When I received a phone call informing me my abuser had died, I can’t remember if sorrow or relief won as my initial emotion.
I would like to say it was sorrow. Maybe to make myself appear as if I’m not completely desensitized to the death of someone I loved. I honestly believe it was relief that flooded me first though. Relief and then anger. Sorrow coming in a distant third.
Anger because there would never be any closure for the death of my childhood. No apologies for what was taken from me. How do you mourn the murder of innocence? Put to rest the death of what I could have been?
I do strongly believe that sexual predators cannot apologize for their actions. They do not feel that they did anything wrong and build their lives on lies and manipulation. Admitting guilt or feeling apologetic for any acts they have committed is not part of what makes them tick. Even knowing that, there will always be a part of me that yearns for that admission of guilt. Knowing I would never receive that closure made my hatred come back full force, regardless of whether or not those words would have come when he was alive.
I still don’t know how to mourn his passing, though it has been well over a year since he has been gone. None of what I have expressed above negates the fact that I did love this person. The emotions expressed by others that it was better for him to be gone or that his lack of remorse should release me of my feelings of sadness did nothing to lessen the fact that it was incredibly painful for me to say goodbye. That was my reality and it was valid, regardless of how others may have felt when they experienced the news of his death.
The rational adult that is somehow able to coherently express any of this will always be at odds with the scared and defenseless little girl that just wanted someone to save her. To love her without hurting her. That child will always miss her father. The woman writing this now is grateful he is gone. Feels safer knowing he will never be able to hurt anyone again. Both of those feelings are valid and neither is easy to live with.
I’ve oftentimes wondered if you exist. I find myself sometimes, combing through the young women in his life, wondering if he ever did the same things to you. Maybe you don’t exist. Maybe you’re just my imagination running wild, my yearning to find someone else who gets it, creating stories in my head. Sometimes I imagine you coming to me, and whispering in my ear, “Me too,” and I would instantly get it. Sometimes I imagine a message sent from miles away because it is just too painful to say out loud. Whether you exist or not, I have a few things I want you to know.
1. I don’t blame you
I never will. I never have. And it doesn’t matter if you never say anything to me, or if you do tomorrow. I don’t blame you. The only person to blame for my abuse is my abuser. Not me. Not my family. And certainly not you. And if you honestly don’t believe me, I want you to repeat the words “It’s not my fault” to yourself every day until you know it in your head and in your heart. It’s not fair to put that kind of burden on yourself every day. Lighten the load, know that I don’t blame you, and keep moving forward with your own healing.
2. I believe you
I’m reminded of a story I heard, where a young girl told her mother that her father, who had abused his niece years earlier, also abused her. Her mother didn’t believe her, just thought she was competing with her cousin for attention. Because that’s the kind of attention we want, am I right? I will never understand why people treat you like you’re riding a bandwagon, trying to get your fifteen minutes of fame, why we can’t believe that an abuser may have hurt more than one person. I believe you, like I believe every survivor, with every fiber of my being. I believe you because, if he did it to me, it just makes sense that he may have done it to you. And I’m sorry, because no one deserves it.
3. You are brave
Do you know that? Do you believe that? Because I do. I know that any person who endures this particular kind of trauma is brave. If you are out there somewhere, breathing, alive, thriving, then you are brave. If you have to push away the thoughts that creep into your subconscious like I know I have to, then you are brave. If you never told anyone, you are still brave. If you have stumbled a few times in your healing, you are brave. Don’t ever let someone tell you that you aren’t, especially if that someone is you.
4. I love you
More than you know. And I want you to know, from one survivor of sexual abuse to another, I support you.
“It is not easy to stay conscious during a painful and frightening process. We would rather turn away, drug ourselves, or feign indifference. It requires a delicate blend of curiosity, fortitude, and patience to trust in the wisdom and the purpose of pain.” ~ Elizabeth Lesser
I would like to try to explain the place I have been over the last several months.
I sometimes refer to it as the dark.
