I Was An Abuse Survivor And Nobody Knew It, Including Me

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woman alone in the dark

It was spring and baseball season was about to begin. My 5-year-old would be starting T-ball, and my seven-year-old had agreed to take a crack at junior softball. Neither had ever played before, but I loved both sports growing up, and somehow I convinced them both to give it a shot.

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Among the flurry of emails that came out before the first practice was an appeal for parent volunteers. If you ever plan to set foot on the field, the note said, you’ve got to take bullying and child abuse prevention training. Thinking my experience as a teacher and as a former player might benefit my kids at some point, I signed up for the online class.

There were slides, naturally, and I read and clicked through them dutifully if a bit absently. I’d been a teacher and school administrator for fifteen-something years by this point, and I had seen this information presented in various ways dozens of times before.

Definitions for, and strategies to prevent, bullying and child abuse. The different kinds of abuse that exist, and the fact that abuse rarely leaves physical marks. The signs that adults often miss. Yeah, yeah. I know all this, I thought as I scanned the literature.

And then, with one more click, I stopped cold.

Reasons survivors don’t report abuse

The scant words on the slide were enough to fill the room and suck the oxygen out of it, all at the same time.

According to the text in front of me, many instances of abuse aren’t reported, due to:

  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Embarrassment
  • Concerns about confidentiality
  • Fear of not being believed
  • Thoughts that maybe what happened wasn’t wrong after all

I stopped reading as an adult, and went back and read the words as if I were eight years old again, and nine and twelve and eighteen.

Why were these words here, in this order? How were they laid out so neatly, here in black and white? Who told you? I wanted to scream at nobody at all.

I closed the program and sat staring into nothing, a stack of bricks on my chest, fixing me to my chair.

After a moment, though, the weight lifted and my eyes cleared. I inhaled deeply.

“Well, that explains a lot.”

I fit all the criteria.

When I was eight or so, a cousin of mine convinced me to explore sex and intimacy with him. I knew very little about sex, but I did know that I really valued the close relationship I’d enjoyed with my cousin until that point. I didn’t want to disappoint him, and so I gave in.

I’d always known there was something just not right about what happened with my cousin. But I never told anyone — or at least, not anyone who was in a position to help me through it.

Because I had been taught sexual acts were wrong, I felt embarrassed and ashamed I’d consented to commit them and guilty for allowing him to talk me into something with which I was fundamentally uncomfortable.

I was afraid for myself. If my parents found out what I’d done, they would shame me and punish me — if they even believed me at all. So I didn’t tell anyone what had happened at all until over a year later, and even then it was kids my age who I swore to secrecy.

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I was protective of my cousin, and of my relationship with him. He had convinced me I was important to him, and I believed his affection for me was conditioned on both this physical relationship and my silence about it.

If word got out about what we had done, he would be punished. And if he learned I broke his trust, he wouldn’t care for me anymore — let alone in the special way I thought he did.

Later I even came to believe that this had been a simple case of kids will be kids. This was reinforced when I heard nonchalant stories of other kids “experimenting” with their cousins. I know now that being coerced into something I didn’t want to do is not the same as consensual experimentation, but it took most of my life to figure out that very consequential detail.

This experience shaped my decisions and relationships moving forward.

I saw my cousin on a very limited basis. While this imbalanced perversion of a relationship went on for a couple of years, there was very little opportunity for actual contact. Given its narrow scope, I continue to be surprised at the extent of the damage it caused.

Though I couldn’t have known it at the time, my relationship with my cousin created a blueprint for my future relationships with boys and, very soon, men. And my silence about these relationships continued to be driven by guilt, shame, embarrassment, and fear of what would happen to me or to my “boyfriends” (read: abusers) if we were discovered.

Not having anyone with whom to share these feelings led to my further isolating. Since I didn’t have access to friends or family members who were in healthy relationships, I never developed a model of one in which both parties share the power and decisions.

Because I never shared with anyone what had happened with my cousin, there was no one to legitimize what I knew intuitively: What he had done to me was wrong. It was not a mutual agreement. It was one based on my sense of obligation, fear, and insecurity. This wasn’t a relationship I had invited and enjoyed. This was a situation in which I’d felt I had no other choice.

It was decades before I really understood that.

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And during those decades, I found myself “consenting” over and over again to things I didn’t want to do with people I thought I loved but didn’t really know, and who didn’t care about me at all.

