This essay was also published on The Medium: https://link.medium.com/1wHZYeHtUZ
Trigger warning: discussion of childhood abuse
I’m one of the many people who watched Leaving Neverland. The first part, I had to stop a few times because I was so overwhelmed. The second part, I cried through. I assumed there would be backlash, there always is when it comes to stories of sexual abuse. The shock, the demanding questions, the disbelief. In the age of #metoo, I knew that despite what the news reported, people still asked the same time worn questions. Why didn’t you tell? Why didn’t you say anything? Why did you keep going back to this person if they were abusing you? I’m not like the two men on that documentary. I am completely average and there is nothing special about me. My abuser was average too, there was nothing special about him. He sexually abused me for 4 years when I was a child and I did the same thing other survivors do. I stayed silent.
I was born into a middle-class family in the outskirts of a suburban area. We had a nice house, lots of property, and it was a good school district on paper. I am the second of four children. My parents were available to us. There was no drinking, drug use, or domestic violence in my house. My parents worked and carted us around to every extracurricular activity. My father was the coach most of the time because no other parent would step up. From the outside, it was perfect. Except it wasn’t. My parents fought frequently about my dad’s family. My grandparents were dysfunctional and felt love could only be metered out in a specific amount. My dad didn’t fit in and they treated him and my mother badly. Being the second grandchild shouldn’t have been a problem except I was a girl and there was already a girl. From the beginning I was a disappointment, not a boy, better luck next time. My older sister was the favorite and my grandmother adored her. She decided since I looked so much like my mother, I was just like her and treated me just as badly. Before the age of 10, I was told I was fat, unlovable, and a burden.
I liked school and I was a good student but I was shy and quiet and wanted to do a good job because in my family it didn’t really matter what else was going on as long as you were a high achiever in academics or work. When I was older, we had to say what color we thought we were in my religion class, I said beige and everyone laughed but no one disagreed. I was a good, invisible kid. The first time I interacted with my abuser, he brought a bunch of us to his classroom because it was rainy and we were going crazy with indoor recess. I liked the room, we banged on instruments and listened to music and it was a bigger room to mess around in. We all got ice cream after from the cafeteria cooler and he said ‘shhh it’s a secret’. And how delicious to have such a secret. To be part of something secret and special that connected me to others.
He kept bringing us but the group got smaller until it was just 3 of us. Each time we got a treat. Gum, candy, ice cream, chocolate milk. To have gum in school! It was forbidden. I would chew it on the bus on the way home and spit it on my front lawn. I was 7. He started to touch me but it was subtle at first, just a brush on the backside, a hand on my back or in my hair. Nothing scary at all. He would brush my hair and tell me how beautiful I was, how special, and how much he loved me. Those words filled a hole in me I didn’t know was there. I wanted to hear more. I was selfish and did everything I could to be with him. He would have me lay on blue mats and I would stare at the wall. He touched me over my clothes, then under them, and then had me touch him. It felt uneasy but not bad enough that I told him to stop. After all of that, he would hold me in his arms and tell me the same things about being beautiful and special. They were perfect moments of peace. There were also treats, trinkets of rings and bracelets, flowers and tiny dolls, lollipops and candy. Each one was like it was made of gold because it was for me, just me.
Of course, it didn’t last. Soon it moved onto oral sex and that was very unpleasant but I did it because I loved him, it made him happy, and I knew he wouldn’t hurt me. Right? There were no second thoughts because kids don’t have them. They just have now and that’s it. I was praised a lot after this started but there were also the start of threats and coaching, we’ll get into trouble, we won’t be able to see each other, your parents will hate you and send you away, no one will believe you. Hammered over and over into my head alternating with I love you, you’re special, you’re the only one. I was panicked that I wouldn’t be able to see him and that I would be separated from my family. I wanted to be the only one. Not one of 4, not the loser of the grandkids, but the one. There were rules to follow and if I broke them or made a mistake, I was punished. Slapped on the side of the head, hair pulled, thighs pinched, legs punched. Nothing that left any marks. I made more mistakes as time went on and he would be distant, push me away and not say the lovely things he had. I would beg for forgiveness, I’ll do better, I’m sorry, please. I started to have stomach aches and couldn’t concentrate in school. I was 8 by this time and went to the nurse every day with a stomachache. Her office was a safe place. She called my mother to ask if everything was ok at home and I was told not to go to the nurse unless I was bleeding. I never went to the nurse again. There was no safe place anymore.
