A late night drama on a cable TV, The Tale, brought me to tears. It tells the story of Jennifer, an independent and career-driven woman retracing her childhood memories and finding her own sexual abuse experience. I cried for hours after watching it. I felt as helpless as Jennifer did by the end of the movie, for knowing that I have refused for so many years to acknowledge that I was a victim; for realizing nothing would ever fix and undo what happened.
How did I get here?
Twenty-five years have passed since the incident. That naïve and hurt little girl has morphed into myself, an independent and career-driven woman. Yet the gaping hole is still there, regardless how many countries I have traveled, how many people I have connected with. There is an unspeakable hurt that I don’t know how to mend. I work, I socialize, I achieve things, yet it is still there, waiting to trap me again when I am off-guard.
The image of the incident always haunted me: a middle-aged man grinned after hurting me, without saying a word, without apologizing. I was angry at him, yet I was angrier at myself for not being able to fight back, for staying silent, for not saying “stop”.
For almost two decades I kept the story to myself. I was embarrassed by my experience. I felt a bit relieved when my uncle died, just six years after the incident. He was broke, never married and suffered from schizophrenia. But I also felt bitter because I knew that I would carry the burden myself and I could never punish him. Years went by, and I hid and tried to forget the story. The story itself probably wanted to be told, yet I repressed and disowned it. The longer I disowned the story, the more it overpowered me.
The incident has affected my relationship with men. Since then, I avoided all grown-up men because I was afraid to be near them. At school and public places, I chose not to interact with men. I got into relationships, but I was never honest about what happened in my childhood.
Until one day, I met a man whom I trusted enough with my story. With him, I unloaded my childhood wounds and emotional baggage. For the first time, I unearthed the decades-old story and shared it with someone.
Sharing that story is just the beginning of a long, arduous journey to healing. Along with the story, came also a package of pain and hurt that I neglected for so long. Yes, I shared the story, but what should I do next? How could I go on? I still felt that guilt and self-worthlessness.
I did not know what to do with these feelings. I turned to this man, hoping that he would save me because I trusted him with my story. He tried with what he could, yet I still felt it was not enough. I needed a savior that did not exist. I felt so alone, hurt and abandoned. It was as if the image of my uncle haunted me again, but this time in the form of this man: grinning after hearing my story, but he could not help and he did not apologize.
It took me quite a while to slowly understand that the impact of my childhood experience distorted my view on myself and others. I judged myself harshly most of the time, I could impose an excessive guilt on myself, I thought I was not worthy. I also became too dependent on someone I trusted, by expecting him to be whatever I wanted him to be, to validate me all the time, to constantly fill me. It felt like I was drowning and I wanted someone to drown with me. It was a victimhood at play.
How could I get out of this place?
I never knew what really helped me, to be honest. I did try to exercise regularly, I did meditate, I did walk long hours, I did keep myself busy, I did reach out to friends. A bit of all of these things helped me, but sometimes it was not enough. I finally decided to seek professional help and I told my therapist the whole story. I came out of my session with some self-help techniques. Some techniques were helpful. Yet, there is a simple act that my therapist wanted me to practice: self-forgiveness.
I have read this term being tossed around easily in books, quotes and speeches. But how could it help me? All these years, I trapped myself in shame because of what happened. Analysing the situation from where I am now, I learn that the little girl is innocent and fragile. She is just a kid who can not do anything. She is not guilty and it is never her fault to experience such a thing. She is not the one to blame. She is strong enough to have endured keeping the story for two decades to herself. She can let that go now.
Slowly, I unfold the layers of myself. I recognize the root of my hurt and pain. I understand why I display a continued cycle of victim behaviour when I am in a relationship.
If someone asks me when I started my healing process, I would say that my first step to healing was when I shared a story to someone. Yet it is just a baby step. The healing process itself is messy and it feels like walking in a labyrinth. Sometimes it seems that I repeat obsessive thoughts and behaviors. Sometimes I manage to put myself together. Each day is like a balancing act of riding a bike. I can move forward If I keep my balance.
Of course there will be days when I lose it. When that happens, I will pause, have a good cry, and tell myself it is okay to stumble. Then I will ask myself: where do you want to go from here? Forward. So, I start again.
I survived adolescent years by numbing down my emotions. I entered adulthood constantly looking for love, connection and validation in all the wrong places. Looking back, I realize that surviving sexual violence is not a story of mere triumph. It also has an episode of breakdowns and feeling worthless. It is – as Leonard Cohen sings it – “a cold and a broken Hallelujah”. But here I am, one day at a time, moving forward.
For all of you who experienced what I did, I hope you are being patient with yourself. I learn that healing is more a journey, than a destination itself. Please don’t be discouraged. By sharing this story, I am taking few more steps ahead. By reading this, I hope you are too.
Em, a pseudonym, is a fighter and a survivor. She enjoys a long walk. Someday she would adopt a dog.