Writing helps me access that which I cannot speak. I write in order to release – to free myself of all that entraps me – to give a voice to all of the parts inside of me that cannot make a sound. Writing teaches me to listen to those muted parts and helps attach words to them. I work hard to uncover the words that best express what is deeply held within me. I sit with those words, formulate them, and then release them onto paper. My deepest wounds, questions, doubts, and fears are then in front of me – staring back at me and demanding attention. Sometimes those words don’t leave my grasp. Other times I send them out into the world.
I am often left unsure what to do with the words that I express. When I share I often wonder where or if they ever land – like sending a message in a bottle. Did my message make it across the ocean or get stuck on a submerged branch just beyond my reach? Why do I choose to share my writing if I struggle with the uncertainty of whether or not my words are ever seen or provide impact in any way? Why do I write if I do not often even speak of what I have written? This leaves me with the ongoing gut wrenching question, “what is the point of all of this?”
I don’t believe in the notion that all things happen for a reason. I don’t believe that my teenaged body was routinely abused by a trusted adult as a part of some master plan. My abuser’s own criminal choices combined with the absence of my family’s support led to a perfect storm of opportunity and misfortune. The moments of my abuse left me without choice. This seemingly simple statement took me a long time to understand and believe as fact. Yet while I was without choices back then I believe in my own lonely healing battle that choices lie before me now each and every day. With each day and each new challenge I have the choice to pick myself up and carry on or to lay down my fight and surrender. Life has tempted me to surrender before – that is a voice inside of me that I know all too well and fear greatly. But there is also a scrappy warrior inside of me that urges me to wrestle my way to find healing, direction, and purpose. I may not have had choices in the way I was treated as a child, but I have choices in how to respond today – even when life tries to convince me otherwise.
I am armed with the choice to use my experiences to create meaningful change in myself, in the confines of my family, or even for a broader community or societal impact. That choice has transformed into an automatic responsibility for me. I carry the weight of protecting my children as a badge of honor – a terrifying and overwhelming weight at times, but an ever present focus of attention that was not afforded to me as a child. I accept the responsibility of devoting my energy and using my voice in order to educate and make meaningful policy changes in sports to better protect children across the world.
My greatest daily struggle is not to find a reason to fight for others. That is an easy source of motivation. My greatest struggle lies in my own personal daily battle with feelings that haunt me – voices that try to convince me that I am not strong enough or capable enough or worthy enough – that my presence on this earth is inconsequential. I push back on those feelings every day to claw my way into some sense of a meaningful existence.
I write in order to better understand my experiences. I write to uncover and tend to the pieces of myself that require healing attention. I write in order to connect with others and feel the validating support of the shared impact of abuse. I write because sexual abuse is not something that a person simply leaves in their past. It changes a person and becomes entangled in how they relate to themselves and the world around them – and the world needs to understand that! I write because the days of swallowing down the aftermath of the hurt that was inflicted upon me are over. I am tired of feeling broken and beaten down and silenced. I am tired of feeling so alone in my daily battles. If my writing lands in the hands of just one person – if I have made an impact on just one soul, then my struggles with uncertainty and purpose in sharing are resolved.
A trusted friend recently shared her own personal experiences of reading the work of a writer when she was young and struggling with her own abuse. She expressed to me that the author of the words she read during that time will never know how impactful and healing they were for her as she sat in solitude and absorbed those meaningful messages long ago. While I may live with the uncertainty that my words have any meaning or impact outside of my own mind, it is my deep purpose fueled hope that drives me to share. It is that hope along with my promise to all of the wounded parts inside of me to never stop fighting for them. However alone and broken I feel, I have to keep fighting every single day. That is my choice today – a day where I want to lay down and quit. Today I choose to fight. Tomorrow I can only hope for the strength to make the same choice again.
I am honored to be a part of the Survivors Speak Series on survivingchildhoodtrauma.com where I share some of my experiences. Finding and giving a voice to all of the wounded parts that live deep inside is a tremendously healing gift for survivors. We may have vastly different experiences and struggles, but the lasting impacts of abuse are often quite relatable. Yet the isolating dynamics of abuse create this perpetual feeling of being alone in those deep struggles. I am wrestling with this exact lonely feeling as I write today. The timeliness of my story being published on Surviving Childhood Trauma is quite the profound reminder of the importance of the collective healing strength found in a community of survivors. I am on an ongoing healing journey. I experience moments of great strength and empowerment. I also struggle, fumble, and falter. While healing may not be a linear path, it is still the path I choose to pursue each day. I invite you to follow the link below and read more about my journey.
Today I am excited to share Sara’s story. Her’s is a story of amazing resilience, and desire to heal and live fully. She is a 41 year old mother of two children and she been married for 15 years to a caring and devoted husband. She is also a part time youth sports coach and…
There is this buttoned up and composed version of myself that I let the world see. It is the part of me that protectively works to keep my outward self appearing calm, safe, and secure. Underneath this facade lives a multitude of other parts, some healthier than others, that come together to make me who I am today. This buttoned up part of myself that I present to the world could not exist without a self imposed part designed as a pressure release valve. Both parts exist as a means of self protection. Both have been a critically necessary part of my survival. And both are creating a barrier to feeling, creating, and connecting to a whole-hearted approach to healing in my life. I wish to shed these parts through my healing process. Yet the desire to shed these internal parts of myself is perhaps a misguided goal. I cannot circumvent the very parts of me that were put in place to keep me safe. I need to instead somehow connect to these parts and learn to work collaboratively with them.
