now. I know many of them believe that they deserve it for being a burden. I know many of them think they can't live without the help their abusers give them. I've been there. I know.

I wish I could reach out to every one of those women and tell them their worth. I wish I could tell them all that they're daughters of God and testify to them of just what that means. I wish I could put my hands on each of their shoulders and tell them that not only can they survive without the people who hurt them, their days would be so much brighter without them. I wish I could tell each and every one of them that no matter how many well-meaning strangers in the grocery store tell them how lucky they are to have their abusers in their lives, it's not true. 

After the abuse ended, my abuser told me that he had always seen people with disabilities and illnesses such as mine as “less human.” Like many rapists and abusers, he doesn’t see what he did to me as abuse, even after being confronted by multiple people. Reports vary, but it’s widely agreed upon that women with disabilities are around twice as likely to be abused or sexually assaulted, and we are also less likely to report abuse, especially when the abuser is a caretaker. I can’t help but wonder how many other men see me as less than human. 

The truth is, no matter how much I tell myself that I should be “over” what happened to me, I’m not. The nightmares aren’t every night anymore, but they do still happen. Things that usually bring me happiness, like reading the scriptures and going to church, sometimes cause me to have flashbacks and panic attacks. I’ve received the message over and over again that the key to healing is to forgive my abuser, but I know that it isn’t. I harbor no anger for the man who assaulted me, but the road to healing takes a lot more than just forgiving him. 

In some ways, I can actually see myself being strengthened by this experience. I’m not glad it happened, but I am determined to make something good come out of something terrible. At first, my whole world was rocked. I was terrified of nearly all men, and I could hardly bear to pray or go to church because I struggled so much with how God could let this happen to me in His name. I knew my God didn’t cause this to happen, but I thought that surely He should have stopped it. Now, after two years of hard work, my relationship with God is stronger than ever. I know it’s going to take time for me to completely heal, but I have hope that with the Savior’s help I will get there someday. In the meantime, this is my truth, and I will no longer be silent.