"The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse" sheds light on the painful—yet hopeful—recovery process.
Perhaps growing up with addicts has prohibited me from being able to see things as they are. I never learned to trust my own reality. I never knew I was even entitled to one. My deepest fear now is for my daughter. I want to listen to her. I want to protect her.
I realized several years ago just how deep that fear seeped into me. I received a photo of her on my phone while she was visiting her father and showed it to my then-boyfriend. “Look at how pretty she is!” I said proudly. He smiled and replied, “She is beautiful! I think she’s even prettier than you!” And that’s when I lost it. I began to cry in a way he could not understand. Perplexed, he responded, “If I had a son and someone told me they were more handsome than me, I would be happy?”
After listening to him explaining himself for about half an hour, I realized it wasn’t about that. It had been a light-hearted comment. It was about the way my stepdad always put my mom down by declaring how beautiful I was, as if she were not. I was skinnier. I was younger. I was prettier. He had pitted us against each other in a way that made her blame me.
I still sleep with my daughter, and I think part of that is my fear that someone will come into her room at night. When I hold her close to me, her innocence and vulnerability strike me. She is just a little girl, like I had been.
It has been the birth of both of my children that has inspired me to heal my life. I do not want to bring the patterns I have suffered into their worlds. I cannot change my past. But I can vow to always listen to my daughter, and to commit to my own healing. I am not there yet—at least all the way—but I do believe the day will come.
For me, stopping the cycle of abuse is about becoming conscious. Going to therapy; writing. Getting back in touch with my body through yoga and meditation. And for this last little bit that still remains, I have decided I need to learn belly dancing. I need to reconnect with the body that became rigid when I was abused. Something in me has known I needed this dance for a long time. I tried it when I was 19, but I was so stiff, the teacher laughed about my inability to shake my hips. Freer now and more in tune with my body, I have started some one-on-one lessons via Skype with a trusted friend. I envision myself now as I was meant to be. Less encumbered; finally happy and in love with a man who treats me well.
I have also finally learned that it is not my duty to the world to be “pretty.” I have more important things to accomplish with my life. Pretty has often come at a high price.
We are the composite of what happens to us. But we are also strong, resilient and brave. I no longer see myself as a victim or a survivor. I am a person, no more and no less deserving of love and grace than anyone else.
Ari Benjamin Bank
Age abuse occurred: 6
I never wanted to be a good swimmer, but I always was. My parents had an in-ground pool in the backyard, big enough for laps, with a diving board and a deep end, a “real” deep end, and my dad, whose parents had a pool in the backyard, too, and who was also a good swimmer, taught me every stroke he knew: the crawl, the breaststroke, side and back stroke, elementary. He got me in that pool almost before I can remember, and the water felt good and cool. I learned something new each summer: how to cup my hands and kick my legs, how to turn and breathe, turn and breathe, how to tuck my head in and dive without even making a splash. Of course, he gave me good head starts in races and let me win most times, I think. The summer after my 6th birthday, I could swim stronger and faster than any kid twice my age and twice my size. I didn’t want to, but I could, and I knew, even then, watching my dad, and my mom, too, sometimes, looking back at me swim, that I was pleasing them, and that part I liked.
Still, I never wanted to be a good swimmer, but I was anyway, and in the summer, my parents sent me to a day camp that seemed so far away (though I had started going when I was just 4). The camp had tennis courts and soccer fields, arts and crafts and cookouts in the woods and, of course, swimming pools. Early in the mornings, before recreational swim time, the kids from my beginners bunk would change into their bathing suits and then follow one of our counselors, marching off to the pool for their instructional swim, their tender feet getting wet from dew still on the grass. I would go to another pool with another counselor, the pool for the more advanced swimmers—most times anyway. Sometimes that didn’t happen. Sometimes we stayed back after the bunk was empty. Sometimes I started to change into my bathing suit but then he’d tell me to stop. It’s okay. I took mine off too. Look, we both have one. You can touch it. Why don’t you touch it? There, that feels good. Now I’m going to touch yours, okay? Doesn’t that feel good?
We’d sit together in that quiet, dark plywood shack, the one window and door closed, and I’d think about those other kids in my bunk, learning how to dunk their heads and make bubbles, and I’d wonder why his got so long and hard when he told me to touch it that way, and I’d wonder why it hurt so much when he put it inside me, but I never cried or yelled because he said I was being good. I didn’t know why I didn’t have to go swim with the bigger and older kids those mornings, but I didn’t feel like I belonged with them, either, and he always told me I was different, and that it was really OK, and that no one else should know because we had a special shared secret. But even that part, I didn’t like.
I never wanted to be a good swimmer, but I knew I always would be. Each day, I’d come home from camp, and my mom would unpack and find two wet bathing suits scrunched up in clear plastic bags, one wet from recreational swim, and the other wet, too, though sometimes soaked from being held under a water fountain and put in my camp bag just before getting on the bus to go home. Home felt even further away somehow, and less recognizable when I walked back up the driveway. And the pool in my parents’ backyard, that too felt strange now, even with my dad’s voice calling to me from the backyard, inviting me to join him for a swim, just a quick dip before we barbecued hotdogs and hamburgers, asking me to maybe show him and my mom what I had learned that day.
