Best friends can teach you how to do a smokey eye, introduce you to the joys of fizzy water, and play Toto’s greatest hits to calm you when you freak out about your future. My best friend has done all those things, but the best thing she ever did for me was to believe in me when I told her I thought I may have been abused by my father.
I always knew my father was a bad guy — a narcissist that my mother left when I was a baby — but the court system and social norms dictated that I keep him in my life and try my best to love him. And so I spent the first 22 years of my life struggling to replace the voice screaming inside of me that desperately wanted to recoil from his touch with a message that I must, deep down, actually love this person because he is my dad.
At age 20, I began having dreams that my father was raping me. The nightmares grew to such a frequency that they began to haunt my waking hours. I could no longer have sex, or even masturbate, without seeing his face. My subconscious mind was screaming at me that something was horribly wrong, but I continued to see my dad.
I could no longer deny that something was broken. And I decided that that something was, in fact, me. I told myself that I was perverted for having daily visions of having sex with my father. It was the only explanation I could think of for what was happening to my mind, since I had no memory of him ever sexually violating me. I was horrified that my sick little brain could think this shit up.
It took me two years of suffering my nightmares in silence to finally tell my best friend, Kate, about them. She was the first person I told who wasn’t my therapist, and while therapy was essential to my healing process, telling a therapist that you think you are crazy is different than telling a friend that you think you are crazy.
When I told Kate about my nightmares, I thought I was revealing to her that I had a sick, pervy brain. Since I had no actual memory of my dad sexually abusing me, I thought the dreams must be my own fault. I was so afraid of what was happening to me and I wanted her to help me to stop what I saw as a downward spiral towards fully losing my mind. I think I was also was holding on to a glimmer of hope that maybe she could maybe tell me this wasn’t all my fault.
And so I told Kate about my nightmares. When I finally opened my eyes to look up at her after getting all the words out I expected her to be looking at me like I was, at minimum, a creepy chick, at maximum, a monster.
But her eyes and her words said this: She believed me. She believed that what I was enduring was awful. She believed that it wasn’t my fault. And then she made a promise to me — the only promise she’s ever made to me in our ten years of friendship. She promised me it would, someday, feel less bad, and that until that day comes she would be alongside me every step of the way.
She promised me it would, someday, feel less bad, and that until that day comes she would be alongside me every step of the way.
And for five years, that’s exactly what she did.
Kate and I had met six years earlier, on the day we moved into our freshman year dorm. Her ringtone was Kelis’ “Bossy” and I immediately wanted her to think I was cool. We both had family members we were close to who were fighting for their lives against cancer. We learned how to worry about standard college stuff, like term papers and buying booze with fake IDs, and not-so-standard stuff, like chemo treatments and doomed prognoses from oncologists.
It’s at this point that I should tell you that Kate has worked in the intimate partner violence space for 10 years, so she is literally a trained professional in how to support survivors. She was able to teach me so many things that radically changed my healing experience.
She taught me that many survivors of child sexual abuse have no memory of the abuse. Brains can suppress trauma, especially if it occurs in childhood. It’s not uncommon to have no memory of traumatic events and only discover through adulthood indications — nightmares, triggers, problems with sex, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — that you have experienced trauma. She helped me learn that just because I have no memory of the sex abuse doesn’t mean it didn’t happen to me, and that my diagnosis of PTSD and night terrors were enough reason for me to believe the abuse really did happen to me.
Kate also made me feel normal. Child sex abuse is so common (1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys experience it) but yet so silenced. What I craved the most was knowing that what I was feeling wasn’t crazy, and that this is just what healing from trauma looks like.
She showed me that it was normal to doubt myself, to internalize blame when living in a society that has endless messages of blaming a victim for abuse. It was normal to feel like I needed to protect my abuser, as my father had conditioned me from birth to prioritize his needs over my own. It was normal for me to want, but feel like I couldn’t, claim the word “survivor” because I feared it was reserved for people who actually remember their trauma. And most of all, it was normal to some days not even be able to believe that this really happened to me.
And this was no small task, for her to be a steady reminder of all these truths, because I was living in a world that surrounded me with messages that I should feel otherwise. For example, I was dating a guy that I’ll call Isaac. When we were having sex, my PTSD was triggered and I saw the face of my father instead of Isaac, and I had to stop. The next day, when I tried to explain to Isaac about my nightmares and how I may have survived abuse, he told me if I can’t remember it then I’m just looking for excuses to explain my “issues.” I needed Kate to tell me that in fact this guy was just a horrible dude and that I am worthy of a real love and that someday I will be able to feel safe with a guy.
Or when a lot of my family questioned how I knew I was sexually abused if I had no memory of it, which made me question my own truths and wonder all over again if I was sick and made this whole thing up. Kate would sit on the phone with me for hours while I ugly cried and blew my nose right into the speaker, reminding me that this does, in fact, suck, but that I am not alone in this suckiness.
And she continued to reiterate the promise she made to me on that day that I revealed my secrets to her: that it would some day it would feel less horrible, and that someday I will feel confident about who I am and my survivorship.
Healing from trauma is an ongoing process, and as much as I wish for a clear end, that’s not how this works. But I was gifted with a moment of clarity when Kate’s promise to me was finally realized. It was a year ago when Kate held my hand as I got my first tattoo, a tattoo that her sister designed for me as way for me to incorporate my survivorship permanently into my body and never let myself hide again.
I had to talk through the pain. And boy, was I chatty. As the needle bore into my side, I told the artist what the tattoo was about. And, for the first time ever, I was finally able to plainly say it: “I am a survivor, my father sexually abused me.” I provided no qualifiers and I didn’t offer my nightmares and PTSD as supporting evidence. I finally said what I knew to be true. As I said the words, I looked over into Kate’s eyes and saw that they were full of tears.
I think so often of the expression in her eyes as she heard me say those words. Part of me has wanted to ask her what she was thinking in that moment, but I don’t need to ask because deep down I know. She could see for herself, that after all these years of her believing me, that I was now finally able to believe me too."
Alisa Zipursky writes the blog Healing Honestly where she tells stories about being a survivor of child sexual abuse and living with PTSD. It's funnier than you'd think. You can follow her work and get in touch with her at HealingHonestly.com.
Top photo: Etsy/Wedunit Jewels
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