November 29, 2011

"Putting it Together- Taking My Life Back after Childhood Sexual Abuse" By Antoinette Davis

This is a subject I never thought I would speak of. Especially in such a public forum. But here I am about to do the unthinkable. I ask you to hang in there with me as you read my story. I promise you, there is an up side. This is therapy for me, and hopefully, a way to help someone else realize that childhood sexual abuse doesn’t have to be the end of your life.

I'm a 44-year-old woman with a haunting past. I remember it like it just happened. I know I was 5, and my brother was 4. I would have to go to school the next day, and he wouldn’t. My brother was sent off for his nightly bath. While he bathed, I was undressed, laid on my bed, and molested for the first time. I remember he made it into a game that he said only we could know about. I was scared of him, but thought that maybe I was special because he picked me for this 'special game'. The logic of a child, for sure. When I began to resist, there was tussling, and very often, threats to kill my little brother and my mother. I don't remember how long the abuse lasted, but the man wasn’t around when I went into the first grade.

At that age, I didn't know what was wrong with me. I know that I was changed by what happened. I became belligerent almost immediately, and began fighting with my little brother almost on a daily basis. On two occasions, I even poisoned him. Once with pills I found, and another time, I made him drink bleach. He had to have his stomach pumped twice because of me. My brother was a sweet and timid child. He was the perfect target for my aggression. I can only guess I was acting out because of what had happened to me. I have no idea how or why my brother forgave me. To say I mistreated him is surely an understatement. When we grew up, he made the statement that I hurt his soul. He said it jokingly, but I knew it was the truth. That's a guilt that still eats at me sometimes. I know I was just a kid, but there’s still a sting when I think of the pain I inflicted on someone I love with all my heart.

I remember teasing little boys in a sexual manner while still at that age. I’d learned 'the art of seduction.' Little boys seemed to love me, and it was my secret why they did. It was during this time that I also began to set fires. Some in plain sight, and others in the privacy of my basement. Fire held some kind of fascination that I could never explain. I just remember enjoying it. There were times of pretending to be a baby named BayBay. I don’t know where that name came from, but there was a BayBay. I’d wrap myself in blankets, and pretend I was a baby. The urge to be BayBay was unplanned, and came out of nowhere. Looking back, I don’t know if she was a separate personality, or if I created her to comfort myself. It’s hard to know for sure. BayBay felt real to me. She was safety for me. Saying it now, it seems BayBay may’ve been a way for me to separate from my pain.

My mother knew something was wrong with me, but I don't think she had any idea what it was. She took me to a child psychologist when I was 6 years old. Since all I did was draw pictures, in my 6-year-old mind, I was going to art school. I looked forward to the visits, even though I felt strange being there. I was smart enough to know that the shrink was trying to get at my secret. I didn't spill the beans, but it was determined that I 'had serious issues with authority figures'.

As I grew up, I had no idea that my actions and reactions were basically that of an injured 5-year-old child. I was infamously hateful. I lashed out at family, the few friends I did have, and even strangers. I chose to keep mostly to myself. I didn't like anything, or anybody. Especially myself. I hated the sight of my own image. Looking in the mirror brought feelings of disgust. For years, I didn't know why I was the way I was. I just knew that I wanted to be left alone. There were no dates, and very few boyfriends. I didn't believe I had any value, and I felt that my life was worthless and unnecessary. My teenage years were filled with self-doubt, and almost daily thoughts of suicide. I was extremely lonely most of the time, and I had no idea why God kept me alive.

When I was 19, I had my first sexual experience of my own choosing. It was with a boyfriend, and I thought it would be special. Not only was it not special, but I didn't feel a thing. I thought I'd feel close to him, but that didn't happen. I felt like I was dead inside. How could I not feel anything? All the way home, I kept thinking I must be some kind of freak or something.

I figured (with my screwed-up head) that he wasn't anything special, so maybe all I needed was a different man. I moved on to another boyfriend quickly. Too quickly. He didn't make me feel anything special, and I felt nothing when he touched me. I liked him a lot, but I wasn't capable of letting him get close to me. My constant holding back was something I noticed, and he noticed as well. He was frustrated by it, and I was dumb-founded. I had no answers for him why I didn’t let him in. After these boyfriends, I went on what you might call a sex spree. I slept with 5-6 men fairly close together. I dismissed each of them with the reasoning that since they couldn't make me feel anything, something had to be wrong with them. A man was supposed to be able to please a woman, right? Not a totally realistic view of men at all. While I was busy tossing the blame around, it hadn't dawned on me yet that I was the one with the problem.

