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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Finding what it takes to heal from sexual assault: Christine Horst shares her journey from trauma to peace

Sexual assault survivor Christine Horst expresses her healing journey through her paintings and music. She is photographed at her home in Spokane on Thursday.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

At the piano tucked into the corner of her cozy dining room, Christine Horst looks up at the altar of art above her before taking a deep breath and beginning her song.

The music pours out of her.

It wasn’t always this way. There were years when Horst’s voice was quiet and sweet, and then harsh with anger and rage.

Today, she draws strength and peace from the yoga and breathwork she frequently turns to, but more from the battle she has fought within herself and finally feels she is starting to win.

Horst, 33, grew up in Spokane Valley in a sheltered evangelical Christian community. It was the height of purity culture, a religious movement that integrates a person’s value with total abstinence until marriage.

It wasn’t until she was an adult, dealing with mental illness and a family of her own, that Horst began to unravel the trauma that shrouded her youth.

In the 1990s, there was a movement in evangelical circles to teach abstinence-only sex education, leading to the purity culture trend.

Research into the effects of purity culture has shown physical, emotional and sexual dysfunction and dissatisfaction.

Sexual abuse in religious groups is not uncommon. The three largest religious denominations in the United States have faced scandals in recent years as abuse has come to the fore in their churches, PBS reports.

In 2018, she was asked to do a live painting during a local performance of “The Vagina Monologues” when she bumped into a deep-seated memory.

A performer was telling the story of being molested by her father’s friend as a child.

“It was like, ‘Whoa,’ ” Horst said. “My whole body, like, clenched, and it was like something was happening.”

Not long after, through therapy, Horst remembered being molested by a family friend from church when she was a toddler.

She told her parents, partially hoping the recollection would be brushed off as part of her mental illness, Horst said.

“When I talked to my parents, it wasn’t really a surprise to them,” Horst said.

Her father had caught the man being inappropriate around children, and he wasn’t around much after that.

One in nine girls and one in 20 boys experience sexual abuse as children, according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network). The vast majority of perpetrators, 93%, are known to their victims, among cases reported to law enforcement.

Children’s advocacy centers have become the primary place to report and get resources for child sexual abuse. In Spokane, Partners with Families and Children offers forensic interviewing, specialized medical examinations and legal advocacy, among other supports. Safe Passage offers similar services in North Idaho.

Safe Passage sees between 250 and 300 children a year, said Amanda Krier, executive director.

Shame and blame

Home schooling and an emphasis on following parents’ authority were trendy in the evangelical circles Horst grew up in during the 1990s. Horst went to a private Christian school, where science was disregarded for a biblical view of the world, she said.

“As a very curious person, that was always very challenging for me to accept that this was it,” Horst said. “This is the story and everything else was wrong, bad and evil.”

As a young girl, Horst was good at fitting into the mold of the meek yet enthusiastic and obedient Christian girl, she said.

Then when she was 12, her grandmother died, and she started struggling with insomnia. Her parents were at a loss with what to do, especially when it appeared there was no trigger, Horst said. She would read the Bible throughout those long, sleepless nights and be terrified by some of the things she read.

“My parents were kind of baffled by it,” she said.

Eventually, after periods of Horst going days without sleeping, her grandparents, both nurses, flagged it as a severe medical issue.

“There wasn’t, like, any acknowledgment of mental health in the Christian communities,” Horst said. “It was like if you struggled in that way you were demon-possessed.”

At 15, Horst had her first psychiatric hospitalization. That same year, Horst had a manic episode.

After an additional, longer hospitalization, Horst was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 18.

Horst got an apartment in downtown Spokane and began esthetician school. She remained religious and began dating.

When she had sex with a boyfriend for the first time at 19, she made him promise to marry her.

Horst said she was “so obsessed that we had to get married to have it be OK what we had done.”

Not only was there shame, but a massive lack of knowledge, Horst said. She had no sex education and didn’t know how her body worked or even the proper names of her body parts.

In evangelical culture, “there’s just such an emphasis on my value and my worth, as a human being is dependent on me not being sexual, or having desire,” Horst said.

After she got out of what had become an unhealthy relationship, Horst met her future husband, Jordan Horst, at church.

The couple immediately began trying to conceive, and Horst gave birth to their first child when she was 21.

“I think for me that was very deep, that you have your husband and then you start a family,” she said. “And that’s my role as a woman.”

The post-partum period was difficult for Horst, with sleep deprivation and hormones affecting her mental health.

With the couple’s second child, she had postpartum mania and a long hospital stay where she did electroconvulsive therapy.

By 2018, Horst’s mental health had somewhat stabilized. She had begun deconstructing the religious beliefs of her childhood and exploring and questioning new ideas.

That’s when she was asked to paint at a performance of “The Vagina Monologues.” That tension she felt in her body when sexual assault was mentioned came with her into therapy.

In the fall of 2019, she re-remembered being molested by the family friend.

It was like hitting the dark heart of all the trauma she had carried for years, Horst said.

“I unraveled at a level I never had before where I had a psychotic break,” Horst said. “My mental health after realizing that had happened to me, it was a completely different arena.”

Trauma recovery

In the four years since, Horst had taken a winding path through trauma recovery. She went through a period of suppressing the trauma. Then she did internal family systems therapy, which helped Horst connect to parts of herself she wasn’t sure were there.

“That was, like, very revolutionary for me, because I think deep, deep, deep inside of me was this fear that I was just, like, a sinful crazy girl,” Horst said. “And to experience over and over again, like, no there’s this depth of wisdom and love in me that’s always been there.”

The trauma recovery process has been challenging for Horst and her whole family.

Jordan Horst acknowledged there were points he felt like they weren’t making any progress. It can feel like two steps forward, then a trigger or episode sets them a step back, he said.

“So in many ways, I’ve started to view the sexual trauma almost like she’s battling cancer,” he said. “There are tools and things that, she’s trying this and it didn’t work, so we’re going to try something different and see if it works.”

Art and music have been a constant coping mechanism for Christine Horst. In recent years, she found that somatic yoga, hula hooping and breathwork have helped connect her mind to her body in powerful ways. Connecting with nature and the natural cycle of death and rebirth with the seasons has been healing, she added.

She released music under the name Solider Bean and continues to write about her experiences.

She also began working with Lutheran Community Services Northwest and filed a police report, another part of the healing process. She often will call the organization’s 24/7 support line when no one in her personal support network is available.

Christine Horst uses the support line in exactly the way it’s intended, said Roshelle Cleland, victim advocacy and education program director at the organization .

“It is very common that survivors call that line when they can’t sleep at night,” Cleland said. “Something triggered them, and they just need to talk something through.”

Despite the supports, recovery continues to be challenging, Horst said.

“Sometimes I still feel like I do not have whatever it takes to heal from this,” she said.

But there’s a thread of hope that Horst continues to follow forward.

“I do have a really strong sense that we’re humans. We’re all on this quest for truth. And I think everyone is seeking connection and to be seen,” she said. “And what I really want other survivors to know is that there’s so many more of us on this planet who want freedom and love and to coexist in peace.”