What makes a hero?
According to Philosopher and Scholar Joseph Campbell, a hero is an archetypal figure who takes a journey from his or her ordinary world, goes out on an adventure, through a decisive crisis wins a victory, then returns home transformed with gained wisdom to offer others. This podcast features inspiring stories of real people on The Hero’s Journey and the pivotal moments that changed the course of their lives forever.
When I started recognizing and dealing with the resentments that I had and when I was brave enough to speak them, that changed everything. If you live in a state of being a victim, there is no saying you are sorry to anybody. Why should you? Because you are a victim.
Susan Svensk was in fact a victim. Though it took years for her to fully understand what had happened to her, she found her way from the shadows of deception and denial and into the liberating light of truth. May you be informed and inspired by this unbelievable Hero’s Journey. I’m Belinda Lams and this is The Moment When…
Susan Svensk was born and raised in Yakima, WA. In 1980, she moved to Southern California to attend college where she majored in Sociology/Cultural Anthropology. Susan spent over 25 years working in business operations for companies including Allergan, Inc., Microsoft Corp., and GE Healthcare. She refers to herself as a “data story teller,” using factual data to create business narrative snapshots for executives and their managers.
She currently lives near Seattle, WA, with her husband Peter. They have one son, Andrew and a cat named Khatt. Susan loves music, performing, cooking, and traveling. Susan and Peter both enjoy the natural beauty of the western US and have a goal to see as many National Parks as possible.
So how do we know each other?
Oh, well, we went to college together backin the early 1980s, lived in the married couples apartments, although you weren’t married, you lived there with your sister. And we got in a big water fight one night, and we were faithful friends from there on out. So, it’s been quite a while that we have known each other. We have kind of been out of each other’s lives for a while but still, you know, always on my part, very fond feelings towards you as one of, you know, the best friends I’ve ever had. So, that’s how I know Miss Belinda.
Yes and there is a cord that’s attached to us and we recently saw each other again and it’s as if no time went by really. And it’s…
It’s really remarkable, because it’s not that way with everybody but with some people you just see ‘em again and it’s just like, ah, it’s like the time never even went by. So, yeah, it’s awesome.
So, tell me about your ordinary world before things changed in your life.
Well, my ordinary world before things changed, I don’t know if most people would call it ordinary. You know, I was… I was married to an alcoholic who after many, many years of some pretty heavy and dysfunctional drinking finally decided to go to rehab. And it was kind of interesting because, you know, he was drinking probably about a gallon of vodka a day and also bar-drinking a lot, and I had walked up to him and said to him, you know, “It’s uh, I think it’s time for you to go to rehab.” And he looked at me and he said, “Yeah, I’ll go to rehab.” And that was the entire conversation. There never was any, any fighting over it or any, any debate or trying to, you know, get out of it.
And about a week after we made this decision, his brother died of probably diseases that were related to acute alcoholism and addiction. My life was very much turned upside down from living with an alcoholic for so long. And so, you know, I worked a full time job; I worked a very high level at Microsoft, and very high level at a Microsoft spinoff and if you looked at my life from the outside you would think, “Oh, this person really has it together.” But, you know, I really was living in this dysfunctional world of alcoholism and co-dependency and, and all the things that go along with living with a practicing alcoholic.
The stage was set for Susan’s call to adventure many years before this, when she and her husband moved to a small town and got to know a lonely guy at the neighborhood bar.
We immediately, you know, struck up a friendship with him, and he was a little odd and a little off-kilter, but everybody seemed to know that. And this guy just didn’t get out of the house very much and so, you know, we very much embraced him in a way where we would invite him over for Thanksgiving. If there was a football game we would invite him over for that. It was that kind of a neighborly relationship.
Maybe a little too much in our business. Maybe a little…just kind of odd in some ways. Like, our sink would break. We would come home and he would be in our place working on our sink and it was just very bizarre.
