Facing Up to Abuse
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Pamela Ronzheimer, joined by her husband Bill, didn’t realize she had scar tissue on her soul from past sexual abuse until she started sharing her pain with Bill and others. Pamela tells how their once happy marriage became hell on earth.
Facing Up to Abuse
Bob: Bill Ronzheimer had been married for many years; he was a local church pastor when his wife told him that, as a child, she had been sexually abused many times. Bill was committed to doing whatever he needed to do so his wife could get help; but before long, he realized she wasn’t the only one who needed help.
Bill: There was obviously stuff in my life that needed to be dealt with, and pride was among them. With the congregation, I shared with them—and this was with a doctor’s advice—it was turning out to be the turning point in our lives/the defining moment. As much as Pamela needed help, I needed help. The difference was she knew she needed help; I didn’t realize where I was.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, June 9th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. We’ll hear today from Bill and Pamela Ronzheimer about the very difficult, glorious, liberating journey that God took both of them on in their marriage. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I feel like we need to say to those of you, who are listening: “What we’re going to be talking about today is going to hit home for some of you on a profound, emotional level. Some of you, we’re talking about your story today as we talk about the experience of childhood sexual abuse and how that affects your life, and your marriage, and all that goes on. Some of you, who are listening, have never told this to anybody.
You’ve kept this hidden, and you’ve shared that this was your story. You were/how old were you when you were abused?
Ann: It started around three—
Bob: —and continued for years?
Ann: —probably until around nine or ten.
Bob: Who was the first person you told?
Ann: I think it was Dave when we were dating.
Bob: So, in your growing up, you didn’t tell Mom; you didn’t tell Dad.
Bob: You didn’t tell a girlfriend.
Ann: No; I don’t think I realized the shame, and embarrassment, and the weight of that—that you carry. I just pushed it down; and when things seemed better, I thought, “Who wants to bring that up?”
Bob: You’ve already shared with us that, when you did tell Dave, Dave was kind of like, “Oh, that’s interesting.”
Ann: Yes; well, I think I had that attitude: “Hey; just so you know—I had some sexual abuse happen when I was younger; but I feel like God has healed me, and I feel good.”
Dave: If I remember correctly, it was—the conversation was over in a couple of minutes. I was like, “Okay.” I had no concept—
Dave: —of what this meant/what it would mean for our future marriage—that came later. It was just—so part of me is like, “I’m glad we’re talking about this today. I’m really glad, because we’re going to give people hope.”
Ann: And I would say this: “If you haven’t been affected by this, someone you know has been—
Ann: —“because it really does hit one of three girls.” We are all affected by this in one way or another.
Bob: Bill and Pamela Ronzheimer are joining us again on FamilyLife Today. Guys, welcome back.
Bill: Thank you.
Pamela: Thank you.
Bob: You guys have started talking to people about this and sharing with folks. You’ve got a ministry called Marriage Reconstruction Ministries; and this is really at the heart of how you’re ministering to couples in marriage. Bill, you’ve written a book called Help, My Wife Is a Survivor of Sexual Abuse. You are an adjunct professor at Northwestern University; you were a pastor for 39 years. The two of you have been married for more than four decades and have got two adult kids and grandkids.
Your decision to be public about this issue really came out of having to deal with it in the context of your marriage/deal with it privately first. For listeners, who didn’t hear your whole story, you were abused by a [principal]; and that was during elementary school. It continued while you were in elementary school. You tried to share this with your parents—
Bob: —and tried to share it with some friends.
Bob: Nobody really came around and said, “This is serious.” So you began to think, “Well, maybe, it’s not that big a deal,”—didn’t share it with your husband until you’d been married for ten years.
Bob: At the ten-year mark, somebody said, “How can I pray for you?” You said, “I was abused sexually.” You were surprised that you said it, because you hadn’t even put words like that to it.
Pamela: Absolutely had never said it out loud before.
Bob: Bill, you were stunned because you had no knowledge that this was a part of your wife’s past.
Bill: Yes; I’m not even sure I could even say “stunned,” though; because I was ignorant. I just didn’t know what that was going to mean or what it meant for her.
Bob: And you went on, from there, thinking, “Well, it’s out; and we’ll share about this,” without thinking, “There’s probably some scar tissue left on my soul”; right?
Pamela: I didn’t know that.
Pamela: I just thought that, “I think I need some professional help.”
