I suppose only those who are experts in the field, truly understand trauma. And even then, one can only understand so much without having experienced it. And, of course, it can be many, many things along a vast and seemingly never-ending spectrum.
I am neither an expert in the field, nor a counselor with experience dealing with trauma survivors. I am one. A survivor, that is.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched the 4-hour long documentary “Leaving Neverland” which focuses on the stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck and their eerily similar experiences with Michael Jackson. I’m not going to write about Michael Jackson, because I don’t really care about him, and more to the point, it’s not the important takeaway from the film.
I hate to drag out such an over-used buzzword, but I was triggered. As I was watching it, I had conscious thoughts that maybe I should turn it off, maybe this isn’t such a good idea, maybe this is going to end badly for me. But I couldn’t tear myself away. I was mesmerized, intensely submerged. I don’t think I got up from my couch, for four straight hours.
And sure enough, I went to bed that night, and had a terrible time falling asleep. When I finally did, after many restless hours, I had disturbing dreams.
Since I watched it, I’ve been sort of sitting with it, trying to process all the stuff it brought up for me, and sorting out what all this means. I’ve considered watching it again. And perhaps again, and again, and again. But, I haven’t. Yet.
I’ve read a few articles, and listened to a podcast about it. And then I remembered that when it originally aired on HBO, there was a live special hosted by Oprah immediately following the airing. I don’t have cable, so I found it on YouTube.
Well. If you’ve been watching and listening to Oprah for the last 30+ years, you know that she’s made it a priority to use her platform and her talk show to try to expose childhood sexual abuse for what it really is. She has hosted over 200 shows on the topic. She has tried tirelessly to communicate why it’s so difficult to talk about, how the wildly irresponsible misconceptions about it are perpetuated, and the long-term damage it does to those of us who survive it. Lying in my bed that night, with my iPad, in the dark, it was as if Oprah was speaking directly to me. It was a surreal experience, like, she gets me and I get her, and unfortunately, I know exactly what Wade and James have gone through and are still trying to navigate. That’s not to say that our experiences are the same, but the way they spoke of their experiences rang disturbingly true to me. Oprah deliberately filled the audience with sexual abuse survivors. It was very compelling.
Here’s the reason people don’t disclose their experiences of sexual abuse/trauma typically until adulthood, if at all: because children don’t have the vocabulary, the contextual instincts, or the actual brain development necessary to be able to comprehend that what is happening to them is bad or wrong.
It’s only as we grow and develop and become adults that we can look back at those experiences and see them for what they were. Well, hopefully. It’s only as an adult that we can see it from a different perspective and realize that this thing happened, but upon that realization, the shame that you’ve been carrying your whole life up to that point, is only magnified a billion times, because you realize that this horrible thing was happening to you, and not only did you not tell anyone, you feel like a willing participant, like you did it to yourself, that it’s your fault. You begin to flagellate yourself for your complicity in such an insidious thing. Because of the stigma attached to sexual violations across the board, magnified by the fact that you’re talking about it years, sometimes decades later, people are assholes, and question you, doubt you, say that you’re just trying to get attention, or in some cases, money, or that you’re a sad and pathetic victim. As a society, think about how we treat victims of sexual assault in general. Christine Blasey-Ford did an excellent job of explaining how it is that one can remember the details of a trauma that occurred over 30 years ago. There are legitimate reasons people keep these things a secret.
So, with that all in mind, imagine just how damaging childhood sexual trauma must be, that with all those awful, hateful, ignorant, misinformed, and reductive indicters erupting with vitriol, people still tell their stores. In spite of the scrutiny, the potential social death, the hate and harassment they are afraid of, they still speak up. And by doing so, they hopefully get the help they need to start the very long and painful journey of working through that damage to move on with their lives, and improve their mental health. It’s a big fucking deal.
Think about it. Almost EVERY time, the abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows, and most of the time, trusts and probably even loves. And the complex, and carefully crafted seduction (because that’s exactly what it is) is executed in a way that the child, and perhaps even the other adults around, don’t know it’s happening. It’s subversive by design. That’s what grooming is.
When you’re a six-year-old girl and you have an adult in your life, lavishing attention on you, constantly telling you how beautiful you are, how special you are, how much they love you, and how much they just want to be with you, and hug you and play with you and have a special relationship with you, how could a child possibly interpret that as anything other than great?
The seduction continues, gradually building to a point when sexual acts are perpetrated and you, as a six-year-old are being told that it’s your “special secret” and you’re not to tell anyone or else you’d both get in big trouble. And in a lot of cases, quite frankly, as uncomfortable as I know this makes us feel, it feels good. Our little bodies have a natural, physical reaction to what’s happening. Like Oprah said in her special (and I’m paraphrasing here), it doesn’t matter the circumstances, or who’s doing it, if your penis is being stroked, it feels good.
How can we possibly expect children to process what is happening to them while it’s happening? They simply can’t. So, we get older, we grow up and look back on those experiences and understand them for what they really are, and the shame becomes all-consuming, because you feel complicit. After all, you didn’t tell anyone it was happening, that someone was hurting you, so really, it’s your fault.
Of course, I cannot remember how I interpreted the world at the age of six and I will never know, because that’s not how time works. Think of the young children in your life, think about the questions they ask, the things they understand, and their capacity to comprehend complex human interactions. I have a 7-year-old nephew, and if I think about him experiencing anything like I did, I feel sick. And infuriated.
The long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse/trauma are far-ranging and are broadly speaking, unique and similar at the same time. My therapist says that there is one thing that presents consistently, and that is that everyone who experiences sexual trauma as a child has some sort of manifestation of the damage which surfaces in adulthood. For many, it presents itself in substance abuse, addictions (drugs, gambling, sex, anything), eating disorders, and all manner of self-destructive behaviour. And of course, there are usually trust issues, and unhealthy boundaries in relationships, to name just a few.
When I first started telling my family and friends about what happened to me when I was six, someone’s response to me was that a lot of things about me and my life made a lot more sense now. I didn’t know how to take that in the moment. And I didn’t press them to explain. But, I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot, and I realized that when they made that point to me, I felt offended. Offended because I have truly believed that for the last 34 years, I’ve kept this secret, I’ve held onto this experience, vowing to not let it affect me, because this was just a thing that happened to me, and I’m over it, and it doesn’t matter, and that I would take this information with me to my grave and there’s no way anyone could know or ever will. So, I felt offended because despite my best efforts, this trauma I experienced when I was six had imprinted on me so deeply, that there were obvious links to aspects of me and my life that someone who knows me so well could immediately connect the dots.
I’m still trying to connect the dots.
I thought that I was presenting myself as a person who you would never suspect had been abused, a totally mentally healthy person without “issues” and that no one could ever feel bad for me because I was strong and I had dealt with it, and it didn’t mean anything. Well, obviously I was wrong about that. Really, really, wrong.
At the end of the Oprah special, she asked James Safechuck the final question of the show, giving him the last word. She asked him about where he is in the process (of healing and coping), and the thing that struck me the most about his response was when he said that he will be dealing with this for the rest of his life, that it’s something he’s going to have to work on constantly so he can be better for his kids and his family. The. Rest. Of. His. Life.
I’ve been on quite a journey these last few months. Well, really, for my whole life, but the sharing of my secret shame has turned my life inside out. It’s hard work, battling demons and the resulting (or perhaps just coincidental?) depression that has consumed and impeded me. But not only is it worth it, it’s essential if I want to live a better life, a life in which I value my own existence, and feel worthy of the love around me.
The biggest thing I think I’ve discovered so far on this journey is that healing and forgiveness are not a destination to be reached, but rather a path to take.
And I’m on the path.