Sexual abuse is pretty much the worst thing ever. If you want to strip someone of their identity, confidence, and ability to navigate life and adulthood well–sexual abuse is definitely the easiest way to get the job done.
I’ve walked that road.
I remember one of the first times sexual abuse popped up on my family’s radar. A relative was sharing his opinion with me about the effects that sexual abuse would have on a young child we knew. We had just found out she had been molested by a family friend. The child was three. My commenting relative happened to be a doctor.
“It’s better if they just stop asking her about it. She won’t remember it later anyway.”
I felt ambivalent and torn by his response. His opinion felt WAY wrong–but what did I know? He was the medical expert. I usually trusted him regarding physical health. But emotional health? I wasn’t so sure. And as I would discover in the years to come, he was pretty much a COMPLETE ignoramus about this particular topic.
I would personally come to realize that sexual abuse is NEVER actually forgotten. It just gets buried. I would learn firsthand that even if the brain can’t access the play-by-play memories, the body’s senses and emotions will carry and remind you later of the details of the trauma.
The body remembers.
That particular opinion was only ONE of many future expressions of naiveté that I would hear voiced from within my family circle. In subsequent years, more abuse revelations would come to light regarding incest that was perpetrated by my extended family members. And the clueless family commentary that followed was paramount and very telling as to why the abuse was FIRST able to happen and THEN allowed to continue on unnoticed for many more years.
Denial and ignorance thrived in our whitewashing family system.
My own perspective shift on the subject of sexual abuse began once…well…once I realized that it had happened to ME TOO. And not just once…
I had a long road up ahead.
I started having concrete memories when I was in my late 30s. I had plowed straight through grad school to marriage and then popped out four children in the first six years. I began working from home as a writer in between my mommy duties. More and more responsibilities kept getting added to my plate, especially as the kids got older.
I think the constant pressure and intense activity load just threw me over the edge. I could no longer repress the memories. My body started telling its story. Health issues sprang up from out of nowhere and hit me hard.
I don’t remember all the physical specifics now. I was sprinkled with so many diagnoses over the years that I kinda lost track. But as multiple specialists scrambled to figure me out– complicated migraines, depression, an immune disorder, ruptured ovarian cysts, and a mini stroke were just a few of the titles they threw my way in lieu of an explanation. Then I launched straight from years of insomnia into being inundated in my sleep by buried memories finally resurfacing.
The flood of dreams poured in by the hundreds.
I had always been a prolific dreamer in the past, but these dreams were different. They carried a sexual overtone and a lot of them included demonic torment. Sometimes the demonic realm would paralyze me from within my dreams. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t wake up. I couldn’t even call out to say the name of Jesus. Something was terribly wrong that I didn’t understand.
A handful of times I even woke up gagging and gasping for air.
At the time, I reasoned away the dreams as a spiritual attack. But they were just TOO dark and too many. I couldn’t break through into any freedom. Why wasn’t my spiritual authority working? I needed answers. What was happening to me?
FINALLY, I got the revelatory breakthrough that I needed through one of those intense dreams. God had prompted me to start writing down every dream–no matter how jacked up it appeared. I had also been studying biblical dream interpretation. And as I began to combine these two tools–I finally broke through the denial.
When two guys in a dream started harassing the childhood me, mocking me and threatening rape, I finally figured it out. It pretty much had to be spelled out for me before I could finally believe it:
Sexual abuse was buried in my childhood past and it made SO much sense.
Daytime flashbacks began to follow the dreams. My life dots began to connect from that point forward. I felt massive relief. All the years of missing childhood memories. The weird sexual triggers. I finally began to feel NOT crazy.
I started counseling around that point and embarked on the long journey of detangling my past. At least now I had a target. The years of NOT knowing filled with mysterious emotional triggers had felt brutally insane.
So I trudged through. Learned the psychotherapy rhetoric. Did the work.
But I felt really alone…
It took months of counseling before I felt strong enough to start telling other people. That evolved slowly. It actually felt easier to tell friends at first. My family didn’t feel safe. And when I finally progressed to telling family members–I found out why. I had one empathetic cousin, but not much else in the way of support.
The rest of my family’s responses sucked to varying degrees. I got both sides of the spectrum. On one side I got doubt, the questioning of my memory, and the actual trying to talk me out of it; and on the other side, I got over-emotional reactivity, smothering support, and some probing for details. Nothing balanced and in-between–and I certainly didn’t need any MORE people to emotionally triage. I was enough.
