“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” — Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter
An important step in healing from sexual, physical, and emotional abuse is accepting that it is in fact abuse. There is no grey area. We know on a gut level what abuse is, and we know it is wrong. But for some reason it’s hard to accurately identify when it’s happening to us. Surely, in our case it’s something different. We think there must be another explanation.
Accepting that we have been abused means having to trust our perception and accept that something horrible has happened to us — and will change us. It’s much easier to see abuse as a grey area, as something “open to interpretation.” Although sexual abuse and child abuse are both specifically defined by the American Psychological Association, in my mind there was wiggle room and I didn’t trust myself enough to label it.
From the American Psychological Association website:
“The Child Abuse and Prevention Treatment Act defines child abuse and neglect or child maltreatment as: Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”
When I thought about my childhood, I often told myself, “That’s not was that was.” I always had an excuse. But I still kept much of my past a secret. When I talked to my friends I pretended that was an average kid with average interactions. Yet all those feelings of helplessness, terror, disgust, and anger didn’t come from a vacuum. If I didn’t know there was something wrong, why did I make sure to hide the truth from everyone?
Accepting that I was abused meant feeling marked and broken. It meant I could never be a normal person. I thought no one would want someone like me in their life, I felt like some kind of perversion that would tarnish anyone who came in contact with me. I saw normal girls on TV. That’s what people wanted — not a girl whose boundaries had been repeatedly violated.
That’s all I wanted, to be surrounded by people who didn’t touch me when and where I didn’t want to be touched. I wanted to be able to act like a kid without being thrown across a room. I wanted to be able to sleep in my own bed by myself. I wanted to express my feelings without being told those feelings were wrong.
But in the end, I wasn’t in control. I didn’t make the decisions. I didn’t choose my experiences. I’m not the one who’s broken. That “grey area” that made it so difficult to face the truth was something my abuser taught me. Abusers may try to absolve themselves by saying things like “I had no intention of hurting you” or try to skew history by saying “it wasn’t like that.” They hide in that grey area. But if you trust in yourself and know that you are the only authority on your experience, you won’t let them invalidate your feelings.
Yes, I have been changed by the things that have happened to me, but I am not weak. In fact, the truth makes me powerful and capable of living a life without any more grey areas.