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By Saybrook University
After graduation and at a landmark age of 21, most college graduates are thinking: “Now what?” Michelle Stevens was already answering that question. With a new bachelor’s degree in writing, she was going to use her talent to become a TV writer for the soap opera, “Days of Our Lives.” But instead of writing about scripted drama, she was slowly coming to grips with another realization—upheaval about her own childhood that she’d buried in the back of her memory.
“I had moved 3,000 miles away from my abuser and was living on my own,” says Michelle Stevens, Ph.D., the author of “Scared Selfless.” “I came out to California to be a TV writer but started to have these memories that threw me into a horrible crisis. You can imagine what it would be like to think you have a normal life and then find out you’ve been abused and don’t even remember it.”
From the time Stevens was 8 years old, her 33-year-old stepfather, Gary Lundquist, had allegedly made her into a sex slave. The third grader at Delaware Township School, where Lundquist taught fifth grade, was ordered to come to his after-school club with a few other carefully selected “gifted” children to do a range of things, such as multiple-choice tests, drama club acting, and talent show performances. Around the house, she received lessons in typing and table manners.
To a casual observer, the solo and group activities may have looked like innocent favoritism: always choosing Stevens to be the lead in school plays he directed or being one of the judges who awarded her with the first prize. Even her mother started to notice they were spending too much time together. However, there were signs around their home that something else was going on: a harness, a rope, nails and hooks attached to ceiling beams, a stun gun, and a dog cage. Lessons in the basement transitioned to the bedroom for what Stevens referred to as a “lovers’ tryst,” but with a lover “who was just under four feet tall and weighed less than 60 pounds.”
When Stevens went to college, she escaped the trauma physically but not mentally. Developing dissociative amnesia, “a very common thing for anyone who has ever experienced trauma,” and dissociative identity disorder, memories she’d buried deep down starting “coming back around out of nowhere.”
Instead of burying the memories, she used them to find out more about herself, devouring books on trauma, child abuse, and psychology for approximately 15 years.
Finding the right therapist for herself included “kiss[ing] a lot of therapist frogs before [she found] the right therapist prince.” While she was learning so much about herself within these readings and visits, she decided to become the therapist that she’d been looking for and chose Saybrook University to earn her master’s and doctorate.
“I decided on Saybrook because it was small and it was a humanistic school,” Stevens says. “I wanted to do qualitative research, and Saybrook would let me do that.”
Her memoir, “Scared Selfless,” was initially her own dissertation that helped her learn more about herself.
“Trauma has psychological consequences,” Stevens says. “People don’t realize it, but it does. Alcoholic parents. Parents on drugs. Being abandoned. Traumatic situations such as this may create all sorts of problems in a person’s adult life. But sometimes people will have no understanding of how the problems in their adult life are directly related to how they were raised. People email me every day saying, ‘Wow, I had no idea how much it affected me. Now I understand.’”
Lundquist was sentenced to three years’ probation in 1985 for engaging in sexual conduct with two girls at the school where he taught. However, he died in 1997 without ever answering for the alleged abuse against Stevens. Stevens’ mother is still alive but “really suffers from denial" and has never read the book, according to Stevens.
While Stevens may not yet get that form of closure, being an innovative leader who has created her own course may help other students, including psychologists.
“Teachers can sit in a classroom with other teachers, but psychologists don’t sit in on other people’s sessions,” Stevens says. “When I started doing practicums, I was amazed by how few of my colleagues went to therapy. I couldn’t believe it. To be a good therapist, find other good therapists. Deal with your own stuff and set yourself free before you work on others.”
Michelle Stevens, Ph.D., has become a leader in the field of trauma. Learn more about developing your own leadership skills through Saybrook University’s M.A. Management: Innovation Leadership Specialization.