“The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.”
-- Excerpt from “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou
I started writing this piece about five years ago. It’s been a process that started with me recognizing that I was a victim. Up until the age of about 25 I would say I refused to admit that I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Thinking of myself in this way made me feel flawed, imperfect, and damaged. I worked very hard to numb my feelings, which allowed me to suppress my abuse. I’m sharing my journey of trauma, healing, and survivorship because I have found that the most profound element of my journey from victimhood to survivorship was recognizing that I was a victim. This may be hard for some because it is recognizing that you have been violated to the core of your being, in ways that you consciously cannot measure. As a child, the way I coped with this violation was dissociation; I escaped my reality through daydreams and denial. Throughout this writing, I share my abuse, my denial, and how I began to heal in hopes that my experiences not only help other victims, but also informs those wanting to be advocates in understanding the diverse process of survivorship.
I was 8 years old when I was first sexually violated. A family acquaintance, Tyrone, would come to visit and I had to do what he wanted. I used to wear this dingy pink pajama shirt when he came to visit -- I felt like he wanted me to wear it. I did what he asked for several years, perhaps from age 8 until the age of 11. I don’t remember much from this time in my life; I blocked it out. What I share in this paper is all I remember from the years during my abuse. I remember the pink pajama shirt, I remember doing what I was told, and I remember hiding abuse, scars, fear, and pain by being perfect. I was a studious student, straight A’s and B’s. I was in martial arts, piano lessons, an altar server for our church, as well as a track and basketball athlete. I was the student that teachers loved and that peers admired. I was popular for my intelligence and humor. I smiled all the time and you’d never know that I was being sexually abused.
My second sexual violation was with a close family friend, Tim. He came into my bedroom one night, sat on the edge of my bed, and leaned over my chest. As my sister slept in her bed just across mine, I slowly felt his breathe over my chest as he leaned closer and closer over me. Then, he rubs my chest. I never squeezed my eyes so tight in my life. I just wanted to be sleep. “Why can’t I just be sleep?”
Being molested at the age of 8 changes you. You see men differently. I saw men as perverse. They only want sex. To escape the abuse I detached from the world. Daydreams became my best friend as I imagined a world that didn’t include me. I became deeply depressed and suicidal for most of my childhood and teenage years. The first time I lied about being molested was when I was 14 years old and my then boyfriend asked me if I ever had sex before. I lied and told him “no” at first and later said “yea with some dude named ‘Nate’”. Nate was the sexual abuse, the unspeakable, and the shame. Nate was my first: an unfair truth that set the foundation for my anger towards an unfair world. Nate was everywhere and nowhere, everyday.
Agreeing on Evil
In order to heal you have to be willing to make even the worse of situations real. For a long time I refused to do this with regards to being abused. Oddly enough, I was in the process of getting over a breakup and in trying to move on when I decided that maybe working on forgiving my ex would help. So I downloaded the Bible app and started the 7-day Forgiveness Plan hoping that in 7 days I would have forgiven, and be moved on from my relationship. Side note – if this seems random, it is. My life can be just that sometimes.
Anyway, my expectations for forgiving my ex using the 7-day forgiveness plan didn’t quite happen the way I expected. “Day 1” in the plan said:
“In scripture the term ‘confess’ means to agree on the issue. When we accurately confess sin, we agree with God on the true nature of the problem between us and others… Jacob gave his sons very wise advice; he told them exactly what to say: please forgive your brothers for the great wrong they did to you – for their sin is treating you so cruelly. The term great wrong can also be translated as evil.”
When I read that devotional I thought about Tyrone, who molested me. About six or seven years ago he attempted to ask for my forgiveness. He contacted me and asked, “can I talk to you …” and I knew what he wanted to talk about. We were never close and never had private conversations – if he was dying, killed someone, needed money, was on the run from the cops, I would not be the first, second, third, or even one hundredth person he would call. So I knew this ‘talk’ could only be about the unspeakable. When he asked to speak to me, I said “no.” I couldn’t talk to him about that. I hadn’t even come to terms or even admitted that I was abused. I was still very much in denial. I was still in this state of wanting to deny or forget it ever happened and how dare he try to bring this up, let alone what gave him the right to ask for my forgiveness.
After reading that bible verse it struck me that first, I can’t work on my breakup and forgiving my ex until I forgive the men who left their scars before him. Second, I couldn’t forgive Tyrone because I couldn’t agree on this evil and until I could agree, there was nothing to forgive. With that, somehow I felt compelled to contact Tyrone and so I did:
Me: Hey Tyrone, remember when you contacted me a while back? And I think you were trying to share or talk to me? Were you trying to apologize? ::pause::
Me: I forgive you.
Tyrone: I remember. Yes I was trying to apologize. I’m sorry Leeja. I appreciate that.
Me: I forgive you Tyrone, I genuinely do.
Tyrone: Thank you.
Me: You’re welcome. Thank you.
I have never forgiven anyone to that degree before, and after doing it I honestly felt free. An overwhelming sense of FREEDOM consumed me. I felt limber, rested, clear, and powerful. The unspeakable no longer consumed me: the shame, the silence, the pain, the whatever it was didn’t have me trapped anymore. I think because I finally acknowledged the evil on my own terms, which allowed a process of confession, then forgiveness, and healing.
Survivorship is a Process
It wasn’t until I began writing about my abuse that I was able to look at my reality and begin to recognize that I was living in denial and denial was a way to deal with the shame and violation that I experienced. This was at the age of 25 or so. Almost 20 years after my initial violation. Society’s expectations for how victims process, unpack, and heal are grossly ill informed. The expectation that victims should be ready to confront those that have assaulted them is insensitive and unrealistic. Survivorship is a process. It is not an automatic outcome of being a victim, but a process emotionally, mentally, and physically involving developing consciousness about your trauma, its affects, and the healing process. When we judge survivors we are diminishing all the challenges one experiences as a consequence to being abused and assaulted. Instead, we demand victims be empowered despite the disempowering, humiliating, and damaging affects of sexual abuse and assault. Justice does not only exist within the institutions of our criminal justice and legal systems, but is a personal process as well.
This process, I’ve learned and experienced, takes its own time.