I realized I would be on my own in this healing journey. Me and God, that is.
When I’d occasionally interact with my more probing relatives and their questions, I was so tempted to throw out Jack Nicholson’s line from A Few Good Men: “You can’t HANDLE the truth.”
It was true. The things that had happened–they couldn’t emotionally handle hearing.
My personal sucky favorite was my own father’s response. I felt it epitomized the family’s complete oblivion: “Why didn’t you tell me?”, he challenged. I remember feeling so shocked by the utter stupidity of his question that I was left speechless.
I don’t know–maybe because the abusers knew where I lived, told me they were watching me, and threatened me with personal harm, the harm of my parents, or sending the police after me if I told.
How was I supposed to answer that question?
Should I try to explain the effects of violent trauma on the brain and the often-used coping mechanism of disassociation? Do I start with the fact that a young child doesn’t have language or understanding to describe this stuff? Or should I just tell him specific details like the fact that sometimes I was so heavily drugged prior to the abuse that I couldn’t even open my eyes to see WHO was doing what?
In retrospect, I wish I had responded with the more logistically-obvious answer: “You were NEVER home, you abandoning JERK! How dare you think you knew anything that happened in my life!”
So yah, there was that.
In general, my family members acted SO surprised like–“HOW could this have happened?” or “WHEN could this have happened?”
I think the real question here should have been: “How could this NOT have happened?” There was absolutely nothing normal or stable about my early childhood.
Our family made an easy target. Simple. It really shouldn’t be ALL that shocking. I had parents that were mostly separated or divorced. A father that was always working and gone. A mother who left for days at a time for her job.
So who exactly WAS watching me? A very good question. It was a crockpot of character–that’s for sure. A disgusting college student hired off a message board. A molesting grandfather. A dysfunctional grandmother who shirked responsibilities and left me with her pedophile friends. A handful of benign others.
I was left alone without safe parental supervision during my most vulnerable and defenseless years. By the time my upbringing became more stable and consistent, the damage had already been done.
But the ignorance and naiveté didn’t stop there. Oh no. My family just wasn’t the brightest judge of sketchy character. Like maybe you shouldn’t have let me play ALONE at the neighbor’s house. You know–the friend whose father dressed up as a FLASHER at Halloween. HELLO! Was anyone paying attention?
Did that really set off NO parental alarms?
What about all of the visitors who slept in the bedroom right next to mine–WAAAAY down the hall and on the other side of the house from my parent’s bedroom? Not the best idea. Or how about the cocaine-snorting family addict who LIVED with us for a year in that same bedroom?
Hearing his voice for years afterwards would terrorize me.
You’d think the family lightbulb would have come on when a teenager in our family came forward with sexual-abuse allegations against a certain relative. What happened, you ask? Well, it got a little bit of family circulation but was then shut down and sealed like it never even happened. Abuser NOT confronted–and still allowed into family gatherings.
That incident went into the vault of family secrets with all the other coverups.
(I would eventually cut off contact with previous abusers and cover-up enablers in the family tree. The other main perpetrator in the family just died off while I was still a child–thankfully.)
Basically–at the time of my sexual-abuse disclosure, my family’s incredible whitewashing ability was operating at full throttle. They lived mostly in a reality of clueless oblivion. The few times I tried to hint at specific details, I could see their eyes glaze over into denial. I was done trying. But I wasn’t going to let them drag me down.
I realized I could STILL heal even if they stayed forever in their hypnotic trance of denial. But I wouldn’t be there. I was determined to break out of generational patterns. I was done with coverups, secrets, and denial.
The truth truly WILL set you free…if you let it.
I couldn’t talk about any of this with most of my family, but I did have one ally in the bunch. Another Me-Too survivor–a relative who shared a similar abuse memory with the same perpetrator and sexual-abuse infraction.
Once this revelation surfaced, I felt extremely validated for the first time in forever.
Earlier on in my healing journey, everything kind of came to a sudden family head. My counsellor had informed me that she was legally required to report one of my childhood abusers: a distant relative, because he was STILL around children. So I had to make the responsible calls, giving the head’s up to certain people. Awkward. I still remember one close relative’s reaction:
“But are you SURE?”