The Dark is the place I find myself falling into time and time again, no matter how well it seems I am moving through life. Appearances are deceiving when it comes to my particular type of self-loathing. I’m a superb actress. I can nod and smile, say all the right things and go through all the appropriate motions when inside I feel absolutely nothing.
I can never predict when the dark will take over.
Sometimes it is an obvious buildup of emotional exhaustion, fear, anxiety and illness. Sometimes it stems from lack of sleep and a general feeling of not being seen or heard or appreciated. Sometimes it is isolation or loneliness. Usually though, it takes me with no warning and no obvious explanation. It hits and consumes me, completely and devastatingly and I’m no good for anyone, especially myself.
Saying the dark is scary is inaccurate and doesn’t give it the justice it deserves. I can’t feel terror when I’m there because I don’t feel anything. I’m sure there are myriad clinical terms for the dark. Medically accurate, professionally studied and justifiably applied terms. Labels like disassociation, bi-polar, mood dysregulation, PTSD, depression. The list created to pacify the mass population by “naming” the dark could fill volumes, but calling it something doesn’t make it better and telling me what it may be does nothing to help lift the veil. To bring me back when I’m there.
Success does nothing to break down the wall.
If anything it makes it worse. “Who are you to think you deserve anything good?” my shadow self asks. My only companion in the dark. The other me that knows who I really am. A used up kid, already worn out and damaged before I was 10 years old. Worthless.
Past experiences in the void have taught me that the only way out is to self-destruct in some way. To negate any positive growth I have managed to precariously scrape together. To destroy any positive I have managed to create in the worst way possible. To feel hatred for myself is to feel something and that is when the first pinprick of light finds me.
I know how dysfunctional this sounds and yet I also know from years of intimate time spent in this place that the worst must be honored before I can come to the surface long enough to hope to feel the best again.
I don’t like this part of myself.
This person lost and willing to do anything, no matter how painful, to bring me back so that I can smile and laugh and make others feel better. To love and not feel a black void. To have faith that I’m worth not being in this place. I don’t want to stay stuck in the dark for so long that I embrace it as permanent, never able to care again about being productive and available and present. Not able to make a difference. I hope that expressing it honestly helps me to come back in a semi positive way and that anyone reading this who can relate knows they are not alone.
There is this constant feeling of not fitting in. Of disassociation. It takes monumental effort to speak. To get me to come out of the corner I have been hiding in my whole life. Then after all the work to reach me I’m gone in a fraction of a second.
Terrified of being noticed or exposed or heard. Ashamed of anything I said or shared.
Why am I still so afraid?
I have nothing to hide anymore.
How can I continue to have so much hatred and anger? I can’t get upset when people don’t listen if I am not speaking.
Not everyone is out to get me.
Rationally I know this.
It doesn’t lessen the fear.
I sometimes wish there was a way to get everyone to understand but I also know understanding is an overused concept.
Today I’m feeling ashamed.
I know I often tell others that we shouldn’t feel that way and that we need to know our worth and that we didn’t deserve what happened to us. I also know that healing or attempting to sucks and is not going to be a straight or easy path.
I would like to believe that someday I can stay above a 7 without having to plummet straight to zero, taking everyone in my way along for the ride.
Admitting to my past and sharing my story has led to multiple moments of what I can only describe as tiny fracture breaks within what I thought was my semi stable reality. I thought I was doing okay. I saw no reason to reopen those old, pulsating wounds. I felt they had been stitched up adequately enough.
The ability to see beyond where I was and imagine where I could be was nearly impossible due to the inflicted abuse from my childhood. Survivors of trauma know this feeling well. There is a darkness that takes up residency. It becomes so much a part of us that we wouldn’t recognize ourselves without it. Maybe we don’t even want to. Who are we without this pain?
Sometimes the hurt from past experiences is so achingly unbearable it immobilizes us, rendering us powerless. So many people are locked deeply in the clutches of pain from past events or encounters. Agony and shame intermingled and running so deep in our veins we cannot fathom being able to fight it.
Recently I starting exploring the terrible, irresponsible and hurtful choices I was making as an adult. Choices I was making myself, not something that was being done to me or against my will like when I was a little girl.
