The Part of My PTSD Journey I'm Most Unwilling to Reveal
Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
I often wonder what would happen if I told people the truth. If I had the courage to share a part of my story very few know. This is the part of my post-traumatic stress disorder journey I am most unwilling to reveal to those I love.
I just don’t know how to explain that I was sexually abused as a child. I know the next questions would likely be: By who? How old were you?
“I don’t know,” I would reply, and I wonder if at that point people would lose attention, or think I was trying to get attention by making up a lie. It is true — I do not know who hurt me, or how old I was at the time. But what I do know is that when I close my eyes, or stay still for too long, I feel hands grabbing at me, touching me in places they shouldn’t and flashes of blurred images, sensations in my body that just… shouldn’t be there. I feel what happened to me, even if I cannot give clear details — even if I do not have a name to offer up to legitimize my abuse.
I grew up not understanding what all of this meant. Honestly I wasn’t even afraid of it – I assumed what I was experiencing was normal, and was part of growing up. However, as I got older, I got more afraid. I started realizing what my mind was telling me was not as OK as I thought it was, that people my age shouldn’t have these thoughts. I also knew more than I was supposed to about sex at a young age, even if I didn’t yet have the words to identify properly what I knew. We once had an assembly when I was in primary school that discussed appropriate vs inappropriate touch, and I vividly remember feeling a chill go down my spine, and I sat there trembling next my peers.
I began to feel ashamed of my thoughts, believing I must be disgusting for not identifying what I had been through was wrong. It felt like there was something broken inside me that couldn’t be fixed. As I started to understand the severity of my past I felt so isolated, and I didn’t know how to tell anyone. I felt truly alone.
At 13 this isolation led me to the internet, where I started sharing my experiences on chatrooms, in an attempt to validate my pain. Those most interested to listen identified themselves as adult (mostly middle-aged) men. They told me I was brave and beautiful, and that “real” men would treat me well. Apparently they were these “real” men. They made me feel safe and secure and then started asking for photos — inappropriate ones. It felt weird and I was a little confused — but I didn’t want to be alone. So I sent them.
I know what you’re thinking: Why would she do that? Why would she put herself in such a vulnerable position? Trust me I ask myself that every day and I’m still not sure I have the answer. What I did know is that I was lonely, so incredibly lonely. My father was also dying of cancer at the time all this was happening, and this didn’t help my mental state.
Eventually one of these men demanded I send a recorded video or have a live video “session” with him. He said if I didn’t he’d send the photos I had given him to my family, or release them publicly.
I was terrified.
I’d had nagging fears at the back of my head ever since I had started going into these chatrooms, which flew to the surface in response to this threat. I went into “protection” mode and blocked him, as well as the other men I had been talking to. That was the last time I ever talked to them again. I tried to tell myself I hadn’t known it was dangerous, that I didn’t expect it to go so far. In reality I had never given these men my name or address — perhaps on a subconscious level I knew to be cautious even if I didn’t want to admit it to myself.
I was terrified for over a year that this man would find me and hurt me. It has now been around seven years since I went on those chatrooms, and I am fortune and grateful to report I have never again heard from any of those men, and I am free to go about my life without fear that they will somehow get to me.
I thought that was the end of this story, that I would just move on with my life and forget everything that had happened. I thought I could leave my childhood physical and online sexual abuse in the past.
But last year my sister came to me weeping. This was startling to me because she hardly ever cries, so I knew something must be wrong. Through sobs she told me she thought she had been sexually abused as a child. I looked at her for a moment in stunned silence, before I replied, “Me too.” Then we didn’t talk about it for another eight months, until my sister broached the subject again around Christmas last year. That time we talked about it for about three weeks, and I didn’t realize I had craved to share my story so much until then.
My sister and I have reacted so differently to our experiences. She is angry all the time — she snaps at the slightest provocation, and yells for hardly any reason. It can be exhausting to be around her, but she is my sister and I love her deeply and I am determined to help her get through this.
I have been constantly afraid for years — of everything, and especially of men. My terror seems to know no limits and this makes me shy, and nervous and vulnerable. However I have started to share my story with my therapist, and it has been helpful to be able to be heard by someone who is trained not to freak out. She has been very supportive, and I am relieved she reacted so well to my revelations. I hope to be able to encourage my sister to get some professional support in the future also, but so far she has been reluctant to get therapy. I will not push her too hard, but will gently support her to find better coping avenues.
It makes it even harder to share my story because I come from a privileged background — my family is wealthy, I had private education growing up and my parents owned their own business. I do not fit the “abuse stereotype” and I am afraid of how people would react. I am so grateful for everything I have been blessed with, and I do not want to hurt my family by explaining that despite all my privilege I slipped through the cracks. That I still got hurt, despite everyone’s efforts to ensure I had the happiest and most fulfilling childhood.
I am 20 years old now, and still hope to share my story with the people I care about, especially my mother. I hope to break my silence on the sexual violence that has shaped me, and to support other survivors. I am in my last year of university and as part of my major I have a year-long paper I can apply a chosen theme to. I have chosen to look at the online exploitation of minors, and hope that I am able to carry on this work in the future to ensure better outcomes for today’s youth.
My message here is not to share the story of another abused girl, one of thousands of similar stories. My message is to tell you that abuse stories have power. That the more we speak up about what happened to us, the more people will be forced to listen.
No one deserves sexual abuse. And maybe if everyone read this story, there wouldn’t need to be another one. Maybe if I can say loud enough, “This is not OK,” the world will finally listen.
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
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Thinkstock photo via Ryan McVay