Ann: Well, it’s interesting, Bob; you said there’s a lot of scar tissue. I would say it’s not scar tissue yet. I would say it’s more infection—
Ann: —at that point, because there is no healing that has taken place yet.
Bill: That’s a good analogy.
Pamela: It’s like an abscess that’s under the skin that you haven’t seen yet.
Bill: Pamela realized that, and I’m continuing on with my life. It’s all about me, still, at this point.
Pamela: So cute. [Laughter]
Bill: She started asking me, “You know, I need more help,” “I need a counselor.” Let me set some context here, for those of you to whom my voice might sound young. I’m not young!—you know? [Laughter] I’ve been in ministry a long time. We’re going back to some years where, for some segments of the Christian church, counseling had a—
Bill: —stigma to it. As a pastor, to have my wife go to a counselor and somehow let that get out in the open, it was unthinkable—
Bill: —to me, at the time, given the context of things; but I do have personal responsibility here. I was ignorant, and I was arrogant. I really did not listen to Pamela. I did not support her at all in the help that she needed, so eight years went by like this.
Bill: Now, God has a way of bringing some things to—
Bob: —to the surface?
Bill: —to the surface, and He did. Amazingly, I ended up going into counseling after those eight years as well; so joke’s on me. [Laughter]
Pamela: No; when we had been married for 18 years, I was 39 years old. A person, who had hurt me, asked for forgiveness; and the pain of the sexual abuse was like a tsunami. Immediately, I stopped eating; I cried constantly; and my behavior became extremely erratic. We would argue—I did not know that the anger towards my abuser was being aimed at Bill. When I would perceive that he had done something, where I didn’t trust him, I just was like a lunatic.
Where our home had been one of peace and calm, for that six weeks, it became like hell on earth. I do remember there were a couple of instances—like for one—Bill brought me flowers. I took the flowers—and in my mind, the story was: “If you think those flowers are going to help me, you are wrong.” I just threw them across the room.
Pamela: Another time—I was too upset to be able to keep talking, so I grabbed the keys from the—we were on the second floor of our upstairs/downstairs apartment—and went tearing down the stairs to drive away, in a rage, screaming back to Bill, “You explain this to the girls!” They were in eighth and ninth grade.
Our marriage, for the next—I’d say four or five years—was miserable: full of shame and chaos. I ended up, at the end of the six weeks, in a mental hospital. We found a doctor, who was a Christian, who had a lot of experience with trauma and sexual abuse. He admitted me; I found that that was a very safe place to be for those four weeks.
The first night that I was in the hospital on the psychiatric floor, I had begged my doctor to give me a private room and to put it far away—that little piece of me that likes aloneness—he did it. I’m at the corner of the unit, and the door’s shut. I had a conversation with God; and it went like this, loud—first of all, I was loud—I said, “God, if You are ever able to take away this pain, I will never ever let You use me again to help another person.”
Bob: Now, wait; wait: “If You’re able to take it away, I’ll never let You—
Pamela: “…never let You use me.”
Bob: That’s like: “Make me better, and I’ll quit serving You”?
Pamela: It wasn’t that I would quit serving Him; but first of all, I didn’t think He could take that deep pain away. If He could, there was no way I was going to let Him use me to help anybody else.
Pamela: The pain was so great.
Pamela: In my mind, at that moment as I was speaking out loud—because I do pray out loud, even if it’s quiet mumbling, to stay focused when I pray. That was sort of one of the effects of the abuse that I never knew; and that is I can’t—there is a lot of activity in my brain.
Pamela: So if I want to pray, I have to speak. I finished by saying, “God, how could You love a little girl, and watch that happen, and not do anything?” Now, all the time that I’m saying those words, I am also saying, “I know You’re there.” I was on the third floor, and I faced Lake Michigan; so I could see the sunrise every morning.
For those four weeks, I would get up before dawn, which is—Bill would know—I mean, you don’t see me before 11 am if I can choose. [Laughter] I would get up before dawn, throw up the windows, and sit on my bed and watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan, thinking, “If God can keep the universe running, I know He sees what’s going on in our lives.”
Then Bill can tell—we immediately started reading Psalms together in that dark time.
Bob: Before you talk about the Psalms, though, you connected this erratic behavior—this six weeks of what we would look at and say, “She had a nervous breakdown”—right?
Pamela: That’s what I had.
Bob: You were connecting that to your abuse?
Bob: The idea that the pastor’s wife is going to the psych ward?
