Act to End It

survivor symbol

 

This will not be easy, but I want to share my story…Sharing it will be far easier than living with it tucked away. It is the truth and it has caused me pain. I hope that sharing it will prevent further harm from being done to others.

Back in April 2019 I finished up my senior partnership with Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor as a student nurse and got prepared to sit for the NCLEX, a national board exam that all RNs are required to take in order to become fully licensed to work. I sat for the exam and became fully licensed as an RN in the state of Maine at the beginning of May. That day, walking out of the testing center, I felt a huge sense of  relief, pride, and gratitude for the whirlwind that the last few years had been leading up to this moment. Briefly, I had moved from the southern end of Maine all the way to the tippy top northern end that borders Canada, managed to complete clinicals at facilities in and around the northern portion of Maine by carpooling with classmates and walking, and spent countless hours of “soul-searching” to figure out what it was that drove me to want to become an RN in the first place.

I got into the silver mazda and instead of starting the car and driving home, I put the keys on the seat next to me, leaned back, and closed my eyes for a brief moment. The sense of relief felt incredible and my shoulders began to drop ever-so-slightly away from my ears, but behind it I could sense some other feeling. A little voice saying, “This is not the end of anything.” I opened my eyes with a renewed sense of purpose and determination to keep going and reach high for the career I thought might be too difficult to make happen or too fraught with self-doubt to achieve.

My ultimate goal is to become a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner with a certification in refugee trauma working with women in war zones. The truth is, for most women, the world has become a battle ground fraught with the threat of Intimate Partner Violence, sexual exploitation and assault, gender discrimination and wage disparity, laws that stifle reproductive and sexual agency, and a hyper-sexualized rape culture that “protects” the perpetrator and shames most survivors into silence. Women have internalized, over centuries, the idea that there is a certain level of danger that we must always consider. This certain degree of danger dictates if we go out at different times of the day or night and with whom we go. This is not the way life should or has to be, but it’s the way things are. This is exactly why it is worth being a feminist and advocating for gender equality. In being a feminist one recognizes the equal worth, strength, power, and good within both sexes and makes the social and emotional space for them both. It recognizes too that women are not always the victim and men are not always the perpetrator.

My background includes a BA in English and a minor in Zoology. The most popular reaction I get is, “Those two things don’t go together.” I disagree. In fact, life has shown me more ways in which these two disciplines go hand in hand than ways in which they oppose each other. Starting conversations about feminism and gender parity can be thought of through this same lense. If we focus and concentrate on a preconcieved or socially constructed script that tells us men and women are not fully equal or are equal in some ways but not others, then we will further distance the gap we must travel between current disparity and parity. However, if we focus on the ways that men and women compliment and depend on each other’s inherent skils and different approaches to life, then we will start to bridge this divide immediately. People we seek to start these conversations with will sense which direction we come from whether its one of difference or similarity, animosity or good will, resentment or collaboration.

As a woman, I found that the place I needed to start was to create my own version of feminism and cultivate a non-negotiable belief that gender equality and feminism included me. It sounds silly, but many women have no problem agreeing that all women deserve the right to make decisions about their own bodies, deserve to live, work, and be in relationships that do not exploit, abuse, or harm them sexually, physically, or emotionally, but these same women still struggle with self-doubt and loathing, severe body image issues, lack of self confidence, or the idea that they must fix themselves in order to fix the ways they are being mistreated. Looking at my own internalized mysoginy is what started the ball rolling toward becoming an outspoken feminist and an advocate for gender equality outside of myself.

One of the hardest aspects of surviving sexual assault has just begun for me and it is not talked about. It is having to rediscover what this part of my story means as an adult. It is having to confront concepts, terms, and memories with the understanding of an adult not those of the child I was when it happened. It means that as I grow and change, so too does this traumatic part of my past. As a teenager, I used to tell myself that there would be a moment when it would all be okay, when it would all make sense, and when the pain would subside and maybe even disappear, but that was a white lie. Maybe it was a white lie I needed to keep telling myself because it allowed me to stay hidden and somewhat silenced. That time is done. I no longer tell myself that lie.

