My daughter went through a phase when she was young where she brought a backpack with her everywhere she went. I’m sure this was a phase born from a variety of factors. For one, she was really excited about this new brightly colored backpack that was given to her. She also watched and wished to emulate the grownups in her life who carried important belongings with them in various bags. And she watched just enough kids tv shows, like Dora the Explorer, to know that she wanted to be ready for adventure at any time. So naturally her backpack was filled with everything that her young mind considered essential – a stuffed animal, a toy magnifying glass, a purple beaded necklace, and an empty metal mint container repurposed just in case she needed a place to collect and protect something very small. In her mind she was prepared for anything and carried these valuables with care wherever she went.
I too carry a backpack. But mine is different than the backpack my young daughter carried, and it’s different than the ones you see on the backs of strangers walking down the street. My backpack cannot be seen. It is only felt.
I cannot absorb the kindness of another while in their presence. I try. I sometimes get close. But something exists within me that prevents these types of messages from fully penetrating and resonating in front of others. Instead I have learned that in order for me to feel the full impact of another person’s kindness or support I need to pack up their words and intentions and take them with me. Much like the prized possessions wrapped up and placed in my daughter’s backpack, these messages are protected and carefully carried with me. Later while in solitude I can safely set my backpack down, unzip it, peek inside, and slowly let the messages emerge. Here they can get closer to me, slowly reaching the places within that they were meant for. I can feel a softening inside that was not possible while in the company of others. It feels different. It feels warm and safe and inviting. So I take my time with this process. I let their words linger, fluttering around me at first, weaving and dodging the swift countermeasures that occur from the dark places within. Slowly and carefully they circle around me before landing and softly soaking in. I feel a weightlessness in my chest that makes it easier to breathe. I feel a quieting inside that is almost as startling as it is refreshing. I want to savor these moments. I want to draw them out and let them last forever. So I hold on tight and try to replay their words and their support over and over again in my mind. This often works for me.
Although I wish it was possible to accomplish all of this in the moment, in the face of the one whose words I wish to absorb, that is not a realistic expectation I can place on myself at this time. Maybe someday. But for now my backpack system will suffice. This process has been a part of me for quite some time now. It’s been part of a purposeful progression – of slowly learning to let the kind words of another reach a place beyond the protective surface that tries to filter and distort them. It’s an intentional practice, and one I wish to improve upon.
Lately I have found myself in a recurring place of heavy struggle. My sense of self worth and purpose feels continually challenged by self destructive messages from within. I reach for options and solutions that simply feel like trapdoors, leading me to an ever sinking feeling that the message I am receiving from the universe is that I have no value here. It’s a painfully lonely and desperate hollow feeling that keeps finding me. I can’t see clearly when these thoughts take over, and I feel as though I’ve exhausted all viable options to find my way out.
Surrender is not a choice I wish to consider. So although feelings of being a burden or a soul sucking leach to others are immense at times, I continue to convince myself to reach out for help in the form of therapy and friendship connection. The support is there. I can hear it when I am in their presence. The messages are strong. I can recognize that I need to hold onto them and take them with me. But something isn’t working the same. By the time I reach into my backpack for their supportive words in private it feels like they have disappeared. I can’t find them. They’ve vanished. It’s almost as if a hole has formed in the bottom of my backpack and every ounce of supportive kindness that had been carefully packed in there now trickles out long before I even have the chance to access it. By the time I land in solitude, unzip my backpack, and reach inside I find nothing but dark emptiness. The messages have fallen out somewhere along the way and are long forgotten. I am left with nothing but the internal dialogue that I was trying to override in the first place. I’m left questioning if the messages and support were even real to begin with. Were they ever really there? Were they even meant for me? And why would I think I deserved them?
I keep looking for external ways to pull me out of this dangerous head space I keep finding myself in. What can I do? What can I physically put in place outside of myself to focus on to move forward? While I recognize that external factors cannot fix something broken within, I do know that momentum can be gained from putting certain outside pieces in place for myself. But when I continue to fail in these efforts and begin to spin in thoughts of hopelessness, I wonder how I can possibly continue to keep digging, clawing, and searching to find another way. Maybe nothing can stick. Maybe nothing will help. Maybe there is no outside option right now. Maybe instead of trying to find a way out I need to focus my attention and figure out how to mend the hole in my backpack.
What truths do you possess about yourself? What beliefs about who you are provide a foundation of guiding support in your life? These are questions that have been swirling in my mind this past week. These are questions that don’t seem to have easy answers that I can securely hold onto.
I enjoy hiking. Summit hikes are a particular favorite of mine for the effort it takes to reach the reward of a beautiful panoramic mountaintop view. I love to let my mind wander as I hike, absorbing the surroundings with each turn I take. I don’t have much knowledge or interest in the types of plants and trees I encounter along the way. Instead the artist in me is struck by colors, shapes, and unique features that catch my eye. I’ll stop and study a tree whose trunk is twisted and contorted in awkward directions on its journey upward. I’ll wonder what forces caused such a dramatic shift in its growth. And I’ll marvel at how the tree did not stop growing despite the overwhelming obstacle that required it to shift and adapt. Its twisted shape tells a story of its resilience to grow and adapt against the odds placed before it.
There are so many metaphors that can be connected to the qualities and characteristics of a tree. A resilient twisted trunk, a firmly rooted foundation, swaying branches of openness, renewed blooming life each spring, and rings that record its ongoing journey of growth. If you’re at all familiar with my writing then you’ll understand that metaphors tend to be my language of choice. In fact you don’t even need to look further than the name of my blog to recognize the significance and connection of the tree.
I have spent some time recently talking through this metaphorical concept with a close friend who was asked a question about what qualities and beliefs exist at her core – what makes up the trunk of her tree?
As she described her difficulties in answering this question, I found myself connecting and relating to her struggles. I can find the answers that I want to say – that I think I’m supposed to say. But finding answers that all of me firmly believes in and is proud of is another story. Trying to search for what I deeply and truly believe about myself leads me straight into another metaphor – the spiderweb. I can’t seem to connect to genuine positive answers without feeling tempted, tangled, and pulled into beliefs that I wish to shed from myself. I struggle to feel a genuine connection beyond the dark, dead, and rotting tree trunk that feels like home inside of me. Yet as my friend described this darkness that overrides her system, I felt a calming that only comes from this type of understanding and validation. While we talked and related and joked about our dead trees, I noticed something important. It’s not that I am unable to recognize the qualities in myself that I am proud of. It’s that the messages I learned long ago have twisted and contorted the lens in which I view myself. These messages take all of what I wish to be true about myself and sprinkle poison into it. This makes it difficult for newer and healthier messages to flourish. With all of the healing work I have ventured into, I have felt growth and progress. This is an indication of hope and life within in my tree. Where I find myself stuck is that my progress feels fragile. Just like new leaves that bring life and color to a tree, I experience healing growth. But these leaves are often at the mercy of strong winds that threaten their place on the tree.
I think it is hope that has kept my tree alive for all these years. But I am humble enough to recognize that I need help to keep my hope alive. Connection and support from others helps to bring new life to my tree. It shows me that healing happens both from the flicker of life that shines from within as well as reaching out for the transformative growth and support that can be created from the outside. It comforts me to know that my tree is not the only one twisted and contorted and struggling to maintain life. And that knowledge alone allows hope to flourish and more healing growth to emerge.
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.