Note: If you’ve been a victim of sexual abuse, this post could trigger you. Read with self-care.
Karen goes to church every Sunday.
Tears trickle down her face in every service, although she’s surrounded by the loving family she grew up in, as well as her own husband and children.
Sam, her oldest brother, who fondled and sexually manipulated her for years, sits by her side.
He has two daughters. Karen is crying for herself, for them. But she feels paralyzed.
“My mom and dad adore Sam. They won’t believe me. And then, where will I be? What will my husband think? I’ve kept this secret for 42 years, and never have uttered a word to him. And Janie, Sam’s wife, will become unglued. I know I should, but I can’t. I’m going to watch the girls, and make sure they look okay.”
Then she remembers. She looked okay as well.
Mark, after ten years of marriage, hesitatingly told his wife that he had been raped by a camp counselor when he was a young boy.
“She’s having trouble with it. We haven’t had the best sex life, and she thinks I’m telling her I’m gay. I wish I’d never said anything.”
Brittany only started remembering her abuse when her daughter was the same age as she when it all began — at seven years old. She confided in an older brother, Bobby, and they began putting the pieces together. He believed her, remembering how she had become more and more withdrawn as a child. They decided to confront Uncle Tommy (the perpetrator) at Thanksgiving, in front of the adults of the family. He had lived in their home for years after their father had died. Brittany read slowly and calmly what she had prepared. Their mom, stepdad, sister, and two cousins were there. All smiled nervously, and were quiet. Brittany asked for acknowledgment, apology, and treatment.
Uncle Tommy stared at her.
“It wasn’t me. I think it was our neighbor that you must be remembering. He was a creep.”
Christmas that same year went on as normally planned. Uncle Tommy carved the roast. Cheery good wishes were passed all around.
The abuse was never mentioned again.
These are real stories. There are many more.
We all hear cases where children are coached to say they’ve been sexually abused, although it happens rarely. We’ve heard from girls or women who come forward and report being raped by a fraternity member, a celebrity, or political figure, and we listen to opposing lawyers fight about whether or not the reported victim had a secret agenda. The Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas had our nation divided about what was true, and what wasn’t, but brought into the light the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.
No victim is protected from their life being held up to scrutiny, and perhaps even blamed. A false accusation can cause tremendous loss as well, yet many actual perpetrators go unpunished.
The fear that perhaps family or other loved ones will turn on you or become angry, thus making things “worse,” ignore what you’ve said, or downright not believe you, keeps many, many children and adults silent.
You’ve likely been threatened by your abuser already, or somehow manipulated to believe it’s really okay. If a child, your gut knows it’s not okay. If an adult, and you’re being sexually molested in the present, that fear doesn’t go away. In fact, it may even be stronger, especially given potential harm to children.
Yet, the Duggar case is a very public example of what can happen if a family has learned that one of their members has a sexual problem, and does little to nothing. Inappropriate behavior can go unchecked. More people can get hurt or the perpetrator can never get the help they need.
What does it feel like to be on the receiving end of the disbelief, the discounting, or the denial?
Devastating. Invisible. It can hurt worse than the abuse itself.
When you’re sexually abused, you tell, and nothing happens, the damage can be severe insecurity, distrust and a fear of being helpless to create goodness in your life. You learn your feelings, your very experiences, don’t matter. You’re on your own.
All three of the above situations ended differently. Karen left therapy, and at that time, still couldn’t bring herself to confront her brother. However, she didn’t blame herself for the abuse any longer, and felt as if some kind of burden had been lifted from her. She would work on having a closer relationship with her nieces, to enhance any chance she might have of discovering something. If she did, that would be the breaking point.
Mark and his wife came in together, and worked on how she could hear what he was trying to share in a different way, rather than making wrongful assumptions. It turned out her own father had had affairs, and her ability to trust had been badly damaged. They did well, and left therapy much closer.
Brittany slowly worked to determine, if most of her family wasn’t going to believe her, what kind of boundaries she would choose to have with them. There wasn’t going to be another Christmas like the one she had just been through.
What can you do if you’ve been a victim of sexual abuse and you either choose not to tell, or weren’t believed when you did?
- You can work on having compassion for that child who didn’t know what to do — the child that was hurt and manipulated by someone older who they trusted. You can give yourself permission to feel whatever you need to feel about the abuse — rage, fear, grief –and realize those feelings could eventually be let go.
- You can connect pieces of your current life with irrational or hurtful beliefs about yourself, and challenge those self-destructive beliefs that are tied directly to the abuse.
- You can realize how you emotionally survived then, and whether or not that strategy is still beneficial in your life today, or is it causing harm.
- You can survey the damage done, and can begin making changes in what you can control now, so that your message to yourself is a positive one. If that involves creating boundaries with the people who didn’t believe you, you can give yourself permission to do that.
You can confront your shame. It was never your fault.
You can empower yourself to not be a victim anymore.
Healing might or might not occur in the family,
That doesn’t mean you cannot heal.
Thanks for reading. The National Sexual Abuse Hotline is available 24 hours a day. Please call if you need help.
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