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How I Learned to Call 'It' What It Was

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For a long time, I didn’t call it anything. “It” just was. It existed in my thoughts and in my dreams, but It didn’t have a name and I couldn’t talk about It. Things like It didn’t happen in my neighborhood or my school. It didn’t happen in my family or to my friends, but It happened to me.

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I learned a lot about psychology over the years. Psychology was my major in college, I went to therapy for an eating disorder, wrote a book, gave speeches and appeared on TV. I never mentioned It. Then It happened again, but not in quite the same way.

The first time I heard It’s name, I was in a therapist’s office. I did a double take, I was sure she couldn’t be talking about me – about my story. It couldn’t have been what happened to me. I’m sure this therapist didn’t know what she had done. It was like a piece of a puzzle had been slipped into place and I was finally able to see the picture forming. I felt able to breathe.

“It” was abuse. It was sexual and psychological abuse. And It did happen to me. Sexual abuse at the hands of a pediatrician and psychological abuse in a previous therapist’s office were part of my history. They were still affecting me and they had a name. It was OK to call “It” what “It” was. The words didn’t make it stronger, they made it less so. The words put it in its place. It was not OK that it happened, but it was OK to say it actually did happen. I had as much right to use the word abuse as any of the other people I thought had more claim to it. I spent years subconsciously denying what really happened – explaining away my “quirks” as character flaws, rather than perfectly reasonable responses to a messed up situation.

Using the word abuse still surprises me sometimes. June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month. There are so many people out there dealing with traumas and things they should never have had to deal with. I think it’s hard not to compare yourself to others, but the truth is we all have the right to tell our stories. My story is what it is and I’m grateful to finally find the words to put it on paper. The therapist who first said “abuse” didn’t tell me anything about the story I didn’t know – there were no sudden revelations or repressed memories that sprang to mind — but she gave me a language where there had been none. And isn’t naming “It” the first part of accepting, which is the first part of healing?

“You’re only as sick as your secrets,” they say in Alcoholics Anonymous. My abuse hadn’t been a secret, per se, but it had been unspoken for so many years. Without the words, I held it inside, allowing the shame to grow over it like scar tissue around an old injury.

There are people who would still rather I not talk about it. “Don’t be defined by it,” they would say, “It’s controlling you.” “Why can’t you just move on?” But I’m going to talk about it anyway. It is part of my story and I don’t want to be ashamed. This is my journey, and while others may not understand, I am grateful to be able to tell my story and to name “It.” I spent too many years in silence.

If you or someone you know is being abused, there is no excuse. Please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

Originally published: June 7, 2016
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