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.
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.
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.
If you are a survivor of abuse, an injustice was perpetrated on you. You did not deserve it, you did not contribute to it, and someone should have protected you. Not only are you justified in addressing your abuse, but it’s also the right thing to do for yourself – and the world. But…for many, your family members tell you, in words and actions, the opposite of these truths. People in your family don’t believe you, blame you, still fail to protect you, and/or want you to be quiet about the traumatic past that you’re working so hard to overcome. This dilemma is the reason I have begun to write my story: I have been living with hurtful family responses for over two decades.
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.