Straight Talk Advice

Not your fault: Lifesaving words for sex abuse victims

Nov 04, 2014

Panelist shares about healing from child sexual abuse

Dear Readers: Child sexual abuse affects 1-in-3 girls and 1-in-7 boys nationally. In 97 percent of the cases, the abuser is a family member or friend. On September 9, we responded to a letter about childhood sexual abuse and several panelists reached out to help. Today, Hana brings more help, hope and healing to all who need it. —Lauren

Hana 23, San Francisco, Calif. Ask me a question

In many ways, I had a perfect childhood. There was the amazing outdoors and kids and animals to play with. But I could never venture into the corners of my mind where paradise ended. I stayed in the safe “middle” of my mind, because the corners held repressed memories of sexual abuse from age 4-11 by an uncle, his girlfriend and sometimes others. I was raped by these trusted adults before I knew how babies were made. When the flashbacks started this year and I finally looked and remembered, it meant having a breakdown and moving back home — fortunately, to loving parents who did the single most important thing: believed me.

To Parents: My parents are/were amazing and incredibly protective. They did everything right and I wish I could ease their guilt. Mom read us this “safe touch” book when I was 5, but I was already so mind-controlled and neurologically “forgetting” as fast as possible, it just made me feel vaguely uncomfortable. Due to the abuser's threats, I lied about where I'd been and didn't reveal my nightmares and flashbacks. At 13, my whole childhood memory shut down.

Check in with young children daily. Dig into behavioral changes! My parents noticed me changing from an outgoing 5-year-old to shy and locked in a dream world. At 7, I saw the eye doctor because I was becoming cross-eyed (from blurring my eyes during the abuse — I wasn't allowed to look away). I was heavily conditioned to believe it was ME who was bad/ugly/wrong and remember being terrified the eye doctor would “see” it.

To Family and Friends: Don't stay neutral. Believe the survivor! Don't bring up “false memories” — recognize the courage it takes to bring up things one was made to feel intense shame about on threat of death! This is last on our list of having a good time.

Don't give us “space”, unless we request it. Offer support again and again. Sexual abuse is very isolating and your reaching out helps us trust again. When there's a death, people bake dinners, stop over, send cards. We're processing death, too, of our innocence and trust! Finally, be yourself. Talk about normal things, suggest something fun!

To “Victims”: IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT. These lifesaving words can never be said enough. Full healing is definitely possible. I know several in healthy relationships. The “will-never-be-normal” brand just buys into the abuser's strategy. You are real, whole, and strong — always!

Learn to trust yourself. Be in charge of your own healing — your way, pace, and timeframe. Try feeing your toes and move upward, noticing how each part of your body feels in the moment (instead of floating above it like I did/do), notice how “no” feels in your body, or where you might have numbness. I moved through some intense memories and suddenly I could feel my lips. It was the weirdest thing. I drink differently now, because my lips are now relaxed.

If your family isn't there for you, try not to isolate. Like all abuse, sexual abuse is about power. So take your power back. It's YOURS. Ask for help. Find a good therapist. Become self-sufficient so you don't need anyone you don't trust. Reach out to friends. Create your own family. Join online support groups, community support groups, contact www.rainn.org, www.victimsofcrime.org, read “Courage to Heal” (helpful for men, too). Know you are never alone!

Editor's Note: I'm so grateful for Hana's sharing, which I know will encourage many victims, survivors, families and friends to pursue healing. We are in this together. I am bringing Hana's comments over from our earlier column so her words are all in one place:

from SEP 9:
Hana, 23, San Francisco: The most life-saving words repeated to me were, "IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT" and "YOU ARE NOT ALONE." (For anyone working through this, really hear that! Nothing you did deserved sexual abuse — absolutely NOTHING.) I was sexually abused by my uncle and his girlfriend from age 4-11. I blocked out their threats, mind games, molest, and rape until the flashbacks came this year. I only recently told my family so I understand the terror. I didn't want to "disrupt the peace" either, until I realized it wasn't me who disrupted it — and that a crime unspoken cannot be healed. Yes, it may draw people apart, but she will be so empowered by it. Right now, she is dealing with it in an unhealthy way, but your gift is being there for her, not being pushy. Honesty and suggestions are good, but because of what happened, she'll probably hate being told what to do. 

