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NOTE: This post discusses sexual abuse and may be a triggering subject for some readers.

A little girl in a white night dress sits on the floor of her closet. Knees pulled up to chest, arms wrapped tight, she makes herself as small as possible. The door is cracked open, but the darkness is prevailing and only a tiny shaft of light falls across her form. She closes her eyes and prays that the sights and sounds outside the door will fade and that she will be safe within this room. She hopes someday that she will be able to open the door slowly and emerge into quiet peace. 

I have had this memory for as long as I can remember. As far as the abuse, I only remember pieces of what happened, I remember sights and sounds. I remember the smell of a man, the aftershave he wore. The red and black checks on a flannel shirt. The weight of him on top of me, crushing my life and suffocating me. The color of the walls (yellow) and the carpet (brown shag). But when I remember it, I remember it as a third party, watching from above, in the corner of the room.

Until I was 24, I blocked even those memories out, along with most of my childhood. I went on with my life, as “normal”; as I knew “normal” to be. I didn’t realize that people don’t just block out years of their life. I didn’t realize remembering a 6th birthday party was something most people take for granted. I thought it was normal to have violent nightmares every night. I argued with people who said it was impossible to die in your dreams, and if you did you would die in real life. I had died too many times to count in my dreams and I remembered every time thinking, ‘it’s not so bad.’

Every night when I fell asleep, the dreams would come. It seems like they were always there:

I was in a house, or a building. I was hiding, always hiding, fearful of being discovered. I remember a clock that always showed up in my dreams, signaling that I would have to come out of hiding, and I remember always being chased and caught by my captors. Waking up nightly in a sweat, completely silent, biting my lip until the blood came, I would open my eyes and lie still as a statue. I would look around the room fearfully, getting my bearings, then eventually drift off to another nightmare. It happened for so long, I grew accustomed to it. I knew no other life.

I never considered what it meant that I hated being tickled or held down by my friends, my brothers, my boyfriends. The primal response that being restrained wakened within me was also something I had lived with for as long as I could remember, it was just the way I was. If an unfortunate man held me down and tickled me, or subdued me wrestling, even in fun, something switched in my brain if he didn’t stop, and suddenly I was a maniac, fighting back as if my life depended on it – scratching, biting, kicking, screaming. My brothers learned early not to do that, and my male friends learned as well.

It didn’t matter if I was being tickled or if we were wrestling and he was overpowering me, or even if it was someone I trusted or a friend. I would go to a point, and if he did not stop when I said to stop, I fought back. If the person was bigger and stronger and persisted, if they overpowered me and my fight did not disengage them, I would shut down mentally, I would go away where it wasn’t scary and where I was safe and I could watch from a safe distance outside of myself until it was over. This is dissociation. When I did this, the person could do whatever they wanted to me because I no longer cared. My body was a rag doll and my mind was far away, watching the events unfold.

My first conscious awareness of sex was that sex meant power; I had something others wanted. I recognized the act as an act of control and domination, not respect or love. I knew within me that if I was the one someone wanted, then I was the one in control. If I called the shots, I could choose whether to be hurt or not. My first sexual fantasies were about rape because it was the only thing I knew, it was my only version of sexual truth. I could look at a man and tell what sort of man he was. I grew adept at spotting the predators because they would awaken within me a ball of fear. Their presence would make me uncomfortable and to combat this, I would turn to my sexuality. I never slept with these men, or even kissed them, but somewhere subconsciously, there was an understanding that he was the predator and I was the prey, but we would go on as if neither of us knew.

The power struggle with sex has haunted me for my entire adult life.

The older I got, I attracted men who sensed my vulnerability and saw through my charade of protecting myself. They would approach me blatantly, defying my pretense of confidence, and say what they wanted to do to me. I wasn’t flattered: I was ashamed and horrified by their words. And something deep within me responded, affirming that my worth was indeed less than theirs.

I didn’t remember the secrets of my childhood because I had carefully locked them away, and I only knew that I was different from my friends. My high school boyfriend and I had been dating for two years when we slept together for the first time. It was quick. It was messy. I didn’t feel love or affection or fear, I only felt distant from the experience. My one-time experience with him losing my virginity led to a pregnancy, a miscarriage, and a series of bad situations I put myself in. I felt so completely worthless that I would be drawn to the predator, because I was what he was looking for. For him, I could turn off the fear, and follow the steps and be what he desired. I would simply shed my emotional connection with my clothes, and I would walk through the motions of being what he asked. No matter what it was, I said yes, and I thought about that little girl in the closet, rocking gently and humming as the world went on outside the safety of that door.

This all stopped when I began attending church again, and met my husband. I was in a group that was very authoritarian and I felt comfortable with men directing my life. When my husband told me that I was meant to be his wife and that God had spoken to him that I should marry him, I didn’t question much, I just said ok. Who was I to argue with the will of men? I had seen where that got me in the past, and I retreated into my shell of playing a part.

