There are some scenarios that stay with you for a lifetime.
For me, I was sexually abused by my babysitter sometime around kindergarten and first grade.
Not having the emotional or mental maturity to handle it back then, I managed to stuff the experience away until I was in my late teens when a friend of mine and I were discussing a similar incident for her and it flooded me with memories of what happened in my own life.
I didn’t know it then, but that experience had been affecting me in ways I couldn’t understand or appreciate.
I began identifying with elements of depression and suicidal ideation shortly thereafter and went to our family doctor to start addressing it.
That began a process more than two decades in the making and reached a relative conclusion just over the past couple of years.
By saying conclusion, I don’t mean that the experience no longer affects me. I believe it will always affect me.
What I mean is that, I feel I’ve reached a point in my life and my healing process where the event which took place all those years ago has less of a chance of negatively effecting me or the people I care about.
Here are the seven steps I took to heal:
1-I acknowledged that the event took place. By reaching out to our family doctor all those years ago, I recognized that something was wrong. I had vivid memories of what happened and I was trying to make the pieces fit in my mind so that I could get help. Our doctor encouraged me to write about it, express my feelings about it and, perhaps, to confront my abuser. The former suggestions were relatively easy to do. I realized that I had already been writing about the event through poems and songs as a way to understand what I was feeling. It was the confrontation that took more effort.
2-I confronted my abuser. I worked up the nerve one night in college to see if I could track my abuser down. Fortunately, he still lived in the same town where the abuse took place. I called the operator, asked to be connected to him and was able to reach him late one evening. Initially, he denied what happened by saying that he didn’t recall the events. To his credit, 13-14 years had passed since the incident. However, there were details I could provide which made it indisputable. He knew what he did and he knew that he couldn’t deny it.
3-I forgave my abuser. I was in an interesting place spiritually when I made that phone call. My abuser was at a point in his career where he realized that I could ruin everything he had worked for. I believe, that when he started crying and apologizing on that phone call, that he expected I was looking for some type of retribution. I wasn’t. I knew that I needed closure and I was hoping that the phone call and confrontation would give me that. I told him I forgave him. At the time, I believed it. I’ve never spoken to him since then.
4-I recognized that the event was still affecting me. Fast forward over twenty years, and despite surviving a decade of hard drug abuse, and burning more bridges around me than I could count, my marriage was falling into a rut. I went back to therapy in my 40s so I could understand why something I felt was no longer affecting my behavior was still lurking in the background. My therapist helped me understand that I had never fully processed the trauma that had occurred. What I had succeeded in doing was finding every other maladaptive coping skill to numb my feelings rather than sit with them and understand them.
5-I wrote a letter to my abuser. One of the things my therapist asked me to do was to write a letter to my abuser. The letter never needed to be sent. It was a way to document how I was feeling at that time, to express anything I felt needed to be said, especially since the event was still having an effect on me whether I accepted it or not. Truth be told, it was an easy letter to write. I was angry, I was hurt and I was frustrated that I was still having to deal with the fallout from something that had happened so long ago.
6-I wrote a letter to myself. This was another strategy my therapist gave me. He asked me to write a letter to myself at the age the event took place. More pointedly: What would I say to myself right after it happened? I knew this would be far more difficult to do. I had to put myself back into my shoes as a father. What would I say to either of my sons, if God forbid, a similar event happened to them. When I finally came to grips with how I would do it, I decided to make the letter public.
7-I changed the narrative from victim to survivor. My therapist gave me a handful of books to read. He wanted me to see how similar events affected others and to draw a link to what I was experiencing. He knew that I needed to find a way to not feel so alone with what I was going through. The fact is, there will always be someone who “had it worse.” However, by saying that, that doesn’t allow me to heal my individual pain. When you accept the role of victim, it keeps you down. You don’t recognize a way out, a way to heal, a way to process or to feel whole again. When I changed the verbiage in my mind from victim to survivor, I had hope. It wasn’t that my abuser had me fearing for my life. It’s that the emotional fallout from the event nearly killed me. I was a survivor. I AM a survivor. The words we use to describe ourselves can paralyze us or free us. I was no longer going to live in paralysis. I was no longer going to actively numb out the pain I was feeling.
Every time I write these types of articles, I feel like I leave of piece of myself with it. What I can’t accept is that more people (men or women) don’t feel they have the space to confront and heal their trauma. Maybe they hide it because they don’t want to feel vulnerable or weak in front of others. For myself, it’s not only to remove the stigma of talking about it, it’s to remind the abusers who live among us that they’ll be discovered; that no person should ever experience abuse and, hopefully, bringing it to light could save someone’s life.
Each time I write something like this, someone I know confesses to me that they lived through a similar experience. Often, they haven’t thought about it in years and the subject brings a lot to the surface. I see far too many clients struggle with their body image and their diets because of a trauma like mine (often referred to as Big “T” Trauma). Diets don’t heal trauma. Therapy does.
So, if you’re struggling, start your process. Get help.
Most importantly, find your voice, because these things can’t keep happening.