**Trigger Warning: Discusses Childhood Sexual Abuse**
More often than not, when people learn I grew up in a large family, they smile and comment, “How fun!” And yes, growing up in my family was fun. As a child, I felt sorry for people who didn’t have the number of siblings and cousins I did. And I was very sure I was one of the lucky ones. When I was 11 years old, I learned some hard lessons about luck.
My abuse started slowly. My adult cousin would play with my hair or stand uncomfortably close or touch me unnecessarily. Even at 11, I knew there was something wrong with his behavior. I knew it, but I didn’t think anyone in my family capable of such actions. My father wasn’t, my older brothers weren’t, and most of my male cousins weren’t.
So I swallowed my discomfort and made excuses for why I was feeling so unsafe.
After all, my cousin was the life of the party. As a child, I watched rooms change when he walked in. Everything became bigger and more fun. Long after he left, my siblings would tell stories of something he said or did. I know now how important it was that he be so well-liked. It was a necessary part of his deception, and I do not blame my family for believing it.
Sexual abuse is pervasive. It snakes into every area of a child’s life. It affects the way you feel within your own home, at school, at church, and most dangerously, it affects the way you feel in your own skin. Everywhere felt unsafe. Everywhere was unsafe.
I retreated into myself. I learned very quickly to carry the shame of what happened to me. I knew what was happening in my family was different, more insidious. I believed it was my fault and there was something about me that deserved it. And for a long time, I didn’t say anything. I looked at my large family and could not find anyone I trusted enough to tell. I didn’t think anyone loved me more than they loved him.
Throughout my life, I have disclosed the abuse to five members of my immediate family. One expressed shock, another remarked there was always something strange about my cousin, and others never responded at all. But all five maintained the exact same relationship with him. At best, that relationship, like most cousin relationships has waned with time and distance, but it is not uncommon for me to hear my family members regale each other with stories about my cousin.
Sexual abuse is heavy, but silence is heavier. Silence is what kills.
As I write this, I have exorcised my demons. With the support of my husband, I have confronted my abuser. I had the opportunity to say to him, that even if he does not, I remember what he did to me. I informed him that I was through hurting myself by hating him and that my husband and children deserve all of me and he would no longer be afforded any part of me, not even my anger or hatred.
I watched him go through the abuser’s catalog of denial, to deflection, to fear of retribution (mostly from my husband who sat between us), and finally to a mumbled apology and a quick retreat. And I felt relief. I felt the weight of years of hiding lifted off my shoulders. Not because he apologized but because I had said everything I ever needed to say to him and could forgive him. He may never be a part of my family and he will never have any access to a relationship with my children, but I forgave him. I even wondered briefly, what it must be like to live with knowing the hurt he caused and felt pity for him.
These days I sometimes lay awake searching my own heart and asking myself if I have the courage I often thought my family lacked. The courage to stand up to an abuser, regardless of who they are.
My husband and I talk all the time about the fact that the person most likely to hurt our children is someone already in their lives. We talk and commit ourselves to swiftly and clinically removing that person from our lives and doing everything in our power to pursue justice for our children. Not because we consider the abuser beyond rehabilitation, that really isn’t for us to decide. No, it is because no matter what happens, our children must always know they were our priority. They will never question if anyone was more important to us than they were.
Abuse is hard, finding the courage to disclose abuse is even harder. But hardest of all is not knowing if telling your story mattered.
As much as I try, I may never be able to safeguard my children from all the evils of this world, but what I can control, what I can guarantee, is how I handle their courage in telling me.