GOD LIFTS THE BURDENS OF THE SECRETS YOU KEEP
by Joe Whitten
KEEPING A SECRET for 58 years took a terrible toll. I walled myself in and walled others out — even my wife — lest they discover too much about me. And all the while the burden required that I appeared to be “all together” as a husband, father, school teacher, and church worker.
I grew up in a dysfunctional family before “dysfunctional” entered our vocabulary. My mother wanted a girl so she gave me dolls to play with and taught me to sew. I have compassion for my mother, for she was a teenage widow when I was born and 19 years old when she married my much older stepfather.
My stepfather’s hyper-control of all things caused me to feel worthless and unintelligent. I felt rejected at home yet confined there. I couldn’t participate in sports or join the Boy Scouts because “the other boys will be a bad influence on you.” My life was school, home, and church. My parents made all my decisions.
Feeling unloved and unwanted at home and suddenly sent away to a boarding school at age 16, I was the perfect target for a predator looking for a boy who longed for the healthy masculine attention he’d never received at home. The absence of godly male bonding grooms some for disaster.
It happened in the men’s room of a bus station. I’ve blocked out what actually happened, but when I remember that day I can visualize the chairs in the waiting area of the bus station, the large windows looking out to the street, and I know the color of the men’s room walls. I remember coming out the restroom door and wondering if everyone in the waiting area knew what had happened. Significantly, I see myself as a very small, bewildered 12-year-old boy. My counselor has indicated that this might reflect my emotional or developmental age at that time, considering the dysfunctional atmosphere of my home.
For 48 years, I wondered what I did to cause the man to single me out. But the fact was that an adult male wanted a victim. I was vulnerable because I was alone, unsupervised, and unprepared for the unexpected situation. I had no idea how to respond, nor was there anyone to protect me from the predator who sensed my vulnerability and took advantage of it.
It was my first sexual experience and it warped how I saw myself for decades. From that day on, I was torn. I wanted to be a heterosexual man and I didn’t know how. So I walled male friendship out, simultaneously fearing and longing for that bonding. Out of fear of my secret being known, I guarded my walls as diligently as the Romans guarded the stone that sealed the tomb of crucified Christ.
I married a woman who loved me unconditionally, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her my secret — how could I survive if I told her and she left? So I walled her out. Furthermore, how does a man who grew up feeling unloved know how to love? A character in the BBC series Downton Abby described me when he said, “Love is like riding or speaking French; if you don’t learn it young, it’s hard to get the trick of it later.”
After almost 40 years of marriage, my wife died. Only after her death did I comprehend the depths of her unconditional love. I found a folder of poems and letters that she had written to me when we were dating, but she never mailed them. I read them and realized she would’ve been by my side through any therapy or any “Valley of the Shadow” that was required for me to be rid of my secrets.
I still didn’t realize what happened to me was sexual abuse until one day in the car I was listening to Dr. James Dobson. The person he interviewed was Dan Allender, author of The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. I don’t remember Allender’s exact words, but they made me almost slam on the brakes; he described my experience. That’s when I realized I had been sexually molested. I bought the book and in reading it, I began to examine my past and a crack began to form in my walls.
COPING WITH THE SECRET
Remembering the past became a grief that piled on top of the grief over my wife’s death, and I grew more and more depressed. Yet all the while I presented a good façade before the world. I had told myself all my life that I could handle it, for I couldn’t ask anyone for help; they might learn too much about me. Now I desperately needed help.
Then God brought Rod Campbell, a counselor from Pathways Professional Counseling, into my life. In the first session, I told the secret I’d kept for 48 years. This godly counselor listened and responded compassionately and kindly with Scripture to give me God’s comfort in my sorrow. As I drove home, I remember thinking, There is hope!
As weeks progressed, I realized I wasn’t the only boy in the world who had been molested by a man. It comforted me to know that other men had experienced the same conflicts and emotional repercussions as me.
My counselor continued to use Scripture about God’s purpose in believers’ lives. I eventually faced my past and knew that I hadn’t started the encounter in the bus station’s men room, but that an evil predator started it. I acknowledged the horrible repercussions (my walls, my isolation, my fear of friendships, my sexual problems in my marriage, and my feeling less than a man) all stemmed from the adolescent sexual molestation.
In facing and acknowledging the past, I found freedom and maleness. For the first time in my life I felt like a man.
God has been rich in mercy. When His resurrection power battered down my walls, He replaced them with godly men and their corresponding friendship. Healing isn’t instantaneous but a process. For me it has required the theology-based counseling I’m receiving from Pathways Professional Counseling.
One day Rod counseled me with Psalm 31:7-8: “I will rejoice and be glad in your faithful love, because you have seen my affliction. You know the troubles of my soul and have not handed me over to the enemy. You have set my feet in a spacious place.” God not only saw the sexually wounded Joe, but knew my distress. I saw God in the trenches with me, holding on to me in my struggles, not throwing me into a depraved subculture. God was bringing me through to a “broad place” — freedom from my secret.
THERE IS HOPE
Healing came when i no longer feared telling my story. As painful and warping as it was for years, God is sovereign, and I have found comfort and purpose in that biblical truth.
When I lost my fear of the past, I shared with my pastors and whoever would listen. I knew that it was probable that other men I knew had experienced abuse and kept their secret. I was right, for some have told me that as adolescents they too had been molested.
Statistics show that by 18 years of age, one in six men will have experienced sexual abuse — some by men, others by women. Experts feel that’s a low estimate, for men are ashamed for anyone to know what happened to them, especially if it were a man who molested them. Male on male abuse rips away manhood and reaps a life-altering harvest for years to come.
If you’re an adult survivor of sexual abuse, there is hope. God is with you, assuring your success. In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul prays for believers, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely” (v. 23) in body, mind, and spirit. Paul is sure it will happen because “He who calls you is faithful; he will do it” (v. 24).
The process will be painful — soul ripping at times — but the healing will sanctify the pain. Find a godly counselor and release the past. Be assured that countless individuals have known the same conflicts and distress as you and found healing through faith-based counseling.
Let God tear down the walls.
Joe Whitten is a retired educator and teaches an adult Sunday School class at First Baptist Church Springville, AL. He is a published author and researches and writes local history articles for Discover the Essence of St. Clair.
This article originally appeared in HomeLife magazine (April 2019). For more articles like this, subscribe to HomeLife.