‘I felt cold hands. He was a pastor. I laid there, stiff and mute, pretending to be asleep. ‘Get used to this. Your mom agrees it’s okay. It’s in the Bible.’

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“For years, I have wrestled with the idea of writing my story. It spans oceans, transcends barriers of race and time.

I was born in the Turks and Caicos Islands, just southeast from Florida. I was the sixth of seven children. I don’t remember my father much. He left me by the time my baby sister was born and migrated to the States with a new woman and their children.

Courtesy of Merrill Hunsaker Powell

My mom was left to look after seven kids in a small, undeveloped country. It was too much for any mother to take. Shortly after, I was adopted by white missionaries which, for most, sounds like a dream come true. One of their sons agreed to adopt my baby sister as well so we could be together.

Courtesy of Merrill Hunsaker Powell
Courtesy of Merrill Hunsaker Powell

I was five years old at the time and being adopted gave me the opportunity to travel. I lived with my baby sister and new family in the United States, but was allowed to visit the Islands often.

Courtesy of Merrill Hunsaker Powell

When I turned 10, we move to the United States, permanently, and my adopted father accepted a pastoral job in Ohio. Like most young girls my age, I was starting to develop.

The summer I turned 11, I went on a camp retreat with my family where I stayed in a one-room cabin for a week. One morning, when I was sponge bathing, my father walked in on me. I didn’t think much of it. He left and closed the door behind him.

It was early Monday morning when he came into my room again. He had a part-time job that started after midnight on Sunday nights and only lasted a few hours. During the day he as a pastor at church. I was asleep that night when I felt cold hands press against my body. I thought it was a dream. He touched my breasts and kissed me. I remember laying there, stiff and mute, pretending to be asleep.

The next day he came into my room and said, ‘I’m sorry. I only did it because I walked in on you while you were sponge bathing. I could tell from your body that you were growing up. It won’t happen again.’ I believed him. He was my dad and I loved and trusted him. But his behavior became a pattern.

Every Sunday morning, he’d preach about sins. Like clockwork, he’d go to his part-time job after midnight and come into my room when he got home. He would tell me he was sorry every single time. Then, the apologies suddenly stopped. On one particular day he came in and said, ‘You’re going to have to get used to this. Your mom knows and agrees that it’s okay. In the Bible King David’s wife brought him a young girl to warm his bed when she was too old.’

I was speechless, confused, hurt. He tried to give me reassurance. ‘I’ve gotten a vasectomy. That means you can’t get pregnant. You don’t need to worry about anything.’ By that time, I had already been given the talk. I wasn’t supposed to be letting any boy touch me. I was told that bad things could happen if I did. I felt defenseless, helpless. I was afraid and absolutely alone. I had nothing to do, no one to turn to.

I wasn’t a rebellious child. I didn’t scream, hit, or kick. Years later, I still look back on it and wish I had done something, anything. But he threatened me to make sure that never happened. He said, ‘If you tell anyone, I will beat you and send you back to the Islands with your drugged-up mother. I’ll make sure your brothers molest you there.’

I tried putting a chair under the lock on my door to keep him from coming in, but it didn’t work. He still came in that night. The monster still crawled in and said, ‘You smell like a woman.’ He kissed me and I felt disgusted. Like always, I laid there, stiff and mute, wishing I was brave enough to do something.

The next day while I was in the kitchen, he rubbed up against me and said, ‘You’ve done good.’ He slipped twenty dollars in my pocket. I never spent it. I put it away, never to be seen again. I was so ashamed of myself and all I could do was cry.

Even with my adopted mom in the car, he would find a way to touch me. He would reach back and pretend to tickle me. We were in a small Volkswagen Jetta at the time and I could never get out of his reach. I felt chained.

I had always been affectionate with my parents before all of this. Now, I couldn’t help but withdraw myself. I stopped hugging and kissing them goodnight. The longer it went on, the more creative he got with his torture. I was no longer just his Sunday night prey; I was a girl who got in trouble and needed punishment. He ‘disciplined’ me by threatening me with his touch.