I decided to take some accountability for my very real and incredibly fast fall from grace. I started to dig, unearth and attempt to reconcile with the actual reasons leading to my abysmal life choices. I started confronting the shame that lived inside of me. The things that are and always will be a part of who I have become today.
I decided to accept them.
Sometimes it is the very worst things that have happened to us in the past that can in fact be our most empowering tool of hope. How can we ever authentically relate to and make real, honest connections with those that need our voices the most if we don’t claim our most horrific moments? The ones we attempt to hide, forget, deny or numb away?
Understanding that your past actions do not and will not determine your legacy begins with not trying so strenuously to will them away. It begins with acknowledging that those pieces are a part of you and they should be nurtured, not dismissed.
John Newton and William Cowper are two voices from history who perfectly help convey the message I am trying to deliver. Newton, a reformed atheist turned Ordained Minister challenged Cowper, a crazy misunderstood Christianity loving wordsmith to a hymnal duel.
Write a new Hymn to a familiar tune in time for each Thursday’s bible study.
Newton and Cowper made change happen by owning who they were and sharing their pain with others. Easier said than done but it eventually led to penning Amazing Grace, a song undeniably powerful in the simplicity of its message and one most can readily identify with.
They were from different backgrounds but they lived with the same ghosts so many of us struggle with. Pain, loss, confusion, sorrow, anger and the desire for redemption to name a few. Through their salvation and their ability to forgive, they each felt a desire to grow from their past experiences and become better because of them.
I’m guessing that neither of them ever would have expected that a former atheist slave trader and a suicidal poet who had been institutionalized for insanity would someday be the ones to collaboratively write a world changing, soul reaching and universal identified with hymnal lyric.
Somehow that happened.
What better voices than those who have come from complete darkness to help others see the light that can be found within it?
As I struggle with my own past and attempt to make amends with the abuse I endured and survived as a child I am often overwhelmed by emotional ferocity of it. Facing these experiences and sharing them with others is terrifying.
I am grateful for each and every prayer I have been blessed with. I do believe in a higher power. A force larger than myself. I just don’t think that simply putting my trust in any given faith blindly will help me or any of us find the answers.
Step outside of what you think you know and listen to the people around you. No matter what you believe or who you pray to or what you have been told. Honor your personal truth while trying to embrace the truths of others. Explore ideas you may be less comfortable with and try to discover what is causing the aversion behind those thoughts.
Make change happen because of your experiences. Don’t stand around and wait for it to happen or place blame when it doesn’t happen the way you thought it would or use religion as a way to not see what is right in front of you.
Use your voice; however it feels right to you.
Shine your light.
Embrace your dark.
Tell your story.
Write your song.
Challenge your best buddy to a hymnal writing contest.
So I read this incredible article recently, and it got me thinking. I started thinking about the labels we use to describe ourselves. The biggest one being the whole victim/survivor debate. I personally feel like victim has a more negative connotation, so I refer to myself as a survivor. It sounds strong, like I fought to the death to defeat my demons. In a way, I did. I’m here, I’m safe, and after a lot of work, I’m thriving.
One of the hardest things about going public for me was the thought that people wouldn’t see me as me anymore, if that makes sense. I worried that people would pity me, and only see me as a victim. I saw myself like that at first. I remember the day I looked at my Mom and told her that I was just another statistic. It took time before I saw myself as anything else.
Take the time to recognize who we are
I think it’s important to take the time and recognize what else we are, other than survivors. I am a student, a daughter, and older sister, a four-year-old at heart, an activist, and a friend. Sexual abuse survivor is NOT the only label I have. Yes, it makes up who I am but it’s not all that I am.
“None of us survived a traumatic event just so we could spend the rest of our lives defined by that event. We survived it in order to move past the event and on to the other stories that are still out there to be told, whatever they happen to be.” My stories include getting my Psy. D and hopefully raising a family. My stories consist of concerts with friends and writing late into the night. My stories will include as many of my hopes and dreams for the future that I can accomplish. What about you? What else are you, other than a survivor?
