Survivor’s Guilt

 

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I think about her every so often.

I’ll be sitting on the bus heading to an appointment across town, or at home, chopping veggies for dinner, and suddenly, there she is—or, at least, a reasonable facsimile. We’ve never met, so I have no clue what she really looks like, how old she is, where she lives, what kind of car she drives, if any, or what she does for a living, but I have no doubt she’s out there somewhere.

Sometimes, I wonder if she wonders about me, too.

If so, does she blame me, because I didn’t protect her?

Barely seventeen years old and struggling to survive my own trauma, I wasn’t strong enough to save anyone else, but even so, after more than two decades (twenty-three years to be precise), it still haunts me at times, the idea that she exists, the knowing-in-my-bones of it, and the guilt, the shame, because I let it happen, not only to me, but to her, and any others who followed and suffered through my silence…

I let my rapist walk away scot-free.

Free to do it again.

I refused to report the rape to the police. Didn’t tell my mom. Instead, I just tried to put it behind me, move on, forget about it. It was 1993, after all, and the term “date rape” was not in widespread use. Most people still tended to believe that a rape between people who knew one another was basically a misunderstanding, not “real” rape, which was assumed to be committed by a stranger, and since my rapist was known to me, intimately, the very notion of filing a report and potentially testifying against him, a former lover, in a courtroom stuffed with stern, judgy people made me want to die.

I couldn’t.

It took years before I was able to own what happened to me.

Rape.

I couldn’t possibly have said it aloud in front of a judge and jury, God, my mother, and anybody else who happened to be present—the word and the whole ugly story and everything that came before—only to be disbelieved or, even worse, blamed. No way. I didn’t have that kind of courage or conviction.

Although contemporary statistics have proven beyond all doubt that the perpetrator is known to the victim in a vast majority of rape and sexual assault cases, we still inhabit a world where only a Perfect Victim is entitled to justice, and even then, doesn’t always get it. If I had told someone way back when, filed a report and testified, the boy who raped me might have gotten away with it anyhow. It’s probable.

We had a history and I was an imperfect victim.

Still, I feel guilty about her sometimes. I don’t know her name, but I know her pain, as sure as I know my own. Did she survive? Does she feel guilty as well, knowing, as I do, there must be others like us? I mean, if a boy rapes a girl and gets away with it, who does he grow to become, in all likelihood?

A man who rapes women.

According to Google, survivor’s guilt occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. Most often associated with accidents or natural disasters, I think it also applies in certain circumstances to victims of unreported rape who, in addition to the weight of their own pain, carry the added burden of responsibility toward potential future victims.

How ridiculous is that?!

A rapist walks free and we, the raped, hold ourselves accountable for future rapes by this rapist??? No.

No, no, no, no, no!

A rapist is the only one responsible for rape.

The boy who raped me is the only human being on this entire planet accountable for his actions.

But even so, every now and again, I think of her. I’ll be walking through the woods on a golden afternoon, or in the office, putting sentences together for an essay, and suddenly, there she is…

Sex & the Sexual Abuse Survivor

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Sexual intimacy, as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, is a personal and sensitive topic. For that reason, I’ve done my best to avoid writing about it for the past couple of years. In fact, it seems like nobody wants to discuss it, truth be told. You know what that says to me? A conversation is long overdue.

If it’s important to let others know they’re not alone, then here I am, ready to rip my life wide open just to let you know that you—yes, I’m talking to you, out there—you are not alone. You may not find any helpful advice on this page, but I promise to be honest about my own experiences, and hopefully, that will be enough to start a dialogue.

Child sexual abuse is an epidemic that affects boys and girls from every culture across the globe. In North America, statistics show that approximately 1/3 girls and 1/5 boys will be sexually abused before reaching adulthood. To put it in context, among a population of some 350 million human beings living in North America (a rough estimate indicates about half are male and the other half are female), we can deduce that more than 58 million girls and approximately 35 million boys are—or will become—sexual abuse survivors, and those numbers continue to rise steadily.

Nearly 100 million innocent human beings victimised by the same demon.

The effects of childhood sexual abuse are wide-spread. The road from victim to survivor is long and arduous, full of bombs and hidden detours, fraught with darkness, grief, and a bone-chilling cold that often threatens to turn our bodies to ice. Frigid. Even when we do manage to pull ourselves out of the pit to lead relatively normal lives, triggers turn up every now and again, just when we least expect them, caught up as we are in the extraordinary ordinariness of a mild fall morning: a scent in the air, thinning grey hair and a bulbous nose, a door slamming closed, or a scratchy wool sweater brushed against a thigh… Stops. Us. Short.

A survivor of sexual abuse by multiple offenders, I grew up acutely aware of my own sexuality, but even more than that, on some level, I truly believed that a big part of my life’s purpose was to please members of the opposite sex. I was not raped as a child, thank God, because it was difficult enough to experience at the tender age of seventeen; however, I was subjected to unwanted touching, indecent exposure, and exploitation, from an early age. I learned my role well after a number of years and several uncomfortable incidents. By the time I became sexually active, I mistakenly understood that it was my job to make him happy, whoever he was, whether I really wanted to, or not.

As a teen and young adult, my sense of personal value often hinged on whether or not the boys in my peer groups found me attractive and desirable. I was a huge flirt, fairly promiscuous, always trying to be the centre of attention, usually succeeding. I allowed myself to be used, often knowingly, because I didn’t think I deserved any better. I wanted to be loved, but felt nobody could really love ‘someone like me,’ so I sold myself short, time and time again. Looking back, I can see that I was little more than an actor performing a role, constantly hustling and bustling to keep folks interested.

I was pretty hot stuff back in those days, I guess, but my appreciation for sex was always just an act, for show, even if it was an Oscar-worthy performance. I was hardly ever present, and at some point during each event, I’d rise above to watch from somewhere on the ceiling, as my body contorted below, doing all kinds of strange things without me. I’m more able to stay connected these days, but there are times when I still feel that familiar tug of soul-leaving-body. Sex and I have always had a complicated relationship.

