Child Sexual Abuse Survivor Shares Messages She’s Had To ‘Unlearn’ In Her Healing Journey

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of child sexual abuse which may be triggering for some. 

Early Sexual Abuse

“This is a story about a little girl who endured some of the most horrendous sexual abuse imaginable. The abuse wasn’t perpetrated by a stranger, nor was it perpetrated by any of the stereotypes we’ve come to know as perpetrators of child sexual abuse. In my case, the abuse was perpetrated by two people who were responsible for my care, my safety and my protection. The perpetrators of the sexual abuse that happened to me as a little girl were my mother and my grandfather. This is my story.

My earliest memories of sexual abuse were when I was about two. However, my most vivid memories, the memories that were the most difficult to heal from, were from when I was about four-years-old. These memories involved my mum and myself. The abuse I experienced was very ritualistic, and by that I mean there was always a pattern that occurred. Because of this, I soon learned how to read Mom’s behavior and predict what was going to happen and how.

Young sexual assault victim portrait
Courtesy of Karen Keavy

Detailing the abuse itself doesn’t serve any purpose, but I think it’s important to remember not all sexual abuse is unpleasant, and that’s certainly the case when it first happens and you’re being groomed. Sometimes I felt special. Other times I felt used, disgusted, alone, ugly, isolated, angry, and more than anything, confused by what was happening to me. I felt so different from everyone else – like I was a freak. I knew what was happening was wrong. I knew that even though I was so little.

During the abuse, and immediately afterwards, I can remember feeling this really dark feeling – it was horrible and it was scary. It was like this really black feeling. Mom would often stay in her bedroom after it happened, and I’d go into the lounge and listen to music. ‘Abbey Road’ was my favorite album and I’d sing and dance to all the songs. Other times, I’d just listen to the music and cuddle up with the album cover. Looking back, I realize how therapeutic this was, and little did I know that years later, listening to that album would help me recover memories.

Sometimes Mom would also get angry after it happened. Maybe this was because she was angry with herself, I don’t know. The abuse was so weird and so confusing on so many levels. She’d often say things during the abuse that made no sense at all. Then, when I later learned she herself had been abused by her father, it all made sense. I think a lot of the abuse that happened to me was her re-living her own experiences of sexual abuse that occurred between her and her father.

The sexual abuse I experienced lasted until I was about 12. It stopped, I believe, because mum was consumed by drugs and alcohol. The prescription drugs she was given were supplied by doctors and in her mind, I think that legitimized her taking them. Mom never had any problem finding doctors who would prescribe her drugs, and she always had an endless supply of pills hidden in handbags, drawers and cupboards. Her alcohol and drug abuse lasted a lifetime.

I had a very difficult relationship with Mom growing up and into my adult years. There were lots of times where it was just too hard to be around her. I cut contact with her completely after I confronted her about the sexual abuse. I’ll never forget that. I was so frightened. Terrified. Here I was, a grown woman of 35, feeling like I was a little girl all over again. The only difference was, this time, I was standing up for myself. It’s hard to remember what I said, but I do remember her response very vividly. She denied everything and instead, she twisted things around to make it sound like it was somehow my fault. She accused me of being crazy and said she couldn’t understand why I would make up such ‘rubbish’ about her. (I now know this is a very common response from perpetrators, but at the time I felt absolutely shattered.)

childhood sexual assault survivor in front of pyramid
Courtesy of Karen Keavy

It had taken me all this time to summon up the courage to confront her, and here she was silencing me all over again. It was exactly like it was when I was a little girl and she told me if I ever told anyone about what had been happening, they’d never believe me and think I was crazy. This fear, the fear everyone would think I was crazy, kept me silent for years. For anyone who hasn’t experienced sexual abuse, it’s difficult to understand how something that happened so long ago could have such far reaching and long lasting effects. Sadly, it can and it does. Sexual abuse is not just about the abuse that happens at the time.

