|| Why Disclose Child Abuse That Happened to You When You are Now an Adult?
by Misty Livingston, writer for NAASCA (National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse)
I am writing this after discussions with several other survivors of child abuse this past week that have given me much food for thought about disclosure. If you don't know what I mean by disclosure, it is deciding who to let know about the abuse you have experienced in your life. This issue is a very personal one and significant to my life right now as I have decided in the last six months to break the silence about the history of child abuse in my family. If you care to read ahead, I appreciate your thoughts and feedback because I know I am not alone.
Today another survivor had shared something they had learned a hard lesson about in a 12 step program concerning disclosure: "don't go to a hardware store for a loaf of bread." Meaning don't expect normal and healthy reactions from people who are part of your toxic / dysfunctional family. So if we are seeking healing in our lives, then we must first realize we cannot get our “nourishment” (or bread) from people who are tools of the abusers!
My step-Dad became a devout Christian scholar while I was in my early teens and continued to share things with me in the role of "teacher" and "spiritual leader of our family" before he passed away in 2011. This made me remember one of the lessons my Dad would mention to me now and again:
"Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces." -- (Matthew 7:6 NIV)
My Dad used this passage to talk about chastity, but it always had a deeper meaning to me and now a new layer of meaning is coming from it. At the historical time this passage was written the author, Matthew, was talking about giving food that was considered holy (because it was for an offering to god) to dogs as if they were table scraps. Also pearls at that time and place of the world were considered the most precious and expensive of all jewels. So just like you can't get your bread from a tool shed, you shouldn't give your most valuable/vulnerable self to people who will not value you and will harm or abuse you.
For many of those who have experienced child abuse, our extended families are toxic and dysfunctional. Some members of the family are abusers, some are enablers of abusers, and some have been abused. Some are all three of these. As a survivor of child abuse, going to our family for support when there has been a long established culture of accepting the abusers and denying the abuse, protecting abusers and silencing the abused, keeping family secrets, and inter-generational abuse.... we CANNOT ever expect to share our most vulnerable and painful parts of our lives and get anything healing in return. In a way the secrets, feelings associated with those secrets, and the ways it has affected us have become a huge part of our "sacred self." We are more than our abuse, but a large part of who we are is because of what we have experienced.
So why do we disclose then? Why not just keep it to ourselves instead of talking about it and dealing with some people's negative response to it? If the sad reality is that we may never have validation, acceptance, support, healthy relationships, etc. with the people who are our flesh and blood but also closest to our abusers? Why put ourselves through the potential (and likely) rejection and further abuse we will face by them and others?
I'm sure every survivor of abuse has their own reasons for disclosing. In my younger years when I initially disclosed at the age of 16 it was to get help so the affects of the abuse would end (disclosed abuse to a therapist is something the therapist is mandated to report). It was because I felt responsible for preventing my abusers from hurting any other children. It was also to seek validation, to have the people who hurt me say I'm sorry I did this to you and for the family to say we aren't going to tolerate this.
Of course, I was able to accomplish none of these things with disclosure. My family, even those that acknowledge the abuse happened or were abused by the same people, have done nothing to prevent the abusers from continuing to abuse. Some people I love cut me out of their life, some even made my life more difficult by lashing out in various ways. Some kept me in their life but placed conditions on our relationship like not talking about the abuse around them, or not expecting them to distance themselves from the abusers, or at times pushing me into situations where I had to choose isolation or interaction with an abuser. My abuser did go on to continue abusing other children after my disclosure. I believe it is more likely than not he is still actively abusing children to this day from the behavior I observe of him and his wife. And as far as getting over the affects and symptoms of the child abuse... well I have come to understand and accept that it will be something I will live with for the rest of my life. You don't get ever over it.
So why now do I find myself 25 years after my initial disclosure re-opening this can of worms and disclosing again? More publicly this time and to all the family not just some? To those who call themselves my friends, and in a public way that exposes me to people I have never met before? Even knowing the negative lash back, doubt, and denial that will happen in my family and how I will lose some people from my life?
For me, it is to be released from that cycle of dysfunction and not allow it a foothold in my life. To make a break from it and choose to no longer be a part of that culture of denial and acceptance of abuse. To live a life that is free of the lies I was programmed to believe such as that what happened to me was something for me to be ashamed of and hide from people. To take that misplaced shame I have carried out of me and put it where it belongs - on the persons who actually did the abuse and enabled it. To take the metaphorical duct tape off my mouth and say "I will not allow anyone to silence me or take my voice away again." To take back full ownership of my self, my experiences in life, my personal truth. To take back the part of myself that I have suppressed and the memories I have repressed. To embrace, accept, and love the whole of my self including the parts that were abused. To be able to say this is a part of me and who I am, it has knocked me low in my past and caused me great suffering but it is also something I can draw strength from through helping others and advocating for future generations. To enter a new phase of the healing journey in recovery from abuse.
In simplest terms... because it isn't about my abusers or my family any longer. It's about understanding the value of my “pearls” and sharing them with others who are hurting and who have been silenced.
It is hugely liberating to be lifted from that burden no matter the emotional cost or the loss of relationships. To live my truth. That is the creed I now use to make any decisions in my day to day life. Good, bad, and ugly... it is the truth. I am no longer ashamed, and I can look myself in the mirror and say I am proud that I have survived through everything that I have experienced in life. I can use the specialized knowledge, empathy, and understanding from those experiences to make a positive difference in the life of someone else... but only by bringing into the light what I have lived with in the dark.
I hope my words reach someone out there that has taken time to read them. If you have been living with the emotional pain of abuse you have experienced in silence, you don't have to feel alone anymore. There are communities of other survivors, like myself, who can become the supportive family that your flesh and blood family never was and never could be like NAASCA (http://www.naasca.org), RAINN (https://www.rainn.org), and ISURVIVE (http://isurvive.org) just to name a few. People who will accept you without placing conditions and expectations on you, people who will not abuse you and will not tolerate anyone else abusing you. You can find your voice and use it to free yourself from the past and help others begin healing too.
If you are reading this and unsure of where to turn, please feel free to reach out to me in the comments or in a private message and I can provide you with resources and supports. Please feel free to share this message to help me reach as many as possible who may be feeling trapped and silenced by their past child abuse.