WTF! How Does that Even Happen????
Trust me I had the same question when faced with this reality. But sadly it is my story, part of my history and it’s been a painful reckoning. I share my story to help others, and to present a different picture of sexual abuse to help increase awareness.
I knew I needed to leave my marriage. I knew that there was nothing left to salvage. I knew it was the end. I picked up the pieces and carried on, focused on getting back on my feet and learning how to be a single working mother and establish a new normal. But life had a different plan for me. It was roughly 2 years after my divorce that the pieces started to come together to reveal a completely different picture of my history in my marriage, one that I needed to face whether I wanted to or not.
It was around the same time at work that my career was going strong, I was invited to join a team to spearhead a campus policy against sexual violence which meant I needed to attend several conferences around the topic of sexual violence. I attended these conferences eagerly and absorbed the information to help my college campus be responsive and helpful to those who experience sexual violence. It was during these conferences that I started to have a “trauma reaction” during the session. The first time I didn’t realize I dissociated. I knew I didn’t feel quite right, but I didn’t understand what was happening. Then in another training session, it happened again and it was more severe. For people who don’t know what dissociation feels like, the best way I can try to capture it into words is this:
It feels like I was underwater, everything was muted and muffled. I could focus and see but I couldn’t comprehend what I was supposed to be focused on. My brain was scrambled. My breathing felt laboured and I felt shaky inside. I probably looked “normal” on the outside.
That’s the silent expression of dissociation; a person likely looks “normal” on the outside, maybe a little spaced but if you don’t know what to look for it will be missed.
After this experience, of dissociating in a training I knew I had something I needed to face. I no longer could ignore the secret that I was successfully suppressing for the past 8 years. I talked with a trusted friend, and entered into therapy to make sense of what I was experiencing.
What many people may not realize is that sexual abuse is not always the violent event characterized in movies or in the media. YES ABSOLUTELY it can be experienced this way. But what I experienced wasn’t “violent” it was far more muted.
I came to realize I was abused many times in the duration of my marriage. It was through non consensual touch. It was feeling pressured to have sex to the point where I could no longer say no. It was getting drunk to be able to “relax” and get in the mood. It was laying there completely dissociated while he got what he needed. In all these situations the aftermath of these events was complete revulsion, anger, and resignation. I felt used. I felt like my needs were irrelevant. I felt like I didn’t matter. I did try to express myself and what I experienced, but his reaction was that it wasn’t that bad, it didn’t really mean anything, and “you’re making this a bigger deal than it was.” For months after the first incident I was angry, I felt violated, and we fought about what happened. All I wanted in that moment was for him to acknowledge what I experienced. I never got that, and maybe never will. His reaction was that it was my fault and it was no big deal. At the time we even went to a therapist; trying desperately to get some validation I hoped the therapist would be able to provide another perspective that would make him see that what I felt was valid. Much to my dismay, I was met with now two people dismissing what I felt. So now he had his proof, that I was wrong.
But the body doesn’t lie.
See that’s what I learned in my sexual violence training; if someone dissociates during an encounter, then it is a confirmation that what they experienced was trauma. It took this revelation, 8 years after the first incident to finally make me realize that I wasn’t crazy, and what I did experience was sexual abuse.
It was devastating, to realize that I had a new awareness of what I experienced in my marriage. After this bomb destroyed my reality, it took me a long time to stop blaming myself and making excuses for what had happened. I spent years doing that. It was always my mistake, my fault and sadly I believed him. But now I was a victim of sexual violence. I had never allowed myself to be a victim of anything. This shook me to my core, as I take pride in being a strong, independent, capable woman. This decimated all of my beliefs (erroneous ones) about what a victim of sexual violence looks like. I didn’t want to accept that I was now in that category. The face of a sexual assault survivor has many facets, it’s not just one story…. it’s all of our stories, all of our experiences…
The details may change but the aftermath remains similar.
It’s taken me many years, many bouts of therapy and other healing modalities to arrive to where I am today. I am in no means “cured” as something will invariably trigger me and I will go into another trauma reaction. I am getting better at catching myself during these episodes and then taking care of myself until I can right myself again amidst the storm. It is draining and angering and is accompanied with new waves of grief and anger that I am still (possibly always) dealing with the fallout.
My hope is that for anyone reading this, and somehow sees themselves in my story, that they know they are not alone. That what they experienced was real, was valid and that there is help out there. You don’t need to hide in silence and shame. Your story may sound different than what’s captured in the media, but your story matters. Your trauma matters. And your recovery matters. Reach out. You don’t need to suffer in silence.