I want to talk about how childhood sexual abuse is a disability to be navigated in adult life like a daily job that never really ends. More specifically, while trying to sort through clues and disjointed memories, it often manifests as re-creations, winding and distanced from memory, and repeating in riddles.
I no longer feel like pretending that most of us haven’t been exposed to this deeply pervasive harm in our society in one way or another- be it by experiencing physical abuse or being sexually objectified as a child. Children are sensitive enough to emotion and energy that merely growing up in a society that hides and protects this secret— as an underpinning of violent maintenance of power-over and control in capitalist socialization— can be felt, and
Further, I no longer feel like tiptoeing around how common it is for us to repeat our traumas in our friendships and intimate relationships. I no longer feel like demonizing the stage of healing from generations of this violence where we fight out those old battles in new, distanced battle grounds amongst ourselves. Where our feared enemies come for us, from within our mind’s memories and ingrained socializations.
Instead, I feel like being curious about why, when people reach this very tender and permeable stage of their healing, they are often labelled with the most damning, shaming and stigmatized mental health industrial complex labels such as borderline. That level of fear and shame based response to such a tender state can keep someone from coming up to a place where safety, love and play can hold healing as gently as it needs to be held for us to meet the remnants of our aggressors within us. I want to feel curious, without necessarily being able to generate answers, about why such a crucial keystone phase of healing and freedom for many is so heavily pathologized and labelled as irreparably broken?
So how can communities hold the hard parts of trauma healing in ways that do not recreate institutional harms? That allow us to move to a more dynamic wholeness? To a place where we can see all sides of ourselves? That makes space for us to lose our minds and find our hearts again?
Childhood sexual abuse socialization means higher exposure to situations where people try and act out their sexual trauma on you non-consensually. I find that no matter how much of a fierce strong feminist woman I think I am, this is just another thing that I need to care for myself about. Maybe one day it will stop, but there is some kind of magnetism curse thing, you know? And so I have this responsibility to protect myself, which was really hard to learn.
The majority of the shit that was non-consensually placed inside of us isn’t even our shit, and yet, we are the only ones who can clean it up. And it is super okay to be Pissed Off about that. We often don’t have many tools or supports available to do this. We can try and push it onto others, that is, if we hold privileges that allow that to happen, we can try, and see if it’ll work (hint: it won’t).
When friends are just starting to articulate their own stories to themselves in new deeper, messier layers, it can feel really scary for them. I will never forget how terrifying these times are. I have been there and I may go back, in new layers of trauma work. And so I have a huge amount of love for everyone I placed a boundary with during this layer of trauma work, and who felt really triggered by my boundaries. Often, community response is based on maintaining comfort and silencing. This makes sense, because it is jarring to see adults we know begin to act in childish or abusive or non-consensual sexual ways towards each other.
Even the person who has acted out may feel so nervous or alarmed by what came from them that they could react to anyone setting boundaries on their actions in violent or socially malicious ways. When abuse happens during a time in our lives when we are dependant for survival on the very adults that hurt us, challenging that reality is LIFE THREATENING. Processing those feelings can be delayed for years, and become tangled up over time. Triggers related to unwinding this in adult life often feel life threatening too, even though we are no longer unsafe in the same way: the thread connects back to a time when this was real.
If we don’t yet know why the trigger in adult life feels big, we often respond to the manifestation of the trigger like it is ‘life-threatening’. Because our body is reacting to the origin of the trigger, from a time when we did not have agency. When our friends and loved ones express their agencies outside of our stories by placing loving, healthy boundaries on being objectified re-creations of deep trauma, it can be really hard to receive: We just took a very brave step towards healing ourselves! The “No” we receive is often coming from those in our pasts as much as from our friends in this moment, which makes it even harder.
I don’t perpetuate moments where friends try and act out their trauma on me/with me/around me by talking about them in social gossip. I view these times as different than sexual assault or rape because it sits in context of their stories unravelling for them, my history of having done this healing work myself, my socialization as being literally bred as ‘an object to deposit unwanted parts of self upon’, and my ability to place and enforce my boundaries. And also, I matter, and when someone reacts in fear, attacking or silencing me instead of processing their actions in accountable ways, this is highly triggering for me- stress and inflammatory responses in my body akin to being hit by a car that I know all too well.
But instead of running after the car (which is a common reactionary learned response) I now check to see if I am okay, take care of myself, and move on when I can. This can be solitary, socially isolating and personal work, and a lot of people don’t ‘get’ me or are afraid of me, but it is survival.
We are trying to say the truth, and it starts as almost said- but not quite. And so, often the love of firm boundaries we can offer each other (although hard to do!) are integral for us to eventually come to know that what is happening inside of us, the stories that need our love and care, are not actually happening again in the present physical moment. Seeing that can be hard, and a great relief. If we respond to it out of context, it can perpetuate great harms.
Trauma repeats itself, and we may find ourselves predisposed to resonate with harm and chaos. This might look like being abused again in adult life, or trying to reenact trauma by doing harmful things to others. Often it is a whole mosaic of coming in and out of doing both. And so we see a spiral pattern emerge: repair or repeat. And a lovely common thread: we want to be happy. And a soft knowing: we have sometimes forgotten how to know what being happy requires or means.