Family get-togethers are a huge trigger for me. I never really understood that until this year. Up until now, I just assumed that there was something wrong with me. I never understood why I left family gatherings feeling worthless, unloved, or like I had somehow done something wrong.
Why is this year different? Well, I’ve been processing my trauma this year. Honestly, I never really acknowledged my trauma until last summer. Since then, I’ve been attending counseling and trying to work through all the things that I’ve been burying since I was a kid. So this year, walking into Thanksgiving with my siblings, their spouses and kids, and my parents, I knew right away why I was on the verge of a panic attack. I knew why I wanted to just get my husband and kids in the van and go home. The thing that has been eating me up for nearly 20 years is the fact that my family seems to have just moved on and forgotten what happened…that I’m the only one suffering the long-term effects of the sexual abuse that I faced as a kid. (If you have a history of sexual abuse or are triggered by survivor stories, stop here. Seriously. I won’t be offeneded. I just need to get this shit out of my head.)
It occurred to me this week that I’ve never told anyone the extent of what happened to me. When I told my mom what had happened, I let her believe that my older brother had only been molesting me for a few months. I didn’t intentionally mislead her, but she was so horrified at the idea that he had been sneaking into my room at night for a few months that I couldn’t bring myself to correct her. So here is the ugly truth, the truth that I have to get out of my head before I explode: A few months shy of my 10th birthday, my older brother started sneaking into my room at night. For two years he would come into my room at least once a week and rape me. I was confused. I was scared. I was ashamed. I felt a weird need to protect him. So I pretended to be asleep and I didn’t tell anyone. In fact, I didn’t breathe a word about it to anyone until I finally told a friend at camp. She didn’t believe me, and promptly forgot about it. It was several months later before I confided in other friends. Then one of those friends told her mom, who called me and told me I needed to tell my mom or she would.
Long story short: I grew up in a very religious home, so this issue was dealt with by following the advice of pastors and christian [non-licensed, pastoral] counselors. And when I say it was dealt with, I mean that my brother and I (seperately) went to two counseling sessions. My mom and I have talked about it exactly once since then. My dad and I have never talked about it. My older sister and my younger brother were both informed. My sister, who is my closest friend, has never brought it up and neither have I. I only told my younger brother because he was a cuddly and huggy little boy and I literally could not stand to be touched. I finally told him after hurting his feelings for the millionth time.
I feel like I’ve been spending my life protecting people from my trauma. My parents, my siblings, even my abuser. I have forgiven my older brother. I thought I had gone through the healing process. I shoved the truth down deeper and deeper, until I took a class on crisis and trauma counseling for my ordination. (Yes, despite my concern about how my situation was handled in the church, I became a pastor. People failed me, but thus far God has not.) I started reading the textbook and I realized that I had been through serious trauma. Trauma that I have never fully acknowledged or dealt with.
And now, nearly 20 years after the abuse ended, I’m beginning to face it again. I’m having flashbacks and nightmares. I can’t sleep. I can’t sit still. I can’t be in silence. I have to constantly be doing something or I can’t help but lose myself in an avalanche of nightmarish memories. But I’m thankful that I know what I’m fighting. With the help of my husband, my [professional, licensed] counselor, my good friend and mentor, I’m working through it. I am able to realize that seeing my older brother is a trigger for me. I can acknowledge that the reason he’s such an ass is because he’s also triggered. I can see the fragility of the peace that my family is trying so hard to hold together. I can see that my mom feels like she failed me, and I can see that–even though I’m sure she doesn’t realize it–she still holds some resentment against me for shattering her idealist view of her family.
There’s part of me that wants to vomit the truth all over my family. To tell them that we swept this so far under the rug that it’s taken me 20 years to admit to myself that my brother was raping me. (In my head it wasn’t rape. Don’t even get me started on the level of denial in which I’ve been living.) But I know that wouldn’t be healthy for anyone. I considered avoiding family gatherings, but the truth is that I do love my family dearly. And I don’t want to destroy my family with the truth that should have been spoken two decades ago. I believe we missed the moment as a family to have true healing and reconciliation. Is that line of thinking just me protecting people from the truth that I live with daily? Yes. Is that healthy? I don’t know.
What I do know is that I don’t have to live in the denial that my family seems to be living in. I don’t have to pretend that I’m okay and everything’s fine. I don’t have to hide my depression and anxiety. I have been open with my family about my struggle, my therapy, and my need for medication. I am thankful for the self-awareness that I am gaining. I am thankful to have started this process. Don’t get me wrong. It sucks. But I know that on the other side of this mountain of trauma is a place of healing and acceptance. And hopefully a place where I can eat pie and drink coffee at Thanksgiving without feeling the urge to hide under the table.