Sharing a Secret Shame
It was a calm afternoon. An old friend, I'll call her Angela, had stopped by for the afternoon for brunch and coffee. We nibbled healthy foods and joked about weight loss. It is part of our usual inventory of topics. Although we live too far apart to get together often, we do seem to be able to hit a regular and familiar groove after over 25 years of friendship. This time, I had a special insight about occasions of over-eating that I wanted to share with her. But it was not an easy story to tell.
I held my breath, released it, and took a long sip of coffee. "Well, Angela, I discovered something new about eating." She smiled and chuckled "Oh hon, there is ALWAYS something new about eating."
"No," I said, "I'm serious."
She put down her cup and looked at me, puzzled. Hadn't we just been talking about curves and jeggings? Now it's suddenly serious? "OK, what is it?" she asked.
"I read somewhere that when a woman puts on too much weight, it is a sign that she may have been abused as a child --- and that she puts on that weight to fend off further sexual attentions." I paused, turned my face to the window, then looked down at the table. I added, "But I think that is all wrong."
The weight of the unspoken was starting to become obvious. The words "may have been abused" had been spoken. I was part way there, in mid-telling. Angela was listening. I looked at her briefly, then away. I could see it in her kind eyes. But she was silent. I went on.
I was determined to speak again the unspeakable. I had no idea why I decided to change 25 years of my silence with her about the topic, but I finally just blurted it out. "It hit me -- well, I never have told you, but I was abused sexually as a child -- and later was raped as an adult." I took a deep breath. I couldn't really look at her yet. I had to get it all out before I could risk seeing her reaction.
Despite years of work on this subject - despite therapy, books, meditations, affirmations, lectures -- I found that I still had a slight vestige of leftover shame. Sexual abuse can feel like a stain, a stain that will not just wash away. Sharing this was not easy. Would she think less of me? Worse yet, would she pity me?
"I didn't eat to fend off the abuse. I ate to continue it."
I explained that over-eating was my way of being abusive to my own body, of doing to my body what it knew best--- making it deal with abuse. I was continuing in the path of my abusers without knowing it. I was not just "numbing out". I was treating myself abusively, disrespectfully. I told her that when I realized that, everything started to change for the better. I explained, and then I really looked at her.
She was crying quietly. Big, wet tears ran down her cheeks. I reached to touch her hand. I felt bad that I had made her get upset for me. "Angela, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. I never would have said anything if I ...."
"It was my father's best friend," she said. "For three years." I was just stunned. This is a woman who projects a great deal of genuine joy, who is sublimely functional. But she had also been abused. It had shaped us both in basic ways, yet it took over 25 years for us to share what had happened to us.
We are both highly functional women. Neither one of us 'looks' abused. There is no permanently downcast gaze, no caricatured life. What followed was us sharing what happened, when, and how -- and those details are not public. This slow sharing bound us more deeply in friendship.
We talked. We got angry. We cried off and on. We cried for ourselves. We cried for each other. We cried for every woman and child who has had to go through the horrors and sadness of sexual abuse. We cried for the girl I counseled once while working in Appalachia who had been lost by her father in a card game, and had been passed around as a sex toy to her uncles and cousins.We cried for the girl I read about who was pregnant by her father at age 14.
We cried for the marginal ones, the ones who had been manhandled, molested, touched in ways that are not acceptable. We cried for the violated, the isolated, the ones locked in shame. And then we felt gratitude. Someone else now knew our stories. We could be more complete with each other.
We both felt the deepening of our friendship, and the connection we had to other women (and men) who had been through abuse, and who had to struggle to find healing the various parts of that wound through their lifetimes. We had both shared our story with others before, but each telling is different, each telling strengthens in a new way.
So now I have taken the deep breath here and have told you, my sisters, my secret. It was important for Angela and I to tell each other our story. It was important to say to each other, "I am so very sorry that happened to you. You did not deserve that." It was as important to us to say that and to hear that as it is to a Vietnam veteran to hear the words "Welcome Home."
So if you are out there reading this, and have been through abuse, Angela and I want to tell you something:
Statistics taken from RAINN - Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network: 1. Every 2 minutes someone in the US is sexually assaulted. 2. 60% of all sexual assaults are not reported to the police. 3. 15 out of 16 rapists will never spend a day in jail. 4. In 2/3 of all sexual assault cases the perpetrator is known to the victim. It is important to get help, to find a place and trustworthy person with whom you feel safe. You may wish to look at RAINN's list of resources as one possibility. My friend Angela and I don't need to know you to hold you in our prayers. If you have been through sexual abuse, you are in our prayers. Healing is possible.
~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool