My prayer as I write is that you'll come away from hearing my story praising God for his amazing love and faithfulness and his desire to carry people through things.
If you had known me when I was a little girl, you very likely would have thought – as my teachers and neighbors undoubtedly did – that mine was a very normal, stereotypical family. We lived in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; my dad commuted downtown to work as a computer analyst, and my mom was at home. My brother and I had every material thing we needed…and then some. We spent summers and evenings running around the neighborhood with other kids. In fact, from the outside, the only thing unusual about us was that my father insisted on painting our house fire-engine red – so that we would “stand out,” he said.
Ironically, though, despite the fact that he often wanted to be “noticed” in ways like that, our real family life was actually all about shame and hiding and secrets.
You see, I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse – first at the hands of my father and then other men as well.
My first recollection of it happening with my father was the Christmas Eve just after I’d turned five. That’s what I remember – because any person really starts remembering things at about age four or five – but I am actually certain it happened before that, perhaps even in my infancy, because he “laid a claim” on me the day I was born.
When I was born, he insisted on being the one to name me. My parents had a child before me – my sister, Tammy Nathalie – whom my mother took great care in naming. But Tammy was born really prematurely and died after only two days. And then, 15 months later, when I was born, my father said, “You got to name the first one. I get this one.” He named me Kristine Cecelia.
"Cecelia" was for my grandmother’s sister – a very nice lady I knew in my early childhood. But “Kristine” was a different story. Kristine was my father’s “first love” and his “true love” and the woman he had really wanted to marry. My mother knew that. And my father told me the story with great pride when I was a pre-teen.
My mother and I had a very distant relationship for my entire life. I’ve actually wracked my brain for memories of good times with her, but – even though I have a few pictures of us smiling together – positive memories are just not there. Instead, I have a handful of memories of her absolutely ripping me apart verbally – yelling, cursing, accusing – but mostly a whole lot of nothing. No interaction. Just us existing together in the same house for 18 years but no connection. And – because she did interact with and showed genuine love for my brother and talked so lovingly about my sister – I spent a lot of that time hating her for how she treated me.
Certainly, as an adult, she was responsible for her choices to emotionally neglect me. But I was able to give her a lot more grace about that once I thought about the horrible position my father put her in by giving me my name. I think she was poisoned against me from that moment and did not have the wherewithal to overcome it.
And so I was set up for incest right from that moment. My father had said I was “his” and had already made me his “surrogate wife” with my name. His choice hardened my mother’s heart against me. In response to having no mother-love, I became a big-time “daddy’s girl.” And – another secret, which was clinically diagnosed later in his life – he was a sex addict. So it was inevitable and, as I said, probably started before I even remember it.
His abuse went on regularly until I was about 11 – just whenever and however often he chose to come into my room, which was just next to my parents’ room. If my mother knew, she couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about it.
Though my father was very loving toward me in the light of day and despite the fact that the abuse itself was not violent, it obviously damaged my heart and soul. And what he did also made me an easy “mark” for other perpetrators…some of whom happened to be in my own extended family – specifically a man who became my uncle when I was five, when my dad’s sister married him, and also his two teenage sons
My uncle was a stereotypical “dirty old man.” And I was a target. At every family gathering, he insisted I sit on his lap. He hugged me too hard, whispered suggestive comments in my ear, and wouldn’t let me go until I kissed him on the mouth.
His sons were far worse. On two occasions, when I was eight and nine, they were able to get me alone, overpower me, and rape me. This was even worse than what my father had been doing because they absolutely terrorized me as well.
I never told anyone about what any of these men had done. And so you might wonder how I got through it. The only explanation is God.
We were not at all a church-going family; I can count on one hand the number of times I was in church as a kid. So I had no understanding of God. But now, in hindsight, I can see that he was reaching into my life even then, planting seeds of faith to help me make it through what was happening to me.
All throughout my childhood, as you might imagine, I was convinced that I didn’t really belong with that family – that there had been a mistake, and I’d been given to the wrong people. And I developed an elaborate childhood fantasy that, in fact, my real father was looking for me and would one day soon find me. Of course, he was royalty, too. And, once he found me, he would whisk me away in a horse-drawn carriage to a castle on a hill, where I’d be safe forever with him. I clung to that fantasy, and I know now that it was put into my mind by God…to give me hope.
Well, right before I turned 12, we moved to a big, old ugly farmhouse near a small town an hour from Milwaukee.
And that move rescued me, too. For one thing, it meant that we saw less of the extended family. So I didn’t have to tolerate my uncle’s behavior as much as before. And I wasn’t put into situations where I was alone with my cousins ever again. For another, my father never physically molested me after we moved. This wasn’t because he “saw the error of his ways.” In fact, he still looked at me inappropriately and made sexual comments. But he found other ways to feed his addiction, and the actual assaults stopped.
And so, shortly after we moved – when I felt safe enough to relax – I made a conscious choice to shift my perspective. I realized that I couldn’t handle the debilitating feelings I had – of being wrecked and damaged goods, slutty, and unlovable – and I had no conception of the fact that I might get outside help to face the issues and heal. But it dawned on me that I liked learning and that I was good at it. So I made a decision to simply stuff the abuse down – to do my best to simply forget it and become a “new person."