So, when my brother-in-law died, he was the first person to show up and provide comfort to our family, because it was very devastating. And my brother-in-law was 49 years old, it was completely unexpected and it was just a total gut punch. So, here is this neighbor guy and he is just in the middle of one more thing.
The call to adventure really kicked in one day as Susan was driving home after taking her husband to rehab.
My phone rang and it was this guy inviting me to dinner, which I thought, That’s really strange. I’m not going out to dinner with you. Not only that, you don’t even drive a car, you know. How are we going to get there? On a bicycle? I mean, it was just like, (laugh) this is the strangest thing.
So, I tamp that down. Got a call about two days later. He says he wants to come over and talk to me. So, I am like, “Okay, come over and talk to me.” He says, “Well, you might need to have a drink for this.” And I am like, “A drink for this. What is this all about?” Of course I said, “It’s 10:00 in the morning. Why would I have a drink?
So, he sits there and he just starts professing his love for me and starts giving me a list of every observation he has made about my posture, the way I look at him, the way I tug my clothes, the way I throw my hair back. He was looking for anything that would feed the narrative in this story of famous love that didn’t exist.
Finally, after about half an hour of getting over being stunned, I asked him to leave, and as he left he said to me, “Well, I guess you better change your garage door code.” Which sent chills down my spine. And I looked at him and all I said was, “Am I going to have a problem with you? You need to tell me right now, because I don’t feel good about what you just said.”
“Oh, no, no, no, no.” Tried, tried to walk it back.
Peter felt terribly betrayed once he found out this news. After all, they had invited this neighbor guy into their world, offered him friendship and work opportunities, and then he makes these moves on Susan. So, Peter had a talk with him and kicked him out of their lives---at least for a while.
Little by little I would run into him, have a friendly chat, thinking, Okay, that’s done, that’s over with, we handled that. Or my husband would run into him, friendly chat. My son would. And then somehow, we were back in the same situation with him. He was at our house all the time, coming to dinner.
The other thing that was happening is I was having a lot of health issues. I had been to a lot of doctors. I couldn’t get a diagnosis. I felt like I had the flu all the time and I was getting to where I couldn’t clean my house. If I drove for any length of time, I would literally be on the floor crying when I got home. I was in so much pain.
So, I actually needed a lot of help. And with Peter and I both working, a lot of times the help I would get would be from this neighbor. And so I had incentive to just wink at the past. Act like, Well, that was just a blip. Now we are just going to act like that didn’t happen and we are just gonna go forward.
Just when things seemed settled, they got really bizarre.
My first memory was opening my eyes at five in the morning and my hand was just throbbing. And I told my husband, “I need to go to the ER.”
What happened the night before was unforgettable. Or was it?
We were all in the house. We were watching movies. I had had a cocktail and my husband went to bed. I was left alone with this guy, which I thought was fine. I didn’t think that there was any problem with it. The last thing I remember was watching the movie on the screen and the next thing I remember, my husband was in the room. I was laid down on the couch and being sexually assaulted.
And I stood up. I tripped. I fell into the wall. I rolled my hand. I severed the tendon in my hand that allows you to open and shut your hand. It’s like an Achilles tendon in your leg. Well I severed the one in my hand. I don’t remember anything until I woke up at four or five in the morning, so I was literally missing nine hours of time out of my life.
With no clear memory, Susan felt very disconnected from the assault, although the evidence of trauma was throbbing in her hand. The severed tendon required surgery. A few months had passed and she started feeling better, and then things got even stranger.
The next thing I remember is waking up at seven and my husband’s yelling, “Do you know what happened last night?” And I am looking at him like, I have no idea what you are talking about.
Time lost again. Her memory erased. What happened this time? Around six PM the night before, Susan had decided to venture out and meet a friend at the local watering hole.
Again, had one cocktail. The last thing I remember is seeing him come through the door.
What happened next was pieced together later on.
This guy doesn’t drive but he decided for some reason to put me in my car—I don’t remember any of this—drive me home, set in the dark in my living room. My husband walked in. I was completely naked on my couch with a blanket. I don’t know how I don’t have my clothes on. Husband threw him out again. And the next morning I don’t remember anything. Nine hours of my life gone again, second sexual assault.