It is important to note that throughout my life, as I grew and learned to cope with the world outside of me, I learned to play parts. I could be anything to anyone. I learned the right answer until I knew it by heart. I said the right things, dressed the right way, had a solution for every situation. If I was approached by a predatory type, I knew exactly what to say to let him in. If I was in church, I knew how to play the part of innocence and religion, a submissive woman in every way. With my friends, I was funny and lively, always steering away from emotionality, and always breaking tension with a joke. It was only when I was alone with myself that I was lost and did not know who to be. It was only when I was alone with myself that confusion and fear descended upon me and the Pandora’s box of memories threatened to throw wide its lid, spilling my carefully guarded secrets all over the floor. To say that I truly forgot the things in that box is as truthful as I know to be. I didn’t even know the box was there, I only knew that beyond this reality and busy life, there was something dark lurking and I was fearful to know what it was. So I filled up my life with people and things, volunteering, counseling others, speaking engagements, marriage, and I made it a point never to be alone with myself.

When I got married at twenty and pregnant at twenty-four, I will not say this was a loveless marriage, because I loved him in the only way I knew how – blind devotion birthed from fear. The fear of disappointing him, The fear of disappointing God. The fear of displeasing the man who was in control of my life. He did not change when we were married: today, he is still the man I married, but I became a different woman when I was, for the first time, alone with myself. Something about being pregnant, and the hormones and feelings of bringing a child into the world opened up my vulnerability in a new way. The nightmares (which had subsided for a period) began again – this time in greater detail. Having a child revealed the door that I was fearful of looking behind. I crept up to the door, but the sights and the sounds were too dark and frightening. I looked the other way. I became very depressed after the birth of my daughter and finally went into counseling. I tried prayer first. I tried church and pleasing God in every way I knew how. I had been prayed over, I had spoken to the pastor and pastors wife. I heard over and over that I needed to get out of myself, move on from the depression, “get over it,” and that depression was simply the purest form of selfishness, so with my fear, I gathered the companions of guilt and self-hatred. I went on for some time in partial oblivion from the monsters behind that door. I ignored all of the signs pouring into my consciousness saying that things would never be the same for me.

Ignoring it had worked for 24 years, why wouldn’t it continue to work? Even in counseling, I spoke only about how to get over being depressed, how to move past my selfishness, how to please my husband and my God and become a better, less sinful person. After my second child was born I took a new job working at a consulting firm that specialized in investigating child sexual abuse allegations. I was thrust into a world of abuse and details. In becoming completely educated in the business, I found myself suddenly fighting for air. It was all too real, it was too close. It was too much like something I could not quite put my finger on, a déjà vu experience. I was intrigued, I was morbidly fascinated, and I read every book on recovering from sexual abuse that was on our shelves in my office. I read every story of a child being abused that I could get my hands on. I went to therapy and I talked, and at night I dreamed.

I don’t recommend my method of “total immersion” because it completely overloaded me. After six months of exploring in great details stories of sexual abuse, watching video after video detailing experiences, talking to my counselor, listening to my dreams, and trying to do all this with an objective eye, as if it was only someone else’s story, I cracked. I remember getting in my car one day after leaving my children with my husband and driving away from the house, feeling that every nerve in my body was raw and on edge and that I could not breathe or concentrate or focus. I had taken in everything I could take in and my mind could not handle it all.

The memories I had worked for so many years push away came flooding back as a stream of fragments pouring into my consciousness. I could not close my eyes without seeing images of death and violence. I saw children everywhere who needed protection. I saw men who had the look in their eyes of smug defiance, unfeeling, a scarred look that said they were way beyond caring and that sensitivity to others’ pain was lost to them.

I could not function emotionally and just went through the motions. The door I had so carefully ignored, then cracked open and peeked behind was suddenly flung wide open and I did not know what to do with what I saw. So I drove. I finally drifted away into a place where I was safe. Dissociation was my friend. I didn’t want to see my reality. I spent 4 days in the hospital where I heard the words Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) over and over and over. I heard the words but didn’t understand the impact those words would have and had had on my life.

Opening that door to my past brought my relationship with PTSD out of the closet. It had always been my silent companion, protecting me when I felt I could not protect myself. But opening the door with the research and counseling, allowing myself to be alone and experience the things I had been through made PTSD become more than my silent companion. My PTSD became my ferocious protector. The door was open, the pieces of my life were there all around my feet, and I talked. I spoke to my counselor in fragments, in metaphor, in poetry, and in confusion. I went about my life, normal, fine, good – but PTSD was beside me, a hulking body guard. Someone coming up behind me and surprising me would see fear and uncertainty in my eyes, and PTSD would sweep me away as I tried to hold onto the reality of my safety. My husband touching me sexually would release my fear, and PTSD would rush in, leaving me balled up on the bed, weeping, as my husband watched, confused and angry.