I spent my 20s partying with girlfriends, and staying away from men. I kept them around long enough for just enough sex to keep me from climbing the walls. Sex was barely ok with me, and making love was out of the question. I had a few dates here and there, but nothing serious. I very rarely let myself feel anything, so it was pointless to pursue any real relationships. I always wanted to meet 'the one', and I secretly envied happy couples I'd see. They had something I had no idea how to have or get, but I still wanted it. I’d pretty much resigned myself to being alone. It was what I knew. It also meant I wouldn't have to make changes.

My 30s. Whoa! What a tumultuous time for me. These were the most painful years of my life. I moved back home with my mother. I don't know if she knew how close I was to completely flipping out. Any time not spent working was spent vegging on her couch, and wondering when the pain would let up. Of course, not every single day was doom and gloom. There were fun times spent with my family. They probably don’t know that the laughs we shared kept me going, and kept me semi-sane.

After some months of living with her, I was back on my own again. This was the first period in time when I began taking the tiniest peek at my past. I tried to deal with it, but I was nowhere near ready, or strong enough. The rest of my 30s is a blur. Nothing good stands out except for the birth of my two nieces. I remember days spent spoiling my niece, and nights of trying to hang on. When there were no distractions, the pain was constant. The vivid memories and images seemed to cling to me no matter how hard I tried not to think about it. Nothing made sense. I didn't understand why I settled for 'safe' and low-paying jobs all the time. I didn't care about anything, or so I thought. I remember feeling drained during this time. Would I always be that bundle of chained emotions? I wanted to change, but I didn't know how. I just remember living on what my mother used to call survival mode. To her, that meant taking life day by day, hour by hour, or even minute by minute. To look at me, you may not have known that inside was a continuous storm of emotions that threatened my sanity, and my life. My mask was firmly in place. I couldn't afford anyone getting close enough to see the real me. The real me is soft inside. I couldn’t take anyone else stealing another piece of me, or destroying the little good I thought I may’ve had left.

I thought 'maybe' I was a good person, but all I heard in my head were the bad things I'd believed about myself since I was a child. Sometimes I wonder if the actual act of being molested is the bigger crime. For me, the bigger crime is what the act has done to my heart, mind, and soul. I've grown up with all of these feelings that were overpowering, devastating, and ultimately, not a true reflection of who or what I really am. A child always blames themselves when something bad happens, and I think that's what I did. I remember thinking that I must’ve done something wrong to be treated that way. It became my fault. So the bad feelings developed, and they stayed. If you can picture it, my feelings seemed like this object that literally sat on my heart. Like they were an entity totally separate from me. As a 5-year-old child, there was no possibility of coping with all the feelings of anger, shame, hate, or confusion. All of those ugly things became a part of me.

I found it very hard to balance my true self with what I saw in the mirror. I saw a fat woman. I saw a defeated woman. I saw a woman who used her anger against herself, and everyone else. I saw a woman-child afraid, alone, miserable, and misunderstood. I saw a weakling who had given up. I despised weakness, or anything I perceived as weakness. Especially in myself. I saw everything I hated, and embraced nothing good or positive about myself.

On to my 40s. Thank God!! This is the decade when I blinked in to a lot of truths. Some good, and some not so good. All my truths have been eye-opening and a blessing. My process of healing began with a decision to not spend the rest of my life as a victim. I decided I have a life to reclaim, and start living. I began saying prayers to God to help me. I'm talking about desperate, tearful prayers. In the past when I prayed, I wouldn't hear or feel anything. I suspect that I wasn't really trying to hear anything. To acknowledge His words in the past would mean that I would have to open my heart, and I wasn't ready for that. But the more I prayed, the more I noticed my life had slowly begun to change. I prayed for a healing, and that's exactly what I'm getting.

Healing is not an easy process. It means taking baby steps while everyone around me seems to be running. It means blinking in and recognizing what was taken from me before I even knew I had it. Healing is looking at myself in the mirror and not recognizing this brave new person staring back at me. It's been me taking many, many honest looks at myself, and accepting me no matter what. Healing for me is learning not to beat myself up. I've done things to myself that continued the cycle by abusing myself, and my body. Healing has been forgiving myself, and learning to let go of my feelings of worthlessness. It's me now learning to take compliments, and believing I am the good things that people say I am. Healing is now being proud of my accomplishments, and my beautiful qualities.

Right when I started this journey of healing, I experienced a couple of hard knocks. In October 2005, my apartment burned down while I was at work. I pretty much lost everything, and had to start over from scratch. I find it odd that among the few things that survived the fire were all of my pictures, and my bible. That made me scratch my head, and take a serious look at the heavens.

Then 14 months after the fire, I lost my mother, who was only 61 when she died. Losing her is a pain I'm still dealing with a day at a time. Most days, I'm able to celebrate her, and her life, and move on. I don't have to say how the other days are, as I'm sure most of you have lost someone you love. I don't fall too far because I know she's still around. She makes her presence known, especially when I'm going through something. I have no doubt that life and love are eternal. I was taken aback by her death, but I knew that my journey was nowhere near over. It was just getting started.

