The statistics are beyond imagination… one in three women and one in five men in the United States are victims of sexual abuse or assault before the age of 18. As a survivor myself, I was overwhelmed when I actually read those numbers, because I felt as if surely I was the only one who felt like I did. The only one who felt the anger, shame, and guilt that went along with the emotional scars those events had left upon me. The only one who kept asking, "Why me, God?" And the only one with this kind of terrible secret that I prayed would never get out.
For almost 30 years I kept that deep, dark secret… even from myself. Literally. I had built such a wall around those horrible memories that it was as if I had sealed them up in a big box and put them high upon some closet shelf, hoping that I would never have to look at them again… until one day. I will always remember the exact moment that box literally fell out of the closet and hit me like a ton of bricks. Maybe not the date itself, but exactly what I was doing and when and where.
Let me explain … victims of trauma, such as sexual abuse, often suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Just as soldiers who witness the terrible atrocities of war may have to "bury" those memories in some remote corner of their brains just to go on with life, victims of sexual abuse may do the same. You may have heard of soldiers who many years after their wartime experiences, had terrible memories come flooding back over them when they heard a car backfire, reminding them of the sounds of gunfire.
Well the case can be the same for survivors of sexual abuse. They may grow up, go to college, marry, and raise a family, never remembering that they lived through the abuse. Until one day, something triggers a memory within them and the flood gates open, unleashing a deluge of emotions and feelings… and the victim’s world comes to a screeching halt, as they attempt to sort through reality, memories, confusion, fear and grief.
In other cases, survivors may fully be aware of the events that transpired. They may have told others about it or preferred to remain silent. More than likely, they stayed silent. The overwhelming feelings of guilt experienced by these victims tends to lead many to keep their "dark" secret to themselves, lest anyone find out and discard them as dirty laundry.
Guilt seems to be a constant among survivors, despite the fact that the victim was not the perpetrator. Victims frequently feel that they held some responsibility for the events, despite the fact that they were perhaps very young children and the abusers were adults. Fear of being chastised for participation in the acts carry more weight than the desire to tell someone and feel relief. In fact, being chastised does happen for some, and not being believed may occur for others.
Complications arise when incest muddies the picture even further. How does a child tell a parent that the other parent or sibling is molesting them? For many children, they do not even understand what molestation is and therefore do not realize that they are being taken advantage of … at least not until it’s too late to get out. Many mothers, abused themselves by dominant husbands, are just as powerless to help their children fight back.
Recent publicity involving accusations of priests and their altar boy victims only reinforces just how secretive and seductive the most trusted members of our society can be. Priests, coaches, close family friends, and relatives can all leave scars upon children and not even be discovered for years, if at all.
Are you a secret survivor of childhood sexual abuse? With the statistics mentioned earlier, there are probably many people within your inner circle who are survivors, but would you guess it? Would you know them to look at them? Would you admit it to yourself if you were one of them? More importantly, do you realize that carrying that secret pain for years and not doing something about it may actually be holding you back in some way … maybe in your beliefs about your own personal value. Perhaps in how you relate to other people. Possibly in how you do or don’t meet your goals in life. Or, unfortunately, in aspects of your physical or emotional health.
In my own case, I first relived these memories about fifteen years ago, when something triggered it for me. I felt fear, guilt and anger. But above all, I felt shame. I only told my husband and my older sister about the events which had unfolded in my early adolescence. Since the person who had abused me, (a trusted friend within our inner circle) was still around, I kept the secret close to my heart. I didn’t even tell my parents. I did see a counselor for a few visits, but didn’t really want to dwell on the issue once I uncovered it. The interesting result was that I truly buried the entire information once again … out of sight, out of mind. In a very short time, it was once again erased from my memory and since neither my husband nor my sister brought it up, it simply disappeared from my sight.
Then, ten years later, another experience triggered the memories and this time it really rocked me. I brought it up to my husband and sister once again. They, of course, remembered the conversation I had had with them years before BUT I HAD NOT! Believe it or not, I HAD ERASED THE MEMORIES A SECOND TIME! TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY.
Well, this time I decided to do something different. I decided to attack the matter head-on. I found a wonderful therapist. (As I looked back on it, the one I had tried ten years before was neither compassionate nor understanding -it’s no wonder I didn’t see her long.) I read every book known to mankind about sexual abuse. The Courage to Heal, by Bass and Davis was my "Bible" as I read how other women shared many of the same experiences as well as feelings and behaviors which I had. I joined support groups specializing in adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The WINGS Foundation in the Denver (www.wingsfound.org) area was a great network of understanding women who were all in their own stages of healing, many of whom could not afford a traditional therapist and found this group their lifeline to survival. I started talking about it to anyone who would listen, and in the process of doing so, found others who had been secret victims as well. Once I opened my door to them, some of them began to think about opening theirs as well.
Then, the final steps in the process … First, I told my mother. (My father had already passed away.) The actual anticipation of which, was much worse than the even itself. We shared tears, grief, and love, but most importantly to me, she showed me acceptance and understanding. It was the most important gift she could have given me.
Lastly, I confronted my abuser - one of the toughest but most powerful things I have ever done in my life. The amazing thing about this experience was that he admitted his guilt to me. While I had anticipated his denial and accusing me of wrongdoing in my accusation of him, the guilt he had carried for so many years led him to purge himself and his tears came in waves and sobs right along with mine. Although it is my personal choice not to associate with him further, I have learned to forgive him, which I have also come to realize, is part of the road to recovery.
The healing was slow but cathartic and unbelievable. I felt the weight of a thousand stones lifted from my shoulders. In my mind, the feeling of guilt began to be redistributed from me to my abuser and eventually I was able to let go of the emotional power which he had held over me. The signs of chronic depression began to subside and each day seemed filled with more sunshine than clouds. I started believing that I was indeed, a valuable person. Victims of abuse often feel they have no value … for if they had truly been valuable, why didn’t anyone save them?
That last feeling – that of value – gave me a whole new direction within my life. I started to truly believe that I deserved good things in my life: that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to. That I didn’t need others’ approval to determine my self-worth. That I could find happiness and contentedness within myself.
And so, I bring my story to you with the hopes that it will help those of you who have kept your secret all these years, to realize that perhaps it’s time for you to heal too. Maybe now you will take that difficult, but freeing step of facing your past. Maybe just realizing that in any group of one hundred women and men you might be with today, thirty of them might feel much like you do. You don’t have to feel alone on this journey … you have many who understand. Many are traveling with you. Many can help you heal and move on to a new and stronger you.
Don’t let the pain of childhood sexual abuse hurt you for the rest of your life. Fight back and win! Step outside of your secret box and reclaim your life back. Join those of us who have taken the first step … we’ll welcome you with understanding and tears of hope.
Mary Jo Fay facilitates a seminar entitled, "Power Out of the Boxx," in Cozumel, Mexico each month and can be reached at