Last month was Sexual Assault Awareness month. It’s a tough topic that most people don’t really want to think about. It’s such an important issue though that I’m glad that it at least gets its own month. Of course sexual assaults happen in every month, and dealing with its aftermath is something survivors will deal with in each month, often for the rest of their lives.
I know this because I’m a survivor myself. Non-victims often don’t understand how deeply sexual abuse and sexual assault affects the victim. People don’t realize how utterly violent sexual abuse and sexual assault are. Even if the assault is not physically violent and even if it leaves no physical marks, it reaches to the deepest core of a person and does catastrophic violence there.
When, as a young child, I began to be sexually abused, I learned two things.
01. I learned that my abuser did not see me as a person. The fact that my very humanity could go unnoticed by someone was horrifying. There is perhaps nothing more frightening than knowing that others see you as a thing, because if others see you as a thing instead of a person, what is to limit what they will be capable of doing to you?
02. I began to believe myself that I was bad, and perhaps worse—that I was nothing. This belief about myself became part of my basic framework for how I thought about the world. When you drop something it falls. The sky is blue. I was worthless. I knew it, just as surely as I knew anything else.
I didn’t know that what was happening wasn’t my fault. I didn’t even know it was abuse. I just thought it was happening because I didn’t deserve anything better. I became so frightened that my family and friends would discover the truth about me—that I was disgusting and horrible. If they ever found out, I thought, surely they would stop loving me. I lived with this singular thought each day for twenty years. It fueled the constant and forceful fear that I lived in, and from it originated each and every action of mine; I couldn’t let others know the truth.
It was only by having the courage to get counseling that I learned to question my basic assumptions about myself. It was only by having the presence of others in my life that believed in my worth even when I didn’t, that I finally developed new convictions about myself. The process was long and often arduous, but here are two important things that I now know about myself that I hope everyone will come to learn about him or herself.
01. I am created with dignity. Meaning each person, including me, was created with a natural right to be valued and respected. This dignity is certain and unquestionable. Even if we behave as though we don’t have dignity, and even if others fail to recognize it, it is nevertheless ours. There is nothing that we can do, and nothing that others can do to us, that can take away our dignity.
02. I can choose to live in freedom. There is a saying that goes, “It is better to be hated for who you are, than to be loved for who you are not.” Luckily, I now know that I am lovable. Nonetheless, if others do not love me, I will not live in fear of this possibility. I will not let it determine my actions or the outcome of my life. I will not live in fear; I will live in the freedom of truth.
Even though it’s difficult to think and talk about sexual abuse, healing can’t happen when we bottle our wounds up inside. We need to get it out, to be able to process the trauma and climb the high mountain toward healing. One of the most important stages of healing is simply being able to identify unhealthy ways of thinking that may be ingrained in us as a result of the abuse. The path toward wholeness is long, but it is possible and it begins by taking the first step.