When I was seven years old my grandfather (Pop-Pop) died. I remember with such clarity several moments of the day of his funeral. I recall standing in line in a room that smelled of flowers. I remember watching his wife, my Mom-Mom, walk into the room quietly crying with two adult family members clutching her arms to keep her steady as she walked. I remember feeling uncomfortable and nervous because I had never before seen Mom-Mom cry, and this room full of quiet sad looking people dressed in dark clothes felt unsettling to me. I understood that my Pop-Pop died – as best as a seven year old can understand death. But I didn’t understand what we were doing there. What was this building we were in? What was this line of people we were standing in?
When the line inched forward I was suddenly scooped up off of the ground and found myself face to face with Pop-Pop’s lifeless body positioned in a casket. I wasn’t held in a comforting closely held manner with caring guidance to help me comprehend what I was experiencing. Instead I was perched up facing outward and away from my dad, who held me extended out in front of himself by my underarms. I dangled there and experienced my first view of death all alone. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I didn’t understand why I was being held up and instructed to look at him in there. It didn’t even look like Pop-Pop. My Pop-Pop’s skin didn’t look like that. My Pop-Pop’s lips never rested tightly together quite like that. My Pop-Pop always had a crease across the bridge of his nose from his glasses. There were no glasses on his face and no crease marking where they normally rested. This didn’t look like my Pop-Pop. I looked directly at his face and immediately turned away. But I didn’t want to get in trouble for being disrespectful so although I wanted to jerk my head, squirm out of my dad’s hands and run away from this room in sadness and fear, I instead simply diverted my eyes away from Pop-Pop’s face. I focused on the edges of the casket and the flowers surrounding it – anywhere I could discretely look to help subside the fear, sadness, and confusion that swirled inside of me until at last my feet were brought back down to the ground.
I learned that day not to look directly into a casket. I learned in that moment that I needed to pretend to look. This would prove to become a lasting strategy, as my last living grandmother died nearly twenty years later. When faced with her funeral as an adult, I respectfully moved my way towards her body during the viewing, but I chose not to look directly at her face. Part of me didn’t want my last memory of her face to include a distorted image of what she looked like among all of my countless memories with her. But the stronger feeling inside of me was a need for self protection from the feelings rising inside of me. I didn’t feel confident to test the limits of my self composure in that moment. Instead, much like I did when I was seven years old, I looked at the edges of the casket and the pattern on the dress she wore and breathed slowly and deliberately, continuously swallowing down my feelings of grief until an acceptable amount of time passed and I could turn in a calmly composed manner and walk away.
I remember sitting with my family in our church during Pop-Pop’s funeral service. The same church that was typically full of people during our regular Sunday visits was eerily quiet and empty with just the front several pews filled with family and loved ones. Various people walked up to the alter and read words that I didn’t understand. A priest well known by my family spoke about heaven. All while that same box I saw Pop-Pop laying in earlier was positioned in front of the alter. I saw more tears that day than I had ever seen – from cousins, from aunts and uncles, and even strangers. But not one tear was spotted on my siblings or my parents faces.
At one point during the church service I went to the restroom with my mom. The restroom was near the front of the church behind several doors off to the side of the alter. I don’t remember the walk to the restroom, but what occurred both in the restroom as well as the walk back to our church pew left a lasting mark in my mind. While in the restroom I asked my mom why people have to die. I don’t remember how she answered, but I remember something about that brief conversation led to an overflowing of tears, sadness, and confusion pouring out of me. I missed my Pop-Pop, and I wept in that restroom over the loss of him. I’m sure my mom hugged me and comforted me. I don’t remember that part. Instead the lasting memory in my mind was standing before a mirror and desperately washing my face. With all of the emotions coursing through my young body at Pop-Pop’s funeral, my greatest concern in that moment was to wash away any evidence of my tears. I didn’t leave that restroom until I felt that I could walk back out into the church, facing all of the people in the church pews in front of me, feeling completely composed. At seven years old I had very carefully displayed an unspoken family rule that I must have learned long before that day. At seven years old I already knew that it was not okay to cry.
This buttoned up version of myself is exhausted from containing all that I experience. It needs healthy healing relief. It became a strong part of me at such a young age that simple expressions of feelings are often lost or muted by this ever present part. In my entire upbringing I never learned how to express my feelings. Instead I was taught that feelings were not welcome. I don’t want that for myself anymore, and I certainly don’t want that for my children. But I am scared and unsure of how to attempt to change something that is so deeply and fiercely a part of me. I feel myself often wishing and even envisioning a moment of releasing everything that feels bottled up inside of me – wishing to just let go and crumble in the comforting arms and safety of a loved one – wishing to fully release and express the depth of my feelings – to stop holding myself so desperately clenched together in my therapist’s office and just let go – to cry and unravel and release the overwhelming weight that I feel trapped in. But this buttoned up part is so strong and automatic inside of me that it prevents me from getting there. I don’t know how to turn it down. When I experience moments of being asked a question by my therapist that even remotely invokes a feeling of rising tears, this part reacts so quickly to either jump in with distracting sarcasm or worse, it creates an internal anger at my therapist for what feels like an attempt to make me cry. In an instant the flood of rising feelings subsides and composure remains in control.
