Ebony S. Muhammad (EM): Tell me about the first time you were molested. How old were you?
Kelly Sargeant (KS): I was 8 years old when my stepfather crept into my bedroom in the middle of the night where my little brother and I slept. My mother was at work. He took me into their bedroom and sat me on the side of the bed. He asked me if I could keep a secret. I said yes. Then he handed me a joint and told me to take a drag. I was very afraid. I coughed as I inhaled. He pulled down his pants, exposing himself and asked me to touch him. I refused. He let me go back to my bedroom where I cried softly so he wouldn’t hear me, because I was so afraid. A few minutes later he came back for me. This time he took me by the hand and brought me into the kitchen where the television was on. It was a black and white TV that sat on the kitchen table. He laid me across the kitchen chair and pulled down my pants. Then he began forcing himself on me. I laid there staring at a mark on the wall above the television. I was petrified. I screamed and cried on the inside.
EM: How often would the thought of telling your mother come into mind? What thoughts and feelings arose during those times? What was your resolve each time in not opening up?
KS: I wanted desperately to tell my mother what my stepfather was doing to me, but I was afraid. I thought he would do physical harm to me and to my mother as well. If I didn’t speak up I would continue to suffer sexual abuse. If I did speak up, my mother and I would both face physical abuse. I felt trapped in a hopeless situation. I just hoped to make it through another day. My resolve was that I could find safety only in silence.
EM: What was it like for you to see and live with your stepfather during those years? What do most people on the outside fail to realize in situations where a child’s abuser is in the home? What does it do to the child’s level of security and self esteem?
KS: I lived in a constant state of fear. I became terrified every time my mother left for work. When I’d ask to go outside to play with friends, my stepfather would not allow it. He would make my little brother leave the house to play with his friends. I was overcome with the fear of him forcing himself on me. I felt like a prisoner in my own home as I hid in my bedroom listening for warning signs of his approach. My stepfather would purposely intimidate me by constantly coming in and out of my bedroom; he would conjure up meaningless conversation and leave my bedroom door open. I was so afraid, and I had no means of escape.
I think most people can understand a child’s sense of helplessness when the child believes there is no way of escape. What people don’t understand is why a child would remain silent. They can’t imagine the level of fear that grips a child every day the abuse continues – listening for the footsteps approaching – watching fearfully for the abuser to enter at any moment – imagining the pain and humiliation and finally, reliving the shame. Your heart beats faster and your breathing is shallow until your worst fears are realized, and you seem to stop breathing altogether. The shame and the fear of not being believed helps keep you silent, but it’s the threats to hurt you even more and to hurt others whom you love that keeps your lips sealed.
As a child you begin to feel unsafe in your environment. If you can’t trust your parents, then who can you trust? You have a secret that you are too ashamed of to share with anyone, not even your friends. You believe you have nowhere to turn. When you feel like you have no one you can talk to, it causes a feeling of aloneness and insecurity.
You lose self confidence because the most valuable things are stolen from you. Your innocence is stolen along with your sense of protection, your belief in love, and your ability to trust. You begin to judge yourself as unworthy of those things and that causes you to lose more — your pride, your credibility and your sense of value. It’s as if someone came and scooped out your insides leaving you empty. Your self esteem is completely destroyed.
EM: At what point did you begin to feel enough was enough? You mentioned threatening to tell what he had been doing. What brought you to that point? What was his response and what became of that encounter?
KS: I was 12 years old. One night while sleeping I heard my stepfather and my mother fighting. I heard something knocking against the furniture, and then I heard my mother crying. I believed he had physically hurt her. I was so angry that he had hurt my mother. I decided that night that I was going to tell on him. The next day while my mother was at work, my stepfather sent my little brother outside to play and made me stay inside. I was terrified; however, I was also very angry that he had hurt my mother. I sat in the living room where I felt safer than hiding in my bedroom. He kept walking through the living room, and I sensed he was building up towards an attack.
He told me to, “Come here.” I refused and told him that sometimes I feel that I want to tell my mother what he does to me. He left the room and came back a few moments later with a gun. He stood on the staircase on the other side of the room and kind of juggled the gun from hand to hand. Then he pointed the gun at me. He began to slowly move the aim of the gun around the room, but again I became his target. Words didn’t come from his mouth; however, he spoke to me through his eyes. I felt his warning and I was overwhelmed with terror. After a few moments he left the room, but he returned shortly thereafter and gave me a smug look. He said, “Go outside and play.” I left and ran to my friends where I suffered in silence. Later that day when he was at work, I told my mother everything. I was really nervous. I told her that I needed to tell her something very important. Then I told my mother that my stepfather had been hurting me in my private parts, and that he said he would hurt her if I told. She became terribly upset and asked me to tell her exactly what happened. Then she called the police immediately. When the police arrived we sat down at the dining room table, and I told them everything. That night, my stepfather was arrested.
EM: Was there ever a time in high school or college that you met another girl that had a similar story like yours? If so, tell me a little bit about that. What did it provide for you emotionally?
