The Flashback

strongfearlesswise

Trigger warning: This post is about sexual molestation. If this is a trigger for you, please take care of yourself.

About 17 years ago, my husband and I were friends with a couple who had a teenage daughter. She was 14 and was pretty in the way that would someday become beautiful. I couldn’t help but notice the way eyes followed her wherever she went. No one else seemed to notice the way I did. I guess I was extra sensitive to it.

We were at a party one afternoon at our friends’ house when I noticed a man talking to the girl. On the surface, it seemed innocent enough. I couldn’t hear their conversation but when he’d lean in and say something to her, she’d put her hand over her mouth and giggle. He wasn’t sitting close enough to touch her but close enough that I knew she could feel his body heat. Close enough to smell his aftershave, the cigarettes on his clothes, the beer on his breath. This man was a friend of her parents. On the surface, there was nothing wrong with them talking like that. It raised no flags to anyone but me.

As I watched her, I became her. My parents had a close friend who talked to me like that too, like he was letting me in on a secret. He told me how mature I was for my age and how I seemed to understand him better than the adults did. I was 14 and insecure about the way my body was developing, about having pimples and what I thought was a big butt. He’d watch me walk and I was self-conscious about the way my hips swayed, not because I was trying to be provocative but because my hips became a woman’s long before any other part of me.

Never mistake physical maturity for emotional maturity. My parents’ friend did. He took the way I soaked up his attention and turned it into consent to enter into a relationship that drowned me immediately. He took it to mean I was hot for him, that I was sexually adventurous and free spirited. I got an allowance, had band posters on my wall and had to ask permission to go to the mall. 30 years later, I’m still astounded by his reckless self-centeredness.

I had a flashback as I watched our friends’ daughter and the man. I had been drinking all afternoon and was primed for a meltdown. I remember being in our friends’ bathroom, crying uncontrollably. It felt like I was going to die. It was a visceral grief that had been building for years, waiting for just the right trigger to erupt. There was no way I could leave the bathroom, no way I could explain what it brought up in me to see a grown man chat flirtatiously with a young teenager. I couldn’t even prove he was flirting. I remember my husband and our friend’s wife coming into the bathroom and consoling me. My husband explained that I’d been taking an herbal supplement to help me sleep because I’d had chronic night terrors for years. We all explained it away as a bad reaction to an herb.

I buried that flashback as quickly as I could, and others besides. It was years before I could do any work around what had happened to me, not just with my parents’ friend but with another man when I was 11. The ramifications of sexual abuse are so numerous that my fingers would fall off before I could type them all.

For a long time I struggled with the juxtaposition of power and helplessness. I learned the power of sex early but continually suffered the consequences of wielding that power. I was so powerful that I could make a man lose control, make him cheat on his wife, make him break the law. I could destroy entire families and alter the future and the past. I was at fault for just being born. Sex was a way to be acknowledged, to prove that I physically existed because most of the time I was trapped inside my head; a place I dreaded.

I know now that I didn’t ask for it and I wasn’t to blame. I know now that nothing will ever make it ok and I don’t have to get over it. 30 years later I can say that what happened to me shaped who I am and if I try to bury the young me in a shroud of shame, I’m leaving a part of myself behind. I love her, I love me.

It took years to bring the pieces of myself together. First and foremost, I had to stop numbing myself. I had to learn that feelings aren’t supposed to be dealt with, they’re meant to be felt. I had to learn to get angry, really, really angry and to trust that my anger wouldn’t make the world stop spinning. I had to learn that there’s a difference between powerlessness and surrender. I had to learn that I could trust myself and that God was my truthteller.

If you’re reading this and it feels familiar to you, there’s something I want you to know.

I thought I had to numb it away. I was wrong. I thought my childhood had damaged me beyond repair. I was wrong. I thought the pain of what happened to me and what I did to myself as a result would hurt forever. I was wrong. I thought I’d never feel whole. I was wrong. I thought I’d never feel safe. I was wrong. I thought I’d always be afraid. I was wrong. I thought I would always have nightmares. I was wrong. I thought God couldn’t love me. I was wrong. I thought I couldn’t love myself. I was wrong. I thought I would feel shame forever. I was wrong.

I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.