His mood was always changing, I never knew what he’d be like but I wanted the old way back and every time I went, I would hope I would be good enough to have him love me again. Then for a while he was sweet and kind. That was around the time we first had sex. I was 8. He took me to an apartment building, I have no idea where. He had a special gown and had me take a bath. When it was happening I looked at the painting of fruit on the wall and heard the tree branches scratching at the window. I was in the painting, away from what was happening. After, I remember being in a bath again and it was full of blood. The bathroom was a 70’s blue and it turned the water purple. I cried with my hands over my mouth because I didn’t want to upset him. I remember after him brushing my hair and humming to me. He taught me how to use toilet paper to cover my underwear so it wouldn’t get ruined and what to do if it did. He said, you’re my beautiful special girl and gave me a bracelet. I still hear the scratching at the window in my nightmares.
Once it started, there was no going back and this is the second part of why kids don’t tell. We get too far into a hole and don’t have the skills to get out. We haven’t said anything up until this point so who would believe us? Plus, the same stuff is getting pounded into our heads love, special, only one, don’t tell, you’ll be alone and no one will love you. The sex continued in school, both during and after, when I was supposed to go to afterschool activities, and in his car. It was painful. I never complained. If I bled, he punished me and called me a pig or a bad girl. He would push me away and tell me he didn’t want to be near me. I was devastated. I was ashamed of my body and my face. I thought I was ugly and wouldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I punched my legs. I had a dollhouse and my dolls acted out the sex I was having. There was a ‘bad room’ and a ‘bad bed’. I had a swing set and used to swing for hours. It lulled me out of my body. A body that no longer felt like it was my own. I know now I was dissociating because the stress was too much but back then, I just knew I could curl into myself and escape for a while. I swung so much over the next few years, I wore through 2 swings seats. I started to see a dark shape that followed me everywhere and gave me nightmares. I called him my darkman and at night I’d see his fingers creep across my rug to my bed. I had nightmares and wanted to sleep with my parents. The darkman still follows me today.
I’m 9. I never felt well and my stomach still hurt. I would get this thumping in the back of my head. I was always alert, waiting to hear him come down the hall. I would hear the clock tick tock in the classroom and it would be so loud, I thought my head would explode. The darkman would wrap around the clock and I could hear him laughing at me. Near the end of 4th grade, the sex slowed down and I thought things would go back to the way they were before. But they didn’t. One day he came for me and brought me to a different place. It was a room in a basement. There was another man there and I was expected to have sex with him. I did not know this but figured it out when he started to take my clothes off and held me down. The teacher stayed while this happened to me. I was confused and felt like I had betrayed him. I kept expecting him to jump up and help me. I didn’t want to do anything sexual with anyone. I remember a total of 12 men I was brought to meet and sometimes he stayed and sometimes he left. All in the same room. Some of the men wanted to have sex, some wanted to masturbate, some wanted me to dress up in things they brought, some wanted to take pictures. I was drugged on 2 occasions. If I broke a rule or if one of the men was unhappy, I was pushed, hit with a belt, or slapped. There was one man who I encountered the most, a total of 6 times and he was without a doubt a psychopath and a sadist. He hurt me in ways that you could not comprehend.
The abuse stopped when I was 10.