KS: In high school I met a girl who had become pregnant by her biological father. I recall that her mother knew about the abuse. I was deeply saddened that her mother would allow such a thing. I’d met others growing up. Emotionally there was a sense of relief that I wasn’t the only one with such a horrible secret, yet also deep sadness that we have all suffered in such a way.
EM: What was it about escaping through alcohol that provided the courage to let those walls down that was different or made you feel different than before?
KS: As a young adult I wanted to be normal. I wanted to have a healthy trusting relationship, but I had the pain of emotional and psychological scars from the abuse that made me unable to trust anyone. I pretended everything was ok, but it wasn’t ok. So I built a wall of protection around myself.
Alcohol helped me relax and dulled the emotional and psychological pain, and, temporarily, it helped my wall come down. I wasn’t an alcoholic, but I did use alcohol as a temporary fix when I was in social situations. Only then could I comfortably engage in conversations and relationships with the opposite sex. I used alcohol to mask my feelings of anxiety and my lack of confidence. I knew it wasn’t okay, but I longed to be normal, and I knew no other way. Alcohol gave me a false sense of courage and temporary self-confidence. Eventually, I realized that using alcohol to self medicate made me feel worse about myself. I thought it gave me power when actually it left me powerless. Drinking alcohol only prolonged the torture, except this time, I was doing it to myself. It was a sad, sad cycle.
EM: When and how did your breakthrough occur? What was the spark? What feelings and thoughts rushed through your mind?
KS: I didn’t have a life or death experience. A light bulb didn’t just come on in the middle of the night. You know Albert Einstein’s definition of “insanity”: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That was me. I wanted a happy and successful life, but I kept making the same stupid mistakes which made me not like myself. Deep down inside, I knew there was something more to me.
One day I became frustrated and decided enough was enough! I wanted to change my life and find a new direction. I needed to become a better me. First, I became a self-help book junkie. Next, I became a spiritual book junkie. Finally, I became friends with God. Then the true work began and still continues.
Anyone that tells you that they’ve had a breakthrough and that it’s an easy road from that day forward is not being truthful. For me, it’s systematic. I do the research and follow directions. One by one, I set small goals. Day by day, I work on them. Piece by piece, I overcome challenges. Step by step, I find myself. It’s a constant journey.
For example; accomplishing a goal has a domino effect. First your confidence increases. Once you gain self confidence, it leads to self worth. Self worth helps you gain self respect. Once you gain self respect; you begin to love yourself. Self love ignites the spark which motivates the power we all have within.
When I finally came to find self respect, I was able to accept and like the new me! At last I had found happiness! I remember noting exactly how I arrived at that point because I wanted to make sure I would never lose myself again. It was a daily discussion with God and lot’s of reading both spiritual and inspirational books. If I stop those things, I feel disconnected and I lose my power.
EM: How did learning about Oprah Winfrey’s story touch you?
KS: Learning about Oprah’s story gave me hope. If she was able to overcome sexual abuse and become a success, I could possibly do the same! I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was desperate to find a way out of my sadness, loneliness and shame. Oprah became my inspiration. I read the books she recommended, I subscribed to her magazine, I researched on her website and I watched the spiritual and inspirational shows on her network. Oprah touched me by providing heaps of information to help transform my life. It’s an amazing amount of work; a painful journey of self discovery, self acceptance and most important, self love. The decision, dedication and tenacity it takes to travel down that road is insurmountable. Oprah was able to do it and she now advises people all around the world. I thought, “I want to be like her!” I want to help others so they won’t have to suffer for as long as I did.
EM: Let’s go into how you got started with Toastmasters… What is Toastmasters and what led you to join?
KS: Almost four years ago I was on the management team of the company I worked for, and I was terrified to speak during our weekly meetings. I would wait until the meetings were over and share my ideas with a coworker who would present my ideas to management as if they were her own. I realized then that my fear of public speaking was impeding my success and I found a solution in Toastmasters. Joining the Toastmasters organization became a New Year’s Resolution. Toastmasters is a nonprofit international organization with over 300,000 members in over 14,000 clubs in 126 countries. Clubs consists of a supportive group of individuals in your local area who share the common goal of improving their communication and leadership skills. I decided to join Toastmasters to get over my fear of public speaking.
EM: This year competing, you were moved to give a speech about your experience being molested? What inspired you to make it your competition speech? How was the idea received by Toastmasters?
KS: I’d entered this competition twice before and had won first runner up in the Houston district by giving an inspirational speech that was more “rah rah” than substance. I finally realized that I needed to provide more than just a motivational experience in order to win first place. If I wanted to make it to the semifinals for a chance to compete for the World Championship, I needed something the audience could relate to and a lesson they could take with them to help with their lives. The most relatable speeches are those of personal experiences. Finding my voice has been one of the most important accomplishments of my life, only second to overcoming the affects of childhood molestation. That is why I decided to make it my competition speech. Although everyone has not been a victim of such a traumatic experience, the lessons to be learned could help with other challenges in life. The speech was a message of hope, of tenacity, of courage, and of belief. Each time I delivered the speech you could hear a pin drop. A lot of people were uncomfortable; however, I continued to win at each level which eventually brought me to the world stage.
