By AMANDA BEAM
Jessica Smith closed her eyes in silent contemplation; her fingers tallying numbers by tapping the air. Even with the apparent ease of which she speaks about her abuse, some questions are still difficult to answer. Not because she doesn’t want to discuss them, but because the answers are buried deep within memories worth forgetting.
“Eleven,” said Smith with a flinch. “No. There were 12.”
Beginning at the age of 5, at least 12 different people touched Smith during her childhood in ways that were sexually inappropriate. A few of these did even more unspeakable acts.
As is the case with Smith, a Louisville resident, neglect at times plays a factor in abuse. As long as the now 23-year-old can remember, drug problems plagued her family. Dealers would sell crack cocaine to her addict mother, she said, and take advantage of the situation and her innocence. Exploitation became part of her daily existence.
“Sex, just sex in itself, being sexual, the idea of sex and everything like that, it blanketed my childhood. There was sex in some form everywhere,” Smith said. “From that time forward, I felt that I was sexually abused by people throughout time. I felt passed around.”
Trauma from abuse doesn’t end once the act stops. The molestation and its after-effects can shape how the survivor views themselves and their world, even becoming a part of their very identity.
With one in every three women having been sexually abused during their childhood, the continuing repercussions can have devastating results. Research has shown that those who have suffered from this type of abuse face numerous issues well into adulthood, including low self-esteem, self-hate, depression and a reduced ability to trust.
Like many who have been molested, Smith felt lost and alone as she aged. A boyfriend during her teenage years masked these feelings of worthlessness by the simple act of making her feel wanted. The pain, though, always returned. Nothing could stop it. At times, the memories suffocated her so much she thought she would die.
“Sometimes what we do when we’re sexually abused, we attach who we are to someone or something. If that falls apart, we fall apart. And that’s because we have no foundation,” Smith said. “My foundation had been cracked. I didn’t know who I was.”
Though emotional scars are harder to detect than physical ones, those close to Smith began to notice her suffering. During her senior year of high school, a friend and her family asked Smith to live with them. More important yet, the friend’s mother introduced the then 18-year-old to counselor Cathy Jo Summers and to an organization Summers volunteered with called SOAR Ministries.
“People say, ‘Jessica, you’re so great. You’re beautiful. You have a career. You have all these things.’ But… I’m not OK. I feel like I’m broken,” Smith said. “SOAR helps you realize that it’s OK to not be OK.”
Founded in 2000, SOAR is a nonprofit organization based in New Albany that provides counseling and other assistance for female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. In addition to offering support groups throughout the week, SOAR — which is an acronym for Survivors Of Abuse Restored — provides a 13-week Christian-based program to help women deal with the lingering effects of molestation.
Five years ago, Smith began personal counseling with Summers while participating in the above program, a move, she said, that transformed her life.
“SOAR has been a place for me to celebrate the fact that I didn’t die. That this is not going to kill me,” Smith said. “It’s just a journey. Healing is a way of life for someone who has been sexually abused.”
Besides being a place she could be open about her abuse with others who share similar pasts, the organization also taught Smith how to handle triggers and other feelings associated with the trauma. For once, she began to understand why she felt and acted the ways she did. A sisterhood began to form with the group, the women becoming almost like surrogate mothers.
Prom dresses were bought, a graduation party held, and college supplies assembled. In stark contrast to her earlier years, the group allowed for happy moments to be celebrated in the teen’s life.
“For a survivor of sexual abuse, the big events are even bigger because you’ve been through so many bad things that when something good happens, it’s worth shouting about,” Smith said. “Let’s heal from the past and celebrate the future.”
As far as the future goes, Smith wants to continue college and graduate with a degree in counseling so she can help others in their journeys of recovery. Healing, though, takes time and isn’t always easy.
Smith cautioned that there will be instances where survivors won’t want to deal with the memories. Forgetting or pretending everything is OK can be less stressful. But in the long term, true recovery can only occur when survivors face their painful past.
“Healing from sexual abuse is not easy, but it’s doable,” Smith said. “It’s a little at a time. Every day you might have to remind yourself that I am worthy. I am valuable. I am not what happened to me. It is so worth it.”