I sat at a table of mostly strangers. We were engaged in the kind of small talk that induces a moderate level of anxiety within me as an introvert with socially uncomfortable tendencies. But it was a welcoming and lighthearted get-together, and the connection that brought me there was strong enough to make me feel secure in this setting. I approached this gathering prepared to be introduced or identified as a sexual abuse survivor. While this was an unusual setting of disclosure for me, it felt okay as it was thoughtfully discussed beforehand with the close friend and fellow survivor that invited me to the table that day.
As the conversations moved from various topics I recognized a similarity between myself and one of these strangers. We both have children the same age. I offered up this common ground that we share, creating a brief moment of connection before the conversations continued. Then later this common ground resurfaced. It was discovered that not only do we have kids the same age, but they also go to the same school. And not only do they go to the same school, but her child has participated in a sport that I have coached there. In a matter of seconds it was revealed that I was her son’s coach a couple of years ago. Suddenly this person who was supposed to be a complete and total stranger to me became something different.
This revelation would hold little significance to me in most circumstances, but there was something uniquely different about this particular connection that day. I was in unfamiliar territory. I had offered up my title as a sexual abuse survivor in a setting where I didn’t expect to be connected to any other aspect of my life. And there I was facing a collision course of identities as both a youth sports coach and a survivor in one setting. Internal rattling ensued.
It took some time to unpack what this encounter meant to me and why it resulted in an uproar of internal disruption. After all, I rationally know that I am both a coach and a survivor. Those two identities can and do coexist. So what’s the big deal? The big deal for me is that my life is organized into compartments – separate and distinct compartments. Certain parts of my life do not intersect with other parts. This is by design. This is surely a result of a compartment that was painfully thrust upon me as a child. But my maintenance of these separate compartments has kept me alive and safely protected over the years.
I am very actively involved as a survivor in both my own individual and group healing work as well as through a passionate involvement in education and abuse prevention efforts in youth sports across the United States. This is a huge part of who I am. And yet this part exists separately from all other aspects of my life. The work I do and the amazing connections I have made within this community are treasured by me, and yet they are kept almost entirely disjointed from the rest of me.
This compartmentalization, for better or worse, is how I function. When a situation like this arises where two compartments that don’t operate together are suddenly thrust into interweaving light it causes two things to happen inside of me. First, there is panic. An automatic emergency response happens inside indicating danger and a need to fix, or change, or flee the situation. When I can eventually ride that feeling out (hopefully without succumbing to the panic) then a second feeling always follows. Self-judgement. What is wrong with me? Why do I feel the need to hide? The fact that these compartments still strongly exist for me today fills me with uneasiness and uncertainty about myself and my own healing. It makes me question how secure I can feel in my own story if I must keep these parts entirely separate. If I claim to own my story of childhood sexual abuse then why must I keep it separate from some other areas in my life? Doesn’t that mean I am still bound up in the same shame I have been working so hard to break free from? Doesn’t that mean I am much farther away from healing from all of this than I even imagined? Does that make true healing even remotely possible for me?
I think the answers to these questions have many layers. I unfortunately know first hand how much ignorance and cruelty exists in the world around the topic of childhood sexual abuse. I have heard comments with my own ears and have read statements with my own eyes that have placed the blame of what happened to me squarely upon my shoulders. And I know that no matter how strong and secure I can feel in the knowledge that what happened to me was not my fault or the result of some kind of brokenness or defect in me, the words of others still have a way of cutting into me in a deeply damaging way. This reality makes me hold my story close to me. It makes me very selective in who and in what settings I choose to share. I can never be certain that ignorance or cruelty will not interfere with my coaching positions, so I don’t advertise it there. This saddens the advocate in me as I believe I am a better and more equipped coach because of my experiences of abuse in sports. But I can never be certain that ignorance and cruelty wouldn’t find me in this role. And I can’t bear the thought of even one parent wrongfully expressing that my history makes me a potential unsafe person around their child. That kind of ignorance exists. And that kind of ignorance hurts too much. So I choose to keep these compartments separate. Maybe it won’t be that way forever, but it feels safer for me now.
The fact is, no matter how much work I do and no matter how secure I feel in my story, my story is still my own. It still hurts sometimes, and it can still cause hurt when it lands in the wrong hands. My healing progress should never be measured by a willingness to shout my story from the rooftops. It’s much more complex and personal than that. I get to be careful and selective in who I allow to see each compartment I carry. I get to decide, as Brene Brown has so powerfully described, who “has earned the right” to hear my story.
Sometimes I will mess up and share with the wrong people. I will have to learn from those moments, pick up the pieces, and carry on. And I will be okay. Other times, I may sit at a table and share with the right people, and it might make everything inside of me shake a whole lot. That doesn’t mean I messed up. It doesn’t mean it was wrong. It just means it is scary. And that’s okay too.
A few years ago while on a trip visiting my family in my hometown I scheduled an afternoon to myself. Typically these trips are consumed with scheduled gatherings and events as I come from a large family that has grown and spread out and isn’t often able to reunite. But on this particular visit I had something very important that I decided to create time for.
My hometown is a place full of all sorts of memories. There are places I remember fondly – my youth soccer fields, the creek that meanders near my childhood home, and the front yard of that same home where countless family baseball and football games were played. There are also places with memories attached to them that I wish to forget – places where pieces of me were taken.
