One of the biggest lessons I have taken away from my own journey navigating abuse was the power that came with authoring my own story.
As a child, I didn’t have the framework to position my abuse in a storyline that made sense. Like many of my other peers, I had to go and stay with another family after school until my parents would return from work. This informal form of childcare was normal, it felt like everyone had that neighbor or extended family member that served as their after-school care before returning home for the evening.
I stayed under the care of one family for a couple of years. As our relationships and familiarities with each other grew, one of the older kids gradually developed (what they called) “a game” with me over time. The game had an ever-changing rulebook I never got to see and fixated roles that I wasn’t allowed to challenge. The game became routine, at the same time wildly erratic and sporadic. Again, I didn’t know how to understand what this game meant, my adolescent brain couldn’t decipher why it felt wrong.
Maybe everyone else had their games going on while I was in mine. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe other kids felt the awkwardness, discomfort, and pain I felt. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe everyone was just keeping quiet, like I was. I just didn’t know. All I did know was that there were certain expectations in this game, the game was a secret, and quitting wasn’t an option.
Growing up, the story of my abuse revealed itself to me incrementally, like waves of realization. It wasn’t until my family and health class teachers started broaching conversations of puberty that I started to recognize the carnal nature of my game. The game then became sex. I didn’t know how to understand that at the time. As the puzzle pieces were appearing, I was still alone in trying to complete the picture.
It was later, in high school, when topics of consent turned my strange childhood game not into sex, but into sexual abuse. Rape. In a high school assembly, surrounded by disinterested teenagers texting in their laps or staring at the ceiling, I was offered the identity of a rape victim, and my brain took it on. At the time, I didn’t know how to understand what that meant for me either. Another crucial piece of the puzzle, but I was now too afraid to solve what I was now seeing as my own trauma.
My early experience with attempting to understand what it meant to be a survivor of sexual abuse was controlled by the narratives of other people. Looking back, I can now see how easy it was to hand over the narrative of my own story, my array of puzzle pieces, to my teachers, my friends, TV, the Internet. Everyone else seemed to have a stronger opinion on the matter than I could construct myself. I intentionally went out of my way to find meaning in myself through the words of others.
I let other people construct how I was supposed to feel, how strong I was supposed to be, how I should act, how I should behave in public, private, with friends, with partners. This search for myself through the informal channels I had access to misguided me in a multitude of ways. Survivors of sexual trauma were rarely portrayed for their strength, stability and potential, even more so male ones. My supposed strengths and opportunities, weaknesses and limitations were placed before me. The past looked shameful, the present broken, the future bleak.
Lost in the opinions and biases of others, it was easy for me to feel overwhelmed by how much shame I was willingly letting get stacked on my shoulders. I was in my final years of high school when the pain of my childhood and the anxiety of my supposed future helped me make a crucial pivot.
Maybe a mental fortification, or a mental break, I adopted a new mantra: “it doesn’t affect me”. I went into everything with the pursuit of perfection. Academics, friends, dating, clubs, sports, jobs. I did it all, and I was aiming to do it better than you.
I spent many sleepless nights and over-packed days trying to prove to others, but mostly myself, that my abuse didn’t slow me down in the least. It didn’t weaken me or give me any handicaps. Such determination opened up many doors for me in life, opportunities and experiences I don’t think would have ever found me naturally in the small town I grew up in.
But my new, pseudo-impenetrable mindset started to crack once I entered university. I couldn’t sustain my self-imposed hustle, and gradually watched the balance of life deteriorate as I failed to carry the workload I created for myself. I was gaining weight even though I wasn’t eating regularly, was sleeping in class more than I was in my own bed, had no genuine connections even though I spent every night out with friends. By taking on “it doesn’t affect me”, I let it affect me in every way.
At this point, I finally decided to seek professional help.
For most of my life, I believed the worst thing that happened to me was surviving my trauma as a child. Not the trauma itself, but having to live life afterwards. I let misguided conclusions and off-handed comments write, and mangle, the fragile story of my childhood. Through what I saw in the media, through the jokes and comments my schoolmates would make, I was sitting bystander to an unfolding tragedy. I wasn’t authoring my own story, but willingly letting others write a travesty.
Moving into my “it doesn’t affect me” stage gave me the facade of resilience and control, when it truly was no better. No one else was writing my story now, I wouldn’t allow that… but I wasn’t authoring my own story either. I, instead, tried to ignore it completely, busying myself until there was no space left for it to exist. The story had stopped, and anxiously waited for someone to bring the pen back to paper.
After a year of counseling and even more time reconciling with my trauma head-on, I feel I am finally writing my own story. I have a growing love for myself, the innate parts that were always there, but also the parts that grew and blossomed because of my trauma. I recognize the power of my trauma to both strengthen and weaken, and have grown to appreciate the ebb and flow of these processes.
I saw my progress in owning this piece of myself most clearly this past year, when I came across an article stating that childhood abuse victims are prone to becoming predators themselves as adults. Years ago, theories like this were the chronic pit in my stomach. This theory would have become the story of a future that I didn’t want to live, but had to.
I no longer take these theories on as my truth, nor do I try to throw accomplishments and accolades at them to try to scare them away.
I am still writing my story, I am not always sure of what the next page will be, nor do I always know if my writing is eloquent enough, moving enough, explosive enough. But now I’m the person holding the pen, and that’s enough.
My trauma as a child has fueled my adult life in many enriching ways, shaping a path that has landed me in my current role as an educator. Working on the African continent for years now, I have come to love many aspects of my job, but nothing stands out as much as witnessing my students find the courage to self-actualize. My work gained a higher purpose when I started to walk alongside learners as they take the brave first steps towards becoming unabashedly themselves. Holding a space where young people can gather and celebrate each other as they write their own stories will forever be the most impactful work I can put on this Earth.
As I continue my journey of owning my trauma, I have come to share my story with hotline operators, therapists, friends, family, people who I love and have fallen in love with. And now, on the precipice of sharing it with any passerby on the internet, I can confidently say no sharing has proved as crucial as the day I sat down and spoke it to myself.
For everyone whose trauma has forced the pen out of their hand, please know:
You do not need to be broken.
You do not need to be alone.
You are capable and worthy of love.