It was a huge blow at the time. It was especially destabilizing for me because this person also happened to be a licensed therapist. Shouldn’t she know better than to ask something like that? Like I hadn’t already wrestled with MASSIVE doubt and denial as it was? Like denial and minimization hadn’t been THE manipulative tools of choice used by my abusers to confuse me?
And speaking of Denial…
Denial had actually been one of my longest and most protective of friends. He had served me well for decades–but I was finally tired of his pathological lying. “It probably wasn’t THAT bad” was one of Denial’s favorite mantras to throw at me over the years. The next runner up would definitely be: “It probably only happened a couple times.” And every once in a while, Denial would slam his judgmental gavel down with the LOUD decree that “NONE of this actually happened. You’re making it all up.”
But the years of dream memories, flashbacks, and painful triggers with no other explanation SCREAMED otherwise.
READING BETWEEN THE CLUES
So I started paying attention to my own reactive clues. Like my panicky habit of always waking up to check the door to make sure no one was entering my room. Then there was my obsessive fear of someone walking in on me in the bathroom. Or my trouble talking to sixty-year-old men and the forced compulsion I felt to smile and look them in the eyes. That was a BIGGIE.
I just held all older men in that 60’ish age bracket as suspect pedophiles. I thought they should be quarantined. And anyone that winked at me? Yah, they ended up in that suspicious category as well. That felt WAY too familiar.
The blanks in my life began to fill in.
I had to be my own private investigator most of the time, piecing together the clues. So many haunting dreams that left me with more questions than answers. And a life full of triggers–which was probably the hardest dynamic of the journey to navigate.
Triggers saturated my senses. I saw, heard, smelled, and felt them everywhere. Seeing knick-knacky decor from my grandparent’s era made me feel panicky. Catching a glimpse of a man with an overhanging belly nearly sent me into tears. Certain guy smells triggered my gag reflex. Getting startled from behind made me feel RAGE. I’d freak out if my head or neck were ever held in place. And spontaneous favors or surprise gifts? These were met with dismay and suspicion–I was ALWAYS leery of strings attached and hidden agendas.
Pro quid pro was a social contract I knew sadly all too well and now cynically expected.
Then PTSD entered into the scene. Loud sounds became troublesome. They were infamous for bumping me into fight or flight. I’d feel like a caged animal that needed to escape. Crowds became really difficult for me as well. I’d feel surrounded by danger.
And then there were just the NORMAL parts of life that felt abnormal. Things that most people take for granted. Things that should have been fine–but for me they’d gotten SO warped and distorted by the trauma. Like someone telling me they loved me or missed me. How dare they?! Or someone trying to kiss me–even on the cheek. No thank you. Anything whispered became synonymous with diabolical intentions. And I NEED YOU was definitely high up on the Richter Scale of panic.
And as if those weren’t ENOUGH to deal with, some previous strengths then morphed into new weaknesses. Like talking to men.
I used to interview and interact with a lot of men during my grad school years. But at some point along my trigger-laden journey, I became a bumbling idiot talking to guys. ESPECIALLY new acquaintances or friends who hadn’t yet proved themselves safe. One-on-one conversations were the WORST and were usually doomed to fail. I’d become awkward and incoherent. Say stupid things and be mad at myself afterwards.
Thanks to my childhood abusers’ perverse indoctrination, I began to FEEL like talking to any guy communicated sexual desires and intentions. And if I reached a panicky point in the conversation, I’d often just cut and run. Most. Embarrassing. Thing. Ever.
I’m STILL working my way out of the bumbling idiot trigger and it REALLY sucks.
Feeling trapped and feeling powerless were probably the biggest perpetual triggers in my healing journey. Those two feelings popped up EVERYWHERE. Waiting in long lines or sitting in heavy traffic were just a couple of the daily normals that could trigger them. Enclosed water slides and other claustrophobically-small places worked too.
Then there were the spiritual triggers–bringing God into the sexual-abuse mix was seriously pure evil.
One of my stupid abusers had lied to me and told me he used to be a pastor. He told me he could tell me more about God (I was really little at the time and LOVED learning anything about God.) He called me over to him with a deceptive line like “Let’s talk about God”, then grabbed me so tightly I thought I was breaking, and then sexually abused me. Yep. I remember my utter confusion and devastation. For years, I had trouble looking ANY pastor in the eyes. It was an instant shame trigger.
Actually–direct eye contact with pastors or men in general is sometimes still hard.
