My father molested me throughout my childhood. Even after I told my mom about it. I was in third grade and after it happened again while I was “sleeping”, he got in the shower. I knew I had time to make it up the stairs before he got out but the creaky stairs went right over the bathroom. I was tired of feeling the guilt and the shame which sat in my stomach and chest like boulders. I so clearly remember the abuse that night; the way I wrapped myself up in my sheet (per usual) trying to make it difficult for him to get access to me, the waking up to him fumbling with those sheets, the way I monitored my breathing to make him think I was still asleep, the holding of my breath after he stopped while I waited for the door to close, hearing the shower start. I remember the stream of thought as I debated telling my mom, the boulders making it hard for me to breathe, but even harder to sleep. I ran as lightly as I could to my mom’s bedside and told her. She seemed shocked and then sent me back to bed. I think I fell asleep. I woke up to both my parents in my room. My dad standing near the side of the bed, sobbing uncontrollably, telling me he would never do that to me. “You must be dreaming.” Dreaming. It should have been telling that he used that word instead of nightmare. Before I left for school, my mom told me not to tell Mrs. Gayle, the school counselor. We didn’t speak of it for many years. The abuse continued, albeit more subtly.
I remember going into my little sister’s room. She is two years younger than me and I was the oldest and innately felt protective. I was sitting on her floor, and I knew I needed to talk to her and make sure she was safe, but I didn’t want to allude to what had happened to me. I started by saying, “You know no one should ever touch you in your private parts, right?” I gauged her response. “Not even, like, a teacher, or a cousin. Not even Grandpa or a dad.” She said she knew. I thought I was keeping her safe. I didn’t tell anyone else because I didn’t want my family split up and after all, I was probably just dreaming. I thought telling my mom and checking in with her would save her. It didn’t.
Fast forward and I’m 26, married to my high school sweetheart, 7 months pregnant with our first child after 2 years of trying. My husband and I had just crawled in to bed for the night when my phone rang. It was my teenage brother. I answered he said, “Jen, did Dad ever touch you?” I sat straight up, all the blood drained out of my face and my head was dizzy and confused. I said no. He responded that he had already talked to my other sisters and he had done it to both of them. I don’t actually remember what I said but I confirmed that it was true. The entire room was spinning, I couldn’t breathe, my body didn’t work. He said, “I’m going to kill him.” and hung up. I remember yelling at my husband what had just happened. I don’t remember much else about that night.
It was a messy three years of trying to work through it all and mostly pretending nothing had ever happened. The social workers my family worked with were incompetent and flat out lied to me and my husband more than once. Meanwhile, I saw my own therapist, one not connected to the social workers counseling my family. It was the best decision I ever made because I could see things from a totally different perspective. It never got better for me after it all came out. I tried to pretend it did, but it didn’t. As I became more and more of a threat to this dysfunctional system my parents had formed, the worse it got. When my sister told me of some reactions she carried with her, I wanted to scream that those were the same habits that diagnosed my PTSD but I couldn’t because the more I broke away from the mold, the more I was the scapegoat. My mother was broken and yet I kept trying to go to her for comfort. That had never happened in my life, I’m not sure why I thought it would happen now. I found a letter from her that she wrote me high school. She told me how terrible I was. That I was dramatic, a liar, that she doesn’t know what to do with me anymore. I “treat everyone like shit.” She listed all the offenses: cheating on a high school boyfriend, having sex with my ex-boyfriend and how dysfunctional that relationship was. That I should probably go to a counselor. She never made me see one. She knew exactly what would come out and can we point out the irony here? She knew what my dad did and yet all of those very clearly “unresolved daddy issue” behaviors were the ones she called out. The saddest thing about reading that letter, now as a mother myself, was that at the time I received that letter, the one of many from her, I didn’t even recognize how emotionally abusive it was. I didn’t even know. I knew I could never please her, no accomplishment ever gained me praise. The only compliment I remember receiving, in my entire life, was that I was a good mom.
Right after my son’s third birthday there was a phone call that changed everything. I had another baby soon after my first and had two toddlers now. I had just finished lunch with them. The phone rang and my heart jumped and the anxiety kicked in. My parents minimized my dad’s actions and the impact they had over and over so I was used to it but today it was different. Today he actually said to me “I’m not like those people in prison. I’m not a pedophile.” While technically that may be true, his actions did not affect my life any less than if he were. In fact, it becomes even MORE convoluted when the person who is supposed to protect you, guide you, love you unconditionally is the one who violates you in so many ways. I lost it. I don’t know that I’d call it a mental break but it was pretty close. I remember my sweet boys, toddling around and playing with toys, calming down before naptime. I went where they couldn’t (completely) hear me and I screamed about all the things that his “thinking errors” had caused me while he cried. I was petrified there were ghosts in my room. I thought I was crazy and that I was going to be a pedophile—after all, why would I continue to “dream” about these disgusting acts happening to me. I didn’t trust my intuition anymore. I had a hard time bathing my child when he first came home. I had a hard time with my husband bathing him too. I was terrified of crossing a line that had never been shown to me so I ran as far away from any line as possible. I missed bonding time with my sons because I was terrified that I didn’t know what parent/child affection should look like. I was hyperaware of every move I made with my sons. I hung up, got my babies into bed for naps as fast as I could and ran to the bathroom. It felt like very cell in my body was trying to escape my skin. I got in the shower, clothed, and turned on the cold water. I sat on my feet, hugging my knees while the shock of the water refocused my brain on it instead of the words I just heard. I sobbed for everything that had happened, and for everything I knew I needed to do. I tried to set up healthy boundaries over the past few years, but they’d shove right through them, over and over again.
