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Hide-and-Seek Wasn’t Just a Game, It Was a Survival Strategy

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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.

One of the first games we instinctually play with newborn babies is peek-a-boo. Perhaps it’s a relic of our early human ancestors who had to be adept at hiding to avoid being attacked by predators. Whatever it’s origin, it’s a game that appears to exist across different ethnicities and cultures throughout the world. We cover our eyes and pretend like we can’t see a baby. Then we reveal ourselves with glee, exclaiming “peek-a-boo,” generally eliciting joyful giggles from the infant because they have been proverbially found. It’s a precursor to the game we play later for fun called hide-and-go-seek , where we literally find places to disappear ourselves and then challenge our peers to locate us. When they do, everyone is happy and all appears to be back to normal.

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But what if it isn’t? What if the game that we’ve been taught to revel in from our infancy becomes a coping strategy — nay — a survival mechanism to avoid being abused? All of a sudden an innocent game played amongst peers becomes an active combat training session preparing us for making decisions that might very well mean the difference between life and death. This was my reality growing up.

I hadn’t really thought about this until recently when I heard someone carelessly ask an interviewee “Did you have a favorite hiding place as a child?” For some reason the question triggered me, eliciting a wave of fear in me. The idea of a favorite hiding spot — while seemingly innocuous to those who grew up hiding for play — awakened my hyper-vigilant inner child who knew all the hiding spots for survival.

I was the best hider. I had to be. And I took this game so seriously that when I hid, I wouldn’t come out if I wasn’t found. Giving away my hiding places or secrets terrified me. They were my best weapons against harm and I certainly had no intentions of showing anyone my hand, even if it was just a game. It got to the point where my cousins and friends wouldn’t want to play with me anymore because they couldn’t find me and I wouldn’t come out of hiding.

My skills were well honed. I could hide anywhere. I hid in any closet — behind clothes, under shoes and even climbing to the top shelf of a closet organizer — laying my body flat under whatever blankets or towels were stacked there so that I blended in with them. I paid attention to things like what color I was wearing so that I wouldn’t clash with what I chose to hide behind. I could contort my body into pretzel like shapes to squeeze into almost any gap or hole. I’d climb into laundry hampers and bury myself amongst the dirty clothes knowing nobody else would look there. And if I built a pillow fort, I’d fill it with every stuffed animal I owned and cover myself in them until someone finally came to look for me.

But my favorite spot — or rather the one that I knew would work every time I needed it to — was the closet of my bedroom behind my Barbie McDonalds which was underneath a bunch of hanging clothes and buffered by stacks of shoes. It was a fortress that would shield me from being discovered when I heard his voice beckon me. I’d hold my breath, keeping so still that there wasn’t a sound or commotion that would give my location away. Because the alternative meant being lured into the bathroom to be sexually abused.

My step-grandfather was a sneaky monster. A savvy hunter craving the tender flesh of his prey. He would call out for me in his sickening baby man voice “Where are you hiding? I know you’re in there.” Every footstep he’d take closer to the closet I could hear his breathing getting heavier and more labored. I could smell his sickening cologne and I knew if I made even the slightest error…he’d discover me. My stomach filled with a million red ants crawling and stinging and burning with anxiety. Hyper vigilance wasn’t a temporary state — it was a necessary permanent way of being to prevent him from consuming my body, physically and emotionally.

And while I hid, my grandmother was oblivious to the game of cat and mouse that was ensuing in the room next to the kitchen where she spent most of her time. While she prepared his food, he sought me out as an appetizer. As she folded his laundry, I folded in on myself attempting to become invisible. She knew that he had molested me before, yet she continued allowing him to come to our house putting me in harms way, and this infuriated me.

It was reckless and irresponsible. I felt like I was expendable. A sacrifice for the small financial gain that her food and laundry would reap from this monster of a man. I couldn’t comprehend how she’d let him come back knowing what he did. But what I could understand even less was how she didn’t think it prudent to keep a close eye on me when he was there. I knew that if I wasn’t prepared for his arrival, nobody would come to rescue me. So I hid…and hid…and hid.

Hide-and-seek isn’t a fun game to me. It doesn’t make me think of time spent with friends giggling and playing. It doesn’t conjure happy memories. It makes me feel unsafe, unloved, and not valued. It fills me with dread and shame. It reinforces to me that being invisible and diminutive is advantageous, which most certainly has fueled my on again off again bouts of anorexia at least to some capacity. But most of all — thinking about hiding fires every instinct in my primitive nervous system to be alert. If nobody else will save me, I will save myself — one Hunger Games session of hide-and-go-seek at a time.

Getty image by Nick David

Originally published: September 29, 2022
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