Phrase handwritten in black against blue background
Courtesy of Karen Keavy

Further Sexual Abuse And Assault

My teenage years and early adult years were particularly difficult for me. From the age of about 13 until I was in my early 20’s, I guess the best way to describe me was ‘reckless.’ I hated school and avoided it at all costs. In an effort to ‘straighten me out,’ my parents decided to send me to a private school, believing a fresh start would be all I needed. Within weeks of starting at my new school, the grooming began. At first, the teacher would ask me if I had a spare cigarette, as he’d run out (I was smoking a packet a day by the age of 13). Then, he’d check up on me in the sick room to see if I was ‘okay,’ the sick room being one of the places my best friend and I would hang out and skip classes. The visits in the sick room soon became a regular thing, as did the touching on various parts of our body to ‘help’ with period pain. When Mom found out what was going on, she hit the roof! The teacher was sacked and no explanation was given as to why. Years later, I learned he was practicing as a massage therapist and was doing exactly the same thing to some of his clients as he’d been doing when he was a teacher.

The fresh start moving to a new school hadn’t really achieved its objective so I left school early, around the age of 15. I soon found work in a big office building in the city. The office I worked in had two main functions; the first was Human Resources and staffing and the second, was printing and copying. Because of the convenient location, many of the offices within the building would get copying work done by us. I hadn’t been working there very long when, one night after work, I was sexually assaulted by a much older man who worked in one of the offices. He was a client of our office and would regularly get copying work done. I told no one. After the assault took place, I remember a woman who worked close-by speaking to me about the man. She knew something had happened and asked me point-blank whether anything had happened between the man and myself. Terrified I’d lose my job and have to go back to school, I dutifully said no and kept my mouth shut.

childhood sexual assault survivor holding a puppy
Courtesy of Karen Keavy

The messages victims learn about keeping quiet, about saying nothing and ‘just getting on with it,’ run deep and speak volumes about how much victims take on as a result of the abuse they’ve experienced. There are so many messages you take on when you’ve been sexually abused. And these messages, I believe, are just as harmful as the sexual abuse itself. I think part of the reason for this is, when you’re little and you don’t get to talk to anyone about what’s happening, you only have yourself to make sense of what’s going on. There’s no reference point. Essentially, you’re trying to understand something with a 4-year-old brain that some adults can’t even process. You don’t understand that what’s happening to you is called sexual abuse. You don’t understand what a complete attack sexual abuse is on your innermost being and how deeply it will come to effect you.

When sexual abuse happens, your whole being is bombarded with sensations and your senses are on overload; this is particularly true when the abuse is painful and frightening. As a little girl, you have to try and make sense of all of this the best way you can. The other difficulty, particularly for children who live with the person who is abusing them, is there’s no ‘off’ switch. This means the person who is abusing them has access 24/7. There is no escape. It’s also not uncommon for there to be more than one perpetrator within a family, and this further ‘normalizes’ the abuse. This is so confusing because, on the one hand, what’s happening doesn’t feel ‘right,’ yet on the other, the abuse is happening by people who are usually older than you and should know better.

Because of these dysfunctional dynamics, victims grow up with really distorted ideas about attachment, love, security, and what it means to feel safe in the world. It also means having a really distorted relationship with your body because you are so used to dissociating and fleeing your body to escape what’s happening to you. You very quickly realize that being ‘in’ your body is unsafe. This is such a tragedy, and it’s responsible for a lot of addictions. In my own case, it was responsible for a lifelong war I had with my body. Fortunately, I came to know yoga and qigong, and both of these practices have helped me enormously — not only to process trauma, but to connect and make peace with my body and anchor me in the here and now.

Selfie of sexual assault victim
Courtesy of Karen Keavy

As an adult, and when you’re able to separate yourself from the abuse that happened to you, you’re able to see how all these feelings of shame, self-hatred, and self-disgust don’t really make any sense. This is because when you’re born, you don’t have any of these feelings about yourself. You don’t have self-hatred, self-loathing, or self-disgust. You learn those concepts through what you experience: what you see, what you hear, what you feel, and what you’re told. For victims of sexual abuse who are so often riddled by all these bad thoughts and feelings, it’s important to remember these thoughts and feelings don’t belong to you. They are not part of you. They never were. All these thoughts and feelings and meanings you have belong to the perpetrator, who managed to download them onto you by way of the abuse that happened to you. They are not part of you, and once you get that, and I mean really understand that, all those feelings and beliefs about yourself can disappear just as quickly as they were formed. This is what I mean when I say I’ve had to unlearn a lot of stuff.

