Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Shackles of Silence

"Now don't tell anyone," he said as he put his pants back on, "or we will both get into trouble. This is a game only mommies and daddies play. You don't want to get into trouble do you?"

That lie bought him 7 years of silence, seven years of total freedom. He had no worries, no fear, no guilt, and no remorse in that time. In fact he made a game out of it; torturing me silently in front of our families. His gestures, his expressions; he made it clear that he wanted to get me alone again.

Forcing a victim to remain silent is nothing new and is not unique to sexual assault. Victims of domestic violence suffer in silence. Victims of workplace bullying suffer in silence. Victims of child abuse suffer in silence.

Silence is an effective tool used by the abuser. It forces a victim to internalize anger and lowers her self-esteem as a result. Silence is paralyzing and coexists with fear, depression, and self-doubt. The first step in the healing process is always breaking the silence.

So why don't victims simply speak out? If silence is the only thing holding 

these victims back, what's the problem? 

The problem is that most of us do not know how to respond to a victim when s/he first speaks up. Chances are good that a victim is NOT going to disclose first to police or mental health professional. The first person to hear about the abuse is usually a loved one or friend.

At age 13 I spoke up, to my mother. I was resolute about seeking justice. I had used the few tools that my school library had to offer to research rape and statutes of limitations, and knew that my time may be running out. And I just knew my mom would be angry and would feel the same as I did. I mean, what parent wouldn't?

"Boys do those sorts of things," she offered. Incensed I argued more passionately and with more detail.  But mom simply responded with, "Oh Trisha, that was a long time ago" and "no we aren't calling the police" and finally "we aren't going to discuss this anymore." And we didn't. She left the table and remained silent on the issue for 30 years.

Her silence spoke volumes to me. Her silence told me that I was not valuable, and in many ways, that she didn't believe the rape actually happened.  I was shackled by the silence imposed on me by the rapist at age 6, now my mother simply secured the lock. The years that followed are a very dark period in my life. I went down the path of a typical abuse victim; substance abuse, re-victimization, depression, and suicide attempts.

It was not silence that led me to freedom. It was speaking out. In the almost five years since I pursued justice, I have told my story scores, possibly hundreds, of times. And every time I tell it, it becomes a little less painful. I don't expect that pain to ever subside completely. But I refuse to suffer from the pain of silence any more. I am more valuable than that. I deserve much more than that, and so do you.

A colleague, who became friend, and I spoke at lunch one day. I had begun the process of seeking justice for the rape (yes, 36 years later because it was a felony) and she said something amazing to me.

"I'm sorry your mother did not listen to you. I'm sorry your mother did that to you. You did nothing to deserve that." If we had been in a Lifetime movie, a golden spotlight would have shown over her and the choir would have broken into the Hallelujah chorus at that moment. Her words were so simple, and yet so freeing. It was not my fault. Her silence, and the imposition of my silence, simply continued the abuse that started with rape.

I am still processing the broad impact silence had on my life. But when I broke my silence, I encountered something I did not expect; company. Suddenly friends of mine opened up to me and began telling me their stories, many for the first time. I have been the listening ear for domestic violence victims and victims of childhood sexual abuse. I am always amazed at how similar, how common, our stories really are.

And I always tell them "I'm sorry ______ happened to you. I'm sorry ______ did that to your. You did nothing to deserve it." And I always see the look same on their faces, the same spark of hope.

If you have been suffering in silence, I encourage you to speak out. I know it is scary. I know you fear reliving the pain of the abuse, and the potential reaction of whomever hears your story for the first time. In my experience I can tell you that family and friends are often more difficult to talk to than strangers. It can be hard for family and friends to listen to you without reacting strongly. People who love you should become angry for you, and sometimes that anger appears misplaced onto you,  the victim. If you seek counseling, select someone who specializes in trauma. Or you can email me (link at top). I will listen, I will believe you. I will help you find your voice.

If you are reading this but are not a victim, thank you. Don't be afraid to respond to a victim when s/he opens up to you. if they speak to you in confidence, listen and comfort. If you take the time to read the blog, take the time to say something encouraging. You don't have to have all the answers. You don't have to fix the situation. But remember, silence speaks volumes.

Here is a list of suggested responses from the website RAINN* 

  1. “I’m sorry this happened.” Acknowledge their experience and how it affected their life. You can use words to show you empathize using phrases like “This must be really tough for you” and “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me.”
  2. “It’s not your fault.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind your friend – maybe even more than once – that they are not to blame.
  3. “I believe you.” It can be extremely difficult for people to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed or they may fear being blamed for the assault. So when someone shares their experience with you, the best thing you can do is to believe them.
  4. “I’m here to listen.” Remind your friend that you are there to listen. The wake of an assault can be challenging for a survivor, as they might be making difficult decisions, such as deciding to go through the justice process.
  5. “You can trust me.” If a survivor opens up to you, it means they trust you. Reassure that you won’t judge them and respect them by respecting their privacy. Before you share their story with others, make sure it’s okay with them. They may not be ready to take that step yet.
  6. “Are you open to receiving medical attention?” Your friend might need medical attention, even if the assault happened a while ago. You can ask, “Are you open to seeking medical care?” or offer to send them information about health resources on campus.

*RAINN- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network

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