It happened “just” twice. But, twice is more than enough to change your life forever. Sexual abuse is often thought of as a long grooming process followed by frequent and ongoing instances of abuse that become more severe over time. However, that is not always the case. Even one incident destroys the victim’s ability to trust, tears a once healthy self-image, and instills fear in all relationships.
I was young and not yet sexually developed; I was only an eleven years-old girl. One Shabbos afternoon as I was sitting on the couch next to my older brother as we were looking at pictures together, he leaned over and sexually abused me. Just like that.
Should I have reacted to the warnings I felt in my bones? How was I to understand what he just did to me? I barely knew anything about my own body; I didn’t know anything about sex and couldn’t possibly comprehend what had just happened – but, I knew I did not like how it felt. I never felt very secure around my brother. He was away a lot for school but when he did come home, something felt off when I was around him. My instincts spoke to me, but I was so young and didn’t know anything about sexual abuse.
What my brother did to me took all of 30 seconds before he leaned back to his side of the couch. In under a minute, I became a victim and was left with a lifelong memory. I remember my reaction when he touched me. I froze. Then my head began to spin. After what felt like only a few minutes but may have been longer, I went to my room. It wasn’t long though before I was sitting right back there on the couch alongside him.
For some reason, I didn’t feel very angry at my brother at the time. For some odd reason, I felt like he was my responsibility on some level. What exactly that was, I did not know. But I know I felt it.
That first experience sent me back 10 years and simultaneously sent me forward 10 years. On the one hand, I grew up on that day. I was no longer a little girl. But I also regressed 10 years in my emotional health.
The second time it happened seemed to reinforce all of the messages from the first time. My ability to trust slipped away even more; my self-image, already torn, became even more damaged and the fear I felt in all of my relationships became even more intense. Luckily, from that day on, I kept my distance from him and he never had the opportunity to touch me again.
What I did not know at the time, was that I was not the only sister my brother molested. About 2 or 3 years after the 2nd incident with me, child services got involved. My brother was taken into custody for molesting all of his sisters which were younger than he was. Some of my sisters were abused a lot worse than I was. It was until my siblings really pushed me that I was ready to talk about what he did to me as well. Although I felt different from what he did to me, I didn’t completely internalize how wrong it was and I felt bad speaking up.
As I am sure you can imagine, when this story came out my parents had a real decision to make. Who would they support? Would they defend their daughters or what they choose their son who molested his innocent and helpless sisters?
Sadly, my parents took my brother’s side. They could not or did not want to believe that the boy they raised could do something so horrible. They also did not want to be in the spotlight of the child services investigation. So, they did whatever they could do to make the investigation disappear.
When the court case began, I, and my other sisters were asked to deny all charges and sign whatever his lawyer put before us. We did not know what to do; we were so torn. We loved our parents, we trusted them and we wanted to believe they knew what was best. Thankfully, some relatives stepped in and supported me and my sisters and the court case moved forward.
The damage that was done didn’t go away though. My family was split in too – and so was my heart. My pain and my experiences were not validated by my parents. The pain I felt was so real and although I doubted the validity every day, I knew that it was there and the two 30 second experiences changed my life forever. I also knew that my sisters’ pain was real and deserved to be validated too. Any trust I still had in my parents was now completely gone.
Despite being surrounded by many loving and supportive relatives and friends, I felt painfully alone. I doubted everyone and found it impossible to trust even the people I desperately wanted to. I was forced to repeat my story over and over to social workers, detectives and others who stepped into my life. But how does one communicate the horror of being betrayed by my own brother? What words are there to express that pain? I felt so scared.
Every time I spoke, I wondered what would happen to my family. Would we forever have this horrific label attached to us? Would we be forever stigmatized? Will we all be looked down upon? My sisters and I did nothing to deserve this but would we be forced to pay the price, I wondered.
I was so angry but the anger was towards my own family and it seemed like each time I expressed it, the pain only multiplied and the divide in my family became wider.
Those years were the most agonizing period of my life. Now, I’ve grown a lot. I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy and a lot of my wounds have been healed. I still doubt myself a lot though. Do I truly understand what a healthy relationship should look like? Do I truly know the definition of appropriate touch? When I hug a child, I always wonder if my hug is hurting them or helping them.
Any understanding I once had of proper boundaries has been shattered. In many ways, I am still an emotionally underdeveloped child. I know I’ve grown a lot but I see myself struggling to maintain simple, healthy relationships. Sometimes, ones that feel right are really co-dependent. My self-image is healing but it’s still not where I want it to be.
The word “trust” always brings up a lot of emotions for me. I was hurt by someone I loved and betrayed by the people I was closest too. I can’t just put them into a nice little box that says “deranged stranger” and move on.
Here’s the thing though: from the outside, if you saw me, you would never know about the whirlwind taking place inside me. I have a “normal” life with good friends and a job. And so are so many others who were abused. We are not the homeless person on the street or the needy in the asylum. We are often walking amongst you, residing amongst you, friends with you, caring for you, wanting to be cared by you but busy patching up and healing our pasts at the same time.
It took only 30 seconds for me to become a victim of sexual abuse. It happened so quickly and without any real warning. But I’m not only a victim; I am also a survivor. I am actively working on myself. I work every day to rebuild my trust in myself and the people around me who deserve it. I understand that along with the challenges G-d gave me, he also gave me the tools to grow from it – so I try. Each and every day. My patches make me stronger and more mature that I would have ever been. I don’t blame myself for what happened to me. I realize that every human being has their struggles and I wouldn’t change my life for anyone else’s. Being a survivor makes me empathetic, sensitive and accepting of people who struggle.
In ending this letter, I want to remind everyone that it only took two 30-second incidents for me to be forced into a life of near constant struggle. There is no such thing as “just” when it comes to sexual abuse. Not in quantity nor in severity. Please protect yourself and listen to your instincts.
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