Under my skin

I was recently interviewed for a book, Please Tell Someone. The book contains a collection of stories, interviews, poems, blog posts, letters, and artwork from people who have experienced sexual or indecent assault. People like you and me. Here’s my interview. Some parts may be triggering (if you don’t want that, just skip the first question and you should be fine).

What experience have you had with sexual or indecent assault?

When I was twelve, my parents announced their divorce. Although people said that we were doing great, as a family, we were really not. It seems impossible to describe all the things that were going on during that time. I guess that’s also how it felt back then. It was hugely overwhelming, way too much for a twelve-year-old.

Very briefly, my father had an affair with a married woman, and her husband-at-the-time (let’s call him V) got very upset. V was upset with my father, I was upset with my father, and we became friends. So many things were going on, I was only twelve, my family was falling apart; I really needed a friend. One day, V said he would drive me home after my dance class. He took me to his place and abused me. He wasn’t violent, and I didn’t fight. I was just sitting there on his leather couch. I was paralysed, terrified and in shock. A little later, I felt disgusted and sick.

On my way home, I told myself that this was a clear case of friendship-turning-into-relationship, and that I should be proud. I started visiting him. He was the strongest man I had ever seen. He could do push-ups with one arm on his back. V had not been violent that first time, but at other times he would very easily lose his temper. In our ‘relationship’ of eight months, he touched me, hit me, made me perform oral sexual acts on him, and raped me. At times nicely (I know this sounds strange), at times violently. People have said to me that V was abusing me as a way to hurt my father, but I don’t want to believe that. I refuse to believe I was no more than a punching ball.

How did it make you feel about yourself?

The abuse itself made me feel disgusting, humiliated, scared, and in a strange way entirely dependent on V. I remember that I didn’t mind his violence so much; I remember pain, but the pain didn’t upset me. I felt a constant longing for him to be nice to me, to like me, be friends with me, and often I felt I failed in that. I didn’t realise the seriousness of the situation. I don’t remember much about that time other than when I was with him.

After the abuse had ended, I felt lost, all alone. V had had enough of me and dumped me. Surely I had done something wrong to piss him off. I was overwhelmed as I started to realise what had happened (or, in my view, what I had allowed to happen). I stopped speaking, literally went about my life in silent mode. I felt like my head was exploding; opening my mouth would cause everything to spill out.

Looking back now, I think that by not speaking I regained control (although I didn’t feel that way, I felt like I had no control over my voice and I would never be able to speak again). I must have looked like a zombie. Teachers would talk to me and I would just stare back at them. Same with my friends (who soon gave up on me, and I don’t blame them). And all the time I was desperately wishing: “please ask me what happened and I’ll tell you everything”. But when people did ask, I simply didn’t manage to say anything at all. My silent phase lasted half a year, if I remember correctly.

After the acute phase and the silent phase, there was quite a long good phase. I finished high school, moved away from my home town, went to uni, travelled a lot. I even had boyfriends. I was pretty normal and fine. I was still struggling to allow people to come close to me, and I often felt lonely. But don’t we all?

My feelings about the abuse now, age 29, are very physical. I would say almost entirely physical. I hurt. I feel damaged. I feel like a graveyard.

Did you tell anyone?

I didn’t. At first I didn’t realise what I had gotten myself into. When I did realise, I felt too humiliated and ashamed of myself to tell anyone. But more importantly, I didn’t want to hurt V. I wanted V to like me. The longer I didn’t speak, the more I convinced myself that it was now too late and no‐one would believe me anymore. There was the delicate issue of V’s marriage with my father’s new girlfriend, thus V was always either ridiculed or burked in our house. My parents were depressed. I was doing well in school so there was no need. My parents had enough on their mind already. There was always a reason to not tell.

I finally started talking about what happened when I started experiencing intrusive flashbacks. These scared the crap out of me, and I realised I needed help to solve this. I was 23 then.

Did you take any action?

Yes. Eventually I wanted to make a well-informed decision about whether or not to report the abuse to the police. In my country, you can make an appointment with the police to talk about your options without actually reporting the incident. I did this because I wanted to be informed about the options, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t regret not taking action.

I went to that appointment and told my story (short version) to two female police officers. They were very nice to me. They gave me a lot of information about reporting vs. not reporting the abuse, and told me what the procedure would be like. I could think about it for as long as I wanted, but they did call me back a few weeks later to see how I was doing. I thought about it almost all the time during these weeks. Eventually I decided not to report the abuse. I was too scared of V, still now I am scared of him. It doesn’t feel good to make this decision based on fear, I’m not proud of it, but it’s the truth. Maybe one day I’ll face my fears, but not that day, and not today.

The police however started their own investigation based on my story, and they found and questioned V. I was so scared during the months of the police investigation (they kept me informed). Any moment they could be talking to him and telling him what I had told them, and he would come find me. Even if he wouldn’t hurt me, he would be so angry and disappointed.

Afterwards, the police officers told me that he had denied everything. It feels like I let him down in such as horrible way, I’ve betrayed him so badly. He probably hates me, and I find it difficult to live with that. The police investigation was halted. Obviously, after all these years, there is no evidence either way. He was never formally charged with anything.

Do you wish you’d done anything differently?

I wish I had had the courage to report the abuse.

Have you managed to move past the experience?