Thus, had you known me in junior high and high school, I probably would have seemed pretty normal to you – kind of driven and maybe a bit stand-offish, but friendly enough, in a detached sort of way. I had a small group of friends – not deep friendships, but girls I hung out with. I excelled in the band. I acted in several school plays, joined a few clubs, and was a leader on the forensics team. And I poured myself into academics; in fact, I used studying as an excuse to avoid spending time with my parents, and I kept my resentment of them at a low boil most of the time. I ended up graduating as the valedictorian of my class.
But the consequences of the incest and rapes did intrude on my life in a few ways during those years. For one thing, I started to worry that I might be fat, and I sometimes dieted. But most other girls did that, too, so I didn’t think about a connection between how I felt about myself physically and my earlier childhood. I just didn’t let myself go there.
More obviously, two other men – my high school science teacher and a neighbor whose daughter I used to babysit – saw me for the “easy mark” I was and tried to take advantage of me. The teacher made subtle advances toward me when I worked as his TA – until finally one day another teacher walked into the workroom and saw my teacher leaning in too closely because he wanted a kiss. From then on, my teacher never touched me, but even the little he did do was damaging to my soul.
And the neighbor was worse. During my senior year, he ogled me every time I took care of his daughter and then, on the night before I left for college, he attacked me in the cab of his truck as he was dropping me off after my last babysitting job. Blessedly, I was able to escape before he did much, but it was terrifying even so.
That experience horrified me so much that I strengthened my resolve that very night. I determined that, when I left for college, I would be single-mindedly focused on academics. I didn’t need any real relationships; they were too dangerous.
But things didn’t exactly work out as I’d planned.
For one thing, all the tumult of being at college – a new, unknown environment and placing very high expectations on myself – caused a ton of anxiety to start welling up…which was really just all the pain of the childhood abuse surfacing in a different way. And my anxiety manifested itself in escalating body image issues when I became terrified that I was gaining the “freshman 15.” So during my first semester, I got sucked into bulimia – bingeing on food and then purging it by throwing up or taking laxatives. And before I knew it, I was hooked: I could numb all my anxieties through bingeing but avoid weight gain – a fate I felt would be worse than death – by purging.
Yet even as that addiction took hold, I was also experiencing something wonderfully positive in the people I met in the first few weeks of school: they wanted to be my friend! You see, even though I desperately wanted to keep my protective “brick wall” as high as ever, I did not know how to ask these people to leave me alone without sounding rude. So before I knew it, I’d made some friends and started to enjoy spending time with them despite myself.
Even more amazing was that all of these people were Christians; I like to say that I couldn’t spit without hitting a Christian!
But, since I didn’t know anything about God, I didn’t want to look stupid around them. So I told them I was an atheist and said I didn’t want to hear any “God stuff.”
I was stunned that they actually honored my request – willingly – and that they still wanted to be my friend. Up to that point in my life, of course, no one had ever listened when I said no, and so this amazed me…and, frankly, made me curious about their God. I started paying attention when they talked with each other about their faith and how it impacted their daily lives. I even went along once with two of them to a church service.
And I saw in their pastor the same kind of genuine faith that my friends had exhibited – a "something different" I couldn’t put my finger on. So, when an evangelism team from the church came by a week later, I willingly invited them in when they asked if they could talk with me about God. And I listened intently as the team leader explained who Jesus was: that he was God’s Son, come to earth specifically to die for our sins so that we could be in heaven with God…and that he would have done exactly what he’d done even if I had been the only person on earth. I was dumbfounded. He died for me?!
The leader asked if I wanted to trust Christ as my Savior. In my heart, I did, but I was afraid to say yes. I still wasn’t sure I was ready to trust this information – what if God really didn’t want me? – so I told him I had to “fix” some things in my life first. I didn’t know what I was referring to; that just seemed like a nice, polite way to say no. And he didn’t push; just like my friends, he honored my request.
Then I went home for a week between semesters. I was desperate to find ways to get out of the house so I went over to my high school one day and got into a conversation with the choir director, Mr. Gallagher, who'd directed me at The Mother Abbess in our school's production of The Sound of Music during my senior year. Before long, he’d invited me to dinner (at his home, with his wife, too), and I gladly accepted – anything for an evening away from my home!
I noticed a Bible on the Gallaghers’ coffee table. Soon we were having a discussion about faith, and the Gallaghers shared with me the same truths about God that I’d been hearing for months. And at that point, I had a new, stunning realization: God was pursuing me! Everywhere I turned, I’d been meeting Christians, and they’d all been telling me the same things. There was only one explanation for that. God wanted me. Me! But he wanted me in the right way – a pure way – not how I’d been “wanted” before.
I was too overwhelmed by that understanding to explain it to the Gallaghers. But that night, after they’d sent me home with a New Testament, I knelt down next to my bed – the very bed in which my father had hurt me – and told God, “As soon as you think I’m ready, I want to be yours.”
