Trigger warning: This post is about sexual molestation. If this is a trigger for you, please take care of yourself.
About 17 years ago, my husband and I were friends with a couple who had a teenage daughter. She was 14 and was pretty in the way that would someday become beautiful. I couldn’t help but notice the way eyes followed her wherever she went. No one else seemed to notice the way I did. I guess I was extra sensitive to it.
We were at a party one afternoon at our friends’ house when I noticed a man talking to the girl. On the surface, it seemed innocent enough. I couldn’t hear their conversation but when he’d lean in and say something to her, she’d put her hand over her mouth and giggle. He wasn’t sitting close enough to touch her but close enough that I knew she could feel his body heat. Close enough to smell his aftershave, the cigarettes on his clothes, the beer on his breath. This man was a friend of her parents. On the surface, there was nothing wrong with them talking like that. It raised no flags to anyone but me.
As I watched her, I became her. My parents had a close friend who talked to me like that too, like he was letting me in on a secret. He told me how mature I was for my age and how I seemed to understand him better than the adults did. I was 14 and insecure about the way my body was developing, about having pimples and what I thought was a big butt. He’d watch me walk and I was self-conscious about the way my hips swayed, not because I was trying to be provocative but because my hips became a woman’s long before any other part of me.
Never mistake physical maturity for emotional maturity. My parents’ friend did. He took the way I soaked up his attention and turned it into consent to enter into a relationship that drowned me immediately. He took it to mean I was hot for him, that I was sexually adventurous and free spirited. I got an allowance, had band posters on my wall and had to ask permission to go to the mall. 30 years later, I’m still astounded by his reckless self-centeredness.
I had a flashback as I watched our friends’ daughter and the man. I had been drinking all afternoon and was primed for a meltdown. I remember being in our friends’ bathroom, crying uncontrollably. It felt like I was going to die. It was a visceral grief that had been building for years, waiting for just the right trigger to erupt. There was no way I could leave the bathroom, no way I could explain what it brought up in me to see a grown man chat flirtatiously with a young teenager. I couldn’t even prove he was flirting. I remember my husband and our friend’s wife coming into the bathroom and consoling me. My husband explained that I’d been taking an herbal supplement to help me sleep because I’d had chronic night terrors for years. We all explained it away as a bad reaction to an herb.
I buried that flashback as quickly as I could, and others besides. It was years before I could do any work around what had happened to me, not just with my parents’ friend but with another man when I was 11. The ramifications of sexual abuse are so numerous that my fingers would fall off before I could type them all.
For a long time I struggled with the juxtaposition of power and helplessness. I learned the power of sex early but continually suffered the consequences of wielding that power. I was so powerful that I could make a man lose control, make him cheat on his wife, make him break the law. I could destroy entire families and alter the future and the past. I was at fault for just being born. Sex was a way to be acknowledged, to prove that I physically existed because most of the time I was trapped inside my head; a place I dreaded.
I know now that I didn’t ask for it and I wasn’t to blame. I know now that nothing will ever make it ok and I don’t have to get over it. 30 years later I can say that what happened to me shaped who I am and if I try to bury the young me in a shroud of shame, I’m leaving a part of myself behind. I love her, I love me.
It took years to bring the pieces of myself together. First and foremost, I had to stop numbing myself. I had to learn that feelings aren’t supposed to be dealt with, they’re meant to be felt. I had to learn to get angry, really, really angry and to trust that my anger wouldn’t make the world stop spinning. I had to learn that there’s a difference between powerlessness and surrender. I had to learn that I could trust myself and that God was my truthteller.
If you’re reading this and it feels familiar to you, there’s something I want you to know.
I thought I had to numb it away. I was wrong. I thought my childhood had damaged me beyond repair. I was wrong. I thought the pain of what happened to me and what I did to myself as a result would hurt forever. I was wrong. I thought I’d never feel whole. I was wrong. I thought I’d never feel safe. I was wrong. I thought I’d always be afraid. I was wrong. I thought I would always have nightmares. I was wrong. I thought God couldn’t love me. I was wrong. I thought I couldn’t love myself. I was wrong. I thought I would feel shame forever. I was wrong.
I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.