December 2016: Confession
“As the legend goes, when the Phoenix resurrects from the flames, she is even more beautiful than before.”
~ Danielle Laporte
I am going to go in a totally different direction with this blog than the usual holiday cheer. This is pretty heavy stuff; but I think I’m finally ready to ‘go there.’ November was a pivotal month for me. I encountered parts of my story that I had long buried, but evidently had not laid to rest. So here goes…
I was the victim of sexual assault. Of course, back then, it wasn’t known as such. “Date rape” was not part of our cultural vocabulary—nor was the concept of two consenting adults—neither was the idea that sexual assault and/or molestation is not limited to forced vaginal penetration. There was a strange connotation (at least to my limited understanding at the time) that sexual assault was attempted rape and sexual molestation was rape. Now we understand sexual assault in much broader terms. It was also an understanding at the time that what happened in a relationship did not constitute assault or molestation.
One of the fallouts (which can be seen as either good or bad) of the American election is the exposure of assault in our Western culture in its many forms (physical, sexual, racial, economical, etc.). Other high profile sexual abuse cases in Canada and the States have also brought this issue to the forefront. But I must stay on task and side step the rabbit trail of social commentary.
My “oh wow” moment last month was realizing that I was sexually assaulted by my first serious boyfriend. Let me clarify. He did not sexually “molest” me (aka rape). There was no vaginal penetration. But he did push me to be sexually expressive in ways I was not comfortable. My “no” was not respected. My discussions with him on the topic were ignored. I felt powerless, helpless, and ashamed.
There are many contributing factors to the sexual assault chapter of my story. The two key ones are combined: being raised in a patriarchal society (Mennonite background for those familiar with religious sects) and an abusive home. It was ingrained in my brain long before I ‘came of age’ that my “no” had no power and my body had no boundaries. It was eye opening to me to learn years later that skin is a boundary. As is common with abuse survivors, touch is confusing to me—having grown up with very mixed messages coupled with the basic core needs for attention and affection.
I also learned from an early age that men were superior and women inferior. Women were put on this earth to serve men. If women were good wives, they would be taken care of by their men—given the religious standards or “blessings for obedience.” If I was “good,” God would take care of me. Well, God has taken care of me and been with me to hell and back a few times. However, it had nothing to do with being good or perfect or holy. It had everything to do with whom I now understand God to be: Unconditional Love. Not something easily grasped by a victim of abuse. It’s been a long healing journey for God and me to get on good terms with each other. Feeling safe and secure—and loved. Powerful stuff. I sure didn’t learn those things from my parents, other family members, friends, church, or social connections.
As a result, when someone became “amorous” with me, I was very uncomfortable due to my upbringing as well as my comfort zone. I hoped he would understand where I was coming from and back off. Not what happened. I felt guilt and shame—for breaking the taboos I had been taught, for not being able to keep the men in my life happy, for not knowing what was wrong with me. Why wasn’t life working out the way it was “supposed” to? Where was I failing? Why could no one help me navigate this unknown relationship terrain?
I have worked through the guilt and shame over the years. Finally comprehending that the guilt and shame are not mine. Placing responsibility back on the abuser. Setting myself free from that abuse dynamic and the victim mentality. Hence, I hadn’t thought about it in quite some time. So imagine my surprise when I had the realization, just weeks ago, that I was ‘by definition’ sexually assaulted. The label fit. What I had subconsciously suspected was confirmed after all this time (over 25 years ago). And it was oddly liberating. I think there is also a sense of belonging—to a specific group of trauma survivors. It now makes sense why I can relate to many women in the counselling room even if the details of our stories differ.
In a nutshell, my first sexual experiences were not between two consenting adults (we were barely adults by the Canadian legal designation), and I remember specifically saying “no” and having those discussions of what I felt was inappropriate behaviour towards me. Sex is about more than intercourse. We learn many messages as we develop into adults about what it means to be a sexual being—a side trail that may be explored in a future blog.
As I write this in preparation for December’s blog, I am reflecting upon recent events of the past couple days. I had a ‘letting go ceremony,’ attended by my sister, of burning the photographs of my abuser. Someone once unwisely told me not to destroy photos of past boyfriends for they are part of our story and shape who we become. Conversely, those photos were not of a boyfriend but of an abuser. It is absurd to keep photos of an abuser! Especially one who is not connected to me in any other way.
I was surprised by the depth of emotion elicited by the action of burning those photos (and there weren’t many as this happened pre-digital age). It was closing a chapter for me. He has been written out of the story. All that was left were the ashes of pain at the bottom of the metal receptacle. Ashes that were dispersed the next day in a carefully chosen spot, also witnessed by my sister. I released my pain with those ashes which unexpectedly opened another avenue of contemplation: forgiveness. That is a trail to travel down in a separate blog entry—maybe the start of the New Year. I have much more contemplation to do on the subject!
Reflecting on the release of pain, I struggle to find a way to end this blog. It is tempting to return to social commentary. However, that is not the purpose of this confession. The purpose is to step from the shadows—knowing that my story continues as does my healing journey. Chapters close. Characters come and go. The plot constantly changes. I am no longer a victim. I am the protagonist of my story.