As a young kid, I ran with other young kids around the apartment complex. Many times, this was with my twin brother or older brother and sister. It was fun, roaming outside with very little oversight. Our parents let us explore and learn – we gained independence, figured out our limits, and when we got a bump, cut, or bruise, we practiced the sage advice to “rub a little dirt on it.” Riding bikes, hanging at the playground, playing freeze tag… A parent might only come look for you if it was getting dark out there.
When you’re with a pack, it’s fun, you’re usually safe. But when alone on your way home, who knows? A young man (18-19?) who lived near us saw me walking. He invited me to take a hike with him and head back in the woods. He wanted to show me something really cool all the way back to the second pond. I was so young, I couldn’t believe this cool kid would want to spend time with me. He then sexually assaulted me. He said “don’t tell your family”. So, I didn’t. But, I finally told a therapist many years later as a senior in high school.
This was a heavy secret to carry for many years. I had very loving parents, but I would never want to hurt them by telling them all that had happened. The impacts growing up as a teenager included fear, guilt, shame, anxiety, an underlying sadness, loneliness, self-hate, and self-harm. I sought out attention in other ways (stealing, for example), I was desperate to make others laugh. I needed to feel validated, while also suppress my feelings. I became a casual liar and avoided conflict. While I wanted true friends, I’d put on a fake smile to keep others at a distance. I was haunted by the question what is wrong with me?
I went through bouts of feeling very sad and alone. In high school, I would sneak out at night and walk for hours. Once while delivering newspapers, I beat my head into the street to cause bleeding, then walked into the local Taco Bell to tell people I “had just been jumped”. It felt good to do something physical. My injuries could be “seen”. My friends and family could get angry at this imaginary monster, enough to go driving around to try and find him.
One particular highly-anxious evening, I tried to escape the house and my Dad stopped me. I was just so tired. In my Dad’s car, I told him I had faked being beat up, then we went out to Denny’s for some late evening breakfast. I calmly told him about the event that had changed my life so long ago. The next week, I took a blood test to confirm I didn’t have HIV or any other unexpected surprises.
Heavy story, right? But, that is not the point of sharing this.
What part did I play in these negative outcomes?
A precious loneliness is how I would describe it. Yes, I was a victim. In some ways, I was comfortable harboring this secret for myself. I would recognize the sadness as an old friend. But there comes a point where we have to decide what gets to define us. I once heard someone say “If you argue for your reasons long enough, you get to keep ’em.” I was arguing with myself. How long did I want to hang on to this thing?
There were several gifts I received from this experience: First, I’ve gained a radar to help others, especially victims. I’m more sensitive to their needs because I’ve been there. Second, I’ve learned to express myself in creative ways. Art and music are helpful outlets. Third, I’ve gradually become more comfortable being uncomfortable. This has served me well the last twenty years as I do things I never thought I could do. I can have more difficult conversations and encourage others to break their barriers. Fourth, I learned how to forgive — myself and others. I don’t even remember the name of the person who took advantage of me. I’ve read some research, he likely grew up as a victim himself. He will never receive my forgiveness, but I sure feel lighter letting him go.
The final gift: I’m resilient — a Victor, not a victim… Ok, sometimes I’m both, but today I’m a Victor. I quickly see self-defeating behaviors and do something about it. I’m responsible for my thoughts, feelings, and actions. No one else gets to define me.
Psychotherapist Flip Flippen has reminded me about the power of story. He explains that we all have three stories: The first story was written on you, you didn’t have a say in that. The second story is what we hear people tell us or, in my case, what I assumed others would tell me “if they only knew”. The third story… WE get to author.
Our brains are story-making machines. We are constantly telling ourselves stories to make sense of our world. Stop and think – what is the story you’ve been believing?
Perhaps it’s time to “rechoice”. Are there any stories you need to edit or let go of entirely? How do your previous chapters inform how you want to live your life now? Is it time for the newest edition? What would your author’s note say?
You’ll still have bad days, I know I do. I have high self-criticality and will misinterpret how someone reacts. I’ll have a poor performance and come back to that core question what’s wrong with me? and go through a sort of shame spiral. I’ll put myself in solitary confinement, I need some alone time to recharge. However, there is a danger in talking to yourself all the time. Self-focused people are rarely happy.
I’m thankful for close people in my life who can read when I’m not doing so well and check in. I’m getting better at asking for help. You know what else makes me feel better? To get out, get moving, and help somebody else.
To rechoice sometimes means to choose the new habit again because it’s easy to fall back to the old one. After a while, your new habit becomes well-trodden and more like second nature.
Your next chapter is blank… it’s time to write a better story. Make it a happy ending!