On one hand, it was my go-to, a temporary way to feel connected and consequential, a sure-fire method for chasing away the deep pain and loneliness that so often crept up unexpectedly, hands outstretched, ready to choke me to death. On the other hand, it validated all the ugly thoughts I had about myself—I was a dirty, disgusting, unlovable little slut—and made me feel like crawling under a rock to die. I was pretty good at sex, uninhibited and the rest, but the fact is, I’m not sure I ever liked it half as much as I pretended to. I definitely don’t know how to feel about it now, even though I’m a full-grown woman, a strong, independent single mom with four children.

Sex is a loaded gun. At least it has been for me.

Intricately linked to deep-seated feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, guilt, fear, and shame, sexual intimacy is a veritable minefield of triggers, which lead to an increase in stress, anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, irritability, hypertension, hypervigilance, and excessive emotional responses. Welcome to the totally mind-fucking symptoms of PTSD! It’s far from ideal. Physical intimacy often comes at a high cost for many survivors of childhood sexual abuse and , quite frankly, isn’t always worth the risk.

(Currently in the process of updating this essay, so please forgive any continuity errors…)

Somewhere along the way, sex became just another thing I had to do, not something I actually I wanted. It wasn’t until I finally met and married a man who loved me for me, not for how I made him feel, and never pressured me nor expected anything sexually, that I began to finally notice how deeply triggering sex could be. Although I know my husband loves me, a lingering kiss can leave me reeling for days, and not in a good way. I cringe when he says, “You’re so pretty.” Substitute “beautiful” or “sexy,” it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same. Even though the words are spoken by someone who cares about me, and not by one of my abusers, in the end, my mind rapidly boils it all down to the exact same thing: a quality that I have no control over has captivated his interest, and because of that, I know he’s going to want something—and not just any something.

He’s going to want sex.

Defensive, resentful, and ultimately protective, I often reject my husband’s advances before he’s able to actually make them. A tender look, a gentle pat on the bum, or an embrace that lasts a bit too long is enough to warrant a reproachful glance and a few more inches of distance between us. It’s nearly impossible to get aroused when you feel gross, inside and out, before, during, and after sex. I don’t know how he stands it, being made to feel like some kind of pervert-freak for wanting to sleep with his wife, but he does. Waits for me to make the moves.

Even then, it’s a crap shoot as to whether or not anything will happen because, as soon as I start to get aroused, I hear voices in the back of my head:

Look at you, disgusting slut. You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?

Nasty whore.

I told you this is all you’re good for…

If I do manage to tune out the voices, get through the layers of perma-frost and carry on in spite of myself, there are still hurdles to cross. In bed, words like “dirty” or “nasty” are total game-changers. Instant numbness from head to toe. Flashbacks come and go. Between the sheets, I have to constantly remind myself my husband’s not one of my abusers, he’s the man I love, the father of my children, my best friend.

Luckily, orgasm isn’t difficult, once I get past everything else, but truthfully, masturbation is the easiest way to climax. Alone, my sexual energy isn’t leaking out all over the place. Another survivor recently confided she used a form of mindful masturbation to heal her marital sex issues, so I think that’s an option for some. Unfortunately, after sex with my husband, no matter how good or right it feels at the time, I tend to feel completely filthy, used and discarded. Forget afterglow. Rather than pillow talk, post-coital conversation at our house typically goes something like this:

“Why are you ignoring me now? Guess you got what you wanted, eh?”

“I’m not ignoring you, babe, I’m just going to the bathroom. I’ll be right out.”

“Whatever. Put me back on the shelf until the next time you want something. As usual.”

Sometimes I feel like a failure as a wife, because I know my husband deserves to have a healthy sex life and I just can’t offer it to him right now, but then I remember: I deserve it, too. With patience and love, we’ll work it out, even if it takes a lifetime. I know he’s not going anywhere, despite my best attempts to drive him away in fits of PTSD-driven madness, and he won’t let a few harsh words change how he feels, since he knows where they come from. But it does put a strain on our relationship. I won’t lie. Sex and love have been weaved together in a tangled web in my mind for a very long time. Childhood sexual abuse has affected every single aspect of my life.

I know I’m not alone, friends.

As awkward and terrifying as it is, this is one of the conversations we need to be having, not only for survivors, but for those who love us, too.

Consider this an icebreaker.

Let’s talk.

*

(Essay updated in October 2016)

Rape is Not a Culture (Trigger Warning)

I heard the music first; it was always that way. I peaked out my window and there it was, the familiar Dodge Charger, driven by a young hockey goalie with piercing blue eyes and a Canadian flag tattooed on his chest. The Charger suited Joe– a fast car for an even faster seventeen-year-old boy. The car door slammed and I cringed. A moment later, my doorbell chimed.

Oh, hell.

Our brief summer fling had ended with the change of seasons as most are wont to do, and in the month or more since we’d parted, I’d fallen in love for the very first time with someone else. In fact, Dylan and I had just consummated our relationship that afternoon, and I was eagerly awaiting his return for a repeat performance. Ah, young love.

The bell rang again. I sighed, went downstairs, and opened the door with what I hoped was a look of absolute disinterest. “Hey. What’s up?” I yawned for effect.

“Hey, can I come in for a bit?” Joe asked.

“No, I don’t really think that’s a good idea—”

“Aw, come on, lemme in for a minute,” he interrupted, tears forming in his eyes. “I just wanna talk to you for a sec. Please? I miss you, babe.”

I looked over his shoulder, searching for an excuse.

“Come on,” Joe pleaded. “What, you’re too good for me now?”

I met his eyes. Uncomfortable, I watched for a moment, this six-foot-something hockey goalie wiping away his tears on my front porch, and felt a combination of pity, shame and guilt. Damn my Catholic upbringing. I moved aside to let him in. “All right. But just for a minute, okay?”

“You got it.”

