You can recover. It’s a hard and ongoing road, however, it can be done. ~ Doré
Have you been there before? In that space and time where the pain is big? I remember the tears. The days when laughter began to slip away and emotions threatened to unhinge my knowledge of truth. It was a season in which I felt as though God had abandoned me.
I was left in a puddle of emotions and God was nowhere to be found. I was left with only one option and that was survival.
My father often went camping. It was one of this favorite things to do. This weekend he invited me, not the boys, and picked me up in his white truck. We were going camping and fishing. The day of the big trip arrived. I rode in the truck and a smile beamed across my face. Leaving the house felt good. Along the way however, we picked up his girlfriend and her 17-year-old son. This event is the source of such dread that thinking about it even all these years later is sending shivers up and down my spine.
However, it is a part of Holding Out For the Hero.
This weekend ended up being far from a happy memory and I do remember it.
As with the emotional and physical abuse at home with Dotti, I learned to deny and rationalize what was going on. My adult life has been driven by the belief that it is important for survivors of child sexual abuse and exploitation to tell their stories, in order to make people realize that these aren’t crimes that happen ‘to someone else’.
My father and step mother were never seen as monsters, not even by the neighbors who witnessed them arguing and fighting with us kids in the driveway.
The biggest challenge when I was a teenager was getting the bystanders – neighbors, relatives, school counselors, teachers, therapists – to consider the possibility that a child might be a victim of abuse. Child abuse is such a taboo subject, and the concept of parents being complicit in the crime so unthinkable, that frequently there is a failure to recognize that it might be going on. For me, the psychological effects of my abuse were extreme.
I had what was later described to me as dissociative amnesia – a psychological phenomenon common in victims of inescapable trauma, in which painful experiences are blocked out, leading to gaps in memory.
I started putting things into little rooms in my mind, and it was like: “OK, we don’t look in that room.”
When there’s no one stepping in to save you and it’s clear you’re going to have to endure something, your mind just does that as a way to protect your soul.
As a child, dissociation is a survival advantage, and in adulthood it can become a disability. It was in my 20’s that the coping system of denial began to break down.
I was working with a therapist, Dr. Clay Wilson, PhD, in Santa Cruz, California, and I began to get flashbacks – like this camping trip with my father – and I could feel in my body it was true, yet it was terrifying because I didn’t want it to be true. During my sophomore year of high school a teacher noticed that I was getting thinner. I had stopped eating for the most part as I was too afraid to eat at home.
Dotti, still facilitating the abuse, had told me she was going to poison me and I would never know when it would happen. The teacher asked me to stay behind after school and said to me, “Tell me the truth, are you anorexic? Bulimic?” And I started laughing.
I confided some yet not all of what was happening to me, and begged the teacher not to call my parents for fear of reprisal.
As an adult relationships for me have been challenging. Love for me is connected with betrayal, as those who were meant to love me were those who orchestrated my abuse.
My father liked camping up in Portola Valley. It wasn’t too far from home, and yet was isolated enough in a forest that you did feel you were far away from every day life.
We arrived Friday afternoon about 4pm and set up our tent and our sleeping bags.
This was followed by a beautiful short nature hike.
Initially, I was having a great time. We cooked hot dogs for dinner at the campsite. This was followed by one of the things I was most looking forward to, making s’mores around the campfire.
After about an hour Al and his girlfriend entered the tent and soon we could hear a lot of oohs and aahs.
They were having sex.
With a cold wind blowing through the air, I began to look at the branches of the barren and gnarled trees as they swayed. I surveyed my surroundings and soaked in the eerie silence that accompanied it. I became a little frightened. The young man pulled his sleeping bag right over to mine and asked if I wanted us to sleep together.
I stayed silent and pretended I was asleep. He reached over to unzip my bag and I held it tight. There was something unmistakably creepy about this boy.
The first morning I awoke to find Al already up and dressed and settled into his camp chair. “This is my favorite time of day,” he said. “It’s quiet and peaceful. I like to drink coffee, sit and ruminate.” I glanced at the time. It was all of 6:30 a.m. I knew what he meant. Looking out at the light streaking through slender trees that swayed with the wind, it struck me that what I loved most about camping is being outdoors all day — in sync with the sun, stars and weather and without distractions.
“I love the mountains so much,” Al said. “They make me feel tingly all over.”
It was fun back then. These days I prefer the comfort of a bed.
It was another hour before our guests woke up. My dad wanted us all to go hiking for the day. It was a beautiful hike and we all enjoyed the day together. There were many ways to choose and it was not crowded. Laid out, built by and, for many years, maintained by volunteers, these trails are one of the most important assets of the area. Trail signs guided us in using both the roadside and wilderness trails. I was a true nature lover.
When we returned we had a long, lazy late afternoon at our campsite. Al and his girlfriend went into the tent again and immersed themselves into having sex. I sat reading a book and pretending I had no idea what was taking place, The young man, this woman’s son, kept glancing in my direction and I just pretended I had no idea he was there. That night we all enjoyed a cook out again. Tomorrow we would be heading back.
Al and his girlfriend again proceeded into the tent and we could hear them having sex.
I climbed into my sleeping bag and rolled over to go to sleep. As I was drifting off I felt someone unzip my bag and then lay on top of me. I pretended to be asleep in hopes this kid would go away. He didn’t. And he pulled down my pants and climbed on top of me.
Outwardly I spoke up and said, “no”, and inwardly I couldn’t help but wonder whether Al knew what was taking place. After finishing his needs, the boy got back into his sleeping bag, moved over to the other side of the fire, and fell fast asleep.
I lay awake thinking I would be incapable of sleeping. Slumber eventually found me.
However, this sleep was restless and unfulfilling.
I awoke in a daze. It took me a few moments to realize where I was and quickly after that the fear of what happened came rushing back.
I told myself that it was all just a dream over and over again, yet this offered me no consolation. After my eyes adjusted to the morning light, seeing my father sitting with his coffee so peacefully provided me enough comfort to calm down. Then I heard it.
The young man talking to his mother and Al, and my father saying, “She’ll never remember it.”
I made a conscious effort not to let them hear me crying. Carried on the wind was their voices.
At first, I told myself I was mistaken. However, the whispering continued. It was barely audible yet there was no denying its existence. My father knew.
I was beside myself with anger, confusion, and fear.
As I sobbed uncontrollably, the three of them quickly packed up our gear and brought it to the truck. We left immediately. I was livid to say the least.
I never told anyone. Secrets can feel terrible and can make kids feel really alone and confused. This was the last time I went camping with my dad unless all the boys went too. I never saw this women or her son again. Al returned home, again, just a few short weeks after. I have never eaten s’mores since.
Although it may seem scary or hard, you need to say something to someone should this kind of thing happen to you. Say something.
Tell another trusted adult, coach, doctor, neighbor, school counselor, or teacher.
They know what to do to help you. That season of my life is now just a memory. From the gift of perspective, today I can share hope.
In the US, you can call this hotline 24/7:
1–800–4ACHILD. (1–800–422–4253). You don’t have to give your name.
There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.
(May 8, 1995) Nelson Mandela
What is the one thing you’d most like to change about the world?