For one survivor of sexual abuse, writing emerges as key for personal and societal healing.
“Unspeakable,” says the pope. I cringe. That’s just it, I think. Even when he’s publicly trying to apologize for the horrific crimes and secrecy within the church, he’s choosing a word that literally encourages more silence. It’s September 2010, and I wonder if Pope Benedict wishes that the world would stop speaking about the church’s sexual abuse history.
I certainly have felt in my own life the heavy weight of the taboo about speaking about sexual abuse. The outer threads of this dense blanketing taboo have started unraveling as the prevalence of sexual violation becomes more accepted. As a survivor of sexual abuse (note: not in the Catholic church), I can sense more tightly knitted fabric creating the core of the taboo. It’s our society’s preference to not look at or hear about the personal damage created by sexual violence. It lands in my body as a taut band that keeps my ribs from expanding comfortably when I breathe. It’s a spongy clog in my throat and a trace of nausea building in my gut. The taboo becomes friends with the direct damage from sexual trauma and feeds the pain. It’s difficult to fully heal in a culture that on the whole doesn’t get how wide-ranging and long-lasting sexual trauma symptoms can be.
Writing about my experiences helps me spread the fibers of the suffocating taboo. I write what tumbles through my mind. I translate into words the reverberations, blocks, and floods of trauma imprints within my body. Writing documents my healing patterns, releases my pain, and lets more clarity flow through me. With clarity comes more courage. So I continue to write and speak, even as I meet the taboo on an almost daily basis.
At its most viciously potent, the taboo is a perpetrator silencing a victim through shame and threats. It’s also the well-meaning but ignorant relative who advises, “The abuse happened so long ago. Just put it out of your mind.” It’s a survivor’s decision to not answer honestly to a friend’s, “How are you?” It’s also the change of topic after a survivor does share a small snapshot of how his daily life is impacted by traces of the trauma. It’s the coworker who knows about your abuse background and yet still becomes irritated at your lack of focus and commitment when you have to excuse yourself to go shake in the bathroom after someone makes a sexual innuendo. It’s the family who decides to handle incest within the family with no understanding that very little true healing can occur when a victim has to see the perpetrator on a daily basis. It’s the judge who gives a child molester a light sentence because it was just gentle molestation. There is a huge gap in understanding of how sexual violations of all types can impact a victim’s sense of self, nervous system, emotions, risk for developing mental disorders, sex life, capacity to trust, ability to concentrate for school or work, and much more.
More people need to know that 13% of rape victims attempt suicide. Society’s ignorance, perpetuated by the taboo, can so easily be read by a survivor in early phases of healing as proof that she is at fault, that her symptoms are not valid. This only compounds the difficulties created by a long history of doubting and blaming victims.
We’re moving in the right direction as a society. We’re moving from “Oh, sexual violence is rare, and so often it’s the victim’s fault” to “It is sadly common but please heal in private and don’t show any of your wounds.” My hope is that many more survivors will write and speak openly about the damage and ways to heal. Our voices will shred the remaining taboo. Our society will eventually send this message to survivors: “This is pervasive and deeply damaging. Let’s make sure you get support and time to heal.”
Naomi Heitz is an artist, massage therapist, and early childhood teacher. She writes to advocate for deeper healing for survivors of sexual violation. Her book The Art of Healing from Sexual Trauma will be published in 2016.
Originally published on Fine Lines @ Pubslush on June 30, 2015.