Learning to Heal from Abuse: One Man’s Mission to Help
By Boz Tchividjian
A few months ago, I was contacted by an individual from Florida who simply wrote to encourage me. As we exchanged emails, I learned that this man is a child sexual abuse survivor who credits an amazing (and generous) counselor for saving his life. He was so moved by this experience that he decided to commit his life to helping other survivors connect with qualified counselors who can guide them through the healing process. In 2011, he took the bold step towards this commitment and started an amazing organization called Together-We-Heal.
Below is my interview with David Pittman, a man whom I admire greatly for rolling up his sleeves and getting into the trenches to love and serve survivors. I’m also blessed to call him my friend:
Boz: Thanks for taking the time to be interviewed. What is your connection to child sexual abuse?
David: My connection to this subject is two-fold. First, I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. From the time I was 12 until around 15 years old, I was molested by my youth minister at Rehoboth Baptist Church in Tucker, Georgia. My other connection is through an organization I have started called, Together-We-Heal. The purpose of this organization is to help sexual abuse survivors get connected with qualified counselors . We help raise awareness on all matters concerning child sexual abuse through public speaking, presentations and workshops. We also help to facilitate the change of laws that will better protect children from and that require more severe penalties for the offenders (i.e. statute of limitation law reform).
Boz: What ever happened to the man who abused you?
David: Years after the abuse, I informed the church about what happened and who abused me. The pastor reluctantly removed him from being a paid staff member, but allowed him to volunteer as a music leader. To my knowledge, he is still there and continues to have access to little boys. What I don’t understand is why anyone would allow their children to be around him when they know that he’s an admitted child molester.
Boz: Did you ever inform the Southern Baptist Convention that one of their churches is knowingly allowing an admitted sex offender to volunteer and have access to children?
David: Yes. When I informed the SBC, they responded by telling me that there was nothing they could do about it. In essence, they were telling me, “It’s not our problem.”
Boz: Can you tell me some ways abuse has affected your life?
David: For more than 30 years, I repressed the memories of abuse by attempting to dull my pain though abusing narcotics. This took me down a path of self-destruction, addiction and incarceration. After decades of failed relationships, jobs, overdosing multiple times and being in jail, I finally hit what is called “rock bottom” and decided I didn’t want to die. So I began working a program though Narcotics Anonymous and am now almost 9 years clean. Once I got clean, I was finally in a position to face the issue of my childhood abuse. The only way for me to do this in a healthy way was to seek professional counseling. Fortunately, I found someone who helped me without charging me anything in return. I was finally able to begin a life of healing by using the tools I learned in counseling to help me process and cope with the pain of having been sexually victimized as a child.
Boz: Tell us a little bit about Together We Heal and what led you to start such an amazing organization?
David: I must admit that initially there were no altruistic motives. I was journaling as a step in my process to healing. As I wrote more and more, my counselor and a couple of friends said I should consider writing this on a blog. As I began to get responses from the blog, the overwhelming question I saw was, “Where can I get help?”
It was at this point I realized I had a choice to make. I could either continue just blogging, or I could try to do something about all of the abuse survivors asking for help. Since I had found a counselor who helped me, I figured maybe there are more counselors willing to do the same.
So I began reaching out to counselors all over the United States to help me help survivors. We now work with qualified counselors on three continents all helping survivors of child sexual abuse.
Boz: In your opinion, do all abuse survivors need to see a therapist? Why or why not?
David: I definitely believe it’s crucial for survivors to get help from a qualified counselor. What we’ve been through is an extremely traumatic event or in some cases a traumatic period of time. Just like a soldier returning from war who is encouraged to seek the help of a trained professional, abuse survivors need the same type of assistance.
For a long time in this country, people held a false notion that seeking counseling was a sign a weakness. As a result, many abuse survivors suffered in silence and isolation. It takes incredible courage and strength to acknowledge that you need help and are willing to ask for it. My hope is that Together-We-Heal will be able to serve survivors by empowering them to find that inner strength and to seek help.
Boz: When an abuse survivor contacts Togther-We-Heal, do you help connect them with a qualified counselor? Also, how do you make sure the counselors are qualified to provide the specialized therapy needed by survivors?
David: Yes, we want survivors to contact us and we will work hard to connect them with a qualified therapist. So far, we have been able to get just enough counselors to donate their time to assist all of those who have come to us. However, we are constantly in need of more counselors as the need grows on a weekly basis.