Panic attacks began that summer. One on camp picture day, when, after me and my brother had our photograph taken together, he grabbed my hand and we ran back to join our bunks. My bunk had instructional swim. I stopped running. Fell to the ground crying and screaming. He didn’t know why. Sleepless nights started to build one on top of the other, nights before I had gym class, a basketball or baseball township league game, anything athletic. My dad would watch some TV with me and tell me I’d fall asleep soon. But I wouldn’t. He didn’t know why. I became introverted. Shied away from the world. My mom would say that was always my nature, but there was much more to it. She didn’t know why. How could anyone? I never told. Some years later, I made a choice to try to be average in every way, hoping no one would ever notice me. I aimed for C’s in school. That didn’t work. I started to shut down on the inside. I started getting in trouble. My parents sent me to a psychiatrist who told them I had a self-sabotaging personality, that I locked a ball and chain around my very own ankle. But someone else locked that to my leg years ago.
Sex wasn’t something I wanted to have. A no-brainer. Why would I want to do something so vile with someone I liked and cared for? In my teenage years, I went on dates, had girlfriends, but we never did anything. Then, for some years, I did have sex, but only with women I didn’t really know or want to know. Once, I tried to have a relationship, but I only loved her because she treated me horribly (I felt I deserved it). Best friends would begin to have healthy and long relationships, and I was left behind. I lived by myself for a decade. My only company was an amazing cat, Boo, who, in a weird way, found me. I gave all of my heart’s love to that fuzzy little guy, and he loved me the same way. He was my companion and I knew that when he would die, I would have to die, too. I had a plan, but plans don’t always work out the way we think.
The cat lived long enough until I would find Kirsten, my wife. Maybe he brought me to her, and her to me; Kirsten is allergic to cats but was not allergic to Boo. She called him the “magic cat.” Kirsten is the most compassionate and empathetic person I know. While engaged, she stood by my side as I told my parents what had happened to me. We were at their house. It just came out. I grabbed a family photo album and showed them a camp photograph. “That one!” They knew. I didn’t feel ashamed like I thought I would. I felt relieved. Still, I would never be OK.
Depression: check. Anxiety disorder, prone to sudden panic attacks: check. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: double check. Pharmacy techs at the Rite-Aid down the street used to call me the “high-roller,” the “heavy-hitter,” when paying for my meds. I take much fewer meds now at least. Found a wonderful psychiatrist. Listens. Understands. Took so much time. Finally. Just 100 milligrams of Zoloft every morning and a benzo for the times when I see a yellow bus pass by; when I catch a strong whiff of chlorine; when someone cracks a joke about fathers and choir boys in church; when a Sandusky story is on the news or a commercial for Toddlers & Tiaras in which children are being told to shake their butts and chests for the judges; when a sudden scene in a movie with a kid being molested appears on the screen; when I drive by a camp (the one I went to is still open.) I have a list of triggers, I guess, but the anxiety is manageable. Mostly now it’s just talk therapy. I need it. Helps. My doctor tells me it won’t really ever go away after I sheepishly ask her if I will ever be able to get past this. She does tell me that it does lessen, and my physical reactions and dips into depression don’t have to be like a roller-coaster ride anymore. She’s honest. I trust her. I feel better. Still, there are questions. How did I take the extraordinary physical pain when it happened that summer? How do I take the emotional and physical pain ever since? In his book, The Noonday Demon, a work about depression, Andrew Solomon writes, “The human capacity to bear pain is shockingly strong.” I concur.
There is also a scene from Rocky that keeps me going from one day to the next. It’s the scene when Rocky lies in bed with Adrian, the night before the big fight, realizing that he just can’t win. More importantly, he doesn’t want to win. He says he just wants to “go the distance.” He knows he’s not even in the champ’s league, but, if he is still standing when that 15th bell rings, he’ll know he made it, that he is somebody, that he counts. I like that. I like that a whole lot. Life will always throw you punches, and some punches will knock you straight to the ground, but what’s important is that you can shake it off, get back up, and be ready for the next punch. If you can do that, then that’s all that matters. I tell my students this when they see me in my office and notice the miniature Rocky statue on my desk. Then they open up about all sorts of things: losing a loved one to gun violence; terribly abusive relationships; sleeping in cars or living in shelters while still going to school on financial aid: There’s a litany of problems that stretch for miles. I listen. I try to find them help. They are my children. I resolved, years ago, that I didn’t want to be a father. I think I’d be a good dad, but, because of what happened to me, I just can’t.
Then there’s that camp photograph. The one with the counselor who stole my childhood. In the picture, he is standing a few feet behind me, smiling. Surprising to most, I imagine, it’s actually still in one of my parents’ photo albums. I think I understand why it is still there. For them to take it out, to leave a white square on a page yellowed by time, would mean that they would have to face what happened to me, with no looking away. That might be too hard to do. They are my mom and dad, I am their child, and they love me too much.
And when it comes to water, we have an unusual relationship. It feels strange just writing that I have a relationship with water, but why wouldn’t I? (I’m an Aquarius after all.) It’s a love/hate relationship, I suppose. Sometimes the water feels good and cool again, and other times, I think of quick little responses when someone asks me to go in, but, I just can’t: “Oh, too chilly for me, but you go on ahead and I’ll watch our towels and chairs.” Sometimes the water in a swimming pool seems to be like an old friend who has been waiting for me for such a long time, waiting for me to jump back in without thought or care; other times, the water in a swimming pool looks like it is staring at me, reminding me: Better be careful, you know what this led to so long ago. I’ll never know what will happen, how I’ll react, if I’ll go in or not. I do know that this is a part of me, and I can live with that. I can live with a lot. I survived. I healed. I have scars, but I healed. I think we all can if we want to.
"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.