41 Comments on “The Flashback

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I too spent a long time numbing myself. I also had nightmares and lots of fear. I’m just now starting to deal with life. I really appreciate your honesty in this post

    Like

  2. Tears, tears, tears. I have no words! It’s not my secret to tell, but damn I’m living it every day. How do I help her? For now she seems ok. We’ve dealt with most of it, I think!???? But there are so many years ahead and I don’t know what that will bring. I just thank God that He (God) knew to weave his way deeply into her life at such a young age. He has actually shown her how to forgive these henieous assaults from a family member! If an 11 year old can forgive, then I have to believe that she will be a strong adult when dealing with this as she gets older. I am just at a loss of what to do now? I’m playing a waiting game to see how it all turns out and I really don’t want to look back and say,’ if only I had done this or this’…… Thank you for your sharing of such tradgedies……..you we in my prayers.

    Like

    • My family didn’t have the tools to help me once they found out. I think there’s a lot more awareness around it now and the fact that you’re watching closely for signs that she’s having issues is great. One mistake made with me was that it became something that no one talked about, as if it never happened. I felt that since my family was unable/unwilling to talk about what happened or how I was doing as a result, it must be shameful. I’m not sure what’s going on with your situation but if the abuse can be talked about openly, it remains exposed to the light (even if she seems to be coping well). I can tell you one thing for certain, she’s lucky to have you. I’ll keep you in my prayers!

      Like

      • Thank you so very much for your reply! I really appreciate the insight into how an adult victim feels after coping their whole life with this.
        I agree wholeheartedly with your idea of keeping it out in the open, but here’s the issue—she vehemently refuses to talk about it now. It makes her squirm and if I push, she gets angry and upset. She is SUCH a sweet girl with a very good head on her shoulders…I don’t want to push the discussion on her. After all, if it was not for her initial braveness of telling us, then I would never have known. I shudder at the thought of not knowing and exposing her continuously to this beast.
        So, with all that being said, should I just take my cues from her? Talk with her if she ever brings it up? The only issue I notice right now is that she is very upset by hearing things on the news about sex abuse and immediately turns off the TV. Or if her brothers are being gross boys and telling inappropriate body jokes, then she goes from a sweet heart to an absolute bear in 60 seconds…. Thoughts???

        Like

        • Talking specifically about what happened may not be necessary but you do need to find ways to engage her in conversation about how she views and feels about herself. The best book I’ve ever read on the devastating effects of shame is Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend that you do because it might help you find ways to have conversations with her about her feelings. I’m sure there are books written for children as well. What you don’t want to do is be afraid of saying, “Why does that news report bother you?” The answer may seem obvious but as soon as you start assuming you know how she feels, she’ll no longer need to tell you. I don’t know how old she is now but if you can find creative ways to get her to express her feelings, like maybe through art or writing, you’ll be sending the message that feelings are meant to be expressed. One of the best ways for kids (and adults) to feel empowered is through volunteerism. Maybe you could find an organization that helps abused children and lead her in volunteering. The fact that she’s reacting to news reports and body jokes tells you that there are things that make her uncomfortable. She’s reacting but she’s not necessarily expressing. It’s through expression that we find meaning and our security, strength and validation. I’m not a therapist at all so I’m sure there are more qualified people that can give you suggestions but I hope this helps in some way. I know it would’ve helped me!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Secret Keepers | Mended Musings

  4. Whew, that was a tough read, and of course I mean that in the most positive way, Karen. Thank you so much for your courage in sharing this, no doubt that you will help many by sharing your experience, strength, and, most especially, your hope. You inspire me each time you write.

    Like

  5. Some of the most beautiful words you have ever written. I’m so glad you are my friend. I adore you. Your strength is contagious. xox Lisa

    Like

    • Thank you. We all feel those feeling sometimes but they don’t have to consume us. That’s something I never would’ve discovered if I didn’t stop drinking. My best to you in your journey!

      Like

  6. Pingback: Redwoods | Message in a Bottle

  7. There is so much light in the brokenness, illuminating the beautiful through sharp pieces of painful experiences.

    Like

  8. We all need to watch over kids, no matter how “mature” they seem. A simple “would you help me” might save life-long anguish.

    Like

  9. So brave to speak for so many. You have powerful words and I hope they have helped to bring you some peace, and to your readers as well.

