Many years ago I was speaking to a young girl who had been raped. I remember thinking how brave she was. So often, I hear women who have been through a traumatic event or a life changing devastation called “strong.” But I couldn’t help thinking over and over how absolutely brave this young girl was. There were so many levels of her bravery. She told someone she trusted what had happened, she testified, she had persevered through everything. She spoke candidly to me about what had happened; I don’t remember her name. I only met her that one time. I wish I could tell her now that her bravery has stuck with me all these years. I was so inspired by her. I was in awe of her really.
Here I was, an adult, 30 years old, and had never told anyone any details of the abuse that happened to me, and this child had testified in court about what happened to her. Her story, her bravery, inspired me to eventually tell my own story.
Recently, I was speaking to another woman who had been raped. I kept thinking as she was talking, “Wow, how courageous.” Everything about her was courageous. Each detail about her story showed such courage, and again on so many levels. She didn’t let the rape stop her life. She didn’t let the rape take away her light, or her joy of life. Even back when it happened, 20 years ago as a young girl, she told someone. Now she was telling me. It takes courage for an abuse victim to tell their story. I am also in awe of her.
Neither this child nor this woman saw themselves as brave or courageous. I think not many people can see that side of themselves. It was not just that these women told their stories that made them brave. It was that they endured the tragedy and didn’t let the tragedy win. I often hear, “ I wish I would have done …,” or ” If only I had…,” and nowhere in those sentences is the acknowledgment that the person is in fact brave and courageous!
I have done this myself. I used to think that if I had testified then maybe the man who abused me wouldn’t still be out there and able to hurt others. I beat myself up over that for years. It’s as if I was punishing myself, like I had done something wrong by not protecting the rest of the world from this monster. I now know, if a person were attacked and escaped then they cannot punish them self for not going after the monster. They survived. It does not make someone any less of a person if they never told another person that this happened to them. It doesn’t make them less brave because they have kept this a secret. Nothing takes away the strength that they possess by simply being. By saying that, I in no means am encouraging anyone to keep it a secret. I just know many have kept it a secret their entire lives and feel less of a person because of it, and that just is not so. No one is LESS because they did not tell anyone. No one should be measured their ability to talk about being abused. AND even if they did keep it a secret, it is never too late to release that. It is not our secret to keep. We don’t have to keep it. There is no shame in speaking what someone else has done to you. Just know that regardless of your ability to speak of it, we are still brave and courageous just by living through it.
So often, we equate courage and bravery with slaying the enemy, conquering the beast, and standing up to an adversary. But when a person has been abused, it takes courage just to get out of bed. It takes courage to move forward with each day and keep trying. It takes bravery to get up and get dressed and go to work.
If a person has lived 20 or 30 or 50 years and never told a soul about what happened , they were brave the moment they chose to keep on pushing forward. They were courageous when they woke up the next day and chose to keep on living.
Anyone who has lived through a sexual assault whether they have told anyone or not, I believe they are brave; I believe they are courageous.
In my childhood it took all the strength I had to endure each time I was abused. I remember the day I tried to tell my mom and I didn’t feel very brave at the time. I felt very scared and vulnerable. Even though today, it is still hard to say the words. When I hear of other men and women and children just speak the details I KNOW how hard that is to do. I didn’t recognize my own bravery at the time but I have learned that at our most vulnerable, we are the most brave.
Writing my story has opened me up. I have put myself out there in that I have made myself very vulnerable. In that I have walked the narrow path. I could have just as easily lived the rest of my life without ever allowing my wounds to be seen. Smiles and holidays could have continued to pass with the veil of lies ever present. Speaking these truths took away the false security of the lies.
Walking the path of a lie is a large road. Imagine a long wide road. You are walking down it surrounded by tons of people who have conditionally walked this road with you. The lies have made this imaginary shield, because if you all are walking in the lie you are all walking with the same shield. With all these people it is exhausting to maintain this way of life. You feel protected because you are around all these people, but it is not real. And the shield definitely does not exist. It just seems more comforting and safe to be with them all. There seems to be comfort in numbers, even if they are all lies. It is not real. So when you decide to step off this road and branch off to this little path of the truth, there may not be a lot of room for them to follow you. They will have to WANT to follow you. They will have to want to live in the truth with you. NOW, if they truly love you unconditionally, then they will follow you down this tiny path and stand in line for you. They will make a waiting line a mile long just to follow you.
