Building Bridges: Childhood Sexual Abuse
We hear a lot about generational divides. What we hear much less about are the bridges: how people of different generations can and do connect; how we can support and help one another and each offer the other things of great value. Just as often as a given experience, or even life as a whole, is different for people of one generation and those of another, there are also some things that are or have been the same, and all have our own wisdom to share, whatever our age may be.
People of different generations are not incapable of connecting or understanding each other, despite the way so much media can often make it sound that way, or the despite day-to-day frustrations and challenges we have probably all experienced with one another when trying to connect.
Often I am asked to explain things about one generation to another, illustrating differences as well as common ground to each. I often find myself telling people of one age group how to try and better understand the other; making appeals for more empathy, more understanding and fewer assumptions on both sides. But what I really want to start seeing more of are people of all ages doing that with and for each other, without an intermediary like me speaking for them.
Anyone who knows even a little about me probably knows that at the times I think, "Gosh, I really wish there was...." about something, I often dive in shortly thereafter and do my best to make that thing happen. So, because I think people of all ages stand to benefit by connecting more often and more deeply, and think we can all benefit by seeing what some people can offer each other intergenerationally, I put a call out last week for this new series, asking for volunteers of different generations to step up with a shared issue, experience or identity related to sexuality to be matched and interview one another, allow me to observe via email, and then format and reprint those interviews here.
This piece today is the first of the series. I have enormous gratitude for the two women who participated, especially with an issue and experiences that can be so hard to talk about. Being allowed to read their conversation as it happened was pretty amazing, and I think in reading it yourself you'll find both of them and what they had to offer one another as awesome as I did. ~ Heather
AAG & Tien: Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors
Who's AAG in her own words? I am a 41-year-old cisgender woman. I identify as queer, which to me means that I like people of all genders, though in the past I've had long-term relationships only with men. I'm single, poly, and the mother of three children.
The abuse against me was committed by my father. It started when I was eight, as far as I can recall, and lasted about ten years. It consisted of fondling, pressuring me for more physical contact, and lots of verbal inappropriateness.
Who's Tien in her own words? I am 16 years old. I am mostly a straight A student and plan to become a child/adolescent psychologist specializing in sexual abuse. I also want to be a lawyer working as a state prosecutor in the child abuse unit. Recently this happened to me with a man who was over 10 years older than me and he was someone I trusted. He was also a family member, my cousin. He used manipulation and my trust to get what he wanted along with other forms of abuse that I didn't reconize at the time. This relationship lasted four months. It would have lasted longer but thankfully my mother and a counselor at school found out about it and reported him.
AAG: How have your friends and family members reacted to all of this? Are they in any way blaming you for what went on? If so, how do you handle this?
Tien: My friends support me. They listen to me when I am depressed or just need someone to talk to. My family members react differently from each other. The ones that directly know what happened support me whereas others who don't know the full information either hate/blame me or don't know how to react. I handle the blame by just not thinking about it since if they do not know the full information, how can they judge me?
AAG: How are you dealing with the emotions? Do you find yourself angry? Hurt? Missing whatever good parts of the relationship you had?
Tien: My emotions are random right now. Sometimes I am fine, then the next day I am depressed. When people found out about the relationship I was angry at myself because he was someone I thought I was in love with and I did not want him to get in trouble. I do not feel hurt, just confused since he is someone who should protect me but instead hurt me. I do not miss the good parts of the relationship, the good parts were essentially the talks we had together and when we went out to restaurants.
AAG: How do you relate to your cousin now? Do you still have to see him at family functions? How have his parents and/or siblings received the news of his abuse?
Tien: Right now if I saw him again I would probably slap him and tell him how much he hurt me. I am in the process of writing a letter to him stating just that. I would not be seeing him at family functions for a very long time, since not only did my mom report him, she pressed charges. From what he told me the last time I talked to him, his parents hate him. As for his siblings, I do not know how they reacted to the news. Do you feel betrayed by your father?
AAG: Very much so. Family abuse -- even if it only happens once! -- rips away the feeling of absolute safety and security a child should have.
Tien: Did you tell or want to tell someone what was happening to you? Was it difficult for you to tell, if you did?
AAG: I told my mother constantly that I didn't like my dad to have his hands all over me. She ignored me, minimized the abuse, and urged me to "be more loving" to him. I didn't tell any other adults then. Once I started dealing with the abuse (in my late-20s), I told a few close friends, then a few more, then more, to the point that nearly everyone in my life knows about it. I've written about abuse frequently on my blog. Every time I talk about it, people disclose their own abuse to me. Every time I talk about it, it gets a little easier. How did it feel when you first realized that your mom and the counselor were digging into your business? Were you angry? Hurt? Relieved?
Tien: With my school counselor, I told her about the relationship and I did not expect her to report him. My mom caught me trying to sneak out one night and started digging through my things. She found this story I wrote about the relationship, questioned me about it and I confessed everything. At first, I was angry at them for reporting him but later on when I figured out that he abused and manipulated me, I was relieved. How did you react when you figured out that your father was abusing you? Were you confused, angry?
AAG: I always knew what was happening was weird or odd or unusual, but I minimized it until I was in my late-20s and began thinking about starting a family of my own. It was only when I thought about how I'd protect my future children from my abuser that I realized that the abuse had affected me -- a lot.
Tien: Did you go into counseling? How did it help you?
AAG: I started counseling in my late-20s. I've continued it on-and-off since then, as I've felt it was necessary. It has helped enormously, but it's not easy. In some ways it would be easier to pretend like nothing happened, but I have to consider the safety of my children when they are around my parents. Are you receiving any counseling? Is it helping? Do you think you'll continue?
Tien: I used to receive counseling but had to stop because of my mom. It helped and when I am older I will continue counseling. How did family members react to what happened to you?
AAG: My mother reacted and continues to react very poorly. She will not believe that anything happened to me. She likes to believe that I was brainwashed by my counselor. There is also a religious component: They both think that because God has forgiven them, that I should forgive them too -- and a part of that should be letting them see their grandchildren unsupervised. That will never happen. How do you see this relationship affecting you in the future, like dating or raising children?
Tien: In the future, I plan to help children who has gone through the same things I did. I think that in dating, I will be more cautious and question things more. Also, I will have to tell them about the abuse to an extent because I have figured out some of my triggers which are things that he(my future boyfriend) might say or do. With my future children, I would talk to them about how adults should treat a child and that they could talk to me about anything. My parents did not tell me any of this.
AAG's words of wisdom and support for Tien: Here's what I wish I knew when I first started dealing with the abuse: Nothing, no part, not even a tiny bit of this is your fault. No matter what anyone else might tell you (or ask you), don't ever feel like you did something wrong.
Being a survivor of abuse is a permanent condition. No matter how hard you work on it in therapy, nothing's going to change that fact. I don't say this to depress you. I say it so that you won't beat yourself up when, after a long period of feeling so much better, you find yourself in a bad period again. It will gradually get better over time, but don't expect it to be a smooth progression without any setbacks.
Tien's words of wisdom and support for AAG: I would like to say that you sound like someone who has gone through a lot. I am sorry that your mom did not fully comprehend what your dad was doing to you. My advice to you is to keep continuing what you are doing, like you said it gets easier the more you talk about it.