My shame is a shapeshifter. Its ever changing presence lurks nearby at all times. Like my shadow it feels almost a part of me, never missing a step as it creeps along by my side. My shame has evil desires masked by a comforting and soothing facade. It knows me by name. It can sense what I need, and its conniving ways enable it to convince me that it holds the answers I require. Its constant presence is worn like a blanket, draping me in the kind of familiarity that I no longer question while it continues its work to change and steal more and more of me.
My shame understands that patience is a necessary component for its success. It knows when its strength is greatest and waits for those prime moments to slither out of the darkness to strike. When it senses an environment of joy, connection, or engagement it carefully retreats to the background, not in defeat but instead with a sense of knowing that it must patiently wait to resurface later in order to be most effective. While in waiting, my shame compiles all that it needs in the darkness of its lair, gathering each soul piercing ingredient required to overwhelm me when it chooses. I can feel the undercurrents of these preparations. I know it is there and feel powerless to stop it. I know that no matter how much I try to resist and counter it my shame is too clever to reveal its full plan.
My shame watches you. It is learning how to exist around you. It may reveal little morsels of its intentions to you – just enough to make you think it is possible to subvert it. But my shame smiles at these attempts as it hovers behind me with its dagger pressed firmly up against me. It dares you to step closer. It welcomes your attempts to pull me away from it. My shame will simply absorb and catalog your efforts to later assist with its mission when it is required. It knows that your help has limits. Your presence won’t always be there. Yet shame has unrestricted access to me. Your limits will become more fuel doused onto its fiery wrath when it finds me in solitude.
I have learned that naming shame can help to ease its strength. Calling it out by name shines a light on shame and makes it retreat back into its darkness. Its power wilts when this light can reach it. I feel the truth in this, and I try to offer myself this gift of relief by using my voice to dampen it. But my shame is learning too. Like a virus, it keeps shifting and adapting to grow in strength. It is finding new ways to maneuver in plain sight in the midst of a glaring light in its direction.
I need a new strategy. I need a new angle. I feel myself stumbling and submitting. I understand that there is no future beyond surrender, and this is not an option I wish to consider. But my shame has infiltrated my eyes, and I can’t seem to see a path forward from here. My shame is winning, and it knows this. I need to find a new way out.
She shifts her body back into her seat, puts her seatbelt on, and tries to make sense of what has just happened. She is unsure of what to feel as her system is overwhelmed with emotions around the details that replay in her mind. She needs a guide to help her navigate the confusion that swirls from within. But he is all that she has. So she turns her uncertain glance in his direction. Upon noticing a slight smile on his face she thinks she must have done something right. But she wonders why she doesn’t feel right inside.
Moments ago she was scared. Moments ago she was lost in overwhelm. Moments ago she felt sick inside and wanted to get far away from here. She was touched by a man that she calls her coach, and yet moments ago her body responded with pleasure to his sickening touch.
Her first orgasm was experienced in his car in response to what he does to her. Each time his touch results in this response from her body layer upon layer of evidence that she asked for it – that she wanted it – that she is to blame for it piles upon her. How is a child supposed to process this tangled mess of pleasure and pain of sexual abuse?
I have been told that my young body did exactly what it was biologically designed to do in those moments. I have been told that I should carry no burden of responsibility or blame or shame for how my body reacted to what was done to me. This response from my adolescent body was not an indication that I asked for it, was defective in some way, or was complicit in what was repeatedly done to me. The only thing it indicates is that my body did exactly what it was physically designed to do.
This has been an incredibly difficult concept for my adult brain alone to accept. For the young parts of me that remember what it feels like to sit in his car on the drive home after he touched me it is still so confusing. If he was hurting me, why did it feel good sometimes? If I was so scared and wanted to go home, why did I relax and let his hands access everywhere he wished to touch? And why did I let it feel good? Doesn’t that say something about me? Doesn’t that mean there is something inherently wrong with me?
I sit curled up on the floor in my therapist’s office. Our work together is aimed at releasing the stored physical sensations I experience today as a result of childhood trauma. As she guides me through this session I notice that the calming effect I can achieve from the slow deep breaths I am focusing on only goes as far as my tensed and coiled up body position will allow. She gently invites me to uncoil in front of her, reassuring me that I am safe – that she will not hurt me. Immediately I begin to feel my hands, arms, and shoulders begin to tremble. The mere suggestion of letting my guard down in front of her begins to overwhelm my system. I keep trying to breathe, relax my body, and stop the shaking. But she then asks if I can try to stop resisting it – instead allow the shaking to come if it wishes to come. She gently reassures that it is safe to tremble there. And with that comes a wave of trembling, shaking, and eventually a flood of tears as my body releases the enormous wave of energy around this fear of vulnerably relaxing from my protective curled up position.
I do not have a sense how long I was shaking and crying in there, but after some time it slowly began to fade. First the tears stopped. Then the shaking slowly softened. Afterwards I felt a calm and relaxed state restore throughout my body. My therapist gently encouraged me to notice both the physical calm I felt in my body along with the safe and nurturing care I received from her. It was safe to relax there. It was safe to lower my guard and release the stored pain my body carries.
I noticed every bit of this. I felt my shoulders relax. I felt my breathing slow down. I felt my hands unclench. I felt comforted by her words that I let enter my ears and embrace me from within. It felt freeing and calming. It felt incredible. But I felt something else too. In that moment I chalked it up to being freaked out by what had just occurred. After all, it was an incredibly frightening experience to welcome an overwhelm of uncontrollable shaking and crying that took over my body. But there was another feeling – a feeling that has continued to linger unidentified until right now. As I sat on the floor in front of her after my body trembled violently and tears poured from my eyes, I felt exposed. What just happened? That was terrifying. Did I do something wrong? Did I do something right? What does she think of me? Am I ever going to be able to look her in the eye again? I felt an urge to apologize. I couldn’t understand why I felt that way, and I got the sense I wasn’t supposed to feel that way. But I was far too confused and disoriented to say any of it out loud. So I just tried to focus on the calm I physically felt while the other feelings waited in the background for me to acknowledge later.
Away from her office I realized that this experience connected directly to something for a young part inside of me – the young part that remembers putting her seatbelt on after something felt both horribly painful and terrifying and also somehow good. This part whose body betrayed her by responding with pleasure to his touch sat frozen on the floor in my therapist’s office scared that she did it again. Did she just let her body feel good when something bad was happening? Was this feeling of calm the same as what she knows from long ago?
Adult me understands the difference. Adult me understands what we accomplished in the therapy room that day. Adult me understands the importance of this approach to healing the wounds that linger and impact me today. But this young part is left rattled and wondering, “Did I do something bad again?”
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.