Behind the lines of a war on children.
“I never felt like my life was threatened until one morning when I got up and was not just scared for my body, I was scared for my life,”
– Sara Gillianne –
Business owner finds redemption after sexual abuse
By Marketta Davis and Rob Johnson
Sara Gillianne, owner and creator of The Wes on Palafox, is a successful business owner — and a survivor of child abuse.
Her business has thrived in the area of wedding and event planning. Being part of such venues as the Pensacola Block Party Wedding, Sara has been planning weddings for more than 10 years and she still loves seeing the look on a bride’s face right before she walks down the aisle.
Those moments are treasured, and are among the many things that bring her happiness.
But she hasn’t forgotten the abuse she suffered as a child.
“I just recently, maybe a year ago, actually spoke out about it,” Sara said. “Really, it started in elementary school with my stepfather and my stepbrothers.”
The Pensacola business woman, 34, describes herself as a born-and-raised southern girl with deep roots in Northwest Florida. She leads a happy life with her boutique and her two boys, 14 and 17 years old. You’d never be able to tell at first glance that she’s been on journey of recovery for 20-plus years as a survivor of child abuse.
Sara’s mother married when Sara was in the first grade. From the beginning, Sara said, her stepfather and two stepbrothers began physically and sexually abusing her. Her stepbrothers were also being abused by her stepfather. While her mother suspected abuse happening in the home and asked Sara about it on one occasion, a young and scared Sara denied anything was happening out of fear.
As a little girl, she said it just became a part of her life, a norm — that she didn’t know any different, didn’t know it was wrong. With a pained look, she recalled instances where her stepfather would take Polaroids of her in just her panties and would promise to get her ice cream if she showed him parts of her body.
Then, when she was in the eighth grade, bad turned to worse.
“I never felt like my life was threatened until one morning when I got up and was not just scared for my body, I was scared for my life,” Sara said. “My stepfather was extremely aggressive that morning.”
That moment was different from all the other instances of physical and sexual abuse, Sara said. She remembers being held down while he raped her, being so forceful that her head was banging against the hardwood floors.
That’s when she hit a crossroad. It just became too much.
After the altercation with her stepfather, Sara remembers running to the bus stop, petrified at what she was going to do. When she got to school, she told her best friend what had been happening to her. As it turned out, her best friend’s mother worked for Lutheran Services.
Though scared and worried, even hiding underneath her desk at one point, Sara completed the day but didn’t return home after school. That’s the day her life changed. She confided in her friend’s mother and the process of healing began.
But it wasn’t easy and she didn’t have the support most would expect would be in her corner.
Sara will only say that her mother wasn’t really involved in her journey. Her mother and stepfather didn’t split immediately, but eventually divorced. To this day, Sara and her mother have never talked about the abuse.
Thankfully for Sara, she found support in other places. She would need it.
The horror was out in the open, but Sara didn’t yet comprehend all the emotions that would come with reaching out for help. She was scared for her stepfather because he could go to jail, which made her sad because she still trusted him. She went through a plethora of emotions including depression, anger and sadness. But one of the most difficult moments was when she had to appear in court and tell the judge her story.
“I was brave enough to say something to the judge,” Sara said. “I remember (her stepfather) being so close to me … he was just 10 feet from me. I don’t know how I did that.”
Even with disclosing her experiences and working with people who cared, Sara said it was a long road to healing. The summer after her eighth grade year she attempted to take her own life. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel and she refused to give up.
“I was able to get help through Lutheran Services and was able to still build a life and be a survivor,” Sara said.
The first opportunity she had to publicly share her story was last February during a United Way event. Sara had goals she wanted to reach and didn’t want people to look at her like a girl who had been abused. She wanted people to look at her as a survivor who lived past her pain and obtained success, so she decided to speak out.
At that speaking engagement, Sara said she remembers staring out into a crowd of 300 people wondering what in the world she was doing. It wasn’t until after her presentation that she realized just how many lives she affected when individuals began coming up to her, thanking her for sharing.
“I was thinking, ‘I know her’ and ‘I know him,” she said. “From that point on, I was like, ‘anything or anytime (I can share), I will.'”
Today, Sara said she copes a little bit every day. She hid her abuse for 20 years, fighting depression and thoughts of suicide, but this past year in being able to speak out about her experiences, she’s been able to further her healing process. She forgave her stepfather a long time ago and while there are still things that trigger painful memories, she chose to move forward.
“It’s a struggle, it really is,” she said. “My mom would always say, ‘tomorrow will be better.’ And dang it, it is now! My tomorrow is much better than it used to be.”
PENSACOLA News Journal