My story didn’t begin with me having a voice. It began in the silence and secrets and shame that so many victims struggle to break free from. And for a long time I felt more broken than healed. It was so easy to see the scars. I still see them. Not as many, not as vivid, but the lines are still there when I look, and there are days they stand out more than others.
Being sexually abused throughout my tween and teen years by an adult who had the trusted roles of both honorary family and coach, created an ever darker vortex of hopelessness. I felt powerless to escape. My innocence was stolen, my spirit and very will to live assassinated, and my life essentially destroyed. The effects of how I viewed myself and the damage to my relationships with others was impossible to hide or ignore. I built walls of self-protection that felt impenetrable. When I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at sixteen years old I didn’t know what it meant. It sounded so technical and I really didn’t care at all at that point if they diagnosed me as, “dead,” “alive,” or a “zombie” because I couldn’t see past the next day.
It’s easy to see the scars; harder to see the healing, but possibly the hardest part of the journey is actually seeing the good it brought with it. Seeing the strengths that were gained from it and how, as a friend likes to say, “out of dirt and ash comes trees and fruit.”
Most people are more familiar with the term PTSD and less familiar with a term that I am much more fascinated with: post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth is an idea that looks at the transformation that can come after trauma. It focuses on five areas: 1) appreciation of life, 2) relationships with others, 3) new possibilities in life, 4) personal strength, and 5) spiritual change. That’s not to say that trauma is usually a vehicle for positive change. Without treatment, trauma destroys lives. Yet, for those of us who have felt the sting of abuse, we must find a way forward, and for me, experiencing growth from the horror of my own abuse was the path to move beyond what happened to me into the person I would become.
Along with the diagnosis of PTSD, I also received diagnoses of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and suicidal ideation. Needless to say I had extreme deficits in all five areas of growth listed. I’ve learned that the road from trauma to growth is hardly a straight line and it’s not a simple process, but the onset, the beginning of that journey, can be simple. I found it ironic, that what was used as a weapon against me, was also what healed me—relationship and connection to others. When I was too weak to fight for myself I had an army of support to both rally around me and fight for me. My parents, my two sisters, and the unwavering support of the Children’s Advocacy Center consistently and compassionately answered those questions for me that so many survivors struggle with “Who am I? What is my value? What is my worth? Am I really worth all this effort?” That support is what made me believe my life was actually worthy of support. I had counselors who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. As I slowly started to believe in the work they put into me, to believe that I was deserving of the support they gave me, I started to appreciate my own life again.
Then, through counseling, I began to find my voice and I discovered a new love for self-expression. Talking and writing about my feelings helped me understand myself and create meaning out of the trauma I had experienced. I started to read and write like crazy. I read self-help books, books on faith, and books written by women who were sexually abused. After three years of being unable to study and learn and failing in school due to the effects of the traumatic stress I was experiencing I had forgotten what it was like to really absorb information.
My personal strength slowly grew through my search to understand and find meaning in what happened—my ability to share my story, to tell it in my own way, in my own words, and eventually use it to create change. A defining moment of personal strength for me was when I testified in court against my perpetrator. Although I was on the stand for over three hours I felt braver and stronger for having faced him.
After the trial though, I had another crossroads in that journey towards growth. I wasn’t just struggling with my own PTSD symptoms, but with the impact of my abuse and the trial on both my family and the perpetrator’s family, who has always been an extension of our own. And at that juncture, I had a decision to make. Like so many others, what had happened to me had challenged not just my perceptions of myself, but made me question my faith. Another damaged relationship. The God I had known before had become the God I didn’t understand. The same feelings and thoughts, those same walls of self-protection that had separated me from my family and friends had separated me from my belief. So, I knew I had a choice to make. I could continue my current damaged belief system, or I could go back to the roots of that relationship and rediscover my faith. And as I sought the source to turn my sorrows into joy I hung onto the belief that God would bring reason from what I had gone through, restore my life, and help me use my pain to help others.
My renewed faith put me on a clear path to help prevent other children from experiencing the trauma I had gone through. As I gave interviews to raise awareness and participated in an internship at the CAC it became obvious to me that the society we live in was starving for education, the very foundation of prevention. That realization changed the trajectory of my life and led to my work as an advocate. In my home state of Texas we passed Jenna’s Law in 2009, requiring prevention education throughout our state school system, a statute that has now been duplicated in multiple states. While working to successfully amend Jenna’s law three times for quality, accountability, and strength I became a speaker and educator to prevent child sexual abuse and trafficking. And as I travel the country, I know my life would have been different if the abuse had never happened. But I can’t regret that out of my own horrible experiences I am able to expose the evil of sexual abuse and find such joy in helping others.
Research suggests that between 30-70% of individuals who experience trauma also report positive change and growth out of the traumatic experience. Post-traumatic growth is a process and not just an outcome. It’s about maintaining a sense of hope that after trauma you cannot only survive, but also experience positive life changes as a result. I hope my story is an example of that.
I would add one caveat; there is always a danger for those early in their recovery wanting to do too much too soon, along with the risk of exploitation. That’s why it’s so important to work with those you can trust to get training and mentoring on how to navigate that transition. Talk to your CACs and trust the process.
Jenna Quinn is the namesake of Jenna’s Law, an author, speaker, and the national spokesperson for Childhelp Speak Up Be Safe. With a master’s degree in communication studies, she is a sought-after speaker who has traveled nationwide, sharing her inspiring story with legislatures, law-enforcement, abuse-prevention groups, schools, communities of faith, and nonprofit organizations for 13 years. She has participated in both local and national radio, television, and news programs, and has dedicated her life to preventing child sexual abuse. Learn more about her work at www.JennaQuinn.org.