When I started dating a blue-eyed boy last summer I felt it only fair to warn him: “It’s all trauma, all the time with me.”
“I’m serious though,” I said.
“I’m a grown-ass man,” he said, which I took as him saying, “Bring it.”
It was encouraging.
But I did not bring it, at least not right away.
It was the total truth about my childhood and the total truth about why I have post-traumatic stress disorder.
I’ve never found that someone loves me more after finding out about childhood sexual abuse. I mean they might not love me less after I disclose it. They might even think I’m strong or resilient or better understand my trust issues after it’s been said.
No one has ever said, “I got me an incest survivor—how lucky am I?”
I get it.
I’ve never said, “I’m so glad to be an incest survivor.” Not once.
It is a thing to work with, around, tolerate or accept, to deal with, recover from or not let intrude too much or totally. And I’ve hardly ever talked about how it feels to live with this while dating or in life, in general. Not in ordinary or daily conversation. Not really.
And it still shocks me that this isn’t more common conversation.
There are a lot of survivors of childhood sexual abuse. A lot!
According to the best prevention organization I know of, The Mama Bear Effect:
One in three or four females has experienced childhood sexual abuse.
One in six or seven males has experienced childhood sexual abuse.
Not matter which stats you believe they add up to this—a lot! We are everywhere!
So how does it feel for those of us considering sharing this fact about our lives? I’ve wondered—is it too much or too soon? Am I too much?
It is scary and vulnerable and intimate. This is not easy for anyone but it’s especially uneasy for people who have been abused by people they know and trust or are related to (as 90 percent of survivors have been).
In my experience, this has never been an easy thing to share. It makes my face red, my lips go numb and my head feel it’s been pumped with air. It makes me stutter and drool and cry to speak the words: I was abused. I was molested. I was hurt. It is never easy to say—even with someone who also has a complicated family history.
For example, the blue-eyed man had his own family complexity. We both needed flow charts and diagrams when sharing memories. Family of origin talk included words like restraining orders, homelessness, violence, alcoholics, narcissism and crazy-town. We didn’t have to even say to each other what PTSD stands for. We both knew that. We both had that. Have that.
We’d gone “there” at least a little.
But I hadn’t said it—that I’d been molested for years of my childhood.
And I didn’t know if it would be more than he could bear, understand or accept. I wonder how others navigate these conversations and ruminations about if or how to tell?
Let me be clear—I am grateful I don’t have to tell lovers about it as I’ve had to tell other lovers.
I’ve had to tell other lovers:
“Here’s why I cry when you are about to orgasm, penetrate or approach me from behind…”
“Here’s why I can’t speak for moments and sometimes days if you touch me the wrong way.”
“Here’s why I can’t wake to sex in the middle of the night.”
“Here’s why I shut down when you’re angry.”
“Here’s why I don’t like you to guide my hand…”
“Here’s why I am always ready for a fight.”
“Here’s why I expect you to stab me in the back and gut me like a fish even though you say you love me and seem to. Maybe because you seem to love me.”
That is hard and even more vulnerable but sometimes not sharing seemed unfair. It has felt cruel not to be honest with a partner I’ve rejected, hated, feared or shut out for wanting to be emotionally or physically intimate with me. Sometimes context is kindness, even when it’s hard to share. But why don’t we talk about this more with each other?
This has been a struggle I have not enjoyed but inherited. It’s not my fault I have it to contend with and if you have it too, it is not yours either.
Today, I like, want, crave and need sex and can stay present (most of the time) and orgasm. That’s a huge accomplishment! It’s not an accomplishment I can’t put on my resume but I wish I could because it’s gigantic.
Why? Because most of my life I knew it impossible for me to be sexually whole, loved, healthy or happy. Luckily I was wrong. And last year, for the first time, I had the luxury of being able to ask myself, not how will I tell him but something else: do I want to tell?
It didn’t define me. It is a part of me, but not all of me. It became something a size of which I can manage.
Since it is not my fault, why should I hide the truth of my experience? I don’t have to share face to face unless and until I’m ready. But I choose and want to be brave about it because I like to live feminism. I believe “the personal is political” is actually true. I believe the power of shame is diminished when we speak up and out and with one another about it.
But it’s still scary and hard. Having a political belief or a passionate idea is not the same as sitting face to face with a lover and saying, “I’m a survivor.”
“If he doesn’t love me for who I am and all I’ve been through it’s better I know now.” I’ve said and believed that, talking to friends. That doesn’t mean it’s not terrifying in a gonna puke my guts out kind of way to have this conversation.
After I told one lover, he actually laughed.
He wasn’t being mean or rejecting me. I’d been so somber and serious he thought I was going to tell him I murdered some one. He was relieved I’d “just” been abused. But it was huge for me and it felt like I was confessing something awful about me, not what happened to me.
Most survivors of childhood abuse live with so much silence, secrecy and shame for so long it feels like it is ours and not like it was done to us—by others.
And therapists talk to us about it and give us medication to deal with our symptoms about it. But it doesn’t get prevented and those that caused it rarely get punished or held accountable.
This is not an article telling anyone how to tell a loved one. It’s not about how we should all report our abuse (but visit report it girl for how if you are thinking about doing so or just sharing your story).
This is an article about me asking out loud how to live with the question—how to tell it.
This is something millions of us live with, struggle with and anguish over.
Let me say something that’s said a lot but can’t be said enough: you’re not alone.
You are not alone. I am not alone. We are not alone. We do figure it out. And considering our quite real and valid reasons to be afraid, our bravery and trust at all is astounding. Sometimes we are graceful and other times bumbling. Sometimes we wish we shared more and other times we wish we didn’t say a word. Sometimes our honesty makes bonds stronger. And sometimes it does not.
In every instance we are gold-medal brave.
So, if you are in or have been or someday might be in this situation, let me say this:
I know it’s not easy. There’s no guide book or chapter in the dating books. There’s no 100 ways to know how a partner will respond. It’s only one tiny little aspect of being a survivor of sexual abuse.
You are not alone.
It can actually be all trauma all of the time for a long time. You can be scared, terrified and uncertain and still you matter. You can feel unsafe while you actually are safe. You can feel safe while you actually are unsafe. You can suffer with post-traumatic stress and you still matter.
You are not alone. You survived childhood sexual abuse and you are an adult now. I’m impressed. That takes something. Congratulations!
I end with a visual here.
Have you seen the cool cat flying? This cat was in danger too. Life-threatening danger and yet, the cat lived and landed.
Life gives us traumatic situations. We have problems with solutions that we can’t just order off the menu. They need to be made from scratch.
It’s a scary ride sometimes.
Feel safe or calm.
Sometimes our partners are pretty uncertain and puzzled and shocked too, like the pilot in this video. But if we get in the cockpit of love and are flying, and the scaredy cat child in the psyche is climbing, clinging, meowing, but holding on….
And like the cat, we do land, find ground and sometimes someone comes in to hold us and let us down easy.
Whether they stay or go. Whether we stay or go.
Author: Christine “Cissy” White
Editor: Catherine Monkman