Bill: Well, that’s where God started breaking me. There was stuff in my life that needed to be dealt with, and pride was among them. With the congregation, I shared with them—and this was with the doctor’s advice—he didn’t want everything revealed at once. He said, “Just let your people know that she’s reached complete exhaustion, physically, and just needs this time for emotional rest.” That became the explanation. By the time a year had passed, we had shared everything with the congregation.
Bill: At the time she was in the hospital, I gave that limited explanation, which I’m sure raised a lot of questions in people; but for some reason, God was enabling me to be okay with that at the time because I knew that this—well, I did not know—but it was turning out to be the turning point in our lives/the defining moment. As much as Pamela needed help, I needed help. The difference was she knew she needed help; I didn’t realize where I was.
Dave: How did that journey take place—I mean, you’re getting help.
Pamela: —which is typical, you know. If you’ve been abused, and you go to a counselor, they have been trained to a good degree to know what to do with you; but there was no one for my daughters or for Bill.
Bill: I was assigned to a different counselor in the same clinic. It bothered me a little bit; I thought, “Shouldn’t we be going to the same counselor?”
Bill: I understand it, now, why. I was just talking to another husband the other day, whose wife is a survivor. He said, “I want to get us into marriage counseling together.” I said: “Look, you’re already in individual counseling; so is she. Keep it that way for now; because I know that there are things, within the husband, that need to be addressed.” There were certainly things in me.
One of the things that occurs in the family system, where abuse has occurred, is that the survivor becomes labeled as the identified patient. She’s the one—or if the husband’s the one who has been abused, he’s the one—that has the problems. The family system kind of buys into that, but that’s a fallacy. I had deep issues that needed to be dealt with; and as I sat down for counseling, eventually, those things came to the forefront and were dealt with.
We needed healing in our marriage; yes; but we were two wounded people, who needed God’s individual work in us first, and then the marriage could come together again.
Ann: Bill, what were your issues that needed to come up and be healed?
Dave: —besides ignorance and arrogance, which you already said. [Laughter]
Bob: Pride. You’ve got a whole list of them there.
Bill: Pride goes pretty deep—the controlling. You know, there were temptations that I was not dealing with well. I wasn’t proving myself to be trustworthy to Pamela. There were ways in which I was drawn, lustfully, outside of marriage in thought life, and even desiring/wishing, and all of these things that were so privately held within me.
Pamela: This is so common with those of us that have been sexually abused. We’re hypersensitive and aware of those little nuances, and we have had to live our entire life watching for signs of safety or threat. I would recognize the lack of safety; and when we would try to discuss it ourselves, well, that just turned into a big atomic bomb. The counselor was able to sort that out in a much healthier way than I would have ever been able to do for Bill.
Bob: How were you different at the end of four weeks in the psych ward than you had been when you went in?
Pamela: Well, first of all, I had been put on some medication that sort of brought the anxiety to a duller roar.
Pamela: My doctor was reminding me that I was going to get through it, and—
Ann: —and that was helpful?
Pamela: It was—
Pamela: —because all I could think of, from the time I was very little, I always had this belief system—and I don’t know where it came from other than abuse—“If I died, nobody would cry.” Then I would cry, just silently; but I could remember the tears being warm on my cheek, and my pillow being soaking wet, thinking, “Nobody will cry if I die.” Then, as I got older and I had shared about the abuse, and the pain started to hit for real; then I wanted to die.
At the end of that four weeks, I thought—the doctors said, “You’ll need long-term therapy,”—in my mind, that meant nine months; because I thought, “It’s a long time when you are pregnant—nine months.” [Laughter] That’s truly what I thought. I thought, “At the end of nine months, we’ll be through this.”
Well, at the end of nine months, I was seeing my doctor, maybe two or three times a week, crying for an hour and going home, screaming the whole drive home; because I didn’t know why. I just was screaming, because I was still hurting. That went on for several years. After a year’s time, I felt very suicidal at the anniversary of that hospitalization; I was put back in the hospital. That happened another time the next year; and that, also, was the time of year when the abuse had happened.
Ann: Pamela, can you share: “What was going on in your mind? Were you reliving what had happened to you? What kind of battle were you facing?”
Pamela: I think the biggest battle was I was fighting for my life to stay alive to find out what God was going to do. It wasn’t even that I would replay the actual abuse as much as my nightmares were dragging me into hell. Then, to wake up and have to fight Satan with my mind and Scripture, I was exhausted. I’m telling you—I just had card after card—like what I brought today.
Ann: Yes, what were some of your Scriptures that just got you through?
