‘STOOOOPPPP!’ I could no longer rationalize his strange and uncomfortable behavior.’: Sexual assault survivor bravely speaks up after 20 years, urges ‘you are not your story’

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“When a woman moves through abuse of any kind there seems to be an involuntary direction she begins to lean toward. One being that of silence and shame, and the other, rebellion and anger.  Sometimes, as in the case of myself, a third direction is born. After serving my sentence on both sides of the coin, I have recently managed to rise into unknown territory.

I have a voice that wants to be heard for the purpose of telling others that they aren’t alone. Yet still, 20 years later it shakes, it stumbles, and it searches for safety once it feels like it’s the only one speaking in the room. I search for a way to relate to others who’ve experienced abuse and although logically I know I’m not the only one, physically, I’m brought back to secrets, chills and fearful memories that make my stomach churn. I want to speak victoriously and some days I can see myself sharing as though it were someone else, without attachment. Yet, other moments when I’m quiet and living a seemingly normal day – I am lulled into a memory.

Yesterday, the memory was of me crouching near a bush on the way home from school. I can recall the leaves scratch and crunch under my feet and the sun on the top of my head. Like clockwork, I then recall getting off the bus as a child and wetting my pants involuntarily upon passing a specific threshold on the way home. At the time, I’d become so mortified at my inability to stop myself from peeing that I’d hide between the bushes and wait for my pants to dry before continuing on. Before long my mind is back to remembering what caused my body to have such a response, and the transition into the numb shell I had to be in my home.

Little girl smiling who will later in life be sexually assaulted
Courtesy of Wendy Fiallo

Somehow as I write this, I still want to protect those secrets. I’m beginning to consider the questions that will arise and feel nervous that if I say too much, I risk losing family members. That perhaps by sharing my story in an attempt to create positivity, strength and community, I may be disowned and abandoned at the unveiling of disfunction. Furthermore, my dream of a loving parental unit will forever be impossible.  Even all these years later, I still cling to the childish hope of a concerned, close and loving family.

I was in 6th grade when the abuse began. Even as I begin to type this with my fingers hovering over the keyboard I can’t exactly put the right words together in my mind. I can’t recall timelines well and I don’t know how to relay the insurmountable emotion properly. It’s almost as if my mind is on lockdown with a series of filters or firewalls to be hacked before I am able to find clarity. I am frustrated at knowing that is a part of the sickness, the victimhood of being sexually abused and the coping mechanisms I developed to get through it.

Teen who was sexually assaulted smiling
Courtesy of Wendy Fiallo

I have blips of scenes from before and after many incidents. They are like the fuzzy signal received in between channels of a black and white TV set. I recall strange things like traumatic feelings and insignificant settings. Things like where the sun was, the way the wind gusted beneath our trailer when all else was silent or the distant music playing from my stepfather’s workshop outside.

Specifically I recall one evening sitting in the dark on the couch and peering out our big bay window after the worst of it all. It was the moment I knew I was being hurt. It was the day I could no longer question or rationalize his strange and uncomfortable behavior towards me. It was the day where from beneath him I screamed, ‘DAD! STOOOOOPPPPP!’ and he got up immediately with apologies spewing.

I spent the following four years enduring his tirades of suggestive acts, requests, lust and dramatic anger. I was sworn to secrecy in the most manipulative ways. I would witness dual sides of his personality. One would be full of love and laughter as a family man and the other would be animalistic and cruel. I felt like his prey. I felt like an outsider and greatly misunderstood. I began to question whether or not it was my fault and if I’d somehow given him the wrong impression. I wondered if I was overdramatic because there had never been any actual penetration. I began to hate my body for having turned from a child into a young woman, and the longer it went on I questioned why no one was saving me.

The remaining years of my teens were spent running away whenever I could. I found myself in an abusive relationship but with a boy who had the courage to stand up to my stepfather and that seemed good enough to me at the time. I began using drugs and losing myself in feeling loved by sex.

