The sky was dark and big and constricting. I could not breathe.
Daddy wanted me to go to Mr. C.’s house to get a cigarette.
The lightning struck, and thunder blasted as I convulsed, “No. I can’t go Daddy.”
And silence filled the air, even as terror filled my heart.
What followed was my shaking and rambling fear uttering as best I could what Mr. C does when I’m there, where he does it, how he does it, and what he tells me…
As I stood small in the bright lights of the den, I wondered which was worse, the fear of a domineering dad or the terror of a man’s unwanted touch and his whispered words confining me to secrecy in the now and to hell if ever I told.
Mr. C was right about one thing — that my story would not be believed.
Mr. C was also wrong. Telling did feel like hell itself. The immediate inquisitions and disbelief and subsequent scrutiny and skepticism that my tale was true became the ongoing Devil’s inferno that burned up anything left of self.
But, in standing up for myself, I became brave.
For the record, do not continue reading this piece as a legitimization of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is wrong. Always. No human being has the right to use another’s body — without consent — for their pleasure. No means no. Children cannot give permission. Drug use and inebriation, no matter the age, do not exonerate the abuser. The time it takes the abused to come forward should never be questioned, as it is part of the re-victimization and dehumanization of the victim. And buttoned up blouses, pants underneath skirts, underage status, and zero indications of “wanting it” do not stop abusers.
For two years, before the age of ten, my neighbor and best friend’s dad used my body as a plaything. The physical details of what the fifty-or-so-year-old man did to me are irrelevant here.
The psychological abuse deepened with every utterance of, “Don’t tell anybody. It’s our secret.” “They won’t believe you anyway.” and “If you tell, you’ll go to hell.”
In the aftermath, I can tell you two things. First, the physical feeling of abuse may fade, and environmental details may disappear, but the psychological impact remains etched indelibly in the consciousness. Secondly, what we do with our abuse experience and terrors, and how we deal with our post-traumatic stress takes a f*cking lot of work, over a damn long time.
In the lifetime following, I had choices to make. Do I remain a victim? Do I stupidly accept the messages from my abuser and, at the time, disbelieving father, that I was ugly, a liar, a thing, a stain, an insignificant, a nothing? Do I remain terrified of the dark that comes when the sun sets, lights are off, and the thoughts and images of defilement blacken my consciousness?
No! No, I don’t.
In a recent conversation with my mom, and with Blassey Ford’ testimony, Kavanaugh’s ugly facades which I believe are part of perjury’s darkest colors, and Trump’s continued gross defilement of women everywhere, I mentioned Mr. C.
Mom immediately responded with a note of panic, “You have to try to forget that. Just try to forget it…”
I replied, “Mom when I mention Mr. C., you do not have to worry. I want you to hear my voice, pay attention to my tone, and see my face. There is nothing in me holding on to the negatives that came with Mr. C’s actions. I’m way past that. Revelation allowed me to forgive him, treat him with respect as an elder in our community, and now I can say I’m indebted to him. Mr. C. made me resilient and gave me tools I needed for life.”
Here are some of the benefits that abuse brought to my life:
Independence & Optimism
My abuse made me the independent soul that I am.
Mr. C’s violations deposited a war in my mind that only I could fight and overcome. Disclosure allowed me to begin winning that long, drawn-out battle. And with each stage of overcoming, I knew a new measure of personal victory and a new level of self-reliance.
Abuse can and does cause victims to withdraw or to become hyper-aware and suffer post-traumatic stress. I’ve known both of these. Very well. But in not wanting to stay dependent, and wanting to be something more than the childhood shame I carried and was, I created possibilities for my life.
Each day of fighting my inner demons, allowed me to become more optimistic about life. Each day I found myself alive meant that I could survive whatever came next. Survival meant that I had a backbone, was autonomous and could determine my future.
Due Diligence and Patience in Everything
Fighting battles in one’s mind — and especially in a child’s mind — is not easy. Fighting though allows our cognitions to become used to instability and the stresses of change and challenge. We become problem-solvers, and, over time,we find ways to compensate for what we lack. We patiently endure and do what it takes to overcome.
A year or so after disclosure on a stormy night that paled in comparison to my inner tempests, I knew I was a “dummy.” That’s what I called myself anyway.
My first secondary school report card ranked me at the bottom of my class of 35 girls and told me in black and white that I was stupid. I did not want to be stupid. I wanted to be proud of myself. I also did not want my parents not believing that I had tried or not be proud of me.
What resulted was a five-year-long journey of hard work and sacrifice to improve my grades. The sacrifices I made during that time and the extra hours of study I put in every day were part of proving to myself that I was more than a dirty man’s toy and an ignorant and invisible nothing. Five years later, I had 90-something percentages in all my courses and first place ranking within my class.
I needed to prove to myself that I was capable and I succeeded. That lesson has stayed with me throughout life.
Understanding Self-forgiveness as a Necessity
When we are abused, we blame ourselves. Whether or not we believe the lies our abusers tell us, the experience alone is enough to erase any goodness, beauty, self-confidence, and self-esteem we have or previously saw in ourselves.
