A Survivor of Sexual Assault...in her words (Part 1)

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I am a survivor of sexual assault and abuse. I am a survivor in many other regards too. The story, experience, and healing journey I will share will either resonate or horrify you. I intend to make you uncomfortable if this experience is unfamiliar to you, but in a positive way. This conversation is uncomfortable, and to call it anything else would be minimizing and inaccurate. However, being uncomfortable does not mean it is wrong to discuss. It is necessary to have these conversations.

I will never say that I am strong because I survived sexual abuse. I will say that because I am strong, I am surviving. I refuse to credit my abuser for my strength. I refuse to credit invalidation, traumatization, or silence placed on me for my strength. I will never say I am grateful for my abuse or journey because it "made me who I am today." I am who I am today despite the abuse.

If these phrases or mindsets bring you comfort, that is okay. However, permit yourself to view your experiences most beneficially. No matter what has worked for me or others, it does not determine what will work best for you. I have tried many ways to view and frame my experiences through "normal" methods. As I spent time defining what felt best, that process included a lot of trial and error. Through my healing, I have mainly turned to writing in addition to many years of therapy. As I prepared to write this post, I reviewed my writing over the years and happened across an entry that I feel explains the value for myself in sharing my experience with you.

Liberation...a poem

I do not think my abuse is unique. Survivor stories are always complex, each person having a different experience. I want to prompt a conversation regarding the complexity of my personal experience and hopefully broaden perspectives on how each person's story is as unique as survivors themselves.

To start, I would like to share some details from my experience. My abuse lasted for a few years. I don't know how many times the assaults happened. However, I would like to state that even if my abuse was an isolated event, it does not change the impact or validity of my pain. You may think that I am lucky to have little to no memory of specific assaults. I still have nightmares, slowly learning more information (perhaps unwillingly) all these years later. I still experience flashes, feelings, and buried memories. I understand and thank my mind and body for protecting me, just as they did years ago and today, as I continue to heal. Today I don't need as much protection. However, it is exhausting and does sometimes make it all feel never-ending. As I reflect on my life during this time, it's like somehow I knew, but I didn't consciously know. I made decisions I never second-guessed or questioned, which I now realize were expressions of my desire to protect myself more.

During this period of my life, my family unit was going through a traumatic experience. I had taken on the role of a "mother figure" and an equal parent with my father. My mother has dissociative identity disorder severe and lives in a mental health facility. However, she was not willing to leave the family to get help. This choice resulted in periodic hospitalizations throughout my teen years. My mother saw every specialist, therapist, physiatrist, doctor our family could find, even if it meant seeing professionals out of state. She would go away for months and return for a few weeks before leaving again.

When her mental health was most severe, I witnessed two suicide attempts. One was nearly successful, and she was on life support for a few days after being reported missing. As a teenager, I did what I could to fill my mother's role in our family and be a support system for my younger siblings.

My father had to work two jobs to pay for medical bills and other debts incurred due to my mother and father's mental illnesses. However, my experience is not about them. I believe it is important to note and be aware of other traumas I was going through at the same time as my abuse. This information provides perspective on why this trauma was so heavily locked away in my mind.

My home had an unfinished basement, and the finished rooms were small. Initially, my little sister and I shared a room, and my three brothers shared the other. The three eldest begged my parents to let us move into the unfinished basement. We pinned sheets onto walls to create some privacy. My bedroom shared a "wall" with my eldest brother with just sheets to separate our spaces. I loved having my own room for the first time, but I would constantly complain that my siblings never stayed out of my room!

Being a teen and putting so much energy into my family, I treated my room as my safe space. Without having a solid door and walls, my siblings would walk through them and come into my room whenever they wanted. At one point, I got some baby gates, stacked them on top of each other, and put them in front of my door. The baby gates would be a deterrent if they tried to enter while I was in my room. This attempt at privacy shows my desperation to create my own space.

With my home life being so difficult, I would take melatonin to help me sleep, or I would stay up with my dad until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning watching TV, talking until we were both tired, or until he fell asleep. My older brother, who was probably feeling neglected amid the family turmoil, entered my room at night. He described his visits as "exploring my curiosity." Those were his exact words. I realize this is a highly insensitive description. I am not entirely sure what prompted the decision to let the two girls have the upstairs finished rooms. The boys would sleep in the basement. Even though I cannot remember precisely why the arrangement started, I believe it was because of the sexual abuse. I recall advocating for myself without understanding why. Unfortunately, the change in rooms didn't stop the assaults.