I attempted to kill myself to end the cycle that I didn’t think I had the power or knowledge to escape. I can recall the mixture of silence and ringing in my ears form the pills I had taken as I sat there alone, my stomach pumped full of charcoal. I can still recall the murmur of conversation while people congregated around me in the hallway of the hospital. Soon after I was taken to a therapist who was supposed to have been a light of hope in the situation. However, her response was to use a breathing technique to help me through the emotion of it all. The intervention ended there. No reports. No help. Further betrayal.

Since those days I have spent short stints in therapy in an attempt to gain perspective and hope. I have read and highlighted over 180 personal development books. I have clung to my spirituality and ‘bigger picture’ type thinking to help raise the bar on my belief systems and what I ‘know’ to be true. I have held conversations with my stepfather in an attempt to grasp understanding and believe it or not, before he passed away, we made amends. As a result of all that work, at this point, it’s not so much the flashbacks that haunt me anymore. What lingers is living with and trying to understand the coping mechanisms I developed as a child to shut off the parts of my life that hurt. I don’t know what or where they are in my brain. I don’t know how they were developed, and they seem to creep up in the most disruptive ways. Ways that have seemingly nothing to do with the subject matter. Friendships can be hard. Consistency is hard. Being good to myself can be daunting. Loving someone properly can be scary. Perfectionism seems to help but is largely debilitating. Depression lurks around things that should bring a smile to my face. Anxiety magnifies with overwhelm. Successes and spotlights are intimidating. I question myself all the time. I can be over-dramatic and sensitive. I’m always in anticipation of the other shoe dropping and if it did, I’d assume it was only a matter of time anyway. And the feelings always lead back to… is this who I am or this because of what happened to me?

A lifetime later, I am married to the love of my life and have two children. I have become an advocate for self-love through my wellness coaching practice as well as my makeup artistry and blog. I don’t believe I am fixed, healed or whatever adjective a person would use to describe being ‘over something.’ I just believe I am letting-go of the attachment of shame through my vulnerability. I am wearing my story as a badge of courage and rising with the tide of women who want to stand together and make a difference.

Woman who was sexually assaulted as a teen sits by fountain with husband and her two children
Courtesy of Wendy Fiallo

It aches my soul that every 8 minutes a child is sexually abused. For them, for me, I can’t afford to be silent. I am in a pursuit of finding my voice the same as any other women who has been silenced for the better part of her life. The conversation is odd, awkward, terrifying, isolate, detached (except for when it isn’t) and nearly subliminal. Even if I wanted to hide in the shadows I feel purposeful in standing up for myself in a way no one else did. That in itself ignites a fire of injustice in me and I feel moved by those that cannot speak for themselves, yet, to share my voice. My hope is to inspire someone else to shed the weight of shame and doubt. My message lays somewhere in the realm of ‘you are not your story, and you don’t have to accept that as part of who you are.’

The idea we now live in an age of connectedness via the media provides hope. It can mean that victims no longer have to live in the quiet corners of isolation. It means a movement is upon us. That a sisterhood is developing, and you aren’t alone even though you’ve been conditioned to believe that. Help is advancing, people are listening, and changes are on the horizon.

Somedays I look back in disbelief over what my young adult life looked like. I look at my children now and fall somewhere within the overprotective mom who thinks everyone is a predator and the warrior mom who wants them to learn to stand up against injustice. Even when and especially if they are ever faced with great adversity. So if only to teach my children to stand, if only to inspire one woman to speak up, if only to help move myself towards peace, I’ll continue to move in this new direction and venture into unknown territory.”

Woman who was sexually assaulted as teen stands arm in arm with husband
Courtesy of Wendy Fiallo

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Wendy Fiallo, 35, of Fayetteville, North Carolina. You can follow her work on her blog. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

Read more powerful stories from survivors:

‘I was staring at a naked picture of myself on my father’s computer. ‘What the heck?,’ I said out loud, the last words before rage overtook my body.’

‘If I refused his advances, I’d get in trouble. I had to keep my head down, my mouth shut. I couldn’t ‘ruin’ her image of the perfect family. I paid my dues every night for 6 years.’ Sexual assault survivor breaks silence after 2 decades

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