There is no substitute for feeling heard, understood and cared for. These are the gifts of human connection, an integral component of where healing begins from the trauma of sexual abuse and assault. For survivors on the path to healing, it’s vital we connect with people who will sit with us in our pain and struggle, appreciate our value and share in celebrations of our progress and triumphs. These may be therapists or other professionals as well as partners and caring friends. As legitimately scary as it can be to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and risk trusting others, doing so (in our own time and with careful judgment) helps to repair our damaged hearts and fulfill our emotional needs.
There have been many points during my parenting journey when I wished I could fall back on what I’d learned from my own mom and dad, to recall how they’d handled similar situations and use their actions as my guide. But based on the way things went during my childhood, I didn’t have that luxury. In fact, for a lot of parenting moments, I was determined to handle things differently from the way my parents had.
My mother sighed, clearly exasperated with me yet again. My transgression? I had objected after finding out that she’d hidden information from me for no apparent reason. I’d learned that my half-sister was flying into town from across the country. My mother (her stepmother) knew all about the trip. In fact, the two of them had made arrangements to get together, along with other siblings. But no one informed me — despite my friendly relationship with my sister at the time. I was completely in the dark about the entire topic until it an extended family member innocently mentioned what she knew.
As seen in PsychCentral
Living with the emotional effects of sexual abuse is painful enough. Unfortunately, many survivors open up about their abuse only to find that their family members’ reactions toward them are just as painful — if not more so — than the original trauma. It may shock some people to learn that family members often choose to side with sexual abuse perpetrators and against their victims, especially if the abuse was committed within the family.
Becoming estranged from a relative is a sad and difficult decision, one that is usually made with grave consideration and based on the belief that the emotional cost of continuing contact is simply too great to bear. Most of us wish we there was another choice we could make, especially when the family members are our own parents.
Yet, there are probably far more of us in this situation than people realize. We tend not to talk about our estrangements much. Naturally, we hope to avoid the general awkwardness and potential judgment of others. Perhaps there is a dark side to our families that we would prefer to keep private.
If you are a survivor or abuse – or any kind of trauma, I have something to tell you. Are you ready? Here goes. The only authority on what YOU need…is you. Boom. This might seem like an obvious statement to some. But if you’re a survivor, you may find these words to be a breath of much needed fresh air – or even a radical concept.
I was enormously gratified last year to watch as the #MeToo movement erupted with a sudden and powerful force, to see sexual harassment and assault survivors courageously tell their truths as the world finally paid proper attention. I cheered the brave women and men who came forward, risking more of the judgment, doubt, and scorn they had likely already experienced. I felt hugely gratified to witness perpetrators of abuse finally being called out and made to answer for their crimes. Most of all, I cried tears of joy to know that – at last – our society is shining a ray of light on the dark, hidden, shame-filled world of sexual victimization, for illumination is the only sure path to the prevention of sexual abuse, as well as justice for victims and accountability for perpetrators.
Twenty years ago when I first disclosed to my family that I had been sexually abused by my brother as a child, I never would have guessed it would mark the beginning of a long, confusing struggle that would leave me feeling misunderstood, dismissed and even punished for choosing to address my abuse and its effects. The response from my family did not start out this way. Initially, my mother said the words I needed to hear: she believed me, she was pained for both her children, and she was sorry. My brother acknowledged the truth and even apologized. But as I continued to heal and explore the abuse further, my family members began to push back in ways that hurt me deeply and only became worse as the years went on.
I dread that moment when someone unexpectedly asks, “…and how is your mother?” I never have an easy answer at the ready. “Oh, umm she’s fine, thank you,” I usually say, with a quick change of the subject. If the asker is extended family and the subject will surely come up again, I might say “We aren’t in touch very much.” And if my intuition tells me that the person will not judge, I tell the truth: “We are estranged.”
There is no easy way to explain you don’t speak to your parent. Or parents. Or your entire family. The inquiry comes up casually and often enough. It’s a normal question after all, under most circumstances. But we are not most families.