(*Trigger Warning: non-explicit content)
Imagine, if you can, awkwardly standing in a room full of strangers sitting in a circle in creaky metal chairs. They are all waiting for you to speak, all of their pairs of eyes are locked on you, some of them emotional and red-rimmed, others are lowered to the ground, while others still are looking to you like you hold the key to a question no one has asked yet. That is what it feels like constantly as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse or violence.
Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse or Violence
Most people will never have to worry about how they are going to tell a new friend, significant other, coworkers, or even stranger who is at the wrong place at the wrong time why you are having an anxiety attack. Why it is that you do not like hugs or constant touching. Why you have body issues and self-image issues, no matter the reinforcement later on in life. Or my personal favorite, why you sometimes have nightmares and wake up violent and afraid; even years later. Unfortunately, for some of us that is our daily struggle. So, the important question becomes: how do I tell people and how do I deal with the after effects of my victimization?
According to a study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center, “Just more than half of youth (530 per 1000) experienced a physical assault. The highest rate of physical assault victimization occurred during between ages six and twelve.”
For me, it has never been easy to open up about being a survivor of sexual abuse, abuse by a family member, and severe mental and emotional abuse. I always preferred people to keep their distances. For years I kept silent, living in the same house as my abuser, sharing meals and holidays. All while quietly praying for (and attempting several times) my own death to end the torture. As the years dragged on and no one seemed inclined to notice my pain, I begin to self-injure. I had grown numb, you see; by having no one to talk to and no one to acknowledge my struggle, I internalized all of my pain, and the only way for me to seek release was to harm myself.
I was always an outgoing child, smiling in photos and playing games, even running a babysitting business growing up. All while dealing silently with this torture. There was so much anxiety, even then, that it was my fault and I would be judged (yes, even at the tender age of seven), I worried what others would think of me. Remember me asking you to imagine that uncomfortable and awkward room? Well, now there is flop sweat going down your back and you are stuttering your words and you may have even just pissed yourself. That is how it feels for a CHILD who is silent during the abuse.
One in 12 (82 of 1000) youth experience sexual victimization, including sexual assault (32 per 1000), and attempted or completed rape (22 per 1000), according to the same study mentioned above.
It wasn’t until I started middle school, at a horrible private institution that stifled my already shuttered and battered psyche and body, that I met a friend I trusted enough to tell what my childhood had been like. She didn’t cry, I will always remember that; she got angry. I began to panic and tried to laugh it off; I had become very good at deflecting my feelings into sarcasm at this point. Then she stopped me, looked me right in my eyes and grabbed my hands palms up. She matched her healing cuts to mine. You see, she wasn’t judging me as I had assumed. She was mad FOR me, she understood abuse and neglect and being so alone you cut to feel real. For us, that was the start of healing and a lifelong friendship.
We ended up at different high schools and on different life paths, but that girl is still my best friend to this day. In high school my anxiety got worse. I know it’s shocking that a teenager could be MORE uncomfortable with themselves, but I just felt like I was different than the rest of the “normal” kids. I felt like I didn’t deserve to date, that I was unclean. I still had trust issues telling close friends slowly. Then, when my anxiety reached its peak, I was sent to a continuation school to finish my high school diploma.
Wouldn’t you know who I connected with again? That same girl who had saved me four years before. We picked up our friendship like nothing had changed, but so much had. While I had curled into my shell of pain and continued neglect and emotional abuse, she had risen above; she had demanded respect, and earned herself a backbone.
Finding My Way to Survival
She was living courage for me then, and oh, how I desperately wanted to become that person. I wanted to be confident and no longer afraid of my own reflection. I wanted to be whole and happy and free of physical scars, and the emotional ones, too. Her family basically moved me in to their home and showed me real uninhibited love for the first time in my life, and my hungry and aching soul drank it up like a person starved for water in the desert. I began to test my limits at home, setting up boundaries and standing up for myself regardless of the consequences. Since I was a minor I could not legally move out of my situation without reporting it, and at the time I still didn’t think I was worth the fuss.
“Child maltreatment is experienced by a little less than 1/7 of youth (138 per 1000). The study divided maltreatment into five categories (physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and family abduction) of which emotional abuse (name calling or denigration by an adult) was most frequent in occurrence.” (From the Developmental Victimization Survey by the CCRC, again as mentioned above.)
Having my newfound sense of family was everything to me. I started dating and doing my hair and makeup (things I had previously thought I didn’t deserve). I went to parties with friends, I danced, I started writing out my feelings and there began my love affair with the written word. I even found my own style of clothes and music and movies, which had always previously been done for me. Eventually, with the help of my new family, I found the most important thing of all. My voice.
