For years, it ate away at me inside. Disgusted in myself for not being more forceful, for not standing my ground. Ashamed, believing it was my fault because, well, I was part of it. I knew it was wrong for an adult to harm or exploit a child but never realized there could be perpetrators who were not adults.

The internet was up and coming. I’d find myself up late at night, alone in my college dorm room, searching. Searching for answers, for validation, for something to help me understand and give me some kind of peace. The manner in which the abuse finally ended, no doubt for me, compounded my sense of self-loathing.

Then one night, sans inhibition – compliments of alcohol – I verbalized an uncertain opinion to my stone cold sober roommate. Her posture changed. Her attention changed. The mindless chit chat she had been humoring me with up until then became a more serious interrogation. I became soberly aware of the skeleton I had just let out of the closet, and hesitantly answered her questions.

She confidently challenged my attempts to interpret the abuse as possibly normal, not being a big deal, or maybe as my fault. It was then, for the very first time, I considered being able to feel anything other than shame or guilt. I began to feel anger. She encouraged, rather, she insisted I tell my mom. She offered her emotional support and even her physical presence.

If not for Instant Messenger (along with the assistance of some more alcohol of course), I am not sure I ever would have found the courage to do it. I don’t think I would ever have been able to talk face-to-face, or even over the phone about it. I still struggle even now.

How Did I Get Here?

We were a typical, loving, church-going, hardworking family. I was a tomboy and the oldest of three. I never wanted to disappoint my mom and had a strong desire to make her life easier, as she was a single parent. I often felt grown up and on the outs with my peers. He was just about 3 years older than me. Goofy, yet mature, and wise well beyond his years. He made me feel normal, like a kid. Confident, intelligent, and a natural leader, he was charismatic. I wanted to be around him. He was like a big brother to me.

I don’t remember exactly when or where it began. For a long time I dissociated to avoid guilt, and some things I think I subconsciously chose to forget. However, vivid memories of occurrences and feelings remain etched within. Sometimes triggered by the smell of something such as new construction in a house, or a particular place or touch, and sometimes without warning, they still flash into consciousness.

I recall a time at my grandparents’ house, it may have even been the first time. We, my siblings and cousins, were running about, playing as kids typically do. He’d isolated me in their upstairs bathroom. Wasn’t very hard, I loved playing with him. I did not anticipate what would come next. I was about 10 give or take, and naive is an understatement. I had no knowledge of sexual activity and was an innocent girl who viewed kissing as being for people who either just were or are getting married. He said he wanted to “show me something.” He was my pal, I looked up to him. I immediately felt uncomfortable and embarrassed, and I was confused.To ease my discomfort or minimize my resistance, he frequently groomed me with various assurances over those couple of years. He would tell me “it was normal to be curious” or “to want to explore our bodies” and “experiment.” But the curiosity and desire to experiment was not mutual.  In fact, over the course of this time, the things he did to my body or would coerce me to do to his, disgusted and shamed me.

As a result, I felt, at times, insufficient. Like his behavior was normal, and I must not be. He’d tell me that it was our secret; that no one else can know because ‘we’ would get in trouble. He said it’s a “secret club” for only us. He even concocted an obscure code name to aid in the secrecy, one I still cannot bring myself to repeat, even today. Once, he went so far as to say he thinks he loves me and wants to marry me. He reassured me that is okay because “his grandparents are first cousins too.” Even as a child, I knew that was absurd. 

It always felt wrong or bad to me, never normal or natural. I would feel gross or dirty afterwards, both inside and out. He would whisper my name, say the secret code word, and motion a gesture to me, as if I should retreat to a private area. Fear and discomfort would swell inside. I’d usually pretend like I didn’t hear or notice. I thought if I just ignored him it wouldn’t happen. But the reality was, it didn’t matter if I wanted to or not. He was determined.

The sense of “we” and “us” he’d always claim, enabled my self-blame. I often felt, as my mom had taught us: if one of your friends is doing something bad, then you walk away and get out of the situation. You don’t participate, no one controls your actions but you. So naturally, in my eyes, since I didn’t walk away, I participated, and therefore I was guilty.

