You might think, being a victim of sexual abuse or assault, it is the experience that affects survivors the most, causes the most damage in our lives, and has the most lasting, destructive effects.
You might be wrong.
Sexual violence is the first wound. But for a countless number of survivors, the moment we tell our stories is the beginning of a confusing, soul-crushing response from our own loved ones that is characterized by the denial or minimization of our trauma. This is an all-too-common experience I refer to as “the second wound.”
When it hits, we find ourselves in an upside-down reality. In this world, the abuser is treated as the golden child, celebrated, adored, and imbued with power while their victims are scapegoated as troublemakers for speaking up. It’s a place where loved ones refuse to take steps to protect potential victims and telling the truth is seen as the real danger. Where outward appearances count more than moral integrity and power and loyalty trumps truth. Where we are left out of events and gatherings while our perpetrators are included. Where we are blamed for “dwelling in the past” or pressured to “forgive” and “move on.” Meanwhile, our abusers’ denials are believed and their claims of good intentions are applauded. Everyone but the survivor is allowed to be an authority on our traumatic experiences.
When I first spoke up about the sexual abuse perpetrated on me, I thought my loved ones and I would examine what went wrong and heal together. I never imagined I was had just opened myself up to a second and equally painful layer of hurt — a gaping, aching wound brought on by the hurtful responses I didn’t see coming.
Over two decades, I tried everything I could think of to stop the hurt. I explained the need to address the abuse together. I beseeched my mother and siblings to make sure minor children were not cared for by anyone with a history of abusive behavior. I protested the secrets and silence that allow abuse to persist through generations. I pleaded for my trauma to be seen, for my feelings to be honored. I asked to be loved and included. It took a long time and a series of repeated, worsening treatment for me to finally realize my efforts were fruitless. In fact, my self-advocacy only made things worse.
All these years later, I understand I don’t have the power to change their perceptions or behaviors. I also know their responses felt to me like a painful echo of the sexual abuse I suffered. In both scenarios, my voice held no power. My emotional turmoil did not matter. And worst of all, I was being pressured to put my needs and feelings aside in favor of their wants. After years of fighting this toxic environment, I realized I had to step away from them in order to be healthy.
Now, I work every day to offer solace and information about the second wound to my fellow survivors. I point out that our truth matters. Our feelings are important, we deserve to be heard, and we never have to compromise ourselves for people who don’t understand these truths.
Unlike the abuse or assault, the second wound rarely has an end. It remains an open wound as long as we are exposed to the weapons of denial, minimization, and victim-blaming. We may never be able to fully avoid the harm they cause, but we can realize that we deserve better. So much better.
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Samantha saysSeptember 22, 2019 at 9:11 pm
Spot on, the pain of this second wound is excruciating and soul destroying, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Thank you for explaining it so clearly. x
miranda.pacchiana saysSeptember 22, 2019 at 9:40 pm
You’re welcome, Samantha. I’m sorry you have to know this pain.
Samantha saysSeptember 22, 2019 at 10:08 pm
Multiple times over sadly, disowned by birth family and no contact with in-laws, as like you said, they choose the abuser and enjoyed many a happy event with them. Their choice ….. I chose to put myself first ????x
Jessica saysSeptember 22, 2019 at 11:07 pm
Thank you so much for speaking up about this!
miranda.pacchiana saysSeptember 23, 2019 at 1:00 am
Mrs. W saysOctober 14, 2019 at 11:03 am
This subject is one I now know about well. All that is described is happening to my daughter in law now aged 41 and her sister 31 after telling the family about their experiences with their brother. My daughter in law was 12 but her sister only 6.
After a brief moment of support the two girls are now outcasts as numerous sisters and brothers no longer call. The parents are possibly too old, the girls father is 91 and the mother too weak of mind to be accepting of the whole situation.
The only comments coming through are about moving on, why bring it up now? and you are making the end of Dad’s life a misery.
Totally putting the blame on the girls for upsetting the so called happy family. I don’t see how this can ever be overcome but would welcome any comments on how to cope long term.
miranda.pacchiana saysOctober 14, 2019 at 2:06 pm
It is so unfair and painful, I’m sorry to hear this turn of events. I’m also glad to know that they have you to support and them and show them the compassion they deserve. They are welcome to read through the Survivor Stories and articles on this site to learn more about the Second Wound and hopefully feel less alone in their plight. (I’m also available for personal coaching if either of them is interested.) I feel for all of you.
Samantha Stephens saysOctober 14, 2019 at 2:41 pm
Hi Mrs. W, I’m, in the same situation myself. There are no words to explain how painful this feels. I was sexually assaulted by a in-law family member and at first there was support and kindness, but the next time I brought it up, ‘why are you mentioning that again’ ‘ you just need to move on’ can’t you see the pain your causing ‘ etc etc. Nothing for the abuser ever changed, he still was kept in the heart of the family, Sunday lunches, parties, etc, meanwhile myself and my partner were blamed for staying away ( I couldn’t go back to that house as that’s were the assault happened ) eventually I returned and tried to please everyone else by going for a holiday celebration. My brother in-laws know nothing of what happened, but my parents in law knew and as I came to find out, knew he had done something previously to another family member, many years earlier. It was a horrendous day and sadly it brought on Complex PTSD which I have been fighting ever since. I’m still an outcast and as I have previously been abused and classed as vulnerable, I was just an easy target for the initial assault and the manipulation afterwards by my in-laws. I wish I had easy and positive answers for you, but I don’t. The family will never change, it is simply to hurtful, embarrassing, and complex for them to deal with. The abuser didn’t bring it out into the open, so in their eyes he is not to blame. Your daughter in law and her sister are to blame, simply by destroying the happy family they believed to be true. They can’t change their family, ( they may come around in time, but they also may not, that is out of your daughter in-laws control, she has said her piece, it’s now up to them ) but they can get help to deal with what happened to them and learn how to move forward and how to better handle the situation they have now found themselves in. The help I recieved was invaluable, I was suicidal and am now on the path to recovery, I still have Complex PTSD but I am so much better and living again, not just surviving. I won’t lie, it will be exceptionally hard for them, but they deserve this help, to move on from this horrendous thing that happened to them and start living again. Whether their family remains in their life, who knows, but with the right help, they can decide that for themselves in time. I hope something in this helps even a little and please tell them, they are not alone, they are beautiful and worth the time and energy it will take to get help and move on from this. The one thing they have going for them, is you your love acceptance and support will mean the world and they are very lucky to have it ???? Lots of ???????? to you all x
Mrs. W saysOctober 14, 2019 at 5:30 pm
Many thanks for your heartfelt comments. We will continue doing our best to help but as you know there is no recovery from such tragic family events and the cruel response once past incidents have been disclosed. I wish you all the best in coping in the future and hope you remain strong.
Thanks also to Miranda for her compassion and help for others.
Samantha saysOctober 17, 2019 at 3:06 pm
Thank you for your well wishes, it means a lot. x
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Sexual Violence Is Only the ‘First Wound’