They’ve Told You…Now What?
An initial disclosure of sexual abuse is the first step in a survivor’s decision to heal. They have determined that you are a safe person to go to. They are taking a leap of faith telling you what has happened to them, and most likely hoping you will respond with compassion and love. Please understand, telling you is only the beginning. Healing can be messy; It is not like climbing a staircase, with one step cleanly leading to the next. At times, healing can feel like a battle, taking two steps forward and one step back. In this two-part series, we want to focus on significant others that have experienced a disclosure first hand. Though all survivors heal in their own way, we want to provide some common steps in the healing process, what to expect, and how to manage being a trusted hero.
A significant other may be told about memories resurfacing; some survivors have a clear memory of their abuse. Others may have compartmentalized the abuse as a child and now feel as if they are being flooded with what they couldn’t remember before. Flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares, mood swings, and misplaced anger may surface. Whether the survivor shares these memories with you directly or with a counselor or support group, this will impact both of your lives.
Believing Abuse Took Place
Some survivors spend years of their lives living with an unsafe secret. It is possible they were shamed to the point where denial seems easier to manage than confronting the abuse head-on. Maybe they were blamed, told they were lying, or ignored when asking for help that they now do not trust themselves or even their own memories. Patience is crucial in all parts of healing, but especially during this period. The survivor is learning to trust themselves and come to terms with what happened to them as a child.
Learning the Abuse was Never Their Fault
Children so often are taught, and therefore believe, that sexual abuse is their fault. They are bad, dirty, or that some part of them made the abuse happen. This of course isn’t true, seeing as no one is responsible for abuse except the perpetrator…but unlearning blame and shame takes time. Many adult survivors still struggle to understand that what happened was never their fault. Not just on an intellectual level but rather with their whole being. As a significant other, please help break down the most damaging myth around sexual abuse: that a victim is somehow to blame for an abusers actions.
93% of the time, a survivor of child sexual abuse knows their abuser. An adult survivor of sexual abuse needs space to grieve not only the loss of their childhood and innocence, but the fact that someone they knew, loved, and trusted hurt them in this way. For someone abused by a family member, they may have to grieve the losses of family who chose to support an abuser rather than the abused. While it may seem strange for a survivor to grieve over losing family or loved ones that were abusive, it is totally normal. Abusers gain the trust and love of a child and use it to silence them and continue their abuse. Just because a survivor learns that their abuser was wrong and hurtful does not automatically negate the love they may be feeling.
When a loved one discloses a trauma like sexual abuse, it can turn our world upside down. Many survivors lean on their closest friends and family to help them through a healing journey. Understand that the anger, grief, frustration, and sadness you feel are just as valid as a survivor’s, and if you do not acknowledge your own pain you cannot help another with their’s. Join us next week for Part 2, focusing on how we as significant others can maintain support to step back when a survivor breaks their silence and shares their story publicly.
FULL TRANSCRIPT (The following is the full transcript of this episode of The Be Seen and Heard Journey. Please note that this episode, like all BSH Journey episodes, features Victor speaking extemporaneously–he is unscripted and unedited.)
Hey, it’s Victor and welcome to another Be Seen and Heard© Journey. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with me. They’ve told you now what…it’s a great title for this week’s blog and podcast and post. I can only really share this from my own personal experience, but there are different ways that people respond once they’ve been told of abuse has occurred in one’s family. When I finally had the courage to call home, and again, if you don’t know my story, I didn’t have the courage to tell my sister that I had been abused. I couldn’t use those words, but she guessed it out of me, which was completely amazing. She stayed with me on the phone and then I finally had the courage to come home and face my parents again, you see, I was threatened at eight…I was told that my parents would be mad at me, so I better not say anything. And so for 11 years I thought they would be mad at me….They were not mad at me.
But when I finally had the courage to face them and to talk to them, they didn’t know what to do. And they responded like this….Victor, why didn’t you tell us when this happened? Well, it’s not really a fair question because I didn’t know how to answer it. I was eight years old and I was threatened and I was scared. So that’s not a real productive question because there’s no productive answer to be honest with you. They responded with complete guilt. My father took it upon himself to go find this individual by making a phone call. And what happened was the person wasn’t in. So my father left a message and the person called back, ironically, a night that my parents were out and I was by myself in the house. I was still right in the middle of dealing with this. And I picked up the phone and I heard that voice across the line. And so my parents dealt with it by trying to solve it and by taking it upon themselves to go out and reach out and find this person.
Obviously, that was not the most productive way to deal with it. For me, and after talking to my parents for a little while about what happened to me, the best course of action was for them to listen to me, to believe me, and to get me the proper help that I needed. And my parents and my family were very supportive throughout all of this. …They never questioned me. They never said this didn’t happen, which in a lot of children’s stories, they’re not believed and so they either have to hold onto it or they need to go tell somebody else.
In my case, I’m very fortunate, I had a huge support team and they were all there. They just didn’t know necessarily how to deal with it. You’re never ready to deal with something like this. So in every situation of abuse, people react and respond in different ways. And the best way that I can really put this out here today is this…If someone comes to you and says you know, I’ve had this trauma in my life, this unsafe secret…I would say to listen to them, don’t judge them, believe them, get all the information, let them talk, and then make suggestions on how they can get the help they need. I always tell kids that when you’re finally sharing to a trusted hero, most trusted heroes are not counselors and social workers and psychologists. They’re the people we love, like our parents and our grandparents.
So these trusted heroes may not know exactly what to do, but they are a vital in the healing of that child. For me, my parents, family, brothers and sisters, they were vital in my healing because they were there for me and they never questioned me. So they’ve told you now what? Well, the now what is to listen, to be there for that child and to help them get to the next level of healing. I want to thank you for taking the time this week to watch this video or listen to this podcast. Please share it with your family and friends and let’s keep this moving forward and let’s help every child Be Seen and Heard©. Thank you.