BY SUE WEBBER
Elizabeth Sullivan carried a dark secret with her for 30 years. She told no one, not even her parents or her husband.
But the secret finally came out in 2012. She is a victim of childhood sexual abuse.
“My folks were divorced when I was 3, and things happened at home when I was with a babysitter,” Sullivan said. “When I was 13, I was sexually abused by my friend’s older brother. When I was 14, another friend and I were molested by two adults in the woods outside Stillwater.
“The problem with childhood sexual abuse is that when it happens early, it sets you up for more. I turned to drugs and alcohol then. I got pregnant at 16 and lost the baby. When I was 17, I was raped by a man who had been a friend, like family.”
She never reported any of it, Sullivan said. “Years ago, I thought I would never tell anyone,” she said. “I thought I would go to my grave with it. It owned me. Young victims are told that it’s their fault, that they made it happen, that people wouldn’t understand. It keeps you quiet.”
But the abuse affects their behavior and how they look at life, she said. “Some victims become promiscuous; some become perfectionists and excel,” she said. “I got into drugs as a way of survival.”
At 17, she quit taking drugs and thought she had put it all behind her, Sullivan said.
But it resurfaced in 2012, when she and her husband were seeing a counselor. By then, she had three children who were the same age as she was when she became a victim.
“The kids’ ages, combined with the counseling, triggered me,” Sullivan said. “Every time the therapist asked me about my childhood, I cried. Eventually I became afraid to go back [to the therapist] because I was afraid I would be exposed. It was like a storm was brewing.”
The “storm” hit on a morning soon after, when she was attending Mass with her two youngest children. “I started feeling like I was having a heart attack,” Sullivan said. “I told the kids I had the flu. I ended up calling 911, went to the hospital and was in ICU for two days with a heart rate that was out of control. I had no idea what was happening to me. When I got out of the hospital, the flashbacks started and I had PTSD that was out of control.”
Sullivan, a lifelong resident of Stillwater, began going to therapy twice a week then and started to address the abuse she had suffered years earlier.
“I had basically shut the door to my childhood,” she said. “I never told my family or my husband. Even when I started talking about it I thought people would think I was a horrible person. I wondered how I could raise my kids.”
As she has dealt with her issues during the last five years, Sullivan has learned that the average age at which survivors experience triggering and reliving their earlier abuse is 42. She learned that one of every four girls and one of every six boys is sexually abused by the age of 18, and some have several violators. She learned a lot more through study, support groups and connections with others who had had similar experiences.
“I really started diving into a study of child abuse, pedophiles and family dynamics,” Sullivan said. “I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to find something to help people on a healing journey. I wanted to take on the world, but the therapist said I should work on myself first.”
At one point, she said, “I sat down and had an age-appropriate conversation with each of my kids and told them what had happened to me.”
Once the therapist gave her the go-ahead, Sullivan got busy. She established EmpowerSurvivors in 2014, a group that first began as an online blog and then morphed into a Facebook group that eventually had 3,000 members from all over the world who had suffered every kind of abuse. From there, her work branched out into weekly support groups at the Stillwater Library. In 2016, Sullivan opened an office in Stillwater.
She also co-hosts a weekly radio show on a California station, along with a forensic psychologist.
The Stillwater office, at 1940 S. Greeley St., offers a support group on Thursday nights, plus additional classes and workshops. It became a non-profit organization in 2016, and now has an advisory board and volunteers, some of whom are sexual abuse survivors.
Sullivan is now planning the second annual conference called Giving Voice-EmpowerSurvivors 2017, set to begin at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Grand Banquet Hall in Stillwater.
This year’s keynote speaker will be Matt Sandusky, whose adoptive father, Jerry Sandusky (formerly an assistant football coach at Penn State) molested Matt from the time he was 8 until he was 17. Matt is founder and executive director of Peaceful Hearts Foundation, and also is the author of “Undaunted: Breaking My Silence to Overcome the Trauma of Child Sexual Abuse,” a memoir chronicling his years of abuse.
Other speakers will include:
• Tara Walker Lyons of Montana, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and mother of two who recently authored and helped pass “Tara’s Law” in Montana, to require K-12 education on the topics of childhood sexual abuse, prevention, and what to look for when prevention fails.
• Jane Straub, a victim assistance specialist with the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center and Gundersen National Child Protection Service, who is a national speaker on the Adverse Childhood Experience Study and Survivor Resiliency.
About a dozen local vendors – plus a nutritionist, a yoga expert and an acupuncturist — were represented at last year’s conference, and Sullivan is hoping for more participation this year.
“I truly believe you need to involve the whole mind, body and spirit to bring a lot of healing,” Sullivan said.
In the meantime, Sullivan has found the Chamber of Commerce supportive of her efforts, and has met with the assistant prosecuting attorney in the Human Trafficking Unit at South Washington County, who also is supportive.
But she has found it harder to convince some segments of the community that she’s offering a needed service. Many people believe that the experience was something that happened in the past and wonder why you don’t just get over it and move on, Sullivan said. Much more adult education is needed, she said.
“Sexual abuse is such a taboo subject,” she said. “Most survivors don’t get the support they need. We all store trauma differently, and when people deal with sexual abuse in their past, they’re right back to where they were as kids. Until you process the trauma, you’re going to have issues. Schools don’t want to touch it because then people think they’re teaching sex education. But if we don’t talk to our kids about it, predators will, and they’re really good at it.”
She stresses that survivors need to work with a trained therapist first.
When adults first break their silence or something triggers their memories, she said, “They think they’re going nuts. They become fearful. You truly believe you are at fault. A lot of people grew up thinking they were damaged or dirty.”
Sullivan is determined to continue working toward giving voice to sexual abuse. “It’s important for us to come together as a community,” she said. “Survivors need a safe place to go to understand what happened to them. People are pretty shattered. They don’t know how to put it into words. It’s really powerful to sit in a group with people who understand. My whole life I’ve never had things just fall into place. When I decided to do this, it became my mission. I’m still learning, and I always will be. Now I’m putting it to good use and helping people.”
Those interested in attending the Nov. 11 conference may register online. For more information, call 651-300-9180 or email [email protected].
Correction: The name of the conference has been corrected. It is “Giving Voice-EmpowerSurvivors 2017.”