Over the years I have worked with many people, mostly women, who have experienced such traumatic experiences in their lives that feeling their emotions is too much. They often come into therapy after the trauma has been exposed or when the consequences of carrying it has hit a breaking point.
When a person is violated, physically and/or sexually an invisible shield is destroyed. In recent years we teach children about their personal space, keeping their private parts to themselves and telling a grown up if anyone tries to touch them in those areas. That’s progress. For all those who were have been violated, who did not know about their invisible boundary that was to be a barrier, they often didn’t tell anyone about the molestation or rape. Nor did they realize that once that barrier was broken they’d suffer the consequences in having poor boundaries and be unable to protect themselves.
I won’t go into statistics here, but it is common for people who have been abused as children to become promiscuous in their teen years. Maybe it’s a subconscious choice in an effort to be in charge, to decide who touches their bodies. Maybe they become easy targets because something energetically about that barrier is missing leaving a gap where sexualize behavior seems to fit. That is not to say there isn’t regret, confusion and shame afterwards.
I remember Jenna, an 18 year-old attractive and vivacious young woman who had been molested as a child but never talked about it. She began working for a man who raped her. She didn’t want to call it rape because he wasn’t a stranger in a dark alley, nor did he hold her down against her will. He was more clever than that.
Jenna was in his neighborhood and remembered she’d left her bike at his house. She didn’t recall the details of her bike being there, but did remember she used to walk his dog for him. It seemed a good idea to stop to get it while it was still daylight. She could ride it home. She found her 40 year-old boss and his girlfriend just about to sit down to dinner. Jenna was invited to stay and had several glasses of wine with her meal. Too intoxicated to ride her bike home in the dark, she accepted their offer to stay over and sleep on the pull-out couch in the living room. How often she wished she had called a cab and asked her boss to pay for it. She could pay him back with her next paycheck. Asking for help, asking for money just weren’t options for her. It had something to do with how she grew up. Nobody mentioned a cab or other options in order to get her home, so she acquiesced and stayed against her better judgement.
It wasn’t long before her boss joined her in the living room. She said he kissed her and then said approvingly that she kissed very well. He went on to say, “You know what I think of that.” She said she actually didn’t know. That is how young and naive she was. Once his girlfriend was asleep the boss crawled into the bed with Jenna and had sex with her. She wasn’t a virgin, so she knew what was happening and yet felt paralyzed to stop it. She said she felt as if she were in the corner of the ceiling looking down at what was happening but had no power to stop it. She described it as if she were a fly caught in the spider’s web.
Do we call it rape? Do we call it inappropriate? For Jenna, who had nightmares for weeks, it was so unpleasant that she never wanted talked about. She quit her job soon afterwards. She doesn’t know what her parents thought when she didn’t come home. They never mentioned it, which she thought was odd but relieved because it made it easier to pretend it didn’t happen.
For Maddie there was no question of rape. She was between the ages of 6-8 when her uncle assaulted her with her mother’s knowledge and consent. If the mother lost at cards the uncle got the “prize” of Maddie. She said he told her that this is how grownups show their love to children. She said it hurt.
I began working with Maddie when she was 8 years of age and had recently been removed from her mother’s care. We met on a weekly basis and gradually she shared her secrets with me. By the age of 9 her mother was going before a judge to claim she had no knowledge of the abuse. Maddie was so angry that she wrote a letter to the judge and asked me to read it before she sent it. She did a good job in holding her mother accountable as did the judge
I told Maddie’s adoptive parents, relatives who had children Maddie’s age, who were part of a conservative Christian church, that Maddie would need to see a therapist again when she got close to adolescents. I could imagine her listening to her 12 year-old friends talking about cute boys and wondering what it would be like to be kissed. Maddie had far too much information and experience not to have a lot of mixed feelings and a growing anger at the innocents that had been stolen from her. I hoped the parents could look beyond their beliefs about sexuality and have patience and understanding for her as she grew up.
I’ve heard numerous stories of incest, molestation by a babysitter or the child of the adult babysitter who wasn’t paying close enough attention. I’ve heard stories of neighborhoods where the children were sacrificed every time there was a gathering. In these incidences large families lived close by each other. The abuse wasn’t condone per se, just in the passive way the adults didn’t keep track of where the know pedophiles were or where their children were. I had a client who told her parents about being molested by her cousin, but the parent’s response was to advice her to just hide the next time he was over as if it were a game of hide-and-seek. She took to spending long hours in a closet hoping he’d give up looking for her.
I’m a parent and know most of us keep a lookout for danger and do our best to protect our kids. Sometimes the abusers are those in trusted positions. When I got a letter from my 3 year-old son’s daycare informing me that one of their female staff members had been accused of abusing over 20 children my heart raced and my stomach dropped. I got out the puppets and spent time with my son specifically to see if he could tell me if this person had touched his private parts. It didn’t seem like it, but how could I know for sure?
He tells me as an adult that this woman did not abuse him, but she could have. I didn’t know of her guilt for sure until after I ran into her just before I received the letter. I said hello, but she turned, leaving her shopping cart and walked out of the store in a hurry. When I got the letter I understood her odd behavior.
What I know for sure is that those who have been abused need a safe place, lots of patience and the reassurance that they are not to blame. There will be a lot of tears, anger and rage in the healing process. Self-compassion is really important and taking small steps, feeling in pieces that are manageable.
One thing is certain, thinking about and reliving the experiences can be so uncomfortable that it doesn’t feel safe to do it, and yet it is necessary for healing. Developing a trusting relationship with an experienced therapist where the dirty details can be exposed and released can be painful but freeing. Telling your story to someone who understands and who will listen can be life changing. It takes courage.
(The names in this piece have been changed to provide privacy.)