(This was written a couple of weeks ago and has been sitting on my hard drive waiting for me to be back in the UK before it hit the Internet.)
If anyone had told me three weeks ago that I’d be sitting here writing this, and considering publishing it, I’d probably have had a nervous breakdown at them. As it happens, I pretty much did have a nervous breakdown in the meantime, and now it’s time to write this. This post may contain triggers. It is also not intended to speak for anyone else who may have had similar experiences to mine – it’s my own personal take on getting past a history of sexual abuse. I am writing this for a number of reasons:
- Writing helps me process things, and stops random thoughts popping up in my head at 3 o’clock in the morning. It helps structure and codify the reframed narrative I will be talking about below.
- I hope that in some small way I can help people out there on an individual level. I know that one of the most helpful things for me has been to understand that I am not the only one who has gone through this and that my own reactions to it are far from abnormal. If this helps you, then it would be great if you could let me know – either in the comments or via email. But you don’t have to – we all deal with these things in our own way, and it may not be the right thing to do for you at this time. Either way, you are not alone.
- Finally, this post is part of what is rapidly becoming a personal mission to raise awareness of violence against women in our society. When I first started talking about this in public not that long ago, it struck me how many people simply didn’t know not only the extent of the issue but even that violence against women was happening. By making it personal, I am hoping to move this beyond the realm of abstract statistics. The personal is political. I also owe a huge debt of gratitude on this front to RoadkillGerbil for speaking out about her own experience. The more of us do it, the more powerful the message becomes.
And this is as much preamble as this needs…
About seven years ago I wrote about being the victim of sexual abuse when I was in my teens. That post, at the time aimed mostly at my friends in an effort to break the silence and hopefully help me move on a little further, was full of justifications. It was written to answer the question which I expected from everyone: “Why did you let it happen?” As it happens, my friends are a lot less harsh than I have been with myself over the last 15 years, and that question never came. But at the back of my mind it has always been there.
Here’s what the world looked like in my head for 15 years, the narrative that I had created for myself: I was abused by an uncle when I was, as best I can tell now, 14 or 15 years old. In my head, I was grown-up enough at that point that it was reasonable to expect of me not to let this happen to myself. In my head, the responsibility was all mine, the pain was all mine, the guilt and the shame were all mine. And out of those, the worst were the guilt and the shame. I closed off a part of myself, and I didn’t speak about it for 5 years.
That narrative was incredibly damaging. It kept the guilt and the shame well fed, to the extent that even when I did eventually talk and write about my experience, it was in the framework of that narrative, expecting the challenge: “Why did you let it happen?” Whenever I considered telling my family, what stopped me was the fear of that challenge – the fear that they would blame me. And yet, very slowly and unconsciously to start with, and very rapidly and deliberately over the last few weeks, I have been reframing that narrative. Because there is more than one side to every story, and because sometimes what you always thought was your side isn’t quite right.
The first realisation which contributed to this reframing, ten years ago, was the monumental extent of the breach of trust which that person had committed. This was the person I had been closest to for my entire childhood. He lived in the flat below us. When I was upset or had fought with my parents, he was the person I ran to. When the abuse happened, I was too shell-shocked by that breach of trust to do anything about it.
Here’s another one: When a woman – or a child – says no, that means no. It should only need to be said once. There should be no conditions attached. This sounds obvious – it should be obvious; and if someone else came to me told me of a similar experience, that is exactly what I would say. And yet, in my head it somehow didn’t apply to me. Because saying no was clearly not enough to stop the abuse, clearly I should have done something else, something different. 15 years is a long time to carry that burden before you realise that no, you did everything right; it was the other party involved who was wrong.
And finally, there was the realisation that no matter how much I saw my 15-year-old self as an adult, I was a child. That was a blinding flash of insight I had while curled up in a ball on the floor in the corner of my bedroom, trying to talk to Paul about all this last weekend. The thing that finally helped me see it was that my cousin is now the same age I was when I was abused – and I see my cousin as a kid, and everyone else in my family does too; not a pre-teen sort of kid, and well on his way towards being an adult, but a kid who needs guidance and care and protection nonetheless. No one in my family – not even I – would expect my cousin to be able to protect himself from the kind of abuse I suffered entirely by himself. I have no words to describe the liberating power of this insight. Suddenly I felt free. I knew that whatever I chose to do from that point on was not going to be easy, but I also for the first time really, genuinely believed that, actually, this was not my fault. They weren’t just words I kept repeating to myself anymore.
