Spotlight on Women's Health

An Interview About Surviving Sexual Assault: Lisa Gillespie

March 31, 2016

Sexual assault is a serious problem, affecting women from all backgrounds every day. Sexual assault often causes terrible physical and emotional pain. People who have been sexually assaulted may experience feelings of guilt or shame, leading them to believe the assault was their fault. This is never the case — sexual assault is a crime. You have the right to decide who can and can't touch you.

Pastor Lisa Gillespie was assaulted by a former classmate. After her attack, she says she tried to pretend the assault never happened, but she struggled with feelings of anger, fear, guilt, and shame. In her interview, Lisa discusses her healing process and offers advice to other survivors.

A native of Washington, DC, Pastor Lisa Gillespie has worked for several federal agencies, the last of which was the Environmental Protection Agency. In April 2014, she retired with 30 years of service. She is currently serving as an associate pastor of her church and runs a ministry group that provides emotional support to women. She is also a published author. Her book, From the Playground to the Pulpit, was released in 2014.

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Q: How old were you when you were sexually assaulted?

A: I was sexually assaulted when I was 30 years old.

Q: Will you tell us a little bit about your attacker?

A: I first met my attacker in high school. After graduation, we did not remain in contact, but when we met again, we recognized one another as former classmates. We reconnected as a result of a business transaction. The fact that he was not a complete stranger made the attack all the more unexpected and devastating.

Q: How did the attack affect you emotionally?

A: Immediately after the attack, I experienced a range of emotions, including guilt, shame, fear, and anger. I felt as though the attack was my fault and that I should have been able to do something to prevent it. I felt ashamed to share the fact that I had been attacked with others. I also experienced fear, because my attacker threatened to harm my family if I reported the assault. I was also angry, because I never thought something like this could happen to me.

Q: How did you deal with these feelings?

A: Initially, I engaged in what I like to refer to now as self-destructive behavior. I tried to act as if the assault never happened and attempted to suppress the feelings associated with it. I eventually became depressed. My self-esteem suffered greatly, and I withdrew from people and activities I was involved in. I eventually recognized and acknowledged the fact that I needed help. I needed to learn how to deal with and overcome the effects of the attack. I began counseling and reconnected with my spiritual support system.

Q: Have your methods for coping changed over time?

A: Yes. As the years passed and I gave more time and attention to my relationship with God, things began to miraculously change. I know that not everyone has a formal religion or faith, but I find that the more I learn who I am from a Godly perspective, the more I learn to love myself. I credit my relationship with God for saving my life. Not everyone is a believer, but God's love freed me from guilt, gave me the courage to face the shame, replaced my fear with faith, and helped me release the anger and forgive the offense.

Q: You mentioned feeling like the attack could have been prevented and that it was your fault. Is there anything you'd like to say to other survivors who may be struggling with these feelings?

A: It is extremely important to focus your attention on what you can do now instead of dwelling on what cannot be changed. Continuing to revisit and replay the details of a painful experience keeps you in that place of pain. If you have a desire to overcome and move forward, you must take action. Be grateful that you survived the attack, realizing that some who have experienced this may not have been so fortunate. Be patient with yourself while you travel the road back to health.

Q: As a pastor, you provide support for other survivors. Do you have advice for others who have been assaulted?

A: This is my advice for someone trying to overcome the effects of sexual assault:

  • Report the assault.
  • Recognize that sexual assault is NEVER your fault.
  • Do not try to hide the fact that you have been assaulted.
  • Reach out to loved ones for support and talk about your feelings.
  • Get professional counseling if you need it.
  • Acknowledge and confront every emotion you experience. Take the time to process each emotion.
  • If prayer is a part of your life, pray for the power to forgive.

Q: Why do you think it's important for survivors to talk about their feelings?

A: I believe things that are suppressed are rarely addressed. Negative feelings that are suppressed and ignored, at some point, usually come out in uglier ways. When anger is not dealt with, it can turn into bitterness and spill over into other areas of your life. Talking about things can strengthen you and help you feel better, which will help you to gain a more positive perspective on what you're facing.

Q: What have you learned from other survivors about the healing process?

A: I've learned that each individual is in control of her own healing process. If you take positive action, you will get positive results. Likewise, if you take negative action, you will get negative results. This is a very personal thing, and no one can do it for you. You must be proactive about your own survival and recovery.

Q: What do you want other survivors to know?

A: Please understand that everyone's process is different and healing does not happen overnight. But I believe that it is absolutely possible to completely heal from sexual assault. For me, this happened through a strong relationship with God. He equipped me with the power of love and forgiveness. You must determine the pace at which you can progress and realize that there is no time limit on your healing process.

Q: What's your advice for other women who may feel too scared or ashamed to seek support?

A: Surround yourself with loved ones, share your fears with them, and embrace their support. You have nothing to be ashamed of, because you are an innocent victim. Refuse to accept blame for something that is not your fault.

If you or someone you love has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). It's free and confidential.

For more information on sexual assault, its effects, and how to get help, please visit our Violence Against Women section.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.