One of the perks of my Gardens4u business is getting to meet new people every season, many of whom have turned into great friends, and many who inspire me. I have always admired strong individuals who have chosen to soldier bravely through their tragedies and mistakes. Their courage and strength motivates and inspires me to see the best in others, to help those in need, to do the best I can in my endeavors, to see the glass half full rather than half empty, and to be grateful for the life I live.
One such inspirational person is a woman who was victimized by sexual abuse throughout her childhood and teenage years. Now an adult in her seventies, in a much more peaceful and happy frame of mind, she has reached out to other victims to share her survival skills. How courageous, admirable and inspiring is that?
The following is an introduction to her story, in her words:
This is an open letter to all female survivors of sexual abuse and to all those who love and support them. This letter is being written in my voice because I actually have a voice to speak about the atrocities that you and I sustained. My voice is being used because so many of us were physically and emotionally broken, our vocal chords symbolically cut and we turned to other things such as drugs, alcohol, prostitution, suicide and, perhaps, the mental health system. I am one of the few “lucky” people who chose life-giving outlets; I chose education and faith. We all did what we had to do and some outcomes yielded more positive fruitful solutions.
Whether your abuse happened when you were a baby, a child, a teen, whether you were a young woman, middle aged or a senior, whether you were abused once, a dozen times or over a period of years, I am speaking directly to you. Whether or not you knew your abuser, whether he/she was a trusted family member, friend or colleague, whether he was a first date or your spouse, I am speaking directly to you. Whether our perpetrators numbered one, two, several or too many to count, this letter is being written to you. Whether some would say we were dressed in, or behaved in, a provocative manner, whether we were drunk or sober, a Rhodes Scholar or illiterate, rich or poor, whatever our skin colour, country of birth, overweight or thin – I think you get the picture, we did not deserve to be raped and violated. We did not ask for it, nor did we deserve it. You and I are survivors.
If like me, you were an infant when the denigration of your body began, there was no way you had the power to fend off your abuser. Whether your abuser used words, hands, knives, eyes or his penis, whatever his/her weapon of choice, that crime of assault and rape was committed against us and that crime should have been punishable by a long jail sentence. Sadly, most do not even have to pay a fine and they, unlike us, often go on to live “normal” lives while you and I wallow in victimization mode for what feels like forever, and often is. If your abuse continued, as mine did, for years, a myriad of thoughts build up in our minds; things like “I must have been a bad girl,” “I must have done something very wrong,” “I must have deserved this,” or, thoughts like “I must have been a very special girl for ….. to love me so much,” “I liked the feel of this, at least at the beginning, I did,” or, even thoughts like “it’s our secret so I mustn’t tell anybody or else,” “… will kill my puppy, my kitten, my mommy or, worse still, even me if I tell.” The brain-washing, the secrecy, the stigma, the lies and mostly, the fear, guilt, shame, low or non-existent self-esteem, blame – whatever it was, it kept us paralyzed in that frozen state.
We all developed coping mechanisms, things that got us up in the mornings, got us to school, to work, to events with “normal” people. Whether or not those “crutches” were good or poor choices, they were our choices amidst the destruction and devastation that was going on in our lives at the time. They were our allies, our comforters, our only trusted “friends” in our crazy mixed up world. We need to honour them and then we need to let them go. They were our saviours and now they may be our jailors; we are prisoners without bars and as long as we allow our perpetrators to hold us hostage, to overpower our dreams to move on, we will remain stagnant, downtrodden. Our scars are part of the fabric of our being; they cannot be erased, rubbed off or dug out, but they are not the sum total of who we are today.
One thing I know for certain is that we don’t deserve to wallow in a quagmire of hopelessness, pain, grief and despair. We are equal amongst our fellow sojourners along life’s path and we deserve the chance to grow beyond the darkness, beyond our heavy burdens, we deserve to shed the past emotional baggage and repack our bags with hopefulness, fairness, goodness and light, with a sense that we can fulfill our wildest dreams and succeed in our desires to become whatever we aspire to be. We need to dare to progress beyond our former selves and reach for the stars. We need to be able to risk, and if we fall short the first time around, we need to dust ourselves off and try another approach. Growth and strength and power often come from initial failures, but we are not to reproach ourselves and never attempt something again just because the results were not up to our expectations. We don’t need to be perfect. We won’t be reprimanded or junked because we tried; in fact, we will gain the praise of others for daring to reach beyond our comfort zones. We may feel comfortable in our ruts, but it is anything but fulfilling to languish in them. Our initial discomforts will eventually become our comforts, our easy place to land. We mustn’t let past baggage drag us backward; we need to firmly kick those stumbling blocks out of our way, no matter how weary we are, in order to get a glimpse of what might be our final destination. And what is very interesting is this: when we successfully reach one goal, we will be encouraged to strive for the next and then the next. While we live and breathe, we have the capacity to grow and evolve.
We need purposefully to seek out the positives and surround ourselves with them. Positive people, positive choices, positive goals, these will become our new “props.” As we conquer each fear and walk towards the light into a new dawning, our burdens will become much lighter and before we know it, we may even be whistling a happy tune.
One of the very last, but extremely important things we must do is to shed those emotional hang-ups, our past tormentors that we no longer need. The boogieman is out of the closet, the monster is no longer under the bed, the darkness is only a natural process that follows the day, those repetitive tapes that used to convince us they were necessary for our survival need to be muted and our perpetrators need to be shrunk to Lilliputians that no longer carry any power, their energy completely fizzled out, dead. As with many physical diseases, a straight-forward road to recovery is not always the case; complications occur. This is the same with sexual abuse. Along with the sexual abuse, there is, often, physical abuse, psychological and emotional abuse, harassment, denigration of our mind, body and soul and these require attention in order to fully heal.