The large wide road is conditional love. The narrow path is unconditional. I chose the narrow. And out of the 100 that were on the wide road, only a handful walked with me to the narrow. They stood in line and waited their turn to walk before, behind, and beside me. They made sure I was not alone. I love them for that. Had I not chosen this path, I never would have discovered the unconditional people in my life. I made the right choice.
When a person is raped or sexually abused, one of the hardest things they will ever do (among the thousand hard things there are) is to actually speak the words of what happened. If they speak the words they are choosing the narrow path. Speaking the words, for me, feels like someone has unzipped the front of my body and every part of me is being pried apart. I may as well be sitting there in front of hundreds of people naked, because that is what it feels like as I am saying the words. The more I have spoken of it, the less it hurts. The more I have shared my story, the less broken apart I feel and the more grounded and secure I get in just speaking of what happened.
I have great admiration for anyone who can put into words the abuse that happened to them.
The reason that I walked in such a wide road for so long is because of secondary victimization. When I finally gathered every last ounce of strength I had in me to actually speak, nothing happened. The system let me down. Society let me down. People who I thought were my friends blamed me. People who I thought were my friends didn’t believe me. Secondary victimization is a huge reason why victims never say a word. I have heard countless stories of victims who have tried to tell someone what happened to them and they were not validated, were not believed, and so they shut down. Trying once is VERY hard. After a person is shut down, it is extremely hard to open up and try again. It is too painful. They don’t want to risk the utter devastatingly desolation they felt ever again.
As an adult I tried to tell once again the details of what happened to me. I did not get validation. I STILL have family members trying to get ME to apologize for ” hurting ” my family, because I chose to tell them the details of the abuse, I told them the truth. My husband introduced me to a word: tertiary. Tertiary victimization when for a third time you are victimized yet again. The dictionary defines victimize as, “to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly.” And that is exactly what secondary victimization and tertiary victimization are. Or however many times you have tried to tell someone the abuse they endured and it resulted in them being treated cruelly or unfairly. When I hear stories of abuse victims calling 911, telling their friend or family, and being 100% supported, I feel overjoyed! When a victim can tell someone of their abuse and be validated on the spot, it opens a path of healing that is incredible. It is so hard to do, and I admire everyone who does. It is what we SHOULD be able to do!
When a victim is not believed, they shut down. The healing path takes longer. There are so many more hurdles. Then to be shut down even later in life again… I get it. I understand when I hear women say they just can’t try again. When they say they just can’t go through another disappointment. I have been there. I am there. I know exactly how it feels to have a huge group of people, a town, a family, still not acknowledge what happened. Still not give the person unconditional love. Still not walk the narrow path with them. Hearing that my family feels “devastated” NOT by the abuse that happened to me, but because of how I hurt them in the process of telling the truth should be under the definition of what my husband called tertiary victimization. Having other family members and friends tell me that they have heard others say they cannot “believe that Bethany is putting this out there for everyone to see,” is astounding to me.
I am putting everything out there, because it is the truth. The truth is nothing to be ashamed of. If someone is ashamed of my truth, they are guilty. If someone is embarrassed by my truth, they have shame. If someone is shocked by my truth, then they have been living in denial far too long.
I am sharing what happened when I told the truth, because it was hard. It was hard the 1st and the 2nd and the 3rd. Just because it was hard, just because there were those who wanted to stay in their lies, does not mean I should have given up. My story needed to be told. I needed to see the unconditional people in my life step forward. I needed to unburden my soul and my body from the weight of those secrets.
If you were a victim of abuse I encourage you to tell your story. If you get shut down, tell it again to someone else. If you get blamed, tell it again to someone else. You may have a handful of people by your side in the end but it is so much better than 100 shadows of people that aren’t really there at all. There will be someone who will listen.
It is those negative comments, like the ones made to me, that teach others to keep the secret. Don’t let the ignorance and selfishness of others keep you from telling your truth. Let US teach society that telling the truth should be rewarded with justice and validation. Let US teach those who try to secondary victimize that we will not be quieted. We have a voice and we will speak until justice prevails. We cannot let those people win. They don’t deserve that power. You take the power back by standing in your truth. And know that those others, that blame, that don’t believe…mean nothing. Their words are just reflections of their own darkened hearts and their own disillusioned souls. They have no bearing on you.They are not real. Your truth is real.
You have to do what is right for you, when it is right for you. Just know that whether your truth stays in your heart or whether you speak your truth..whether you are still walking the wide road or if you are slowly veering off to a more narrow…wherever you are…you survived the abuse. You are courageous. And you are brave.
*Story printed on YOUSHAREPROJECT