by Christina Enevoldsen
When my daughter was nineteen and her father and I were in the middle of a divorce, she shared the horrible truth about what her dad had been doing to her for most of her life. As I tried to wrap my head around the fact that I had been completely blind all those years, a few words slipped from my mouth, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
I know now how painful those words can be. They communicate that all would have been well if only she would have come to me. That question might have also meant, “If that’s really true, then why are you only telling me now?” But I never doubted the truth and I didn’t blame her. My reaction came from feeling like a fool for being deceived by my husband all those years.
Bethany didn’t want to feel responsible for the breakup of her family, so she held onto the secret until I left her father for other reasons. It was apparent to me that my daughter’s silence stemmed from an effort to survive the best she could, but I didn’t see things that clearly when it came to my own abuse.
For a long time after I started talking about my abuse, I felt guilty for not speaking up sooner. It didn’t seem as though it could have been so hard to tell someone that my dad was hurting me. I thought I must have either been a very stupid or weak child or that I must not have wanted the abuse to stop.
I didn’t believe I really had a right to complain about my abuse since I hadn’t complained about it while it was going on. If I hated it so much, why didn’t I say something then?
As an adult, I wanted to scream at my child-self, “JUST TELL!!!” I was blaming the little girl I had been for all my pain. I thought if she would have just pushed a little harder, she could have saved us both.
There was one time I remember specifically that I had a chance to disclose my abuse. I was ten years old and a psychologist from the school district pulled me out of class after observing students for a few days. I knew she had singled me out because there was something wrong with me. I already felt like I had some kind of sign on me that told everyone that I was bad and disgusting.
The woman asked me why I seemed sad and I struggled for an answer. I didn’t relate my sadness to what my dad was doing to me. I didn’t even consider that those things weren’t normal. I tried to come up with the “right” answer, so I told her I didn’t have any friends. That wasn’t really true, but I did feel very alone.
The woman seemed disappointed and annoyed with me. I didn’t know what she wanted or expected, but I wasn’t doing something right. She worked with me and taught me social skills for a few months and then I was on my own again.
I felt like the whole world was against me, so reaching out for help didn’t seem like a possibility. I felt like I deserved bad things. I didn’t have hope for my life being any less painful so I focused on not making it any more painful.
Even though I judged myself for not figuring out how I could be saved, I can see now that I was very smart in some ways. During those years of incest and other abuses, I adapted by developing my intuition. I learned to read people very well so I could prepare myself for what was coming. I could anticipate what they would do and sometimes avoid more harm. Without knowing how I knew, I knew certain people weren’t safe.
Looking back, nothing about that psychologist told me that I could trust her. She seemed to view me as a project rather than a person. I had the feeling she was more interested in her own success than in truly helping me. I couldn’t trust this stranger, but why couldn’t I trust my mom? Why didn’t I tell her?
When I was in my early forties, I stood before a group of people and named my father as my abuser. It felt good to let go of the secret, but when I went to bed that night, I felt horrible guilt for “betraying” my dad. I heard a little girl’s voice tell me that I was going to get in trouble. I knew that was a voice from the past and assured myself that I hadn’t done anything wrong, but deep down, I believed I deserved to be punished for telling.
I didn’t know what the “punishment” might be until I got a letter from my mom. For years, she’d accepted that I’d been sexually abused, but when I uncovered my father as my primary abuser, she accused me of lying:
I am writing to inform you that your malicious slander of your father has not gone unnoticed. You have built an entire world out of your fantasy. In dreaming up your sexual abuse you have maligned your father’s character and deeply hurt his heart and mine. Your lies shall surely catch up with you.
I want you to know that if you have any plans of writing a book, we will sue you and anyone who has anything to do with it. Your defamation of your father’s character will stop. You will not enjoy one penny from any book published about this gross lie.
And I should let you know that we filed some of your inflammatory statements about your father and me, along with your threat against me, with the Mesa Police Dept.
And I will always be your mother whether you recognize me or not as such.
The violence of her words devastated me. The denial of my sexual abuse felt like a denial of my life and existence. She insisted that I remember that she’s my mother. Those words stung. I realized that I didn’t have a mother—not just now that I’d told my secret, but that I’d never had a mom who loved and supported me.
I felt invisible to her my whole life. I’d constantly tried to be good enough, to work hard enough, to live according to her rules. I was too busy trying to earn my mother’s love to notice that there was no love to earn. She hadn’t suddenly changed into a mean person. She hadn’t recently turned her back on me. She was treating me the way she always had.
That showed me another perspective. The closest thing to love I had as a little girl was from my dad. Even if I had to trade my body for a little attention and affection, my dad was the only source of anything that resembled love. Even though I didn’t like what he was doing to me, I felt more security from him than I did from my mom. Telling wasn’t an option when I was being abused since the punishment for breaking my silence was that I would be completely abandoned by both of my parents.
Examining the past has shown me the truth about myself and about my abuse. I know in my head and in my heart that I’m not to blame for what happened to me or for the abuse continuing. I’m content knowing that I listened to my intuition and even if I couldn’t stop the abuse, I was successful in surviving it.
Blaming myself was another method to survive. It was an attempt to take control of a situation where I had no control. Instead of admitting that I was a helpless child, I envisioned myself having power. I tried to change the past through self-blame, but as long as I did that, I remained a victim to the past. When I finally acknowledged that I didn’t have power or choices when I was a child, I was released from guilt and blame so I could be empowered now. I can’t change the past, but I’m very capable of healing from it.
Now that you’ve heard my experience and thoughts about this, I’d love to hear yours. Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe to the comments so you can continue to partake in the discussion.
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.