Last week I shared my story for the first time so candidly with a group of grade 10 girls. A few days prior to the school visit I had written my most vulnerable blog entry but hadn’t the courage to publish it. I figured, if I was brave enough to share it with the girls and their response was favorable, I would ‘dare greatly’ and put it out there. In my wildest dreams, their reaction to me could never be as astounding as it was. They have been so affirming in their acceptance of me that I found in them the courage I was lacking. So as promised to the girls and to myself, here is my most vulnerable piece to date.
I often wonder if men and boys ever consider the damage their unwanted hands on the unwilling bodies and souls of girls does to us. Would they still abuse, degrade and objectify even if they knew the end result 100% of the time at the very least leads to shame? And at the worse leads to irreparable damage to the girl’s self worth. How she views her body. How it impacts her sexuality and spirituality. Impairs her ability to trust and be intimate and many times threatens her desire to even live?
Shame is a topic I have become somewhat of an expert on during the course of my life. I remember the first time I felt it, how it consumed me, how it made me view myself as unloveable and how it kept me disconnected and silent for years.
When I was 4, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had spread into her lymph nodes and her chance of survival was very slim. The day she left for the hospital I was given two outcomes from both parents. My mother took me aside and told me she was going away to work really hard at getting better so she could return to my little sister and I. My father told me she was going away to die. That she would die because I was bad and that my mother blamed me for making her sick.
My fourth birthday
His words did two things to me that day. They disconnected me from my mother and they kept me silent for 10 years while he tortured me in ways I don’t have the words to tell you.
For so long I believed I was the cause of my mother’s illness. That even though she somehow managed to ‘survive me’, I knew deep down she must have hated me. And as I write this, I am only now realizing the main reason I kept my father’s abuse to myself was because I believed that was the punishment I deserved for nearly killing my mother – with cancer.
Although I will not get into the specifics of what happened to me in that 10 year period, what I will do is specifically tell you what the sexual abuse at the hands of my father and the men he sold me to did to me as a child, a teenager and a woman.
As a child, I walked around in a state of such dissociation, I often wondered what it felt like to be alive. I would watch other kids play while I sat on the sidelines pulling out my eyelashes and have no ability to connect with their joy. Other times, I would somehow manage to play but it was never really me doing it. Even when I laughed, a sound and expression so foreign to me in my early years, I remained so far away that I became the silent observer to the shell of myself that showed up every day in the world to represent the facade.
As a teenager, I got even better at sending the “representative” girl out into the world. My humor became the lie that would hide the truth of my pain. I knew what I was hiding no person would understand, and so for years I stayed silent. Out of fear of the threats I received and most probably because I believed at a deep level I was as bad as I was told. And so I would try to be as good as my damaged soul allowed. But anger consumed me, shame blinded me to my own potential and I hated myself for existing. I hated my mother for hating me, I hated my sister for all the times I protected her and I hated my father for destroying my soul daily before the divorce and then every other weekend there after. But mostly I hated life for not ever giving me a chance to become the person I could have been had it been different for me.
I tried to kill myself at the end of grade 9. I was 15. It was the last time I would ever see my father. I developed an eating disorder not long after that. My life was spiraling out of control, at least the one thing in my control was calories. The strange thing about it was when I wanted to punish myself or reward myself I would do it in the same way – through starving. To this day it is a battle I continue to manage. I ran away 4 months after my suicide attempt and lived in a shelter for a few weeks. I met a man who was 10 years older than me (though I knew to cut the age gap in half when others asked) He turned out to be the pimp who would pick up where my father left off. The common denominator in all of this abuse was me. So naturally the conclusion I drew was unanimously this; my worth as a girl was universally nothing. Some unwritten permissive clause I came with that gave men the go ahead to hurt my body again and again. This became the confirmation in a lifetime of lessons bestowed upon me since I was 4 years old – Girls don’t matter.
As a result of everything I have been through, I have never in my life been able to have a close, intimate relationship with another person where I feel safe enough to be completely in the moment. Even when I work hard at being fully present, my fears eventually surface and old trauma causes me to drift away into the familiar places my mind would take me as a child. Triggers surround me and every person’s expression holds a certain piece of my past.
Men scare the hell out of me and to be honest, I don’t know how to relate to them. I become frightened and angry at unwanted attention and I believe my ability to trust any man has been irreparably damaged. We live in a society where growing up as a girl isn’t safe. And if you’re not safe in your own family, how on earth do you find a way to trust you will be safe in the world? The fact of the matter is, even women who have not experienced abuse and assault still have the fear of vulnerability somewhere on the back of their mind. We all at some point have run through safety plans in any given situation when we are alone with a male and something just doesn’t feel right. When alone at night and walking an empty dim lit street to the car. When we have to leave our friends to make that taxi ride home. When we are out jogging and hear the footsteps of a stranger’s approach.
Now multiply the hyper vigilance for those of us who have been victims of violence perpetrated by men. How much more difficult must it be for the girl who has been raped to have to climb into a cab at 3 in the morning and trust that the male driver will get her home safely? How much faster does our heart beat when we get into an elevator and we are alone with other men? When we have to walk quickly through the car park and only properly breathe when safely in the car? When you personally know the damage a man is capable of committing, I don’t know how you find a way to navigate your way through life, trusting that you will be safe.
But what I do know is this. If I knew then what I know now, the conversation I needed to hear when I was four and thought I deserved it, would have gone like this;
You matter! You are worthy of love and belonging. You are precious and deserving and not once did you ask for any of this. Girls are gifts to be cherished and protected. Valued and respected. You need to know that you weren’t to blame for anything anyone ever did to you. That the burden shame forced upon you was never yours to begin with. Baby, it wasn’t that you were un-loveable. It was that they were incapable of loving. Your father was so blinded by his own hurt, hate and pain that he missed out on the one gift that had the power to save him from himself, had he let you. He didn’t see the way you looked up at him. Or knew of the perfect relationship you both shared when you dreamt. He missed the times you reached out to put your hand in his, looking into his eyes hoping to make that connection. The connection that could have changed everything. He hated himself so much that he couldn’t see the love your eyes held for him – even during the times he hurt you.
Do you know the greatest gift a daughter can give her father is her heart and her trust? And you were able to do that time and again – even when he didn’t deserve it. At some level you knew that your love was exactly what he needed to experience healing and transformation. You gave it freely and despite the pain inflicted upon you, you continued to love him. Do you know how special that makes you? Do you know how much you matter? Do you know that you have never been the names you were called? That not once did you deserve or invite what they chose to do?
I see you in all that you are and love you without conditions. I marvel at who you will come to be and am in awe of the courage and vulnerability co-existing within. You have an untouched dignity despite what was done to you. Your ability to laugh through the pain while the tears fall like rain down your face makes me shake my head in wonder. You will rise above as you have time and again because you have a resilience and a knowing that words fail to express. Thank you so much for keeping hope alive on the darkest of days. For continuing to trust the ground was always below you even when you couldn’t see it. And I have only now realized perhaps the reason the ground was never in your sight was because you continued to look to the sky. Knowing always that one day you would soon be free to soar and reach the infinite heights of your destiny.