"The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse" sheds light on the painful—yet hopeful—recovery process.
To combat the damage of sexual abuse, one must yearn for a normal life despite our sentences and their machinations. The way we create this varies from person to person. One must learn to laugh and reach out to people. Despite the dysfunction of my life due to my sexual abuse, I will forever laugh at the memory of the crowded bus and my bloody pad falling on the floor. I can only imagine what my fellow passengers were thinking.
Recovery can be a tedious process, with many instances of gained and lost ground. At my sickest, when my weight crept past 400 pounds, I knew at the age of 25 that I was dying. I realized that when my end came, I would regret everything and wish to live my life over again.
After my graduation, I withdrew and moved to be with family in the Florida Keys on a small island town with one red light. I have not left since. Instead of planning a career full of creativity and gallery shows in New York like many of my classmates, I am merely learning how to continue with a life full of missed opportunities and waste. After losing all of my weight, I look much younger than my age; I am often confused for a 19 or 20 year old. I am not ashamed to say that I usually do not correct people when, in fact, I am nearly 30 with a master’s degree and an entire past that I prayed I could relive. Sometimes I feel like an imposter.
Despite the fact that I got a second chance, I have to deal with the inevitable fact of aging despite all the years I have lost. The thought panics me as I feel as though I have too few years to fill with new memories. My newfound future is full of the excitement of discovering the joys of simple things that I was never able to enjoy due to my crushing weight. Despite the fact that it is sometimes easier to fall back into what I have known, looking forward to a new experience has kept me on my path.
The emotional aspects have been devastating. The substances that kept me numbed still call and it is still nearly impossible for me to eat in front of anyone. The simple act of a deli counterperson at the grocery store offering me the extra slice of cheese taken from the scale evokes panic attacks. My abusers have continued their lives without any repercussions while I suffered immensely. I am beginning to cast away my anger, as it will only hold me back. At times, I feel damaged, but with the continuation of my life and my example, I have not let them win. I look forward to the day it is emotionally possible to leave this island and return to Philadelphia to pick up where I left off at 18. Until then, I do the best that I can with each day and challenge. It is the best that I can do.
Alice* (not her real name)
Relationship to survivor: Daughter
Nothing is lonelier than taking a taxi home from the hospital—especially if it’s a psychiatric hospital. It was early December, during the blizzard of 2009, and Philadelphia was already blanketed with the first of three feet of snow. The cab driver picked me up at the Belmont Center on City Line Avenue, eyeing me suspiciously. “You work here, right?”
“Yep, I’m a surgeon,” I replied, hoping he’d not noticed my hospital-grade paper booties.
I was about 40 years old that day. In a span of four months, I’d gone from earning a six-figure income in the pharmaceutical industry and living in a stylish Society Hill apartment to being unemployed and emotionally dependent on a man who had “borrowed” $40,000 from me and promptly vanished, just as the SEC was closing in on him.
I look like the typical over-educated white woman living in Philadelphia. I live in a cute house with a pretty garden. I have friends, I wear good clothes and I have a decent job and nice teeth. But under the veneer is a woman with a sketchy history. Two suicide attempts, anorexia, bulimia, four psychiatric hospitalizations, a divorce, a stalled career, years and thousands of dollars seeing a therapist, less-than stellar grades, broken friendships and an addiction to unavailable or abusive men that spans 20 years. I have been on 30 different psychiatric medications and have conducted desperate visits to shamans, psychics, acupuncturists, herbalists, psychiatrists and healers of all flavors. I’ve spent more than $12,000 on a doctor who uses a magnetic device to electrically jump-start my brain out of depression. My friends and family are baffled and angry, and I am hopeless. Why do I keep screwing up my life, I ask myself, when I have so much to be grateful for?
My theory is that I am a second-hand victim of sexual abuse.
Our family made regular trips from the suburbs into the city to see my extended family. My parents maintain that it was “car sickness” that made me throw up at each visit, but I never got sick in the car any other time. Looking back, it must have been a by-product of the anxiety these excursions caused.
You see, my mother could not bear to be around her family.
They’d all be there. My aunt, who’d reinvented herself from a poor Northeast Philly kid to a Main Line socialite. There’d be my two uncles and my grandmom. And the bottles. Everywhere, empty beer bottles crowded the table and most of the floor. The cigarette smoke hung in the air and yellowed the insides of the windows. It was hard to take a breath. At the center of the alcohol, cigarettes and bawdy talk was one of my uncles. He was a stocky man, maybe 5-foot-7, with a blustery manner and flushed face. In my memory, his wife and kids aren’t even present, but they must have been. In my memory, his porkish figure eclipses all else.
