It takes courage to heal.
Dear courageous souls,
I hope that by the time my letter reaches you, healing has occurred or the process is well under way. I know that for some of you, it took a long time to work through it — years and even decades of shame and guilt made it so difficult to face.
Perhaps, you thought you could push it down and keep it there, only to discover that it made its presence known anyway: you were either self-destructive, or it got in the way of your relationships, including the ability to even have a healthy relationship at all.
I admire the courage it took to allow yourself to remember the awful truth of your past, and your valiant effort to relinquish yourself of any responsibility you thought you had.
In the event that you need reinforcement of what you have learned, I thought it might be useful to remind you of why three painful and guilty thoughts you used to keep to yourself, as survivors of sexual abuse, were either patently false or, in the third case, justifiable.
1. "I could have stopped it."
The problem here is that you’re transplanting your thoughts as an adult into the little boy or girl you once were. But I realize that it may be difficult or even scary to get in touch with your childhood self and how he or she felt.
So instead, I want you to think of someone you know who is the age right now that you were when the abuse happened. Whether you were 4, 7, or 15, there must be someone in your life currently who is that age; they may be a niece, nephew, or a family friend. And if you can’t think of someone, simply Google the age and look at the pictures.
When you look at and think about this 4-year-old or 7-year-old, imagine them trying to stop an abuser. It’s difficult to conceive, right?
Now, hopefully, you can connect with how young and innocent you were compared to your abuser. As an adult, you realize how young even a 15-year-old looks to you. Do you still think you could have stopped it?
You may also have forgotten that many of you froze up and appropriately went into an altered state of consciousness. This served an important, protective function for you: how else could you handle an abusive experience for which you had no basis of understanding?
2. "I allowed it to happen more than once."
First of all, many of you were threatened — something bad would happen to you or someone you loved if you told the secret. But even in the absence of a threat, you didn't "allow" anything. Children cannot consent — we have laws to enforce that.
And let me remind you of something else: if it was your father or uncle or cousin, they may have told you that this was how love was expressed. Because of your age, you very appropriately believed it — show me any child who doesn’t want to be loved or feel special.
To make things even more confusing, this may have been one of the few or only times you felt these "loving" feelings associated with — or received any real attention from — this significant person in your life. Consider the power that has over a child.
Any positive emotional feelings you had were normal responses to the attention you received. It was the abusive form of attention you received from an unhealthy adult that was not normal. You had no way of knowing this wasn't okay and none of that was your fault.
3. "Sometimes, it felt… good."
Herein lies one of the darkest secrets you kept for so many years because it caused you so much pain and shame. If part of it felt pleasurable, you must have wanted it, right?
Wrong. Your body simply reacted the way bodies are supposed to when they’re touched.
Perhaps this will help: sometimes I ask people to think about being tickled by surprise. You aren’t expecting it, and you didn’t invite it, but your body can still react positively and it makes you laugh.
Did you know that children as young as 2 years old masturbate? They touch themselves because it feels good. It’s normal and natural. We simply remind children that only THEY can touch their bodies like this, and only in private.
The point is this: the fact that sometimes it felt good to be touched isn’t something to feel shame over. It just means you were normal.
Allow me to reiterate my admiration for your desire and ability to confront this devastating part of your past, work through it, and ultimately get to a better place in your life. But I wish to close this letter by addressing those of you who have yet to do the work.
I want you to know I understand how much you’d rather not go back to this time in your life; for some of you, it happened so long ago. It can seem overwhelming and, of course, there are aspects and details of your story not explored in my letter. But if you are willing to be patient and diligent, healing is absolutely possible.
The key is to find a therapist who will let you dictate the pace of your healing — a therapist who will follow your lead and create a protective and nurturing space for you to work through this painful part of your past.
There is something amazing on the other side: a time when you will rightfully free yourself of responsibility, and lovingly reconnect with the sweet, innocent little girl or boy who didn't deserve what happened.
Adam Fields is a licensed marriage and family therapist located in Encino, California, who specializes in the treatment of couples and sex issues, and adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Contact him here for a free phone consultation.
This article was originally published at Adam Fields, M.A., LMFT. Reprinted with permission from the author.