When we divorced, other men could sense the vulnerability beneath my smile. They could see that I was weak and they exploited it. It was as if I wore a beacon attracting the men who knew they could take what they wanted from me. Once, I was working with a friend’s husband and he came onto me. Something about me told him that was ok. He eclipsed me with his size and strength, and I went back to the girl in the closet. I said “no”, then my voice became whispers, saying no over and over, but he held my arms, and again, took what he wanted from me, leaving me wasted and alone. I struggled hard not to be a victim. I struggled to stand on my feet and make choices, but when I felt overpowered or controlled, I stopped fighting and my PTSD stood over me, the hulking watcher, and I disappeared into the safety of that closet, a little girl, knees against chest, quietly humming.

In counseling, I had grown in many aspects. I felt stronger, I felt more able, and when I was not in precarious situations, I felt in control. In my mind, the little girl in the closet had a companion, a woman, a mother, a protector, who sat with her body wrapped around the little girl, keeping her safe and promising that everything would be alright in the end.

I began a meaningful relationship with the man I love through mutual friends. He cared about me, and I told him softly about the abuse, fully expecting him to judge and walk the other way. He listened respectfully, compassion in his eyes. He was gentle and kind, and for the first time in my life, I felt heard and understood by a man. That in itself was redeeming for me. Over time, I have gotten better. My PTSD has begun to trust this relationship, which is not like my other relationships where I was forced to do so many things against my will, giving my body over to the men who were in charge of me. I could for the first time, be myself (as much as I knew of myself.) I could tell him my feelings, even the darkest fears, and he protected me like a lion. I never had this before in a relationship… even my marriage was about control and domination which only served to feed and grow the PTSD.

Over the years, I talked to others about PTSD. I heard that everyone’s experience is different and everyone deals with it differently. I talked to people who rarely deal with it, or hadn’t dealt with it in a long time, and I was envious. I talked to my counselor and asked about hypnosis and any other methods for getting rid of the monster that accompanied me everywhere because for me, PTSD was as bad as the abuse. It would come upon me without warning. I could not have a normal sexual relationship. I hurt the people around me, withdrawing into my cocoon of safety when I felt threatened. It was unpredictable and it played with my mind.

Although logically, I knew I was safe and I could trust the man I love, there were times when I just wanted to scream and curl up into a ball when we were making love because the illogical sense of not being safe would overtake me. It never left me. It made me different; it made me unacceptable and alone. I struggled against it. Sometimes I won. And sometimes I lost. But I determined that I would not make my PTSD my identity; I would never BE my PTSD. It was a part of me, but did not define me. It dictated my life sometimes, like the men in my past who told me what to do and I did, and maybe that’s why I saw PTSD as a hulking man. I was simply a girl, trying to become independent and walk on my own two feet and look behind doors and into eyes without fear.

Every day I have become stronger. I read, I talk, I reach out, and it all helps because every time I expose my PTSD, he becomes weaker and his hold on me lessens. I don’t need him anymore now. I am safe and I am in control, and I know that I don’t need the protection that was once necessary for my survival. The door to my past remains open. I glance back at it from time to time, and the fragments still scattered in the doorway. I don’t venture too near, but I know it’s there and my eyes are open to it. My counselor told me that in order to protect my children from what happened to me, I have to stop being blind to what happened to me. So I’m not blind anymore. I don’t have all the answers, but I have all the answers I need for now. I walk forward, PTSD sometimes beside me, but I am no longer in his shadow.

A little girl in a white night dress sits on the floor of her closet. Knees pulled up to chest, arms wrapped tight, she makes herself as small as possible. The door is cracked open, but the darkness is prevailing and only a tiny shaft of light falls across her form. She closes her eyes and prays that the sights and sounds outside the door will fade and that she will be safe within this room. She hopes someday that she will be able to open the door slowly and emerge into quiet peace.

Over time, a woman joined her in the closet, placing her body and arms in a protective embrace over the little girl. They sat in silence on the floor waiting for the chaos to dim outside.

One day the woman looked at the child and, knowing she was looking at herself, she embraced her tightly. She stood, fearfully at first, then gaining confidence and courage, opened the door and walked out into the light. The chaos imagined beyond that door faded into bright sunlight and colors. As she stood, inhaling the air, wrapped in the warmth of the sunlight’s embrace, she wept. The beauty of the world outside was lost on her within that closet. And the pain of others was unreachable, unhealable.

Sometimes I still want to retreat to that closet, but I know I have more to face and more to do in this life than protect the little girl within. PTSD stays in that closet with the little girl, but life is beautiful, and lived outside, in the light and air of eternity.

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One thought on “sexual abuse

  1. Wow…what a powerful piece, Joni. I understand and have a lot of empathy. As a rape survivor myself I totally get what you mean about PTSD being a ferocious protector. I appreciate the courage it takes for you to share your story and pray that you continue to heal. Blessings for peace and wellness.

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