Society always has one question when a woman waits to report after she’s been abused: why now?
The question is irrelevant and infuriating, but let me attempt to shed a bit of light on why a woman might wait. I’ll share with you a bit of my story.
When I was six years old, I was sexually abused by an older cousin and continued to be sexually abused by other cousins over the years. The brain is interesting in the way that it processes trauma. When an event is too traumatic, then the memory of the said event will be suppressed. I spent a lot of years with very hazy mementos of the initial abuse. And due to the fuzz around the edges, I told myself: Nah, that couldn’t have REALLY happened to you. You were so young. Maybe you misremember things. By doing so, I became angry, and I constantly felt unprotected. I mean, to look at my family all that most people see is love. So much so that I’ve been told how envious folks are over the years. So, how in the world could something so terrible have happened to me and how could this person STILL be loved and respected within my family. I was in a constant state of cognitive dissonance.
A few years ago I decided that I needed to get clear with myself on what really happened. I needed to remove the fuzz from the memory. I decided to talk to my mom.
Let me be clear: the memory of the abuse was always clear. What wasn’t clear was what happened afterward. For whatever reason, I couldn’t grasp it. After speaking to my mother, I learned that her and my father were away and we were being cared for by a sitter. Upon their arrival home, the sitter was inconsolable and I was taken to the emergency room and also received follow up counseling. Because I had blocked out the care that I received initially when the other acts of sexual abuse took place I didn’t feel as though I had a safe place to report them and be protected. So, I kept quiet and suffered through. She was devastated to learn that there had been further violations and took time to share with me her own experiences. This initially served to reconcile some of the turmoil that I’d experienced and soon after I moved out of the state and wasn’t present for many family functions.
Shortly after moving back home and being confronted with this individual’s presence again all of the trauma came back to the surface. I just couldn’t understand it. Why was he around? Why was he accepted? Why was he celebrated? I, unfortunately, continued to attend family functions due to what I thought was a sense of obligation that I have since learned is actually conditioning. Last year at this time I decided that I would no longer participate in family gatherings where this person would be present. I informed my mother, sister, and brother to expect my absence and why. Because I know that I cannot dictate who others choose to have a relationship with I did not ask that any of them remove this individual from their lives. Although, if I am honest I fully hoped that is what would happen. My sister was and has remained compassionate. My mother was initially compassionate but has since struggled to understand why I am unable to continue to suffer through being in the presence of someone who sexually abused me. I know that she was born into an era where she has had to live much of her life adhering to the status quo for a black woman and into a family that has swept sexual abuse under the rug for decades. It’s what she knows. And while I can logically process those facts my heart still breaks every time the person who violated me is so freely able to breathe and be at ease within my family dynamic, and I am constantly fighting off full-blown panic attacks and stuffing down tears. My brother, God love him, first learned of this abuse when I informed him that I would not be attending family gatherings. His initial reaction was that of anger. Anger that he had no idea all these years and had forged such a close relationship with this individual without this knowledge. That’s fair, right? We all need time to process new information especially that which is delicate. He has since been very careful not to put me in a situation where I have had to share space with this person. I respect his efforts. My mother has also made efforts to give me a heads up, but none of it’s gone forth without the residue of exasperation on either of their parts. I feel how much of a hassle it is. I feel how torn they are in the situation.
Now, that you have a bit of background about how it is so deeply ingrained in our culture to protect the abuser vs. the abused and how difficult it is for someone who has been abused to speak up about it:
Last night I went to my brother’s surprise birthday dinner. I had a crazy busy weekend and rushed back in town to be sure that I would be back in time for it. When I arrived my eldest two children and I settled in the farthest corner of the tables and awaited my brother’s arrival. During this time there was a conversation about seating that took place and I heard my mother rattle off a list of names. I heard them all and I thought to myself: surely, she didn’t just say that my abuser was coming and didn’t tell me beforehand. I knew I had heard her clearly and my eyes became teary. I wanted to get up and leave, but this was my brother’s celebration and I didn’t want to miss it. It wasn’t fair that I had to. I was also paralyzed. I knew that I needed to go and I couldn’t move. I even held my urine the entire dinner. I silently prayed that he wouldn’t show. I knew I was kidding myself. Still, I stayed. I sat and ate dinner with my very first abuser and my family who fully consented to his presence. There was a moment that I heard him say, “Hey, cuz.” I pretended not to hear and started a conversation with my son instead of acknowledging him. Once the dinner concluded, I stayed longer than I desired to avoid having to walk to the other end of the table where he was seated with his wife. I felt safer with the buffer of people in between us. But they didn’t stay forever. My buffer cleared out and the next thing I knew there he was with his arm around my shoulder, a light kiss on the cheek: “Hey cuz, how are you?” I was frozen and infuriated. I managed a tight-lipped “I’m fine.” He walked away and I took my shaky hands, grabbed my things, took the obligatory photo with my brother and left.
Today I spoke with a dear friend about what happened and he said to me: That’s insane. And you disrespected yourself by not raising hell about him being there. You consented to allow everyone in that room to disrespect you when you didn’t raise hell. There’s no way in hell he should’ve been allowed to be there. I just don’t understand how there weren’t at least five fingers in his face.
Now, this is not the first time that I have heard this. I had a therapist also tell me that I had been disrespecting myself by continuing to be in his presence and be silent about how it impacted me. But the love behind it made the difference this time. I also realized at that moment that he was the only one who had the reaction to protect ME at all costs without caring what the fall out behind it might be. When I say that he was the only person, I am included in that number of people who didn’t protect me. I have unfortunately been conditioned to know that even when you do speak up very little will be done and your abuser’s life will go on uninterrupted.
There is such an intricate internal battle that takes place when someone is sexually abused. Whenever it is that they do decide to share their story the only question that needs to be asked is, “What do you need?”. Once they tell you, move heaven and earth to make sure they have it. Period. Their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual safety is the priority. Each time we fail to ensure safety we perpetuate the previously inflicted trauma.
I have received a wake-up call and have decided that no matter what or who I will be a safe place for myself. In doing the work to heal I will change the course of the future for those that come behind me. I want the seeds from my branch on the tree to fall onto the fertile ground, take root, and grow a tree which is not only strong but healthy. Beyonce said: if we are going to heal, let it be glorious.
#HealLoudly #MeToo #childhoodsexualabuse #generationaltrauma