The following article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 Women's edition of Inside Journal®, a quarterly newspaper printed by Prison Fellowship® to correctional facilities across the country.
Annette Oltmans founded The M3ND Project, an organization that seeks to educate, equip, and restore survivors of abuse. Because so many women behind bars have been affected by abuse themselves, she sat down with Prison Fellowship® to share her own journey, and to discuss how readers can find healing, self-respect, and healthy boundaries.
Prison Fellowship: What led you to start The M3ND Project?
Annette Oltmans: I experienced marital abuse, and at the same time, I witnessed a child go through a crisis of molestation. When we reached out for help, we both received criticism and were shunned by some close friends and family. I was inspired to go on a deep and long research project about the layers of abuse and simplify the topic for victims and their communities. I learned that when victims reach out for help, they often are re-victimized. I trademarked the term "double abuse," because how can we stop it if it doesn’t have a name?
Tell us a bit more about Double Abuse®.
Double Abuse occurs when friends, family, authority figures, or even therapists doubt or downplay the victim's experience or pass judgment, or define the situation by their own biases, rather than listening to, empowering, and helping the victim. It's so important to confront the issue, give the victim a voice, and see what's really going on.
What might help incarcerated women on their journey to healing?
The main thing is learning to find your identity in Christ. Everyone matters to God. Incarceration can be an opportunity for people to face the mistakes they have made, and the experiences that shaped them and led them down that path. Facing areas of growth and developing positive character traits will help them overcome the challenges that continue, sometimes unfairly, after they are released.
There are resources to help you. Never give up looking for resources. It only takes finding that one person who will listen and believe you and advocate for you. Keep searching until you find safe, compassionate people who will listen.
How can a person form healthy boundaries?
If you have unhealthy friends around you, and they keep asking you for advice but never listen to it, or they encourage you to continue bad habits, that's toxic. None of us are perfect, but you need to surround yourself with people who are willing to grow and change if they need to. If you confront someone, and they throw it back at you and reverse the blame onto you, you may need to remove yourself from that relationship. It's like a bad break-up—you know you're going to miss that person at the beginning, but ultimately it opens the door for you to move on to the right person. It's about guarding your heart. Scripture says, "Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life" (Proverbs 4:23).
What does "guarding your heart" have to do with self-respect?
There are voices everywhere that will tell you to isolate yourself. They will tell you that you are worth nothing. But God cares about every single one of us, and we are so valuable to Him. We have to guard our hearts against the lies that tell us otherwise. One of the ways we experience His love is through healthy connection with others. We need connection with safe people. We cannot grow and heal in isolation. Surround yourself with people who will help you name your experience. Find people who will speak Christ's words into your life, gently confront you when necessary, and always show compassion rather than condemnation.
What has surprised you about the healing process?
What helped me was the advice, "Get out and help someone." At first, I kept thinking, How can I possibly help someone? I'm so broken, so afraid. But I learned that you can help someone else because you've been in their shoes. That gave me a purpose and actually helped me keep moving forward. By helping other women, I was able to work through some of my own "things."