Susan got in the shower to get ready for work only to make a horrifying discovery.
I don’t even know how to describe them. It looked like somebody had taken a two by four and hit me in the back and across the buttocks. It was a bruise so deep and about eight inches wide. I don’t recollect how I got those.
Once again, I have this traumatic injury and I just get in my car and go to work like nothing happened. And I could literally, Belinda, I could tell you what I had for lunch that day. I could tell you every detail of what I did that day, from getting up to coming home from work. When I think about that, I think who just gets up, sees themselves in that condition, and just goes to work like nothing happened? But I did. I did.
And then when I came home that’s when the real fun started, because I started finding pieces of his intimate clothing hidden in my laundry. So, it wasn’t just about I’m going to victimize you once. I’m going to victimize you twice. I’m going to plant things in your house. I’m going to plant your clothes in your house and I’m going to make sure that you find them in random ways so I can continue to inflict this abuse on you for however long it takes for you to find all this stuff.
Once again, Susan had surgery. This time on her back. Her injuries were so debilitating, that she finally had to leave her job.
And then what I did from there is I just stuffed it. I just took those experiences and I just said, Okay. I am just not going to think about that anymore. And when I talk about my hand and when I talk about my back, I am going to lie about it. I am going to make up a story and I am going to lie about it and it’s not going to include anything that ever has anything to do with him. So, I am just going to base these things on a fabrication. That was how I was going to go forward.
I’m Belinda Lams and this is The Moment When…Today we’re talking with Susan Svensk about being sexual assaulted by a trusted neighborhood friend and how extreme denial protected her from the painful truth … Her story continues.
The creepy neighbor guy continued to stalk Susan.
I’d opened my garage to get in my car and I’d look up and he would be in the garage, and then he would say things to me like, “You look really good today. I just wanted to come over and let you know that you look really good.”
I got to the point where I almost couldn’t leave my house. I could leave my house for certain things but for other things I couldn’t. And, was having panic attacks. Still refusing to look at the fact that all of this was coming from these attacks. All of this was coming from this and I am still saying, Oh I am not going to look at that. I am not going to look at that.
I had additional surgeries after the two first surgeries. I had every doctor in the world trying to figure out how to get me out of pain and not having any success. And it, it robbed me of my profession. Everything in my life that gave me joy, it just took away. I loved to cook, I think you remember that about me probably. Couldn’t cook. I couldn’t do any of the things I loved. I didn’t know who I was anymore.
The moment when is a pivotal moment that changes the course of one’s life. It can come as a crisis. It can come as a still small voice. For Susan, it came in little snapshots of truth.
Two years ago, I started having flashbacks and I couldn’t figure out why I was having flashbacks, but everyday I was flashing back on this stuff. And I realized I really needed help.
And so, you know, I went on a journey to kind of reclaim my faith in God, which probably sounds like a weird thing to do. It almost sounds like I should actually be shaking my fist. You know what I mean? And, cuz I had lived a pretty faithless life from about the time I was 35 until the time I was 50. I had a belief in God but I wasn’t interested in practicing it.
I really think that that journey is kind of what triggered the flashbacks. Because, through that journey, I started becoming vulnerable again. I started rethinking pieces of my life and what it meant for me—in a completely different way than it did back in college—what it meant for me to have a relationship with God, what I actually believed, how it affected my politics, how it affected, you know, my family. And I think when I took that first step of vulnerability, the first thing that happened, of course, was the thing that was in there that kept wanting to come out just came right up to the top, and it demanded my attention. If I wasn’t going to pay attention, it was going to make me pay attention.
And so began the process to retrieve what Susan had stuffed down and to face the horrific truth of what had actually happened to her. Coincidentally, the perfect support appeared on the scene.