The warning signs of child sexual abuse and the things parents can do/say to help prevent it at the various stages of childhood and adolescence, have been compiled from expert websites in my Editor's Note in the SEP 9 column. Please review by clicking the link.

Sometimes the most loving and attentive parents are unable to detect child sexual abuse, as Hana notes. The guilt must be unimaginable. For parents in this situation, when you do finally find out about it, your belief in your child and your proactive stance in truly being there for him/her, including speaking the unspeakable crime aloud to the abuser (so they cannot continue harming other children, or your own child through their exalted status or having to endure their presence at family gatherings), will help in the healing process immensely. Difficult as each step is, we cannot keep looking the other way.

Many children, because they ARE children, cannot, without help from parents or family, come to grips with the abuse until they are adults themselves. As Hana describes, the mind games, the protective amnesia, the threats of death and heavy-duty conditioning by the abuser to feel shame, all lead toward immobilization until the child is self-supporting, free of the abuse, and possessing the adult-brain capacity to process the trauma.

Hopefully, each time stories are shared, as Hana shared today, we will all, victims, families, friends and society, become more attuned, supportive, courageous and steadfast in brushing aside denial and excuses and standing up and saying no to those who perpetrate this egregious crime on innocent children. —Lauren

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  1. By K.G., age 19, from Irvine, CA on 11/05/2014

    I was sexually molested by a relative when I was only 13 and it still eats away at me as I was afraid to ever tell anyone, as he told me that if I did I would be “sorry” in a way that scared me to death.  He was an in-law who is no longer part of the family whom I have not seen in several years, yet I still somehow fear that he will get me if I say anything.  I would have nightmares and my sister with whom I shared a room would tell me that I would wake her up shouting “No, No,” in my sleep, but I told her I must have just been having a bad dream and didn’t remember anything.  I’m now 19 and in college and my roommate has heard the same thing.  I know it “wasn’t my fault,” but I’ve always felt guilty and can’t really call it rape because I didn’t physically try to stop him, but how can a 13 year old girl stop a large man in his 30’s?  For a long time, I was even afraid to have my own sister see me nude because I feared that she might somehow be able to see that I had been sexually violated and was no longer a virgin, and this is difficult to avoid when you are sharing a room and she couldn’t understand why I suddenly became so modest with her when we had always shared a room and had never been shy about our bodies with each other like it should be with sisters.

    I know I should get counseling, but I have never been able to bring myself to tell someone what happened and the shame I feel.  It feels good to write this as it is the first time that I have done so.

    K.G.

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    1. By M.M., age 20, from Fullerton, CA on 11/06/2014

      K.G-Please get counseling!  I had a similar situation and was afraid to tell anyone or seek help, as I didn’t want to tell my parents that I needed help because I didn’t want to have to tell them the reason.  When I got to college, they had a counseling center where students can receive counseling, and my parents didn’t even have to know.  It was very, very helpful to finally deal with this which had been bottled up inside of me.  Hopefully, your school also provides this as it is my understanding that most colleges provide counseling for students at little or no cost.

      Like you, I was also paranoid that someone would be able to tell if they saw me nude.  I went so far as to make sure to have my back turned to my sister whom I shared a room with when I put my thong on and off so that she wouldn’t see me completely nude from the front.  She never went out of her way to look at me when I was undressed anyway, so she didn’t seem to notice anything strange that she only saw me completley nude from the back.  I was also worried to death when it was time for my annual physical exam, as I was afraid that the doctor would see something and tell my mom.  I tried to get out of it by telling my mom that I was no longer comfortable being examined by our male family doctor.  However, she said that she understood and switched me to a female doctor so that excuse was gone, but the doctor gave no indication that she noticed anything wrong when she examined my private parts.

      I don’t know if I will ever totally get over what happened to me, but the counseling has helped very, very much, and I urge to to get help also.

      M.M.