So last month, I found myself single again. In a way, it sucks, because breakups always do. But this was my first relationship in a really long time. For years I avoided them, telling my family that I was just focused on school, or I was living somewhere temporarily so it just didn’t make sense. And almost a year ago I realized that when it came to relationships, not only did I have no clue what I was doing, but I had no clue what I wanted. In the last five years, I went from believing I was asexual and destined to be alone forever, to having a female friend ask me out which sent me spiraling for a few weeks, to just now, at age twenty-five, starting to figure out what I’m looking for. And I feel so far behind.
Honestly, the biggest thing that scared me about my previous relationship, was when to tell my partner about my abuse. For me, this isn’t negotiable. I am a huge advocate for taking control of your own narrative, and I have never looked down on survivors who chose never to tell their romantic partner. But my control of my narrative is very public. Every April I plaster it all over my social media. And that means that my partner will have questions that I need to be honest about.
I feel like I waited too long last time. It had been months, and I dodged the conversation each time, shying away from questions about my teal ribbon necklace or the reason I decided to dye my hair teal. When I finally decided that we had to have an awkward conversation, she told me, “I had a feeling this would come up today.” She guessed, because I am not subtle. But it allowed us to have a more open conversation.
I gave her the short story, a brief overview without too many details. We then discussed my triggers. My immediate distrust of anyone with his name. That damn nursery rhyme I used to say with him at night. The month of November. We then talked about my coping mechanisms. I told her how music grounds me. Talking about the little joys of my day. A cup of coffee and a funny Netflix queue. Keeping my hands busy. And last we talked about ways she could help me. I walked away that day feeling hopeful for our future. And my past isn’t the reason we broke up, which was probably my greatest fear.
Now I know I can do it again. This breakup has empowered me to search out what I am looking for now instead of putting it off. This breakup showed me that I can have an open and honest relationship with someone who cared, and wanted to be there. This relationship showed me another way that I can take control of my own narrative, and share it with people that I trust. In the end, I guess, that was more than I could have hoped for. Here’s to the next one.
In my last article, I mentioned the tools I try to use every day to continue coping with my memories of sexual abuse. For me, coping is a never-ending process. Unfortunately, my tools don’t make the memories go away, but I can’t think of a healthy alternative that does. Like many tool boxes, the tools in my box were acquired over time. I don’t use all of my tools every day, and sometimes I need WD-40 to get them working correctly, but knowing I have a set to use is helpful in its own way.
Finding ways to stay active has played a major role in coping with my troubling memories. In addition to all of the known benefits of staying active, for me, it brings back favorable memories and feelings from my childhood. Some of my favorite memories were made playing baseball and camping with my friends. Staying physically active has allowed me to reminisce about those times while creating new memories with my new friends. Completing a game or a difficult hike also provides me with a sense of accomplishment that feels really good!
Some mornings, I wake up feeling anxious or depressed and feel like there is nothing that will get me out of bed. It would be so easy to turn over and go back to sleep. What I have found is that making a to-do list helps me get past that initial morning depression and jumpstart my day in a much more positive way. I actually use a cheat code for this – Let me explain. On those difficult mornings, after I realize I am dangerously close to falling into a non-productive day, I get up and make my bed (I know this is not always easy – but it got easier with repetition) After I make my bed, I create a checklist of things I need to get done. My trick is adding “MAKE YOUR BED” as the first task on my list and immediately checking it off. Oh, it is so satisfying! It may seem silly, but sometimes that small sense of accomplishment is what I need to change the trajectory of my day.
Practicing random acts of kindness and charity every day is, I think, one of the most effective ways to cope and also make a real difference in someone else’s day. Charity does not have to be monetary or even publicized to make a difference or be an effective tool in your kit. Unselfishly giving your time, love and attention creates a positive energy that you and people around you will benefit from.
