At times in my life, I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to arrange the perfect picture of normal, whatever normal means. And sexual abuse was never a part of that normal. It was far from it. It was the last thing I wanted in that perfect picture of me. And it felt like maybe it was the last thing others wanted in that picture of me, too.

I worked hard to bury that past. I think that burying started even during the abuse itself. When you’re told as a 9-year-old that no one should know about this, that you’ll be the one in trouble if it comes to light, you quickly learn how to deny what’s real and paint a different picture that others—and you—can accept.

But, if you haven’t guessed it already, there is no such thing as a perfect picture. And it’s hard to bury something without its ugly roots tightening around the deepest parts of you. I’ve struggled with anxiety and PTSD symptoms as a result. I tried to handle flashbacks and nightmares on my own. I never was quite able to manage it all.

Over time, therapy has helped. Close friends and family have helped. A loving, patient husband has helped. And last year, unexpectedly, The Haven Retreat helped.

Shame almost convinced me not to sign up. I stumbled upon the retreat on Instagram of all places. I applied, had a phone interview, and nearly had plane tickets to Georgia purchased before I even mentioned anything to my husband. I think that’s because saying that I was going on a retreat for women survivors of sexual abuse would make [the abuse] too real again.

But I went, even though I was scared. And I’m so glad I did. I learned so much about shame and those little voices that followed me around telling me that I couldn’t pursue healing or talk about such a big part of my life. Shaming voices telling me about who I am (or am not) because of that abuse. For once, I felt connected to a group of women who understood it all. We sat together in “the uncomfortable,” able to say those invaluable words: “Me too.”

I move forward knowing that this story of mine is far from perfect. I’m still trying to untangle myself from the worst parts of it, but I’m a lot more confident in who I am because of it and how I can provide hope for others through it.

—Marissa, Survivor

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