After the shower incident, I finally made the decision to go no-contact with my parents. I wrote them a letter telling them I could not be in a relationship with them right now. It was not emotionally safe. For the first time, they actually respected my wishes. I knew this would also mean walking away from my siblings. They were entrenched in that family system much more than I was and I had reached the point where I needed to save myself and the family I had made. I couldn’t save everyone, I had tried. I also knew other family members would fall away because this truth isn’t easy. I knew it all was coming but it didn’t make it any easier. My parents controlled the story with our extended family and at that point only my paternal grandparents knew. After another situation of me being the scapegoat, I decided no more. I wrote a blog, published it and sent it to my extended family. I could not live in that bubble any longer. I couldn’t keep defending myself as to why I was pulling away without actually telling the truth. It blew up for a little bit. I talked to my aunts and uncles and it broke my heart to hear my uncles cry. It hurt to hear everyone feel a little guilty that they didn’t know and didn’t stop it. It hurt to hear the confusion in their voices and it hurt to hear the pain. Then it hurt because I didn’t hear anything. I have a few family members that I still talk to regularly but there are others who took the path of least resistance, the one that doesn’t make waves. I understand why, I really do. In my family, it was easier without a doubt to rally around the perpetrator and I was expected to do the same. Thank you very much, but no I will not be attending Thanksgiving with my sexual abuser. But almost everyone else did. You see, a system fights for homeostasis, even when it is dysfunctional. Even when it hurts, even when it’s inauthentic, even when it’s wrong. Even when it means leaving the victim to fend for herself. I didn’t expect that last one. I never wanted anyone to choose sides. I firmly believe that you can have relationships with people on one side of a disagreement that have nothing to do with the other side. Smart, logical, loving family that I admired my whole life, surprised me (devastated me) when I heard nothing. I know my parents are still controlling the story and I know that the whole truth isn’t spoken but I no longer feel the need to defend myself. The truth is, if no one is asking for it, they don’t really want to know. It certainly makes their lives easier. It breaks my heart, but logically and neurologically, I understand their choices. I wish it was different, but it’s not.
I mourn for the parents I deserved, but not the ones I walked away from. Is it hard? Yes. Harder than I expected. The hard parts sometimes hit you out of nowhere. It’s the tiny moments when you see friends with their loving, supportive parents. It’s the making new friends and having it come up in conversation. It’s the innate need for humans to be unconditionally loved by their parents and knowing that it never was and never will be fulfilled. It’s in raising my kids in a much smaller (though so much more functional) family unit than I was. It’s recognizing that new friends can never really replace the people with whom you have a shared childhood. It’s in the relationships that fell away because it was all too much.
Here’s the thing though, friends, there is so much amazing on this side, too. There is no one that doesn’t feel a tinge of hurt for a relationship they want but don’t have or maybe they have it but it’s not what they’d wish it to be. I just have more relationships and a much greater distance between what it was and what it should have been than some others. It’s worth it. To be free of the systematic degrading and minimizing of my childhood is worth it. To not have my reality try to be twisted into something less so that it is more pleasing is worth it. To be surrounded by only those people that are invited in, instead of those that by some societal obligation “should” be there is worth it. To not have to try to earn the love and approval of my parents, an unending and never attainable feat, worth it. To raise my children outside of the dysfunction, and by a mother who is finally whole is so very worth it. I can’t wait to share the good stuff and the insight I’ve gained about parenting without having been parented. I don’t know it all, but I certainly know more than I did when my boys were born. I wish I’d had someone to help me along that path because it’s complicated, and confusing, and can be so lonely. I hope you’ll share what you’ve learned, too.
Note: I have been protective of my story. It comes easily to share my childhood history. That story is just facts, sequential and has an end (of sorts). The story of the aftermath has been harder to share outside of my little tribe. This story breaks open my heart to reveal the struggles and ache of what it’s like to be a woman, a parent, a human in the fallout of family trauma. This story will never have an ending. There is so much joy, happiness, and freedom here, though, too. My story is a testament to God making all things beautiful and I want to share that. I know I am not alone in this journey and that there are other women walking with me who feel alone and like no one understands. The encouragement of my friends and family to keep speaking have given me the strength to take this first little step. I don’t know what it will continue to look like, but in this moment, I know this is what I’m being called to do.