I was a teenager when the senior pastor of my church in Tulsa, Oklahoma gave me that dubious lift home from junior high school that forever changed me and my life.

I was a popular girl in school, captain of the cheerleading squad, cute, skinny, and a straight-A student.  I represented my church in numerous public speaking competitions and participated in almost every church event because my mother was a church clerk, so that first time he drove up beside me in his smooth, cream-colored Cadillac and offered me a ride, I didn’t hesitate to get in his car.

The pastor was a man in his 50s, a small man at about 5 foot 4 inches tall, and very popular in our state with one of the largest congregations in Tulsa. He was the all-powerful Reverend, our trusted religious leader who most of the women worshipped as well. But he didn’t want grown women. 

Instead of taking me home that day, he told me he had to stop by his house first. I’ll never forget that house.  It was a sickly yellow or a yellow that made me sick, I’m not sure.  It took 15 years and professional counseling before I could wear the color yellow again.

We walked up a few steps to where he opened the screen to his front door and went inside. He told me to sit on the couch and asked if I wanted something to drink. I said yes. He left the room and came back with what looked like water, but it wasn’t. It tasted very bitter and I spit it out. He told me to drink it, that I would like it. So I drank it. Then, a few minutes later, he was fondling my budding breasts and kissing me on the lips.

I started to feel a little dizzy so he told me to lie down on his bed. I did what I was told. Then, he was on top of me, kissing me and taking my clothes off. He took his off too, and the next thing I knew, he was penetrating my virginal wall. It hurt so badly. I screamed. I cried. But no one heard me. He tried to calm me down, but he didn’t stop what he was doing – until he was finished and collapsed with what appeared to be pleasure. I just laid there, shocked. He told me not to tell anyone. I didn’t, at first. Then I told my mother.

My mother didn’t help me.  A victim of sexual abuse herself, I’d learn later, my mother whom I love and eventually forgave, and who loved me, was not able to protect me, or didn’t know that she should, I’m not sure. As sparsely as women report their rapes today, the odds that a woman would report her rape back then—and especially naming a prominent pastor—were very slim.  What I do know is that pastor raped me many more times in that yellow house—and I was forever changed.

I stopped relying on my mother to help or hurt me, and made a plan to get out of her home, out of that church and out of Tulsa as quickly as possible. It would be 20 years before I was healed enough to rejoin a church and feel comfortable practicing my faith, though even today, I do not put much stock in preachers outside of their message in the pulpit.

While I went through various stages of depression, guilt and feelings of unworthiness after that theft of my autonomy and innocence, that violation of my soul, eventually I was able to tap into a strength I didn’t know I had, and with the help of a professional counselor, I have been able to move forward with my life.

Julia’s Fearless Living Tips:

1)    Know that you’re a survivor, no matter what stage of survival you’re in. “Survivor” doesn’t mean you’re completely over it or you’re totally in control of your response or behavior after you’ve been assaulted. It just means that you’re still here. And that’s as good a place as any to start.

2)    Tell someone. Talk with someone you trust and can confide in. Whether you decide to report your abuse to authorities or not, do not try to handle this trauma on your own.

3)    Get to a safe place. Get out of the abusive environment as fast as you can — and don’t look back.

4)    Know that you did not bring that experience on yourself. It is not your fault. Guilt, shame and feelings of unworthiness do not belong to you. Don’t own them.

5)    Release anger in positive ways by participating in active sports, or taking art classes, and practice meditation (Read Russell Simmons ‘Success through Stillness: Meditation Made Simple) or pray.

6)    Read and learn about what happened to you so you can better understand how to best deal with any negative side effects that can result and possibly affect future positive relationships in your life.

7)    Trauma does not define you. Know that this trauma that happened to you does not have to define you and who you will become. 

8)    Take all the time you need to feel angry, hurt, betrayed, abandoned, sad—however you may feel, allow yourself space and time to feel it.  Allow people you trust and who want to support you to be there for you.  Those people can anchor you and make sure that you do not become permanently crippled by this trauma but will help to empower you, encourage you and to propel you above and beyond into your real destiny.

If you or someone you know needs help after surviving sexual assault, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-Hope and visit RAINN.org

Julia A. Wilson is the CEO and Founder of Wilson Global Communications, an international public affairs consulting firm founded in South Africa in 1994 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. A U.S. Department of State Fulbright Grant recipient and international lecturer. Wilson has lived, studied and/or worked in more than 13 countries. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaWilson_dc.