The recent self realization and connection between this buttoned up part of myself and a release valve part that also exists within me is what draws my focus in very clearly on how important it is for me to carefully tend to and address these intertwined parts. Self harm is my release valve. These tendencies and urges have been a part of me since I was in the midst of abuse as a teenager. I am just realizing now how much my buttoned up self relies on self harm to maintain composure. Self harming for me is a means to release some of the overwhelm that exists within me. I can’t maintain a composed buttoned up facade without a place for my overwhelm to escape. The self harming part was created to help maintain the buttoned up part.
If I can learn to tend to and release the weight of responsibility that the buttoned up part feels, then perhaps my self harming urges will no longer feel necessary. But what does that look like and how do I even begin to try? This is where my mind resides at the moment – sensing an important need and struggling to determine just how to reach it.
Shame is a topic that is at least as difficult to talk about as it is to experience. I find myself flooded with thoughts and emotions just contemplating this blog entry. I have so much to learn about my own shame – how I experience it – where my blind spots reside that make me susceptible to it – why at times I can move out of shame and other times feel endlessly consumed by it – and how I can work to build a stronger resilience in the face of shame. These are the thoughts that swirl in my mind as I work to better understand myself and all of my wounded inner parts that require my healing attention.
I am an avid follower of Brené Brown. I have found her work on shame particularly helpful in my own understanding and untangling of the lasting impact of my childhood abuse. So much of what she says and writes resonates on such a deep level that it inspires me to dig deeper within myself. I have come to understand that while we all experience our own unique triggers and set of underlying circumstances, shame is a universal experience. As we begin to understand and identify our own shame we can then begin to learn how to build a resilience that allows us to move out of shame when we experience it instead of feeling swallowed by it. Being able to identify it, for me, means that I need to wrap words or an image around it to help me recognize its presence. These words need to be carefully selected and specific to my experiences in order for them to be of use.
Nearly every word Brené writes resonates with me, however there is one description of shame that she often uses that I struggle with. She uses the phrase “warm wash of shame” to describe the feeling of shame taking over – being consumed by it. This is a phrase that from the very first time I heard it felt an immediate contrasting response to. A warm wash to me feels inviting, comfortable, and refreshing. There is nothing refreshing about being consumed by shame. This phrase feels both contradicting and unrelatable to me. Each time I hear or read these words I find myself getting stuck in resistance to them.
So I began to ask myself why. Why would Brené choose this wording? Perhaps she uses this phrase to signify how easily shame can unknowingly engulf us. If it were an icy cold or scalding hot wash we would be instantly alarmed and responsive to it. Maybe that warm wash represents shames cunning way of taking over beneath our radar – sneaking up on us to seize control. Shame can often be so automatic and feel so familiar that it covers us like a blanket. In that sense, her description begins to feel more palatable to me. Still overall I feel a resistance to this phrase, which inspires me to ask more questions.
Why does the description “warm wash of shame” not sit well with me? I believe this comes from my own personal struggles with shame. The feeling of its overwhelming power and seductive influence in my life demands stronger language around it. “Warm wash” feels too lighthearted and trivial to describe something with such life altering force. In some of my previous writing I have referred to shame as “a shapeshifter” – “changing its form at will to unsuspectingly inject its poison into my brain” (My Shame is a Shapeshifter). However inviting and familiar my shame feels, I feel as though I need adversarial language wrapped around it to remind me that its calculating company is something I wish to rid myself of.
My contemplation around Brene’s word choice brought my mind to a place of deep self reflection and even more questions. Brene describes the necessity of being able to recognize and name when we experience shame as being fundamentally important in moving through it. If moving out of shame requires us first to recognize that we are in it, then what cues do I feel in my body that indicate I am in shame? How do I viscerally experience shame? These questions leave me in a tough spot, as I struggle with disconnection and identifying where I feel any emotion is very difficult and often impossible for me. Yet I continued to sit with this question, searching within myself for answers.
The closest thing I can identify to a bodily sensation around shame is a feeling of an immense slowing down and engulfing weight all around me – like sinking into quicksand or freshly poured cement. In fact, as I think about that feeling I am reminded of a very frequent recurring dream I experience where I am trying to run away or towards something as fast as I can, but while everyone else is moving at full speed I am moving in slow motion – like trying to run in a neck deep pool of cement. As I write this my mind is making deeper connections and traveling back to when I was in high school, in the midst of enduring very regular sexual abuse. During that time I wrote a short story for a creative writing class about someone at a construction site falling to their slow, painfully engulfing and drowning death in a deep pool of cement. As a side note, this memory cannot resurface without an immediate angry and protective response from within me, screaming, “how can a child write such a story without drawing concern, inquiry, or intervention from an adult?” Yet, as I shift back into my self reflection on how my body physically experiences shame, I see how much both this writing from long ago as well as my recurring dreams reflect exactly what my body seems to tell me in current instances of shame – a heavy overwhelming weight all around that slows me down and consumes me.
