It is amazing how silencing pain can be, how isolating shame and embarrassment can feel.
The anxiety and uncomfortable vulnerability I feel as I share this is hard to articulate, but the more I share, the easier and more empowering it becomes. I realize I am taking back the control I once lost.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I can tell you first-hand how isolating and lonely it feels as a child and how those cognitions followed me into adulthood. The brain cannot fathom the horrors of the experience let alone realize how widespread this form of child abuse is.
Still, the reality is, in 2012 nearly 63,000 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in the United States alone. This abuse will follow these children into adulthood and can manifest in many different ways. Victims of childhood sexual abuse are four times more likely to abuse drugs, to suffer PTSD as an adult (in my case Complex-PTSD), and are three times more likely to experience major depressive episodes throughout their lives.
We need to talk about Childhood Sexual Abuse. Coalitions need to be built and communities need to come together; we need to discuss Prevention, Education, and Resources!
Here is my story:
Recently I received a package of photos in the mail from an aunt on my dad’s side of the family. This is the side of the family that I experienced all of my childhood trauma with.
Up to this point in my life, and I am nearing 40, I have not had many photos of myself with this side of the family nor of them in general. In fact, I can count on one hand how many photos I have with my dad and I. Photos with both of my parents are non-existent, my mother died when I was 18 days old.
As I went through the many pictures, I found baby photos of myself at the hospital and quite a variety from the 50s, 60s, and 70s of my dad as he grew and made memories at his birthday parties, playing in the yard, his high school graduation and even military headshots. Also included were some of his family photos.
As I looked at them, I came across these few and my throat tightened up; I could not swallow, I could not breathe. I felt adrenaline course through my body and my heart rate pick up. Then I spent the next few moments in my head reminding myself that I am safe and I am here in the present, as I fought off memories of a hardware store, candy, a back road (I can see the fields out of the truck window so clearly) and my grandpa. Welcome to my flashbacks. Unexpected, uninvited.
You see, in these pictures is my dad, my mom, and my paternal grandparents. Also in these pictures is the pedophile who stole my childhood from me and who was protected by my family; he looks exactly as I remember him.
The man in the back of that truck, the one peeking around the trunk of that car, the one standing next to my mother, he molested me most of my childhood. From so early an age I cannot remember. He stole my innocence and left me wrecked and broken. Sexual abuse leaves a mark, for life. I was in 7th grade when I told him I did not want to do things with him anymore; I was 12 years old. That is not a normal memory most kids have with their grandpas, but I do.
When I was 14 years old, I moved in with my grandparents on my mom’s side which led to many years of estrangement from my father. Shortly after moving in with them, I opened up to my grandma Flo. She immediately took me to see a counselor who then reported my disclosure of sexual abuse. Within a year I was the center of a court case against my grandpa which charged him with multiple counts of child molestation and rape of a child. He was facing 17 years in prison if convicted; at his age – that was a life sentence.
The first day of the trial, during a meeting with my attorney and the detectives I found out my dad was going to testify for the defense; in his deposition, he called me a liar and said I had an active imagination. He admitted I had told him about my grandpa but claimed I was in sex education during school and I was confused. I remember to this day how quickly the tears came, how overwhelmed I was with despair at the weight of that complete betrayal. My heart did not just break in that moment, it shattered.
The next day I was scheduled to take the stand; early that morning my grandpa put a bullet in his own head.
That was it. The trial was over. I packed up and went back to live with my mom’s side of the family. A few days later I celebrated my 16th birthday as if nothing had ever happened. A few years later, my dad attempted to reach out through family but our reconnection was tense and hostile with little substance. Shortly after we began talking again, he died; never once addressing my abuse or his role.
No justice. No closure. Just death, pain, loss, betrayal, shame, confusion – all suffered in silence. It was too much, so I just turned it off.
For 20 years I have never forgotten, it has just always been someone else in my memories. A different me, a dead me. But I was wrong, my inner child, that little girl that I thought was dead is fighting to get out, to be heard, and she demands comfort from her pain. I locked her away so tight, along with all the bad memories and emotions she lived with her whole childhood; the loneliness, abandonment, shame, hurt, confusion, fear, and broken trust. Reconnecting to her, to myself as a child and feeling this pain I have bottled up for so long nearly destroys me some days.
But I am facing it, feeling it, and learning from it, when I am not drowning in it. I am still learning to deal with flashbacks and anxiety and now, I am finding my voice.
I stood up once and fought back, I can do it again.
I wish I could close with some profound advice as an advocate of how to live with this type of childhood trauma but I am just not there yet. I barely make it through some days myself.
I guess I am advocating for myself right now; finding my own voice, facing the unwarranted but very real shame and embarrassment, learning to accept that what I feel and think is normal given my experiences. I am hopeful my sharing lets others who are coping silently know they are not alone and gives insight to loved ones of survivors about the struggle of healing from complex PTSD and trauma.
Right now though, I m just feeling it without judging it or turning away. That is a feat of its own sometimes.
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