Unlearning Hurtful Beliefs & Defense Mechanisms

For starters, I’ve had to unlearn a lot of defense mechanisms and ways of being I learned to help keep me safe. I’ve had to work really hard on reminding myself that, while these helped me when I was four, they’re not useful at 54, and I’m now safe enough to let them go. I’ve learned that despite the ‘#metoo movement,’ despite all the publicity regarding clerical sexual abuse and institutionalized sexual abuse, and despite the Harvey Weinstein’s and Jeffrey Epstein’s of this world, people are still very uncomfortable talking about intra-familial sexual abuse. I’ve also learned, even though people are uncomfortable, that doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be talked about. In fact, it’s probably even more of a reason why it should be.

sexual assault survivor in colorful shirt amongst bushes
Courtesy of Karen Keavy

Perhaps one of the reasons why people get uncomfortable when we talk about this stuff is because the faces of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are far more complex and varied than the stereotypes would have us believe. Only recently I discovered an article stating one third of sex offenses committed against children were committed by children themselves, with 97% happening as a result of sibling abuse (Lancer, 2019). Suffice to say, perpetrators of child sexual abuse can be children, they are also adolescents and adults, come from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and are drawn from a wide range of professional and non-professional backgrounds and groupings.

I’ve learned perpetrators have stories too. In my own case, those same perpetrators were also victims. They too felt broken and experienced the same shame, disgust, self-loathing, and self-hatred they inflicted on their victims. Because of this, I’ve allowed my heart to feel forgiveness and compassion for their suffering and for their experiences. Does that mean I condone what they did? Never. But it did help me to understand more about them and their motivations.

Two women standing at a book event in front of bookshelves
Courtesy of Karen Keavy

I’ve learned I’ve wasted far too much time trying to work out ‘why’ and ‘what for’ and waiting for apologies that will never, ever come. I’ve learned it was never my fault. I didn’t cause it and I certainly wasn’t responsible for it. I’ve learned about control, about what’s within my control and what’s outside of it. I’ve also learned the most important person I needed to hear sorry from was me, and that I was, and continue to be, deeply and profoundly sorry for what happened to me, for something I had absolutely no control over. Above all else, I’ve learned self-love, self-compassion, and self-forgiveness are ongoing practices and all three have helped me more than anything. There are so many ways child sexual abuse can effect you and helping people through some of these challenges is what drives me now. In my later years, I became an educator and soon after, a counselor for children and adults who’d experienced childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape. From my experience working with survivors, I’ve found there is a link between all three, and also with family and domestic violence.

I also write a lot. In 2018, I wrote a picture book called ‘Angel’ which is loosely biographical and describes a little girl’s experience of sexual abuse. What I didn’t expect from writing this book is how helpful my book would be for adult survivors of sexual abuse. It’s not your usual protective behaviors book that is used in classroom settings and is more suitable for practitioner use. Among the messages in the book is one really important message I left until the very end. It’s when Angel turns to her mother, who’d been in denial about the sexual abuse that was occurring, and she tells her mother to learn to think with her heart and not her head. If only!

Book table for a picture book about sexual assault
Courtesy of Karen Keavy

I’m also very passionate about children and adolescents receiving comprehensive Protective Behaviors and Consent Education throughout their education and have written my own program for students in the early years called ‘Empowered Me!’ A wellbeing program at its core, Empowered Me! teaches children about their bodies, about what it is to be empowered, and how to disclose abuse if ever they need to. The project is so important to me for lots of reasons, but mostly because I’ve seen how early intervention can produce such positive outcomes. Without education, we run the risk of victims believing sexual abuse is part of ‘growing up’ or something that just ‘happens.’ This must change.

The child sexual abuse I experienced growing up changed me in ways too numerous to mention. It has, without doubt, made me a better person in that I am more understanding and compassionate than I used to be and I’m far less inclined to be upset by things that don’t deserve my attention or my energy. Mostly though, I now know with complete certainty the child sexual abuse I experienced growing up has a purpose, and living out that purpose is where I now place all of my attention and energy.”

Selfie of sexual assault survivor
Courtesy of Karen Keavy

This story was submitted to Love What Matters  by Karen Keavy of Adelaide, Australia. You can follow her journey on  InstagramLinkedIn, and her website. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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