I sense that there is much more for me to learn and unpack about how my body experiences shame which will help me better recognize and build a stronger resilience to it, but this provides a starting point for me to work from. As a person who is prone to feeling shame instead of guilt, undoubtedly tied to my past experiences, I want to learn how to better recognize my own personal warning signs. I want to teach myself to be able to step back from a moment of shame and be better equipped to identify and draw it out of me. I think that wish needs to go hand in hand with the desire to not feel as though I deserve shame, as there is no movement out of shame if you feel deserving of it.
This is a realization I am having about myself as I reflect upon two very recent shameful experiences that occurred just this past week. One involved a battle between self care and self harm and the other was a situation of perceived parenting failure. Both topics (likely to be addressed in a later blog post) are highly shame inducing for me so it is not a surprise that these particular situations created a downward spiral inside of me this week. In both situations I was slowly and eventually able to recognize what I was experiencing as shame. Yet, unlike some experiences of shame where the mere acknowledgment of it helps to release its grip on me, the weight of these shameful feelings did not subside upon my recognition of it. These two very separate instances tapped into a feeling of shame that I struggle to be able to separate from. I struggle to move out of these moments of shame because something deep down inside of me feels that it belongs to me – that I deserve it. I believe these moments of shame originated from a tangled connection to my past abuse. It took me a long time to begin to let go of the shame I felt for my abuse – for every memory, every interaction, and every feeling. But shame is so pervasive that it intertwines itself in past and present experiences to create a recurring and ever-changing struggle. The identification of shameful triggers and blind spots in one area does not clear away all of ones shame inducing moments. Shame is too sly and cunning to be eradicated. Instead it slithers its way through one’s psyche, constantly searching for vulnerabilities. It takes situational awareness and effort to both recognize and resist its luring ways.
My shame surrounding my own perceived parenting failures surely stems from unmet needs I faced as a child. Each moment I recognize even the slightest disconnect in my relationship with my children, my shame connects this to my own past disengaged parental relationships and tells me that I am not equipped to do any better – that I cannot protect them from the horrors I endured as a child – and that I am ultimately failing them. When shame creeps in over my mistakes in choosing self harm over self care, it reminds me of all of my past struggles in coping with my abuse and makes me believe that I am not strong enough to change these unhealthy patterns – and that I am not equipped to manage my emotions without this type of harmful intervention. In its worst form, it even tempts me to believe that hurting myself is what I truly deserve.
Learning about my shame will be an ongoing process for me. While it is certainly not a comfortable topic to address it is an incredibly necessary beast to venture into along my healing journey. I cannot expect to always learn to recognize and respond to my shame in real time. So for now I will continue to try to carefully back into it to learn from each experience in the hopes that what I uncover will help me better manage when shame returns the next time.
As Brene Brown writes, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” It is my hope that through sharing my experiences I can help to not only release some of my own deeply felt shame, but also perhaps inspire some self-reflective thoughts in your own heart as you read and soak this in.
When I was a child I remember the simple fun of blowing up a balloon and then releasing it into the air to playfully watch it race all around in different directions as it made its erratic path to the ground. It was fast and unpredictable as it jumped, bolted, and zipped around me. I’d chase after the balloon as it quickly changed directions, unable to catch it on its unpredictable course. Once it landed on the ground I’d scoop it up and send it off flying again and again.
This childhood memory came to me late last night while lying in bed, flooded with thoughts from a counseling session I had earlier in the evening. I found myself in that moment strangely relating to that balloon. During my counseling sessions it often feels as though I am carefully stretching my inner limits much like a balloon – pushing, searching, and expanding myself towards deeper understanding and healing. There are injured parts of myself that I really struggle to connect with so it often feels like a bit of a tug of war, trying to stretch and compassionately connect with the various injured and protective parts that live deep within me. Each session is a dance – stretching and breathing air and life into one part and then feeling resistance and backing away from another part. Back and forth, expanding and retracting, stretching and retreating, always wishing to seek, understand, and further heal without breaking the balloon.
When this carefully guided therapeutic dance comes to an end I often find myself feeling flooded and exposed. Just like that inflated balloon being released into the air, I feel myself jumping from thought to thought, memories and emotions zipping around inside of me. I have learned to recognize this feeling enough to know that I can not simply switch gears after a counseling session and get behind the wheel of my car and carry on back into the world. Instead I often need to take a walk to try to let the injured parts that feel as though they are dangling out of me, half exposed and half processed, have the space to tell me more and to settle slightly before I have to pack them back up again. Sometimes this walk helps. Other times it isn’t enough.
Last night I found myself at home after my session surrounded by family, smiles, and conversation. I was with them. I was engaging – as best I could. But the feelings inside of me were still zipping uncontrollably all around and leading me increasingly drained and crashing towards the ground. I held on tight, trying to control and direct how I was feeling. This false sense of composure lasted for a little while. Then I felt my body give way to the emotional ride, and I couldn’t stay on my feet any longer. I excused myself after dinner and, without anger or judgment, I curled my depleted body up under a blanket to allow myself to fully unravel, release, and recover. I gave myself permission to let go – to allow the painfully erratic balloon to follow its own uncertain path.
