This personal story was submitted by a survivor who wishes to remain anonymous.
TW: sexual abuse
I was sexually molested as a child by my uncle who lived with us in India. After many months of abuse, I finally had the courage to speak to my parents and let them know what was happening. However, nothing changed from that conversation and there were no follow-up conversations with me either. The damage from that silence and lack of action has been devastating in my life. As I very nervously share my story publicly today, I want to focus less on what happened and more on how families, especially, South Asian families can better support all of us survivors.
In South Asian families, we do not talk about our bodies or sexuality openly. This translates to the silence around sexual and domestic abuse which compounds the pain from the actual abuse. It adds to the shame, the feeling of unworthiness but most importantly, survivors don’t often get the help they need to rebuild their lives.
Trauma from abuse by family members fundamentally impacts the sense of safety and trust that a child experiences. Most of us survivors carry this breach with us as adults. My family did not address my abuse when I told them. As a result, in my head, I decided I was not impacted by the abuse. But, I had fundamentally changed. More than the sexual abuse, I had internalized the silence and the lack of action. I could accept that my uncle was a bad person and had intentionally harmed me. I could not rationalize that my parents who were good people had not protected me. So, the way I processed it was to accept that something about me was not worthy of being protected. I have paid the price in impacted relationships because of my inability to trust and depend on others. I have had insomnia since the abuse which to this day impacts my long-term health. I have also made the decision to never have children because I could not assure myself that I could keep them 100% safe.
In graduate school, I started volunteering with the local sexual assault resource center on their hotline. As I heard the stories and the late-night tears, my own trauma resurfaced. I could not pretend that I had not been harmed. I sought counseling for the first time to talk about my abuse. I had a kind therapist whose eyes filled with tears as I spoke about my experience. His tears were the first acknowledgment from an adult of my pain and trauma. He encouraged me to share my story with my parents again. He saw how important my family was to me and he knew I needed to know that they cared to protect and nurture me.
Trusting my parents enough to re-share my story with them was difficult but I did it. On a phone call from the US to India, they finally heard me. Over that call and multiple others, they told me that they did not remember me ever talking to them about this as a child. They asked me how I could believe good kind parents like them could have ignored such a thing. They asked me why I had not yelled or done something like that to stop the abuse myself. My mother even went so far as to say that she personally would never have been abused because she would have found a way to stop it. They asked me how I wanted to deal with the family impact and if I was asking them to stop talking to my uncle. They asked me why I kept dwelling on the past and could not be happy and move on.
After years spent investing in my own healing, here is what I wish they had said. Not once but as many times as I needed to hear it.
1. “We are sorry you were hurt under the roof where you should have been safe. We are sorry we did not hear you when you first came to us. We are sorry we couldn’t protect you. We are sorry you had to carry this burden by yourself all of these years. You are precious and worthy. Your abuse is not your fault but the fault of the adults in your life.”
In our cultures, parents are always right, and questioning their decisions is equivalent to disrespecting them. This culture makes such an unequivocal apology almost impossible. But, it is a gift for a survivor learning that they are not broken, that their abuse is not their fault.
2. “There are no family considerations more important to us than your well being and mental health. We do not care about what anyone thinks. Anyone who hurts our child is not our family.”
These statements take away the guilt from the survivor for breaking up the family. It also takes away the shame of carrying a secret.
3. “Take the time you need to heal. We are with you every step of the way. We will do anything you need to support you.”
Sexual abuse survivors have post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. There are triggers that take us back and make us feel unsafe. Sometimes, when we are triggered we might react with anger against those who didn’t protect us or resent what we think we could have had. This is a natural part of the process and can only be healed with patience and love.
Understanding that healing takes time and has no timetable is important.
It is now been 15 years since I spoke to my parents as an adult about my abuse. In those years, I credit all my healing to therapy, meditation, volunteering, my puppy daughters, and my kind, nurturing friends. My years in therapy have allowed me to separate the abuse from my own self-worth. It has taught me coping skills when I am triggered. It has allowed me to share my story openly and see my pain and trauma in another person’s eyes. I was a naturally geeky, introverted child. After the abuse, I completely ignored the physical realities of my body making self-care and health a challenge. With my meditation practice, I was able to recognize my body’s reactions to triggers and head off emotional landmines before they became too big.
My volunteer work at the sexual assault resource center started my healing. However, it was years later, when I volunteered with children who had been sexually abused, that I truly learned to see and acknowledge the trauma I had faced as a child. I hadn’t realized how young I was and how much I needed the protection of the adults around me until I saw the innocence and the vulnerability of those children.
My fur babies taught me again to see myself as vulnerable. But, more than that, they helped me see myself as a parent. I realized that there’s nothing a child can do to lose my protection or love. My first girl drank my tears when I hid in the closet during the worst crying episodes. It was the most unconditional love I have known in my life. She gave me the courage to continue therapy and believe that people who loved me would show up for me. My second girl was an abused puppy, she has visible scars but is the most courageous and fearless, loving puppy I know. She meets all new people with an open heart and is willing to love and be loved. We continue to soldier on together.
Finally, and probably the most cherished part of my healing has been my friendship with two amazing humans who are also adult survivors of childhood abuse. After meeting them, I was able to recognize patterns common to all of us. Instead of feeling broken, I saw the aftermath of trauma. For the first time, I felt seen, heard, and protected.
It has taken many people to help me rebuild what one man destroyed in my life. As you hear my story, my fervent hope is that we, as a community, learn to stop the silence surrounding abuse. We, as a community, stop the shame cycle and show up for survivors so they can take back their power.