Inside, Joe sat on the futon in my attic bedroom, and put his head in his hands. I tried to comfort him. “Listen, I’m sorry, but I don’t really get what you’re so upset about. I thought we were cool. We’re cool, right?

Instead of a reply, he tried to kiss me. I shoved him away.

“Uh-uh,” I insisted. “Not happening. Joe, listen, you gotta go—”

Joe ignored me and kissed my mouth. Hard. He shoved me onto my back and tugged my shorts down with one hand. I struggled against him as much as I could, but the weight of his body crushed mine, and there was nowhere left to go. I pounded on his chest.

“No. Please. Stop. Seriously, I don’t want to—”

“Shut up,” Joe growled, smirking. “You know you love it.”

“No! Stop, I’m not kidding—I don’t want to. Seriously, stop! No—”

No! No. No—oh, god—he’s actually going to—

No—

In an instant, my entire world became a suffocating inferno of searing pain. I couldn’t escape. I wanted to die. Instead, I just left my body—right there, discarded on that bed—and went someplace else. I felt nothing. I was nothing, hollowed out, empty, eviscerated. After he finished, Joe tugged up his jeans, then winked at me from the doorway across the room. “See ya later, beautiful.”

Then he was gone. I heard the front door slam and puked in my mouth. Then I curled up into a tight little ball and rocked back-and-forth for hours. Back-and-forth. Back-and-forth.

Back-and-forth.

           *

I was raped. It took nearly twenty years to be able to say those words out loud, to tell my story, and accept that it wasn’t my fault. Joe was an ex-boyfriend. Somehow, that seemed to make all the difference in my mind, as though the fact that I’d said “yes” in the past meant he couldn’t be blamed for his refusal to accept “no” in the present. I never reported the incident to the authorities. In fact, for a long time, I didn’t tell anyone. I kept my mouth shut and accepted the blame. Guilty and ashamed, I mistakenly believed that what had happened was my fault, that I should have done something differently. If only I’d fought harder, screamed louder, used my teeth. Anything.

But there was nothing I could’ve done, I know that now. In Joe’s eyes, I wasn’t a person, I was just a body. And he was going to take what he wanted, regardless of consent, regardless of me. Something was stolen that night which has taken decades to recover: trust. Trust in myself, trust in men, trust in the world as a place where I could be safe, loved, and respected. I still think about that boy, that night, that one act of spite that destroyed the last vestiges of innocence in me.  Sometimes I fantasize about revenge. Sometimes I imagine I’m brave enough to forgive. Mostly, I sit somewhere in the middle, praying that’s enough.

Rape is not a culture.

Rape is a devastatingly heinous crime that has serious long-term effects, and normalizing it by referring to it as a part of any culture is incredibly dangerous. Statistics show that approximately one in four women will be raped in her lifetime, but private discussions among women reveal those numbers to be significantly distorted. We know this: sexual assaults are highly underreported. Unfortunately, in large part, because we live in a society that continues to promote aggressive sexuality while shaming and blaming victims of assault for the clothes they wear, the paths they take, and their choices: What was she thinking? Didn’t she know better than to dress provocatively, or drink so liberally, or go out at night alone, or… fill-in-the-blank? Did she speak to him, flirt with him, dance too seductively? Did she invite him into her apartment? Well, then, what does she expect?

What does she expect?! She expects to be treated as a human being (with the same rights and freedoms as every other human being) regardless of someone else’s physical ability to overpower her. She expects to be able to wear the modern fashions sold in every department store without fear that she’s revealing too much. She expects to be safe if she’s walking under the stars, or having a few drinks on a night out, and she expects to flirt, speak, and dance when and how she chooses without any obligation to perform later on. Simply put, she expects her consent to matter.

No means no, true. But that puts the onus on her to remove consent, as though it were already presumed to be given in the first place. A body must be given, not taken.

Only yes means yes.

It’s time for us to recognize the power of our words to solidify cultural norms. Rape is not a culture, it’s a weapon of war, a control tactic used in attempt to dominate and force subservience on another human being, and its effects are long-lasting and .life-altering.

(Please feel free to substitute pronouns as required. Rape is not a sex/gender issue, it’s a power/control issue, and many men also experience rape in their lifetimes)

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog. Name changed to protect author*

Links to Support in Canada:

(From: http://crcvc.ca/links/ )

Silence is an Iron Cage

For years, I kept a ‘Serious Injuries List’ in my head, sort of like Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man. In fact, once I started to realize that all the strange things I’d experienced in my childhood weren’t exactly normal, or even legal, I began to mentally document and categorize it all, as though by organizing the mess in my brain, I could straighten out my soul once and for good. Over time, the list grew long, longer, longest, and my pain expanded until it consumed pretty much everything.

Eventually, I found my way to therapy. I began to seek assistance from various sources, to reach out and share my story and, in the sharing, discovered I’d found a way to release some of the pent up shame, grief, and anger that had consumed me for so long. But I also slowly realized that, in order to heal and move forward, I would need to change the way my brain operated. I needed to stop going around in circles, reliving the trauma on a daily—sometimes hourly—basis.

So, how do you change your brain? That was the enigmatic question. Where do you begin? How do you go back and rewire the way your mind works, alter the familiar neural pathways it travels and the manner in which you process your past experiences, daily triggers, and everyday stresses? Is it even possible? With every fibre of my being, I believed it was, that I could heal myself. Everything I’d ever witnessed, read, or heard involving the mind, brain, body, and spirituality, quantum mechanics, psychology, trauma, fear, and healing pointed in that direction. It was like a giant spotlight shone down from the sky on this one simple idea: Learn. (Actually, my sign came in the form of one single white feather which fell from a clear summer sky and landed directly at my feet, but that happened a bit later. Like an exclamation mark.)

Learn. It seemed so obvious, almost easy, although I knew it wouldn’t be. By challenging my brain to learn new ideas, develop new processes, form new pathways and neural connections, and to push beyond its terribly traumatic comfort zone, I assumed I’d have no choice but to grow, change, evolve and, ultimately, heal. I knew it was time to take out my mental machete and blaze new trails in the forests of my mind. I understood that the old, familiar, thorn-laden paths were causing as much damage as any past experience I’d had. Because when we relive old trauma, our minds don’t understand that what we’re experiencing isn’t actually happening again, in present time. It thinks it is.