As much as I dislike this feeling, this wild ride of post counseling emotions, I have come to learn a very important lesson. I think the uncomfortable unraveled exposure I experience at the end of a counseling session is the birthplace of healing progress. It is often that feeling that leads to deeper self reflection, awareness, and connection. Instead of tensing, bracing, and trying to dominate this unpleasant feeling, I want to curiously soften into it. I want to learn from it. If I can meet myself in these moments with open curiosity instead of the tempting guarded control that has for so long been my defensive posture, then I can inch my way forward towards building a healing connection with my injured inner parts.
The journey towards healing is clearly not linear. Sometimes it is slow and steady. It can present surges as well as setbacks. Other times it is a wild ride of a free flying and unpredictably racing balloon. The key for me is not only learning when to hang on and when to let go, but also learning that no matter the momentum or direction, I need to learn to keep my eyes and heart wide open throughout the process.
We have a complicated relationship, but overall I like you. You provide me with a strong facade when the world feels threatening. You help me armor up and face challenges that I don’t often feel strong enough to address on my own. You cover up all of the parts of me that wither in the face of adversity. You help to hide the parts of me that were broken long ago. You have stepped in to protect those parts from further harm. For that I thank you.
You represent the strength and fortitude I wish to always possess. You don’t hesitate. You don’t second guess. You rise up strong and fiercely determined – an impenetrable force to combat both my external and internal perceived threats. You come prepared for battle and do not back down. I am grateful for all of the times you have shielded me from pain.
Please hear me when I say this – I need your strength – I need your presence. But I also need you to share the weight of your responsibilities. You carry a heavy burden all alone. It’s time we find a way to help alleviate that load. I need to help give a voice to all of the other parts of me – the scared, injured, muted parts that are still bleeding on the inside. Can you help to make space for them to step forward? Can you offer them the guided support to speak up? Can you use your fiery strength to help light the way forward for those buried inside? Those parts are equally essential for our healing. They can help guide us to create new pathways towards a stronger healthier connection within our self as well as with others. As shattered pieces of the same soul we can use our strengths and the lessons we’ve learned to find a way to collaboratively come together in order to heal as one.
Imagine yourself purchasing a plant and bringing it home to be added to your garden. You find the perfect spot. You dig an appropriate sized hole. You even purchase nutrient rich soil to assist in the healthy transfer of your plant to your garden. Then you remove the plant from its container, its tangled roots all tightly wound together. You loosen them slightly and then just as you are ready to place your plant into its new freshly prepared home you instead set it down right beside the hole. How long would your plant survive there, uprooted from its container, lacking nutrients and support, and lying with its healthy moisture rich roots exposed to the sunlight?
I moved to a new state last year, and then I moved to a new community within that state just months before this pandemic tore through our world. The amount of time that lapsed between my family’s move and the upheaval of this pandemic was not nearly enough to feel settled and connected here. Yet the growing disconnection from my previous home was set in motion. I have found myself stuck in limbo – removed from the comfort, connection, and stability of my previous home and simultaneously unable to connect in my new environment.
I am an introvert. My introverted response to the initial guidelines of social distancing almost felt like a gift. Stay away from other humans – check. Stay home if possible – check. I felt I was made for quarantine. Yet even at the beginning of this life altering pandemic I still recognized that while I welcomed the ease of retreating inward this was going to be very harmful for me over time.
It takes me quite a while to open up and connect with others. A history of childhood trauma, combined with a family upbringing of emotional unavailability, as well as my shy introverted personality creates a recipe for my tendency to distrust and keep people at a safe distance. I didn’t allow for deep personal connection in my life. It wasn’t until I began addressing my childhood trauma several years ago that I realized how important close honest relationships are and how critical they are in healing. I began to pay close attention to that and focused on cultivating more meaningful connections in my life. I started showing up in relationship like I never had before. I started connecting on a deeper level that I had never experienced before. It was life changing and soul fulfilling.
Then I moved – away from all of those deep interpersonal connections that I had learned to trust and depend on. I was painfully aware that this move felt different from all of the previous moves I have ventured into in my adult life. I knew that the long length of time that I had spent in my previous community, along with the fact that it was the only home my two children had ever known, layered with the knowledge that I built connections there like I had never done before placed a particularly heavy burden on this move. I knew it was really going to hurt. And it did.
For the first several weeks I focused intently on helping my children settle into new schools and new activities. After the initial stress and excitement of assisting my family in the adjustment of a new community began to wear off, I noticed that a space was created for my own grief. My husband was off adjusting to a new job. My kids were off adapting to new schools. And I was alone with my thoughts each day. I tried to busy myself with projects, volunteering, house hunting, and searching for part time work options. Yet nothing could stop the flood that was coming. Depression. I felt myself withdrawing from everything I cared about. I felt myself putting on this strong capable mask for others and then crumbling to pieces each time I was alone. In an attempt to care for myself I started individual therapy, which both created a life line for myself and also highlighted the sadness I felt from missing the incredibly impactful therapist I had moved away from.
