To Live in Silence
After the sexual abuse ended, and especially once I was of age, I was no longer physically trapped. However, abusers psychologically trap and silence their victims long after the actual, physical entrapment is over. I was no different. After twelve years of sexual abuse, I believed the lies that I was helpless, that I had no choices, that I had no voice, that I would always be trapped, and that nothing would ever change. I lived most of my life believing those lies. Let me tell you what it was like to live like that.
Making decisions is difficult, sometimes nearly impossible.
Remember, victims believe that they have no choices and/or that they can’t make good choices. They also still believe they are trapped and without choices if something bad happens. So, if they make a wrong or unhealthy decision, they think they have no way of getting out of the situation. Therefore, even simple decisions can be unsettling and enormously confusing.
Simply going shopping for a sweater could take hours. I’d find a few I’d like, and I’d stand in front of the racks, putting one and then the other in my cart, and then taking it back and putting it on the rack, only to come back to it and put it back into my cart fifteen minutes later! What if I didn’t buy the right one? What if I didn’t like it once I bought it? What if someone had a problem with it? Do I really need it? I’d go round and round in circles in my brain.
Even after I finally just forced myself to choose one and quickly purchased it at the register before I could change my mind, I’d spend the rest of the day kicking myself for buying that sweater and not one of the others! This process would repeat itself with shoes or coats or household items. Buying furniture was almost traumatic!
Decisions that meant choosing one activity or one person or groups of people over another were worse yet. If two different friends invited me to two different events on the same day, I’d spend days agonizing over the choice. Where should I go? What did I want to do? What should I do? If I chose one, what if the other person felt offended? What if I make the wrong decision? I think I sort of want to do both, but I can’t. What do I do?! Invariably, whichever choice I made, I hated myself for making that choice and wished I’d chosen the opposite thing!
Life decisions were the worst of all. Every time the school board asked me to teach for the following year sent me into weeks of agonizing indecision, and I’d second guess my decision for weeks after I made it. When I applied for jobs after moving to Pennsylvania, each new option terrified me. What if I did the wrong thing? What if it wasn’t a good choice? What if I hated it? What if the job bored me after a few months? After a hiring interview at an accounting firm, I came home and curled into a fetal position on the couch, literally shaking with terror.
Boundaries are very difficult to make and keep.
Many victims don’t even know what boundaries are or can’t recognize when someone violates their boundaries, let alone get to the place of making and keeping them! Oddly enough, since about the age of nineteen, I have been self-aware enough to recognize when someone violated my boundaries. However, I found it possible to speak up, set boundaries, and keep them.
I’d purpose to tell Dad to not talk to me so much about Mom, but invariably, on my next weekend at their place, I’d find myself sitting in his office, listening to his bitterness about Mom’s new level of crazy and his pastor’s newest mistreatment of both of them. Internally, I’d shrink away when he shared an intimate detail about their relationship, learning to shut down and let the words go in one ear and out the other. Sometimes, I imagined the shock on his face if I actually told him what I really thought of him and what he was doing to me, but I couldn’t actually do it. Remember, I had no voice.
Sometimes, when our family got together for a family weekend, I would end up staying in the same house my abusers stayed in. All weekend, I’d be tense, my body braced for a blow, unable to sleep without waking every hour or two to check my surroundings, repulsed by the memories I couldn’t escape, fighting to appear normal when full-blown flashbacks threatened to explode. I never said anything, even when weekends like that would send me into months-long dissociative episodes. After all, I had no voice.
When a friend invaded my personal space, when a co-worker seemed to have no filter and said embarrassingly personal things about me, when people asked me to do a favor that I really couldn’t do, when my grandma wouldn’t respect my boundaries as an independent adult, I couldn’t say “No.” I had no voice.
Victims are often victimized again and again.
The sexual abuse ended when I was sixteen, but that wasn’t the end of the abuse I experienced. At sixteen, I simply traded one type of abuse and one abuser for another: sexual abuse for emotional incest, my brother for my dad. The emotional incest continued for another eight years till I was twenty-four.
Emotional incest, also called covert incest, is when a child becomes a surrogate partner to a parent. Emotional incest usually occurs in a dysfunctional home setting where one parent has a physical or mental illness or an addiction. It also occurs in single-parent homes, especially following a death or divorce. In emotional incest, a parent places a child as his or her surrogate partner. Usually, the child is the opposite sex from the parent but same sex children can also be surrogate partners.
The parent looks to the child for emotional and relational support and advice. There is often a sexual component as well, though not usually physical, sexual abuse. However, the parent may share intimate details about the other parent with the child or make comments about the child being especially handsome, beautiful, or sexy, similar to comments a person might make while on a date.
Only recently have I been able to acknowledge the emotional incest aspect of my relationship with my father. He’d talk about the romance books Mom read or why they were sleeping in separate bedrooms. He’d talk about her dressing especially sexy in their bedroom when she wanted to manipulate him. He’d tell me all about his work troubles and his church troubles. He’d talk about all the hurtful things mom said or did to him and her failures as a wife and mom. He’d ask me repeatedly, “What do you think I should do?” When I (very mildly) told him I don’t think he should tell me all this stuff, he replied, “If I can’t talk about Mom to you, we won’t talk at all. I don’t have anything else to talk about with you.”
At first, I liked our conversations. After years of terrible loneliness and isolation and a father who never seemed to be home, I was glad to have him talking to me. However, as time went on, I became increasingly uncomfortable with it all and simply wanted him to stop talking and using me. Though by that time I was of age and simply could have left, I didn’t know I could leave. Though my body was no longer trapped, psychologically I was still trapped. I didn’t know I could change my reality. I didn’t know I could say “No.” My previous abuse had set me up to be victimized again.
Relationships are terrifying.
When it came to relationships, I had only two settings. Either I trusted someone completely, dropped all my walls, and let her in. Or, I totally mistrusted her, raised my walls as high as possible, and kept her out, as far out as I could. You see, I had no voice. If I let someone in, and he turned out to be unsafe and violated my boundaries, I had no options. I couldn’t say “No.” I couldn’t tell that person to stop hurting me. I didn’t know I could protect myself. Therefore, I only let people in I absolutely trusted. Anyone I wasn’t sure about was kept on the outside, as far away as possible. To those people, I appeared cold and distant, even arrogant. A friend of mine mentally titled me “Ice Princess” the first time we met.
Always, I lived with the fear that the people I let in would turn on me. Conflict scared me and simply drove me into dissociation to cope. Vulnerability was even more triggering, for every time I was vulnerable meant I gave others the opportunity to hurt me. For most of my life, relationships puzzled me greatly, and I felt like everyone else got a blueprint to relationships that I had somehow missed.
Life is overwhelming.
To live voiceless, powerless, helpless, and trapped is simply overwhelming. Every decision, every relationship, every interaction with the outside world is too terrifying and too triggering. The only method of self-protection the victim possesses is her maladaptive coping skills, honed through long years of abuse. She may manage to present a fairly normal front to those around her, but she is living always on the knife edge of bare survival, wondering if everyone else feels the way she does and if so, why no one else talks about it. She experiences incredible aloneness, numbness, agony, and darkness and often doesn’t know why. She resigns herself to her fate and muddles through life as best she can unless someone shows her a different path is possible.
Though at one point I was a victim like this, I thank God for those who’ve walked with me into my darkness and shown me the light. Indeed, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
To be continued…