I don’t know how old I was when it started. I must have been two or three – just a child. A talkative little girl who loved to laugh and sing around the house. For him, I was just one of his many victims. He always had his eyes on me and “the incidents,” as I refer to them now, became routine. So routine, that I thought it was normal.
He touched me every opportunity he had. He didn’t care the time of day or who was home, all he needed was a five-minute window and he took advantage. I always felt dirty after. I knew what he was doing was wrong but he always looked me in my eyes and told me never to tell. I kept his secret for nearly ten years.
Then one day, a few months after my 9th birthday, I finally told. He denied it, of course. My family believed me but we never spoke about it again. We continued on with Sunday dinners and big family functions as if nothing ever happened. It was like they locked it up in the box of “things that never happened.” And I, like everyone else, threw away the key and believed that lie.
Now, in my mid-twenties, I struggle with those painful memories. I never bring it up because I know he’s loved — a father, a husband, an uncle, a grandfather. The idea of tainting his reputation is just too much for me to bear. So, I’ve been carrying that burden for a long time…until now.
I’m at a crossroads in my life. I have unanswered questions and I desperately want to understand how my childhood has affected my adulthood. What happened in that house for all those years was a violation of my innocent mind, body and spirit. How do I move on? How do I erase the painful memories that constantly come back to haunt me? Things that I thought I never knew, suppressed so far back in my memory, are easily triggered by smells, TV theme songs from the ’90s and even patterns on fabric. I sat down with Dr. Rhonda Wells-Wilbon, an D.C.-based therapist who specializes in African-American adult survivors of rape and child sexual abuse, to answer some of those questions. She says the first step in the healing process is breaking the silence.
“For a person who has been sexually abused, if the message they’ve always heard is ‘what happens in our house, stays in our house’ and we don’t talk about these things, then we are telling our kids to internalize what may have happened to them,” she says. “In our community it is such a taboo to talk about so many different things. Sex alone is taboo to talk about, let alone sexual abuse. So it’s just a real huge issue that we all know exists but still won’t talk about it and that is becoming more and more of a concern.”
Gail E. Wyatt, a clinical psychologist and professor at UCLA, notes that African-Americans aren’t the only group suffering from abuse in silence, “but we’re the only group whose experience is compounded by our history of slavery and stereotypes about Black sexuality, that makes discussion more difficult.”
This is my first time speaking publicly about my abuse. I’m a writer, and like most wordsmiths, I draw inspiration from my own life. I finally found the courage to speak out when I realized this is my story to tell. It was like a light bulb moment — or as Oprah would say, an a-ha moment. This is my truth, an ugly and uncomfortable truth, but it’s still mine. Plus, I realized that I’m not alone. Aside from friends who share similar experiences, I was inspired every time I heard public figures like Gabrielle Union, Mo’Nique, LaTavia Roberson and Tyler Perry share their survival stories.
In No Secrets No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse, author Robin Stone says the silence around abuse affects our physical and mental well-being in ways we might not even realize. “For many of us, we have buried sexual abuse so deep in our psyches that we would never connect it to today’s physical illness and pain, our depression or addiction, our inability to hold a job, get out of debt, find satisfaction in a relationship, nurture our children or simply say no to people or situation that do us harm,” she writes.
What exactly is sexual assault? It’s defined as any unwanted sexual act in which a person is threatened, coerced or forced to engage against their will. When it comes minors, sex and relationship expert Dr. Tiffanie Davis Henry says it’s also abuse “even if you think you want to do it.”
“If you are younger and someone has convinced you that this is appropriate behavior — even if you agree to the behavior and even if you find the behavior pleasurable — it does not mean that it’s okay,” she explains. “Any sexual act that you are not in agreement with and if you are under the age of consent is abuse.”
Dr. Henry is the first African-American AASECT certified sex therapist in the state of Georgia, a licensed psychotherapist and a regular on shows like ABC’s “The Revolution,” “Good Morning America” and “The Dr. Oz Show.” She says the next critical step is realizing that it wasn’t your fault.
“Don’t blame yourself. Take yourself out of the equation,” she advises. “A lot of times when people suffer, especially with child sexual abuse, they internalize it. Like it’s their fault or like they brought it on themselves. That could be their own self thought or that could be what the abuser told them: ‘If you hadn’t dressed this way I wouldn’t do this.’ Or, ‘If you hadn’t acted this way I wouldn’t have forced myself on you.’ A lot of little girls and little boys grow up into adulthood thinking they are somehow to blame. What they have to realize is they were children and with their child minds they don’t have the capacity to make the decision to have sex with someone older, wiser and who knows better. The people who perpetrate these crimes on little children know absolutely what they are doing is wrong.”
I’ve never been to therapy before. In my mind, it’s just for people who are depressed or suffering from an addiction. I live a fairly happy, healthy and productive life. But, according to Dr. Rhonda, it’s important for me to start that work now because the effects of my abuse can appear in later stages of my life. “Maybe it just hasn’t effected you yet,” she points out. “It can effect you at different stages, like when you become a mom or when you get married. There might be certain times in your life when it becomes more significant for you.”
She’s right. This type of damage doesn’t just go away. Without therapeutic help, both experts agree that it’s very difficult to simply “get over it.” “When you don’t address those issues, they tend to resurface at pretty inconvenient times. If you think of it that way, you really want to have some control over how you deal with it, where you deal with it and when you deal with it,” Dr. Henry shares. “Address those issues head on. Don’t allow yourself to be held captive any longer by your fear or the anxiety of what has happened to you in the past. Because in some cases it can really paralyze you and it can paralyze your relationships. I’ve seen cases where it actually damages really, really good relationships.”
I asked Dr. Henry how to find the best therapist for me and she recommended three ways: ask someone who I trust, talk to my Ob/Gyn or reach out my health insurance provider. “A lot of people are embarrassed, especially African-Americans, about going and starting the therapy process. That’s not something historically that we’ve done. But, there are a lot of great therapists out there and a lot of people who need therapy,” she says. “Talk to your doctor. Whether it’s your primary care doctor or your Ob/Gyn. They will often have referrals that can help in that process. If you have insurance, call your insurance company. If you don’t want to talk to a friend or tell what is going on, just talk to your insurance company and say, ‘Can you recommend some therapists that are in my network that specialize in x, y and z?’”
“You can also can Google it,” she adds. “Type in therapists, trauma therapist, or abuse survivor therapist. If you find a set of therapists, don’t be afraid to ask questions and try to figure out if it’s a good fit…You need to be figuring out if you can connect with this person and eventually open up to this person.”
If you don’t feel like you can connect with your therapist after the first meeting, Dr. Henry says that’s okay. “You have every right to find someone who you think you can gel with. But likewise, I would say stick with it. This is the type of therapy where people definitely get uncomfortable. It’s not a fun topic. It’s an uncomfortable situation but understand that that’s part of the process and on the other side of feeling uncomfortable is a lot of freedom, a lot of elevation of pain, a lot of joy and a lot of happiness.”
I am excited to take this first step. I’m looking forward to doing the work so I can be on the other side of this burden, in that serene and pleasant place. Along with therapy, I’m also looking forward to connecting with other strong and positive female survivors. I want to talk about women’s empowerment and show the younger generation what that looks like. I want to teach girls how important it is to have a voice.
If you too are suffering in silence, let’s take this first step together. In the words of Dr. Wells-Wibon, seeking help will free us “to live the whole and healthy lives we are destined to fulfill.”
Cheers to freedom! *exhale*
If you or someone you know is being sexually abused you don’t have to suffer in silence. RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE in partnership with 1,100 rape crisis centers across the nation, providing free, confidential advice 24/7.
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