You may be wondering how I even know any of this abuse happened if I don't have any concrete memories of an assault. Well, I got it right from the source! One summer, before my brother left on a mission, my family had left for church, and I was running behind. When I went into our living room on my way out, my older brother was still home, which was surprising as he typically had to go early to prepare for church duties. He asked me if we could talk. He told me he had done something unforgivable and needed to tell me.

He told me he had gone into my room the night before and had sexually assaulted me. I woke up with my clothes disheveled and immediately dismissed it as "sleeping too good." My bra was unclasped, and I was wearing one pant leg. As soon as those words slipped from his mouth, everything started to make sense. I felt frozen with no idea how to react, what to say, or what to do. Thinking back now, I am so amazed by the way I showed how much my instincts knew what was going on, but my mind and memory didn't.

I asked him if the abuse had occurred only that one time. He told me it was just one time, and I met him with compassion and understanding though I was shocked. I told him people make mistakes. But, as long as it was just one time, I felt that I could forgive him.

We went to church, but I felt numb. He tried to sit next to me, and I refused. Although the emotions of anger and hurt were not physically there, I knew I did not want or feel comfortable sitting next to him. Fast forward a few months, and my brother is leaving on his mission. His admission and our conversation were well out of my mind. I don't think I even thought about it again after that day. I never told friends, family, or other trusted adults. I now know that my behavior was a completely normal reaction to abuse. However, I have spent a lot of time feeling guilty. I was just a child. I was never prepared or taught what to do. All I thought to do was my best to forget about it.

My brother had some health issues, and for the first few months of his mission, he was in our city. Eventually, he left for his out-of-state mission. I kept in touch with him during our weekly emails. I don't recall exactly how long he was gone, but I know it was Fall when he came home. My parents told us it was because of medical concerns, and he would not be able to continue his mission. My brother was released as a missionary and integrated back into our family.

A week before my 18th birthday, our church leadership asked to meet. I assumed it was an annual birthday meeting and didn't think much of it. I happily got ready and went to this meeting. Everything started normal, except I could tell my leader felt awkward and was dancing around getting into the purpose of the meeting. First, he asked me questions about my brother coming home and how things were going. Then, he told me he had to share some information that would be upsetting. I immediately assumed it had to do with my mom and wondered why he wasn't meeting with my dad.

I assured him that I was strong and capable of working through difficult situations. However, his hesitancy concerned me. I was expecting to hear that someone in my family was seriously ill.

He started getting into the true purpose of our meeting and told me that while my brother was on his mission, he disclosed something he had done to me. Suddenly, I remembered the conversation about him assaulting me, and I relaxed slightly. I told myself that what I was about to hear was nothing new and that I would be fine.

I let the church leader know that I was aware, and he was glad to hear that I had an idea about what had happened. His words confused me. I believed I knew the full extent of the abuse. The leader explained that what my brother told me was a single occurrence was years of continuous abuse.

He blamed my brother's actions on an addiction to pornography. He explained how my brother had locked himself away in his bedroom to view porn. Watching porn led to an "inevitable circumstance" of his curiosity, pushing him to go beyond viewing sex acts and search out his own experiences.

Again, I found myself shocked into silence. I had no thoughts, nothing to say. The church leader discussed my brother's confession with my brother's Mission president, the Stake President, and our Ward leadership. They determined that that path to forgiveness was him admitting everything to me. Because of this, the church leader wanted to meet with me ahead of time.

All I could think about was how a bunch of old guys knew intimate details about my trauma before I did. I don't remember if I said anything for the rest of the meeting or what I did when I got home. But, I do know this was the beginning of a difficult journey for me. At the time, I assumed that since I was a child when my abuse happened, my parents knew already, and since they never brought it up, I wasn't going to talk to them about the meeting and the abuse. Sadly, not talking about issues was a common practice in my family.

Later, I wanted to take my dad to a movie premiere. He let me know that my brother wanted to spend time with me, but I understood what that meant. I had avoided a conversation with my brother for as long as possible.

I sat through the movie, and afterward, we sat in the garage, and he told me exactly what my church leader had shared. Then at the end of it all, he asked, "so, will you forgive me?" I received no apology. He was able to move forward and focus on his forgiveness. I said yes, hurried out of the car, and went into my room. I don't remember the rest of that night, but I recall telling my best friend what had happened. Her initial response was, "Well, why don't you lock your door?."

That was the first time I blamed myself for the abuse. Why didn't I protect myself? After the disclosure, he promised that the abuse would never happen again. However, one night I woke up to him standing in my doorway. I asked him what he was doing in my room, and he silently turned away and left. After that, I never woke up to him in my room again, and I got some comfort in knowing I had stopped the abuse, even if it was just that one time.