Realizing that I am a survivor of pedophilia has prompted me to examine and start to  change the internal narrative that was in my head for so long. What could have done differently? What did do to cause it? How could you have let this happen? You are so weak because you couldn’t even fight against what happen. You just froze.

I have slowly begun to accept that telling myself these messages are exactly how the violence of sexual trauma works. Sexual trauma is less about physicality than it may seem at first. This is partially why it has taken so long for me to be comfortable owning this part of my personal story and not waiting for it to become a small memory that I wake up one day and forget. That will not happen, so why wait for it to happen? After years of self punishment and self revictimization through voluntary starvation diets, compulsive exercise to the point of exhaustion, and compulsive calorie counting I have finally begun to walk out of the long tunnel of darkness that stretched before me in the form of To Do Lists, calorie calculations sribbled inside journals and on the back of receipts or home work assignments. People had told me “it’s not your fault” before, even people I loved and trusted. The one person I didn’t trust, the one person I didn’t love was me. It kept me in this spiraling cycle of self abuse that was based on the mistaken idea that I was abused because of things I did or didn’t do, because of my appearance, and my personality. I thought it happened because of me. I zeroed in on everything about myself trying to find the one thing that may have been the cause and, if fixed, the cure to the pain, the shame, guilt and loneliness that I was feeling.

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The problem was not me. It was never about my body.

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It was about power. It was about hatred inflicted on a child. It was about control. It was about a broken society that fuels a culture of sexual violence. It was about vulnerability and stolen innocence. It was about manipulation and coercion. It was about breaking someone down mentally, emotionally, and then physically. It was about invasion and terror.

Over the course of several months he singled me out in a way that I would not notice then, but as an adult I find unmistakeable. He brought me lollipops, the tootsie kind when I asked. He pat me on the head. Fiddled with the strings of my sweatshirt in a brotherly sort of way. Paid me compliments that made me a little uncomfortable, but I chalked it up to being overly self-conscious.

After rehearsal one night for The Secret Garden, a musical in which I played the title role of Mary Lennox, my mom quickly handed me my coat and mentioned something about how hard it was snowing. When the three of us made it to the stage door to the parking lot snowflakes flew at my face pricking my skin with dots of ice cold sensation. They settled on my eyelashes, my nose, and the tips of my boots. I imagined that I was entering the parkinglot through the bottom of a snow globe like Alice in Wonderland through a hole in the ground. In my imagination I was falling and falling into a magical wonderland. I couldn’t wait to get home and read the latest volume of Harry Potter before falling asleep.

My mom took my hand and opened the front passenger door. I said, “Wait, can I sit back there?” My mom shook her head and said, “No, get in.” I pulled my hand away. Even then I didn’t like being told what to do. That’s when he said, “Oh, yeah sit back here. It will be fine.” Now, when I think about this 28 year old man taking sides with a 12 year old against my mother’s wishes, the thought makes me sick. My mom pulled me aside and said, “Get in the front seat now. I’m not going to tell you again.” But I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to sit in the back seat and I climbed into the back seat anyway. My mom shook her head.

In the haste to get home and out of the snow, my mother chose to let it slide and we pulled out of the parking lot and away from the theater. The last thing I remember was a neon lit Wendy’s sign before I dozed into a deep sleep against the cool snow covered passenger side window.

First a finger. A salty taste. A hand pinching my nose. I couldn’t breathe. My head was against…breathing…a stomach…his stomach. I was on my side. My eyes were squeezed shut eventhough it was pith dark. A cough. My mom sighed and adjusted the rearview mirror. “Is everything alright back there?” A touch of worry in her voice. “It’s so dark…” Her voice barely above a whisper and trailing off at the end. “Fine.” He said.

