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My story is an interesting one. Until I found Recovering Grace I did not know there were many others like me.
When I was eight years old my mom and biological father divorced. Even as a child I understood why their divorce was necessary. People say I was born an adult. Within a year my mom re-married a man from a very wealthy family in my hometown. My little sister and I befriended his whole family and became very close with them. We had a whole new set of cousins, aunts, and uncles. Some of my cousins home schooled and my mom wanted to try it. Until this point my sister and I had been in public school. We were excited about being able to spend more time with our mom since she had been a career mom for most of our lives. So we began to home school using A Beka and PACE books (Accelerated Christian Education) as our curriculum. We always tested well in our state. I was around ten years old at this time.
When I was 12, we joined a home school group and met lots of new friends. One family introduced my parents to the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) program. This is where my family truly began to unravel. I could say that it started with my parents’ divorce when I was eight, but I can’t. I wish that was the worst thing that had happened to me. But it’s not. You see, my stepdad had been sexually abusing my little sister and me for a year before we joined ATI. When I was 13, we attended our first Basic Seminar. I sat through the whole thing with my parents. Afterward my stepdad brought me into a side room, apologized, and promised me it would never happen again. He kept his promise; I was never abused by him again. When my Mom found out about it, she forgave him.
We stayed in ATI through all my teenage years, and my mom went on to have several more children. We were forced by my stepdad to wear dresses (while hiking, working out, swimming, and even around our female friends). All of our friends were in ATI. We went to the Knoxville conference every year. We used the Wisdom Booklets as our only school curriculum. We went to a little home church that had no pastor, where we just watched ATI videos. I was wholly and completely caught up in the system. I looked at other girls who wore pants and scoffed at them. I banned all music other than classical, and I babysat the multitudes of children at our church. I sat through countless seminars. I wore navy and white. I was a poster child of ATI. I listened, obeyed, and did everything my parents wanted me to do.
Our family looked perfect on the outside, yet I was judged, harassed, and verbally abused by other ATI kids because my parents were divorced. I let it all roll off my back and just pressed on to be the perfect ATI child. I was verbally attacked by other ATI kids because of my big bust, a popped button on my blouse, that I was a little overweight, and that my hair was not long enough. But I pressed on. I was made fun of because my real father was not a Christian, because I grew up in a non-Christian home until I was eight, and because one time I decided to wear mascara. But still I pressed forward, believing it was the right thing to do. My only goal in life was to marry and have children. I graduated high school when I was 17 and started waiting for my prince to come. Little did I know how my life would turn out.
When I was 17, my protected little world started to crash down all around me. At this point I was the oldest of five children. My youngest sister was born with a heart defect and our church leaders were split about what my parents should do. Half of them told my parents that if my mom had not had so much sin in her life then my sister would not have a defect. They forced her to confess every sin she could remember, including very personal, intimate details. They told my mom that my baby sister would not get their prayers until she confessed everything to them, my stepdad, my sister, and me. (My sister was 14 at the time. My other siblings were too young to know what was going on.) My mom sat there and told us things about herself that we never needed to know. My stepdad just sat and watched it all. The other half of the church leadership prayed with my parents and supported their decision to get my little sister the medical help she needed. My baby sister ended up having emergency open-heart surgery at six weeks old. She is well and healthy now.
After my baby sister’s surgery, we found out that a young man in our church had confessed to sexual sin. This included sexually abusing my sister. This young man was a very good friend of mine, and I was devastated. It was at that point that I decided that I would not be attending that church anymore. I could not handle it. I started staying home from church events and made excuses on Sundays. I started making friends outside of our ATI group and started attending events at my grandparents’ church. I was threatened with being kicked out of my home for attending a different church than ours. I found a job and was threatened that I would never be blessed with a husband — never be blessed period — due to working outside the home. I started attending a singles group at my church and befriended an amazing group of people who will never know the impact they had on me. I started dating a man who was all wrong for me. I was threatened with being kicked out of my home again for dating someone instead of courting him. We broke up after two years.