One foot in front of the other. One day at a time. I slowly started to experience brief moments of improvement. My kids were beginning to feel settled. I was starting to get involved in my new community and meeting new people. We found a home to purchase after a lengthy stay in our temporary apartment situation. We finally got to fully unpack our lives and begin to settle into our new home.
And then a pandemic changed everything. Suddenly the very slow progress of meeting new people and beginning to build connections was shut down. I hadn’t yet built the kind of friendships that were equipped to handle this forced disconnection. My new surface friendships felt severed.
Now, as the world begins to slowly reopen and navigate what is to become our new normal, I feel vacant. What am I supposed to return to? I don’t have anyone to rush towards. Instead I am reminded of just how alone I feel and just how far away the ones closest to me feel right now. I feel as though I’ve been uprooted from healing connection and placed into an indefinite holding pattern. How long can one tolerate such a disconnect? How long can one sustain without a viable path towards rebuilding relationship? I ask myself these questions while I continue to sit in limbo, experiencing profound disconnection from others both near and far, all while struggling to resist the urge to retreat further and further within myself.
Four years. Today marks four years since the man who sexually abused me was arrested based solely on my police report. Today marks the pivotal day where this man learned that he can no longer hurt me.
As a reminder of this day I have the lasting image of his mugshot in my mind. His beady tear-filled eyes – his short trimmed spiky hair – his sun damaged wrinkled skin revealing his aging face – a face that is tangled up with countless memories and experiences that I did not choose. However, the most striking detail of this image for me is not in his face but instead the orange jumpsuit that he was wearing. Seeing him in orange in that mugshot four years ago changed the way I viewed him.
In an instant he transformed from a manipulative, haunting, shame inducing abuser to one single redefining word – criminal.
I have often wondered what must have been going through his mind in that moment. In the moment of his arrest, standing before a camera in a police station in an orange jumpsuit, what was he feeling? Perhaps it was confusion. Perhaps it was fear. Perhaps he twisted his pedophile mind into believing that this was injustice – that he was being wrongly accused. I like to think that he felt a taste of what I experienced for over twenty years – a shame so deeply penetrating that you simply want to retreat to a place inside of yourself and never be seen again.
I’ll never know what his thoughts were in that moment, but I will forever remember my own thoughts when I first saw this image. My thoughts were full of empowerment and determination. My thoughts were of healing validating strength. He was in that police station because I found the courage – I found my voice. I found the strength to rise up from the prison of shame he had placed me into two decades prior. My thoughts in that moment were a resounding affirmation that he can no longer hurt me. My thoughts were of strength and protection for the child that no one was able to save back then. My thoughts were of protecting the children who sat in his middle school classroom each day. My thoughts were with my own children who are my daily source of healing motivation.
While the months that followed this day four years ago produced more pain than healing, today I choose to hold onto the feeling of what this single day represents in my healing journey – the day I took my power back.
I wish to be able to speak the unspeakable words that exist inside of me while also feeling and navigating my way through them. I wish to stop getting stuck in the parts of me that feel too vile for daylight – that parts that make me feel broken – the parts that when even partially spoken make it hard to look you in the eye. I wish that current struggles wouldn’t connect themselves to old hurts, attaching new experiences to past suffering and creating a tangled web of confusion and pain. It makes me feel everything all at once, and it is too much for me to sift and sort through and speak through at the same time. It is too heavy for me to do anything except to curl up in a ball inside myself and protect what is left of me.
I don’t want to hide anymore. I don’t want to feel broken. I want to rip all of these parts out of me and shine light on them. I want to heal the wounds that exist deep inside of me, but I don’t even know what it is that is so broken. Where are the wounded pieces that need my attention? What do they need from me? Is it possible to reach a place where my past and present experiences can become fused together in a healthy way to allow me to move forward without this anchor of hurt that has been a part of me?
It seems the child inside of me may hold the key to finding these answers. At times, I can feel her creep out of hiding to speak to me – sometimes in whispers and other times in screams. She guides me with signals that beg my attention – a deep sinking feeling in my stomach around the safety of my children – an entire fired up nervous system response to a gentle touch on my back from my husband. It is in these moments that she speaks to me, offering me clues for where I need healing attention. So I get curious. I try to seek her out to better understand her messages. I wish to learn from her so that she and I can heal together. Yet, often times when I try to reach out and connect with her I feel her recoil and disappear back into hiding where she cannot be reached. I often wonder where she goes when I can’t find answers. Where does she hide when my connection to her feels lost? I need to somehow convince her that I cannot do this work without her. I need her to trust that I am here with her and for her. I need her help so we both can heal.
