At the age of 14, after 10 years of escalating sexual abuse at the hands of a family member, I was ready to die. When he came to my bedroom, sotto voce as always, hissing instead of cowering, I slammed the door. His arm got caught between door and jamb, and I watched it turn purplish as I held firm with every ounce of desperate rage I was only beginning to understand.
I knew he was bigger and stronger and that I would eventually lose, but I could not die without having tried. Regardless of whether he would finally make good on his threats, I just could not endure him even one more time.
When I could hold the door no longer, it swung open. He stared at me, and then he turned and walked away. Nothing could have shocked me more. The balance had shifted, though it took time to understand that.
Three years later, leaving for college, I finally told my mother, fearing she and my sister would be left undefended if I were not there to visibly remind him I could tell everyone. We informed the family doctor, and we went to family counseling, but the discomfort was so great it did not last beyond one session. I would eventually continue therapy on my own, off and on, for many years. It took distance and dissociative behaviors to get me there.
Somewhere around the age of 30, I got my first real glimmers of understanding. I was not evil. I was not to blame. It was not my job to sacrifice myself on the altar of distorted responsibility for my family's well-being. I called a family meeting, a first in itself, and they all came. My partner stood by my side, as a witness and support.
I said, "I have kept your secret for all these years, but that will stop today. As a result of 10 years of rape, I need help to have a healthy life, and I am going to do whatever it takes to have that. I will not be screaming things from any rooftops, but I also won't protect you by staying silent. I want to get healthy. I am giving you back the responsibility that was never mine. You want to get healthy, do it yourself, but I will no longer let you stand in the way of mine."
"It wasn't rape," he said dismissively, grinning charitably.
"You forcibly fucked a child. Over and over. What the hell else do you call it!?"
The lid was off and I was enraged, all calm manners forgotten.
"I will never drink that much ever again," he said, looking down at his shoes.
"You never drank at all. You knew exactly what you were doing, every single time."
I thought I might explode with fury at his excuses.
My mother and sister were white-faced, shaken and staring at me. For a second, I felt horrible I would be leaving them behind with him. But they were both adults and would have to make their own choices. I could only afford to make mine. I could feel my resolve wavering, and my knees beginning to turn to water. Now or never.
"It's over. I am going to do whatever it takes. I suggest you all do the same."
I got up to leave, not at all sure my legs would hold me. The confrontation provided me my first real concrete step, but I didn't know if I could stand alone.
In time, with an excellent therapist, I figured out that I didn't have to stand alone. None of us do. If we can hang onto that indefinable nugget of ourselves that keeps us alive through the abuse itself, we can — and will — go on to help one another stand. We will tell our stories. We will stumble and wade through murky, bitter, word-swamps, distill and filter the waters with our will to be well, hear the words "me too" echo at the edges of the clearing where we can climb ashore cleansed and calm.
We will grow up enough to hold the damaged child of ourselves close and tenderly whisper, "It will be all right. I promise you."
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