Childhood sexual abuse happens within a relationship and must be healed within a relationship. As children we rely on our parents or guardians to meet our need for food, shelter, love, affection, and protection. Child faith—complete trust in adults is instinctual, hard-wired in our DNA. Born with no control, no shut-off valve; emerging from the womb preset to scream until someone touches us, holds us, comforts our distress. The world is scary and fraught with danger for one so ill-equipped to fight her own battles.
I remember little of my childhood; one of the cruel deficits of my trauma. I do vividly remember one Sunday school lesson. When I entered the classroom, the class felt board was sitting on a table with the blue, fuzzy side turned away from me. As the teacher began the day’s lesson, she turned the board around to reveal a felt chicken; big, rust-colored, covering a third of the felt board. I don’t remember what happened between the beginning and the end of the illustration. But, oh, the end. She lifted the mother chicken off the felt board to reveal six baby chicks underneath her. The mama chicken died saving her babies from a raging storm. Fifty-plus years later and my fragmented long-term memory can focus in on that moment with intense clarity. The smell of markers and vanilla wafers, the pressure of the other children’s shoulders as we all leaned in, the roughness of the Berber carpet on my tight-laden knees. Telescopic view of the baby chicks safe, protected through the sacrifice of their mother.
This Sunday school lesson took place in the middle of the two years of my sexual abuse. Why are so many memories of the abuse scattered and just outside my reach? Shadow presence—they stare at me but when I turn to grab them they flee into the recesses of my mind. The places I fear to go. Yet, this story of protection and sacrifice is tangible and present. My five-year-old self desperate for my mother or father to save me. My parents did not rescue me. Not for lack of love or desire to protect but because they did not know, and I did not possess the resources to tell them. Shouldn’t they know to save me? Parental instinct takeover? To my five-year-old sense of self, yes. Me, an extension of them and they the whole of me. My child-like belief, they failed me.
The message clear, I can’t rely on those entrusted with my care, those closest to protect and save me from harm. Forever more, I must save and protect myself. And yet, on the heels of my vow to never trust another, in my humanness, the innate need for connection woven in my DNA commands me to try again. To seek union with others. Surely this relationship will be different. The viability of every relationship measured by the other’s ability to see me. To accept me. To stay even when my brokenness seeps through the cracks of my fractured heart. And, when they fail me, and they will, for who can withstand the crushing weight of never stumbling, never letting someone down, of always knowing what to say? I walk away or pull back. Retreat to self-reliance and distrust.
There is possibility for those who love me, cheer for me, believe in me to retreat or leave too. Not because they are untrustworthy, I confuse them. And, at a loss of how to love me yet protect themselves from emotional destruction. There are transitional sentences missing from paragraphs in the narrative of our relationship. My push and pull, my love and hate for them won’t allow them to see the entirety of me. My trauma story. I am running my own secondary narrative. The one that doesn’t include them. How could it? The one that will surely cause them to abandon me. Judge me unworthy of love. Unworthy of them.
“There are transitional sentences missing from paragraphs in the narrative of our relationship.”
There is no pretense here that letting loved ones read the pages of our trauma story is easy. The cycle of trust/distrust is hard to break. Fear of rejection and abandonment is a strong motivator to remain silent. As a traumatized five-year-old little girl, I had no empathetic listener mostly because I didn’t have the words to share what was happening. Regardless of the why, my narrative was a secret for 30 years and it marred all my relationships. Yet, I bear testament to the power of stepping into the unknown, of trusting someone with our secondary story. There is the potential for what we’ve sought all along—someone we can trust with all of us, the sorrow, pain, loss, the what-should-have-beens, mistakes, and our fractured heart.
For some the risk of rebuff and desertion is too great. You’re not ready to share your trauma story with those closest to you—husband, partner, child, friend. I understand. I extend this community, myself, as your safe place. A sisterhood forged from adversity and bound by common heartbreak. A group of survivors who will not judge, reject, reprimand, or correct you. We will love you, bear witness to your victories and pick you up when you fall. One of my very favorite quotes is from Peter Levine, a leader in modern trauma therapy advances. “Trauma is not what happens to us but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” We will be your empathetic witnesses. We will support you in your journey and hold on to hope for you.
And, truly, you have no other choice if you wish to live free from the chaos of trauma. Childhood sexual abuse happens within a relationship and must be healed within a relationship. You are born for connection. You are born to trust. It is written in your DNA.