“She is still a prisoner of her childhood; attempting to create a new life, she reencounters the trauma.” ― Judith Lewis Herman
Bright and vivacious at seventeen, I’m quickly settling into my new home, getting to know my flatmates over spaghetti dinners and football games, and keenly exploring a city 1,000 kilometres away from where I grew up. A week after boxes had been unpacked, and pictures hung on the wall I sprawl across my bed and begin reading Lucky, written by Alice Sebold. As the memoir begins to describe the author being raped on her way to her University dorm, my heart races; I know this feeling. For a split second I’m in my childhood bedroom. There’s a man on top of me, tears are streaming down my face. He’s putting his fingers inside me, asking if it hurts. Always one to please, I’m thinking yes! stop! while simultaneously shaking my head no; he’s smiling. In an instant my memories of childhood turn from Big Wheel races and ice cream trucks to flashing, vivid memories of sexual abuse.
Far from close friends and family, I’m in the thrashes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Nightmares and flashbacks haunt me. I feel detached, numb and disinterested in my friends, my work, and my hobbies. I pull away from every loving touch; the thought of a man’s hands on my body makes me physically ill. I become obsessed with figuring out how I was able to block such an important, albeit painful memory for so many years.
Motivated forgetting is a psychological defence mechanism for dealing with painful memories, where in my case, the memory is repressed, to mean, unconsciously stored away. At age five, I did not have the mental capacity to handle what had happened to me. I took those memories, put them in a box and buried them deep in my psyche. It wasn’t until I was reading the familiar words of a rape victim that the box flew open, leaving me drenched in disgust, guilt and remorse.
At twenty years old, I am consumed with self-hatred for not telling my parents, for not fighting back, for not standing up for myself. I flashback. I’m 5 years old, sitting on the floor of the kitchen, spinning salad. I want to tell my mom what happened last night, but he swore he’d hurt me if I let anyone know what was happening. As if he wasn’t hurting me already. I continue to spin the salad in silence.
I was psychologically manipulated through intimidation and threatening behaviour. You don’t have to wait for someone to treat you bad repeatedly. I didn’t fight back the first time, I didn’t tell anyone the first time, and that was enough to set the pattern. That was enough for him to know he could get away with this, and for me to accept that this was what was going to happen, that this was our relationship.
Today, I’m 25 years old. It has been nearly 20 years since my family moved cities, which forced the abuser, our next door neighbour, a man trusted to watch my brother and I, to stop. It has been eight years since I read Lucky, and unlocked these memories. Have I healed? Moved on? Accepted, or come to terms with the abuse? My immediate answer is no. I still have bouts of insomnia, and male attention gives me anxiety.
There is the other side of the coin though, wherein my answer could be a hesitant yes. I am in a loving relationship, with someone who knows of the abuse. I have not pushed him away, felt threatened, intimidated or scared. I don’t suffer from PTSD - as much. I am educating myself on violence against women. I am learning to stand up for myself.
Approximately 1 in 4 women in North America are victims of child sexual abuse. Re-victimization is common among those abused as children. Child sexual abuse victims report almost four times as many incidences of self-inflicted harm. At 5 years old I couldn’t fight back against my abuser. At twenty five years old, I will let nothing stop me from fighting back against the abuse of all women, children and men.
If you are a victim of abuse, tell someone. Seek help. Regardless of what you were wearing, whether you said yes or no, abuse is never your fault.
V-Day is a global movement to end violence against women and girls. On February 14th, V-Day’s 15 year anniversary, the organization is inviting one billion women, and those who love them, to participate in One Billion Rising. I encourage you to learn more by visiting their website.
“Let us be outraged, let us be loud, let us be bold.” ― Brad Pitt