Some will try to measure our abuses on a continuum. My abuse actually began pre-birth, when my mother attempted to get rid of me in utero following her pregnancy that she hoped would keep her marriage intact. When my father left, she had no use for a child. My sexual abuse began around five or six months of age and continued until around the age of eighteen years. My perpetrators numbered in the hundreds with, in my opinion, my mother being the most evil of them. At the age of eleven, I gave birth to a daughter alone, in a cold, dark outside cupboard and after about half an hour she was snatched from me and I was told to get ready for school. I know my mother murdered my baby, but I have no provable evidence. In my own little childish way, I named my daughter Hope and she’s been sitting on my shoulder ever since. Had she lived, today she would be fifty-seven years of age. Where does my abuse fall on that continuum? It was ritual, satanic abuse with all of the complications I spoke of earlier. I grade it as severe. You can grade your own situation but, whether you were raped once or thousands of times, you were a victim of sexual abuse. You and I are not in a race to see who was more damaged. We were all victims of this heinous crime. We can each speak our own truths with our own voices, in our own writings, in our artwork, our dance or our song and then, use those truths to alert, praise and honour ourselves as survivors while we also mourn those lives have been lost, either literally or figuratively, as a direct consequence of sexual abuse.
We need to address our losses. This is huge and the list is endless, but some of them are loss of childhood, loss of innocence, loss of pets and friends, loss of motherhood, of self-esteem, of courage, guilt, shame, self-worth, loss of humour and laughter, loss of spontaneity. We need to shed our unreasonable fears and beliefs that we’ve held for so long, feelings of smelling dirty, of our need to scrub the bad away, feelings that we are unworthy, disgusting, stupid, beliefs in our inabilities to be good enough daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, students, professionals of whatever “ologist” we’d like to be. We need to be able to look in the mirror and see the unique, worthy, beautiful person that others see. We need to learn to be “WOMAN” in its fullest sense of the word.
We belong to a special sisterhood, a membership that does not flaunt its name, but one, nonetheless, that exists, is real and is worth embracing in both its ugly past, its shining future and most of all, in its day to day present. If you’re like me, you revel in “the ordinary,” going to the grocery store, enjoying a thank you for a job well done, being a good enough Mom. We can’t delete the past and we have no idea what the future holds, but we owe it to ourselves to be the best that we can be, right now. We need to acknowledge our gifts and talents and use them for ourselves and for the greater good.
There will be times when something triggers our consciousness, something that, if we allow it, gives it the power it doesn’t deserve; it may pull us under like a tidal wave. But, at these times, we need to remind ourselves of our real power, we need to be able to pull some tricks out of our emotional hats so we don’t allow ourselves to drown. Each in our own way will be able to dig into our arsenal of tricks and bring ourselves back from the brink. Keeping journals, writing poetry, creating music, drawing and painting, physical exercise, going shopping or to a movie, dining out with our friends, taking children or grand-children to the park, speaking our fears into some kind of recording device so we can hear the power of our own voices, strolling in the woods, going for a snooze, whatever it is that brings calmness, peace, and balance to our core – it is these that I hope you turn to when triggers arise. And don’t fool yourselves, triggers are all around us and they are unique to us alone, but we need to believe that we are [mostly] capable of shaking them. Whatever is your magic wand, use it and enjoy the wonderment of its value to bring your feet grounded firmly on the floor.
I want to leave you with one last suggestion. Create a space for yourself that only you may enter. If your room is physically too small, then imagine this space. Keep it sacred. Into that area, bring one or two of your favourite things, objects that will soothe and will always be a part of your healing. Maybe it will be a candle, a symbol of positive light, a loved book, stuffed animal or perhaps a symbolic piece of fabric with a certain scent emitting from it, a cozy sweater, a photograph that always brings you pleasure; these things, again, are unique and meaningful to you alone, so the choices are never right or wrong. Then, either literally or figuratively, step into your sacred space. As much as possible, blot out all other sensory intrusions, center yourself using meditation or some other form that brings you to a special, life-giving place and then allow yourself whatever time you need before re-entering the “real world” with all its noises and demands on you. The “assaults” of the everyday will feel much more manageable. Remember, this is a place you can access anytime.
In conclusion, I would welcome fellow survivors to react and respond to my letter. My dream is to create a virtual Living-Room, a safe, welcoming place where anything can be said, any question can be asked and any reply accepted for what it is. Any tools may be present there, and suggestions for fellow survivors or for those who seek to understand us, literary or artistic pieces of work that can help and inspire others, any resources in the form of books, journals and magazines, films and CDs, songs, TV programs, newspaper stories, events, bumper stickers, symbolic phrases – the items are endless and would be most welcome. Don’t forget human resources such as significant role models, public speakers, special events, counsellors and other professionals who have years of experience with this subject, notices of retreats and places of solitude, police of special victims’ units, people of influence and anybody else who is interested in exposing the abuse of children and women and who are working endlessly to eliminate these crimes; they would all be welcome.
Let’s begin now.
Mother, sister, daughter, widow, teacher, nurse, midwife, public health nurse, nurse tutor, listener, advocate, friend, survivor and WOMAN