This uncle, he stole my childhood.
This uncle raped my mother. Not once, not twice, but over and over again for several years, well into her teens—a period of time stretching between the end of World War II to the Korean War. Not only did he violate her while she pretended to sleep, as she compulsively recited the Hail Mary to distract herself until he was done, but he and a chum would regularly take her to an isolated baseball field dugout and molest her. The horrified neighborhood mothers of other little girls would come to my mother’s childhood home, screaming at the front door. It seems my uncle did not limit his predatory ways to family. And somehow my grandmother was able to ignore this.
The result of the constant and savage incest and trauma my mother endured was an adult woman with a laundry list of psychiatric problems. Close to 80 now, she suffered more than any kid or adult deserves to. Anorexia while pregnant with me; agoraphobia so severe she couldn’t leave the house when my sister was a toddler; locking us kids out of the house so she could privately scrub her arms with bleach until they bled. Suicide attempts, hospitalization, depressions, flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, trust issues, bonding problems with her kids and explosive anger. Her fear of dirt so great that after a day of playing outside, the three of us kids were routinely forced to strip down to nudity each night in the foyer of our split-level home and be carried to the tub for a group scrub. Her self-consciousness about sexuality was so deep that she’d put tape over her breasts underneath her clothes to hide her nipples from view. Her despair was so frustrating that my father often resorted to either hitting us with his belt or retreating to the basement to “pay bills.” She tried to be a good mother to us, but it’s hard to be a mom when your own childhood was the most dangerous place on earth.
Nobody stopped my mother’s abuse. Not one adult, sibling, parent or teacher stood up for her when it had to have been obvious that in that tiny Bustleton Avenue house, something was terribly wrong. The abuse only stopped when she, as a teenager, stopped it herself. Home alone one day, her brother turned up back from a stint in the Army. Wanting to pick up where he’d left off, he grabbed her. But she’d grown up a bit while he was at war, and she had a kitchen knife when he went after her. She stabbed him so badly he ended up not only in the hospital, but in a psychiatric unit for months. Now, my uncle is in a nursing home, his brain pulp.
Unfortunately, I’m the other result of the constant and savage incest my mother endured—another adult woman with a laundry list of psychiatric problems.
These days, I spend a lot of time in church basements, with other addicts, and we talk about “working the program” and “a higher power,” nervously twitching in folding chairs and eyeing each other, wondering what monster lies beneath the 12-Step jargon. I feel like a ghost of myself. Someone who fits in nowhere. Maybe at some point I will feel a commonality with these folks. I hope so, since these meetings are my last-ditch effort at becoming a somewhat normal person, at having a calm and loving relationship with a man, at not wanting to die the moment I open my eyes every morning.
"The Survivors Project" is a compendium of more than 50 personal essays about the challenges associated with healing from sexual abuse.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Nina Hoffmann, Senior Editor, Philadelphia Weekly firstname.lastname@example.org or 215.599.7678 Philadelphia Weekly Collects Personal Stories From Sexual-Abuse Survivors for Upcoming Book Philadelphia, PA (September 6, 2012) —Philadelphia Weekly is partnering with sexual-abuse survivors, their loved ones and counselors for an upcoming publishing project that will raise awareness about the effects of abuse and the challenges associated with healing. Sexual abuse comes in many forms, and can happen in the situations you'd least expect. And too often, survivors are paralyzed by a culture that silences, shames and blames them. Philadelphia Weekly is dedicated to combat this phenomenon through first-person storytelling, bringing to light the one thing that’s missing from the national conversation: the reality of what it’s like to heal from the devastating effects of abuse. PW has invited those whose lives have been impacted by sexual abuse to share their own stories, in their own words. And not just survivors themselves, but also their spouses, family members, friends and advocates—because healing from abuse does not occur in a vacuum. It requires the support of loved ones. Since announcing the project in June, Philadelphia Weekly has collected dozens of first-person essays from survivors, their loved ones and both local and non-local therapists. In some...
We need to hear from you—the survivor, the loved one, the advocate. We need you to tell your story, in your own words. To do so would help bring to light the one thing that’s missing from the national conversation: the reality of what it’s like to heal from the devastating effects of sexual abuse.
At 28, I’m learning to accept that my stepfather abused me—sexually, physically and emotionally. I may never remember everything that happened to me. But I know I did nothing to deserve it.