I was uncomfortable and ashamed of what we had done, but I was also too afraid to tell anyone. I felt trapped and guilty. I feared the perceived consequences. The disappointment I’d cause for my role in this behavior, or the hostility that may result within our family if the adults were mad or kids were punished and separated. I couldn’t handle the idea of that. But even when I’d muster up the courage to tell him “no, I don’t want to,” then try to open the door or leave, it didn’t matter. He would act as though I said or did nothing, physically prevent me from leaving, and maybe offer some sort of reassurance. “No” was never an option for me.

Not knowing what else to do, I really thought if I could just avoid being alone with him, then it wouldn’t happen…right? I would control the situation by preventing opportunities. Yet somehow, no matter how hard I tried, he would still manage to find a way to corner me or coerce me someplace secluded.

 

We were cousins, time together and sleepovers between our families were not uncommon.

One time, my mom had all six of us for the weekend in our tiny, two-bedroom house. Very unlike me, I was the last one to wake up that morning. I heard him coming into the bedroom, where I had been asleep. He whispered for me to wake me up. Knowing we were alone in the room, and trying to avoid what might happen if I did, I pretended to stay asleep. Dishearteningly, me being asleep made no difference to him.  He took advantage of our seclusion anyway, even though I maintained my act until he moved on.

It is amazing how even when I was able to evade contact, it was sometimes worse than had I not in a way. One time, he had pulled me into a bathroom at his parent’s house and locked the door. He showed me a magazine, with illustrations that shocked me and made me uncomfortable. Things he wanted to experiment with. The other kids began calling us, wondering where we were. He knew he needed to respond, and I was grateful for the interruption. Being cunning though, he slipped out unnoticed, and made me stay in the bathroom alone. He showed his face so the others could see he was not with me, and he told them he hadn’t seen me. After they moved on, he slipped a note under the door telling me he was going to go outside to the window, and instructed me to open it and let him in. Instead, I took advantage of his absence to flee the room. After tapping on the window and getting no answer, he came back inside and found me off and about. He was angry with me. Subconsciously aware of his ability to manipulate and exploit, I worried he was going to proactively tell our moms his own narrative, one where I had propositioned him…to place blame on me or get even. I feared they would believe him. His sister later found the note, addressed to me from him, and asked me what it was. I lied and told her I didn’t know.

Occasionally, he would ask me “if I wanted to try anything.” Every time, I would shamefully respond “no, I don’t want to do anything.” True but irrelevant to him, because he always did. I just wanted to go back to playing with the other kids.

Then one time, after so many failed attempts to resist him, I came up with a different strategy. I thought if I said the grossest thing I could possibly think of, something truly disgusting, surely he won’t want to do it, and then he will leave me alone. How wrong I was. I will never forget how exponentially gross and hopeless I felt after that day. I never made that mistake again.

I still struggle with this strategy because what was an act of desperation intended to protect myself not only failed, but gives the illusion of consent. Though I’m confident on my reasoning for doing it, wondering how he or any other person sees this, in addition to saying something other than no, still causes me to feel self-blame is warranted.

At some point, we learned in school about the scientific aspects of reproduction. Males have sperm, females have eggs, and pregnancy results when sperm joins with an egg. Without a solid understanding, I wondered if this may be possible for me. I had not yet gotten my period, and therefore reached a new level of fear. After that school lesson, my mom asked me if I had any questions about what we learned. As hard as it was for me, I asked her how long sperm last. I was afraid she would suspect something from my obvious question. But I was also afraid if there was any in me, I would become pregnant, and the anxiety surrounding this possibility tormented me.

There are many other vivid memories. Though I try to suppress them, they pop into consciousness anyway.

Like the time I had a hickey on my chest. Though I didn’t know what it was at the time, I knew how it got there, and out of fear took extra caution to keep it concealed from my mother.

Or the time he wanted to photograph me for what he claimed was a high school photography class project, and even wanted to include a friend. I was surprised by the suggestion, and asked wouldn’t he get in trouble for this, but he responded of course not, that nudity was “art.” His teacher is really cool and he would get a good grade for it. He said since they have their own dark room and could develop the pictures on his own, and would block out my face so no one would know who it was. That was one of the few times I resisted and thankfully was successful.