I wasn't sleeping, going to school, or eating. I barely existed, and no one noticed until my school counselor called me to discuss my failing grades and poor attendance. I was once an almost straight-A student, a sterling scholar, and active in an after-school club. Now, I had dropped off the face of the earth. My counselor noticed these changes when no one else did, which allowed me to graduate that year. My counselor also asked me to speak with the school police offer. I have held on tightly to the reactions of these two individuals. These memories are part of my healing.

These two people first looked out for me and were outraged by the abuse when I didn't feel I could. When I got home, I finally brought it up to my parents because I had to make a report with the police, and they were going to find out one way or another. My parents were furious with me. They told me that if I filed charges, I would be the one to tear our family apart and destroy everyone's life.

Their reaction hurt me, and now I bore the burden of protecting my family. I also wondered why the church leadership never involved law enforcement or any other outside protective agency. I also learned that they didn't discuss the abuse with my parents. Instead, my mom and dad heard about the abuse the day I came home after speaking with the police officer.

I think my parents were relieved when they learned that my abuser's confessions were not enough for me to press charges. I needed to provide evidence, but what kind of evidence would still be available?

Sadly, this outcome isn't unusual. I'm not even sure that I can describe the way the reactions of my parents and law enforcement affected me. I felt invalidated and confused, which compounded the guilt and shame I already felt. These feelings continued to worsen as I fought to have my abuser removed from my home, which took every ounce of my strength and energy. The removal took months. The church leadership provided me with a therapist. I spent most of my appointments in the lobby listening to the therapist argue with my parents about removing the abuser from home.

It was cruel to listen to my parents defend my abuser's actions and try to justify why he should remain in the home. I felt that I needed to make myself and my pain small enough to fit his presence in our family. It was destroying me. I remember waiting until everyone was at the dinner table before sitting down, and if the only seat left was next to him, I would ask one of my siblings to move. My parents started having him sit between them because having my siblings know what kind of person they were sharing dinner with was a catastrophic concept. My refusal to sit next to the abuser was raising too many questions.

One day, I wore pajama shorts around the house, and my mother scolded me. "You know the kind of issues people in this house have. You need to be more mindful of how you are dressing," is burned into my mind. I had asked my parents to explain to my abuser that I didn't want to talk to him. The abuser would try to hold normal conversations with me, but my parents said that if I didn't want to talk to him, I would need to tell him myself. I refused.

I didn't end up staying at home for very much longer. Even after the abuser was removed from the home, he was still welcome to visit whenever he wanted and with no advance notice. He still tried to speak to me when he was visiting and like he hadn't abused me for years. This showed me that he felt no guilt about his actions. Others constantly tried to tell me that he was sorry for his behavior and that he feels "so bad and carries so much guilt every day," and that "he just wants everything to go back to before." His actions never showed any consideration for me, and I explained more times than I could count that if he felt any guilt for what he did to me, he would at least consider my need for space to heal. Instead, he was forcing himself onto me again, forcing me to see his face, hear his voice, and watch him interact with my siblings as if nothing was ever wrong.

I wish I could say that was the end of this journey. Unfortunately, it has been seven years since everything I knew and trusted crumbled away, and I am not fully healed. Since I left my home and family, there have been many instances where I have had to fight for space. I have given up participating in all family events. I have had to listen to how much he "fears me and the power I have over him." And to that, I say, good. In reality, I fear him much more than he will ever fear me, but he is not wrong to at least acknowledge the way sharing my story could remove many opportunities from him and impact his life. I never have named him or spoken largely about my abuse because I have never wanted to be like him. The abuse robbed me of so many opportunities and took my family from me. That is a pain I can't begin to explain. I don't want to do that to anyone, even if he a part of me feels he is deserving of it.

I have made significant progress, and I am at more peace than ever. Healing was difficult partly because of everything I experienced after my abuse. The way we support, validate, and recognize survivors of abuse has an incredible impact on their ability to heal and recover from these experiences. The lack of justice within the legal system, the conscious and unconscious victim-blaming survivors face, inaccessibility to resources and support, not to mention the internalized guilt and shame that comes from abuse all make healing from this deep pain far more complicated than it should ever be. The abusers who abuse and violate are a huge problem. Still, until we recognize that the way we respond to the survivors of this abuse as a society, community, and even within our families is also part of the problem, we will not be able to work toward a solution. Society's response to abuse can compound the issue, but it can also be part of the solution and healing process. We need to begin changing the narrative for survivors by how we react to abuse.