Home is supposed to be your refuge, your safe space, your shield from the dangers of the world. Yet for many of us as sexual abuse survivors, home was the epicenter.
Research from The National Center for Victims of Crime found that 60 percent of children are sexually abused by someone in their social circle which can include a family friend, neighbor, babysitter or other care provider. The Department of Justice’s National Sex Offender Public Website reports that 30% of perpetrators are family members.
It was in my home as a child that I was sexually abused by my half-brother for a period of several years. It’s still difficult to comprehend, family hurting family, but when I share this with other survivors, I hear similar responses: “It was my father,” “It was my brother too,” “It was my cousin,” “It was my uncle.”
My abuser didn’t live with us year-round, but he spent his summers in our home, in my so-called safe space, and he was there for holidays and breaks from school. I didn’t have to look into his face every day, but it was still frequent enough to demolish that feeling of peace and comfort that every child should feel in their home. It was enough that I felt constant anxiety and fear in the days leading up to those visits and shame, guilt and still fear even after he was gone.
As an adult, I attended a family therapy session with my parents. My mother said something that was poetic almost in nature when I heard it. I had never thought about it in the manner that she used the words but it was the perfect description. “It was like torturing her,” she said. “It was torture for her to sleep in a room right next door to the person who was hurting her.” Yes, it was torture. It was physical, mental and emotional torture. She even recalled that there were nights she wanted to look in and check on me as I rested. She found my door locked. We were not that type of family that locked each other out, but at some point, the torture was more than I could take and I began locking my door at night.
No one should ever have to feel unsafe in their own room in their own bed.
I lament as I think of the others who held on to that same fear of the door opening to their room and shattered innocence. It is even worse when it is someone who is supposed to be in a position to take care of you, not hurt you.
Living under the same roof as my abuser wasn’t the only extent of the space we shared. I deal with triggers on a regular basis but the biggest in my life is one specific date on the calendar each and every year. It is supposed to be a day of celebration but, just like the feeling of comfort in my own home, that feeling of joy was robbed from my life as well for quite some time.
That date on the calendar every year that bothers me so much is my birthday. You see, I was born on the same date as the half-brother who molested me. The old joke in the family, of course before the revelations, was that I had been born on his day. I felt like the bandit, the thief who had taken something from him very early on. I will never try to rationalize his train of thought or the reasoning behind the why he did what he did, but I believe in my core that he hated me and part of it had to do with my entering the world on the day that I did. He was 10 years older, but still, like twins, it felt like we would forever be linked by a day in June.
When I was growing up, we did joint birthday parties. We blew out the candles on the cake, together. We posed for pictures and opened gifts, together. We had special family dinners, seated side by side, together. My parents had no idea what he was doing to me during those years. Again, torture seems like a fitting word.
The first birthday I remember feeling depressed was when I turned 17. It was a dismal day, in part because I had to wake up that morning and take the SAT’s. But later, after I had gotten some rest, I wasn’t excited to get my gift from my parents. He was an adult by then, not at our home and so I did not have to endure seeing him on that day, but still, there was a lingering sadness in my heart. I didn’t understand. My best friend and her boyfriend came by the house, ready to wheel me away to some fun that you can only truly have at the age of 17 on the verge of your senior year of high school. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave the house. Instead, I sat at home in a chair in my living room and watched a baseball game. I got lost in the game. It’s funny, it’s almost 20 years since that date and I remember that game more than I remember anything else about my birthday. The Orioles were playing and my sports hero, Cal Ripken Jr., was on television.
There were other birthdays and celebrations. In my early 20’s, I was surrounded by friends and co-workers and I let them distract me.
When I met my now husband, the getaways began. I didn’t spend a single birthday at home or within a 100 mile radius of my parent’s home for five years in a row. I told myself those trips were my way of celebrating my day. It was finally about me. What those trips really were, were distractions and defense mechanisms. They were never small getaways, they were excursions. In many ways I was running away from my problems and my feelings. They were still there however, lurking underneath the surface no matter how I tried to numb them.
The past two years, as someone in recovery and continuing my healing journey, I’ve finally experienced the pain and heartache that had to be suppressed as a child and that I ran from as a young adult. They were not happy birthdays by a long shot. There were tears, some arguments with loved one, plans that exploded into chaos, but all of it was real. I was not running anymore. I faced it, painful as it was.
I grieved for the child that had her space and her day marred by sexual abuse. The muted voice of a child terrified to speak up was replaced by an agonizing scream.
So now, I turn it all over. I give up all that hurt and I’m taking my day back.
How? I have no idea. I have to laugh as I write this. I don’t have a clue what I’m going to do. I have made no special requests. My only plan is to no longer set expectations for the day. I will go through it, every hour, every minute, every second as it comes. I will accept birthday wishes and actually answer the phone when people call to shout “Happy Birthday” at me. I will listen to off-key singing and smile. This is for me and there are people who love me and want to see me happy. I’m finally one of those people too.
We may have been forced to share our spaces with our abusers as children, but as adults, we can reclaim our space. We can find our safe haven. We may have to leave a relationship or break free of toxic family members, but we have a choice now as to who we share our space with.
Survivors be encouraged, take back your space, take back your safety, take back your joy, take back your day, take back your life. It may feel like rebirth, like a brand new birth date for your soul.
–Maya, Founder, 1 in 3 Foundation