An open letter to my body after sexual abuse
I hate you, but it’s not your fault. You were taken advantage of by a much older man when we were little more than a kid. You took all the abuse while my mind checked out and now I pretend you don’t matter, continuing to abuse you in ways that are both overt and subtle.
The theft of my bodily agency happened gradually. What started as friendly hugs — fulfilling the basic human need for touch and connection — turned into a sexual relationship I didn’t want. A violation of my trust, my sense of self and you, Body. I didn’t have the power to say no, to push back. All I wanted was to feel special and cared about, but that came with a steep price. When it became clear the abuse wouldn’t stop, I barricaded my mind and left you alone with the abuse, severing my physical awareness from what was happening.
Somehow, over the years, my perception morphed away from the truth and turned into blaming you, abandoning you. It was you that didn’t push back when I was being held down. It was you that needed a hug in the first place. It was you that hurt and was sore when you should have been strong. How could you betray that I am so human when all I needed was to be unbreakable? Without the desire for touch and physical affection, don’t you know we wouldn’t have been in this situation in the first place?
You’re the only one left to face the anger, fear, pain, confusion, violation and self-hatred, Body. I can’t make it right with my abuser, even after reporting him. There’s no way to take back my formative high school years, the real friendships and growth I lost, my sense of worthiness and belonging. No way to go back in time and play out all those fantasies of pushing him forcefully off of me — exerting my agency and escaping back to normal adolescence. Grieving those losses is still too painful. So I blame you and I take it out on you because it gives me the illusion of control.
Control. That’s what the self-injury is about. Controlling and numbing my emotions when they become too overwhelming. I’ve subconsciously learned that emotions are expressed through the body, and by deliberately inflicting pain and damage on you, I can quickly turn those emotions off temporarily.
Then I decided I would be safer if I became invisible. The best way to disappear as a woman is to gain weight, and I did. Lots of it. I had always existed on more sugar and an unhealthy amount of McDonald’s, but those habits caught up with me, and I encouraged them. I may be on the fast track to serious health issues, but I’m no longer a person creepy dudes try to chat with at the bar or catcall on the street.
On the other hand, gaining weight greatly decreases my quality of life. I’m not listening to the warning signs you’re sending. I don’t like leaving my apartment because I hate the way I look, hate that I did this to you, my body. I’m ashamed.
I’ve been reading a lot about healing from abuse lately because I want to live a wholehearted life, not this diminished, isolated existence that’s been going on for years. While reading, I’ve learned two important truths. First, maybe you were actually protecting me all along. Second, trauma is stored in the body, whether that’s residual emotions or memories. Reconnecting with you is key to healing from trauma. In fact, it’s the only way to truly recover.
Peter A. Levine, author of Waking the Tiger, writes: “In response to threat and injury, animals, including humans, execute biologically based, non-conscious action patterns that prepare them to meet the threat and defend themselves.… We orient, dodge, duck, stiffen, brace, retract, fight, flee, freeze, collapse, etc. All of these coordinated responses are somatically based — they are things that the body does to protect and defend itself.”
In other words, maybe you were defending me after all, but I didn’t understand. I froze during the worst of the abuse, not because you were weak like I’ve accused you of all these years, but because you are hard-wired to react instinctively to a threat.
You have another advocate. Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk has this to say in The Body Keeps the Score: “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from themselves.… Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies.”
And this is where we are. I feel unsafe, and I’ve not only tuned you out, I’ve made you the enemy. But I think it’s time to admit I can’t feel safer by abusing you. You don’t deserve more pain and suffering.
So here’s the deal, Body. If I want to heal, we need to make peace with each other. Well, I need to make peace with you and start taking care of you, nurturing you and learning we are stronger together. You’re not to blame. You’re my best chance for not only survival but a meaningful life. This will be a hard lesson to learn, but it will be worth it. This change won’t happen overnight — it’s going to take time — but I am confident we can be together again soon.