My church started a group for survivors of sexual abuse. But it was for survivors of sexual abuse that experienced it as children. What I found out in that group is, being groomed as a child is no different than being groomed as an adult. It is the same action. It is the same type of person. It is the same predator. It’s the same evil that’s waiting to consume you.
And as women, we are taught to be nice. We are taught to smile. I think we are taught to ignore our intuition. As Christians, I think we are taught a lot of dysfunctional things about what it means to turn the other cheek and to forgive our enemies. And if someone asks you for your shirt, give him your coat. I think we are given very wrong messages from those types of sermons and teachings that I’ve classically heard my whole life.
I had to go back and, and really recalibrate on what it means to forgive people, on what predatory evil is really all about. How a person that has this predilection, whether it’s a grown adult woman or a five-year-old little girl, the actions of that person are exactly the same. I’ve heard the stories that the other women in the group told that were just unimaginable. You don’t know who is sitting beside you and what that person has gone through.
Susan gained tremendous insights as she pursued healing. Listen as she unpacks the sinister strategy that was used and how something like this could happen to any unsuspecting person.
So, you said he was odd. What did you tell yourself about that?
I just chalked it up to the fact that he was a lonely guy who didn’t have much of a life. His entire life was really kind of just hanging around this apartment complex and just observing what was going on and whatever little bit of a soap opera that he could kind of attach himself to, that was kind of his experience with life.
Our mistake too was, okay, we recognize you from another situation in our life, from this town bar. Well, you must be safe, because, after all, we saw you down there. So, now we are seeing that you live across from us so, hey, it’s almost like we already know each other. The naivety is just…It’s striking.
After the incident where he professed his obsession with Susan and was kicked out of their lives, how was this neighbor guy able to work his way back in?
I was in a place where I was distracted by the crisis. So, we went from being distracted by the alcoholism to being distracted by the sobriety. I wasn’t able to see what was going on right in front of me and evaluate it correctly. We were not noticing that he is once again here.
There is a snake in the room. (laugh)
Exactly, that’s exactly what it is. It’s like there is a snake in the garden and you threw the snake out and all of a sudden it’s at the fence, and you see it at the fence and you are saying, Well, it’s only at the fence. Then it’s a little bit under the fence, Okay, well it’s only under the fence. Ok, now it’s crossing the stream, Well, it’s only at the stream, and then all of a sudden it’s back in the garden. And you are like, Well, okay, since it’s in the garden, might as well go with it. (laugh)
Hey, we have a pet snake!
That is to me the only way that I can really explain it because it’s like, how does this happen? I am not a stupid person. I am not, but it’s like when you don’t think like a predator, you don’t respond like a predator. You respond like prey. If our eyes were on the side of our head it would have been perfect, because (laugh) it’s like prey animals always have their eyes on the sides of their head and predators always have them in front. So, we were like the perfect people with just our eyes on the sides of our head, never looking forward, just looking to the side and never seeing what was in front of us, (laugh) so it was kind of like that. That’s kind of how it was.
The snake calculated the weaknesses of his victims in order to effect his evil plan.
He would send letters to my husband that would cause arguments between us in a way to kind of separate us from each other. I was pretty mad at my husband too. It took me about two years not to be mad at him. Because, you know, here I go 25 years with somebody who has been abusing alcohol and then suddenly they get sober and it’s like they get all the accolades. Isn’t it wonderful. And I would…made me mad. I had to live with this. You don’t know what this was like to live with. So, that was another crack in the relationship is I had gone from really relieved, Oh he’s fine, to being really mad. So, I’ve got this person on the sideline, again, who is just taking it all in.
Susan was very destabilized by the loss of time and memory and had become vulnerable to suggestion.
And I got a lot of emails. I got a 25 page email. He would try to write my memory for me. Because I didn’t have a memory I was accepting what he said and then I realized, What the heck, what’s that all about? Why would I accept what this person who preyed on me said about this?