I bit him, hard. He dug his hand into the side of my head pushing it into his thigh. He covered my mouth again with his hand and pinched my nose. I grabbed his wrists and tried to pull it away but he was too strong. That’s when I felt it. It felt like a sprinkler system had been triggered in the top of my head injecting an ice cold liquid into my veins that paralyzed me with fear. From that moment I stopped moving. I laid there as his hands unzipped my sweatshirt, pulled my hair to remind me to be silent, reached down the collar of my shirt and squeezed and pinched and prodded my chest area, and then unbuttoned my pants and felt around my underwear and the top of my waist band. Let’s back up. A man assaulted my mother’s only daughter while she was doing him a favor by driving him home in the snow as we did each week beause he lived more than an hour away. My mom had thought that it would be safer for him to break up the drive and offered to meet him at the park and ride right before the on ramp to the highway.

Without getting into the graphic particulars, I will admit that the most difficult part of telling this story exactly as it happened, and the part that makes me want to call it quits and delete this entire post, is that my mom was there the whole time. I had disobeyed her. I had been stubborn. For many years I struggled with this part of my story. The truth is I was not the only survivor that night. My mother is too.

At one point my mind is blank. I remember feeling as if I was looking down on the car from above. I do not remember what he did only that there was pain and that I wanted it to stop. All I remember is trying to be as quiet as possible so that he would not get angry and hurt my mother. I remember the snow swirling toward the windshield in what seemed like self sacrifice. It was the first time I understood death. I imagined myself as one of the snowflakes, hurtling toward the windshield. It was cold and dark.

As we got off the highway and took the exit for the park and ride, he shoved me up and onto the other side of the car where I had been. I pretended to be asleep, as though keeping my eyes shut was a barrier separating me from confronting this reality, keeping me burried and safe within the imaginative world of childhood that I had just exited forever. We pulled into the Park and Ride. Without a word he got out. My mom stared straight ahead. I opened my eyes and turned my expressionless face toward him. He looked back and made a shhh with his lips. Then waved.

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One of the hardest parts of being a survivor is the associated shame of carrying this dark shadow in my past around without being able to talk about the ways that it was affecting me socially, mentally, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually. The fact is that as a twelve year old with this experience it created a void of loneliness between me and my peers. This void is really a social void that isolates survivors into staying quiet because it is more comfortable for everybody else. I told myself that I needed to change my story for a long time. That I needed to manipulate it to make it more palatable or happier, or pretend that it had not happened at all. That needs to end.

I hope that by writing about my experience as a survivor of childhood pedophilia, it will help another person break their own silence, help end the social stigma contributing to survivor silence, and help to build a safer and more accepting society that actually protects survivors and does not shield perpetrators from taking responsibility and being held accountable.

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In 2019 we have already been acosted by the revelation of the USA Gymnastics scandal and the sex trafficking scandal involving members of the United States and global elites. It was in reading about these cases that I began to gain further insight into my own story. For example, in the USA Gymnastis case a term was mentioned called “the grooming process” and it was the first time that I had ever read about it. As soon as I did, memories of tootsie pop wrappers flooded my mind and other gestures like pats on the head and comments like “how do you like that little lady?” and his attempts to invite me into secluded corners back stage to “run lines” took on a whole new meaning. The grooming process seeks to gain the trust of the victim and it is a process of calculated manipulation with the intention of control. If you trust someone there is nothing to fear, right? Wrong.

That is why many victims, including myself, struggle at times with trust. I may have been a twelve year old fascinated by the idea of making friends with a cast member, but 28 year old men are not friends with 12 year old girls. This is not something I understood. He was a fellow cast member in a lead role. It made me feel like since we worked together we were more equal. Before he did what he did, I looked up to him and I admired his singing talent. I trusted him. It becomes difficult to know what someone wants from you and you begin to assume that all people have something they want from you whether they say it or not. It can take years to unlearn the sense of discomfort and panic of being alone with someone, male or female, because the fear of being revictimized is present.