4 years had gone by and I was a different person. By this time, I was numb. I was so good at pretending and having a fake face, you could have asked me a 100 times and I would deny being abused and you would believe me. But if you looked there were signs even in my silence. I had fits at school where I would cry, I never wanted to sit criss cross apple sauce because I thought everyone would know I had had sex. I would need to go to the hallway until I calmed down. My 5th grade teacher said she needed to call my mom and I was terrified that they knew and she would send me away. Sometimes I would stare at my schoolwork and not be able to see what was on the paper. The kids started to stay away from me, I was weird and felt very alone. I had UTI’s and bad stomach pain. I still couldn’t sleep and the darkman was breathing down my neck. I still hit my legs. My dollhouse playing got more violent and I set one of the windows on fire. I cut the hair off my barbies and blacked out their eyes. I hated them and their bodies. I hid them at the back of my closet. I swung and listened to music for as long as I can. From the outside, if you didn’t look too hard, I was a normal but anxious kid. I did well in school. I was quiet. I was invisible.
This story is not unique or even interesting but it brings up the same question: why didn’t I tell. When you ask why we (survivors) don’t tell, we can’t. We been love bombed or threatened or are frightened and confused. There are times when I did want to tell but didn’t know where to go or who to tell. It was too complicated for my little brain. Then, I was too far into it and felt like I was part of it. That I’d get blamed and get into trouble. Then there’s hope and hope is probably one of the most powerful things to a kid. I hoped again and again that we would go back to the way it was at the beginning. That if I was good enough and made him happy he would love me again. I also didn’t want him to get into trouble. I loved him totally and completely. He saw me when no one else did. He thought I was special and picked me over everyone else. I would never betray him. He always came and got me from the room. He always saved me and brought me closer to home. How can you not love someone who saves you? That love is more powerful than anything else.
People have questions and they have doubts about our stories. It true that I have no proof, just my word. Also, is my memory perfect? No it’s not. There are some things I remember pieces of, like slices of glass or just smells or lights. Survivors are just as hard on ourselves as others are. We ask ourselves: am I making it worse than it was? Why can’t I just be normal and get over this? Why did this happen? How long do I have to suffer? How much am I to blame? How long do I have to be punished? These questions haunt me when I’m trying to unsuccessfully sleep. There is no answer. There is no upside to us sharing our stories. No one gives you a metal for having survived trauma. Most of the time you’re shunned, told to be quiet, or not believed at all. I have terrible symptoms of PTSD: nightmares, insomnia, crippling panic attacks, severe depression, suicidal thoughts, flashbacks, stomach pains, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, social phobia, fear of strange men, irritability. Who would want to live this way? I still have to work and take care of my family. No one lives your life for you and no one wants to talk about my trauma except my amazing husband, a patient therapist, and a best friend who understands when I flake out of her. These are my people and I’m lucky to have them.
Trauma is insidious and affects every part of my life. I feel like I can’t connect to people, not even my husband and children. It is heart wrenchingly lonely because all I want to feel is like I belong with someone, to have someone understand. I still hide behind my false face (which has held up spectacularly over the years) and most people think I’m ‘normal’. I have a hard time letting go of it, even in therapy where I’m supposed to be the most genuine because I’m still afraid of being rejected and not believed. I’m told I’m a victim of child pornography and human trafficking but all those labels mean is that I wake up every morning wondering how many people looked at the pictures of me online and saw my pain. That will never change because those pictures will be online forever. Try living with that. I feel deep and unrelenting shame about the things that happened to me. It’s like a black hole inside of me that sucks in all of the joy and happiness of life and shreds it. I’m constantly waiting for ‘them’ to come back and take me away. My terror is constant, it’s one of the few unchanging things in my life. I work hard to fight back against these symptoms but a lot of the time it seems hopeless. Trauma is a life sentence. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, people have done amazing things because of adversity in childhood but it’s still a lifelong struggle. It flares up when you least expect it and smacks you in the side and knocks you to the ground. Not everyone will understand why we are silent about our abuse and stay with our abusers because it’s complicated. There’s a lot of damage in and around silence. It grows like a weed and chokes out things like honesty, compassion, and openness. It makes us different, seperate, and scared. It makes us always be ready for the next bad thing to happen. The only person you have is the one who started it all. So you think it’s best to just stay silent. And the vicious cycle continues.