Toward the end of this era, my body began changing, and my hormones were beginning to surge. I had unwillingly experienced so much by this point. I found myself surprised one day when I realized that I was “curious” too. For the first time, I wasn’t anxious about something happening, in fact I was maybe even excited. So that next time, I eagerly awaited his cue. Impatient, at the first opportunity I signaled to him.

His reaction went through me like a knife. He looked at me, disgusted, and just shook his head as if to say “no way.” My heart sank again. I wondered to myself, what have I done?!? I thought I must have crossed a line: somehow my advance didn’t qualify as the “normal curiosity” he had always claimed his advances expressed. He looked at me as if what I did, alone, ventured into inappropriate behavior. I was disgusted in myself, and again afraid he might tell.

He never again approached me, and nothing ever happened again after that day.

Through the healing process and continued turmoil, thankfully my mom is supportive and believing. She respected my wishes not to go into details or relive parts that still disgust me. It certainly made telling her far less stressful, and coping easier. In spite of this, given the amount of time that had passed, as well as not seeing him much nor fearing for myself anymore, neither of us ever brought it to the attention of anyone else.

There are times when I am confident in my feelings, but angry. I feel it’s an unfair burden to carry and I don’t care what storm may ensue if I speak out. The triggers, the flashbacks, some I’m sure will be with me forever. I struggle remaining silent. I just want to let it out: what happened, and how it made me feel. How it still makes me feel now.

He is married now, has kids, is a lawyer, and lives on the other side of the country. I am thankful to have lost contact with him and to never have a need to see him. Recent events often cause me to reflect and wonder: could there be anyone else who has had an experience with him too in some way?

There are also times when I am confident, but at peace with what happened. I’m confident that I don’t deserve the burdens of shame, responsibility, or guilt. But I also know I am okay now, and it does not define me or control how I feel about myself anymore. In these moments, I have no need to be public with what happened.

Then there are the most difficult times. Those times that in spite of all validation I have received, re-emerged doubt still keeps me silent. Do I have a right to speak? That voice from my childhood continues to accuse me, saying ‘no one controls you,’ and ‘I didn’t stop it.’ Sometimes I even question if I’m just remembering things how I wish they were to ease my own responsibility. Naturally, he’d probably deny it or have a different story. What if his story is what really happened? I also fear, if an objective person would view me as a child sexual abuse victim given the stigma that goes with accusing an offender who is not an adult. Having experienced people express doubt that a ‘kid’ has the ability to do something like this, or hearing people dismiss a similar age situation as ‘probably just curiosity’ certainly rattles your confidence to the core. These are some of the doubts that repeatedly surface and keep me silent. In those times, I embrace the silence, but only because I painfully regress to a state of self-loathing and self-doubt.

Why speak now?

The more I have been able to talk about it over time, the more confident I have become. Eroding the secrecy has decreased the opportunities to continue to doubt myself and allowed me to begin a new chapter of healing and find inner peace. I hold strong to how uneasy I felt throughout this experience, and the things I clearly recall. And when I catch myself slipping back into doubt, guilt, and self-blame again, I consciously remind myself to stop trying to change my feelings. It helps keep me grounded and reassure me that it was not my fault and I don’t deserve to continuously look for blame in myself.  

As difficult as it is, and as much as I fear negative backlash, I hope that telling my story provides insight to some of the feelings surrounding, and circumstances that facilitate peer sexual abuse. It can happen, it does happen, and the effects can be devastating. Telling their story does not mean a survivor is strong, nor does continuing to live in silence mean they are weak. There was a time when I would search for others’ stories. I needed to hear someone with a similar experience confidently say what happened to them was wrong, to give me the support and validation I needed to feel the same about my own situation. Their confidence enabled me to develop my own. If by telling my story I can give that to even just one other survivor, or provide anyone else support and encouragement to stop hating themself and feeling guilty, then it is worth it.  Every survivor deserves that and so much more.   

I have three kids of my own now and they are my whole world. The reality of peer abuse is always in the forefront of my mind. Though I am cautious not to impose bias anxiety on them, my protective maternal instinct wants to prevent something like this from happening to them. I aim to convert my awareness to preventive actions, as well as talk to them often. I want them to be secure in how they feel, and never fear talking to me about anything that makes them uncomfortable, no matter what.

As a survivor, I feel compelled to share my story.  As it helps me heal, may it also provide comfort, support, or raise awareness for others. #MeToo