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Revelations keep coming about the more commonly occurring sexual abuse of children than anyone wants to know. This issues continues to surface as an in your face world-wide social problem. Those who are shocked and appalled and those who continue looking for ways to invalidate the courageous, who lived this experience, appear to be making judgments, laws and social decisions without truly understanding this lived experience. Many like me, who have experienced childhood sexual abuse, go quietly about their lives attracted to other wounded souls whom they can share love and care for when they haven’t learned to do it for themselves. This ability to love and give to others is a disconnected wisdom of the spirit that lives inside but until integrated doesn’t help the carrier. It also keeps us silent because of fear of rejection by others whom are so easily able to voice their opinions about something they have no experience other than what they have learned from books and research. Research while helpful isn’t even the tip of the iceberg of the thoughts and feelings that lie beneath needing an island of safety before they can come up and be expressed. Research gives us ideas about a certain group but not the individual lived experiences. So this article is not about generalizing to all. It is my story, my struggle to find my voice and give it words of expression to what I keep discovering that lies beneath my lifes’ iceberg.
I believe I came into this world with a spirit of Love. I loved life. I loved people. I loved my family. I feared my family. We had good times and bad times. They confused me. They hurt me. They did what they knew. I did whatever I could do for them. From what I have been told I was the center of the world of my mother, grandmother, great grandmother and grandfather. In conversations later in life my step dad told me he thought I was spoiled and he needed to get me into line. My parents were divorced before I was born. I had episodes of childhood visits with my dad who is now deceased. About a year or so later my mom married my stepdad. In my memory it was the December after my 2nd birthday during a drive in movie while my mom had a baby shower for my sister that the molesting began. My mind flashes to bits and pieces of that memory that have not left me. I remember being confused at first but my stepdad’s face appeared so happy I thought I must have done something good. I was so excited when I went home I attempted to tell my mother but she was too busy. The abuse went on until I left home at 17 years old. I don’t remember how often it happened. I don’t think that matters. I remember the first time there was penetration and I started bleeding. I went to tell him and he told me to go tell my mother. She proceeded to tell me that this was what happens when girls grow up. It didn’t make sense to me because in my mind it had more to do with what my stepdad had done to me than growing up. But her face was happy and it seemed to mean something to her so I accepted what she said and denied my own valid experience.
Fast forward to about age 13. My mom found my stepdad in my bed one morning and all hell broke loose. I heard her saying things like ‘you told me you’d never have another women’ him saying it was because I wore shorty nightgowns, my siblings coming out of their rooms hysterical and me frozen in fear about ‘what had I done wrong.’ Later my mother confirmed it was my fault and told me I didn’t respect her but I needed to respect my stepdad. The situation left me feeling totally responsible. My step dad told me if my mother asked to tell her it had only been going on for a little while because she didn’t want to have sex with him. She never did ask. (I’m not sure it occurred to me that they had sex. I think I had grown up believing it was between us even though I knew it was going on with my other stepsister. I didn’t learn until years later that he had molested my youngest step sister too.) I did ask myself how long it had been going on. I realized it had been going on all my childhood. The positive thing that came out of the situation was I now had permission to say no. It never occurred to me to say no. (My stepsisters both told him no when they were teenagers and he stopped.)
Oh, I take that back. There was an incident when I was about 5 or 6 where my Nannie found me and a couple of my girl friends acting like we were boys and had a penis. She was so angry and then she went and told my mom. Their faces were very angry. It really scared me and confused me, because my step dad pointed his penis at me and put it between my legs. I was just acting out my experience. Neither saw my behavior as a red flags. I also remember a time he had me in the play house and I heard my Nannie calling me. He covered my mouth and told me to be quite. It wasn’t so much I wanted to get away from him but my Nannie was everything to me and I wanted to go to her. I remember realizing that she didn’t know what we were doing and he didn’t want her to know. I just didn’t know what to do with that information. I assumed everyone knew.
Other things happened during my childhood like physical abuse, emotional detachment, and multiple losses and moves. My iceberg is composed of so many issues that it is difficult to know what contributed to what. I survived the physical and sexual abuse. I have no physical scars of either. Most of my injuries were to my developing self trying to integrated and make sense of the confusing messages and experiences within a family that appeared to the world like leave it to beaver. We were involved in church, scouting, school activities and had friends. I think that is why I see life as both and rather than either or. We had it all. I also think that the confusing and unanswered questions not only contributed to my self-blame but also to my shame.
I remember after we got involved in church and I learned my sins could be washed away I was so happy. I admitted I had sinned (I didn’t tell what I thought my sins were but that I had sinned) and accepted Jesus into my heart. I felt a freedom and a burden lifted after I was baptized. However, the shame came back. Sometimes I would baptize myself while taking a bath and imagining the dirty feelings going down the drain. I just couldn’t seem
To let go of my feelings that I wasn’t okay. God couldn’t forgive me. He could forgive others. I know now it was me who was not forgiving me. In my distorted thinking I connected being of service to others was my lifetime penance. I think that belief came from never feeling like what I did was good enough for my family. I couldn’t make my parents stop yelling and fighting and I couldn’t make them not beat my siblings. I couldn’t make my mother be a mother. Before I turned 18 the belief in my failings was running my life and I could accept any mistreatment as validation of God’s judgment upon me and my ‘lot in life to bear.’
Throughout the years I have confronted my parents and we have come to terms with each other. My humanness needed them and in not getting my legitimate needs met from them I lived in a great deal of fear of abandonment and rejection. This fear organized my beliefs and motivated me from a place of fear. My spirit of Love could not abandon them and on some level understood them as lost children in adult bodies. Now I am learning to give that spirit of Love to myself. I’m learning to nurture myself and provide myself with the self-care I deserve. I realize that it was not God that didn’t forgive me; it was I who wasn’t forgiving myself. I think it was easier to accept and take the blame and have an illusion of power and control than to accept my overwhelming feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, shame and grief. The emotions were too much to bear so they had to go somewhere. Children not only easily accept the blame for adult failings they resist any attempt to tell them otherwise. I see it every day in my private practice.
It is a challenging journey from fear that keeps you locked in self unforgiveness to accepting and validating your innocence and returning to the Love of your spirit.
Sexual abuse isn’t just about sex it is a journey to integrate fear back to Love. Sexual abuse isn’t just about the sexual acts but what happens in the aftermath of revelation. How really sensitive can others be if they don’t understand the dynamics of this issue and that experiences are individual, not general? Each person’s thoughts, feelings and experiences need to be honored and acknowledged as well as their ongoing integration. I experienced sexual abuse and it is not who I am; it is what has happened to me. Now I am giving those experiences a voice to be added to the choir.
write by Terry Apfel