The people who do things like what this guy did are very clever. And a lot of times they put themselves out there as almost a weak type of personality. And in a way they are a weak type of personality, but they are very clever and very devious. They pick people because they see there is a crack in their life and there is an opportunity, and they will wait, literally in my case for years, for that opportunity to present itself and then, then they strike.
My suspicion is that I was drugged. I can’t prove it, but I think I know the drug that was put in my drink, because it’s a drug that this other person takes. And it’s a drug that when it’s put into alcohol it has every effect that I experienced that evening. So I am fairly certain that, you know, had I gotten a blood test and had I gone through all of that, that probably would have showed up.
You may ask, why didn’t she just report him? Make sure he’s locked up and will never strike or harm anyone again?
I have always wondered about women who go through things like this and the way they act afterwards. And one thing that I really learned through this experience is that there is no proper way to act after something like this happens. Before, I was very judgmental, Well, why, why doesn’t that person just do this or why didn’t she report it or why didn’t she go take care of that? Or all these things, and now I know why. Now that I went through it, I know exactly why.
Believe me, I have a lot of compassion for that. Because, you are not in your right mind. You are injured. You are in a kind of emotional shock. You are kind of in a mental shock. I mean, it’s obvious the injury was a result of what happened to me, but it took me two more years to be able to say that. It was too painful for me to admit that somebody who I felt was such a harmless person, who wouldn’t have the ability, in a million years, to get one up on me like that was able to do it. And I think that that was probably a part of my problem in dealing with the reality of the situation.
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Today we’re exploring the amnesic effects of predatory trauma and the relief that comes when truth is known …with my guest Susan Svensk.
I think the healing came for me, really not that long ago. I also did some work with a therapist which was really interesting work where you basically start with your first memories. And she would walk me through my memories and she would get to that point in my life and wait for me to react and then wait for me to calm down. We would go through it like ten times, that same list ten times. And she might change it up a little bit every time, but the point of it was to get to that day and not react to that day anymore.
That experience is not happening in the here and now. That experience happened on a date and time and a year that’s specific. So what we are going to do is we are going to take that experience out of now and we are going to put it back and file it where it belongs. So it becomes just another day and you can get through it and look at it without having this huge emotional, physical reaction to it.
What was your initial reaction when you started the work when you would get up to that day?
I would start crying. I couldn’t talk.
What did you feel?
Extreme grief, just extreme grief. It was like how I felt when my dad died.
What do you think you were grieving?
I was grieving the loss of myself and I think I was also grieving the fact that I wish I would have done something different than what I did. I wish I would have reported it. I wish I wouldn’t have been so afraid to not be believed. I had no memory, so I was fearful that I wouldn’t be believed.
The next step in healing came when Susan began to examine herself in relationship to others and to the world.
When I started recognizing and dealing with the resentments that I had and when I was brave enough to speak them, that changed everything.
If you live in a state of being a victim there is no saying you are sorry to anybody.Why should you, because you are a victim. So when the world isn’t saying it’s sorry to you and the world isn’t picking you to be first on the volley ball team, and when the world is serving you up a crap sandwich, there is no room for you to be able to say you are sorry for some bad thing you thought or bad thing you did or bad motive you had or a lie you told. There is nothing because your pain is the, the center thing.
So I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself because, “Wah. I’m in pain, I have these diseases. I had these surgeries. Wah wah wah.” Well, wah wah wah, you know. You can’t just live in the recovery room forever.
There was one huge resentment left to be addressed, directed toward her husband.
Why didn’t you save me? And I was very hung up on that, and I never ever said it out loud. I never talked with him about it.
So one day after I had been in some counseling and I had been doing some reading and been with my ladies in my group, I realized that my husband, he did save me, he did. It was just two minutes later than I thought it should have been. And I went to him and apologized and I said, “I am really sorry. I have held this against you. I wasn’t able to see that you actually did come to my rescue. And for the last few years I have been angry because I thought you didn’t and the truth of the matter is you did. It was just two minutes on the clock that, honestly wouldn’t have mattered one way or another, but to me it was a real big block.”