Meditation has been the most useful tool in my toolbox. Actually, it may be the material many of my tools are crafted from. Or maybe it’s what my toolbox is made of? Anyway, before I lose you… Practicing mindfulness meditation has changed my life. Most of us are mindful at some point during the day, but it’s really difficult to stay in that zone. Sometimes we are distracted by a thought from our past that brings up uncomfortable memories. For me, if I let it, those thoughts have the potential to bring me to a dark place, usually filled with anger and a case of the f*ck its. A place where my mind is racing all over the place, but my body is paralyzed – a feeling of defeat. Practicing mindfulness through meditation has helped me recognizing when these intrusive thoughts arise, accept them, and get my mind back to the current moment – Like when I am having trouble getting up in the morning, recognize my negative emotions and decide to make a to-do list to help get me started. There are many different styles of meditation, so if mindfulness is not the way for you, check out some other forms of meditation that seem like a better fit!
Journaling and storytelling
Getting my thoughts out, one way or another, has always helped me cope with what I am feeling inside. What I like about journaling is the ability to go back and actually read my own words about what I was thinking or feeling during that moment – it’s right there in front of me. It also helps me see my own potential behavioral patterns. If I notice I am feeling a certain way, I’ll often go back to my journal to see when I’ve felt that way before. If I have, I’ll recall how I reacted and review how that worked out for me. Finding a group of friends or an outlet like Gravity Network to share your thoughts with can be super helpful.
As I said earlier, these tools have not deleted my memories of sexual abuse, but they have taught me skills to live a happy life without blaming myself for other’s actions. I plan to stay physically active and remain healthy to help find the joy in things I used to love. I will do my best to make to-do lists to help me stay on top of my daily tasks when my emotions want to distract me. I will give my time and attention to other who need it, because others have been there for me when I needed to be lifted up. I will practice mindfulness to remain aware of my true self and chart the path to my brightest future. And I will continue to tell my story through personal journaling and this blog, not only for myself, but for others who read and are going through their own struggles.
Warning: May contain triggers for survivors of childhood sexual abuse
Today I sit constricted My waistband tied too tight Until I sat down I had not noticed it Digging into the forgotten flesh Just below my belly button But this time I do not allow myself to fix it I decide instead to feel it An irritation around my middle I hate this I have always hated this
I have despised the soft center of me Since I was 8 years old I have rejected any sensation starting From this spot My entire being crawls away from it in all directions Shattering me and scattering my pieces I have always had a vague notion why I split But today I simply feel it and let the thoughts in And there it is
A memory as clear as the mark it left HE used to grab me around my middle HE used our childhood games Of hide and seek In a basement, dark and full of horrid hiding things While the others hid, HE sought me out HE would take me by my middle Hauling me off with HIS giant hands Encircling the entire middle of me My flesh and guts a handle for HIS gripping
So this is why I have punished and pounded and pulverized This pound of flesh that lies Between waist and once wasted space This is why I crudely cut a giant jagged hole And gladly let myself spill out And happily filled it in with cold concrete I have been terribly trying to loose his fingers Trying to pry them off The memory he buried In the middle of me I have been trying to reclaim my own geography Violence for violence
NOW I return NOW I am still, here NOW I sit on solid ground, his hands are not around NOW I hear the birds sing of safety NOW after all of this restraint I decide to forego formality Before it is officially over I move of my own accord, free Not to fix with force but to find out for myself To feel the spot where he used to handle me To see if it still exists under there And as my hands begin to move The ending bell rings, allowing Sounding as if to say to me
It is over His grip is gone Your center has returned You may hold your own middle now
And so it is And so it has And so I do Soft and gentle I take myself in my hands And I find Only me
How many times have I said these words to people, “You are never fully healed from sexual trauma. It never goes away. Your brain has been changed, and the biological change is not something that can be undone. But, you work with it and integrate it, mitigate the symptoms, and learn to live, hopefully well, with it.” I thought I believed this, I really and truly did. I thought I was living that. How arrogant and wrong I was. Because somewhere deep in my internal recesses, my unconscious had bought the curative hype. Some unspoken part of me thought I’d healed, thought I’d been cured, or pretty damn close to it. I wrote and spoke with confidence about the hardest parts of my childhood because some part of me not only felt healed, but believed I had found the key, had set my demons free, and was once and for all better. I hadn’t, I didn’t, I wasn’t. But I didn’t realize I had bought into these false confidences until my world cracked open and swallowed me whole.