    Like

  10. Karen, this was sublimely written and deeply felt. Your transparency is inspiring, as are your words.

    With much heart,
    Dani

    Like

  11. Wow. My heart hurts for both you and Sherry. It never ceases to amaze me what horrible things human beings can do to one another. Powerful post.

    Like

    • Thank you. For all the horrible ways that people treat each other, it amazes me that there are so many loving and supportive people too, like you. Thank you.

      Like

  12. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I agree on the never getting over, but turning that negative into a positive. It is interesting that you wrote that no one else noticed the way that you did. I see that as positive – that intuition, that insight. The concept of the wounded healer. I have always been amazed, perplexed or whatever how those childhood experiences, especially sexual molestations which are so foreign and beyond the logic of a child – how they just don’t go away. But I also appreciate in knowing that, I am able to be especially mindful and intentional in “noticing” when and how others do not.

    The one thing I still have not been able to make peace with is the denial that my parents expressed when I raised the experience with them at the age of 5. But then, that has tempered my own refusal to deny the truths of others.

    Thanks you so much for the message. Blessings.

    Like

    • I do see myself as uniquely qualified to protect my own children because I could notice behavior that others might not, which may also be why some parents deny what should be obvious. They simply can’t fathom it, even if they’re told outright. It’s hard for me to it understand too. Thank you so much for your thoughts and sharing your experience. Blessing to you too.

      Like

  13. The only thing I would say is that your parents friend did not mistake physical maturity for emotional maturity, he’s a pedophile and he took advantage of your emotional immaturity. That subtle turn of a phrase makes a huge difference. He knew exactly what he was doing.

    I say that because I was a victim too only my abuser was my grandmother’s “boyfriend”. It took me a long time to acknowledge that what he did was abuse and that what my grandmother let him do was a betrayal. But taking my power back made all the difference.

    This is such a brave and powerful post. Thank you thank you thank you for saying what so many of us would like to say but can’t. Thank you for letting women know that it wasn’t their fault; that children can’t be held responsible and that NOTHING they did caused the adult to behave the way he or she did.

    Whew! Guess you really touched a nerve! Felt good to type out this comment. You rock!
    Sherry

    Liked by 3 people

    • When I finally told adults what had happened, there was a lot of discussion as to whether or not he was truly a pedophile because I was 14, as if what he was called mattered. Ultimately, he was an abuser and you’re right, he knew exactly what he was doing. Redefining my power into something positive made all the difference to me. Thank you Sherry! You’re comment and support mean so much!

      Like

  14. how strong of you to face this and get through it and to walk through those feelings now to publish this. I can only say how much I have admiration for that strength, it is mighty impressive.
    I also hope those reading this with issues around this do heed your advice and reach out to face this as you have.
    Stunning writing.

    Like

  15. Dear Karen,
    Such a powerful piece…no words. Wrapping you up in a virtual hug of love and gratitude that our paths crossed. That’s all I can say right now.
    xo

    Like

  16. I have not a lot of words that I want to post publicly, as this touched me too deeply. But I will say I still cannot get past what one person does, in the blink of an eye, to a young child – and it wrecks that child’s innocence, changes their lives in ways that should not be happen…and yet to that abuser – it is just another day. And we all have to be quiet about it so we don’t upset the balance of everyone else’s lives.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Kids aren’t stupid. If they’re not told directly to keep quiet, they pick up on the signals that the adults are giving. I told about this incident 3 years after it happened and it was a nightmare. I didn’t tell anyone about what happened to me when I was 11 until I started blogging. Silence breeds shame. I love you, my friend.

      Like

  17. What a powerful piece Karen. Being molested or sexually abused is a topic that is not talked about enough due to us feeling so uncomfortable in speaking about it. I too, was molested at a very young age, by a male neighbour who was babysitting me. I applaud your openness & courage to speak out. In doing so, perhaps it may encourage those that are still feeling shame to know that they are not alone & that they too, may be wrong in thinking it has to define who they are. Hugs, L

    Like

    • It’s amazing how something that happened so long ago can still bring up such strong feelings because in a sense, we never get over it. But it also doesn’t have to negatively affect our lives forever or define us.Thank you for the encouragement Lynn!

      Like

%d bloggers like this: