‘It started out as ‘the talk.’ But it was hands on. I remember feeling dirty and wanting to crawl in a hole and die.’

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“I’m not sure how old I was when it started. I remember waking up in the middle of the night. The blanket would be pushed down and he’d be lifting the hem of my panties up. Just looking at me.  I would be frozen in fear. I’d pretend to start waking up by moving a little or making a noise. He’d duck down and I would get out of bed and go into the bathroom. I would wait until I heard their door open and close and I would quietly sneak back into my bed.

As an adult I tend to think of this as the ‘passive’ abuse. Not because it didn’t harm me but because it didn’t progress from looking to touching that I am aware of. The more ‘active’ abuse started when I was 10.  My mom was pregnant with his daughter at the time. It started out as ‘the talk’. But it was hands on. He touched me and made me touch him. I remember my legs shaking and being extremely uncomfortable. I remember feeling dirty and wanting to crawl in a hole and die.

Courtesy of Heather Swartley

I didn’t disclose until later. I didn’t tell anyone. I remember my sister was born in November and I had just turned 11 a few months before. She was maybe 2 years old. Life had become unbearable under the weight of my secret. I was doing dishes and my mom and I had been arguing. And before I knew what was happening, I blurted out that my step-dad had been abusing me.

Courtesy of Heather Swartley

The rest of that conversation is a blur. I don’t know what I told her in those emotional moments. I do know that by the end of it she and my step-dad had joined ranks. I was standing where the living room and kitchen met and my mom and step-dad sat next to one another on the couch. They were saying I could report it, and my step-dad said he would call the police himself. That he would go to jail and I would be responsible for breaking up the family and for my sister growing up without her dad.

Courtesy of Heather Swartley

The sexual abuse stopped but nothing else changed. My stepdad still acted pervy around me and my friends. My brothers didn’t know what had happened. I’m sure they caught bits and pieces as nearly any fight ended with me screaming about what had happened. My mom tried to tell me at one point that my step-dad didn’t know better because his mom had abused him and taught him about sex, the way he had tried to ‘teach me.’ She also tried to push blame on my brothers. She said maybe it was them lifting up the blanket and lifting up my panties. Maybe one of them was curious. To this day I feel sick to my stomach about her saying those things.

Courtesy of Heather Swartley

It got to the point that we were fighting all the time and my parents decided I needed to see a counselor because they couldn’t figure out why I was so hateful and angry. I did not want to talk to a counselor. They forced me and so in retaliation I disclosed to the counselor. It was scary once I realized what I had done and she informed me that she was required to report my disclosure. I was terrified. Now I deeply regret what happened next. My mom received a phone call and told me some people wanted to talk to me. The counselor had reported what I had told her and my mom told me if I pressed charges and talked to these people, I would have to sit in a courtroom full of strangers and tell them every sordid detail and answer questions.  I was a very shy and meek child and this would have been my worst nightmare. So I refused to speak to the person and as far as I know, no one ever followed up.

Through high school I was very depressed. I thought about ending my life. I had low self-esteem and my step-dad always piled on to that. My brothers and I would take turn doing dishes and if he found one dirty dish in the cupboard he would empty all of the cupboards and whoever washed dishes last would have to rewash all of them. He told me that no man would ever want to marry me because I couldn’t keep the house clean. While I knew that wasn’t true, I did think no man would ever want me – I was tainted.

I would walk to school and imagine what would happen if I stepped into traffic. My anger also turned toward my step-dad. I would develop elaborate fantasies of him being killed. Tortured. He would call us a*sholes and little f*ckers. At 17, he picked me up and slammed me against a wall during an argument. I ran away to my best friend’s house and my step-dad called the cops. A male officer showed up at my friend’s door. He said if there weren’t bruises, there was nothing they could do. He said that as long as I lived under his roof, my step-dad could do whatever he wants. I was 90 lbs soaking wet. He was well over 200 lbs. My friend’s mom let me stay at their place. We shared a room for the rest of my senior year in school. I got a job. I started to live with less fear and anger.

Courtesy of Heather Swartley

Fast forward, I married my second boyfriend at 21. I was cutting myself and drinking way too much. I remember we had thrown a party and almost everyone had left. I was throwing up and banging my head against the toilet over and over, telling my husband I was going to kill myself.

I ended up moving with my husband to Georgia where he was from. It was two years into our marriage and we were on the verge of divorce. I was desperate to fix things. To not fail. Our move helped things and I became pregnant. I was so happy but my husband wasn’t as thrilled. He never really talked excitedly about the baby. My mom and step-dad were going to come for the birth and they were first traveling to Florida for a NASCAR race. They were four hours away, so when I went into labor a week early, I called my mom and told her that my water broke and we were going to the hospital. She said she would see me next week. I was crushed because I thought for sure she would be there when I needed her. It was all I wanted, to have my mom in the room when I gave birth.

When they finally came, my mom took a million photos. On one trip to Walmart my step-dad decided it would be fun to race someone over a bridge. He got his rental car to 90 mph. I was screaming at him to stop… my 2-week-old son was in the car! He laughed at my anger and couldn’t understand why I was so upset.

Courtesy of Heather Swartley

After my son was born, I felt like my husband and I fought more and more. He finally asked for a divorce when my son was a month old. We tried to make it work, but when my son was 4 months old I flew home to Oregon. I lived with my parents for 6 months. While I was gone, my parents had started growing medical marijuana in their backyard. They went from smoking it in their room, hidden from us kids when I was growing up, to smoking it in the living room, outside on the back patio, and wherever they happened to be. I would take my son to other rooms and my step-dad would tell me that the smoke is healthy for kids.

Courtesy of Heather Swartley

After 6 months an old coworker of mine was getting out of the army and needed to find a place.  He offered to be my roommate and we found a place just before Christmas. I still let my son see my parents with me present. But my son started having behavioral issues and having him around my step-dad, who would scream and literally throw tantrums, was not something I wanted.

My mom finally left my step-dad.  She kicked him out for other reasons. She lasted nearly a year.  But despite my constant support and that of my siblings (we were all so happy), she spent most of that year in bed, depressed. She took him back. I realized at this time I didn’t need to have him in my life. That year without dealing with him was amazing and I wasn’t ready to lose that. I tried to have her over to my house, but she said if my step-dad wasn’t welcome she didn’t feel welcome. We still fought so much.

Eventually I asked my doctor about medications that could help my constant nightmares. She was a new doctor, and I was already on antidepressants. She asked so many questions and told me I have PTSD from my childhood. I laughed it off. She sent a counselor to talk to me. They agreed I needed medication for my nightmares, but I had to agree to go to counseling. By this time I didn’t feel that was necessary as I had stopped cutting years ago. I had to be strong for my son so I pushed through the depression and didn’t let myself wallow when I felt down. I was fine.

I decided to go anyway. My counselor was so young. I would find excuses not to go. But she pushed me to do things. I got my driver’s license despite my anxiety because seeing her pushed me to do things I had been avoiding. She told me to take baby steps, but I took leaps and bounds. I finally felt strong enough to cut my mom out of my life. I wrote her a 6 page letter detailing the abuse and telling her I couldn’t have my son around my step-dad, both because of the sexual abuse and other abuse growing up, and the way they live their lives. I remember my mom talking to me on the phone. She was drunk. She blurted out in the middle of an argument, ‘He’s not going to f*ck your son’. It was the last straw. It dismissed everything I was going through, everything he had done. She didn’t care. She would never care.

Courtesy of Heather Swartley

Everyone I talked to suggested I try to work it out with my mom. I was told I would regret my decision if my mom died and I didn’t fix things. I felt so much dread about telling my 8 year old son  he wouldn’t be able to see grandma and grandpa anymore because they were making bad choices. Finally we were walking home from daycare and I told my son about my decision and he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘That must be very hard for you, mom’. I still cry about how compassionate and selfless my 8 year old was, not knowing about the sexual abuse, but knowing I was doing what I thought was best.

Courtesy of Heather Swartley

It has been a rough four years since I made that decision. My son is now twelve. He is amazing. The only time I have heard from my mom since, was about 3 years ago. She left a voice message saying this was tearing our family apart. She wanted me and my step-dad to take a polygraph so we could move past this. Her voice was flat. Emotionless. I played the voicemail for my counselor and we talked about how it made me feel. Over the past few years, I realized how it made me feel. Disgusted. Angry. Sad. But what I really felt was that I had made the best decision for my son and myself, and her voicemail drove that home so hard.

It makes me sad I won’t see her again. I hope my my step-dad dies before my mom so that I can go to her funeral and say goodbye. But I am at peace knowing that no matter what, my son is safe. I am safe. And if my son ever learns about the abuse, my choice will teach him that he doesn’t have to have toxic people in his life. That is it always okay to do what is best for him and his family. I have wonderful support from my friends and family. I talk more openly about what has happened so that others can know they are not alone. I lost my chance to press charges because I was not strong enough before the statutes of limitations ran out. But if my voice pushes one person to report, then it is worth every single moment of hell I’ve gone through.”

Courtesy of Melissa Holderly Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Heather Swartley. Submit your story here, and subscribe to our best love stories here. Read more stories about beautiful children with dwarfism here and here.  

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