What #MeToo Means to Me as a Man Who Was Sexually Abused at Age 4
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.
There’s a tiny window in front of me. Well, at first it was very tiny, the size of a dollhouse window, perhaps. But over the years as I have walked out the journey that has become my healing and recovery from childhood sexual abuse, that window before me has grown and grown, and is now the size of a large bay window. It could even be the whole side of a house on a good day.
When I was 4 years old, every window I had was shattered by my abuser, who first took me to an isolated farmhouse where he sexually assaulted me. I ran from the house, the screen door shuddering against the frame. Later, he came into the bathroom where he made it clear I had nowhere I could consider a safe space or a sanctuary away from him. I existed only for his pleasure and whims. At other times, he took me into his bedroom while neighborhood kids he was babysitting sat in the living room watching television. Once, a neighbor kid walked in on us. I remember that sting of shame, like a brutal slap across my face, which burned hot and red. I tried to cover myself with my clothes that had been heaped on the floor, but it was too late. Even my sleep was disrupted. Once I awoke to him on top of me, doing the things he wanted, while I froze beneath him. I knew if I were awake, he’d make me do even more of the things I didn’t want to do.
I had nightmares for 10 years. I couldn’t get away. Even when the physical and sexual abuse was over, he still managed to hunt me down every night where I couldn’t stop him again and again. My mind made sure of that. I also developed recurring sleep paralysis, where I froze between being awake and asleep, with the sense that something was after me, was sitting on top of me or coming at me from behind. Of course, this mirrored the ways he had assaulted me. This was the beginning of my recovery journey. During the day, I had intrusive thoughts, brought on by a smell, or a particular kind of touch. The smell of sulfur or something brushing against my thigh were the most triggering.
The thing was, even though I lived these horrors day in and day out, I was completely alone and isolated — no one else could help me. No one else saw what I saw or felt what I felt. I couldn’t talk about it, not at first. It was like a one-way mirror that only I could see through. The images were distorted, like the ones in a carnival hall of mirrors. I couldn’t tell what was real, and what was fake. There weren’t any instructions, and no one else seemed to struggle with the things I struggled with nearly every day of my life. It felt very lonely, cold, bitter, a snow that fell on the outside and the inside of my soul.
That’s a snapshot of my life: me standing at the window looking out, while a heavy snowfall buried everything. I felt numb for years, maybe decades. I didn’t learn until later about the four F’s: fight, flight, freeze and fawn which explained why I felt so numb for so long. In the midst of my abuse, I learned something very important about myself: I am a survivor. I am resilient. I may fall down seven times, but I get back up eight. I am like the grass, I bounce back. So, despite being sexually assaulted as a 4-year-old, I found ways of surviving the trauma. It didn’t always feel like surviving, but I know now I wouldn’t have made it if my body hadn’t found all the pathways I have used to heal and recover.
For me, healing is like a spiral. Sometimes, it spirals downward, at other times, it spirals upward. I picture a spiral stairwell going down into an eerie cellar with torches ensconced on stone walls. It smells like freshly dug earth, worms and rotting vegetation. I have gone down to the bottom many times. Even so, I haven’t managed to stay there, buried underground. Instead, I’ve climbed back up, step by step, and found ways to adapt, to thrive and to survive.
It’s hard sometimes to fit in. This world just doesn’t get what it’s like to live through something like sexual assault. It’s invasive, it takes away a sense of safety, it’s obtrusive, it keeps the abused in a stuck place, and it’s devastating, surviving the onslaught of memories that flood through your mind is the worst kind of emotional roller coaster you can imagine. I have often felt like something and someone who doesn’t belong, doesn’t fit in, and doesn’t deserve to live a normal life. I don’t even know what that is. I am an outsider. I am unworthy of love and safety and protection, of my basic human rights to not have my body violated by someone else. And, yet, that’s exactly what happened.
It took me decades to unlearn this, until I felt I had arrived in recovery. Something I learned through this process is that the abuse didn’t just happen to my body. It also affected all the other parts of me — every facet. The abuse affected my mind, my heart, my soul and my spirit. Sure, it affected my body, too, but that wasn’t the only part of me that had been shattered by my abuse. Therefore, my healing and recovery had to address all of these areas. As I have uncovered each of my wounded places, I’ve looked for ways to treat and heal from the trauma. I have relied on my spiritual assets, connecting with my higher power, praying, reading the Bible and singing. I have learned to write down my thoughts and feelings, and find the words that best express the deepest parts of me. Through fiction, poetry and non-fiction, I’ve found my voice, and I will no longer be silent. Not about this. I have studied the brain, how it’s wired, clinical mental health counseling to sort through the mental health aspects of sexual assault, and I have practiced self-care, mindfulness and resiliency to slowly allow my heart to heal.
The physical healing took a long time. As a 4-year-old, I was sodomized repeatedly, and this caused my colon to be swollen and torn. I had internal bleeding. There was another scare, about a decade later, when HIV and AIDs first surfaced, and after doing the math, I realized I was at risk. Thankfully, I didn’t contract HIV or AIDs, but it was a very real possibility that for a time utterly terrified me.
I have researched and learned about the ACEs Study, Adverse Childhood Experiences. I took the 10 question quiz and scored a 10 out of 10. I was told this means I should have turned out differently. I am supposed to be a criminal, a murderer, a rapist, a drug addict or living out my days in a mental hospital. Yet, I am none of these things. Instead, I’m an anomaly. I believe my faith in God has made the difference. I believe that things happen for a reason. I know God didn’t want this to happen to me. And, yet, it did. He was there with me, suffering alongside me while it happened, and he’s been with me every step of the journey toward wholeness, healing and recovery. I think we can very easily burn everything to the ground. But God takes the ashes and makes something beautiful from them.
Today, I am blessed. I am alive. I have survived. I have a wife and four boys. I am the first in my family to graduate both college and grad school. I have a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. I am working as a drug and alcohol counselor for those coming out of heroin addiction. I am an advocate and author. I am working to change the statistics that say 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys before the age of 18 are victims of sexual abuse. This is unacceptable. We must change this.
In the light of social media movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, we must shed light in all the dark places and bring into our conversations what has been covered up and hidden for too long. Enough is enough. Saying nothing and doing nothing simply empowers abusers to continue to abuse. We’ve tried that, and in nearly every industry, victim after victim has come forward and shared their stories, their broken shards of glass. It’s time for us to listen, and to respond. To let them know we believe them, we hear them and we will no longer tolerate sexual assault and sexual abuse. A conservative estimate of survivors in the United States includes 50 million men and women. Common diagnoses include PTSD or C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder). Treatment should include trauma-informed care. Lifetime costs of treatment and recovery are staggering. Yet, very little is actually being done to support survivors. Unfortunately, treatment and recovery often involves aspects of addiction, incarceration, neglect, poverty and co-occurring mental health diagnoses.
I believe this is the most pervasive and debilitating crisis impacting the world today. And, yet, it gets brushed beneath the carpet. No one wants to talk about it. No one wants to admit it happened to them or someone they love. But, we are here. And we are learning we have a voice. We are slowly gaining momentum, and we are speaking up. It might have taken us longer than most to heal and recover enough to stand up, dust ourselves off and ask for help, but here we are. I will not be silent. I refuse to remain quiet. I have walked in silence for years. I speak up for myself, and for those who, like me, have experienced sexual assault or sexual abuse. I will not be silent anymore.
Getty Images photo via Waltkopp