I took a chance and applied to university. Six months later, in psychology class, I learned the name of the theory I’d been clinging to like a life preserver. Neuroplasticity refers to the physiological ability of the brain to rewire itself through the pruning of neural pathways after physical trauma, a process which allows stronger, well-worn routes to persist while weaker, less travelled paths die off. I believe this must also be possible after psychological trauma.

In a writing workshop, I wrote my story for the first time and shared it with my instructor who encouraged me to share it with the world, so I did. Then I wrote it again and again, each time, adding more details, more layers, more truth until my story could stand on its own two feet. I wrote about each abuse, each perpetrator, each incident in my childhood that had made me doubt my beautiful heart and question my own worth until I’d built a life based on shame, guilt, fear, and ugly lies about myself. I wrote it all. First to remember, and then, to let go.

It has taken years to make even the slightest dent, but I continue to break down that cursed faulty foundation, piece by bloody piece. There is no alternative. It must be destroyed. Despite the dirt under my fingernails—the scratches on my cheeks and scars on my arms, bruised thighs, broken bones and muscles torn from trying to destroy these illusions in order to see the light of truth beyond—I can’t stop until it crumbles before my eyes. No, I won’t cease until it all comes tumbling down and lands in a pile of rubble at my feet.

As for the rest, for the moment at least, I’m done. I have finished telling that particular chapter in my story. That damn chapter, after all these years, hasn’t changed. But I have. There are so many other, better stories to tell, and I finally feel ready and able to tell them. A way has been cleared. New connections have been made. Healing is taking place at a slow and steady pace, and I can spend hours—days, even—without revisiting trauma. I feel like it’s time to leave that aspect of the past where it belongs. Time to burn the books, the ‘Serious Injuries List,’ the grievances. Time to stop being a victim, a survivor, and just be Arwen again. Because it’s over now. I broke the silence, and in the process, I set myself free.

Silence is an iron cage. I don’t live there anymore.

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*

The Invisibles

It hit social media like a storm this spring: Josh, one of those picture-perfect Duggars (19 Kids and Counting), was accused of child molestation, and his wife, parents , sisters, and church elders knew all about it. Type “DUGGAR” into the Google browser and you’ll see. Every online celebrity magazine and gossip rag passing as news today had some fuel to add to the fire in hopes of inciting a sense of panic.

Our belief in a just world was thrown totally off-kilter, because of this reality TV show guy and his deep, dark, ugly secrets. An outraged, unjustifiably shocked public lamented, “How could this have happened?” (Wait—did she just say unjustifiably shocked, you might ask? Yes, I absolutely did, and now I’ll tell you why.) I think it’s shocking that people are still able to be shocked when these disgusting crimes are brought to light, as though they don’t happen every minute of the day, somewhere in the world, to some helpless, innocent child.

The current statistics available on childhood sexual abuse vary. Given the fact that many—if not most—instances are unreported, it’s pretty much impossible to settle on an accurate number of victims, but even so, we all know it’s tragically high. I’ve heard the cringe-worthy estimates: one in three girls and one in six boys. Sadly, after a lifetime of talking with countless other victims who never told anyone, I think it’s much, much higher than that.

In Canada, the reported rate of sexual assault is approximately 1.5 times higher for children and youth (under 18 years) than for young adults (18-24 years), and sexual violence is the second most reported crime perpetrated against that age group. The majority of the victims are female, upwards of 80%, rates of sexual violence which appear to exceed those of their male counterparts by nearly 5 times. Children under 12 years are most likely to be victimized by someone they know—and often trust—such as a family member or acquaintance. Girls, in particular, are most vulnerable to sexual assault between the ages of 12-17 years from a perpetrator outside of the family. (See more here).

So, how can we act shocked when faced with such a prevalent crime?

And how does shock help the victim, the system, or anyone but the perpetrator, anyways? Our shock forces us to turn in fear. Don’t look away. Give a hard stare instead.

How is it possible we still don’t understand that the only way to beat this darkness is to call it out for the monster that it is and stop letting it catch us by surprise?

And why do all of those numbers and statistics hide the one thing we most need to know? Where the fuck are the perpetrators? Do they not exist? Why are they invisible?

Turn it on its head.

Let’s talk about the perps. Who are they? What’s the peak age range? How many times more likely are males to commit these crimes than females? And, can I get a percentage, please? I mean, in a class of 24 students, estimates show that approximately 8 girls and/or 4 boys has been—or will be—sexually assaulted as a child. So, if I walk into any room filled with 24 random adults, how many (men and women) are estimated to be sexual offenders, a very real threat to me and my children?

One in three? One in six? More or less?

Of course, I’m not saying the children don’t matter, because they do more than anything. But I’m sick of these issues becoming the domain of the victim while their predators hide behind a cloak of invisibility. Why do they deserve any of our protection? Where are their easy-to-identify scarlet letters? Isn’t it time for these creeps to finally stand up and be counted?

I’m not afraid to own that I’m not really interested in the details of this one particular case. This story is not new to me, or original in any way, and I’ve heard multiple variations from so many different survivors over the years. I don’t believe one more (extremely sensationalised and media-hyped) version will make much of a difference in how I see things at this point. But I will use it as an illustration to highlight what I believe needs to change.

Shock is fear. And fear isn’t going to help us win the battle against child abuse.

The only weapon we have at our disposal worth anything, in my opinion, is love. Our ability to use ourselves and our voices as instruments to create the change we want to see in the world. If we break the silence surrounding childhood abuse—if more and more victims come forward to share their stories and refuse to carry the heavy burden of shame any longer—and if we can stop turning away from what terrifies us, open our eyes and face the demon for what it is, I truly believe with every fibre of my being that we can destroy it once and for all. We can be light-bearers, make visible the invisibles, and cast out darkness.