EM: After deciding to follow your heart and spirit, you performed that speech against their request and you did this at the semifinals in Malaysia. What was that experience like? What thoughts and feeling did you have before and after performing?
KS: They weren’t requests; they were suggestions and high recommendations by several more experienced toastmasters. At first, I tried desperately to heed their advice. I spent two months composing new speeches and stressed out as the deadline was approaching and none of my new speeches were resonating with me. Two weeks prior to leaving for Malaysia I decided to follow my heart and share my story in spite of their recommendations. If I was going to give a speech about a personal experience that could potentially change lives, this was the story that I had to tell.
During the semifinals I competed against 10 other speakers in front of an audience of 1,500. I pulled speaking order number 9 and had to listen to 8 speakers before me who shared humorous and lighthearted stories. When it was my turn, I was afraid. I was afraid of delivering my particular speech following 8 fun stories. I felt that my speech would dampen the mood in the room. I thought for a moment that maybe I should’ve listened to the naysayers. Nevertheless, this speech had been my driving force. For the first several minutes of my delivery, the room was completely silent. Finally a moment came in my speech where the audience laughed aloud; the turning point of my speech. From that point forward my speech became about how I found myself after being lost for so long. When the speech was over, I was relieved. I sat down and took off my shoes. I said, “Well, I won’t win this round, but I did it! It’s finally over.” After all the contestants had spoken and it was time to announce the winners, I was shocked at the third place winner because he was really good. Then the announcement of the second place winner was even more shocking. I looked both directions down the aisle trying to figure out who would win first place. When they announced my name I was overcome with emotion. I kept repeating, “Oh my God.” I had to put on my shoes and try to make my way to the stage. I was so overcome with emotion. I cried and cried and kept repeating, “Oh my God.” The press kept asking me to smile for the photo. I eventually managed a smile. I felt as if it was all part of God’s plan.
EM: What exactly does it take to compete on the international level? How many competed to place?
KS: To compete at an international level you must first win several eliminating rounds which is about a six month process involving 5 competitions. Once you surpass those levels you compete for World Championship during Toastmaster’s annual conference. There were over 32,000 contestants this year. Ninety-one semifinalists were flown to Malaysia. Nine of us made it to the Finals and I was so proud to be the only female! I placed third best speaker in the world! I felt as if I had won first place; and I still do!
EM: What does it mean to you to not only stand up and give a speech about your experience with molestation, but you did so in spite of what fellow Toastmasters suggested AND placed! What message did you receive from that?
KS: It means that I was right in being obedient to the calling within me. The message I received is to do what you feel in your heart. You’re heart knows right from wrong. It’s your mind that sometimes has difficulty with discernment. So many people worry about taboo. I say the heck with taboo and to share your testimony if you want to change lives. In fact, I write in detail about it in the book I am currently writing. The title of the chapter is “Totally Taboo; Say it Anyway!”
EM: What has life been like for you since?
KS: It has been a wild ride! I work a full time job, and in the evenings and on weekends I work on my passion for public speaking. Since my win I’ve been asked to give presentations and be a guest speaker for many events. Therefore, I am building my library and preparing myself for the New Year ahead. I love sharing my testimony and educating others on transformational methods of accomplishing their goals. It is my hope to be a full time speaker which would allow me to do what I love while serving others.
EM: What would you like to say to women and girls who have or are in pain from being sexually abused, and battle feelings of shame, guilt and loneliness?
KS: If the abuse is happening now – speak up today. Tell someone you trust. The one you trust may be your mother, the mother of a friend, your school counselor, or your pastor. It’s time to take back control of your life and the only way to do that is to tell someone. It’s never too late to speak up. Speaking up is the beginning of the healing process.
If you’ve been abused in the past and are continuing to suffer – seek help from a psychologist, psychiatrist or group therapy. Don’t make the mistake of trying to figure it out on your own. Seek direction from someone you trust and a professional.
Have a conversation with yourself about who you are. Tell yourself you will not be defined by this experience. The past is over. You are a survivor. You can control your life and you can decide your future. God loves you and there is nothing that you can do that would make God love you less. Ask for help. Speak up today.
If you are afraid of being harmed think about the consequences. Physical pain is temporary. Emotional pain is long lasting and can be permanent. For example; if you were getting bullied at school and you were pushed down on the concrete and scraped your knee; the pain and bruise would eventually go away. However, if you never speak up and tell the principal, you could continually get bullied and would grow up feeling depressed and insecure. Stop the cycle; speak up and save yourself right away.
EM: Is there anything else you would like to add?
KS: If anyone has any questions or would like to contact me about my keynote speeches, please have them go to my website www.kellysargeant.com .
EM: Thank you so much for sharing your journey with Hurt2Healing! Absolutely inspiring!