Denise Smart courageously shares her journey through brokenness and abuse to a place of peace.
Born in 1950, I was institutionalised at 10 months of age with coeliac disease. I then contracted polio and spent the majority of my early childhood in Sydney Children’s Hospital. I saw my family for two hours every Sunday which resulted in me having no emotional connection to my mother. Desperate to be loved, I was sexually abused at three years old and a target for a paedophile (family friend) from 14-18 years of age.
Growing up, a very motherly neighbour always included me when she took her four daughters to Sunday school. She was a pivotal and positive influence in my young life and I loved being with her family. I had a vivid imagination and highly-tuned fantasy world which was more real to me than life itself. I spent hours in that space where everything was good. It was one of the coping techniques I’d developed in order to survive.
God seriously let me know that I belonged to him when I was 15, during a youth camp.
However, the following 18 years were quite horrific. I was emotionally, sexually and socially dysfunctional, living out the lies I believed about myself.
By 1983, I had given birth to three beautiful daughters. The marriage to my daughters’ father fell apart and I was a single mum from 1983 to 2002. I loved being a mother. During that time God continually had to rescue me from disastrous relationships and situations that I was powerless to avoid.
I spent four of those years in a fledgling Salvation Army church in NSW. I diligently worked through the Twelve Steps program, taking ownership of my actions instead of blaming others. I was happy. That church was another pivotal, positive influence in my life.
I met my second husband at my initial church and we joined a smaller church some time later. This church traumatically split when the pastors’ marriage broke up. We followed the woman leader who quickly began showing controlling, manipulative and cultish behaviour patterns.
At her instigation I left my husband, was ripped apart from my children and grandchildren, moved into a flat with her and became her personal assistant. I was not permitted to grieve nor return to any of my ‘old’ ways, but rather to do her bidding without question. After three years of this relentless and fear-based situation, I was unable to make a decision, have an opinion or contact my family without her agreement or initiative. I didn’t even know if God still loved me.
Through complex circumstances, I found myself in Brisbane in August 2012. I was 62, alone, fearful, grieving deeply. I couldn’t stop crying and had severe panic attacks over the smallest of things.
Over the next three months God returned my life to me — my daughters, grandsons, my ex-husband, my own little home and work. He restored my identity, gave me new friends and built a network of strong, stable professionals around me. A Salvation Army chaplain visiting the Family Store where I was volunteering suggested I might fit in at the Salvos’ Brisbane Streetlevel Mission. He was right! During my first chapel attendance in September, I sat with tears streaming down my face, listening to others tell their horrific stories of suicide attempts, hopelessness, desperate loneliness and mental illness. I knew I belonged there. I had come home. God had led me back to The Salvation Army’s comforting ethics, safety, non-judgmental acceptance and love.
On 25 September 2014, I was enrolled as a soldier (member) of The Salvation Army. I volunteered at Streetlevel for five years, including being employed on a part-time basis for one of those five years. I have moved on from Streetlevel and Brisbane and now live in Lismore (NSW). I’ve got a peace now that I’ve never really had before. I am happy. I am finding out who I really am, and no longer believe the previous lies that used to control me. I am a work in progress, and will always be so grateful to Brisbane Streetlevel, The Salvation Army, and to God for all he is and all he has done for me.