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  2. By Hana, age 23, from SF on 11/06/2014

    K.G.—I totally understand your fear about speaking out about this. The only reason I had the courage to begin talking about the first person who abused me was because she isn’t in the USA anymore. Even so, I still sometimes have irrational fears that one of them will track me down and carry out the threats they made when I was a kid. After speaking to my family about my uncle, I was so afraid that he was going to come and hurt me/my family that I could barely sleep at night for months. But everything that he has done so far has only made him look worse. I did end up reporting to the police, which was a way to make me feel safer, even if I am not ready to pursue a court case at this point (not sure if I will ever want to do that, but I want to at least know that if they hurt anyone else, my story will help).

    Also, what you mentioned about physically not trying to stop him, I just want you to know that that doesn’t mean that he was any less at fault for what he did. I remember being in similar situations. In one, I was asked for my “consent,” before I was abused, which blurred the lines for me between what I really wanted (even though I was “asked,” I knew that rejection was not an option).

    M.M.—I can totally relate, getting counseling has really helped me. I know it’s hard to make that initial step, but it is so worth it. There can be a stigma in this society about going to therapy, which is ridiculous. Someone recently put it like this to me: What do you do when your car’s broken and you can’t fix it on your own? You take it to the mechanic. No stigma there. Same with going to the doctor for our broken bones etc. But when we need to heal our psyche from stuff that can be ten times worse to deal with, why is it so hard to ask for help?

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  3. By R.Y., age 17, from Carmichael, CA on 11/06/2014

    When I was 14 I was sexually abused by my 19 year old stepbrother who I was forced to share a room with when he moved in with us after getting out of jail on a drug offense.  I was scared to death of him and afraid to tell anyone and still haven’t even though he doesn’t live with us anymore and my mom isn’t even married to his dad anymore.  In one way, I was the opposite of K.G. and M.M.  I was naive and also thought that you could tell that somebody had sex from seeing their privates, so I would go out of my way to let other girls see me naked at sleepovers and in the girl’s locker room.  Many girls hated having to take showers after gym class, but I gladly did so as it gave me an excuse to be naked and hopefully somebody would notice and tell someone since I was afraid to do so myself.  I had a friend who had a sister who was 18 who she shared a room with and seemed very sophisticated so I was sure that she would be able to tell, so I went out of my way to be naked in front of her during sleepovers.  But she tried to respect my privacy by doing her best not to look at my privates when I was naked which was what I did NOT want and I now realize that she probably wouldn’t have been able to tell anything anyway from just seeing me naked but that’s what I thought at the time.

    It’s easy to say “It’s not your fault” but words don’t take away the feelings of guilt that comes from this.  It’s also easy to say that you should tell somebody but only somebody whose gone through this can understand how hard it is.

    R.Y.

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    1. By Mama St. Martin, age 61, from Santa Rosa, CA on 11/17/2014

      I think that you might be able to relieve some of the guilt you’re feeling by forgiving yourself. At 14, you were still a child and your step-brother was legally an adult. He was the one who was at fault. He betrayed you and your family by his actions. Fortunately he is no longer in your life. Trust your inner voice and free yourself from any guilt you may feel. Blessings to you for your bravery.

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  4. By T., age 19, from Northern California on 11/07/2014

    I would like to tell anyone who is even thinking about sexually abusing someone DON’T DO IT!  You will feel guilty for the rest of your life.  I am very ashamed to say that when I was 16 I engaged in sexual abuse with my 12 year old sister.  Like others I’ve read about in Straight Talk, we had to share a room since that was all our mom could afford.  It had never been a problem when we were younger and our mom didn’t seem to realize that things were changing.  When my sister was 12 and starting puberty and developing breasts and pubic hair, I started having sexual feelings when I saw her nude, and she continuted to have no shyness about her body with me.  I got her to let me touch her breasts and pudenda while I masturbated and sometimes got her to touch and stroke my penis, sometimes to the point of ejaculation which would actually make her laugh if you can believe that.  Since we were both under age and didn’t actually have intercourse and I didn’t actually force her, I don’t think I actually broke any laws, but it was morally wrong and against God’s law and I still feel very guilty and ashamed, and since I’m older and was the instigator I take the responsibility that it was my fault.  I’m not making excuses since it is inexcusable, but if we hadn’t been sharing a room or if she at least was changing behind a partition as has been written about in Straight Talk and I wasn’t seeing her nude, I am confident that this would not have happened.  I therefore strongly agree with those who say that opposite sexes should NOT share a room at least when they have reached puberty and if it is absolutely unavoidable, they should at least have a privacy partition.