All of the recent developments in my thinking have been prompted by some family drama we’ve been having. We’ve had a couple of deaths in the family recently, and my mother had expressed a desire to catch up with some more removed family members she’s not seen in a while – including the man who abused me. That was the first time I got an inkling that something had changed inside me. It was the first time I had a genuinely physical reaction to the thought of my experiences. My heart started pounding. I felt sick. I collapsed on the kitchen floor and sat there in a ball for a bit. I made it clear to my mother that I was not going to be part of this family reunion, told her not to ask why, changed the subject, finished the phone call and then just sat there feeling sick. And I decided this was progress. I wasn’t burying things inside anymore. It hurt like hell, but it felt good to actually feel something.
A couple of other family incidents, iterated with the thought precesses above, and eventually I told my mother. I am incredibly sorry for what it’s done to her, but it’s actually been incredibly helpful to me. Before that, my brain was trying to push me down one of two routes, neither very productive: keep suppressing things and live on like it never happened, or go see my abuser by myself for some sort of … fuck knows what, frankly. The thought of telling my mother, the thought of ever seeing him while she was in the same room, produced in my head a mental image of me as a very small child hiding behind my mother’s skirt. That of course played nicely into the whole “but you were grown up, you should have been able to stop it” narrative. Way to go, brain.
My first reaction to telling my mother was physical and violent. I hung up the phone, and I started not so much crying as howling. I couldn’t stop shaking. My teeth were chattering. I curled up in a ball on the sofa, Paul put a blanket around me and eventually, when I let him, held my hand, and I just sat there for a good 15 minutes. Even though my mother had believed me instantly, had not questioned a thing, had confirmed some of my new narrative in her reaction (“You were a child!”), the profound sense of shame that washed over me was soul-shattering. I thought, for those 15 minutes, that I would never be able to look my mother in the eye again. Eventually, it passed. Though the memory of the moment when I told her, of the words, made me physically whince and twitch for a few days afterwards – I’m slowly getting over that. I talked to Paul again later that evening and the entire time he held me and every so often I would just shake.
One of the many worst things about all this is having to deal with everyone else’s helplessness. There is no right way of reacting to someone you love telling you they’ve been hurt like this, but the most common reaction I have encountered is helplessness. That then translates into all sorts of things – deflection, denial, anger, self-blame; all those things that I’ve been going through myself, but from a slightly different, twisted angle. And because I have been through all of these myself, I have to help. When I tell people, I have to plan ahead for their reactions. One of the reasons I haven’t told my father is that I don’t think I can physically restrain him for long enough to reason him out of doing something monumentally stupid. With my mother, I suspect it will take me years to convince her that there is only one guilty party in all of this and it’s not her. So at a time when I’m feeling fragile and in need of support, I have to carry everyone else.
Another worst thing is that – while I’m beginning to accept that the guilt and the shame are not mine to carry – the power to hurt a lot of innocent people lies entirely with me. The choice of who to tell – and thus whose world to destroy utterly – is with me. Telling my mother has, miraculously, turned out to be the best thing for myself that I could ever have done. Whether she can cope with it in the long run remains to be seen. Do I tell my father? My abuser’s sister whose son is the age I was when I was abused? His mother, who has recently been widowed? Where is the balance between preventing him from doing further harm, getting the closure I need, and dragging more innocent people into this? That decision, that responsibility, lies with me. But it has been important for me to realise that the guilt is not mine, that regardless of what I do and who I tell now, I did not cause this.
I have had a number of friendly offers of violence on my behalf from friends since I started talking about this. I’m not going to deny that I’ve thought about it. There are ways and means. I have always shied away from it, and only realised recently why. Physical pain doesn’t even get close to what I’ve been through, and thus retribution in terms of physical pain is inadequate. The thing, I think, that would help me get closure is to know that my abuser feels the same shame and guilt I have been feeling for the last fifteen years – to get some sort of acknowledgement of guilt from him, to have him admit that he knows, and knew, that what he did was wrong. In my mind, there’s almost a zero-sum game of feelings here, and if he takes on the guilt, I don’t have to carry it anymore. And no, it’s not in any way rational, but that’s how I feel about it.
What telling my mother appears to have done for me is to short-circuit at least some of this zero-sum game. Maybe one day I will confront my abuser; maybe I will get that admission of guilt. But actually just knowing that my mother knows and she’s on my side – she’s got my back, she does not blame me – is enough for the moment. Not only have I reframed my own narrative to the point where I genuinely believe it wasn’t my fault, but I now have external validation from someone in the family. I had not realised until a couple of days ago how much that mattered, how liberating it is.
Suddenly the image in my head of encountering my abuser with my mother at my side is of me as I am now – truly grown-up, strong, a survivor, proud and with my head held high. The guilt is not mine. The shame is not mine.