When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.Breńe Brown
Sexual abuse thrives in secrecy. There is an unfair stigma attached to it that leads many survivors to stay silent. It is common for a survivor to turn this silence into shame and to take all blame for the abuse on themselves. Too often, families hide abuse, authorities seem to dismiss it, and there’s an underlying fear that no one will believe you or it will hurt someone for you to tell the truth. So, survivors often stay silent.
As a survivor of child sexual abuse, you have had to carry a burden of silence and secrecy that you should never have been asked to bear. One way to reclaim your power and hope is to shed the silence, shame, and secrecy by telling your story. You weren’t given a choice when you were abused, but now you do have a choice. Choose to take back your voice.
Write It Down
Taking back your voice doesn’t mean you need to shout your abuse to the world. You can start by simply acknowledging your story to yourself. Perhaps by writing about it. In her powerful book, Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise DeSalvo had this to say on the topic of writing about her own trauma: “When I was first writing about my recollections of the sexual abuse I had experienced as a girl, I used a metaphor… I believed that I was using my writing as a kind of scalpel to cut out the growth festering inside me—my story—which was making me sick. It was an instrument that I had to wield with great care and skill for the excision to be successful, for the wound to heal. Without telling my story, I thought, I would stay sick; I even might die.”
That may seem a bit extreme to you, but for Louise DeSalvo she felt that she had to write about what happened; she had to take ownership of the story, it was killing her not to do so. Research suggests that expressive writing has healing benefits when utilized in certain ways. James Pennebaker has spent much of his career researching these benefits and wrote a book that contains much of his findings called Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain.
Writing your story down can be a way for you to make sense of it for yourself. The first time you write it down it may be nothing more than a series of impressions. The past and present may be confused. It may not make any sense at all to anyone but you. As you keep writing, however, you’ll see the story making more sense. As you write, you’ll see that you’re moving through a journey that takes you from the victim of the story to the hero.
Not a writer? That’s okay. Writing isn’t the only way that you can reclaim your voice.
Talk About It
When you choose to tell your story, it can be difficult to find someone you trust to disclose what happened to you. Because of the stigma mentioned above, that person may have an idea in their mind of what a survivor of abuse should do, what’s happened to them, or even how the survivor should talk about it. The acclaimed writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about this as being the problem of “a single story.” In her own words: “I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language… My roommate had a single story of Africa [and] in this single story, there was no possibilities of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as equal humans.”
Adichie’s experience illustrates the painful ways that we as humans can oversimplify complicated issues. Her roommate viewed all Africans in one way—through a single story—without thinking of them as individuals with rich stories. The same thing may happen when people think of survivors of child sexual abuse—even though each survivor is an individual with unique experiences and a unique story.
When you share your story with someone you are doing several things: You are allowing yourself the power of owning your own story and making the decision of where and how it is discussed; you are giving that person in your life the opportunity to see you more completely and love and support you; you are raising the awareness that no single story covers what a survivor of child sexual abuse experiences. Every time a survivor shares their story it gives a better understanding of the prevalence and complexity of child sexual abuse and the impact it has on everyone—not just the person who experienced the abuse.
Keep in mind that disclosing your abuse is not necessarily a one-time event. You don’t have to tell the whole story all at once. It’s okay if there are only bits and pieces of your story that you share at a time. Some people may make you feel comfortable enough to share more than others. And, sadly, there may be times when people don’t react well to what you share with them. They may be dismissive or disbelieving, or they may press you for more information than you’re ready to share. You are allowed to walk away from that person and that situation. You can set a boundary around that conversation and choose not to discuss it with them again.
Create Art from It
If you aren’t ready to write or talk about it, or if you want to try another way to explore your story, you may want to try an artistic medium. Sometimes words aren’t able to capture what your feeling and you need to try something else. Art journaling can be a great way to combine both words and images to tell your story. When words fail you, colors or pictures can carry the narrative. Many survivors have found it to be beneficial to cover their expressive writing with paint or a collage as a way for them to step forward on their healing journey.
Music is another way to tell your story without words. Whether you write your own music or play or sing something someone else has written that resonates within you, it can help you work through your experiences. Even listening to music can have its benefits as you mindfully seek a way to make sense of your story.
Faces of Survivors
Here at The Younique Foundation we know how powerful the story of a survivor can be. We have a Faces of Survivors page on our website, as well as Facebook and Instagram pages. This gives individual survivors the opportunity to share their story along with a picture of themselves to, quite literally, put a face to child sexual abuse. It is through these stories that many people feel inspired to apply for The Haven Retreat, donate to our cause, or take the time to volunteer.
Each and every survivor story posted on Faces of Survivors is different, but they all have one thing in common: hope.
Wherever you are on your healing journey, you as a survivor can gain hope from the stories of others and give hope through telling your own story. These stories have the power to create change by helping people better understand child sexual abuse survivors as well as moving away from the “single story thinking” that adds to the stigma of openly discussing this topic.
Always remember that your story is yours. Telling your story once doesn’t mean you have to tell it again and again. Sharing it with one friend doesn’t mean you have an obligation to share it with another. Share your story when, where, and how it feels right to you. Your story has power and you get to choose how to use that power.
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