No I haven’t. It’s always there. It’s under my skin. My skin is always painful, like the layer just underneath the skin’s surface is on fire. I sometimes have to skip work because of the pain, when I can’t stand wearing anything other than pyjamas. I think about/write about the abuse a lot. I feel damaged beyond repair. I feel like on the inside I’m a graveyard. I don’t think this will ever heal.

I’ve had many sessions with many psychotherapists. I’m grateful for their help in dealing with my symptoms of PTSD. I’ve definitely made progress on that front. For one, I’ve told my parents and close friends about what had happened to me, which was a huge win. Only after that did I finally feel that, maybe, I was not as alone as I had always thought. Second, my traumatic memories are less overwhelming now; I feel more in control. They don’t keep me from doing the things I like anymore. They do still keep me from sleeping and eating though, so there is room for improvement.

I’ve never found anyone who could help me with my physical pain in my skin. I’ve never even met anyone who recognised it, or any therapist who said: “I’ve heard this before”. I’m convinced it’s psychosomatic (as opposed to a dermatological condition): it’s clearly linked to the abuse in terms of where I hurt most, it’s worse when I pay attention to it, it’s worse when I’m stressed or scared, it’s often a precursor of overwhelming memories, and my skin looks fine from the outside.

What would you like other girls and women to learn from your experience?

I don’t know. We all have our own path. I want you to be hopeful that things may get better for you.

What would you now advise your younger self?

It’s not an advice, but this is what I would wish for my younger self: My Soft White Blanket

I’m not sure what to advise my younger self. I was pretty stuck in an adult conflict, an unfair situation, I don’t think there was much I could have done. Instead of advice, I would nurture me, hold me, soothe me, tell me that everything will be fine.

How could people support you best?

I’ve often thought about what my twelve-year old self would have needed to make things better. I was desperate for someone to ask me what was going on, but when people did ask I could not respond. Perhaps if they had given me more time I would have talked, but honestly, I doubt it. I really don’t know what would have been helpful for me at that time.

Now, I do need to talk or write and be acknowledged. I’m not stupid and have no memory problems, but I need you to tell me over and over and over again that 1) what happened was not my fault and 2) my body is now just like any other body in the world.

This is something I’m not proud of. I wish I would not need this confirmation all the time. I KNOW these things in my head, but again and again and again my body tells me otherwise. As long as I can’t feel that safety and compassion inside myself, in my own skin, I need others to comfort me.

What do you want people to know about sexual and indecent assault?

I don’t really want people to think about sexual abuse too much. It can be heavy and toxic. I don’t want to be heavy and toxic, I just want to be like everyone else.

Allow me a few minutes to read your comment before it appears below

4 thoughts on “Under my skin

  1. Hi Ana,

    I hope I don’t seem like too much of a creepy fan for constantly commenting on your posts… I find your blog truly inspiring.

    I also have an interest in sexual abuse, for two reasons. One is that it is now a very well recognized trauma (by the psychological profession), something that more and more victims are able to share and get empowered in the process. There is a clear idea, on the side of psychology, of what you might be going through.
    This stands in contrast to the trauma of stillbirth, which is not very widely known or researched even though it is fairly common. Like sexual abuse, it is also predominantly a woman’s trauma, and it has also been hushed up for a very long time. And it the grief is just *so* intensely physical!

    My other reason is that my mother is a psychotherapist who worked for many years with adults who used to be victims of incest. I grew up with the topic, with the literature, with the knowledge that this happens and what it does to people. My mother now picked it up a notch and started working in a prison, with the abusers.

    I still follow her stories with fascination. She thinks that it is particularly challenging (but also particularly effective when it works) to get the molester to realize/admit that the relationship was harmful to the child. So that is what she works on, trying to get the prisoners to put themselves in the shoes of their victim, across many situations.

    A theme that strikes me in your writing is your ambivalence towards the experience of abuse. I just wanted to tell you that this is normal. These are almost never black and white situations, some nasty brute who comes out of the darkness and violently rapes you. Incest (and a family friend qualifies as incest) is almost always about building a special bond, about sharing something special. And it is usually with a child who feels isolated.

    The child is then left torn with guilt because they enjoy some aspects of the relationship. They enjoy being special, different, and sometimes their bodies react with arousal to sexual activities too. (This is also normal! Bodies are wired this way. If it happened to you, it doesn’t mean you wanted it, caused it, should have experienced it. This never should have happened to you. He never should have done this to you. Nobody should have ever done this to you. But also: your body didn’t betray you. It’s simply a body. This still should not have happened to you.)

    Even with that special feeling of sharing a bond, an adult having sex with a child is deeply harmful, deeply humiliating, alienating, unforgivable. But it’s all right (i.e. completely normal) to feel ambivalent about it, because it’s never as clear-cut as people make it to be. But still: what he did to you is unforgivable. This was never your fault.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Ana,

      Don’t worry, I don’t think you’re a creep! 🙂 I’m grateful for each of your comments, I really am. I’ve been thinking a bit about the work of your mother, how she tries to get prisoners to realise that what they did was wrong. I wonder how many of them are truly unaware of the damage they do. I sometimes think that I can choose to believe whatever works best for me (i.e. whether V knew it was wrong, whether he remembers, whether he feels regret, etc.). But at other times I just keep thinking and thinking and thinking about it. Anyway. Thanks again, I really appreciate your kind words. Take care (and feel free to keep on commenting!), Ana

      Like

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