He was my boyfriend at 16, we married at 22, we had a child at 30.
I’ve been facing the reverberations from being abused and raped at 8 years old, since I was in college. I’ve been consciously working on myself since I was 20, I am now 43. That work has shape-shifted and evolved over the years from cognitive behavioral therapy, to self-help books, to Jungian therapy. From meditation, to getting my master’s degree in meditation, to teaching meditation. From writing and art therapy, to creating my own blog, to writing poetry and publishing articles about my abuse. But through it all was one constant…my significant other. He was my boyfriend at 16, we married at 22, we had a child at 30. He has always known about my abuse, I told him when we were teenagers. He took it in stride and was unashamed. He was patient, my friend, my rock. He let me explore, explored with me, faced the intimacy challenges and worked to overcome them with me…until he stopped. I remember the day, years ago, I had a flashback during a particularly rough GYN exam. I called him afterwards shaking and crying. He coldly told me he was busy at work and would call me back. He never did. He texted to say he was headed home from work. He had totally forgotten that I had even called. I spent that afternoon sobbing on the floor with my dog. That day I knew, some part of me knew. My partner was gone. And still, the other part of me held on to what I thought was “unconditional love” as a cure-all, a backstop, a bedrock of my own healing. I see that now, all of it. The truth and the illusion. I did not see it fully then.
And everything I thought I knew about my healing…evaporated and was swallowed whole by grief
It took years for him to finally say the whole truth; that he was leaving me. That he’d found a new partner and was done being mine. On New Years Eve 2018, the truth came out of his mouth. No more us. (It took another few months for him to reveal he’d found a new partner, one who was a trusted family friend and coworker.) And in the many tear-soaked conversations we had about the dissolution of us, he laid his own issues, and his leaving, square at my feet. I believe his exact words were, “I became codependent and dysfunctional at 16, the day you told me about your abuse.” And everything I thought I knew about my healing, my ability to connect with another, my trust in myself and in love, in my own body, even in my voice…equally evaporated and was swallowed whole by grief. And that’s when I realized that I had bought into the curative fantasy. To spite my intelligence and my self-awareness. I had allowed myself to hold onto the love of another, as a huge part of my own healing and integration process. Only when my abandonment issues recently re-ravaged my body and brain did I realize I had truly, but foolhardily, believed that those demons had been exorcised. And I had believed they had been exorcised by someone else’s love. They hadn’t been banished, but only tamed and caged, by the false reliance on another. Not only had I believed that another person’s strength was my own, but that strength I had relied on, even if unconsciously, had itself been an illusion. I had relied on his love to redeem humanity, my past, and myself. It is time to see things clearly.
I am not going anywhere.
I am not healed, I am not cured, and I don’t need to be. I am simply integrating and moving with the trauma from being raped at 8 years old. I know this as a lived experience now. And I am finally learning to do it for myself, with myself, as myself…I hope. I am still in the midst of the divorce, and while the process is not over, his leaving is over. He can’t leave anymore than he already has, and yet I am still here. I am sometimes a mess of issues, of both mind and body. I know now down to my bones that will always be the case, perhaps to greater and lesser degrees given the day, and that is ok. There is no cure. I have PTSD and abandonment issues, and they will always need to be managed. I have no idea what any of that looks like moving forward. But I am also learning now that I won’t leave me. His strength was not my own, my strength is my own. His love did not save me, my own love for myself and that 8-year-old little girl, will save me. As much as anyone can be saved. Perhaps even that is inviting the curative fantasy back in. Rephrase: my own strength and love for myself and that 8-year-old little girl will hold me. That is the most I can do, and the MOST I can do. On those days ahead when my demons come to the surface screaming and sobbing, I will hold myself, I will learn to like myself, I will let go of my own shame instead looking to another to do so, and I will tell myself that I am here. And, I am not going anywhere.