It’s been one year since I started writing this blog. If you are a new reader I encourage you to go back and read the first few posts of this blog. To all of you who are reading, following, liking, sharing and commenting: THANK YOU! I’m writing this blog for the dual purpose of expressing myself and connecting with others who are struggling, letting them know they are not alone. You are not alone. Though this blog has dealt with graphic and dark topics, I aim for the overall message to be one of hope and resilience.
Twenty one years ago tomorrow (April 12, 1996) the entire course of my life changed. I was 15 years old and I entered into an abusive relationship that altered my relationship to myself, my friends, my family and my body. I went from a relatively happy, self assured, popular 15 year old girl, to an anorexic, withdrawn, self-hating, 16 year old young woman.
I believe Ana was born at this time. It’s no coincidence that Ana is 15 years old. Ana is my traumatized child self personified. Ana is angry in ways my younger self could not be. Ana is all the fear, shame, guilt and hopelessness personified into a rebellious teenager who only wants to hurt me and say a giant F U to the rules of the world.
Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if I’d never dated X. If I’d never tried to befriend him. If I’d never believed that I could help him feel better about himself.
I also wonder how my life would have been different if I’d been taught as a child that it’s okay not to be “nice” to someone who is hurting you. I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d been less concerned with being “perfect” and more concerned with protecting myself. I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d realized that saving myself was even an option. I was an easy target for perpetrators of abuse. I played the role of rescuer, helper, caretaker and I never wanted to let anyone down or disappoint anyone.
People who don’t understand normal coping reactions to sexual violence have asked me: Why didn’t you just scream? Why didn’t you tell someone? Why didn’t you push him and run away?
All I can say is that the answer is so complicated. The answer lies in the social conditioning of some women living in a patriarchal, rape culture. The answer lies in being taught to be “good” rather than to be true to oneself. The answer lies in physiological responses which caused me to freeze and disassociate rather than fighting or fleeing. Those physiological responses were not random, but were connected to the socialization of being a “good girl.”
My 15 year old self never would have considered screaming or fighting back. Because she was ashamed, blamed herself and never wanted to make a scene. My 15 year old self was confused and inexperienced and it took her a while to figure out that she didn’t like the sexual experiences that were being forced on her. It took her a while to figure out that she wasn’t really choosing. By the time she realized it wasn’t right, she was already coping by disassociating to lessen the impact of the abuse. By the time she started firmly saying no, the pattern of abuse and the cycle of violence was already firmly established. And because she was not naturally an assertive child and had not been taught to fight back in self defense, when her no wasn’t listened to, she began to shut down even further, withdraw further and develop other ingenious coping techniques such as anorexia, self harm and disassociating completely.
These reactions weren’t accidental. They were conditioned from a young age. Adults have to teach children to fight back. Adults have to teach children that being nice can stop when someone crosses a boundary. Adults have to teach children to fight like hell to escape a dangerous situation. And even if a child learns all these things, it is still possible that in a violent situation freezing can be the only available option. Many people being abused feel that fighting back would only result in further violence and physical injuries.
In my case, what kept me frozen was guilt and shame. I thought I was doing something shameful by being sexual. I thought that his family and my family would judge me. I thought that my friends would judge me for neglecting them (as I was being socially isolated by the abuser). Self blame kept me frozen and not fighting back.
Even as an adult, 21 years later, I still cope with conflict and stress by freezing or disassociating. I’m still not skilled at saying no. I also have difficulty saying yes or asking for what I need.
I think for a person who has experienced sexual violence it is difficult to say no. Because in the abusive situation no was ignored and pushed past. So staying silent feels less painful than having no not respected. If I never really say no, I can’t be abused again. It’s warped logic. It is not productive or helpful, and it also prevents me from comfortably saying yes.
For someone whose boundaries have been consistently violated, setting boundaries can become a life long struggle. A skill that must be learned or relearned gradually and with patience and self compassion.
Quite simply, I survived in abusive relationships for many years because I literally felt I had no other option. I didn’t even feel like I deserved to be respected and I was gaslighted into believing the abuse was my own fault.
It’s never helpful to ask a survivor “Why didn’t you just leave?”
Keep those thoughts to yourself.
They would have left if they could have. And if they did leave, they are successful. It doesn’t matter how long it took. It took as long as it needed and not a moment longer. Celebrate the reality, don’t question why it didn’t happen sooner. “Why didn’t you just leave?” is a type of victim blaming statement. If you don’t understand how someone could be trapped into an abusive relationship, educate yourself. Don’t ask the survivor to educate you on their own painful lived experiences. Survivors need to feel believed and validated, not questioned into justifying their existence.
Every year on April 12, I count another year of my life that has been impacted by sexual violence. It is a grim reminder that for many survivors, myself including, that the abuse was not “a long time ago” and we can’t “just get over it” or “just move on.” For people living with PTSD, time is a slippery beast. Ana is still 15 years old. Ana is me, she’s a part of me. A part of me that never really grew up. A part of me that needs parenting.
I’ve never parented a teenager before. I have no experience. But I guess I’ll have to start somewhere. And starting with acknowledging she is here, and she has unmet needs, is as good a place as any!