The man who sexually abused me for over three years was my high school coach. After months of careful grooming he positioned himself as my designated ride home from practice each day. This became a carefully calculated daily opportunity for him to make a detour on the way to my house and violate my teenaged body. He developed an ongoing list of secluded places to take me – places that he could access easily to provide ample time to assess privacy, carefully maneuver and position his car for optimal shielding, and then take from me almost always within the confines of his car.
Each time I return to my hometown I am caught off guard by triggers that come up in conversations, places I visit, or places I simply drive past. My abuser took me to so many different places over those years that it is very hard to avoid encounters with these memories each time I visit. Yet on this particular trip I decided to face these memories in a different way.
I wanted to find a way to revisit some of the places that hold a tangled mess of painful, confusing, traumatizing, and shameful memories. I wanted to face these places to help release the painful grip they held on me. I wanted to face them to help make sense of the tornado of memories and feelings I carried. I wanted to redefine what those places meant to me – to be able to see a parking lot simply as a parking lot, instead of feeling overwhelmed by all that occurred there. Simply gathering the courage to return to these places seemed more than adequate to fulfill this need in me. But it felt symbolic to do even more. I chose to leave something behind at each location – a mark to signify that I came back and reclaimed the parts of me that were taken in those places.
Prior to my trip I gathered a handful of rocks from my home – small white rocks from a bucket I used for my physical training regimen. I lifted and carried this 50 pound bucket of rocks for strength training purposes to push myself physically and to prepare for obstacle races that I competed in. These rocks were a part of how I tested my physical limits in training. These rocks were a perfect simple representation of my personal determination, perseverance, and fighting spirit. These rocks were exactly what I needed to leave behind at each of the chosen locations – an acknowledgment of my determination to reclaim, reconnect, and refuel the parts of myself that were broken there. I scooped up a handful of the rocks and painted them blue so they could stand out among the surroundings where they would be placed. I packed the rocks in my luggage and took them with me for this planned day of reclamation.
On the day of my rock journey I ventured in solitude to a predetermined list of places from that area that carry the heaviest weight of memories inside of me. Once I reached each location I got out of my car and took a walk, quietly talking to myself about what happened there. Memories and feelings flowed out of me as I spoke of my experiences. I was alone and yet I found myself speaking out loud to various people. I spoke to the young girl inside of me that holds all of the torment from these moments within her. I calmly reassured her that she was safe, that I was with her, and that he could no longer hurt her. I spoke out loud to my abuser, expressing what I remembered and processing when, how, and why he took me to each place. When I felt ready to move on I placed a single blue rock on the ground and carried on to the next stop on my journey.
I visited seven locations that day – each one intertwined with its own unique and lasting impact on me. One place in particular led me to a great deal of internal dialogue and self reflection. It was a small college campus only about a mile away from my high school. I wondered out loud why he chose this place – a place that was never quiet – never empty. I walked around the parking lot where he often parked alongside the nearby train tracks, and I asked questions. “Why did you bring me here? Why did you choose this busy place?” As I replayed memories and thoughtfully processed out loud I began to understand exactly why he chose this bustling location. The first obvious answer was its proximity to my school and my home, which allowed for less travel time and therefore more time for him to be alone with me. He was always careful to avoid the watchful eyes of students and teachers at my high school. Although this campus was almost always full of people when he brought me there, it was full of different people. The people roaming around were students and staff at this small agricultural college. There were no familiar faces at this place. We were anonymous there, and he knew that. This campus was also just full enough that the surrounding parked cars allowed him to blend in among them. Unlike most of the other vacant places he took me, this one created a camouflage among the commotion. He could abuse me while students and teachers were walking to and from classes in nearby buildings, while sports teams were practicing on nearby fields, and while commuters waited at a train stop less than 100 yards away. He could discretely abuse me right there in the midst of all of the busy surroundings.
As I paced back and forth along that parking lot I felt my fearful and troubling overwhelm slowly become replaced with a feeling of confidence and strength. I grew less shaken by my surroundings. The more I began to understand and piece things together, the more I felt myself breathing easier and standing up straighter. For the first time I could separate the painful memories of this place from what it truly is – a college parking lot. This journey did not erase the memories that exist in this parking lot or in any other location I visited that day. But the overall weight of those places felt less imposing with each rock I left behind.
I did not know what to expect from this journey I set out on. While I was relieved to feel myself strengthened by facing these places, I also felt an impact in a much more unexpected way. Some of these places on the day of my rock journey were quiet and easy to discretely take the necessary time to feel and process what needed to rise up from within me. But a few of the places were less private, and I felt the watchful eyes of a neighbor or passerby. While this kept me from being able to fully connect in the moment, it strangely provided its own healing result. The eyes of these strangers were exactly what the girl inside of me needed at these locations years ago. The attentive suspicion of someone appearing out of place is precisely what could have saved her in any of the memories I visited that day. This prompted a mournful feeling that the wounded girl inside of me was never seen or protected by these watchful eyes. But at the same time it made me feel encouraged that more people are watching now. I can only hope that the eyes that watched me place rocks on the ground that day are the same watchful eyes capable of protecting young girls today.
As I continue to build a connection with the parts of myself that were injured back then I am curious to one day return for another rock journey – to visit these places again or to venture further to other places I have yet to return to. I wish to continue to close the gaps of disconnect with my wounded inner parts, to take further steps towards empowerment and healing strength, and to remind all of me just how far I have come. Until then I will hold onto the healing strength I gained on the day of my rock journey.
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…
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.