This essay was shared with me in confidence, and my dear friend will remain anonymous by her request. This very subject brings out ever primal instinct in me to fight and protect and cry all at the same time.
Friend- I can find no words. You have always been a strong personality in my day to day, but I shamefully underestimated what was underneath. You are strong beyond measure. You chose to overcome rather than be defeated. You continue to look for ways to build yourself against all odds. You are beautiful and worth every ounce of respect given to you. Thank you for choosing life.
Note to readers: I feel like my heart is out in the open as I write this, but at the same time, I feel empowered now that I have the courage to share what was once considered shameful, something that was never to be acknowledged as events that actually happened. This. Actually. Happened. Sadly, it’s happening to someone else as you read this. I hope sharing my story helps raise awareness and gives another survivor the courage to reach out, get help, and regain control of their life.
“Either you can tell them, or they can find out when Child Protective Services comes to your house tomorrow.” my youth pastor told me. I felt my heart pounding in my chest and my eyes welled up as I shook my head.
“No, no, they can’t know! They can’t know, please don’t do this.” I responded fervently. My pastor and I were talking outside of my youth group and people were around, but my surroundings quickly faded at the urgency of the dialogue. How could I tell my mom that her father, a man loved by all, had sexually abused me from ages six to twelve? And furthermore, how could I tell my parents on Mother’s Day? I knew my mom would believe me and that she wouldn’t be mad at me, but I didn’t want our “perfect world” to be flipped upside down.
I don’t remember much about what happened that Mother’s Day. I told my mom that Grandpa abused me every time he saw me for the last six years, and I recall silent tears streaming down her face. She didn’t have a chance to tell my dad, so he found out when CPS and the police officer knocked on our door.
The first time it happened, I was in the shower when my grandpa came in. My whole family was on the other side of the bathroom door. Grandpa was bold. I remember asking my grandpa, “Is this sex?” He answered yes and told me that if I ever told anyone it would tear the family apart.
People were around a lot of the times when he abused me. He would ask me to get something from the garage, but I wouldn’t know until we got there if he wanted to touch me or if we were actually getting something. Other times it would be just me, my brother, and cousins in the house and Grandpa would take only me into his room. Later, my brother admitted that he and my cousins often excluded me because they were jealous that Grandpa spent so much time with me.
Eventually, my own behavior starting manifesting warning signs. I used to pretend that my dolls were having sex, and one time I put a towel over my and my younger cousin’s head and began kissing her; thinking that nobody would notice since the towel was over our heads. The abuse was literally right under my family’s noses, and from a young age I was exhibiting “red flag” behaviors.
Strangely, my family’s perfect Pleasantville never altered after they learned the truth. My family did not want to treat me like a victim, so they acted like nothing ever happened to me. They could not bear to hear the details, so nobody asked me what happened, and I never told. It felt as if my family thought I should be “over it” since the abuse was over. The police never heard the full story either and my grandpa was never charged for something that would have caused him to spend many years in prison. It also didn’t help that CPS sent a man; I did not feel comfortable speaking with him. Instead, I spoke with the female police officer, but I was never asked to share the details of what happened to me.
My parents thought they were doing everything right, protecting me from seeing my grandpa until I was ready and taking me to counseling. I attended therapy throughout high school and it helped, but it was always situational conflict resolution instead of addressing the core issue. I remember working through my relationships with my dad as well as an abusive boyfriend. Both byproducts of the abuse—my hesitancy to get close with my dad and being overly submissive with my boyfriend. It was as if therapy addressed the aftermath of the abuse, but not the abuse itself. Imagine a broken glass jar. Therapy cleaned up the tiny shards of glass on the floor, but did nothing to repair the shattered jar itself.
I was a high functioning teenager and learned to cope without ever having to verbalize the things my grandfather had done to me. Looking back on my late teen/early adulthood years, it seems everything was normal, including my mental health. I graduated high school with good grades and studied nursing in college. However, during college, I felt strong emotions resurface about the abuse. Pediatric nursing taught me about play therapy, how kids reenact what they’re exposed to, and that psuedoseizures often correlate with molestation. Suddenly, I was filled with anger toward my parents, wondering how life would have been different if they’d recognized my warning symptoms and intervened.
I managed to graduate from nursing school and marry an amazing man, but anxiety always loomed in the shadows of my mind. I remained a victim to what I now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I suffered alone, not realizing that my mind was constantly functioning in a state of high alert; seeing threats, causing panic at every turn. I was scared to walk down sidewalks by myself, afraid to shower unless my husband was around (lest someone break into my home and abuse me). My brain worked like this—always on guard, and if I let my guard down, then I’d be vulnerable. I had nightmares, panicked at the sight of fathers kissing their daughters, was anxious because a male doctor cared for me as a patient, and felt dirty inserting a urinary catheter in an elderly man. I felt alone, like nobody else was experiencing what I was going through.
When I realized that PTSD was affecting my career, I sought further counseling. For the first time, I endured the painful memories so that I could reconcile my past. I had to relive my childhood, as a grown woman, and think about events that hadn’t crossed my mind in over a decade. It was as if I rewound time, passed the “recovered” stage of college and young married life, and resurrected the memories of a child trying to hold it all together. For the first time, my story was heard.
After coping with these horrendous events, I determined that I would not be defined by the abuse. I chose not to be a victim to PTSD; I chose LIFE! I learned coping mechanisms like: assessing risk versus fear, realizing that nobody can hurt me with their glances or their words (no matter how inappropriate), allowing myself to ask someone to accompany me to a restaurant bathroom, and remembering that what my husband and I do in our bedroom is safe and consensual.
With this change, however, comes new fears. I need guidance with many things that people take for granted because they grew up in a home with healthy boundaries. I reformat every thought in my head and assess if it’s PTSD or a rational thought. It’s a constant change that needs to occur, and success is dependent on this change. For example, I had to be taught that bathing my nephew and teaching him basic grooming skills is caregiving rather than incestuous. I wish I could say that I made that dramatic change once and it fixed my life forever, but it’s a change that I have to make every day in order to succeed. Now I choose courage over fear. Now, I’m no longer the victim—I’m the victor.
I have overcome many challenges on this journey, but I know there will be many more to face.
Like how will I manage the trials of pregnancy and child birth? Perinatal checks, strangers touching my baby bump, and everyone wanting to hold my baby? How will I feel safe as a patient if I need narcotics or anesthesia? Choosing courage requires me to lower my guard and place trust in my caregivers.
This abuse will stay with me forever, and I will constantly have to change my natural responses in order to have a life worth living. But I can be a conqueror, overcomer, and regain control of my life. I don’t have to be known as, “the girl who was abused.” I am the woman who picked herself up, has a successful marriage, a thriving career, and wants to be a mother someday. I choose to change my perception every day so I can have an enjoyable, authentic life. I am worth it.