We can choose to see.

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*

Blindsided

Not much surprises me anymore.

I guess you could say, due to my history, I have come to expect the unexpected, perhaps even anticipate it. Ever-watchful and hyper-vigilant, always waiting for the other shoe to drop, I do not get caught off guard or shocked easily. And when I do it usually has more to do with my own anxiety or lack of attention than any outrageous or astonishing circumstances. Always prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best, it is difficult to throw me off my game for too long, as even the biggest bombshells typically have very little impact on my overall sensibilities anymore. It is easy enough to catch a fastball if you are ready for it.

This week, however, an unanticipated message completely spun me out. Sent me spiralling deep down into an abyss I have gratefully managed to avoid falling back in for quite some time. I managed to crawl out relatively quickly, shake it off and get my bearings, but whoa—I have to admit, while in the midst of it all, I worried for a second that I might not make it out. Darkness can be oddly soothing. Yet, here I am, bathed in light once again. Mind full blown, but still standing, feet planted firmly on the path to healing. A little worse for wear, a bit bent, but nowhere near broken. Never broken.

On the Day of the Dead, in the small hours, I was haunted by my own ghost.

A childhood friend wrote to sadly inform me that she had recently ended a relationship with my rapist. They had a child together, and he had abused her, too. She had read a blog post I had written and deduced it was him. I had never told her what had happened between us, because there is no way that I could have predicted the future; still, guilt gripped me by the guts and squeezed as hard as it could.

Blindsided, I felt hot bile rise up from the bottom of my belly and threaten to choke me. I read the words staring back from the screen in black and white, over and over, and for a moment or two, I was seventeen again. In that room with him. Pinned under him. Violated by him. I closed my computer and paced the office for hours, triggered, reeling from flashback after flashback, turning it all over in my mind, the old and new knowledge of him.

I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the information.

I will admit, I entertained a few revenge fantasies, permitted my mind to go where my body never would. Imagined, for a moment, that I might actually be capable of making him finally face the consequences of his brutal actions. I got extremely angry, threw a book, and slammed the door. Bang! Scratched a few new hives on my left arm. Then I buried my face in my hands and sobbed, sobbed, sobbed. I crawled into bed that night wondering if I would ever be able to scrub my soul clean enough to not feel so dirty every time I thought of him. I did not sleep a wink.

The next morning, I activated the Phone Tree. Think “Practical Magic,” the brilliant film based on the even-more-brilliant novel by Alice Hoffman, and you will know exactly what I mean. My support network, one by one, showed up to hold my hand, to listen sympathetically and offer advice, and to make me laugh, which I needed desperately, probably more than anything else in the universe right at that moment. Laughter is like little bursts of light. It dissipates darkness in much the same way.

Later, I recalled the words of a trusted advisor, who has often reminded me to watch for the Ultimate Test within every warrior’s lesson. The test that arrives just when we think we have it all figured out, throws everything we believe we have learned in our faces to see how we will respond, and determines precisely where we will go from here. If we fail at the challenge, nobody loses, we simply stay put and continue trying until we get it right. (Hint: we get it right when we listen to our hearts). But if we have managed to successfully incorporate what we have learned into our daily lives and behave accordingly, we may be permitted to level up in this game called Life.

This was my Ultimate Test. I could feel it in my bones.

For more than twenty years, I have tortured myself, wondering if he had—or would—hurt anyone else. I held my breath and myself accountable for his potential crimes. Now I know the truth. Of course he would. He did. Because I never reported the incident, I carried the crushing weight of guilt and the burden of a responsibility that was not mine around for two decades, believing that I was responsible for anyone else he abused subsequently. But it was never my fault. I was a girl just trying to survive the only way I knew how, and I had nothing at all to do with his choices. In reality, the only one responsible for making sure he never assaulted any woman again was himself. Him. And he failed.

I do not know precisely what to do. My words may turn out to be the only gift I have to offer. Still, if words are all I have, after so many wasted years spent suffering through the damage done by this particular individual, this is what I need to tell my sweet, beautiful friend: Do not carry hate in your heart (or he wins). Allow your anger to propel you forward until you arrive at a place where you can use your damage to make a difference in the world. And forgive yourself for how you survived. None of it was your fault, honey. Not one bit.

The boy who raped me is now a full-grown man. I am no longer the defenseless girl I used to be. Far stronger than I was, I am an empowered woman living life on my terms. Braver than he will ever be. And wise enough to understand this is not my battle. Our fight is over. I won.

Today, I say a prayer for his child, and for my old friend: May hope fill your heart, and the branches of your Phone Tree extend far and wide. You will get through this, I promise. For any past or future victims. For my own sons & daughters, and their sons & daughters, and their sons & daughters, and theirs. For your sons & daughters, and their sons & daughters, and their sons & daughters, and theirs. For the world they will inherit. For the world we will leave behind. For the girl I was, for the woman I am, and for the woman I will become. And for him, my rapist, who is probably the most damaged and broken of all.

I am not big enough for forgiveness. Not in this case. So I will not pretend to be. All I can do is let it go, cut the cords between our souls, and keep moving forward. As the Enlightened One, Buddha, so famously said, “Our enemies are our greatest teachers.” I suppose you could say I am leaving one of my greatest instructors behind.

It is time for this warrior to level up.

(Arwen at 17)

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*

Neuroplasticity: Changing My Brain

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To look at me, you’d think there’s nothing wrong. We could have a conversation and you’d never suspect that behind my friendly smile there’s a private war, raging. Beneath nightmares and unbidden thoughts are wounds that haven’t yet healed, scars that never will.

My father was a crack-cocaine addict. I’m sure he was a lot of other things, too, but that one overshadowed them all. I hardly ever saw him. When I did, our connection was impeded by the fact that he was high, and highly inappropriate. Unfortunately, those years of abandonment and casual carelessness left a mark upon my soul; the type of mark, like a perverted branding, that is visible only to a certain type of individual: a predator.

