Reclaiming My Story

Trigger Warning: This article contains information about sexual assault and suicide which may be triggering to survivors.

Long before I became chronically ill, I had a love/hate relationship with my body. More hate than love. Growing up with a hypercritical mom and a father who overstepped the sacred boundary between parent and child left me distrustful of my own body. It left me confused, filled with shame, and unable to reconcile love with healthy boundaries.

Of my five grandkids, three of them are now around the age I was when the abuse happened. There’s not much I remember about that time. Large chunks of my childhood between the ages of 8 and 12 are missing. Our mind has a way of protecting us from severe trauma, but the body remembers. The body houses the shame, the grief, the betrayal. It shows up in uninvited ways. . .

The smell of beer on a man’s breath.

The feel of razor stubble on a man’s face.

The sound of a man repeatedly clearing his throat.

The absolute terror that occurs when I feel physically pinned down or trapped.

Despite my experience as a sexual assault counselor and advocate, and knowing how important it is to bring shame out into the light of day, I wasn’t able to talk about what happened to me as a child until both my parents had died. My dad passed away from lung cancer in 1992 at the age of 63, just a few years older than I am now. My mom died in 2010. As irrational as it may seem, I didn’t want to shine a negative light on them or dishonor them, so I kept what happened to me secret while they were alive.

But there were obvious tells: unexplained panic attacks; severe body dysmorphia; flashbacks; anxiety; depression; difficulty with intimate relationships that involved sex; hyper vigilance; trust issues; reacting negatively to certain places, smells, and sounds without knowing why; trouble setting and maintaining boundaries; pervasive feelings of guilt and shame.

After I was diagnosed with a progressive and incurable disease in 2007, I fell into a deep depression that led to my considering suicide. The physical pain at that time was relentless, my quality of life barely registering a heartbeat. The thread that was keeping me tethered to life was close to breaking, and I knew I needed professional help to find my way out of the darkness.

It was in working with my therapist to learn how to cope with a serious, chronic illness that snippets of memory began rising to the surface. They weren’t clear or detailed, but they were there just the same. And as the months went by we began to weave them together to frame a story I’d kept buried for decades. I was diagnosed with complex PTSD, and slowly the weight of the abuse and the accompanying shame began to lift.

We are so much more than our stories, even as they serve to inform and remind us of what was, but what no longer is. It’s an important distinction.

After more than two years of working with my therapist, I finally decided to tell my husband about my dad’s abuse. It was one of the most vulnerable moments of my life, but given that he was my husband, I believed he would support me. I believed he would understand the raw pain I was in and choose to comfort me.

In fact, he did neither.

In the midst of my sharing what we’d uncovered he accused my therapist of planting false memories in my head, and said he “doubted that anything really happened” since I couldn’t clearly remember it.

The betrayal in that moment, like my father’s betrayal, was soul crushing. It took the emotional legs right out from under me to realize that the man I’d married would never truly have my back; that when it mattered the most he wouldn’t, couldn’t believe me. That was the moment that any trust I had in him died, and it was the beginning of the unraveling of our marriage.

It was also the beginning of my learning to believe in myself. As I navigated the next few years, I began to come to terms with why my mind and body had been so disconnected for most of my life. I began to understand that in its own way, my body was trying to protect me by holding onto the memories my mind couldn’t until I was ready.

I began to integrate the different parts of myself – my body, my mind, my spirit – which enabled me to move past so much of the shame I carried deep in my DNA. I realized there were reasons why I had gravitated towards working with sexual assault victims; that there was an unbreakable bond between me and those who’d suffered the same intimate betrayal.

I woke up to the realization that both my marriages had been to men who were emotionally closed off, controlling and hyper-masculine. My first husband was (and still is) a good man, but I’d married him when I was 21, without the benefit of seeing a loving relationship modeled for me.

Without knowing it, I’d married him to escape my familial pain and dysfunction, and for many years he was my safe harbor. He protected me. He encouraged me. He provided me a cherished space to grow and evolve, but as I got older and more independent in my thinking, that protection became stifling; the fit more confining than comforting.

After 20 years of marriage I came to the heartbreaking conclusion that I was suffocating; that to remain in the marriage meant the slow, agonizing death of the woman I’d begun to know and love. But, at the time, I didn’t see my decision as self-preservation. I saw it as abject failure. I saw it as one more example of a woman too damaged to be in an intimate relationship.

When I married for the second time I was emotionally stronger, but still not rid of the pull of toxic masculinity. Where my first husband was kind, my second husband was cruel. He presented himself as a man of integrity, loyalty and honor – largely due to his being a Marine – and I trusted that to be the truth. Of course over time I realized it was all just an illusion. It was a facade he wrapped himself in to offset his extreme narcissism and bullying behavior.

I have no doubt that part of the reason I became so sick when I did was because I was in an environment that was caustic and noxious. I’d been told that the pancreas represents the “sweetness of life” and the fact that mine was failing so miserably wasn’t lost on me.

I’ve come a long, long way from the young child who was victimized by a parent; a long, long way from the woman who gravitated towards men and relationships that kept me confined to dutiful wife and mother. I have the scars – both physical and metaphorical – to tell the story, but I have so much more. I am a survivor. Like so many women (and men) before me. The residual shame occasionally works its way back to the surface, but I no longer allow it to dictate my life.

We are so much more than our stories, even as they serve to inform and remind us of what was, but what no longer is. It’s an important distinction. Now, in the sixth decade of my life, the narrative is mine to write, plumed from the memories, from the resilience, from the grace with which I’ve chosen to determine who and what I am.


RAINN partners with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers across the country that can provide support in your local community. Talk one-on-one with a support specialist, any time 24/7. The Online Hotline is confidential and anonymous. RAINN does not log IP addresses or save chat transcripts. Call 800-656-HOPE (4673).

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