Abuse survivors see their guilt: Wrong place, wrong time, clothing choice, trust, and more become their fault. Victims don’t just heap this guilt on themselves. Victims almost always feel “I did something bad, something wrong.” But the authorities, school and community leaders, family, friends, and neighbors often doubt them, tell them they imagined the assault, and seek to protect the status and rights of the abuser, thereby making the victims feel more guilt and shame.
I’m not saying that the alleged abuser is not innocent until proven guilty. I’m saying society often bends in the way of revictimizing the victim, in a world and existence that now no longer feels safe. Guilt too is a self-control mechanism. It is the victim’s way of having some power in what was a powerless experience. It is also the victim’s way of loving him or herself when every part of his or her being feels sullied and unlovable.
Thus, the injured needs to remember and hopefully have others who remind them that he or she did not, or could not give consent, so what was done was not their fault. It may take much therapy and support to get to this place of self-forgiveness and to find other ways to resume control in the future, but it is possible.
I had a significant reminder of this lesson in my early 20’s when I encountered rape, and pregnancy and chose abortion, I did not tell anyone then either. Not immediately anyway. Illegal immigrant status and the resurgence of memories of my two-year long childhood abuse experience were enough to keep me silent.
But in my mind, through my Bible and countless self-help books, and much sackcloth and ashes weeping in my closet, I overcame that too. I just needed to believe myself, believe in myself and forgive myself for my subsequent choice, which haunted me for a long time.
Face Fears & Take Risks
My experience taught me to fight in my consciousness and to step into the unknown with courage. Mr. C’s battery allowed me to understand that sometimes one must walk away — at other times, one must run. Boldly. The diminishing caused by abuse taught me to find my own worth, to know it and to hold on to it.
In the forty or so years since then, I’ve had many experiences of “thingness,” insufficiency, incapability, and more. I can connect all the emotional upheavals of those periods back to the darkness and closeted fears of my childhood and the wicked acts of an immoral and sick man violating a child.
But when the inner storms of our minds confront the external storms that impose fear, we always win. We really do.
So, my childhood sexual abuse helped teach me to take risks. It showed me too that disclosure defeats demons. Revelation is one of the riskiest things we ever have to do in life, and we will be given countless opportunities to do so as long as we live.
When we risk and disclose though, we are the persons who are first set free.
And the unknown is usually not as dark and fearful as fear itself.
Strength, Resilience & Empathy
If we allow it, our abuse experiences can help us build strong determination and persistence. We can take the shattered pieces of our lives and rebuild strong fortresses that can withstand so very much. We can become resilient. We can become plastic.
People who suffer abuse, especially childhood abuse, develop a seemingly unnatural ability to discern threats from others and in their environments. They can recognize that harm is impending before others can detect anything. Childhood abuse victims also develop a greater capacity to learn, adapt and evolve.
I grew up hearing, “What does not kill, will fatten.” This is true. The suffering we endure that does not kill us can strengthen our ability to deal with future difficulties, pain, and tragedies while enhancing our capacity for empathy. We may have had to stand alone, back then and since, but we come to care genuinely about helping others.
My abuse fattened me well and gave me the ability to fly.
My childhood abuse experience prepared me to leave my country at age twenty when I knew I had no life there, and six months later embrace illegal immigrant status to try to craft a future out of illegality’s hiding and invisibility.
Childhood abuse trained me for leaving an abusive husband decades later and taught me how to start over with nothing while caring for my greatest treasures — my two sons. The experience gave me the courage to open my mouth and call out what needs to named and confronted. I still do so with fear and trembling at times, because it is not my nature, but I have come such a long way. Mr. C. instructed me on how to stand up to abuse that comes through family, coworkers, bosses, friends, and others. He did not teach me not to feel hurt and pain, but he showed me there are ways to help put a stop to it — for myself and others.
Childhood sexual abuse also equipped me with all the tools necessary for caring for my sons, fighting doctors for 18 years to obtain a diagnosis of as yet incurable lung disease for both, and adapting to life post-diagnosis.
My first worst nightmare prepared me to do all that I needed to do to keep my sons alive and to raise them to be ethical, respectful, and compassionate young men in a country now politicizing the socialization of men to abuse and denigrate women as part of Make America Great Again. My childhood sexual abuse also gave me a profound ability to empathize with and guide my sons in their daily fight to breathe, and live, and stand strong against an unchangeable attack. It taught me how to remain optimistic about their futures, and to actively seek possibilities for them and for me both. It gave me the strength to support them as they continuously wonder what life might they have in a few years when they no longer have health insurance in an America that is also assaulting, abusing, and re-victimizing the chronically ill.
Time and time again, my childhood abuse has helped me rise from the ashes.
It still does.
If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy:
How To Be A Bricoleur In a World of Constant Flux
How To Build and Keep Building When So Much Is Changing
Risk Is The Heartbeat Of Life: Having Less And Gaining So Much More
She said, “You need a vacation. A little get away from things…”