A couple of months ago, I was having a conversation with an intern at work, and she asked me, “Is it still considered sexual abuse if the abuser is a peer?” Without a moment’s hesitation, I responded with, “Yes, of course.” We work in public health, so conversations like these are not unusual. I’m a mandated reporter. I work with high-risk youth. I have reported cases of abuse among my students more times than I care to count.
But in that moment, I felt like I was hit by a truck. The air left my lungs. And I was faced, for the first time ever, with a question:
Does that mean what happened to me was sexual abuse?
I was four years old. She was only five. She lived down the street. She told me with frightening nonchalance about the unspeakable things her cousin was doing to her at home. But I was so young, so innocent, that I had no idea how to even process the words she was saying to me.
The incidents happened over and over again. In my bed. My closet. My backyard. My parents were wonderful and caring and very involved in my life, but they had no idea. I didn’t know what was going on, or that it was wrong, or even how to articulate how I was feeling. I just knew I didn’t feel right. I was crippled by shame, and guilt, and fear.
And for the last 27 years, I have tucked all of that away. Locked it in a vault, way in the back of my mind. I didn’t tell anyone about what happened other than my husband, but even then, I didn’t frame it as abuse. I didn’t think a five-year-old could abuse a four-year-old. That another little girl could have assaulted me. But when my intern asked me that question, on such a normal weekday in my normal office, it unlocked something in me.
Was it possible I had been a victim of sexual abuse, and hadn’t dealt with it for over a quarter of a century?
Yes. I was. And I hadn’t.
So I made a call. I shook and cried on the phone. I started therapy. I had my meds adjusted.
And then the floodgates opened up. Feelings I haven’t allowed myself to feel for decades have come rushing to the surface. It’s like I had an infected wound that didn’t really cause pain until I started trying to clean it. The instinct to push back has been strong. To go back. To just try to forget and let it be again. Because this part hurts. It hurts like hell.
But I won’t go back. I will keep moving forward. I will do the hard, hard work of healing, because I know it will be worth it in the end. I deserve to find healing, for myself, for my family, and for my child. Cleaning out 27 years of repressed pain is going to be one of the hardest things I’ll ever do, but I’m going to do it. I am doing it. A little bit every day. I will let myself cry. I will let myself be so angry I could scream. I am unpacking a dark, dusty, long-forgotten attic, and it’s going to take time. It’s going to take patience and endurance and strength. I will meet my four-year-old self there, and I will tell her she is safe. That she is loved. And I will grieve for her. I will let myself feel these horrible feelings, because on the other side of this very stormy sea, after swimming so hard I feel I’ll surely drown, I will find a quiet and sunny shore. And there, I will rest.