(Nowadays during conversations, I just try to give myself eye breaks as a trigger workaround.)
GUILT, SHAME, AND FEAR
Mysterious triggers eventually became a healing game of sorts. I’d curiously pick them apart to see if I could find the traumatic threads to figure them out. Making store returns was one such trigger that initially seemed bizarre until I did some digging. I’d experience tons of guilt, shame, and fear (a common abuse trio) every time I tried to make an exchange or want my money back.
I now know that it was partially because I had to ask for help. There was a reason why I lived most of my life in self-sufficiency. Trauma taught me many lessons–like TRUST NO ONE and DON’T ASK. It’s just NOT safe, so figure it out yourself.
But even bigger than that, I had EXTREME difficulty answering questions that felt interrogative, where I had to explain myself or prove that I was right. The return situation could trigger this–depending on how simple or complex the scenario. Anytime I had to explain or defend my actions, reasons, or truth, I’d start to feel panic and fear.
I’d feel like THEY DIDN’T BELIEVE ME and thought I was lying.
It seems like a pretty logical assumption here that I DID TRY to tell my family about the abuse when I was young. BUT THEY DIDN’T LISTEN TO OR BELIEVE ME. It makes me wonder: how many times did I try to tell but got shut down? How many times was I dismissed by an adult because of the inconvenient interruption? How many times was distracted-parent brain a part of the equation? My dad was infamous for pretend listening.
People NOT listening to me had always been a BIG point of reactivity.
Each clue eventually fit somewhere. I had a lot of unexplainable floating guilt and fear during the first few years of the healing journey. Those feelings eventually subsided and became way more manageable. But the shame triggers remained a LOT longer. I still battle them. Sometimes the shame would waft in like the wind and just shake me up a little bit. Other times, it would slam me down hard like a wrestler on a mat:
Don’t even try to get up. STAY DOWN.
SUSPICION AND PARANOIA
Having kids brought a whole other slew of triggers in addition to my own. I became obsessively suspicious. Men working in church childcare freaked me out. Going on dates with my husband was tricky because I only trusted a couple people to watch my kids. And when one of my daughters was assigned her first male teacher in elementary school, I watched every compliment and pat on the back that she received. I was absolutely terrified of any possible grooming.
Any affection from anyone became HIGHLY suspect.
Then my paranoia spread to include even trusted family members. I remember the time my youngest daughter and visiting father went in another room together. I eventually noticed that the door was closed and started to freak out. When I threw the door open, I found them seated quietly inside playing the board game Pretty Pretty Princess. My father had a crown and earrings on. All was well–and quite precious, actually, but I felt near to hysterical tears.
I couldn’t keep living like this. It was unbearable.
After the initial sexual-abuse-in-my-past discovery, my life seemed to get a whole lot worse for a long time before anything started to improve. Paying for counseling was expensive. Think $50 a week for say–oh, four years. (In case you’re not near a calculator–that’s over $10,000.)
Taking time away from my family to actually GO to counseling and do the followup work was time-consuming and even brought conflict. My husband and kids hated it. I felt like I was betraying my family. And detangling from a codependent marriage in the midst of my own individual healing posed a whole different set of challenges. I wasn’t even sure it was OKAY to take the needed self-care and inner-healing time. So I had to battle my own learned mindsets and codependent upbringing as well.
It was really hard–but I kept at it.
The journey was pretty ugly at times. Messy. Non-linear. I didn’t have a lot of support. Counseling massively helped. Books helped too by filling in the gaps. Beauty in nature supplemented my healing. I tried to take trips to the beach and go for walks outside.
Self-care became a REALLY core component of my healing process.
Living in a perpetual state of survival for so many years had done me a huge disservice. So I had to learn a completely new way of living–not easy after decades of hyper-vigilance. Instead of my escaping from current experiences into my own ruminating mind, I now had to focus on staying present with myself and others.
It took a lot of work JUST to learn how to stay in the moment.
Some days were better than others. I had to learn how to tune into my own body and emotions again. But as my self-listening increased, I found my others-listening likewise improved. I eventually transitioned out of hyper-awareness to my environment and moved into a better balance of self and others awareness. And when I began to stay present in the moment, I felt way less overwhelmed in general. Experiences and details got imprinted correctly. I felt more aware and in control.
I began to feel like I was actually LIVING my life, rather than just struggling through each day.
