As happens every few years or so, my wife feels the “need” to repaint a room in our apartment, which means it’s time for a project that goes way beyond painting the walls. Starting with finding the right color, it can’t be considered done until everything in the room and on the walls is in harmony. Rugs, throws, pillows, pictures and anything else that might conflict is at risk of replacement.
The final step, and my favorite (not just because it’s the last one) is choosing photos to hang on the walls. We like to use our own pictures from vacation or some unusual scene from our NYC neighborhood. It’s the fun part as I am especially proud of my photographic skills (the skill is taking enough pictures to find some good ones) and love to point out to guests that the pictures on the walls are mine.
But two nights ago, when my wife asked to look through my laptop computer to find pictures, I felt a panic coming over me. What if she sees something I don’t want her to? How can I let myself be that vulnerable? What if an embarrassing email alert comes on the screen while she has my laptop? How can I give up absolute control of the situation? There must be some secret crime I have committed that is about to be discovered! This was a moment I should have been enjoying, but instead I was caught in the grip of an existential terror.
It felt like something was about to happen to ruin a beautiful 18 year relationship. Some discovery made that would hurt my partner who has supported and been through so much with me. My daughter, who just gave us a wonderful grandson only 2 months ago, would be devastated yet again, as her father destroyed the stable and loving relationship she had known since she was 13. I would be alone and maybe even out on the street where I always knew I really belonged. This was a flashback and not unusual, or even uncommon, for a survivor of childhood sexual abuse like myself.
Many of our recent news cycles have been dominated by survivors coming forward to tell their stories. Often they are immediately attacked for it, called liars and assigned all manner of motivation. I thought my experience might help educate those who do not understand how insidious the impact of sexual abuse on a person’s life can be. Perhaps they would stop asking questions like, “It happened so long ago, why don’t you just let it go? It’s water under the bridge, why don’t you get over it already?”
In my case this panic would have been justified several years ago, but I’ve been clean and sober, in multiple 12 Step programs, for years before getting this computer. There was no possibility that my fears would come true. My rational, clear thinking adult brain knows this. But yet the terror was still there, very real and all too familiar.
I buried my secret for 20 years all the while blaming myself for my self evident total failure at life. I dropped out of college, was thrown out of the military, could not hold a job or keep my marriage intact. I coped with it all through addiction to harmful behaviors and substances.
Somehow, I did find a solution. One that I’ve been plugging away at in 12 Step meetings and therapy for the past 26 years, once I stopped repressing what happened 46 years prior. Even though that terror is hard wired into my nervous system, to this day, I consider myself one of the “lucky” ones. Today I know that the terror is lying to me and that when I bring my sober, adult brain back online and into the present, I‘m okay.
This is the legacy of childhood sexual abuse and the secrecy it demands. All victim/survivors have to deal with some variation of this every day of their lives. It’s the reason that, even though 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18, only 1 in 10 will ever report it in their lifetimes. And it is the reason that archaic statute of limitation laws need to be changed. These laws protect sexual predators that scar their victims for life. They also shield the institutions that cover up the abuse, secretly moving abusers around to safeguard their own reputations, allowing them to avoid any accountability for their failure to protect the vulnerable placed in their care.
In news reports we will continue to see wealth, power, and the influence it affords, win out over the safety our children. Isn’t it time to stop making them secretly pay the price for society’s failure to address this crisis. Isn’t it time to say no more?