Every survivor of childhood sexual abuse deserves their chance to heal. This is true whether or not you want to confront your abuser, seek justice in the courts, or share your story with the public. None of that is required to begin the healing process. You won’t be reading about the clergy, scouts leaders, coaches, teachers, counselors, baby sitters, or family members in this piece. I want to speak about hope.
The science is in. We now have reputable, peer-reviewed studies documenting the lifelong consequences of the sexual victimization of a child or adolescent. These include psychologically severe trauma, whether physical trauma was involved, or not. These psychological effects may include PTSD, chronic anxiety and attachment disorders, and chronic depression. Survivors often seek relief in substance abuse, compulsive spending, sex addiction, and other self-destructive behaviors.
Every survivor’s experience is unique, and each of our stories is different. But there is a tragic commonality that unites us all. Today, I want to call out the single most insidious effect of childhood sexual violation, the self-condemning prison of shame. Because shame demands secrecy, it is a paralyzing dead-end road that inevitably leads to all the other destructive results.
Feeling shame is different than feeling guilty. Guilt is about what we do and is what the perpetrators and enablers should be feeling. But shame is about who we believe we truly are at our core. It is shame that keeps us silent for years, fearing what others will say or do if we told our story. Shame tells us we should have prevented it, or we deserved it or were asking for it. And shame is what ultimately stands between seeing ourselves as victims and realizing we are actually survivors.
There is a saying that goes, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” Shame thrives in a vacuum, where there is no light to expose the false underpinnings it depends upon for its existence. I’m here to tell you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it isn’t the oncoming train that shame has been predicting our whole lives.
For most of us, it has been a long journey getting to a place in our lives where we can openly speak of what happened to us as children. Before we could, we had to learn that what happened was not our fault. What happened to you was not your fault. Others, in positions of power and trust, perpetrated these acts upon us. As children, believing the abuse was our fault may have been the only way to keep our sanity.
As a result of being seen, heard, and believed when we told our stories, the shame begins to let go of its stranglehold. Many of us are realizing profound changes in how we view ourselves and inhabit our lives. We breathe a little more freely today. All victims who may still be suffering in silence need to hear this.
With the passing of the Child Victims Act (“CVA”) in New York State, a pathway to justice now exists that was never available to survivors before. For a detailed discussion of the and what it does, you can visit the guides provided by either Safe Horizon, or the Zero Abuse Project.
Even before the CVA revival window opened on August 14th, the media began covering the issue non-stop. This is heartening to advocates but can also be challenging for victims to be bombarded with this news daily. If you know a victim of childhood sexual abuse or you yourself are one, there are organizations that can help. Among them are Safe Horizon, the Zero Abuse Project, RAINN, NY Loves Kids, Stop Abuse Campaign, Crime Victims Treatment Center, and of course, SNAP.
I represent SNAP here in Manhattan, a volunteer network of survivors supporting other survivors. We can be reached by email, text, or phone call, and we have monthly in-person gatherings across the NY area where we share and listen to each other. All that info is on our website, SNAPnetwork.org.
There is much, much more to do. The CVA is incredible, but not perfect. Some survivors are still out in the cold, and it needs to be extended. Other states that are still fighting to get their SOLs reformed and can use help and support as they battle against powerful opponents.
Another saying I know and love goes, “If any one of us can recover, then so can all of us!”