    After I graduated last year, I wasn’t smart enough to go to college and we didn’t have the money anyway, so I got a job and moved out and am sharing an apartment with a friend.  Whenever I go home, my sister is very cold and distant toward me.  I assume that this is the reason and it makes me very sad.  I want to tell her how sorry I am and beg her forgiveness, but I don’t know how to do it, and it would be hard to blame her if she never forgave me.  I just wish it had never happened in the first place, and I would not have all this shame and guilt and probably have my sister who I really love hate me the rest of my life.

    T.

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    1. By Sarah, age 18, from Redding, CA on 11/07/2014

      You might be surprised, and your sister just might forgive you.  What do you have to lose?

      I forgave my brother who got me to engage in what he called “just fooling around,” since we weren’t actually having sexual intercourse but were doing things similar to what you have described.  He was my big brother whom I idealized, and I would do anything to get him to pay attention to me, including this.  I resented what he had done for a long time, but when he said he was sorry and asked me to forgive him, I gladly did so.  I realized that even though he was older, I was not totally blameless for engaging in the behavior.  I also should have known that I shouldn’t be nude in front of him when I reached puberty.  Even though we had to share a room, there were alternatives and I could have changed in the bathroom, our mom’s room, or asked for a privacy partition, but I did none of these things.  If I had done so, it likely would have avoided the situation from ever happening which obviously would have been the best thing.

      Forgiving him and letting this go took a huge weight off of me.  I hope you will give your sister the opportunity to do the same.  If she refuses, and she might, at least you would have tried and will be no worse off.

      Sarah

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      1. By M.L., age 16, from Monclova Township, OH on 11/08/2014

        My situation is somewhat different, but I don’t think I could ever forgive my exstepfather for sexually abusing me and my sister and I don’t think I should.  You and your brother were both still children and he was in the unfair position of sharing a room with a sister who would be nude in front of him, so I can see how you might be willing to forgive him when he said he was sorry and ask for forgiveness.  I shared a room with my sister, not a brother, so seeing each other nude obviously was not a sexual issue and we always kept our door closed when we undressed.  But our room didn’t have a lock and our stepfather would come in and violate us.  He didn’t actually “rape” us, but he did sexually violate us.  We didn’t say anything to our mom since we figured she had to know since she was right there when he’d come in our room and abuse us and she was afraid of him.  He was actually more interested in my little sister who was 10 and hadn’t even reached puberty which I think is really sick and I think it was even more traumatic for her if that’s possible.

        He’s now long gone and I seriously doubt that he’ll ever ask for forgiveness anyway, but even if he did I could not bring myself to forgive him and don’t think that I should.

        M.L.

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        1. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 11/25/2014

          M.L.—The abuse from your stepfather is inexcusable. It is very different than the single-person juvenile-juvenile sexual abuse some others shared here where they feel incredible remorse over it and are seeking ways of healing.

          What you describe is full-on sexual abuse and probably not the first time this man has engaged in it. (It does not have to involve rape to be sexual abuse.) I encourage you to report this man so that he doesn’t continue harming other girls. It will also empower YOU and your sister as Hana describes. Seek out a good therapist to help you through your healing process. – Love, Lauren

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      2. By T.R., age 19, from Rohnert Park, CA on 11/09/2014

        This can also happen the other way around.  When I was 13 and my sister was 16 we were still sharing a room, and she was still very casual about nudity in front of me.  It started causing me to have erections, and when she noticed, she got me to engage in sex play with her although we did not actually have full-fledged sexual intercourse.  After a few months, the novelty wore off and we lost interest.  I also started changing in the bathroom while my sister changed in the bedroom so we stopped seeing each other nude, although a partition would have been an even better idea.  We never spoke about it again.  I don’t even feel the need to forgive my sister as I was an equal participant, even though she was older and was the one who initiated this.  If we had not been sharing a room and seeing each other nude it never would have happened, so I agree that brothers and sisters should not be seeing each other this way once they have reached puberty.

