I watch a young mother climb into the swimming pool with her 3-year-old daughter. They wrap their arms securely around each other and playfully bob up and down. Not a hint of distrust crosses this child's face; she appears confident of her mother's love and protection.
After a few moments, the mother attempts to place the child into an inflatable toy ring. Protesting, the little girl begins to kick her feet and cling desperately to her mother's neck. The mother tries to assure her daughter that she will not be left adrift, but her efforts fail.
Acknowledging the fear, the mother tosses the ring onto the deck and gently kisses her daughter's cheek. A smile of success and relief appears on the child's face.
The memory surfaces of myself as a small child: My arms are wrapped around my father's neck while swimming in a lake. I see the same joy on my face as I just saw a moment ago on the child's, until my father reaches his hand under my swimsuit to fondle me. My look of joy suddenly turns to one of shame and fear.
Today, I am left with an image of horror and betrayal.
I acknowledge another equally painful memory, of my mother, who did not protect me from my father. I look at the little girl in the pool and wish that I could have felt the same bond of trust with my mother that she feels with hers. Tears form in my eyes, and I dive into the water so they will go unnoticed.
Vulnerability is difficult to expose to others, but now I can allow myself the relief of crying. For most of my life, the pain was buried under the defenses that I had developed to emotionally survive the incest. ::
My father, a former police officer, began to sexually abuse me at the age of 3 and continued until just prior to my 16th birthday. His assaults ranged from manual stimulation to oral, anal and vaginal penetration. As a child, I did not understand what my father was doing. It seemed that he was providing me with the love and affection that a child desperately needs from a parent. Only after he began to mention the word "secret" did I question if what we were doing was right.
My father never physically forced me to participate sexually with him until my mid-teens. His force was emotional. He was my father, and I trusted him.
Between the ages of 13 and 15, I informed four people of the incest: my mother, a physician, a schoolteacher and my best friend. None of them believed me. Yet my behavior at the time indicated that there was, in fact, something seriously wrong in my home environment.
I was desperately crying for help -- through bedwetting, truancy, poor academic performance, attention-seeking behavior, self-destructiveness, hypochondria, chronic depression, fatigue and eventually drug and alcohol abuse and promiscuity.
Physical indications of sexual abuse were also present, such as chronic upper respiratory, kidney and bladder infections, as well as gynecological problems and rectal bleeding. My entire physical and emotional being screamed for someone to recognize that something was deeply hurting me.
At 16, no longer willing or able to endure any further abuse, I ran away from home. A week later, my father found and brought me home, only to beat me and throw me physically out onto the sidewalk. My mother's immediate concern, I felt, was that the neighbors might see what was happening. I walked away knowing that I would never return home, even if it meant ending my own life.Putting aside my fear that again I would not be believed, I sought the help of a social worker at the county mental health center. Finally, someone knew that I was telling the truth. She looked at the bruises on my face and said that it was her responsibility to report child abuse to the Department of Social Services. She asked me if I would talk to a case worker. I said yes; she dialed the telephone.
As she talked to the case worker, my heart raced. I was terrified of what would happen next. Would my father go to jail? Would I be sent to a foster home?
That telephone call led to my father's indictment and a trial. Although I was relieved to be out of my parents' home, the thought of testifying against my father in court was horrifying. I was breaking the silence that he demanded I keep -- I was betraying him. I felt ashamed, as if I were to blame for the abuse and should have been able to stop him.
As I testified, I could see the hate in his eyes. My mother sat next to him; I had been abandoned. Her support of my father strengthened my belief that I was a very bad person.
At the end of the court proceedings, my father was convicted of criminal sexual conduct in the fourth degree. His sentence was a two-year probation, with an order for psychiatric treatment and a $750 fine.
My sentence was the emotional aftermath of the abuse.
Ten years have passed since the trial, and at age 26 I look back on the painful process of recovering. Healing the wounds of my childhood has required more than the passage of time.
In fact, most of this time was spent in a state of emotional denial. On an intellectual level, I knew that I had been a victim of incest, along with physical and emotional abuse. But on an emotional level, I felt numb. When talking about my experiences, it was as though I were speaking about someone totally separate from myself.
I lived from crisis to crisis, was unable to maintain a healthy intimate relationship and continued to abuse alcohol. I was financially irresponsible, chronically depressed, a compulsive overeater and lived in a fantasy world. Yet at times my behavior was the opposite: super-responsible, perfectionist, mature, overachieving and ambitious -- to the point of near exhaustion.
Behavior that I had developed as a child to protect myself from my father was also still present. I would sometimes awaken in the night, screaming for my father to leave me alone. Locking bathroom and bedroom doors, out of fear that someone would attempt to enter and violate me, was common.
The greatest effect of the abuse was the profound sense of guilt and shame that plagued me on a daily basis. I hated myself. No matter how hard I tried to feel good about myself, feelings of shame and worthlessness would surface. I continuously sought the approval of others. Surely someone would think that I was a good person if only I tried hard enough to please them. I would do almost anything for a friend or my employer to gain approval, even if that meant neglecting or overextending myself.