I was a quiet child and an avid reader. Because of their strict religious beliefs, I wasn’t allowed to watch television or have playdates. I had no friends to confide in. One Sunday after he left for work, my adopted mother sat me down and asked me, ‘What’s wrong?’ When I didn’t respond, she said, ‘You can tell me anything and I’ll believe you.’ So, I told her everything.

I asked her how he could be preaching and doing those things to me at the same time. I didn’t understand it. She didn’t have an answer either. She sent me to my bed. ‘I’ll take care of it.’ The next morning, when he entered my room, she confronted him. I wasn’t there to hear the conversation.

I was outside playing with my barbies the next day when he came up to me. ‘Are you happy you broke up the family?’ The nightly visits stopped and me moved into a new home. Life continued to go on. There were a few times where my mom caught him peeking at me through the bathroom door. ‘Start locking it when you’re in there,’ she advised me.

By the end of the next summer, school was back in session. I came home one afternoon to find two suitcases packed by the door. My oldest brother was there. ‘We’re sending you back to your biological family,’ he explained. There was only enough room in the suitcases for my clothes and books. I had to leave my barbies and dolls behind. My adopted mother said to me, ‘I feel like there’s two women in the house. I can’t handle it any longer.’ To her, I wasn’t a broken, abused child. I was just a constant reminder of her husband’s broken vows.

She also told me that this would all remain a little family secret. ‘Don’t tell anyone. I don’t want my husband going to jail. I’ll be all alone.’ I spent my last night there with my little sister and flew back to the Islands the next morning. I arrived to a family of strangers. I hadn’t had contact with them in seven years.

They were all curious as to why I was sent home. ‘What did you do wrong?’ I was teased endlessly for the way I dressed, acted, talked. Later it was because of what happened to me. My adopted family had promised to love and protect me. To take care of me. Now, I was lost and alone in a bizarre place of strangers.

For years, I was lost in a sea of emotions. Bitterness, hatred, betrayal, loneliness, low self-esteem, and confusion. I struggled to cope with the difference between my reality and what I knew was right and wrong. The two were in constant friction with each other. Somehow, a little part of me told me that I would get through it. I clung to that.

Courtesy of Merrill Hunsaker Powell

As I went through high school, I saved my lunch money little by little so that I could afford to call my younger sister. She was still living in the U.S. At first, I wasn’t allowed to talk to her, but I was persistent. I made the mistake of telling her the real reason I was sent home. I didn’t know he was listening on the other line. ‘Don’t call back here,’ I was told. ‘She’s too young to understand such a thing.’ Ironically enough, she was older than I was when it happened to me.

I lost contact with her for a few years after that. During that time, I found someone who encouraged me to finish school, even when I felt like giving up. I was able to talk to him about everything and he listened when an open mind and heart. He was the first and only one to tell me it wasn’t my fault. It was the first time I felt real love, in any kind of the sense. I needed someone and he was my backbone. With his support, I managed to finish high school.

We had a daughter and eventually married. I was still dealing with emotional, trust, and body image issues so I saw a psychiatrist. This helped me dig deep into the trauma I had experienced.

Courtesy of Merrill Hunsaker Powell

Once Facebook became mainstream, I looked my little sister up online and found her. I discovered that she was bitter and hated me. ‘You abandoned me all these years,’ she said. I tried to explain many times that they told me she didn’t want to talk to me. Other times, they let the line ring until my phonecard credits ran out. They continued to cover up what happened to me. I still don’t have a relationship with my sister today because of those lies.

My husband and I now have four kids and have been married fourteen years.

Courtesy of Merrill Hunsaker Powell
Courtesy of Merrill Hunsaker Powell

When things are tough, I look up at the stars and talk to my sister. I feel connected to her. There still awaits a whole family for her to explore whenever she is ready. The second the reaches out, I will be right there to help her navigate the craziness. I want to be the person for her that I never had.

My story isn’t finished yet. Every day I wonder what my purpose is, what my calling is. Sometimes I think to myself, ‘Maybe I exist to conquer the ugly.’ To overcome the impossible. To smile and love wholeheartedly. To not let my childhood define me. I am Merrill, the conqueror. And I have overcome.”

Courtesy of Merrill Hunsaker Powell

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Merrill Hunsaker Powell of North Augusta, South Carolina. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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