BY ANNA BJORLIN
When she was just 13 years old, Stillwater resident Elizabeth Sullivan became the victim of childhood sexual abuse, an act that led her to become part of the nationwide statistics that show one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys is sexually abused before the age of 18.
Although Sullivan’s abuse happened decades ago, she only began truly dealing with the aftereffects of her trauma a few years ago.
“One night, I was in my bathroom after having a flashback, and I was throwing up in the toilet,” she said. “At one point, I just thought to myself, ‘How can this kind of stuff happen and no one cares?’ Society doesn’t want to see or hear about this issue — they want adult survivors to keep quiet, and that makes me angry. I knew there had to be others out there struggling with the same things I was, who needed support like I do.”
Now 44, Sullivan helps other struggling with similar issues through a peer support group she created called EmpowerSurvivors. Formed just over a year ago, the group is designed specifically for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, many of whom don’t begin dealing with their issues until their 40s, 50s or 60s.
“There’s little empathy for these adult survivors,” Sullivan said. “Most people don’t understand why the person will appear to be fine and then suddenly begin having problems later in life. So I felt a real pull to have something here in the St. Croix Valley for people in the surrounding areas to have a safe space to gather to talk about their issues.”
The group meets every Wednesday 6-7:30 p.m. in the Stillwater Library, and also offers a private Facebook group for those unable to attend the weekly meetings. Gwen, a 60-year-old member of the group who has been attending meetings since last February, described how nervous she was beforehand.
“It took me weeks to work up the courage to go since I’m not one to talk in a group setting, especially in front of people I don’t know,” Gwen said. “I didn’t say a word for the first five to seven meetings. I just sat there and cried. It was so comforting to know I had an entire room full of people who were feeling the same things I was and to hear their stories.”
Jessie Hoffman, 31, felt the same. Hoffman has attended meetings since last June, after a friend discovered the group for her.
“Of course, I didn’t want to go at first, but I was at a point in my life where I felt I didn’t have a choice,” Hoffman said. “I had been going to counseling for two years, and there had been some progress, but the first time I went to a meeting, I sat there and cried the whole time. Just hearing that everyone else had or has been going through the exact same things you’ve been going through yourself makes you feel a little less crazy.”
Both Gwen and Hoffman credit EmpowerSurvivors as playing a key role in their healing processes.
“I’ve been in and out of Intensive Outpatient Treatment for depression, but I can honestly say I think the EmpowerSurvivors group has been the key for me,” Gwen said. “The weekly connection is wonderful, and it’s so healing just knowing there are others who understand me and know where I’m coming from.”
As for Hoffman, she mentioned how she never thought she would be able to talk to her family about the abuse she went through, but managed to tell her parents about it a few months ago.
“It was something I thought I’d never be able to do in my entire life, and I completely credit the group,” Hoffman said. “It’s just amazing. As a survivor, you keep being told that it gets better and it’s hard to believe, but then you see Liz and how strong she is. She still has her struggles, of course, but just knowing that she was once where we were and that she’s gotten better is so encouraging.”
Sullivan realizes how difficult and frightening it can be for a survivor to come to one of the group meetings, but she wants people to know that EmpowerSurvivors is a safe space where people can see that they’re not alone.
“I think people underestimate the power of a peer support group,” Sullivan said. “It’s scary as all hell for survivors to come to the meetings, but once they’re there, they find out very quickly that they’re not crazy for thinking certain things or behaving in certain ways, and once they realize that, they can start to shed the shame and get empowered.”