As I got older, I compartmentalized my memories of the sexual abuse. I stuck them in a box and stowed the box away. My brother and I still had our problems. In fact, he continued his bullying behavior in other ways. But he could also be very charismatic and it was so much easier to treat him as a friend and ally. At times I still stood up to him, even though his common reaction was to shout, throw things and call me an f’ing bitch, among other names.
While I pushed my memories of the abuse away, I carried the symptoms: I was anxious and insecure, prone to mild depression and insomnia. While in college, I sought counseling but never got very far with the therapists I found.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I finally told someone about the abuse. I was newly married and had had built up a trusting relationship with my therapist of two years. She had already helped me examine unhealthy patterns in my family, and she encouraged me to find and use my voice, even if my family didn’t like it.
I told her what my brother had done to me. Even though I was now a graduate student in social work, I had never been able to acknowledge to myself that I had been sexually abused. Once I did I was supported by my therapist, my kind and loving husband, and a group of close friends who walked beside me in my pain and grief.
I was so eager to heal from the past that I eagerly embraced the work of therapy and the emergence of my truth. That first year, I sank into a depression, developed crippling social anxiety and suffered flashbacks of the abuse. But then, as I began to shed my pain, I gradually re-emerged as a new, more confident and authentically happy person. I felt whole for the first time in my life.
The second half of my story is about my family’s reaction.
My family had always espoused liberal views and expressed compassion for victims of rape and abuse. In fact, my mother was a practicing therapist and presents herself as an empathetic person. So I was confident that when I came forward to reveal the sexual abuse, my family members would embrace me with empathy and sorrow for my pain. Everything would change, I thought, and I would finally be understood as deserving of my family’s compassion and respect.
That is not what happened.
While my brother admitted to the abuse and issued me a basic apology, I never received the understanding I craved. Over the last twenty years, my family’s behavior has run the gamut from avoiding the facts to blaming me for not “letting it go” and ostracizing me. My mother chose to invite my brother to her big milestone birthday celebrations – while I was not even told about them. The first time I confronted her, she told me she knew I wouldn’t attend if my brother was there. So she chose her child the abuser over her other child, the victim.
Before I went no contact with him twenty years ago, my brother told me that I treat my family like s*#t, that I choose to live in an unhappy reality, that I should get my money back for therapy, and that I should stay away from him until I change back to the way I used to be.
My mother told me that she doesn’t know what I mean about wanting my brother to take responsibility for the abuse. My mother shows little interest in the possibility that my brother was ever exposed to abuse himself, or that he should be monitored in the presence of minors. In fact, my brother is celebrated and applauded – not just in my family of origin but in the entertainment world as well. The success he’s achieved have given him added power to win people over in our extended family and beyond. It seems that my mother could not be prouder of him.
As survivors, we have the choice to pursue a healing path, to bravely examine the truth and (in some cases) our families. We can overcome much of trauma’s destructive effects with courage and strength – even better with the love and support of others. But we cannot control how our family members treat us. That was a long, painful lesson for me to learn.
These experiences with my family, my “second wound,” have inspired me to write, speak and support other survivors who know the pain of rejection, denial and ostracism. I run several social media accounts under the name The Second Wound: Coping with Family While Healing from Sexual Abuse. Communicating with other survivors online, I have learned how tragically common my experiences are, and the enormous value of community as we navigate this second part of our healing journey.