I never wanted to go to group therapy, especially for my trauma history. Child sexual abuse didn’t seem like something I was ready to share with a group of people, even if they had walked a mile in my shoes. As long as I didn’t reveal my dark secret to anyone else, they saw a normal woman before them. If they learned I was abused, I thought for sure they’d see me as some kind of festering wound on society, a reminder that there are perverts among us, operating beneath the otherwise cheerful and wholesome social world.
I’m sensitive about my faults. In fact, I’m sensitive about everything. I didn’t want to take what I considered to be by far the ugliest thing about me to a group of strangers on a weekly basis as if to say, “Here it is again!”
Sadly, I never considered the fact that I didn’t feel that way about other people who had been abused. Why would I ever imagine they’d feel that way about me?
Of course, this attitude was learned. There were many opportunities for other people to intervene when I was a kid. People had to try hard not to see was what happening right under their noses. It wasn’t until I was in trauma group that I realized many of us were taught to keep the abuse a secret by our abuser and their enablers — people who would rather not know or rather not pry. And that wasn’t all I learned.
Trauma group therapy was normalizing. It didn’t make abuse normal; it made me normal. I share many qualities with other victims: anxious, prone to depression, easily startled, afraid of trusting my intuition, using humor and self-harm to cope, and many more. At first it felt reductive, as my personality was just a series of reactions to trauma and I was just playing out a series of symptoms from a book on child sexual abuse. I felt like I had no free will, like I was helpless.
What I learned was that I felt helpless as a default. I was victimized as a child and knew helplessness well. I could accept helplessness. What was harder to accept was that I had been criminally violated and it changed the course of my life forever. But now I wasn’t helpless, entering therapy and beginning recovery made me empowered.
Self Blame Is Common
A victimizer isn’t likely to accept responsibility and the victim is often left shouldering the blame. Although I was a child when it happened, replaying events and wishing that I had gone to someone in authority about the abuse was one way I self-blamed.
There are many ways in which trauma victims blame themselves for what happened to them. We wonder, “What could I have done differently?” and zero in on the tiniest details of our own behavior.
But there are also more covert ways in which we self-blame, believing that having been abused is a “fault” of ours, shifts the blame for the abuse onto us. I was afraid to tell others about the abuse because I thought they would be disgusted and reject me. But that disgust and shame should belong to our abuser, not us.
Other women in my group experienced similar issues with self-blame and self-disgust. Nothing I said made the other women in my group repulsed by me. And they repeatedly drove home this truth: Evil-doers are responsible for doing evil. Victims are not.
The Language of Recovery
A common reason for not wanting to go to therapy is: “I don’t want to dredge up the past.” Personally, I felt like I just didn’t want to spend time in that ugly, dark part of my personal history. Having been in therapy I now see that it’s not simply a rehashing of the past. I learned the language of recovery.
It’s important to talk about traumatic events and actually label them as “traumatic.” We need to recognize what kind of butterfly effect occurred when that traumatic event took place in our lives. We are rewriting the narrative to acknowledge what couldn’t be acknowledged before. Denial and self-blame have to be taken apart by their very foundation.
In trauma group, I got to take control of the narrative and start thinking about my trauma history in a way that was finally empowering. I saw the abuse for what it was and made no excuses for my abuser. The more I talked about my abuser the more I learned to finally assign the responsibility to them. Only then did I begin to really see myself as completely innocent.
At first, relating so strongly to other trauma survivors made me feel like I had no free will. I felt like I was just the sum of a great deal of trauma. Everyone else in the world was a whole and capable person, but I was just some tattered abuse victim who could do little more than compute all incoming stimuli like the anxious, mortified woman I’d grown into. I was sure that if we lived in pre-deinstitutionalized America, I’d be locked away in a state facility helping Ph.D. students write quintessential case studies in trauma.
As I began to put what happened into context and process the pain, my self respect grew. As I saw myself as a truly innocent victim, I softened. A lot of perfectionism, anxiety, and depression that has plagued me for most of my life finally had a root cause. I no longer wanted to punish myself the way my abuser had punished me. I didn’t want to judge myself the way my abuser must have judged me. I had a new respect for myself. A lot of people may not have made it through this horrible violation, but I did.
Accepting the past means accepting yourself and taking control. It means saying, “This is my experience and I am not reduced by it.” Once I accepted myself fully, I stopped feeling like a social leper for living in denial until age 30. I stopped beating myself up for waiting so long to see the truth or to get help. I stopped criticizing myself for not understanding sooner.
It can be difficult to accept that you’ve been violated and irrevocably injured by another person. But it’s a little easier to accept it when you know other survivors, when you’re prepared to count yourself as one of them.