Trigger warning: I’m about to discuss abuse and trauma. Sexual and emotional abuse. The trauma that follows.
When I wrote out the story of my sexual abuse at the hands of a stranger and the emotional abuse, over many years, committed by my father, and then clicked a button that says “Publish,” I did what my therapist calls, “Speaking Truth to Power.” I put my truth into the world, in a space that is mine, and no one can take that away. At first, I felt adrenaline at this power, during the battle that I could fight, here, on social media, in conversation. During this battle, many people like me fought alongside one another for public opinion to believe that listening to the survivors of abuse is more important than being “fair” or hearing “both sides.” I fought for the right of every person with a story of pain, suffering, abuse, to be heard. Then, I took myself out of the fight; I was uninterested in the “yes he did it/no he didn’t” arguments. Listening and believing have become tied up together, in our culture, as though hearing a story and acknowledging the pain that clearly exists in the bearer of that story, has anything to do with a decision about anyone’s guilt or innocence. It was important for me to fight for the power of simply listening, and acknowledging the feelings that exist, outside the details of what and when.
When the adrenaline faded, fear took its place. This is why we do not tell our stories. They may damage the reputations of our abusers, or cast a shadow of some kind, but they rain fire down on us. We have to face the anger of the people who do not want to believe that the person they love could have done such a thing. We have to hear, implied or spoken aloud, “I don’t believe you.” In telling our stories of how those with power used their strength against us, we find ourselves once again in a position of weakness.
I do feel powerful in having the space to say that my father was emotionally abusive when he told me that he was my greatest teacher and mentor, that no one would ever love me the way that he did, and telling me that if I really loved him, I would do and believe what he said, even if I disagreed. Growing up, I lived in a world where “we” had to protect ourselves from “them,” because they were jealous of how special we were. As it turned out, we were a pretty typical example of emotional abuse; only the details are unique, because the pattern fits neatly into a clinical definition.
So, where does the fear come from? It comes from the very nature of abuse–if we were not afraid of our abusers, we would simply walk away. We would “just leave” or “say no” or “scream” or “tell someone.” But my fear and grief run deeper than those stereotypical examples. My father is abusive. He refuses to be pleased by my behavior, no matter how I twist and turn into whatever shape he says he wants, this time. He says that he loves me, but he wonders why it is that I keep hurting him. He says that I am dangerous, and that I have caused breakdowns in his mental health, halts to his progress. It’s not only a fear that I will lose my father, or his love; I feel afraid that the loss is my fault. I could not do what he asked, there is something wrong with me, and my love is not great enough. I am not good enough. I am unsafe, and he must protect himself from me.
I lie awake, picturing the disappointment on my father’s face, and wonder if the same flaws that he sees will drive others away. Now that I have said the forbidden words, and laid out all the pain in our relationship for the public to see, a doubting voice returns. What if he is right? What if it always happened because of who I am? What if I lose everyone I love, when they see the monster in me that frightened my own father to do and say these awful things?
No monster lies within me, of course, but facing that truth means that I have lost my dad. I grieve for a father. I rage at the way he manipulated me, even when I was very young. My heart breaks, knowing that he believed he really was protecting himself, and at times, me, from dangers only he could see. I feel all of it at once–love, grief, rage, sadness, nostalgia–when I look at my child and see that I have broken the abusive cycle.
Tonight, I read my seventeen-month-old son a story called “I Love You More,” about a mother and son who love each other more than anything in the whole wide world; I then burst into tears and sobbed into my lap. I find myself crying in short bursts, lately, to release all the feelings that well up in me, as I continue to grieve. My little boy looked back and forth from his father to me, clearly concerned. His dad said, “It’s ok, buddy,” and ruffled his hair. Then, I cried tears of joy, because I married a man who sits with me, and shows our son that it’s really is ok when big feelings come, no further explanation required. My husband just listens, and I feel heard. I do the same for him. Our son will learn how to listen with deep respect, too, by watching his parents.
When I speak truth to power, I show myself, my family, and anyone else who might be watching that telling my story matters. Even if nothing can make it easier to face our fears, we fighting so that more of us can speak truth to power and demand a respectful audience.