And then there is PTSD. PTSD is different from anxiety. Anxiety can and does cause very real physiological symptoms, but anxiety is not always associated with a traumatic event. In fact, many people struggle with anxiety at various levels during periods of high stress, change, the beginning or end of a job, a family death or birth, a marriage or divorce, a car accident, or even before they go on stage to perform. In other words, anxiety can help us achieve and accomplish goals, it can protect us from harm, and it can make us pause before we make decisions. PTSD, on the other hand, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is associated with a traumatic event and causes a person to relive the experience among other symptoms. As an adult, I look back on certain periods of my early teen years and realize that what I was going through was not a “normal bout of insomnia”, but a full blown episode of PTSD. Nights where I would lay in bed thrashing through relived pain, kicking the covers off the bed as I attempted to take back what little dignity I could get or nights where I would pace back and forth unable to sleep because I feared the flashbacks to come.

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Therapy helps. A third party who is there just to listen to you makes a huge difference. It is someone with whom you can share your fears, angers, doubts, worries, perspectives and not be blamed or humiliated again. It is a safe person that, may not understand what it is like, but will try and that is what makes a difference.

Dr. Denis Mukwege, founder of the Panzi Foundation, works with women who have been raped as a weapon of war and one of the things that he talks about is the rejection that many women face by their families and communities as a result of being raped. Rejection is a part of every survivor’s story and it is for this reason that there should be more investment toward creating therapeutic and psychological support services for survivors of sexual violence and trauma during times of peace and times of war.

If the conditions during peace time are not conducive to speaking out, seeking justice and support, sharing, and healing, then how are women expected to achieve these necessities during war time when resources are more limited?

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I came across a startling statistic on the United Nations website aimed at ending violence against women. “35% of women world wide have experienced either physical, intimate partner sexual violence or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lifetime, but some studies suggest it is as many as 70%” (UN Women, 2018). This has to stop. It will not stop though, if both men and women are not working diligently to create a world where women are respected equally, where women are appreciated and whose rights are protected in the home and in the work place, and who are given sexual and reproductive choices that promote independence and agency. Empowering women does not just mean recognizing women’s rights. It means empowering women to fight for them and it means empowering men to support them, to stand along side them, and to be just as integral to the struggle for gender equality as women are.

Dr. Mukwege is an inspiration to me not only as a medical professional, but also as a man and a father of four daughters. In his work and speeches he talks about the need for men to recognize and join the fight for women’s rights and to actively protest against sexual violence against women because it is being used not only as a control tactic during peace time, but also as a weapon of war. As a doctor in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr. Mukwege has seen the horror of what sexual violence as a weapon of war does to the women and men, communities and families in his country. He has devoted his life to risking his life for the pursuit of a world that protects women from sexual violence, that seeks to end gender disparity, and that seeks to provide not only physical help and healing to survivors, but also psychological, socio-economic, and legal help in order to create a hollistic process of recovery that addresses dignity, justice, trauma, rejection, and loss.

My experience was not a weapon of military conflict. It is, however, part of a global narrative of sexual violence that must be aknowledged.

It is significant to me that there is not one country on planet earth that can claim to have achieved gender equality. Apart from being a discouraging and disheartening fact about society today, it is what motivates me to be outspoken about the crisis of injustice that women face.  It is what has motivated me to own and share my personal story as a way of saying #$%@-you to isolation, to shame, guilt, and silence. For me it was one of the many steps toward manifesting and believing in the world I want to create. It is a world where no other woman has to feel ashamed of her life or the memories it holds. And while my story is of a female being victimized by a man, I recognize the many stories that are of men victimized by women and men by men and women by women. I stand with each survivor whomever and wherever they may be.

Below is a link to Dr. Denis Mukwege’s website and the Panzi Foundation:

https://www.mukwegefoundation.org/

Below is a list of books that are full of the wisdom of feminism, understanding, and empowerment:

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Dear Ijeawele or Feminist Manifesto by Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinam

 

References

U. N. Women. (2018, November). Facts and Figures: Ending Violence Against Women. Retrieved from https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures