The "Gift" that Keeps on Giving

The testifying has begun as HB277  and HB345 has been working their way through the beginnings of the legislative process in the Utah House of Representatives. I knew it would be stressful and liberating...but I am learning more about myself and the fears that still exist behind the confident exterior.

On Wednesday, I was asked to testify before the Judicial Committee about the need to do away with the Civil Statute of Limitations against perpetrators of sexual abuse against a child. I shared a brief version of my story, along with the facts that the average age that victims find themselves able to come forward about their abuse is the age of FORTY TWO. I testified to these good representatives that it takes many years to come to terms with the immense shame that seeps into every cell of your being when you are the victim of this horrendous crime. Today, I can testify to you that I'm not sure if it ever goes away. 

Last week, the media ran with our story, covering it on television and in the papers. It was posted on Facebook and Tweeted throughout the states. By and large, the responses were very supportive. But there are some comments that were made that pierce me to the core and find me fighting to keep from giving in to the old suffocating blanket of shame that I lived under for decades. The most misguided of the bunch came from a man who said, "Victims are a lot of the time just as guilty or equally guilty as an alleged offender. I'm not saying the school teacher shouldn't be accountable. I'm saying the teens are just as guilty and need to be held accountable by the law too. All parties should be charged." 

I tried to explain to this person the difference between the psychology and responsibility of a teenager, versus an adult. It fell on deaf ears, so I dropped it. But I have wished many times in the past week that I could allow that man into my head. I would show him the two years of incremental grooming that occurred to gain my absolute trust and the trust of my family. Slowly, over time, she became a member of my family. My mother was a single mother and felt empathy for another single woman, who was supposedly a good member of our faith. She took her in like a younger sister. She went on our vacations. Had regular sleepovers. We supported her through a serious diagnosis of cancer. I would show this man the level of trust and loyalty that was created in that two year process of grooming...loyalty so powerful that I was willing to destroy myself to protect her.

I would share with him the technicolor memory I have of being sexually abused for the first time. The absolute and paralyzing fear. The conflict between what I knew to be excruciatingly wrong and unwanted, and the words of deception used by someone I trusted explicitly. The promises that it would never happen again. The belief that this "wonderful person" just "made a mistake" and I certainly wouldn't want to "ruin her life". The immense, indescribable self-hatred that sank into my soul. The giving up on my own life that happened right at that moment. In my mind, there was no point to trying to fix anything because my life, to my fourteen year old mind, was now over.

Over the next several years I shut down inside. I was numb from just about any and all emotions...good and bad. On the outside, I was happy, confident and secure. It was all an act. When left alone, I resorted to stuffing my face with food, or distracting myself with any number of things to keep from having to think about what a loathsome person I felt I had become. The only thing that stopped me from killing myself was the belief that this life is not the end, and the only thing I feared more than ending my own life, was the idea that the hell I was living in would never end. 

So I worked to break free. I tried to keep talking to this person about the religious beliefs she claimed to believe, and which I most certainly believed, and that those were the values I wanted to live by. Each time the subject came up, she became more manipulative than I know how to put into words. I felt that I was in a pit I could not get out of. That discussing the subject would make me lose a friendship I was emotionally reliant on. That talking to my mom, my bishop, or anyone else for that matter would literally ruin my life, and hers. 

But I wanted it to stop. The older I got, the more I brought it up. The more I brought it up, the more strained things got between us. Finally, I knew I could not live this way anymore. I decided that I would rather die than live one more day suffocating from shame. I called my bishop and told him I needed to talk. 

My bishop was a gem. Looking back at the situation as an adult, I know that he knew who the perpetrator was. He flat-out asked me if it was her. But I refused at the time to tell him. I was still so manipulated by her that I was determined to protect her and was concerned only with freeing myself of the pain and guilt for whatever my portion of the sin was. I knew I would never allow it to happen again. And in my naiveté, my abuser had convinced me that that was the very thing that she wanted as well. I soon learned that that was a lie. It was a lie told to keep me quiet. To keep me complicit. 

This teacher, now family friend, went on to say that she also was repentant, all the while trying to continue the abuse, but I would have none of it. The harder she pushed, the harder I held my line and the more it became obvious that this person did not really love me as a person, as I had believed in my childish mind. 

The manipulation tactics intensified to a point of excruciating torture, but by this time, I was 18 and I knew what I wanted: a normal life. To marry my boyfriend. To live according of the gospel values I believed in. To serve the Lord. To have a family. And she was not ever a part of that picture. I began to see her for the messed up person that she was. I recognized her manipulations. I was completely and totally willing to give up any relationship with her to be true to myself and my own values. And because she could not force me to do her will any longer, that is exactly what happened.

After FOUR YEARS I was finally FREE!!!!!

Or so I thought. I was free of her, but not free of the self-hatred I had cultivated all those years. Not free of the fear that everyone would find out what a horrible human being I was. Not free from the panic attacks that struck at the thought of anyone discovering that dark corner of my life. Not free from the addictions that kept my panic at bay. 

The freedom from those things has been much, much slower in coming. One confession, one therapy session, one prayer at a time. Each year a smidgeon closer to releasing the self-loathing I had become accustomed to. It took three years of marriage before I could even dare to tell my wonderful husband. Convinced I would be divorced the next day, I thought that first confession would destroy me. But it didn't. Instead, it opened a door to the long road of recovery.

Within a couple of years, I was able to look back on those years and remember my initial feelings that I felt those many years ago and realize how badly I did not want those horrible things to happen. I saw from an adult's view how manipulated I had been, how messed up this person truly was, and that I was not nearly as responsible for past events as I had always believed. 

Soon, I was able to tell my mother and over the next decade I worked to let my family and closest friends know. But it wasn't until 20 years after the abuse ended that I gained enough courage to go to the school district where this teacher still taught and have her fired. And it has now taken twelve additional years to be able to come out in the public and stand up for the serious changes that need to take place in our system to prevent this from happening to other innocent kids, be they little kids or...yes, even teenagers.

But even now, taking a stand brings up intense anxiety. Fear of judgement. Fear of having those I love and respect think less of me. Fear that maybe I will not be able to make a significant difference. I am peeling back one more painful layer of the onion that is my life of recovery. I hope there are not many more layers left. Peeling back layers is exhausting and I'm not sure how much more strength I have in me. 

But I am not alone. I meet new friends every day who completely understand what I have been through. They do not need a description. We look into each others' eyes and we just know. These people are heroes to me. They are courageous. They are strong. They are some of the bravest people I have ever known. I am proud to stand with them. They give me strength to keep going. They give me the ability to handle whatever comes with kindness and courage.

So, to respond to this man's comment, was I responsible for the sexual abuse that occurred all those years ago? I certainly had more knowledge than a young child. But I can testify that, due to the grooming and manipulation, as well as my immaturity and lack of understanding, I was not able to respond stop the abuse...until I developed the added inner strength and experience that comes with age. 

It is up to the adults in any situation to abide by appropriate boundaries of professional behavior. And if they cannot or will not do so, they need to be removed from positions of trust over our children and be held criminally and civilly responsible for the immense emotional and physical trauma that they cause. We owe it to our children, for they are our most sacred trust.

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