At times, my guilt would overwhelm me to the extent of becoming suicidal. I wanted to end the pain, not my life, but the two were deeply enmeshed. I desperately wanted someone to rescue me from my pain. Turning others into parental figures and expecting to be taken care of was a way of survival. I didn't have to face my losses if I could maintain the fantasy that someday I would have the kind of parents that I needed.
Eventually, I recognized my need to return to professional counseling. I had been in psychotherapy during the court proceedings, and again five years later.
This time, along with therapy, I sought the help of an incest survivors' support group. Being in the presence of others with similar experiences helped me feel that I was not alone in my quest for recovery. Hearing other victims talk about their sorrow, fear, rage and confusion allowed me to share my own feelings with them. We supported each other with acceptance and understanding, affirming that it was safe to grieve. Together, we acknowledged our need to learn ways of parenting ourselves. The skills that our parents should have taught us as children were absent. Essentially, we were growing up all over again.
In therapy, my social worker helped me become familiar with the little girl that I still carried with me -- the little girl who was hurt by her parents and needed me as the adult to love and accept her. First, we looked at how I treated the part of myself that was still a little girl. When she would cry for help, I would usually stifle her as much as my parents had. I learned that my self-abuse was directed at my little girl; I didn't want to acknowledge her existence. I was certain she was demanding, rebellious and a rotten little kid. After all, wasn't this the message that my parents had given me?
To help me get to know my little girl, I gave her a name that felt affectionate. "Punky" was a nickname that an aunt called me, so this was my choice. In therapy, I worked on teaching Punky to trust that I would not try to quiet her if she wanted to share her pain with me or my social worker. Learning to listen to her gave me tremendous insight into my own needs, feelings and behavior. Eventually, Punky learned that it was safe to trust -- not only me, but also others.
Trust is the foundation of a child's life; my father exploited that trust through incest. Without the ability to trust, it is impossible to develop loving relationships.Peeling back the layers of defenses to expose the core of my pain was frightening. Only by approaching and then retreating from my feelings could I allow myself to actively grieve. Trusting in my ability to stop when the pain became overwhelming was essential in allowing the grief to surface.
Losing control over my grief was a constant concern. I soon learned, however, that I had the inner strength to control my response to my own emotions, if only I would choose to exercise it.
For the first time, my tears began to flow. I wasn't sure if they would ever stop. My crying lasted, off and on, for several months. Over and over, I needed to recount memories of the abuse in order to accept and let them go. For all of my life, the memories controlled and haunted me. Now, I had control over them.
Underneath the pain was rage toward my parents for what they had done. I was afraid of this rage because, as a child, my parents' anger often resulted in violence. The rage that was too threatening to express toward my parents out of fear of violence and rejection became internalized and directed toward myself.
My suppressed anger was the source of my shame, guilt and self-destructive behavior. I would overreact to criticism, create conflicts with co-workers, complain constantly and would allow others to take advantage of me.
Through therapy, my anger became directed toward my parents, where it belonged. With the support of a friend, I called them on the telephone and screamed about how deeply they had hurt me. I also wrote letters to them in my angriest times. I mailed only one of the letters, but writing helped me to externalize my feelings and place them where they were manageable.
The relief I felt after slowly letting go of the pain and anger was great. Much energy had been consumed in keeping it submerged. Now, I could use this energy for taking better care of myself.
In most cases of abuse, there are two people who are abused -- the child who is now being abused and the parent who was abused as a child. I found no evidence of sexual abuse in either of my parents' backgrounds. But they appear to have been emotionally abused as children. My mother may have been physically abused, and my father's father, who was an alcoholic, apparently was physically abusive. Learning about my parents' childhood was helpful in eventually forgiving them. They clearly were victims of their own childhoods. This does not excuse them, because ultimately we are all responsible for our own behavior. But now I realize that they did not intentionally set out to hurt or destroy me; they were very sick people in need of healing.
Families can be successful in recovering from incest through family therapy. Unfortunately, my family was not. As painful as letting go was, I had to break the ties and move toward building a life without them.
Now that I am well into recovery, issues remain but my past no longer haunts me. The flashbacks, such as the one triggered by the child in the swimming pool, still occur, but they no longer paralyze me. The incest is not my identity; it was my experience. Fortunately, I let that experience lead me to strength, knowledge and healing.
Enjoying the closeness in genuinely loving and nurturing friendships has been my reward in recovery. I am able to give freely of myself, without the fears I had in the past of being victimized or abandoned. I still have fears about closeness, particularly with men, but they no longer interfere with my ability to risk.
Most important, I am celebrating a new love of myself. I don't always like my behavior, but I am learning to accept my weaknesses and not expect perfection. My child within, Punky, still grieves, but we are no longer separate. I love Punky and value her softness and sensitivity, no longer believing that she is a "rotten little kid."