The Weight of Shame For Survivors Of Child Sexual Abuse

Image: PatriciaEagle.com

By Patricia Eagle

[TW: child abuse, sexual abuse]

At a critical juncture in my life, I realized that continuing to stay quiet about my experiences of sexual abuse could very well kill me. Shame was too great a burden. Not speaking up added to that weight. Often I didn’t speak my truth, whether for lack of courage or thinking my story wasn’t worth being told––and, my God, what would people think of me? My mental health became too precarious and suicide ideation surfaced. I wondered if my life was worth haggling with memories of sexual abuse and the shame that resulted. Maybe the abuse was my fault? How could something so awful have felt good? Was I that desperate for love? Why didn’t I talk to someone when my suspicions arose?

Sexual abuse is ridiculously prevalent—so many abused children, so many perpetrators injured in some way that leads them to inflict injury––with all of this occurring in our big world of secrets. My silence was suffocating me. Finally, I decided to step into that pool of courageous survivors who have told their stories and add my own: Being Mean––A Memoir of Sexual Abuse and Survival.

Although it was not my fault when the sexual abuse happened, my ability to trust others, and to trust myself, became irrevocably damaged. For two decades I shamed myself for who I was: an over-sexualized risk-taker who created chaos with an ambivalence toward safety and survival. I could barely control my feelings on top of a barrage of flashbacks that often left me aroused and confused in their wake: being in a camper with my dad, in his 18-wheeler sleeper, or masturbating together in my bed at home. As a child I had come to sense something was not right, but I didn’t yet know how to know what wasn’t right.

By my teens, I wanted help, but talking to anyone felt too risky. I learned to numb and dissociate by over-sexualizing and hyper-exercising; if I hadn’t, either I would have killed myself or taken a risk that would have done it for me. Forgetting was imperative to survival. I practiced keeping memories buried and ignoring flashbacks in Herculean efforts to be normal. Thus the transformation of victim to survivor. 

Mental health concerns are as important as any health concerns, although our culture doesn’t always recognize that. Someone getting mental health care might be shamed for not “letting things go” or not “putting one foot in front of the other and moving past the tough stuff.” Thankfully, mental health issues and shame no longer debilitate me. Risking honest, open conversations with people in my life and decades of supportive therapy continue to help me on this healing journey.

There are still stigmas around bringing up sexual abuse. Often people who finally gather the courage to tell their stories are not believed and are shamed and belittled. It is not a young person’s fault when sexual abuse happens, and their ability to learn to trust another or themselves can become irrevocably damaged at all ages. And somewhere in this equation of sexual abuse, stigma, shame, and survivors, is the perpetrator. How can we identify, talk with and help perpetrators?

We must encourage others to speak up, listen carefully, and not shame one another for our experiences. In the front of my book I dedicate my memoir “to all those with the courage to trust being truthful,” but I could also have said, to all those with the courage to trust being vulnerable. If only we could allow strength to arise from our experiences of vulnerability more than shame.

A Life-Cycle Celebrant® and story gatherer, Patricia Eagle maintains an unyielding commitment to excavating and acknowledging what is resilient about her life and the lives of others. She lives in southern Colorado and is the author of Being Mean: A Memoir of Sexual Abuse and Survival, published June 11, 2019 by She Writes Press. Learn more about the author’s work here:https://patriciaeagle.com/

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