Pamela: I would read things like this—Isaiah 46:3: “I have created you and cared for you since you were born. I will be your God through all your lifetime. Yes, even when your hair is white with age.” It didn’t say anything about dying it and bleaching it; right? [Laughter] I have white hair, just so you know. “I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and be your Savior.”
I would speak truth, and it was years of doing that. Then, eventually, I would be able to say—when I would have a thought: “You’d be better off dead,” “Your girls would do better,”—I would be able say out loud: “That is a lie! God has me; I am His. It is a lie.” I pretty much do that every morning before I get into my day. I don’t memorize the things that I speak, because I don’t want them to ever be just done by rote. I actually just sit with my cards and read them.
Bob: I want you to help me, as a husband, because, like you, I would think nine months should fix this. For you to say “years and years,” and you have to go back a couple of times to the hospital—as you’re telling this story, I’m not thinking, “Boy, there is something really wrong with Pamela,”—I’m thinking, “There is something really wrong with me in thinking this should be over in a few months.”
Bill: Oh, can I answer that?
Bill: It wasn’t until the 1970s that clinical psychologists were beginning to recognize the long-term effects of sexual abuse. Then, in the ‘90s, they began to recognize that, as they were hearing the stories of war veterans coming back from war and the stories of sexual abuse survivors, that the long-term effects they were hearing were very similar; but there is an extra complexity thrown in for survivors of sexual abuse. It’s called complex trauma. For a war veteran, you expect the enemy to be shooting at you; you don’t want it, but you expect it. For a survivor, it’s the person, who is supposed to be their caregiver—not an enemy—that is the one who is abusing them. It becomes a very complex situation.
Here is my answer to your question: “We would never say to a war veteran, ‘Why can’t you just get over it?’” It would be unthinkable to us; and we need to take on that same attitude for survivors, whether they be male or female survivors of sexual abuse. If anybody wants to get over it, they do; but it is a process that, for some reason, God has chosen to use to work some deeper good into our lives.
Bob: I’m thinking there may be as many women who are interested in reading your book as there are husbands. You wrote this for husbands: Help, My Wife Is a Survivor of Sexual Abuse. I’m guessing a lot of wives are going to say, “I want to see what you are telling the husbands in this book.”
Bill: That book addresses ten questions husbands have that, out of my research, I began hearing these questions over and over again.
Dave: I had every single one of those ten.
Bill: Wow; Pamela would be quick to say: “You know what? Those are my questions too.”
Bob: “What’s a normal marriage?” “When do I get my wife back?” “Should I stay, or should I go?” “Why doesn’t God heal my wife?” “When will this be over?” “Why can’t she just get over it?” Those are the questions you are addressing in the book. I’d encourage any husband, whose wife experienced sexual abuse—and again, the statistics that we’ve seen are one in three wives has experienced some kind of direct sexual abuse as a child—get a copy of this book. Read through it yourself/read through it with your wife; enter into what has to have been a significant trauma for her, and be the husband God has called you to be here.
The book we’re talking about is called Help, My Wife Is a Survivor of Sexual Abuse by Bill Ronzheimer. You can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to get your copy; or call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY is our number. Again, the title of the book is Help, My Wife Is a Survivor of Sexual Abuse by Bill Ronzheimer. Order online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call to order: 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, as we have had this conversation today about how important it is for us to invite others into the challenges we’re facing—to have a safe community of people, who can support us as we go through difficult times/as we process what’s going on in our lives—I was thinking about many of you, as listeners, who have gotten in touch with us and asked us to pray for you. And we do that regularly. We got an email from a listener recently who said, “Pray for my marriage, for my children, our finances, for my physical and mental health.” Somebody else said, “Pray for my anxiety during this difficult season.” Somebody else said, “Pray for the restoration of my marriage and my family.” Somebody else said, “We’re trying to have children; the doctors say we can’t. We’re trusting God and seeking His direction.”
So many burdens that people are experiencing, and so many of us need a community we can connect with. And to the extent we can be a part of that community with you, we want to do that. FamilyLife Today exists to help effectively develop godly marriages and families. We do that by providing you programs like FamilyLife Today. We do that through the resources we develop, our website, our events; but we also do that by connecting with you as listeners. So as you have prayer requests, we are here for you/want to pray for you.
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Now, tomorrow, we want to talk about the hope and the healing that is available for people, who have been down this dark road/who have experienced this kind of evil. Bill and Pamela Ronzheimer will be back with us again tomorrow. I hope you can be back as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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