At this point, I was completely done with the ATI program. I had not been in contact with our old church. I had not been to any more training or meetings. I had totally removed myself. I still lived at home because I could not afford to move out, but I made sure I was never there. I buried myself in work, friends, and other activities. My entire family was still heavily involved in ATI, which, of course, caused many issues while I lived with them.
When I was 21, my sister turned 18 and moved in with her boyfriend. A few weeks later, my mom came to me and told me that my stepdad had abused my sister and that is why she moved out. Again, I was beyond devastated. My heart could not take any more damage. I immediately put up a wall and, at the same time, began to cry in despair. I then made the choice to block it out. My sister and I did not talk about it for another four years. I did not know the extent of her abuse, nor did I want to know. I assumed that her abuse had ended at the same time mine did, when our stepdad confessed and apologized for abusing me when I was 13. Boy, was I wrong!
When I was 22, I met my amazing husband and we were married. I was free from my family! But best of all, my husband loves Jesus with all his heart! He has tattoos, plays the drums (for shame!), loves rock and roll music, shaves his head bald, and would do anything in the world for me. On the outside he looks “rebellious” according to ATI standards, but on the inside he is an amazing man of God who has totally changed my world for the better. He has an amazing family whom I adore. However, while we were dating and engaged, I never told him about my abuse. I was not ready to tell anyone about it. We got married and moved into our first apartment, and I was so happy! After a year of marriage I finally opened up and told him everything. It took me about five hours to get through it all. He cried with me and told me that he loved me no matter what. He was angry at my parents but handled it with grace and dignity. That was the turning point for me in my journey to healing.
After a few years of marriage, while my husband was in Army Basic Training, I was visiting with my best friend one evening. I had never told her about my abuse or about my sister’s abuse. She mentioned to me that she had been praying for my sister and me for years because she could see the signs of sexual abuse. As a teenager she did not know what to do about it so she had her family pray for us. That hit me like a punch in the face. I did not know my mask was so transparent. Nor did I know that other people had picked up on my family’s hypocrisy. I did not say anything to her in response, and I quickly left. I spent the whole night crying in agony. My husband was not there for me to talk to, so I had no one except God.
The next morning I called my friend and told her everything. She cried with me and told me that we never had to talk about it again if I didn’t want to. That was when I felt an urgent need to talk to my little sister. We went to lunch and I started telling her what my friend had said. She then opened up and told me that she had been abused by our stepdad for over ten years! Her entire childhood was filled with abuse while within the ATI system.
After that lunch I spent the next three weeks in my bed sobbing, praying, and sleeping. My in-laws picked up on my depression and invited me to stay with them until my husband graduated from Army Basic Training. They didn’t know what was going on, but they knew something was very wrong. I quit my job, moved in with them, started counseling, and began to really heal. My husband ended up getting injured during Army training and was honorably discharged. When he came home, we started going to a church in our hometown that focuses on helping people recover from abuse. I confronted my mom and stepdad and explained to them that, as my siblings’ godmother, if I ever found out about any more abuse in our family I would be pressing charges and removing all of my siblings from their home. My siblings have been interviewed and investigated by DHS and are not being abused. I am thankful for that. I am the oldest of seven now. I adore my siblings and keep a very close eye on them.
My sister and I never pressed charges because we could not put our siblings through that. The investigations were hard enough. We want them to have a good and happy childhood. My parents are no longer in ATI, and I have directed them to this website for healing. I do not have a relationship with my stepdad. He has to face himself and God for what he has done. My sister and I have both decided to move on, forgive, and not let our abuse define us as people. It is a part of our lives, but it is not our whole life. We are both happy, healthy, and loved by the people in our lives.
I am still healing, and I have been able to help many people with my story so far. Every once in a while I catch myself thinking thoughts that are judgmental towards people and I have to remind myself that I am not that ATI girl anymore. My life is defined by what is on the inside, not what is on the outside. My husband and I are currently involved in starting a church. Our goal is to help as many people as possible find their own relationship with the real Jesus — just as we have found.
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