The first time I was approached in a sexual manner, I was three years old. It happened at six, then again at seven, and once more at nine, each violation committed by a different man. I developed eating disorders. I pulled my eyelashes out, one by one. I wanted to disappear. When I looked in the mirror, I saw only flaws, mistakes. My secret was destroying me.

At seventeen, I experienced the last—and worst—sexual assault, committed by an ex-boyfriend. It took years to accept what happened, to call it by its ugly name: Rape. For a long time, I didn’t call it anything. I took the blame. I took it that night, and for the next seventeen years, until I just couldn’t take it anymore.

The night I was raped, my boyfriend nearly choked me to death, believing I’d been unfaithful. I dropped out of high school a week later, and spent the next several years in one violent, abusive relationship after another. In between, there were phases: drug-experimentation, promiscuity, and devil-may-care. Maybe I thought I didn’t deserve better. Pain felt familiar, like an old friend. Maybe I wanted to punish myself a little, as well. I was a good Catholic girl. I knew I was guilty.

I left my first husband, covered in my own blood, melon-sized bruises all over my body. At the Barnsley Police Station in South Yorkshire, England, the officer taking photographs shook his head sadly at my swollen face. “I remember you, Luv”, he said. “You were ‘ere not three months ago. Ah, such a shame, innit? You deserve better for you an’ yer boy.” Adjusting the ruler, he added grimly, “Should think ‘bout leaving ‘fore there’s nowt left of ya.” Flash.

Fists of hair, steel-toed boots in the belly, were nothing compared to the words smashing against one another in my head, “You. Are. Nothing.” Carrying a black suitcase and an eighteen-month old boy in my arms, I swore it would never happen again. Two years later, pregnant with my second child, it did. Not in the same way, not with the same man. It’s never really the same, is it? But it happened again. I had no choice but to leave the city. We spent Christmas seeking sanctuary in a shelter for abused women and children.

I found an apartment in February. My second son was born in June. We lived a quiet life on less than $1000 per month in city-subsidized housing for a year, until a neighbor decided he wanted to be more than friends. He didn’t handle the rejection well. Criminal Harassment charges were laid. I sank into a deep depression.

I was a Victim.

We moved around a lot. It took two years to shake off the fear of being followed, watched. I became anxious, fearful of people, especially men. There were moments when I even feared my boys. Not who they were, but who they could become. I was diagnosed with PTSD, among other things, prescribed medication. Burning angry, I had little fits of rage over insignificant things, and developed severe hives. I barely ate, could hardly sleep. I lost time. Memory after memory assailed me, every waking moment. Every crime committed against me rose up inside, like hot, boiling lava, and gurgled out. Twisted in pain, alone in the darkness, my soul cried. “ENOUGH!”

I finally heard. I can say that now, because I know it is true.

The human brain is capable of the most amazing feats. Pathways are formed when neurons are fired, over and over, in the same manner. This is how we learn, remember, grow as human beings. When trauma occurs, the cells in our body become imprinted. Triggered by certain stimulus, old neural pathways are recycled. Trauma is relived, again and again.

Neuroplasticity involves the spontaneous rewiring of neurons, the reassignment of neural pathways. Neurons are able to strengthen well-worn connections while weakening or eliminating others. Imagine, the road less travelled, essentially disappears. A healing process, this gives us the power to literally change our minds.

So, I decided to change my mind. I knew that I had to do something drastic to reclaim my power. I was smart enough to know that I was hurting myself, and old enough to be tired of it. Learning, getting a formal education, seemed to offer the opportunity to form new thought processes, new patterns, new pathways.

I’m changing my mind, every day, a little more. You’d never know it, to look at me.

*

(This essay first appeared in the Globe and Mail, Sept 2013. Artwork by Tara Hardy)

Run, Baby, Run

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I don’t like confrontation. In fact, I’ll go to great lengths to avoid it. My heart races, my palms get sweaty, and occasionally, I forget to breathe. Panic. Basic human instinct kicks in. Fight or flight—I learned young. Run. Far. Away.

I got my first taste of freedom at five years old. I wanted to play with Mom’s make-up; the baby-sitter refused. So I had no choice but to take matters into my own hands. In one grand display of independence, I ran away from home. I’m my own woman. I can do as I please. Nestling my Himalayan kitten safely into a large paper sack, I carted her out the back door, and across the huge field behind our house in London, Ontario. At the neighborhood basketball court, under an old wooden bench, we hid for at least an hour. I wasn’t afraid at all. I felt safe. Just like in tag, I was home-free! In that moment, a runner was born.

When I turned nine, Mom was offered a job on Parliament Hill. We moved to Ottawa, and I joined the track-and-field team. But every day, little by little, the things I ran from became more serious until, eventually, I was running from myself. I ran from the bully who knocked me to my knees and forced me to bark like a dog; from the boy who stuck his hand under my skirt during recess, and refused to remove it; from the girl who followed me home after school, yelling “slut” and “bitch” at my back; from the man who chased me six terrifying blocks on the way to a friend’s house one night. There were other things, too, that I couldn’t escape. Some things you can’t run from no matter how hard you try. Believe me, I tried.

I couldn’t run from the men who abused me. I couldn’t run when, at three years old, my dad asked me to hold his penis in the bathroom during a rare weekend visit; when my friends’ grandfather touched me there so hard the ghost of his fingers haunted my six-year-old soul until the day he died; when, at seven, the director of my summer camp videotaped two friends and me naked in the poolside showers; when the priest hearing my First Confession sat me on his lap, played with my hair, and whispered into my ear. I couldn’t run when a jealous ex-boyfriend raped me at seventeen. Or when Dylan, my new boyfriend, called it cheating, and wrapped his thick hands around my throat. I did nothing. On the outside.

