Thursday, January 19, 2017
I was a tactile kid. I’m a tactile adult. But this isn’t about what I touch(ed), this is about my being touched. Touched in ways I didn’t ask for, in ways I didn’t want, in profound and impacting ways.
At six, my relationship with my body was still new. I was concerned with how to climb the thorny tree in the front yard without getting scratched, how fast my legs could pedal the big wheel down the block, and if I could hide, all of me, in the smallest space during the neighborhood game of kick-the-can.
At six, someone decided to touch the most intimate parts of my body. Parts I hadn’t explored, where long discovered by someone else. Did he remove my Wonder Woman underoos? The ones when worn allowed me to jump tall fences, run fast and fly in invisible planes to restore justice to the world. Was this emblem of empowerment stripped for his sexual gratification?
The molestation continued intermittently until I was 14. He was someone I trusted - a family member, a playmate, a friend. We moved out of state when I was 8, the assaults occurred during visits. In adolescents, I learned that I was not the only one he was assaulting - hushed conversations with my cousin and sisters - Yes. Me too. In the tree house...Do we tell? No!
I had a dark, disgusting secret. It was my fault it happened. I had to protect my parents from the pain I was feeling. People couldn’t know. If they knew horrible things would happen. They would know that I wasn’t pure; I was dirty, damaged and worthless. So, I stayed silent. I kept the secret.
Sexual assault is accompanied by its friend, shame. In my experience, shame is just as traumatizing as the touches, if not more so. It’s part of the assault. Shame undermined my identity and self-worth. Shame researcher Brene Brown defines shame as “...the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Brown teaches that shame needs three things to exist: silence, secrecy and judgment. I know all three intimately.
I was 17 when the truth came out. One of my sisters told. The truth fractured my extended family. Alliances were made - those who didn’t believe the sexual assaults happened and protect the perpetrator and those who did believe and support us, the victims. Those alliances exist today.
In real ways, I was lucky. My mother believed us and advocated for us to the best of her capability. Perhaps, in this, her greatest gift was/is permission and encouragement to talk about it. She says, “We’ll talk about it until...until you don’t need to talk about it anymore.” Her empathy and validation started my long road to healing. Empathy is the antidote to shame.
Sexual assault isn’t something you just get over. It changes you. It permeates everything. I live with the consequences of being sexually assaulted every day. It is present in my most intimate relationships. It's part of me and may always be. However, it is not the single thing that defines me; though, it has refined me. In its crucible, I have lived. Trauma expert, Peter Levine says, “Unprocessed trauma is a living hell; processed trauma is a gift of the gods.”
The only way out is through.
The trauma is recorded holistic - physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, relationally. Therefore, the healing process has to be holistic. I have and continue to process my trauma. Therapy has given me tools, my faith gives me comfort and hope, my tribe gives me love and empathy, my art and vocation give me voice. These are the well-worn tools I use to show up for my life -to find joy in this life. Sometimes I use them repeatedly in a day, sometimes not for months.
Taking ownership of one’s own healing process is empowering. That empowerment enables the transformation from victim to survivor and lays the foundation for the transformation from survivor to advocate. It is not the prerogative of the abuser, oppressor, bystander or enabler to dictate the terms of healing.
Recently, I was discussing this with a friend who is processing her sexual trauma. She talked about how now, in her 40s, she is finally reclaiming her body. For the first time, she knows that she decides who touches her body and how they do - and not just in sexual ways. Hand holding. It was empowering for her to know that she could decide whether or not to hold her partner’s hand. She didn’t have to just because he wanted to. This is her right. This is my right. This is your right. We don’t have to swallow our self-hood in order to protect someone else’s feelings.
I received a new level of understanding about all of this while listening to The Myth of Closure episode on On Being. In this episode, Krista Tippett interviews Pauline Boss about ambiguous loss - loss that is not concrete, there isn’t a body to bury. The extreme examples of this are a child is kidnapped, a loved one disappears while hiking, natural disasters, etc. More common forms of ambiguous loss are divorce, miscarriage, addiction, Alzheimer's, etc. While listening to Boss, I felt validation and comfort around my sexual assault.
Though Boss never spoke about sexual assault, it became clear that sexual assault and ambiguous loss are correlated. This was new information to me. Information that gave me great insight into the feelings I’ve been experiencing most of my life. It had a name - grief.
Being sexually assaulted at such a young age robbed me of my own discovery of sexuality and sexual identity. Being violated in this way took from me a sense of well being, ownership of my body, and trust. These are real and profound losses. Losses that don’t just deserve to be grieved but must be. It’s part of the process.
It is a process. It’s a life’s work. Closure, as Boss says, is a myth. The work isn’t about making it go away or for things to go back to the way they were. There’s no going back, only forward. Forward through the darkness, forward through the pain, forward through the confusion, forward when there is no well worn path. You must find a new way of being in the world. You bridge what was before and what is after.
Boss believes that we are to “make meaning out to the meaningless.” Being sexually assaulted is nonsensical. It cannot be rationalized; there are too many opposing ideas for this to be possible.
As I’ve awakened to the ambiguousness of my loss, a deeply rooted NO has emerged from within me. It’s not resistance or denial. It’s the no that comes from awareness - a no that is a gift of the gods. A no to leveraging my personal integrity out of politeness, compliance or habitual obedience.
This impacts my extended family’s dynamics. I’ve gone off script. I’m not playing the role I was cast to play - the good girl - compliant, responsible, respecter of authority. Solidly rooted in who I am and my inherent worth, my most authentic-self surfaces - a revolutionary spirit with justice in my stomach and the ache in my soul to heal my family’s generational systemic abuse.
From this place, I’m imperfectly drawing boundaries not just with perpetrators but, also, with bystanders and enablers. I’ve learned that boundaries must be spoken, otherwise it’s just passive-aggressiveness.
Therefore, I must speak in new, uncomfortable and challenging ways. What gives me courage is remembering it was in the silence that the toxicity of shame took hold. It was the silence that eroded my self-worth. It was in the silence that my body became something other than me. It was in the silence that I suffered. It was in the silence that he had all the power.
I have to live with the complex web of consequences from his actions. He has to live with the consequences of my voice.
My work is to figure out how to do that as my best self. It is because I’ve lived in darkness that I chose to seek the light. It’s because I know the pain of abuse that I chose to be kind. This post is part of that work.
To save myself, I must make meaning out of the meaningless. I do this by speaking - sharing my story and create space for others to share theirs. This is how we build compassionate and empathetic communities that foster healing.