When You're Not the 'Typical' Case of Sexual Abuse Portrayed in the Media
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.
Living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is no easy feat. The first time I came across that term, I was sitting in a therapy session with my therapist. Some people ask me what it’s like because they’re curious to know what I went through. They expect me to share, and then judge what I choose to share with them as the only experiences I’ve been through. They want to know every little detail, as if I’m supposed to somehow trust people when all my life I’ve questioned if anyone could ever be trusted.
What I tell them when they ask me if I’m OK is that I’m surviving — mainly because I can’t bring myself to say I’m truly OK. I tell them I have depression, because it’s easier to say that than be stigmatized for having complex PTSD. When you come from what looks like a perfectly normal middle-class family, people are quick to judge and compare childhood experiences. Almost as if it’s a competition to see who had it worse.
What I usually don’t tell them is the graphic details of every incident, every trauma, and the chaos that happened in that house. The years of sexual and emotional abuse I went through as a child, not by a caregiver as often depicted in the media but by a sibling. Not by a sibling of an opposite gender, but of the same gender. What I don’t tell people is that it went on for three years, and I feel responsible and ashamed in every way possible for what happened. What I don’t tell them is that it wasn’t child play, and it wasn’t a matter of exploring each other’s bodies. Yet I still feel like what happened to me wasn’t bad enough. What I don’t tell them is it wasn’t a single event of trauma that happened, but it was the constant turmoil of traumas that were ongoing to the point where it affected me greatly.
I struggle with flashbacks and nightmares that keep me awake at night. Having these flashbacks are like reliving the memories over and over again. What I don’t tell them is I self-harm because I feel a need to punish myself for everything that I did or didn’t do. I’m still in denial at times, even though I’ve seen professionals who have told me I’ve gone through complex trauma and abuse. That should be enough for me to acknowledge what really happened as it is, but no. I am ashamed because I am not your typical case of abuse portrayed in the media. I am ashamed because I was 10 years old, and feel like I should have stopped it before it continued for years. I am ashamed because I tried to open up about it, but I was so worried of being defective enough for my mother to send me off to a home for girls like she tried to do with my brother. I am silenced because of people comparing their childhood experiences and letting me know what I went through was not a big deal. I am silenced because every time I tried to open up about what happened, I was shut down by others and told I was privileged. They told me to count my blessings, and I did. They ignored and gave up on me. What they didn’t know was I blamed myself for everything that happened. I felt like I deserved it.
But here’s something I’d like to share about my progress to all those who’ve felt like their traumas don’t matter, or to those who beat themselves up over how they reacted afterwards.
No one deserves to be blamed for what happened to them when they were really young and incapable of controlling the circumstances happening to them. I could have reached out when I was 12. I could have talked about what happened. But I didn’t. I tried to kill myself instead.
What I did back then was a form of protecting myself. I didn’t know any better. I grew into my teenager years clinging on so tightly to my secrets, for fear of someone finding out and blaming me for what happened. That I was born bad, and there was nothing I could do to ever feel clean again. Afraid that people would call me the boy who cried wolf, but the wolf never came. Afraid that people thought I wanted their attention, but all I really wanted was for them to know me. To know what was really happening in that house.
What I’ve gone through is not something I can easily put to words. Some people have had the privilege of knowing the details, while others just the gist of it. But I’m not ashamed of my past anymore. I can’t change it or wish for someone to give me back my childhood. It was taken away from me. But I have a chance to live the rest of my life now. To write my own future with people I love and care about. My pain and my demons, they’re still lurking around. I can feel them, just waiting for me to trip up. But I’ve learned to be comfortable with them around. I’ve learned to let the tears out whenever I need to because we can feel emotions when we want to. It isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. There’s no shame in feeling. There’s no shame in needing someone in your life.
Those are things I should have learned when I was younger, but it’s never too late to learn them now. Things won’t always work out, but we accept it. It doesn’t mean we forget entirely. When my demons get a hold of me, I may not be able to accept what happened to me. I may end up regressing back into those moments. Things beyond my control. But I’ve managed to accept it rather than shy away from the truth. Let this be a reminder that I’ve progressed. Far more than I expected myself to. And I should be proud of myself. I am proud of myself.
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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Getty Images photo via Dreya Novak