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.
My help feels like a blinding spotlight in her desperate eyes. She reaches out and reluctantly hands me a piece of myself because she hopes that I can help her, yet at the same time she is afraid. She is afraid to let go of these pieces that she’s been holding onto – parts that have somehow shielded her and given her protection and comfort in the darkness. Holding onto these pieces is all she has ever known. It has kept her alive. She fears what I will do with them as she hands them to me. Will I help her to put them into place or will I use them to hurt her as I’ve done so many times in the past? Can she trust me enough to let me see what she needs to show me?
My shame is a shapeshifter. It changes its form at will to unsuspectingly inject its poison into my brain. It hunts and stalks me with careful precision, lurking in dark places where it can remain undetected. My shame transforms into whatever I think I need, masked as protection as it tempts and lures me into its darkness. It looks like a friend sometimes, offering me comfort and relief. But as soon as I accept it, my shame once again changes form and devours me.
My shame craves the silent darkness. It grows strength there, waiting and watching, and always knowing when to strike. It senses my vulnerabilities and seizes those moments as opportunity to inflict harm. At times its attacks are quite subtle. It slyly lingers nearby sending quiet whispers that seem to slither their way into my brain. Other times it brings an overwhelming force so loud and so heavy that it demands submission and engulfs me in a way that makes me feel unrecognizable. It takes who I truly am and buries it under all that I fear about myself. When I surrender and crumble into its grip, my shame claims victory. It sharpens its knife with a knowing smile, offering a simple solution to dull my pain. Only that solution merely becomes more fuel to a destructive fire already burning inside of me.
My shame does not like you. It feels threatened by you and in turn works to keep me from getting too close to you. It doubts your sincerity, questions your intentions, and urges me to remain quiet and small. When I choose to reach out to you my shame works overtime to reel me back in. When I stumble – when I fall – when I withdraw from you, my shame becomes my only companion. It guides me back into its darkness. Its consistent messages somehow feel safe and reliable when faced with the alternative unpredictability in you. But there is a cost to this perceived safety. The cost is relationship – the cost is true connection – the cost is a sense of belonging anywhere outside of the prison I feel myself trapped in. My shame tries to convince me that its protection is worth the cost. Often times I am persuaded. Yet somewhere inside of me shines hope for another way.
I have learned that my shame has a weakness. Its power wilts and fades away when it is exposed to light. I try to use this weakness to defeat it. I venture into the darkness, searching and digging through all of the crevasses where it hides, tracking its movements and patterns in an attempt to cast a light onto this enemy of mine. But no matter how hard I search and how deep I dig, my shame’s quick and clever maneuvers keep it one step ahead of me. It seems to multiply at every turn, making it harder for me alone to chase. I need an army – an army of light to help me hunt down and destroy my shame. But there is risk with this army. To call upon this army means that I must be willing to let them see all that I wish to keep hidden. My fear is their judgment, which keeps me silently cowering in hiding, clutching onto my shame as a familiar safety blanket. My shame knows this. It depends on this. It thrives in this. The only way to defeat my shame is to call it out by name for my army of light to hear and to allow their presence, their comfort, and their healing light to shine on all of my dark places.
Imagine your life as a puzzle. Each piece represents a small part of what makes you who you are – physically, biologically, spiritually, relationally. Each piece adds its own color and flavor and is unique to only you and your experiences. While perhaps a single piece of your puzzle may appear insignificant on its own, when put into place it brings your life into focus – connecting to other pieces that ultimately make you complete and whole.
Imagine your puzzle contains a few missing pieces. Perhaps there are enough other pieces surrounding those empty spaces that it does not impact the entire puzzle. You can still see the whole picture even without those small pieces. Those empty spaces may exist, but they don’t make you feel or appear any less whole. Now imagine you are missing some critical pieces of your puzzle that make it nearly impossible to connect the surrounding pieces. You are left with floating gaps and holes that draw attention and confusion and make it difficult for the entire image to come together. This leaves you searching for those missing pieces – searching for completion – searching for wholeness. You seek not to dwell on the emptiness that exists in those gaps, but instead you yearn for the healing victory that comes from finding and carefully placing a single new piece into position.
Your search begins to shape you as you learn just as much about yourself from your failed attempts as you learn from your victories. This journey, while at times feels life consuming, becomes life altering as you discover and connect the various qualities and experiences that have come to shape you and ultimately make you who you are. You wonder if you will ever succeed in completing this complex puzzle. Will you ever come to a place of feeling truly complete, together, and whole? While this question may remained unanswered, you press on, digging and searching with the hope that each new day brings the possibility of adding just one more piece to your puzzle.
There is an image we all have become familiar with lately. A loved one placing their hand on a window to connect with another on the other side. We’ve seen these images on the news and on social media as caring gestures towards elderly or sick family members and neighbors during this pandemic. The simple message of love and connection – of letting our loved ones know that we are there for them in the midst of a time when we must maintain physical distance from them.
I was reminded of this image recently in my own personal connection to it. Through all of my healing work I have learned to slowly open a connection between my current self and the child inside of me that was left to suffer alone in silence for so many years. I have learned that much of the pain I feel today is directly connected to what that child was and is still feeling. Much of my healing has surrounded the idea of creating safety for her – to enable her to open up – to trust, share, and work with me to help heal those deep wounds. As with all aspects of my healing, I find myself intermittently making progress as well as faltering sometimes. Yet my desire to bridge the gap toward our shared needs causes me to seek her – to check in with her – to visit with her quite often.
When this virus quickly changed our daily lives and the manner in which we interact with one another, like most people, I felt overwhelmed. I felt the need to streamline the essential needs in my household and place onto the back burner what I deemed less immediately pressing. In these moments of prioritizing I could feel myself operating at a capacity that would not allow for safe thoughtful intrinsic work. I made a conscious decision to pause my healing work. In the meantime something interesting began to happen. My stressful dreams that are somewhat expected during a stressful time began to worsen. I began to notice an increase in wakeful and fitful moments throughout the night. I noticed an increase in heavy foreboding feelings when I awoke each morning. I was feeling the compounding nature of the physical and emotional impact of inadequate sleep. Then the most alarming thing happened. My stressful dreams involving various representations of pain, panic, and helplessness suddenly infused into them the most powerless details that my mind can conjure. In an instant, my dreams of stress and worry took on a completely different feel when my abuser began to appear in them one night. This sounded all kinds of alarms inside of me, shaking the foundation of every inch of healing progress I have made on this ongoing journey. In a mix of overwhelm and denial, I first tried to shrug these dreams off and categorize them as no different than my other random and sometimes bizarre stressful dreams. But these dreams carried a different weight and stayed with me in a profound way that made dismissing them feel impossible.
When this wave of distress would subside just long enough to make space for other feelings I began to sit with all of the questions that these dreams brought up for me. Why is he here now? It’s been a long time since he’s haunted my dreams. What does this mean? How can I make it stop?
That’s when I was reminded of those images of loved ones placing their hands on the glass to show one another that they are still there for them, however different that may seem right now. Perhaps I need to find a way to place my hand on the window to my inner child right now. I think maybe she is feeling shaken and alone and is needing some reassurance. I think she needs to know that I am still here – that I still care – and that I will not abandon her. It just might feel different for a little while.