        T.R.

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        1. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 11/25/2014

          T.R.—It sounds like you are in an okay place about this. Sometimes siblings are able to move forward and let this kind of thing be chalked up to a childhood experiment/mistake. If you feel otherwise, or have threads of ill feelings about it, I encourage you, like the others, to seek counseling. Three years is a good-sized age difference and you were not the one who initiated this, yet you feel you were an equal participant. Well, you weren’t. Your guilt and sense of responsibility is typical of others who are taken advantage of. That said, if you’ve been able to let it go, great! Just don’t be afraid to take the step of getting help should you find it getting in the way of your emotional growth, relationships, or sexuality.  Thanks for sharing. —Love, Lauren

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    2. By L.H., age 17, from La Habra, CA on 11/09/2014

      I did something at least as bad if not worse and still feel very, very guilty about it and would like to ask for forgiveness but don’t know how to do it.  When I was 14 and my stepsister was 12, I pressured her into what I called “experimentation” with me while sharing a room and bed during visitations.  We’d been sharing a room and bed and undressing in front of each other and seeing each other nude for 2 years before this without incident.  However, when I could see that she was beginning puberty when I saw her nude, I saw her as a rival and was jealous of her because her maturing body was much more attractive than mine.  Looking back, it wasn’t really about sex, as I’m definitely not gay.  Like they say about a rapist, it’s about domination rather than sex, and I wanted to show her who was boss.  She could have got me in huge trouble if she’d told on me, but she never did.  Her dad and my mom got divorced, and I never see her anymore.  However, I have no idea how I may have messed her up and feel terrible about it.  Like T.,  I would like to tell her how very sorry I am and beg for forgiveness, but don’t know how to approach her at this late date.  I wish like anything that it had never happened and I agree with T. when he says:  “DON’T DO IT!”

      L.H.

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      1. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 11/24/2014

        L.H.—Your situation is much more unusual and I’m not sure what advice to give to girls other than to beware of early experimenting with EITHER sex, and especially with family or stepfamily. It can be very traumatizing.

        I encourage you to begin the healing process by talking with a therapist about what happened. From there you can seek forgiveness of both her and yourself. Even if she doesn’t forgive you, you can encourage her to seek forgiveness for herself by doing what you did (ie. getting professional help—I’m assuming you are going to take my advice, which I sincerely hope you do!). It is a theme for victims to feel guilty, so she could really benefit from you telling her it wasn’t her fault, that you are extremely sorry, and that you sincerely hope she finds complete healing by getting help, and that she deserves that. If you are financially able, you could offer to pay for her counseling. (T.—same for you on that.) Let us know how it goes. Like I said to T. you were a juvenile and juveniles make mistakes. What matters most now is what you do with it from this point forward and you are on the right track by sharing it here. –Love, Lauren

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    3. By LAUREN, from StraightTalkAdvice.org on 11/24/2014

      T.—I really appreciate that you’ve written about this. Your warning could be resonating with a brother or a sister right now, inspiring them to set up preventatives like separate rooms or a room partition and making sure not to change in front of each other once one of them is in puberty.

      Your guilt and sorrow is palpable and I have compassion for your situation. I’m grateful for Sarah’s letter to you sharing her real experience of a sister forgiving a brother. I hope you take her advice and seek forgiveness. Perhaps it would help you to talk with a good therapist if you can afford that (most insurance will cover therapy…  and the county usually has counseling resources on a sliding scale). Talking to a professional will get this trauma moving forward into healing mode as opposed to where it is now: stuck. And if she is unable to forgive, it can help you love her anyway, and continue trying in the future, while you work on forgiving yourself. You were after all, a juvenile yourself, even though old enough to know it was wrong, and juveniles make mistakes. Let us know how it goes. –Love, Lauren

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