It took me a little while to realize that my desire to be his was all that was necessary to make me “ready.” But in just a couple of days I realized that my little prayer – uttered with the tiniest of faith – had, indeed, been significant. My belief, as tentative as it was, was all he needed to adopt me as his child.
And then I remembered the childhood fantasy that had sustained me through the abuse. I’d been sure that my real father was looking for me. Now I knew that God had planned the time to seek me. I’d imagined him as a king. Now I knew he was the King of kings. I was sure he’d whisk me off to a castle on a hill, and I soon learned that I’m promised a mansion on streets of gold. I’d been certain that he loved me in a way my parents never would. I was right.
That was many years ago now. And this whole time since then, God has been working with me to repair all the damage that was done. It’s a hard process because the wounds went so deep, and I spent so much time trying to stuff everything down. And I haven’t always cooperated – because I’ve gotten tired or frustrated or lacked trust. But the thing that stands out most to me is that he is SO patient! He doesn’t give up on me.
First, he gave me the strength to face the horrors of being a victim of incest – and that’s why today I can wholeheartedly say that I’m a survivor - a "victim" no more. That process started in counseling about two years after I’d become a Christian and continued for some time…so that eventually I was able to confront my father. At first – and for a long time – he denied it every time we communicated. But one time, in the heat of anger, he shouted, “If you didn’t like it, you should have told me to stop!” And so I had my admission of guilt.
Unfortunately, this didn’t lead to reconciliation because he immediately went back to his denials, and my mother said she believed him. And shortly thereafter, he collapsed after dinner one night, dead of a heart attack before he hit the floor. My mother and I never spoke again after his funeral, and she died in 2004. But God gave me the strength to manage that rejection, and he even used my father’s momentary confession to enable me to forgive over time. And so that’s why I can talk about them as I do – and even be sad for both of them on many levels.
And, of course, God has given me another family – my own family.
My husband was one of those Christian friends God put into my life in college – and now we’ve been married for over 20 years. I count it a miracle that I wanted to marry at all, and it is only by God’s grace that I chose a man who wants to pursue godliness and that I’ve been able to stay in my marriage…with all its normal ups and downs. Conventional wisdom says I would have bolted at even the first difficulty, but I didn’t, and I know that’s God’s doing.
And then he gave me children besides! I was petrified to become a mom – because I was afraid I’d be like my mom. That's why we waited a long time to start our family – until I could overcome my fears enough to trust that God was bigger than my past experiences. But, in fact, he gave me a promise about that through an unusual series of events in 1992, when he said, “I will break the chains. You don’t need to be afraid.” And he really has done that.
I am not a perfect mom by ANY means; I mess up with my girls daily, and I know I’m going to continue to make mistakes. But God did break the chains because I love them more than my own life, and I cannot imagine feeling any other way about them. It shouldn’t be that way; psychologists and sociologists will tell you that I should carry on the family cycle of neglect because that’s what I knew. But I’m not doing that, which is ALL God in me.
As for my body image issues, that’s the situation where I’ve seen even more grace and patience. I still wrestle with not liking the body that “betrayed” me and with eating disordered thoughts…and, up until very recently, I still engaged in bulimic behaviors. In fact - because it consumed so much of my energy and wrought many negative consequences (including, very likely, my miscarriage) - the fact that I continued to be entangled in the thing I most wanted to be rid of was the bane of my Christian life. But it was actually in that struggle that I very clearly saw God’s love and acceptance of me. He didn't reject me for not being able to “fix” everything about myself. Yes, he surely wanted me to trust him more for the healing sooner than I did – he gave me all sorts of tools and resources to help me with the process – but he didn't stop loving me when I failed. I think he should have. But he didn’t and he won’t. I'll be writing very soon about the process on which he's led me to ultimate healing from disordered eating, but for now I can say with certainty that I know he meant it when he said, “I will NEVER leave you or forsake you.”
Lastly, I want to share with you how he redeemed my name.
At one point in counseling, I lamented that I wished I could change my name - to which my counselor responded, “Why can’t you?” I’d never considered the possibility, but when I thought about it, I realized he was right. If my husband agreed – we were married by then – I could do it.
I thought about several new names – Elizabeth was my initial favorite. But I realized that, though my father had meant my name for evil, God had a hand in giving it to me, too; after all, “Kristine” means “follower of Christ” or even “little Christ.” But I still felt called to make a change. So I finally settled on a small but significant change, and in the summer of 1993, I legally became “Kristina Kathryn.” And, whereas my father had always called me “Kris” or “Krissie,” that is when I started going by “Tina.”
What’s most interesting is that all my friends and my husband – even now my brother, who has miraculously since become a Christ-follower himself – cannot picture me anymore as Kris. I felt like Abram when God renamed him Abraham…or Saul when he was renamed Paul. They were the same people, but very different, too. They still struggled, but they struggled with God at their side and with God’s purpose and direction. And that’s me. On this side of heaven, there will always be shadows of my past. But he is in the process of making me new.
I'm learning to enjoy the ride and to see - just as he says in Jeremiah 29.11, one of my favorite verses - how he will use what was meant for evil for his own good purposes. I’ve realized that it’s a matter of my perspective – of how I choose each day to look at the events that have shaped me.