As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I will always have deep and lasting scars. But underneath, my wounds are healing. After decades of hard work in psychotherapy, a solid support system, and the unconditional love of my husband and children, I feel whole. I am okay. Better than that, I have created a life that fulfills and sustains me and brings many joys. There is more to my story though, and this part does not have a happy ending. It’s about my family of origin. For two decades, I tried to maintain relationships with family members while still remaining loyal to myself and honoring the truth about the abuse. Sadly, I have found this to be an impossible goal. Throughout this long struggle, I have felt ignored, shamed, blamed, ostracized and – ultimately, utterly betrayed.
Like the sexual abuse itself, my family’s behavior has left me wounded and scarred. Unlike the abuse, it has never ended.
When I first came to terms with the fact that I had been sexually abused as a child, I was actually eager to tell my mother and siblings (my father was already suffering from Alzheimer’s and died a few years later). I assumed they would sympathize with my pain and offer their support as I faced my traumatic past. Although I had always struggled to be heard, I was confident that this news would change everything and they would finally realize that I deserved more empathy and respect.
I was in my early twenties and a couple of years into therapy when I revealed that my older brother had raped and sodomized me for a period of years during my childhood starting when I was about seven years old. I had begun to understand how my brother’s violations had instilled a deep shame inside me and how my sense of self had been damaged. While I had never forgotten these events, it was a relief to pry open this previously locked door from my past, shine a light on my trauma and discover the origins of my sadness and insecurity. I was confident that my family would join me on the difficult journey toward healing, change, and forgiveness.
They said all the right things at first. My brother even admitted to the abuse and wrote to say he was sorry. But in an old, familiar way his apology felt empty. I was disturbed by his seeming lack of interest in my feelings and I pushed for more. I wanted my brother to explore the reasons that he perpetrated these acts as a child, including the possibility that he had been abused himself.
I believed that we had to examine the symptoms in order to cure this ill that had infected our family. Then we might be able to change destructive patterns and perhaps prevent abuse from being perpetrated on successive generations. That did not happen.
I grew frustrated with their silence and apparent disinterest. As my anger toward my brother grew, I wrote and told him about the lifetime of resentment I felt for what I saw as his dominating, selfish behavior toward me. He replied that he pitied me, suggested that I get a refund on my therapy, and instructed me to stay away from him until I changed back to the way I used to be. That was almost two decades ago and I have not seen him since.
My other family members didn’t have my back either. When I urged my mother to pursue the subject further with my brother, she said he had told her to back off and she wouldn’t risk losing him. My older sister said: “He apologized. What more do you want?” My family began inviting my brother to important family events and leaving me out. When I challenged my mother for not inviting me to her 70th birthday party, she replied curtly that she assumed I wouldn’t attend if my brother were there. She was right about that. I was devastated that she had chosen him over me.
Through the years, my family continued to enthusiastically embrace my brother. My mother insisted that he was “a good person” and seemed impatient with me for not joining their way of thinking. She didn’t understand that I am the only person who could determine whether or not he had earned my forgiveness.
My relationship with my mom remained rocky. I stayed away from her when things became unbearable. But she was a loving mother in other ways and cared deeply for my children. Over time, I decided that I could keep her in our lives without compromising myself: by understanding her limitations and continuing to advocate for myself when necessary. That worked for a long time. Then, when my other turned 80, I learned that she had celebrated with a large party thrown by my brother and attended by all of our family and many friends. Not only was I excluded, but my existence was also apparently never acknowledged as they reminisced about our family. When I confronted her about keeping the party a secret from me, she responded that I was just as much at fault because I was “always angry” at her.
Despite the price I’ve had to pay, I will never walk away from dealing with my past. I know the difference between moving forward and ignoring the truth. Now that I am grown and have a choice, I will never allow anyone in my family to overpower me, keep me quiet or force me to stand in the background and play the part of the obedient child or passive, adoring sister.
I miss my family. But I will never trade my hard-won emotional health and peace of mind for their acceptance and approval. I have learned the hard way that while facing the truth hurts, it helps so much more.
Healing the damage of the abuse was largely in my control – but I have no such control over my family members’ behavior or attitudes. I created the Second Wound Facebook and Twitter pages for sexual abuse survivors like myself who know the pain of hurtful family reactions. We deserve to be heard, respected and supported in our healing. Maybe we’ll never get this from our families of origin, but we can offer it to each other and ourselves.