The other thing I discovered was that after all of this I had also constructed false memories. Because I couldn’t remember, I thought I was holding back information from my husband so that I wouldn’t hurt his feelings. When in fact the information I thought I was holding back never ever happened.
How did you figured that out?
We finally sat down one night and we had gotten in a pretty bad argument. And I just said it. I said, you know, this is what happened to me. I didn’t want to tell you because it would hurt you. He goes, “You have been walking around thinking this thing was reality and I am here to tell you right now, this did not happen.”
The mind does an interesting thing when you don’t have the memory of something. It looks for things to put together to fill in that space that’s gone. And when I realized that I was walking around with this resentment that was unfounded and this story that had elements of it that weren’t necessarily true, that’s when my healing came. That’s when poom,it was gone.
It was really funny because when that happened, I literally wanted to go on the mountaintops and scream, “I was sexually assaulted! I want to tell you all, all about how I was sexually assaulted!” And I did some actually funny things. Like in the middle of a Bible study, unprompted, I just started saying, “You guys please pray for me because I was sexually assaulted.“ (laugh) And these people just looked at me. And my husband’s face was like, oh my God! And it wasn’t that it was bad that I said anything.
I just had this urge to get it out. It was like fighting to get out and be known. I had to tell my truth, I had to tell the truth about what had happened to me. It just felt like such freedom to be able to look at it and live with it and not have it have any power over me anymore and to be able to move on. I started singing again, after 30 years of not singing. I started finding my place in my new world. Gradually I have been able to let go of my former definition of who I am.
The biggest thing is my relationship with my brother was restored. And I hadn’t seen my brother for about 25 years, now we are super close. I just never fathomed that I would ever have that with my brother again. I have that with my brother now. I gave up my resentments toward him too.
The Hero’s Journey isn’t complete until the Hero brings home the elixir to offer others. Here’s what Susan brings back.
I, I really think I am in a place in my life where I am very much transitioning into a much more caring, outwardly loving, expressive person who makes sure that the people I love know it. And I have a lot more compassion. So it’s not about what I do. It’s about who I am. Because I have worked at probably the highest corporate levels anyone could work at in the world. I was defining myself based on that, and I wasn’t defining myself based on what’s inside of me.
I had really lived a life with my emotions divorced from my physical body and divorced from my spiritual self. So a lot of the work that I did has been to integrate those three parts of myself into one whole person.
I have a great sense of humor. You probably know that about me. So everything to me was a joke. Everything to me was something to be covered up with humor. You know, it was a way for me to say, Don’t look at me. Look over here, this person over here, that’s the one that I want you to look at. I don’t want you to look at the one that is standing in front of you. So, I’m going to create a diversion so you only look at this person over here, and meanwhile this person is falling to pieces. This real person is just crashing and burning.
You know, I turn 60 in three weeks and I just feel like the next ten years is wide open for me and I can do whatever I want to do. And I haven’t felt like that in a long time. I feel like you feel like when you first go to college and all of a sudden you realize, Aw, I have options. I can be anything I want. You have all this youthful vigor about it, and I just feel like I have got that back.
So, what does your current self say to the other self?
Ah, she would probably say, “Just calm down. It’s going to be okay. Don’t get in the way of your healing, just let it unfold.Take the new road and see what’s out there.“
For those who may be engaging a questionable person or situation, here is some wisdom from Susan.
If you think something is not right it’s probably not right. Trust your instincts, trust your feelings. When people tell you somebody isn’t in your best interest, think about it, because people like that are looking for people like me.
I offered Sue a few words from my perspective.
You came back to life. Part of you was dead, it was like so cut off and you got resurrected and that’s just incredible. And now, I mean, I just hear it in your voice, there is buoyancy.
That’s what the hero’s journey is really. Like, you have to descend before you ascend and you have to visit all your darkness and visit those places you don’t want to see so you can break through and then you can come out the other side, and now here you are. You did it. You are doing it. So good, Thank you so much for sharing all of that. Wow!
And thank you for asking me to do this.
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