On the inside, it was a whole other story. I started to run laps in my mind. I mapped pathways to secret rooms in far corners, and created clandestine passageways leading to inner sanctuaries. Every single scar was covered up. Protected. I hid memories in iron cages with invisible locks, and laid landmines set to blow at the slightest sign of trouble. I was on lockdown. I said nothing. I told no one, not even Mom. I kept those dark secrets closer to my own heart than the things I loved. But our bodies remember what our minds try to forget. I punished my body for what it remembered; I was hell-bent on self-destruction. By the time I reached my twenties, I was practically an expert.

In the beginning, I twirled my hair into tiny knots to feel the tight tug against my scalp. I pulled my eyelashes out, one by one, until they were gone. Later, I starved myself because I wanted to be thin and perfect. Invisible. Mom was terrified for me. “You need to eat something,she implored. Come on, I’ll make you anything you want.” I ignored her pleas. Mom dragged me to see several psychologists, but to no avail—I’d perfected the mask. At home, I clawed my face in anger, threatened to kill myself, longed to curl up and die. Living hurt. My drug-addicted father’s long absences, interspersed with theatrical apologies and inappropriate behaviours, had led me believe I was unlovable. I blamed myself. Everything was my fault. I ran to escape the shame, the pain, the burden.

I dropped out of high school four credits shy of graduation, and spent the next year working retail to save money for a move to Vancouver with Dylan. He never forgave my “infidelity.” I accepted his blame because I thought I deserved it. In addition to physical violence, Dylan also introduced me to drugs: pot, mushrooms, LSD, ecstasy. On weekends, we went to raves and danced all night in deserted warehouses, or hung out under the bridge with our group of Lost Boys. I saw Mom when I stopped in to grab a change of clothes. Eventually, Dylan and I got to the coast, where we settled into a twisted cycle of violent outbursts and tearful apologies. For five long years, I ran back-and-forth across the country, searching for a way out of the relationship, getting sucked back in. When Dylan told me no one else could ever love me, I believed him. Completely.

Until one morning, after another long night of screaming accusations, I woke up in a cramped trailer in dusty Vernon, B.C., and just didn’t believe him anymore. Or maybe I decided I’d rather take my chances than be resigned to this life of insidious manipulations. Faced with the slow death of my soul, I chose life. Dylan drove me home. With an ounce of marijuana, and three-thousand miles to travel between us, we said everything there was to say. He dropped me off in Ottawa with little fanfare. A few weeks later, I received a phone call that changed my life forever. Starboard Cruise Services: the chance to run in a totally new direction.

In Miami, Florida, I boarded the largest cruise ship in the world, and embarked on an eight-month voyage that led me through the Caribbean islands to Alaska. The dream of a lifetime had landed in my lap. I took full advantage of the opportunity presented to forget myself. I stayed up all night, chasing beer after beer with shots of Jagermeister, only to awaken in a stranger’s bed every other morning. If the body is a temple, mine was on fire. I wasn’t going to sit and watch it burn—I’d light the torch, set it aflame myself!

My twenty-fifth birthday was spent in Ketchikan, Alaska. The cold glacial air calmed my boiling blood to some degree. I found time for reflection among the orcas and icebergs, filled notebooks with poetry about “wanderlust” and “my gypsy soul,” and ceased the relentless roll from bed to bed. When I met Roger Bennett, an English musician who played in the lounge across from my shop onboard, I was ready for love. At the end of my contract, we parted with kisses and promises.

I travelled to South Yorkshire, England, a few months later to visit Roger. Within six weeks, I was pregnant with our son. I flew home to Canada, and stayed in a maternity home during a tortuous engagement that involved government officials, Immigration, and the British High Commission. Roger and I were married in my third trimester. Two weeks later, Jack was born, and we were given permission to immigrate into the United Kingdom as a family. In reality, Roger and I were little more than two strangers with a child. I filed for divorce a year later.

Our brief union ended after one violent night of physical abuse that still haunts me on cold fall evenings when the crisp air carries the scent of a memory: I’m outside. Roger’s thrown me out—topless, bleeding, beaten-down. I stand in the yard, shivering. Broken into pieces. Cast aside like a rag-doll. Alone. Jack’s muffled cries from inside the house pierce my soul. I try the door. It’s locked.

After a vicious bout of red-tape battles with a foreign court system—involving threats of kidnapping charges, three rejected Visitation Agreements, and five months on the brink of starvation—I was granted permission to bring Jack home to Canada. Run, baby, run. Jack and I lived a low-key life back in London. For nearly two years, it was just the two of us. Then I met Adam. Adam was a second-rate con man who preyed on my weaknesses and fears. In the end, after four months of chaos, I put my foot down. I was pregnant; it had to end.

I asked Adam to leave. He punched me in the head. Out of sheer desperation, I went to see Father Bob, my grandfather’s priest. After I explained the situation, he looked me straight in the eye, and said, “You need to get the fuck outta Dodge.”

He offered me a train ticket and $300 cash. I kept thinking: If a Catholic priest said fuck, he must really mean it. So I took the ticket, the cash, my son, and ran for my life. We spent Christmas in a shelter for abused women and children in Ottawa. On Valentine’s Day, Jack and I moved into a subsidized apartment downtown. Johnny was born in July. Life was quiet for nearly a year, until a neighbor decided he wanted to be more than friends. After several months of criminal harassment, I woke up to find the outside wall of my apartment building covered with graffiti—whore, bitch, cunt, slut. I took photos, called the police, pressed charges, and moved my boys out to the country. Thirty-one years old, and I was still running.

I had no choice. I was too terrified to sit still. Up-and-down, round-and-round I ran, over the Penrose stairs inside my brain. Memories rose to the surface—their sword-tipped wings clamouring against cages behind tightly locked doors—begging to be released, assailing me with their force and violence and sheer numbers. Nightmares gnashed their teeth on my bones. I couldn’t sleep, or eat, or think. Severe hives. Fits of rage. I didn’t recognize myself.

