Friday, February 28, 2014

When I Started Really Talking About Sexual Assault

I used to be like those girls in the movies. Slightly scared, physically distant, a little sad. I was a girl with a secret. And if I met someone, and I trusted them more than anybody in the world, then I would confide my deep dark secret: I was a victim of sexual abuse and assault. My confidant and I would cry together in the moment, knowing that we were never to talk about it again.

I didn't talk about these experiences because if I did, it meant I was a VICTIM. You showed you were okay, you were strong, by never ever talking about these things. Women who talked about their sexual abuse were whiners, in need of attention, stuck in the past.

When the uncle who had sexually abused me as a child was released from prison (for his second rape conviction, unrelated to my abuse), I didn't say anything, because I was okay. Everything was cool, I was an adult now. We were all happy to have my uncle back and hoped he would stay clean. But I started isolating myself. I stopped taking out the trash or doing laundry and my home became a fortress of junk that I would hide inside. I would sit in bed eating boxes of mint oreos all day long. I gained 20 pounds the first month.

I couldn't say that I didn't want him at my birthday party. I had no choice but to sit across from him at family gatherings. I brought him Christmas presents and left early. Rather than say, "I don't want this person in my world" I removed myself. Because the only other option was to yell "child molester!" at the dinner table. The only other option led to my grandma crying, my mom knowing that she failed to protect me, and my uncle being cut out of the family.

The fact that I was willing to keep such a dark secret was obvious to predators. I was an easier target, someone who hadn't said anything in the past and wouldn't say anything in the future. This cycle repeated itself with my mom's boyfriends, and later with my own boyfriends.

I eventually solved the boyfriend problem by only dating guys so obviously unsuitable that I'd never dream in confiding in them. Men that I could keep at a cold difference and then toss away when I started to feel exposed. But a few years ago I found myself crying over a pretty long relationship with a guy that I hadn't even liked. I didn't like talking to him, I didn't like sleeping with him, I didn't like his face. And when it was over, I was crying because that was the closest to intimacy I had gotten in years.

I realized, finally, that I was doing things that didn't make sense to me. I realized that I wasn't in control. And I started talking.

When I started talking about sexual abuse I was very scared. I was breaking the illusion of cold, detached, self-controlled grownup lady that I had worked so hard to cultivate. I started with my closest friends, just putting it into convos about childhood where it felt the most appropriate. I was prepared for drama. I was prepared for uncomfortable silence. But the reaction I got completely stunned me. This is the reaction I got from most people:

"Yeah, I kinda figured something like that had happened to you. Something like that happened to me"

That was it. Conversation over. Big secret wasn't that big of a secret. Nobody cried. Nobody looked at me differently. I was able to breathe a little easier.

I was able to realize that I really am okay, but it doesn't mean I'm unaffected.  I like to think of it as like a bad car accident in which my arm was injured. I have a scar. My arm moves different. I can walk around pretending that the accident never happened. Everyone trying not to look at the scar. Thinking that there must be something wrong with my brain that prevents me from lifting heavy objects. Or I can say, "I was in this accident. This is my arm now. It's part of me, but it isn't who I am. I need to find a new way to lift this load."

When I was able to talk to other people about what happened to me, I was able to say that I don't want my uncle around. Just like that. I could just say it. It didn't have to be a big production. Nobody had to pick sides. I was able to say, "I don't feel safe when he's around and I have a right to feel safe. Please don't bring him around me and don't talk about him." If people didn't respect that I was able to remove myself from the situation without a moment of guilt. Because once I was able to admit to myself how much it affected me, I was able to see how perfectly fine it was for me to not want to be around him.

I was also able to recognize the ways in which it has affected my personal relationships. I can see when I'm surrounding myself with spectacularly broken people and I can stop and say, "I'm protecting myself right now. What am I protecting myself from?" Sometimes I realize the threat isn't real and I don't need to protect myself. Other times I decide that even though the threat isn't real, I really don't feel like summoning the strength to change my behavior. But regardless of what I decide, I know that it's a choice I'm making. I can't describe how much better that feels than floating around as someone who mysteriously finds herself in the worst possible relationships.

I have been surprised by all the little benefits that I've received from this new openness.

  • I'm a hugger now. I never was. I'm able to better recognize platonic affection and now I'm all about hugs. 
  • I'm asking for things I want. I'm a little less preoccupied with keeping what I have safe. I'm now slowly asking for more from my relationships. This is still a real struggle for me, but I'm getting better.
  • I don't have sex with people I don't want to have sex with anymore. Sex is mine now. 
  • My oldest son is in puberty right now, and I'm realizing that even though he's becoming a grown man, he's not a threat. I've raised a good son and he's going to be a good adult. 
  • Now that I'm better aware of my boundaries and what I need to do to feel safe, I'm travelling more. 

I'm sharing this all with you because one of the things that has become obvious to me as I've become more open with my experiences with sexual assault is how very common it is. I'd estimate that at least 75% of my female friends have experienced sexual abuse or assault in their lives - and we aren't talking about it. Now that I'm honest with myself I can see it in my friends. When I see a friend struggling, trying to put into words why she is acting the way that she is, I offer up "well, this is what I do when I don't feel safe, and this is why." and their story pours out of them. The relief to just be able to say, "Ok, what I'm doing is making sense now that I can see the whole picture. I'm not alone. I'm not crazy." is palpable. My friends have been able to help me as well. They've been able to see when I'm reacting to past hurts and not the present situation and they've brought that to my attention. They've been able to kindly let me know when it seems like I really am not handling things well myself and need some extra help.

You aren't alone. You aren't crazy. You aren't defective. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Everything you are doing has a reason, and it's a good reason. You can talk about it and figure out if that's something you want to keep doing. You don't have to say anything if you don't want to. But know that there are so many of us struggling with learning how to lift those heavy loads again. It's a lot easier if we can do this together.