Abuse Doesn't Look The Way You Think It Looks
Trigger warning: Contains descriptions of sexual abuse.
Much as I would like to tell you I despised my abuser for the duration of the time I knew him and was being abused by him, it's simply not true. Frightening as it sounds, it's very common for victims of abuse, children and adults alike, to have a strong emotional attachment to their abuser, even after they've been severely hurt by them. There's even a name for it: Stockholm Syndrome. I was infatuated with my abuser. I thought of little else outside of pleasing him and staying in his favor, which was a challenge due to his extreme, nearly insane jealousy. I lived to stay in his good graces and as far as I was concerned everyone in the world could have disappeared and if only he and I were left I would be happy. Sounds like love, right? Oh, but it wasn't. It really, truly wasn't. Thanks to the fact that I now have an incredible husband who loves me and sacrifices for me and supports me in ways I'd never known possible, I know what I experienced as a girl of 13, 14, and 15 years old was not love. It hardly resembled love, but when I was 13 it felt like what I thought love was supposed to feel like.
With no relationship experience, no knowledge of sexuality, and a trusting disposition to boot, I was a worthy target for a predatory, power-hungry man in his mid-twenties.
Abuse has many emotional layers and they are not easily explained. I am not an expert and I don't know all the lingo, but I do have a good deal of first-hand experience and so I'm dedicating this blog post to some blunt honesty about what it's like to be a young person being abused by someone you trust and care for. There was quite a mess of emotions to be found within me. I have spent the last twelve years of my life sorting through that mess and untying the knots my abuser left in my heart and mind, and while I have come an extraordinarily long way, at 28 years old I still have a good deal of healing left to do. Fortunately, I do pretty well with this whole open-healing thing (discarding shame and embarrassment tends to be really helpful when dealing with taboo topics like sex abuse) so I'll plainly lay out what my 'love' for my abuser looked like as a young teen, as well as the emotional and physical ramifications of being abused.
- I wrote to and about my abuser, and often. Journal entries and love letters poured from my fingertips. I expressed my "deep love and desire" for him, I told him how I couldn't wait to marry him and to be uninhibited sexually with him (not that much was left in that sense). Very frequently, I profusely apologized to him for my behavior that didn't meet his standards. I'd beg his forgiveness for "being flirtatious" with other men, for laughing with my mouth open or lingering in conversation with friends. In my journal entries I expressed my overwhelming guilt at the "sexual sin" we were committing. I knew it was wrong and shouldn't be happening, but I also knew I couldn't tell anyone about it. Jamin told me many times and in no uncertain terms that both our lives would be completely destroyed if I ever told anyone, they wouldn't understand what we shared. "Besides" he'd tell me, "We'll be married someday and it won't matter then." Guilt, shame and infatuation tangled inside me and created a turmoil unlike anything I have felt since. Writing to Jamin about those feelings was my preferred form of expression. Over the years I have found and burned many letters and journal entries.
- My thought life was completely consumed with my abuser. During junior high & high school I was mostly privately tutored or took part in small group classes. Once the abuse began my ability to pay attention suffered. School was a low priority for me and as a result my grades suffered. I had friends but kept them at arm's length and didn't relate well with them. Very soon after the abuse began, perhaps even when my abuser was still grooming me, I learned to mask my emotions very well - to most outsiders I probably appeared to be a relatively normal teenaged girl, I was social, bubbly, and extroverted. Our massive home was something of a social mecca in our church community, always full of people, always buzzing. We had several boarders at a time and people came and went all day long, being anti-social was not really an option. And because our 8 bedroom home was such a busy place, so full of life, food, family and friends, I could only afford to suffer in the privacy of my room when no one was watching. I mastered the skill of hiding my true emotions and wearing socially acceptable ones. In my room I would let my guard down, I'd cry, rock back and forth on my bed, bite and scratch myself in frustration, simultaneously consumed with my feelings of worthlessness and my infatuation for the man who made me feel worthless. I was in prison.
- While the emotional toll the long-term abuse had on my young psyche was devastating, the physical response to the sexual acts occurring was very confusing for me as well. Before the abuse began I knew next to nothing about sex. I'd only just started my period around the same time I met my abuser and I didn't know my own body at all. The function of my menstrual cycle had been explained to me but nothing beyond that. The first time Jamin touched me I was 13 and he was 23. He stroked my face with his hand and told me I was beautiful, and though I had no idea what was happening, my body responded. I'd sleep fitfully that night, confused and intrigued. For a long time after that, I ached for his touch. Months later, when the sexual abuse had escalated to my abuser frequently forcing me to perform oral sex on him, I was horribly conflicted. Desire and disgust went hand in hand and I didn't know how to process my feelings. I wanted to be held and loved by him, and at times he did hold me and tell me he loved me, but I hated the other things he made me do and I wanted them to stop. The way he spoke to me crushed me. His demeaning, hateful words successfully compounded my own feelings of self-loathing and accomplished precisely what I now know was his aim - he kept me exactly where he wanted me. Attached, desperate, demeaned, scared, guilty...indebted.
Years after the abuse ended, when I finally met a good, kind man and married him, I was fully faced with the harsh, ugly truth of what abuse had done to me. Establishing and maintaining a healthy relationship was nearly impossible and felt like a constant uphill battle, and one I thought at the time I'd probably never win.
I am winning, though. Healing can be found.
Mindfulness therapy helped me greatly. My wonderful husband helps me. He has supported me and held my hand through years of severe panic attacks, depression, eating disorders, emotional shut-downs and sexually triggered flashbacks - those first few years of marriage were intensely difficult and there have been times we didn't think we'd make it through the storm in one piece.
Yet here I am, a whole woman.
Speaking openly about my abuse does not mean I am still entrenched in the trauma of what happened to me. It does not mean I am holding tightly to victim-hood or refusing to heal. On the contrary, it empowers me. Each time I share about the abuse I suffered I am declaring my own innocence, and not because I feel the need to convince myself of my innocence but because the sad truth is that we live in a society that cannot readily believe an abused person can be free of blame. Too many people believe that the blame of abuse must be shared and cannot rest on the shoulder's of one person alone, though so often that is precisely where it belongs.
If this post follows the trend of my previous posts, it will be read by several thousand people and hundreds of those readers will be abuse victims and survivors. If you are one of those victims, and whether you are suffering in silence or have openly shared your story you must know this: You are not alone. You do not deserve to feel shunned or shamed. You are deserving of the purest and truest love. Your past experiences have not ruined you for someone else. Your dignity remains, your soul remains, YOU remain.
If you are alive, healing is possible, and you are worth it.