When I was 12, my adult cousin would touch me inappropriately. This escalated to him exposing himself to me and other increasingly disgusting things. I can clearly recall the first time it happened and how my body shut down in fear. I knew I should scream or fight but nothing worked. Not my voice, not my legs, not my brain. I tried to convince myself- even while being violated- that I must be misunderstanding what was happening. Maybe he was doing something else other than assaulting my body and shattering my trust, maybe he was not actually intending to give me lifelong anxiety or worst of all, maybe I had done something to cause him to behave this way. Which is why I suppose, I carried this secret with me for so long. Not that this is the first time that I have spoken about my sexual abuse, in fact I have been to therapy and my husband and I talk about it all the time. As an adult, I disclosed my abuse to my mother (which was the greatest relief) and I have long since learned to separate myself from my cousin’s evil but this would be the first time that I have spoken about it publicly.
You see like most of the world, I tuned in to watch the docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. But while most people watched in horror, shock and awe, a lot of what was being said felt eerily familiar to me.
Even as I type today 24 years after my experience, my hands are shaking, I can feel my heart slamming against my chest, my throat feels tight and I recognize the early signs of anxiety creeping in. 24 years later. Back then I was only 12 years old. I didn’t have the mental capabilities to properly process what happened to me. Emotionally I wasn’t developed enough to see it for what it really was – someone else’s dysfunction and sickness. I truly, truly believed that somehow I was to blame and I was afraid to tell my parents because I didn’t know what they would say or if I would get in trouble.
I know that you were probably waiting for some groundbreaking, deeply psychological reason for why victims don’t speak up, perhaps something about Stockholm syndrome or learned helplessness and sure those are reasons but before all that, there is this: children are extremely vulnerable and easily manipulated. I remember being afraid that my cousin would kill me-he never threatened to-but it always felt possible somehow. I would have terrible nightmares which resulted in me not being able to sleep very well. I became moody and not very nice to be around and unfortunately my family just assumed that puberty had begun so no one asked any questions.
My cousin was the life of the party. My older siblings all gravitated towards him because like most abusers, he barricaded himself behind a façade that was carefully and meticulously manufactured. And it worked. I would often have to see him in my home, or listen to my siblings regale each other with stories about something he said or did. And why wouldn’t they, they had no idea who he was or what he had done. I would feel myself shrink in his presence. I was repulsed by him, I hated him so much but he always seemed so untouchable. So for years, that hatred was turned inward and manifested itself in too many ways to mention.
The teen years that followed were rough and my 20s were impossible. Many of my friendships and relationships suffered because no one knew all of me. I wish I could say sorry to all of them but the truth is I don’t even remember some of their names. In my 30s, knowing God and truly understanding that regardless of what has happened in my past, when God looks at me, he sees someone who is worthy of love, forgiveness and salvation has been a game changer. It has changed the way I see myself and the way I see my future. I still struggle with forgiving my cousin but I know that I must find a way, not for him (although I could allow for the possibility that he was probably a victim himself and caught in the cycle of abuse) but for me, my husband and my children. And most importantly, because it is what God would have me do.
Now that I am a mother, I think constantly about protecting my children from harm. You see the greatest test of how well I have survived my past, are the messages I teach them. By the time they were 1, my children could tell you that their bodies are private and you are not to touch. At 3 and 2 they could tell us when they do not want to be hugged or kissed and they expect that we will respect that. Even though they are brother and sister, they understand that they are to respect each other’s body and privacy. Each night, they pray that God will protect them and other children from anyone who seeks to do harm (or ham according to my son). And most of all, they know that if ever someone makes them feel uncomfortable or violated, they could tell us and we will listen and protect them and that there is no one in our family or friend circle who is more important to us than they are.
Surviving my past is a daily walk. I have to constantly remind myself that who God says I am is a whole lot more important that what I am feeling at any particular moment. I still have bad days, days when I am afraid to let my children out of my sight but as I continue to survive, I will learn to find balance between my past and the beautiful future that is possible.
P.S. Starting conversations with your children concerning their bodies and sexual contact can be quite daunting. I came across the P.A.N.T.S rule for kids and thought it might come in useful.
P -privates are private
A – always remember your body belongs to you
N – no means no
T – talk about secrets that upset you
S– speak up, someone can help