As I healed from self-martyr mode, I started leveraging enjoyable elements of my life again that I’d previously pushed away as luxuries. Things that brought me peace and comfort like baths, aromatic candles, meeting friends for coffee, and listening to music became mandatory in order to survive the harder parts of my journey.
I learned to trust the miscellaneous pieces that worked for me. Like music and movies.
Different bands became useful in various seasons of my healing. I listened almost exclusively to Metallica during a long stretch of time when I was trying to reawaken the fighter within me. And I found that listening to really passionate songs were great for a good cry. Otherwise, I had a hard time tapping into my swirling emotions.
Watching movies about overcoming underdogs was helpful too. They gave me hope.
My emotional default for decades had been to stuff all negative feelings. So I knew it would take some purposeful effort on my part to retrain my brain’s autopilot. To build new neurological pathways. And PTSD needed safety, consistency, and time to heal.
Another crucial part of my healing process included learning how to love myself. Love your neighbor as YOURSELF. To love others well, you FIRST have to love yourself. And to be honest, I didn’t really even LIKE myself much when this whole thing started. My self-image and self-confidence were horrible.
That had to change.
I thought I had been GREAT at loving others for years, but eventually I realized that a lot of it was just disguised enabling. My intentions were good, but I gave too much of myself to others almost all of the time. I was a nice, helpful doormat. I had learned it growing up through the abuse–and because I had also been the family caretaker.
I didn’t have ANY boundaries. And I didn’t know how to be direct in communication. These two missing life skills thwarted my plans CONSTANTLY, so I had to take the time to learn them. It took some serious hard work, but the payoffs were immense.
My time became my own–and my family’s again, rather than everyone else’s. And I learned how to ask for what I wanted.
Then I discovered that self-kindness was KEY to healthy self-love.
Rather than defaulting to self-condemnation, criticism, and hate; I had to learn to exercise mercy, grace, and compassion towards myself instead. Self-kindness became the radical fertilizer. All the other healing tools worked quicker and deeper in my healing soul when kindness was also in play.
Eventually, I reached a breakthrough in my ability to love myself. When mysterious triggers floated my way now and again, I began to default to self-kindness, understanding, and coaching myself through them. Self-hate was leaving my life.
I was changing brain patterns and renewing my mind.
I also had to let performance die. It was one of the last things to go. But my perfectionistic goals and expectations had been killing my soul and exhausting my body for far too long. So I began to embrace transformation–rather than perfection, as my ultimate destination.
I meant it when I said that sexual abuse was like the worst thing ever. Because the damage isn’t just about the physical acts done to the body. It’s about all the long-lasting COLLATERAL damage that affects the rest of life from that point forward. My own experiences with sexual abuse affected me for decades before I even REALIZED it. I just thought I had a lot of weird idiosyncrasies. At times I felt crazy–but I WASN’T. Every effect has a cause and my life actually made incredible sense.
That knowledge itself brought freedom.
I experienced more than just sexual abuse throughout my early years–as is usually the case. I know all too well what emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, and even spiritual abuse feels like. Neglect too. Rather than purposeful harm, neglect is the lack of the good things that are needed for healthy growth and development of an individual.
Each experiential piece of the abuse pie needed my intentional healing attention. But as my understanding of my past grew, I could then reconcile to the history and move into the healing.
It was a workable sequence.
I hope I made it sound horrible–because it was. I want to do horrific justice to the wide range of possible experiences on the sexual-abuse spectrum. But I also want to impart HOPE. Because if a person can find hope, they can make it through to that eventual light at the end of the tunnel.
That light DOES exist. And God is willing and waiting to walk with each person through the tumultuous tunnel in between–if they will invite Him in….
My intimacy with God is now my biggest prize from the healing journey.
I wouldn’t have come to know Him so deeply if I hadn’t needed Him so desperately. When no other horizontal relationship can understand your pain, it drives you to go vertical. DEEP pain can either drive a person to bitterness against God or it can drive them into deep intimacy with Him. We each get a choice.
I chose intimacy.
God didn’t cause the abuse to teach me some lesson. He is a GOOD God–who has innumerable other ways to mature us that don’t include subjecting us to brutal torture. But He WAS waiting to redeem it all, turn it around for my good, and make me a dangerous force against evil. So that’s my plan now–transformation and becoming dangerous for God. I’m not where I eventually want to be in my healing journey, but I’m definitely en-route.
And compassion is my new superpower.