The moment I first spoke out loud about my abuse was not a moment of confidence, clarity, or self-compassion. It was a moment of sheer terror. I was in the midst of a crisis in my marriage, feeling the painful effects of shattered trust, betrayal, and uncertainty. I felt completely alone and questioned every truth that had been shared in our relationship. It was in this storm of emotions that I felt the power of this secret that had been living deep down inside of me begin to rise to the surface, begging to be released. It was a shameful secret that I had never spoken of and instead carried the weight, burden, and blame of it in my heart for years and years. Letting those words escape from my mouth for the first time felt as though I was risking everything. The shame of my abuse had left such a deep wound in me that I truly felt that simply revealing this information might cost me my marriage and my family. When the words finally left my mouth it was this profoundly deep rooted shame that caused me to first identify my years of sexual abuse by my high school coach as simply an “inappropriate relationship”. I didn’t have the perspective or understanding at that time to perceive it in any way other than how I had been trained to view it – that it was my fault. It was through the eventual ongoing and persistent feedback, guidance, and reassurance from others that the words “inappropriate relationship” could slowly be transformed into the more appropriate and accurate term that I have learned to identify with – sexual abuse.
The words we choose matter. The words we speak to ourselves and to others are as powerful as the feelings they ignite.
Each time I used the words “inappropriate relationship” to describe my experiences I was unknowingly continuing to sear the shameful self blaming messages that were forced upon me by my abuser. I could not accept the words “sexual abuse” as part of my story until I could begin to both own the reality of my experiences and let go of the shame that had been so carefully woven into my psyche. This process took years and an incredible amount of work to slowly repair and rewire my damaged self perception. Only then could I begin to grasp and eventually learn to identify with the term sexual abuse.
Recently I learned of a middle school teacher in North Carolina who had been arrested upon reports of sexual misconduct with students over a time period that spanned nearly two decades. At the time that this story was released to the public six students had already come forward to the police. In response to these allegations the school released an email to parents informing them of this situation. The term used in this email to describe this teacher’s actions and what he was being criminally charged with was “indecent liberties”. In trying to understand how such horrendously sickening and traumatizing criminal actions could be summed up and described with these words, I looked it up. It turns out that indecent liberties is a fairly common legal term used in various states across the country to describe and include most illegal sexual contact. These words do not sit well with me. These words do not embody the gravity of what they are supposed to represent. When I say the words “child sexual abuse” or “unlawful sexual contact” they provoke a strong visceral response inside of me that “indecent liberties” does not even begin to amount to. It does not convey the magnitude of a sex crime against a child – a crime that is so horrific that it is ruled a felony and carries with it a prison sentence – a crime that is so damaging and pervasive that it has no statute of limitations in North Carolina along with many other states now. In choosing the term “indecent liberties” it feels to me that the justice system has assigned a soft term to describe vile criminal behavior. The impact of these words to an outsider without prior knowledge or personal experience may seem minor or insignificant. After all, this teacher is in fact under arrest and being charged with a felony. His accusers are being given an opportunity to take part in a criminal investigation and trial. If we know what is meant and included in the term they chose, then why should we even care to challenge it? The answer for me is simple. It’s for the survivors – both the survivors who had the strength and courage to come forward as well as the silent survivors who have been unable to face their trauma and speak about their experiences.
What is the impact of someone in a position of authority and trust using a soft term to describe experiences of sexual abuse? To the child abused it is profound. Using weak language to define what was done to them only contributes to the way a child has likely minimized his/her experiences. It further fuels their shame and self blame for all that was done to them. These words do not empower them. These words do not help them see and feel and process the impact of what was done to them. These words do not help to give them a voice after all they have endured. These words instead add fuel to shameful fire already burning inside of them.
In 2016, 22 years after my own abuse began and after learning that my abuser was teaching at a middle school in South Carolina, I decided to report him to the police. It was a healing birthday gift I gave to myself. I had very little expectations about what would result. I knew that given the length of time and lack of physical evidence available that this police report was not likely to go very far. Yet, I felt compelled to come forward anyway – to speak up for the young girl that no one was able to protect 22 years prior – to protect the kids that currently sat in his classroom each day – to protect my own kids, feeling a duty as a mom to speak up – to help give someone else who may have had similar experiences with this man or someone else the courage to speak up and heal – and to simply let my abuser know that I know what he did to me, and he cannot hurt or control me anymore. It was a grueling process to be interviewed by detectives over the phone. I remember vividly having a detective’s phone call catch me off guard while I parked my car in a Target parking lot. I sat alone in my car, watching the everyday commotion of shoppers entering and exiting the store all while being asked private details about my body, my abuser’s body, and the manner in which he touched me. In hindsight it was kind of ironic to be asked to recount these details to a detective while sitting in my car. After all, it was in a car – my abuser’s car, in broad daylight that most of my abuse occurred. I was asked to reveal as many memories and details as I could to help them assemble a complete police report. When this phone interview was complete I waited several days only to then learn that the statute of limitations in the state of Pennsylvania, where the majority of my abuse occurred, had expired seven years prior – when I turned 30. The message this sent to my brain was confusing.
This message said that what happened to me was wrong, but it was not wrong enough to still matter after all these years.