We do extensive background checks, which includes making sure to verify their degrees and specialty certificates. We will even call the registrars at academic institutions and training centers to substantiate their qualifications. We are committed to doing whatever we have to do to make sure the counselor is qualified to handle issues related to trauma.
We also look counselors with a wide variety of backgrounds. We don’t want just a set of “cookie-cutter” counselors who all do the same thing. We seek out individuals who are best able to address the unique needs of each abuse survivors. Also, we are not limited to just faith based counseling. Oftentimes, abuse survivors need a more secular approach to therapy. Our primary objective is to connect each survivor with the counselor that will best be able to work with then through this journey of healing.
Boz: What if a survivor doesn’t live near a qualified counselor?
David: When location is an issue, as it often is, we will setup counseling either over the phone or via computer. At first, some “old school” counselors told us that this wouldn’t work. Not only have we found great success doing it this way, but the American Psychological Association recently published a study that found over the phone or computer counseling to be just as effective as in-person…sometimes even more so. Some folks find it easier to open up when not staring down the barrel of a pen and paper counselor sitting across from them.
Boz: Many survivors I know don’t see a counselor because they simply can’t afford one. How do you all handle those situations?
David: We have a system in place to assist survivors who do not have the financial resources for therapy. We have counselors who have generously donated their time to provide counseling for no cost. I want to mold Together-We-Heal after the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital standard that no one be turned away because of cost. So far we’ve been able to meet that objective!
Boz: What are some of the greatest challenges you have faced as an abuse survivor within the Christian community?
David: What genuinely breaks my heart is the way the church continues to protect the predators and re-victimize the abused. For example, my abuser has admitted to sexually abusing me. Even when being informed of this admitted abuse and knowing that this perpetrator still has access to children, the leaders of the denomination have deliberately chosen to do nothing. To make matters worse, when I called the pastor of the offender’s current church, I was told to leave them alone. I was told that I am a “bad person” for continuing to bring up what happened in the past. The problem is that these pedophiles and sexual predators never stop. Since I came forward I’ve had 7 other men reach out to me and let me know that this man continued to sexually abuse others in at least three other churches. The only response from the church has been silence.
Tragically, my story is the rule, not the exception. It goes on in every denomination and faith community. Our faith leaders continue to keep their heads in the sand, allowing the abuse of the very ones they are charged with protecting, our children.
In my opinion, those who protect predators are worse than the offenders. It’s like approaching a scorpion, you know it’s a scorpion and it will hurt you. That’s what predators are. But the church and religious leaders are allowing scorpions to run free among the parishioners.
Boz: What do you see as some of the greatest challenges facing the modern day Church as it relates to understanding and serving abuse survivors?
David: I believe if real and lasting change isn’t made in how the Church understands and addresses sexual abuse, we will continue to watch the decline of the Church. Religious leaders must take accountability for the damage done and begin loving and assisting the abused, rather than protecting the offenders.
Boz: Do you have any suggestions as to what can be done to address these challenges?
David: The leaders of faith communities, schools, and other institutions where children are at risk, must begin by providing a safe environment. This includes training their members to detect the signs of “grooming” that are so common amongst offenders. If the leadership fails to move in this direction, we will continue to see more and more abuse tragedies. Sadly, what happened at Penn State and is happening in the Catholic Church is much more common than most realize. Our faith leaders must recognize this reality and do something about it.
We also need to train parents how to begin educating their children about sexual abuse from an early age.
Finally, we need to put pressure on our elected officials that if they don’t change the statute of limitation laws they will not be reelected. That seems to be the only language they understand.
Boz: I often share that though I am constantly confronted with darkness and pain when addressing abuse, God gives me a front row seat in watching Him at work in some amazing ways. Have you had similar experiences? If so, can you share a little bit about that?
David: Yes I can I completely relate to what you’re saying. I got a phone call not too long ago from a survivor in distress. It was clear from what they were telling me they were having suicidal thoughts because they felt like they couldn’t endure another day of reliving the pain of the sexual abuse. After spending about two hours on the phone with them, I set up a counselor to work with them. About a month later I got an email from this same person telling me how grateful they were they found us online. It turns out this survivor was actually on a bridge, about to get out of the car and jump when they decided to do one more search online and discovered the contact information for Together-We-Heal. I am humbled beyond words to know that Together-We-Heal helped to save the life of a survivor who had given up hope.
That’s just one out of dozens of survivors we’ve been able to help onto a path of healing. I tell everyone who contacts us that from that they forward they can know they are not alone. We are here for them and will walk with them as long as needed.
We will never walk away.