I used to think I was a mess not worth fixing. That is no longer my truth. I now know that I settled for so many things because I was scared to believe my life could be any better. For me, healing has been a matter of opening my mind to the possibility that I could one day be a whole person.

For my life, turning to God was the only thing that made sense. Talking to friends didn't really work. I didn't feel I could trust a psychologist, so as an adult, I never sought one out. Maybe I should have, but I didn't feel there was a person alive who could heal my heart. I needed to be healed, and not just understood. I felt a psychologist would attempt to get who I was on a cerebral level, and that wouldn't be enough. It felt like I'd be going to a family doctor, when what I needed was a trauma center.

Slowly, I began trying to hear Gods voice in the midst of bad memories and thoughts that constantly played with my mind. When I couldn't pray, I cried. When I couldn't cry, I wrote. When I couldn't write, I screamed. I kicked and threw things. Sometimes I'd beat my hands against the wall so hard, later I'd be surprised that they weren't broken. I got it out any way I could.

I'd come to a point where I was going to change my life, or I was going to take it. One day, I actually went as far as taking out a razor blade. I stood there looking back and forth between my wrist and the razor. The only thing that stopped me was the thought of my mother having to identify my body, and then having to bury her only daughter. I loved her more than my own life, and I knew I couldn't do that to her. I swore after that day, I'd never take my life. I thought about it, but not in a serious manner. So, my only choice was to change.

Dealing honestly with my feelings about what happened allows me to look at it, and let it go. I don’t mean to over-simplify this step. This step sometimes takes months for me to achieve. The longer I held onto my pain, the more it became a part of who I was, and thus, harder to release. My pain was my crutch. When I was scared, my pain lied to me and said I was better off alone. When I would feel a little hope, the pain spoke up and reminded me I’d get hurt again. Pain was/is the ultimate double-edged sword. It was the devil that sat on my shoulder, but also my protector when someone got too close.

Know that as I write this today, the feelings of shame I used to have about myself are gone. I revel in the fact that my life is not over. I have talent that I've barely tapped into. I wrote my first poem at age 7, and my love of writing has returned. When I write, it comes from my heart. A heart that is no longer bound by fear, shame, hopelessness, or uselessness. My life has meaning. I dare say more meaning than I may know at this point.

I now know that when I find myself slipping back into my old thoughts, it's usually because I'm scared of moving forward. It's at those times that I remind myself that I'm being gently pushed in the right direction, even though it shows up as fear. When I recognize that I'm settling on something, it makes me irritable because I don't want to take any steps backwards. I know you sometimes have to take a step back before you move forward, but I see my irritability as part of my healing. At least I'm now able to recognize if I settle.

I still have some bad days, but I'm not letting a dirty perv have the rest of my life, or my emerging happiness. I'm worthy of this hard-won peace of mind.

I've been overweight most of my life. Since starting on this road of recovery, for the first time, my inside doesn't match my outside. I know that the fat is a just a manifestation of all the bad things that happened to me, and is an obvious display of my not giving a damn about myself. The fat has to go. So far, I'm down 25 pounds. I have more to lose, and I will.

Forty years ago, someone took my life in his hands, and he destroyed it for his own pleasure. It's been painful coming to terms with my feelings about being molested, but I’m doing it. I'm doing it in spite of the one who hurt me, and because I'm strong enough to move forward. I've stared my pain in the face. By sharing this experience, I now step over it, and begin walking a new walk. It's a walk I'm no longer afraid of. I look forward to whatever life puts in my path. I'm just getting started, and I have dreams I will absolutely pursue.

In the past, I was probably my own worst enemy. I had help getting to that point, but I acknowledge my part in this whole thing. My part wasn’t that I fell down. It was that I stayed down. I’m not beating myself up though. It is what it is. I'm a survivor of sexual abuse, and other abuse as well. I don't see myself as weak anymore. Not even close! I thank God that I'm still here, and that I returned that razor to the cabinet. I can already look back and see how far God’s brought me. God and me. I say that with confidence, gratitude, self-love, and in all humbleness. I'm more than a survivor. One day, I will be a conqueror.

If you've been abused, it's never too late to get help, or take your life back. Whether it's with a therapist, through religion, writing it out, or talking with someone you trust – please get the help you need. The days you spend living in the past are days you can't have back. It happened, and it's over. Every step you take in the past is a step you're not taking towards your future. I live by those words now. I would never have been able to tell you my story if I had continued living in the past. I don't know what's ahead of me, but I do know that I'm not scared of it.

Maybe God let me live so that my words would reach someone who needs them more than I do. Whoever this is for, the first step is yours to take. Take it.

Copyright Antoinette Davis, October 2009