In an instant, all of my healing work began to shake, and I could feel the term “inappropriate relationship” and all that it stood for creeping back into my soul. How could I hang onto this perception that I was in fact sexually abused and that what happened to me for all those years mattered and was not the result of my own fault, flaws, or defects when the law only seemed to support the alternative by protecting my abuser? To soften the blow of this news from the detective, I was urged to file a police report in South Carolina, as I had disclosed that several instances of sexual abuse occurred in that state as well. Without a statute of limitations for child sexual abuse in South Carolina, a case was opened and I started the entire process over again, this time recounting and reliving the experiences I faced while staying with my abuser at a summer training camp that he organized for a few of his athletes. I shared as many painful details as my brain could recollect and then waited and waited. Weeks turned into months with no updates, as I routinely called to check in on the status of my case. Finally, after four months of having my file passed from the bottom of one detective’s pile of cases to the next, I received a phone call. It was a call I never anticipated receiving. My abuser had been arrested and was undergoing questioning based on my police report. In police custody my abuser admitted to most of the abuse I reported. I was in utter shock. 22 years after my abuse began and 4 years after speaking the words out loud for the first time, my abuser was in an orange jumpsuit in a South Carolina detention center. I never imagined this would happen. After months of disappointment and feeling this lack of attention and care for my case, I was beginning to feel that maybe the justice system would in fact provide a crucial part in my healing process. I received automated phone updates over the next several days about my abuser’s arrest, transfer to the detention center, and eventual release on bail from the detention center. I received calls from a victim advocate assigned to my case and I agreed, if needed, to fly to to South Carolina for any necessary court appearances. Justice was seemingly in motion, and I was finally feeling that someone actually cared about what happened to me. Then things grew quiet. Too quiet. Months began to pass by as I continued to learn that swift is not a word that can be used to describe the legal system process. When my case finally made it to the top of the pile at the district attorney’s office over a year later, and a phone conference call was set up between the district attorney, myself, and the victim advocate assigned to my case, I felt the promise of validation of my story and the possibility of some sort of justice through the legal system. However, the conference call fell very short of those expectations. Instead I was informed that the district attorney had no intention of taking my case to trial, and even further that my abuser was not being charged with felony sexual abuse, but instead was being charged with a misdemeanor – “contributing to the delinquency of a minor”. This man who groomed me and everyone close to me for a year and then began sexually abusing me nearly every school day for over three years – this man who crossed state lines with me and abused me from Pennsylvania to South Carolina and everywhere in between – this man who convinced me that I was complicit in every way that he hurt me – this man that 22 years later still had regular access to children. This man was being charged with a crime that by its own definition places the ownership on the child – “Contributing to the delinquency of a minor”. This man did not buy me alcohol as an underage youth and contribute to my delinquency. This charge ultimately said to me what my abuser had seared into my brain for all those years. This was still my fault.
South Carolina laws in the mid 1990s, much like other states across the country, did not correctly and accurately address child sexual abuse. Laws at this time failed to address the imbalance of power associated with a child and a teacher or coach. With the age of sexual consent across the United States averaging around age 16, the only way to prosecute against crimes for victims of this age were through charges of rape. My abuser’s careful admission to an “inappropriate relationship” but strong inaccurate argument that he received consent meant that my legal options were nearly nonexistent. Had my case been viewed under current South Carolina laws, my abuser would have been charged with felony sexual assault of a student with a mandatory prison sentence. Instead, my case had to be viewed under the laws that existed at the time of the crime. Soft laws with even softer language.
My abuser did not contribute to my delinquency. My abuser manipulated and violated my trust so he could then routinely violate my teenaged body.
Those actions should never be summed up as “contributing to the delinquency of a minor”. To make matters worse I was informed by the district attorney’s office that my abuser would be given the option to have these charges dismissed and his entire record of arrest expunged if he simply surrendered his teaching license and participated in community service hours. “Expunge” – strong language with an even stronger definition – to erase or completely remove something unwanted or unpleasant.
How convenient it must have been for my abuser to receive this offer to have this unpleasant experience expunged for him. Sadly, there is no viable option for a survivor of child sexual abuse to have their traumatic experiences and memories expunged. Almost two years after first coming forward to the police in two different states, making the details of my story a matter of public record, recounting and reliving details that no child should have to experience, and my final outcome was to watch the legal system make it all disappear.
Why was the strongest language that was used throughout my entire legal process reserved for the protection of my abuser? What are we saying to the powerless victims of child sexual abuse when we can not even simply offer them the validating and empowering words they so desperately need for healing?
The single most important message I received in my healing process came from my support system. It was the message of – “this was not your fault”. The most harmful messages I received throughout my healing process came from the criminal justice system – from the individuals tasked with the responsibility to protect children, arrest criminals, and prosecute against crimes. I do not believe this disconnect comes from a lack of care or desire to help. I believe, instead, that it comes from an uncomfortable ignorance. Child sexual abuse is a topic that most people shudder at the thought of. It makes people uncomfortable to hear those words and the reality that surrounds them. If we collectively do not want to look at or talk about child sexual abuse then we might use words like “indecent liberties”, “inappropriate relationship”, and “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” to make this horrendous topic slightly more palatable. Yet, while those words may allow the person delivering them to feel more at ease, they are internally destructive to the survivor being asked to receive them.
The words we use towards survivors of child sexual abuse shape their entire healing process. In order to support this healing we must choose words that empower – that give them the strength and resolve to believe that they are not alone, to believe that their story matters and is worth fighting for, and to give them the hope that their injuries can heal and they can learn to find their voice and begin to thrive.