For a long time, I was able to draw a direct line back to that situation with my cousin when asked to identify the source of my sexual trauma. But it took reading that one fateful slide for me to accept the title of survivor, and to understand why the experience had affected me so profoundly.

People could have noticed.

Kids talk. At certain points, even I talked. It was, admittedly, in a sort of boastful way, at a time when I thought most cool kids were having sex. And kids talked about what I had said, to each other and to their siblings and some probably even to their parents.

In itself, the fact that I thought it was cool to have sex before I was even a teenager should have sent up some red flags. Any number of those kids could have raised concerns with parents or teachers. It’s not another kid’s responsibility to know how to handle things like that, though, and I wouldn’t blame any of them for keeping quiet.

There were adults, though, who knew something was up. Parents who forbade their children from seeing me, but who never called mine to express their concern.

Teachers, surely, who checked in on me using tired statements like, “You know I’m here if you want to talk,” but who never once said, “I’m concerned that you’re having sex so young,” and who definitely never picked up the phone and asked my parents to talk. Doctors who, when I was in the hospital at twelve and admitted I could be pregnant, didn’t bring in a social worker right then and there.

And then there was that one time when my cousin told his stepbrother he’d had sex with me. The stepbrother told my cousin’s dad, who called my parents, who confronted me with genuine concern and then dropped it completely and never mentioned it again when I twisted my face up in confusion as if such a claim was preposterous.

It would have taken the persistence of just one of these people to get me to open up about what had happened. But no one ever gave it a genuine effort, because it was just easier not to.

My abuse has affected the way I protect my own children.

I have two little girls now, and a rather unique opportunity to come through for my children in ways that the adults in my life failed me when I was growing up. I take this responsibility seriously because I know the potential consequences of screwing it up.

First, I know what my kids are doing. I know who they’re with, I know their friends’ parents, and I know the kinds of games they play together. I don’t just check out because they’re occupied, as much as I would love to. I check in on them periodically. Not to breathe down their necks, but so they know I know and care what they do.

I ask questions when something looks or sounds inappropriate. Nearly every time, it’s something innocent. When it’s not, we pause and process. I ask where they heard or saw the behavior they’re emulating.

If it’s from the media, I check out the source and establish parental controls and also talk with the kids about why I’m doing it. If it’s from a friend, I ask questions until my kids are sick of answering them, and then I keep asking.

I want them to get used to answering questions, and to know that I won’t give up asking them. I keep an eye on their relationships, especially the problematic ones, and keep up communication with the school staff and their friends’ parents.

I don’t vilify the exploration of body parts, and I don’t shy away from answering questions about sex. I do, however, teach them to establish and hold their own boundaries and to explore things like that in private. I speak of things as appropriate or inappropriate for a given situation, not as a black-and-white, good-versus-bad dichotomy.

I use social stories to help them explore situations in which they might find themselves. This includes kid-centered podcasts and books. I often ask, “Why is she making that choice?” or “What choice would you make in the same situation?”

I don’t just tell them they can talk to me, because I know from experience that just saying the words is not enough. I show them I’ll listen when they have problems by actually listening to them when they have problems, even when they seem tiny and inconsequential to me. For that is when the message of openness is truly received. I offer help and support, and I follow up so they know I’m thinking about it.

I treat my children as little humans with valid experiences and feelings, who will eventually need to make very complicated decisions. I do my damnedest to give them the tools they need to navigate this world on their own, but through every interaction, I show them that I’ll be there for them anytime they need help.

Through exploring my own experiences and helping my kids through theirs, I have learned how to give my children what I was so lacking all those years ago. Learning a name for what I went through as a child was a huge step toward helping me heal from it.

My goal for my children is to help them have a childhood from which they don’t feel the need to heal.

Children need enough care to be healthy and enough supervision to be safe. Child neglect is when a parent or caregiver does not give the care, supervision, affection, and support needed for a child’s health, safety, and well-being. Adults that care for children must provide clothing, food, and drink. A child also needs safe, healthy shelter, and adequate supervision. There are several kinds of child neglect, which you can read more about on the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline’s website ( There is no “smoking gun” for most child neglect. While even one instance of neglect can cause lifelong harm to a child, neglect often requires a pattern of behavior over a period of time. If you suspect a child you know is being neglected, contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline for more resources at 1-800-4-A-CHILD.

Nikki Kay writes fiction, poetry, personal essays about parenting, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Check out her column at Invisible Illness.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.