I lived in Merrickville with my sons for seven months, followed by a short stay in Nova Scotia. When we finally returned to Ottawa, exhausted, I broke down. I found a therapist, consulted a psychiatrist, and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Eventually, I stopped running away. Healing is a journey in itself. The roots I’ve laid down grow stronger every day. After years of chasing the wrong men, I let the right one find me. Old wounds resurface on occasion, but I’m not afraid, because I know I’m safe. I’m home-free! I still tend to avoid confrontation, but I’ve learned that, once the initial fear passes, muscles relax; a heart-rate returns to its steady, rhythmic beat; shallow inhalations give way to deep breaths. Fight or flight is a choice as much as an instinct. Faced with the death of my soul, I chose life.

Last year, I took a leap of faith, and ceased running laps in my mind. I made a slight shift, and it changed the entire trajectory of my life. I completed Carleton University’s Bridging Program, and I’m working towards a degree, achieving excellent grades. I’ve proven to myself that I’m far more than a rag-doll. I’m a writer, a wife and mother, a survivor. I’m my own woman. I can do as I please. Piece by jagged piece, I’m putting myself back together. Some days, the fragments fit easier than others, but I’m determined to manifest the vision I have for myself. One that is whole. I spent a long time believing that I wasn’t good enough; that I was worthless because these things had happened to me; that no matter how hard I tried, I’d never amount to anything. I permitted these beliefs to define me, allowed them to control my life. In truth, I let them run me ragged. But I don’t run anymore. These days, I move towards the future, not away from the past. And there’s a big difference.

(Story won Honourable Mention in Carleton University’s Writing Competition, 2014)

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*

Break the Silence

“In times like these, silence puts the rights of future generations at risk. Silence will not protect us or the next generation. Speaking out and struggling for change can.” 

P. Senior

We’re often intrigued by people who have faced harrowing feats and survived.

Books detailing near-death experiences fill row after row of bookshelves at Chapters. Television shows and movies depict extraordinary tales of survival, while newscasts, podcasts, newspapers, and magazines are replete with stories of ordinary folks who’ve had to overcome severe challenges to find a slice of happiness. We enjoy these stories because they open our eyes to the incredible will to survive all humans possess. Inspirational and empowering, they remind us of our strength, and make us believe we can handle anything that comes our way. But the tales I’m interested in hardly ever get told. They’re hidden away, shrouded in secrecy, essentially ignored.

For generations, countless adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse have kept their stories quiet, out of fear and shame, or some misguided sense of loyalty to family and community—even, in some cases, to their abusers. It’s time to break the silence. We need the stories of these women and men. If we’re ever going to understand how to change things for our own children, and see an end to childhood sexual abuse, we—the victims, the survivors—must speak out. We have to break the shell of our silence and let the light of truth in. Only light can dissipate darkness.

Let our legacy—rather than silence, shame, mistrust, broken relationships, addiction, and devastation—be the power and protection our words and actions affect. Let it be our personal mission to make it known, from coast to shining coast, that we won’t be silenced any longer. Because silence is deadly. Let our voices be heard, loud and clear, unabashed. Let us stand, united as one unequivocal force, and face this demon once and for all. Let us finally call it out for what it is—an act of war—an act of war against the very nature of a human being. And perhaps, finally, the deed that’s been done in dark corners for centuries will get the attention it deserves. Because, as every survivor knows, ignoring it won’t make it go away.

Ignorance perpetuates an environment for these crimes to breed. Silence leaves our children dangerously vulnerable. We have to set fire to this hateful crime once and for all. Light your lanterns. Carry your torches. Let’s burn it to the ground.

Child sexual abuse is not about sex. Rape is not about sex. Sexual abuse, despite its name, in actuality has nothing to do with sexuality. It’s about force, power, domination and control. And sexual assault doesn’t discriminate. Its victims, male and female alike, come from a wide variety of backgrounds, regardless of geographical location, socio-economic class, ethnicity, and/or religion. Our experiences may differ, but the crime itself is far too common, and it has to stop.

We have to speak up to protect the children. To save ourselves. By giving voice to our most traumatic experiences, we reclaim a power that was taken without consent, reach back across time, into the past, and rewrite history. No longer victims, we are survivors telling our stories, in order to bring these crimes into the light of understanding. Together, we have the power to create a world where women and children are no longer victims, stripped of their basic human rights on a daily basis.

In the meantime, how does one survive childhood sexual abuse? How does one reclaim stolen power and heal the wounds imprinted on her soul? How does one stop feeling like a victim and start to feel strong again?

Honestly, I don’t know that there’s a recipe, or even a good answer to that question. For me, it happens in fits and starts; I struggle to varying degrees, over a variety of issues, and some days are easier than others. But I know that sharing my story has helped, not only myself– rewriting the past has enabled me to find some tangible perspective– but also others, who have read about my experiences and seen a part of their story in my own. The path to healing and recovery is different for each and every one of us, in every situation across the spectrum, at every possible crossroad of intersectionality. Still, despite each difference and in spite of every variance, one thing remains the same: we survived. We fucking survived.

Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse often face considerable challenges in life. Surviving trauma of that magnitude requires incredible amounts of strength and resilience. Sadly, healing from such trauma often involves revisiting it, again-again-again, in a vicious cycle of self-punishment and abuse until it has been processed, assimilated, and transmuted on a soul level. Sometimes this never happens.

Problems with trust, relationships, fear, shame, personal boundaries, and low self-esteem are prevalent, as well as health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and insomnia. In severe cases, more serious conditions can develop, like dissociative identity disorder (DID). Often survivors must deal with addiction or self-medication, or even the urge to self-harm, due to feelings of low self-worth and inadequacy. And eating disorders are not uncommon, at either end of the spectrum, whether related to obesity or anorexia/bulimia. The effects of abuse are vast and enduring. We’ve come so far in our understanding, we have so far yet to go, but the first step, the one all others depend upon, is to break the silence. Because as we’ve learned, time and time again, silence is deadly.

The past infiltrated every aspect of my life for more than thirty years. I only began to heal when I finally started to share my story. Monsters in the dark can grow so big they swallow us whole. Only the wide open space of light can set us free.

*This post fist appeared on Living the Dream blog*