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When You're Haunted by a Memory of Probable Childhood Sexual Abuse

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post describes sexual acts and could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

At 32, I thought I knew mostly everything there was to know about who I am as a person. Recently beginning schema therapy, I began to understand how bullying throughout childhood and adolescence affected the way I see the world and how I react to it. I understood my low self-esteem, my self-hatred, my struggle to trust others’ intentions and the social anxiety underpinning it all. I understood how the grief of losing my father at 23 kicked me off depression’s deep end and how it has kept me there ever since.

Little did I know there was at least one more experience I was yet to unearth.

This past week, I discovered that I was (most likely) sexually abused as a child. What’s worse was the discovery that my parents knew the risk they were taking by regularly subjecting me to that man. That’s because he had done it before.

Allow me to explain. For the longest time, I’ve been having a “memory” — and I place that in quotes only because of the confusion surrounding it — of being made to touch a man’s penis. It’s a visceral memory, carrying with it physical sensations like a phantom limb, an apparition I cannot see but feel grasped in my left hand. I remember the room in which it took place. I remember where he sat on the bed, facing the window, a wooden dresser at his side.

I knew this man was someone for whom my mother worked. His name was Billy. She’d known Billy and his wife for years, and every week, my parents would take me to the couple’s house while they did some cleaning jobs for extra money since Billy was blind and his wife had limited mobility. I also vaguely remembered my mother telling me that Billy had abused my half-brother. More on that in a moment, but I was so unsure if I was remembering that correctly. She hadn’t mentioned it in years, and my half-brother hasn’t been in our lives for a long time due to his own mental health struggle.

So, all I had was vagueness. Had I been spinning some imaginary event around what I had been told about my half-brother? Had Billy forced my half-brother to touch him as a child, in the room with the bed and the dresser by the window?

All the while, these images, these physical sensations have been growing more and more vivid, more distressing, my questions and concerns all the more insistent. They didn’t feel like something imagined; they felt like something that had happened to me. Did Billy abuse my half-brother, and was I remembering being abused by him too?

On January 21, after a particularly rough flash of memory, I broke. I quit work early. I went home in tears, shaking, a lump in my throat and that phantom limb present in my hand. The only way forward, I knew, was to ask my mother about it at last. I needed answers, but the answer I got wasn’t what I expected at all.

She told me that Billy had abused my half-brother. In fact, he’d done it twice — once at 4 and once at 13. Both times, Billy had touched my half-brother; he hadn’t placed his hand anywhere. But my half-brother wasn’t his only victim; he’d done something to a member of his own family too. My mother found out about this after the first time my half-brother was abused, and instead of reporting the man to the police — instead of refusing to take her son anywhere near a known child-abuser again — she threatened him with the paramilitaries. Northern Ireland was an awful place in the 1970s and 1980s, after all, and paramilitary organizations ruled the roost even more so than today.

But the threat did nothing to deter Billy, and instead of doing the right thing by going to the police, my mother allowed my half-brother to be abused again.

Then I was born, and Billy’s wife warned her: “Don’t let Billy anywhere near Matthew.”

But she did.

My parents took me to that house nearly every single week, leaving me alone for stretches of time where I could wander into that man’s bedroom, to the end of the bed where he sat, where he could take my hand and place it down his trousers and force me to grip something a pre-adolescent boy has no business touching on anyone but himself. My parents did nothing to prevent this from happening. My mother’s only defense was: “But I didn’t think he would do it to you.”

I’ve spoken to my therapist since this discovery, and a lot of my life has been drawn into sharp focus:

  • Bedwetting until a late age.
  • Wetting myself in school.
  • Frequent episodes of derealization after a recurring nightmare, accompanied by severe noise chatter — an auditory hallucination like a room full of loudly talking people. This began in childhood around the time I was potentially abused and has continued, with declining frequency, throughout my life.
  • Withdrawing socially and behaving in unusual ways among my peers, as if I hadn’t moved beyond a certain age.
  • Being bullied for being so different.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Difficulty trusting people and feeling that people have reason not to like me.
  • Being angry all the time for often inexplicable reasons or cause.
  • Having no emotional regulation.

There’s probably a lot more besides, and there’s no way for me to know for sure if what I’m remembering actually happened. I still doubt it, even now. Could it be some kind of deeply visceral concoction of my childhood imagination? I don’t know when I started having this “memory,” but I do know it’s been haunting me for a long, long time. What’s even worse is the knowledge that there is no way for me to ever know for sure; Billy and his wife died years ago. My mother knew nothing about it. All I know is what my therapist has said to me: that considering Billy’s history of abusing other boys, and considering what we know of my childhood and everything we’re uncovering in schema therapy, the likelihood that I was sexually abused is high.

Now, I feel like my identity has been fractured, despite assurances from my therapist that I am still the same person I was before the truth came out. I never suspected I could be a victim of childhood sexual abuse, though I’ve been running from that memory for years, shutting it down the moment it rises to the surface. I don’t want this to be a part of me. Even on the small chance I wasn’t actually abused by that man, I don’t want my parents to have failed me so completely, so utterly, by knowingly subjecting me to a pedophile.

My mother has been incredibly invalidating, of course. She says she feels guilty, but that she also didn’t know that what happened to my half-brother was classified as “abuse” — they just “called it touching in those days,” she said. I asked her why she would continue to work for a pedophile. She said the money was helpful. She said she wouldn’t have taken me there if she had known what he had done to me, ignoring that she could have prevented it from happening in the first place, ignoring that he had already done it three times (that she knows of).

The sad fact is, I don’t know if I can ever forgive her for what she has done. Perhaps worse: I don’t know if I can forgive my father, a man I have idolized every moment of my life until now. He was just as culpable.

I don’t know how I’m going to navigate the coming days. I don’t know if it happened once, or if it happened many times. All I know is the memory hasn’t changed for as long as I’ve been aware of it; it has only grown more insistent, more physical, intruding on the present. I’m just glad I have supportive people around me: people who know me and trust me, and who believe that I was a victim of abuse even when I don’t know if I can trust the memory myself. With them by my side, I’m going to do my best to navigate this new reality. In the absence of justice and definitive answers, it’s all I can possibly do.

Follow this journey on

Originally published: January 30, 2020
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