In trauma recovery it is said, “You’ve done the hardest part — you survived the abuse.”
After a year of accepting that I was sexually abused as a child, I’m finally starting to understand that recovery isn’t the hardest part. The shame is less automatic now, and the past is getting clearer.
As a child suffering abuse we don’t understand exactly what’s happening to us. Sex and sexuality is a mystery, so it’s not easy to recognize sexual abuse. Physical abuse is also confusing. We are tricked into thinking we’ve done something to deserve maltreatment. And in the end, we give in to this naive hope: “Everything is normal. No one would let abuse happen to me. I’m not in an unsafe situation.”
That need to feel safe and secure clouds judgment. It makes a child begin to interpret their world in a way that aligns with this need. They learn to ignore the instinct that says, “This is wrong.” Instead they think, “There’s something wrong with me if I think anything is wrong.” That’s how denial walls us in.
If you’re like me, one day in your thirties you’re thinking back on life and moments stick out to you. A more mature, experienced you, thinks, “Wait that’s not normal. That shouldn’t have happened. That didn’t happen to other kids. I’d never do that to a child.” Not just incidents, but dark feelings haunt you — fear, disgust, sadness, violated, and helplessness.
I entered therapy to untangle the feelings and piece together these incidents. And now I’m gaining a much more realistic image of my childhood. I finally see myself as innocent — it began when I was only three. I now understand the abuser knew it was wrong — secrecy, threats, and actual violence when I tried to tell.
Today I see how I was groomed and isolated. I was controlled by fear, physical abuse, and a child’s lack of understanding. I can see where to others the closeness of our relationship looked like favoritism or affection. Some might have even considered me lucky or spoiled, when to me this “attention” was the bane of my existence.
Looking back the sexual abuse seems quite obvious now, when just a few years ago I would have desperately denied it in order to avoid the deep shame and pain it causes. But it’s not sad. I’m not mad at myself for waiting a long time to explore these issues. I feel empowered. I got to use my maturity and experience to finally help that little girl inside.
I used to wonder why I should talk about the abuse with anyone, let alone a therapist. I thought it would be like rubbing my face in it over and over, especially when recalling the abuse often led to re-experiencing the trauma all over again. But it was through talking that I’ve come to understand so much more about my personal history.
Sometimes saying something out loud helps us to see the truth. Have you ever explained your reasoning to someone only to realize as you’re saying it that it was totally irrational? Talking can help us take a step back and look at something with new eyes. That’s where healing begins.