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If I could time travel, I would go back and change just one event in my life: the time when my five-year-old self got lured into an old, black hearse across the street from my house by a voyeuristic adolescent boy.
I remember vividly the smells in that car, with its musty dark blankets covering the windows on that hot summer afternoon.
The thing that I would not change is how I got myself out of there; as soon as I felt his penis move over my body and up toward my mouth, I yelled to him that I heard my mother calling. I got out of that car so fast that if you had seen it, you would have cried with relief. The moment I completely regret is that when I ran up the driveway to my house, I said nothing to my mother who was outside weeding the front garden.
Instead, I ran up to my room, pulled the covers over my head, and went to sleep.
That’s where I would change the course of history. Here is what I would do instead: Once I got out of that car and ran up the driveway and saw my mother, I would have cried for her help and climbed into her arms and allowed myself to be held for as long as it took to feel safe and protected.
Why didn’t I do that? Why didn’t I tell my mother?
Was it because I didn’t trust her? Was I afraid I wouldn’t be believed? Was I afraid that I would get in trouble?
It turns out that I am not alone, because just like me, most children don’t tell an adult what happens to them when it comes to sexual assault. According to the organization Stop It Now!, often the abuser will convince the child that they won’t be believed or that they are somehow responsible for the abuse and will be punished for it.
That’s exactly what happened to me.
Although for the next eight years the teenage perpetrator never touched me again, I felt the threat of him through the taunts of his younger brother. “You better not tell anyone what my brother did to you, or I will do the same thing to you,” he would say to me as I walked past his house from the school bus stop.
I believed him. The blackmail from the younger brother was as damaging to my psyche as the older brother was back in the hearse.
Recovering from my secret took years.
My particular brand of suffering was predictable. I never allowed people to get close to me for fear of them finding out my shameful secret. I became a different person as a public self than I was in private. My outside voice was loud, gregarious, and confident; on the inside, I was stifled, depressed, and fearful. As I got older, my sexual relationships became complicated.
Of course, when I finally began to talk to therapists about my experiences, they all tried to convince me that I was not at fault. One therapy session was spent in a small swimming pool, submerged underwater to recreate the feelings of being in my mother’s womb.
Another series of sessions was spent visualizing myself carrying a statue of a saint to protect me as I walked past the house from the school bus stop. I’ll never forget the “healer” I sought out who could talk to angels who might have guided me through the incident. Nope, there weren’t any visible beings who she could contact, and worse, she didn’t see any.
It turns out that it wasn’t the talking therapy that helped me. The real healing started when I developed a consistent meditation practice. It helped me navigate the connection between my interior and exterior self. Over time, my separate selves merged into one voice; my inside self feels connected to my body and my body feels connected to the earth.
In addition to meditation, the enneagram is a guide that, among other things, helps me understand how I personally respond to trauma compared to other people. Another practice, tapping (EFT), works with acupuncture points in the body to release emotional trauma and comes in handy for me when nothing else seems to work.
Mostly, I think of the children and what we can do as adults to protect them. Are we doing all that we can to build trust with our children so they come to us when they are in trouble? Do we have the instincts to look beyond the behaviors that harmed children use to cover up emotional distress? Are we on the lookout for at-risk behaviors in adolescents that might lead to harm of another?
I know I can’t change the past, but learning from it is something that we all can do together—especially around the prevention of child sexual abuse. In this light, Thich Nhat Hanh has some helpful wisdom:
“To dwell in the here and now does not mean you never think about the past or responsibly plan for the future. The idea is simply not to allow yourself to get lost in regrets about the past or worries about the future. If you are firmly grounded in the present moment, the past can be an object of inquiry, the object of your mindfulness and concentration. You can attain many insights by looking into the past. But you are still grounded in the present moment.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power