For one weeklong period when I was 7 years old, I was sexually abused by a family member.
I can't believe I just wrote that.
This is something I pushed to the very back of my mind for almost 20 years. I've only shared this horrible fact with my husband, who, despite being supportive and loving, really doesn't know what to say. The abuse took place during a trip to visit family far, far away from home, so thankfully, things ended once I left.
What complicates the issue drastically is that my abuser was also a child (though older than me). He and I are both adults now, and we have never seen each other or spoken since. He has, however, begun regular contact with my mother, who does not know a thing about what happened. This has stirred up all the old, incredibly painful memories, as well as emotions that I am not sure how to deal with.
I have absolutely no desire to prosecute or ever confront my abuser. Is there something wrong with me? Shouldn't the victim want justice and closure? Things have gotten to the point that I have moments of self-doubt that any abuse happened at all, probably because that scenario would be infinitely easier to deal with. I am terrified that this horrible secret will somehow get out. Whenever my mother mentions his name, I cringe, but cannot, and will not ever tell her what happened. It hurts to keep this a secret, but I fear that the repercussions of it getting out would hurt that much more. I have internal battles with myself over my abuser's age -- as a child, he couldn't have been completely responsible for his actions, could he? He must have been abused by someone else -- a teacher, a family member, a family friend -- and was simply repeating what he experienced on a younger, even more vulnerable victim. These rationalizations make perfect sense to me, but they put me at great odds with what I've come to accept as the stereotypical child sexual abuse survivor -- someone who sounds the battle cry, seeks justice in the courts, rallies other survivors, and goes on empowering and motivational morning talk show circuits.
Am I dealing with this incorrectly? Is there a correct way to deal with such trauma? I feel like the title "survivor" is only bestowed on those who have the courage to fight, while I seem content remaining a silent victim.
Reluctant Survivor, Willing Victim
Dear Reluctant Survivor,
There is no one correct way to deal with this.
There is no one truth about this. There is not one thing you're supposed to want, or one way you're supposed to feel or one action you are supposed to take. Healing from this will be a process.
But you have taken the first step. You have broken the silence.
I feel the electricity of your words. I applaud your courage. I know how it can feel to say a few simple words that sum up a lifetime. It feels like breaking through.
What can we do now? We cannot change what has happened. But that young girl, the way she was before this happened, is still with you in spirit. Let us imagine that we could go back and rescue her. Let us imagine that we could go back there and protect her.
What would she be like, that girl before this happened? She probably felt good about the world. She felt safe. She loved everyone around her and felt no danger. She could relax and sleep at night and felt no fears about her body. She didn't even think about her body or that someone might do these things. Everything was fine. Imagine what it must be like to feel that everything is fine. Spend some time imagining that innocent and carefree time.
Can you get back to that 7-year-old before this happened? Can you retrieve her? Can you take care of her afterward, telling her that she is beautiful and loved and cared for? Can you make her happy and whole? Can you be today the adult who takes care of that fearful child? You can try. She is with you still. That child is with you. You can offer the wisdom and caring that was not there. You have it now, as a strong, caring and compassionate adult. You can reawaken that child and take care of her as she was not taken care of before.
The way you do this, I think, is that you find someone, a therapist, capable of taking you through this journey. This would be someone who can guide you to that place, who can give you unconditional support and protection that will make you safe enough to fully re-encounter this week in your childhood.
If you embark on a course of intensive therapy and exploration, how it all fits together will become clearer to you. But now it is probably pretty much a muddle. You have taken the first step and that is all you need to do right now. You do not need to answer all the questions you have. There will be time for that. For now, just know that with the right help, you can rediscover who you were before this happened. You can be whole again.
Somehow we make peace with terrible things. It isn't lying to ourselves, exactly, to find some value in what happened. It isn't pretending. The value is there. It's just that in comparison to the magnitude of the wrong, attending to its value seems almost obscene. Yet we do gain something, even if we lose much more. And it is helpful, in the long run, to find something of value in our awful misfortune.
For instance, having this primal wound, you may discover a deeper compassion for others who have been wounded in this way. It may spur you to think deeply about the fire for retribution and how destructive it is; it may awaken in you a compassion you would not otherwise possess. Why would you have compassion for the person who did this to you? Because he also was a child. He was probably also a victim. When you see the long chain of abuse, you also see how it can be broken. And you can break it in your life today.
There are many truths here. Some of them are terrible and some of them are full of beauty. We try to live with all the truth, shrinking from none of it. That is how we get through it.
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