It’s considered socially commendable to talk about your status as a war veteran, being the survivor of a natural disaster, shark attack or your amazing weight loss journey. People wildly applaud your bravery as you stand on farming equipment in your underpants getting weighed on national television. Lots of circumstances and challenges now come with campaigns, ribbons, rubber bracelets, balloons, confetti, parades and grand reveals which contribute to a sense of belonging, validation or all-rightness with sharing openly about your special experience. You smile at the world, say your truth out loud and the world smiles back. We’ve come a long way as a species in learning about and accepting the various walks and expressions of life outside the vary narrow social Norm. Social Norm is, incidentally, a nice white American man who mows his lawn, speaks English and pays his taxes. The surest way to shut down the special sharing party, in my experience, is telling people you were sexually abused. Records scratch, crickets emerge and eyeballs anxiously scan for the nearest exit. We’d probably rather listen to the details of someone’s most recent visit to a foot doctor than dive into the scary taboo that is incest. Please don’t think I’m attempting to give the blue ribbon of human suffering to molested kids, I’m just saying nothing seems to clear a room faster. Anyway, I agree. It stinks. I don’t like thinking or talking about it anymore than anyone but what I’ve found is pretending it’s not there doesn’t make it go away. If anything the silence we’ve all maintained, out of fear, shame and probably confusion, has only served to perpetuate the sickness. The few pedophiles I’ve treated in my career present like addicts; but instead of using drugs they’re using little people. They’re slick, broken, calculated and masters at maintaining access to their fix. As a child I was warned, threatened and discretely stalked for several years as part of ensuring I remained one man’s compliant supply. Breaking the gag order made it stop. Continuing to research, speak and write about it, I believe helps others find their freedom too. Essentially, we chose not to see something until we understand it and know how to respond.
Coming out is a slow and careful process. People’s first response is always to say it couldn’t be, didn’t happen, or they change your story for you. ‘Stop telling people he…He didn’t… You can’t just say those things, it makes people really upset!’ I’d spent years trying to determine if I’d made a big deal out of nothing until I had to explain why I was starving myself to death and afraid of people. He didn’t stalk me that much…he only…well that’s nothing, right? I can’t remember if he…didn’t anyone else see?…am I going crazy?…Other things are way worse. I’ll get over it. No one wants their friendly reality contaminated with living nightmares unless it’s presented as scandalous, entertaining or distant news, which is why we call it ‘unthinkable’ from the safety of our couch. Why would any parent choose to read up on child sex abuse? I’m guessing it’s way more fun to decorate a nursery, bake cookies, sing along with the Doodlebops or plan a family trip. I didn’t learn about crisis response till I became a therapist and it was my job, where I get paid, to go running into the proverbial burning building (I seriously want to be a florist at least 3 times a year.) For most people the amount of adversity we prepare for is limited to Band-Aids and maybe an umbrella. This was the basic line of reasoning I offered my mom when she eventually shared how my sexual abuse impacted her as a parent. Love and forgiveness are powerful agents of change; it turns out brokenness can offer continual gifts if our heart is in the right place and we’ve equipped ourselves with a set of coping skills. I fell apart after my divorce and during a period of roughly 10 years was afforded the opportunity to pick up where I’d left off. Anorexia had been my first great escape, marrying an addict was the next side step; then I guess I was just done running, avoiding and blaming. One night before a first date I called my mother. I was sitting on my couch after taking 4 years to learn how to stand on my feet. What’s up? I’m going bowling. Sounds fun. So what’s up? I don’t know. How are you? Elizabeth? Yea. It wasn’t your fault. Why are you saying that? It wasn’t your fault, kiddo. Maybe it doesn’t sound like a lot but it was a rare and precious acknowledgement. I hated being vulnerable in front of her but it was good practice, probably for both of us. Healing requires a witness to validate the wound; this is real and it was not ok. The whole world doesn’t need to see or qualify our pain in order for us to heal, but we all have a responsibility to contribute to breaking the conventions which allow particular paradigms to remain.
The abuse was a fracture across an already precarious familial ground. Because I only have my own life and work experience to go on I honestly don’t know how equipped the average family is to absorb the shock of any trauma, but what I do know is, we weren’t. When my parents found out they were pregnant with me their biggest hurdle was finding a place to live. My father has stated repeatedly, for the record, he never wanted to become a parent. My mother self admits her rose-colored glasses are her favorite accessory. Preferring to hunt with a bow, I’m told on the night of my disclosure my father went after an animal with his bare hands. One of the many reasons I’d stayed quiet was not wanting to contribute to the existing chaos. Shame is a terrifying and powerful warden; add poverty, passive neglect and parental alcoholism. There are a multitude of reasons why we choose to keep quiet. I’m almost 40 years old and still can barely speak the truth in public without my heart racing, losing my breath or feeling like it’s somehow the wrong thing to do. Around my husband and a very select few and trusted people, it’s different. Tough day, babe? Yep. The rapes? And then we laugh. I like that my integrity and strength are assumed among my safe people and I’m perceived as something other than fragile. Recovery communities and professional treatment teams have this thing called ‘trench humor’; think Anthony Jeselnik but with a foundation of genuine compassion.
Family is an intricately woven, sticky, delicate nest. It is our beginning; the place we’re first fed, protected, taught. We’re divinely designed to be unconditionally loved and accepted. Each member is connected in various ways to the next so incest threatens to obliterate the integrity of the family fabric for each successive member. Survivors choose to remain silent often out of deep love for family members who may be hurt, inadvertently, unintentionally, if they tell. The truth becomes a potential death sentence as all parts begin to question how they’re now perceived, who else has been affected, whose fault it really is, why it happened and how this will impact their ability to access their own family for continued connection and nourishment. Historically the trend has been to shun, shame and blame the victim. If you’d just kept quiet…you provoked them…you’re a troublemaker…you’re a slut…you’re a liar. Facing the truth means teasing out webs of relationships and then what? No two families are exactly alike and just because one person is ready to start talking doesn’t mean the rest of the tribe is on board to deal with it. And even when we decide to address it, how?
DHS didn’t interview me until 2 or 3 years after it stopped. I remember a man with a mustache in a light grey suit sat at the dining room table behind a very large, dried floral arrangement in a huge wicker basket. That’s what Nana’s put on their dining room tables. He spoke very softly. I empathized with his job and clipboard but really wished they hadn’t sent a man. It wasn’t his fault yet his posture looked like an apology. I fixed my hair for a very long time, then fixed it some more and decided I’d never look good enough to leave the bathroom. My mother and grandmother sat at opposites heads of the table while he went through his questions. I rushed through answers in stunted phrases and sign language, smiled at the floor and watched at times from outside at the top of the street above the Maple tree. There are many gifts of physical trauma. Teleportation’s just one of them.
Every year my church hosts a retreat called The Well. The first couple of years in my new job had kicked me around a bit so I grabbed a bucket and a journal. Sometimes I see the lesson before it’s finished and end up bored and thirsty. Intellectualizing is a very helpful ability but true healing comes when our thoughts get dislodged from the fixed places in our heads and fall like Plinko chips to pierce our hearts. I attended six or seven workshops over the course of a 3 day weekend; messy Portland churches challenging the boundaries of social inclusion, what it means to live sideways and truly love our neighbors, how to balance being an introvert with serving, good stuff. Sunday morning planned to be a capstone message from one of the guest pastors who’d shared about his homeless outreach work. I was looking forward to hearing him speak but had no idea what was about to happen. In a packed sanctuary, where I sat alone, a man of God in Doc Martens told us he’d been sexually abused as a kid. The familiar bird in my chest started pounding on my ribs. Cold sweat trickled under my sweater. He was telling me I had permission to stand in the light of God’s love and grace and be free; another person who knew my same pain, in my church home, said I could stand up and be seen. Then one by one he invited survivors of sexual trauma to stand. I’d done years of intensive therapy and wasn’t sure the same was true for those around me. Even with all the work I’d done I still thought don’t do this, you’re not allowed, they’ll all know, you’ll disintegrate, someone will yell at you. My inner therapist wanted to blow a safety whistle and protect everyone. Underneath all that doubt and resistance was a truer voice demanding that I claim my truth. So I stood up and tested freedom.