That girl and her family saved my life by giving me the courage and freedom to be, and learn to love myself. That room doesn’t scare me anymore, and all of those eyes. I now lecture to and volunteer with in the hopes of preventing this from happening to another person’s child ever again. Now, I am loud and proud of who I am. It took them years of consistent trust and love, and unconditional faith in me to become who I am today. It isn’t an overnight kind of thing; you won’t read this and wake up tomorrow realizing you just need to let your significant other love you and you’ll stop being repulsed by his touch (I have been there).
Finding the Love of a Sister Helped Me Survive
What I honestly discovered is that it was the love of a friend, a sister, that gave me the courage to blossom past my pain and vices. Every story is different, and every survivor has a story. Mine has an entire family of heroes in it. The amazing thing is, if you were to ask them, I know for a fact that they would say I was the hero of my own story, and that I am nowhere near done writing it yet. They would be partially right. You have to become okay with saving yourself.
I spent too long waiting for an adult to help because that’s what they tell you to do. Well, this is the real world and there isn’t a prince charming coming to slay your dragon. For me, I didn’t slay the dragon: I made good friends with it and we live in harmony together now.
I will always be that girl. I will always have to stand in that horrid room and explain some of my eccentricities to those deserving of an explanation. What I learned is that not every person is deserving of your story. That room is only as uncomfortable and awkward as you want to make it, you actually don’t even have to sit down in it if you don’t want to! Get up and walk out with your head held high knowing that you are not the problem. You are not A problem, or puzzle to be solved. Our life experiences shape us into who we are, so we are each uniquely made and come with our own carry-on baggage, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, and the sooner you embrace it, the sooner you will embrace yourself.
There is no mold you need to fit into, no special phrase you need to learn in order to be a survivor, and no, we don’t have a special handshake. Although I wouldn’t mind shaking the hand of a fellow survivor (assuming they permit touch).
That is what we are, ladies and gents, survivors. That is a mighty powerful word. No matter what they did to me, I am here. I am standing. I am doing what I love and building my career as a writer. I still have my best friend that I was thrice-blessed with in this life and we are planning an amazing new chapter in our lives now. Without her support, the support of someone who could feel my pain, I don’t know where I would be… I don’t even know WHO I would be.
I was going to sum this up here. I was going to say, “In the end I learned…”, but that isn’t accurate. I am not at the end. Being a survivor means we go on, it means that I never give up (even on a bad day; let’s be real they still exist). On those bad days, I call my “sister” and we talk about nonsense and our books in progress and our next adventure out into the world together. I call her and we talk about our lives and living them. I am reminded that I have one.
I am lucky to be here and choose to live in positivity and help others find their own versions as well. Being a child sexual abuse survivor does not define me, but it did shape pieces of me, pieces that I defined later on. Pieces I reinforced with a core of steel and heart that I use to battle any bad days or bad people.
There is no shame in my voice in that room now. I can introduce myself quite well and explain my trauma to those who I feel need the information for one reason or another, but I never feel the shame anymore. There is no guilt in this freedom I have found with my confidant. Being able to talk to someone, someone who is outside of your situation but understands is beyond beneficial and I can say with a certainty that I would be dead now if it wasn’t for my “sister” coming into my life and giving me family.
Now, I am able to shout out who I am from the roof tops, I am no withering flower on the vine. Talking about myself and my trauma brought about the ability for me to take ownership of my body and myself. I own me. No one else does. No one else has a judgement in how I cope and survive. No one has that right for anyone. Because we are survivors, we lived. We are here. And that angel of a “sister” I have is always here to make sure my backbone stays strong and my core is tight.
I am free and unashamed.
Find more information on Crimes Against Children and statistic information from this article go to: http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/statistics/index.html
If you or someone you know is being abused or neglected, seek someone to talk to. Never suffer in silence. Call one of these numbers or go to a website listed. I promise it gets better and there is someone on the other line who understands and will be there for you.
Nation Children’s Alliance – www.nationalchildrensalliance.org
National Domestic Violence Hotline – 800-779-SAFE(7233)
CyberTipline (to report online victimization of children) www.cybertipline.com
Child Help USA (for victims, offenders and parents) – 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453)
Source for quotes:
Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R.K., Turner, H.A., & Hamby, S.L. (2005). The victimization of children and youth: A comprehensive, national survey. Child Maltreatment, 10(1), 5-25.
(Images courtesy of Pixabay.com)
Mariah Kaye is a working writer, hoping to have her first novel published by 2018. She currently lives with her best friend and their black cats and family, planning their next adventure around the world or curled up with some good books and vegetarian snacks. Mariah also does volunteer work with young victims of abuse and is an animal rights activist.
Follow on Twitter for updates on her writing and activist activities. @mariah_k_mullin
Keep a sharp eye out for Mariah’s new blog venture with her “sister”. Coming 2017.