How do you recover from childhood abuse? Is healing possible? Will the shame ever go away? Will I always struggle with depression or anxiety?
These are important questions as we enter April, National Child Abuse Prevention Month. While the answers to these questions are different for everyone, sharing our stories can inspire hope and help other survivors heal.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela
About one in 10 children will be sexually abused before they turn 18, according to Darkness to Light, a Charleston-based nonprofit child sexual abuse prevention organization. One in seven girls and one in 25 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. While 44 percent of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 18, 15 percent are under age 12, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization.
“For Child Abuse Prevention Month, Darkness to Light is encouraging everyone in the nation to talk — or talk more — about child sexual abuse, so that together we can work towards ending this epidemic that affects one in 10 children,” says their website. “One of the reasons that child sexual abuse thrives is because of the shame and fear associated with talking about it. While the silence surrounding child sexual abuse perpetrates is taboo, talking about it is one of the strongest tools we have to protect children.”
As an abuse survivor, I was afraid to talk about what happened to me until I was in my 30s. I doubted my perception because I was so young when the abuse began. I believed that if something that horrible was happening to me that surely an adult, someone in authority, would intervene. I never met anyone personally who was open about their own trauma history, and I felt paralyzed when it came to seeking support. I felt ashamed and worried that others would find me disgusting if they knew.
“It happens all the time and no one talks about it,” says survivor Samantha, who is part of the RAINN survivor speaker series.
“[He told me] this is what kings and queens do,” says another survivor named Debra. “I believed this was just something that happened to children.”
Maybe you have a similar story to tell. Now is the time to tell it.
A large part of why I couldn’t come to terms with the abuse was because I believed it was something that just didn’t happen. Child abuse was fiction. Sexual abuse was something in a made-for-TV movie. It wasn’t something that happened in my city, in my neighborhood, on my street. I didn’t want to own that black mark, the shame of abuse. I wanted the normal childhood that all the other kids seemed to have, and maybe if I just didn’t own the trauma it would just disappear. Instead it left a festering wound that manifested itself in low self-esteem, depression, self-harm and posttraumatic stress.
“My desire to help others is because I never heard anything on the radio or saw anything on T.V. That would have helped my situation at that time,” Debra explains. “There’s uncountable victims in the grave at the hands of their abusers and can’t speak out.”
For years, I read blogs and books written by trauma survivors, trying to see myself in their stories. Eventually I did and it led me out of the fog of denial, into the path of healing. It was both the most terrible and most important moment of my life. I sought help, but I still worried there was no way to heal something so monstrous, no way to move forward after accepting the abuse occurred. Through stories shared by other survivors I learned that my feelings were normal. My fear, my doubts, my shame, small setbacks, large setbacks — they are all normal. It is a long journey, but there isn’t a single day that I regret starting it.
“The most important thing I had to realize is that every day is a healing process,” said survivor Julianna, who participated in the RAINN speaker series because she wants “to pass along the hope that it took me so long to regain back.”
If you’re a survivor, your voice could be the most important tool in stopping child sexual abuse.
Other survivors know the language of trauma and the pathways to healing. But anyone can help. Anyone be supportive. Anyone can stop abuse.
Talk to your children about appropriate boundaries. Make sure your grandchildren, nieces and nephews know they can talk to you about anything, that you trust them, and that their safety is of the utmost importance to you.
Know the facts about victimization. “Perpetrators of child sexual abuse are most often someone the victim knows, which can make it difficult for children to recognize these actions as abuse or to come forward about what is happening,” says RAINN.
I’m an abuse survivor. I can tell you what abuse looked like for me and what the path of healing is for me.
I know deep down in my bones that there are people in my life who wish they had seen what was happening to me when I was a child. There are people who just didn’t know the signs or just didn’t believe that something so ugly could be happening right under their noses. While I don’t have any anger or resentment towards them, I know that they hurt and feel guilt for not putting a stop to it.
I can’t tell you how they heal. I can’t tell you how they cope with the knowledge that it was happening right under their noses. That’s a journey I don’t have to make. I hope you don’t have to make it either.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline via telephone (800.656.HOPE) or through secure online chat (online.rainn.org).
Survivors image via Shutterstock.