not saying it

Sexual abuse exists in a place without words for most survivors, at first. I have never met a survivor who thinks — when they are three, or five, or eight, or eleven years old — ‘I am being sexually abused.’ Or ‘this is sexual abuse’.

There are no words in the young place where abuse happens. There is only profound confusion. Pain. Shock. The sense that something is wrong. That you are alone. That you are different. And — reinforced by your abuser — that this must be a secret. That’s the only word you know for it, secret.

Between us. Something special.

A child doesn’t know where to put the confusion. A child carries it around, trying to ignore it, putting it out of mind. A child goes out of their body whenever possible. Because there are no words. And without words for this, no way to talk.

There can be no disclosure without words. ‘Why didn’t you tell someone?’ is a refrain that survivors hear again and again, mostly from adults who failed to look after them. ‘If only you’d told me…’. But you can’t speak without words for what is happening. You don’t have the words; you only have the feelings. And the feelings are terrible: guilt, shame, disgust. Why even try to express anything so … dirty? Especially when you didn’t stop them/must have made them do it?

For me, eventually, words saved me: poetry, fiction, memoir. Words made a place that could not be ruined by him. They have always been my powerful place.

I have been lucky enough to live in that place my whole life. But it took me 40 years to put the abuse itself into words, and to accept that writing them doesn’t diminish me.

From my memoir Learning to Survive:

***

Words

I wish I had the words I have now, then.

            Because I did not have the right words. No way to say this. No hope of being believed. No language at all. No speech.

            Those years exist in the dark. The wind whistles through them. My father’s insistence that this is love suffocates me. I know he is not right, and has never been right, from the start. But my own words are like feathers. They cannot hold. They float away, while the rest sit at the bottom of the pool, the grey heavy silt, the sludge that cannot be dredged.

            This then is an act of translation, pulling through time, attempting to capture, working in the idiom of today, out of necessity. I find words, because I now must name this. I must say something. I must say what this is, in stark two dimensions. Because this happened. This happened to me, and is still happening, everywhere, to others. Without words said out loud, no one knows. No one hears. Or sees. Or dares speak again. And nor do we: without words, we carry all this in our bodies, in blind silence. Without words, shame and confusion stitch our mouths shut.

            So now I say this:

            I was abused. Sexually abused. Psychologically abused.

                        There is no other context.

            I am a victim.

                        There is no other context.

            He is a perpetrator.

                        There is no other context.

            And I am a survivor.

                        Of it all.

[photo credit: Cristian Palmer/Unsplash]

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