I write as a survivor of child sexual abuse. I am 66 years old. The abuse happened when I was 13 years old and either directly or indirectly affected who I was and what my life was for many, many years. Only fairly recently, maybe within the last couple of years have I felt okay about writing about it in a public space. I don’t know why exactly. It made me feel vulnerable in a way I didn’t like I think. Maybe it just made me think about things I didn’t want to think about. I don’t know.
A couple of things changed how I felt about talking about it. A major one was when the scandal at Penn State broke out. I found myself walking around in a rage for weeks. I could not think about Joe Paterno without getting angry and part of me that I thought was gone a long time ago was there….raw and very uncomfortable. A second event was when I watched the movie “Spotlight” for the first time. I watched the suffering of many men who feared that they would be made fun of, would be shamed, or just left forever isolated and alone. And I watched the story of many families forever scarred by a system who cared little for the welfare of their children and sought to protect bad people at all costs.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on Facebook and was surprised by the story of many people who said they had also been abused as children and had not told and of the struggles they faced. Part of this post is for them.
I did not tell. For years and years the only person who knew was my wife. It was my closest and most guarded secret and she was the only person I trusted enough to tell. The night I wrote the Facebook post I googled my abuser. I wanted to know what happened to him. He had been my pediatrician. The abuse went on for about 6 monthes and I think he only stopped when he got scared that I was about to tell. I am 100% sure I was not his first and equally sure I was not his last.
When I looked I found out he had a pediatric practice in Nebraska until the late 1990’s and that he had died about ten years ago. I found no evidence that he had ever been found out. In fact I found a couple of articles talking about him as a community leader. I shudder to think about how many defenseless kids followed me. This post is also for them.
What followed is my truth. I am not sure it is true for anyone else. You must be the judge of that. I know that recovery is a process and not an event and every day I know I am still in that process. I don’t have nightmares any more, but I can still close my eyes and see his office and his desk. I can still over over 50 years tell you how it started and what he did. It no longer has the emotional wallop it once have but I still remember. It seems so strange to know that something so long ago can seem so near and so clear. And the truth is I don’t know how to make it go away.
Above everything else I have learned one thing. Do not let a bad person define your life. Let no one pass sentence on you. I have learned many times over the power of the word “but”. I want a good life, “but” something bad happened to me that I can not get past. Everyday in many ways I work on the word “and”. I want to have a good life “and” something bad happened to me so what to I need to do to move on. Living well is the best revenge. And never give your life to people who try to steal it. “But” leaves me feeling victimized. It leaves me feeling ashamed. It leaves me in a rage. And it leaves me feeling hopelessly alone. “And” empowers me. It tells me that what once was no matter how bad it was needs to be what always is. It teaches me about the possibility and reality of survival. It teaches me that life has not spoke its last words and that hope is a real thing. It teaches me that I matter no less for what happened to me and that my value is not something I need to prove but just something I need to accept.
This is how I have learned to make sense of the process. It is not a scientific notion. It is intensely personal but it helps for me to see where I have been and the choices ahead about where I can go.
It is about for me what has been a 3 step process. The steps overlap and I am not sure that they are ever done but they have provided for me some sense of an otherwise incomprehensible thing.
1. This is that. These are the events that take you back. These are the times when you relive if not the actual events, the feeling and ideas that were there. These are the times when you have feelings that maybe you don’t always know where they come from and they scare you and make you wonder what it going on. Penn State was a this is that experience for me. It was not just me that read about it. There was a 13 year old boy who also heard who was ready to kill that it had happened to someone else. Even if they are not sexual events events that affirm a sense of shame you have long tried to shed, events that leave you feeling alone or that leave you with a profound sense of danger and not knowing who to trust or who you can talk to all might all fall into this category. I seldom experience this is like that anymore. Perhaps the night of googling the fate of my abuser was a night like that. I know the rage of realizing that he had 30 more years of free hunting and the guilt of wondering who might have been saved if I had told.
2. This is like that. These are the events that remind you more than take you back. You find yourself reacting to a situation differently than what you intend to or think make sense. It is maybe almost like an echo that no matter how you turn your head you can still hear. You try to catch yourself and check to see if anyone else has seen it or anyone else knows you are hearing something that is no longer there. It is kind of scary because some time you worry that a page is about to open you don’t want to go or you are going to a place you know you can no longer go to. For me I catch it most when I find myself asking, “What the hell was that? Why did you react that way?” It is best fought with a simple fact. “NO this is not like that. That ended and this stands on its own. The past is past.”
3. This is not that. I think largely in most ways this is where I am at. It is not an everyday companion. In fact it is seldom there unless I focus my attention there. I think I have moved past but I know that is a moving past that is never done and that sometimes I may have to work to get there again.
I don’t know you ever get past totally. All three of these steps are still in my life and the process I think will play out until I draw my final breath and that is okay. You do the best you can everyday and you know that sometimes life is not something you triumph over but something you survive. And sometimes you have to know that survival is your victory for the day.
Looking back now I can see so many ways the experience impacted me. And part of my growth as a person has been in dealing with these impacts not simply as a result of the experience but as things that interfere with my ability to live the kind of life that I want to live. For years I was terminally shy and lived in a self imposed isolation. Particularly in the early years the fear that someone would find out was paralyzing. I think part of it was the fear that others would see me as being damaged and somehow less than human and as the problem and not the victim. I don’t think I am particularly shy anymore but I am in most ways a very quiet person. I have been to no party I am the life of.
It affected my view of life in so many ways. It affected what I thought of others, my ability or even willingness to try and connect. I learned about stuffing my feelings and it has taken a long time to learn how to be mad. So many ways, some I am sure I don’t realize. I think you have to know impacts and try slowly and persistently to move towards the life you want. I learned to value better days when good days seemed impossible.
You matter and some times bad things happen to people that matter. There is life past the hurt. There is life that is not the hurt. We need to teach others and learn from others what it means to find safety in dangerous situations. Largely we do what makes sense at the time and sometimes it takes a long time to learn that going it alone is not the only option. Be patient with yourself and forgive yourself for you have done nothing wrong. It is a long road sometimes but it is a road and not a place.
Here is to better days.