This morning, I attended a workshop which was held by Connections: A Safe Place. The bulk of the well-attended seminar was taught by Rebecca Born, one of the two driving forces behind Connections. She is a licensed therapist, and has been working with sex abuse victims for over 15 years. On top of being compassionate and dedicated to the cause, she is creative in her methods and challenges the status quo of how we, as a society, regard sexual abuse. She discusses how we teach our children prevention, but that this should be followed with a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude. She shows us how while we may not outwardly blame victims for sexual abuse, our questions and thoughts toward certain situations keep us from blaming the perpetrators as opposed to the victims. All too often, we ask questions and make statements like “well, what was she doing there anyway?”, or “look at what she was wearing” or even “they are old enough to know not to act like that…they were basically asking for it.” These kinds of regard toward the topic only set us back in eliminating sexual abuse. It is this complacency that Rebecca and Connections seek to conquer.
This habit of blaming the victim was true, even in my own case. I had a bit of an epiphany today. It wasn’t a huge emotional discovery, but it really made me rethink how I felt about my own story. Mine is a story of sexual abuse that happened over the course of 3 years, and my father was the perpetrator. Since the beginning, I have known it wasn’t my fault – my mother made sure of that. She never let me question my worth. And while I have never fully blamed myself, I still took on just a small amount of the blame. I’ve always been just a bit embarrassed at my age during these encounters. My abuse went from 6th grade until 8th grade. 8th grade is almost high school. I knew what was going on, and I never technically said no. When growing up, children learn how much they can push back when their parents give them instruction. When my mom told me it was time to turn off the television, I often argued with her. I’d list a million reasons why I should be able to stay up later than my bedtime. I was establishing give and take boundaries with her. But with my father, I never established those boundaries. I never asked questions or resisted. If he said I couldn’t play Super Nintendo, there was no begging or debating. I don’t know if that was because he wasn’t around in my early childhood so I never built up the ability as an adolescent to say no or if it was because there were other children at his house that constantly begged, so I didn’t want to be a nuisance. Whatever the reason, I didn’t ever say no when it came to the abuse. I took that on myself. I always thought that while he was definitely wrong, I could probably have just said “no” and spared both of us a whole mess of trouble.
When we were in the seminar today, and Rebecca was discussing blame, I realized that I had been taking this on. I can’t tell you the weight that has been lifted off by learning that not only did I not have any control in this situation, but I shouldn’t have ever been expected to say no. I shouldn’t have expected myself to say no, either. I am an intelligent near 30-year-old man looking back and questioning the actions of a confused 12-year-old. I was powerless, and it feels great to realize that and get rid of the burden that I didn’t even know I had. In all cases of childhood sexual abuse, the victims is absolutely never, ever to blame. We, as a society, need to embrace and promote this method of thinking.
Rebecca also raises an interesting thought on forgiveness that struck a chord with me. In a society that is often of a Christian upbringing, we are taught that forgiveness is only achieved when the relationship is ‘back to normal’. We are almost taught that forgive can’t come without forget. Today, I was given a different definition of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is giving up the expectation of hope that things should have been or could have been different. Forgiving a person is accepting what has happened and then moving forward from there. Once we reach that level of forgiveness, we (the forgivers) can then decide what the relationship can look like.
I can’t say how refreshing this was to hear. Before the abuse, my father and I had a decent relationship. I’d even say that aside from the abuse, during those 3 years in question, we had a good relationship. We went fishing and camping. I helped him on his nightly newspaper route. We watched sports and he even came to my extra curricular activities. After the abuse, into my adulthood, I tried establishing a relationship with him. I think I did this for two reasons. One was because I have siblings and a stepmother with whom I desperately miss having a strong relationship. We talk and I see them, but I don’t feel like I know them like I once did. The other reason I wanted to make amends and establish a relationship was because it’s what I was taught was true forgiveness. If I didn’t attempt a father/son relationship with him, how could I say I had forgiven him? I must still be holding a grudge and holding onto resentment if I didn’t want a relationship with him. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
As it stands, a relationship with him is not something that worked for me. It wasn’t even wholly due to the abuse either. I think I have come forward from this victimization quite well. Well enough to start an organization to hopefully help others, at least, and the credit for that has to be spread around to several things. But while this organization, or even this blog post, aren’t about badmouthing my father, I can comfortably say that he was unwilling or unable to be truly regretful of what he had done. His lifestyle choices were only condemning those around him, and he had turned out to be a cold person. I didn’t respect him, didn’t want to be anything like him, and certainly didn’t look at him as the father I’d learned to live without. No, this wasn’t someone who it was healthy for me to be around. That doesn’t mean I didn’t forgive him. I can’t change what happened. I accept that. I can only learn to move on. And in that, I have forgiven him.
I feel good that I am in a place where I can hopefully help others who are going through or have gone through what I have. I feel honored to be surrounded by close friends and family who support me in this organization, not only with emotional support, but enough to even dedicate their own time and efforts to see it through. And I feel even better that I can still learn from others who have more training than I do, and that I can still apply that knowledge to my own journey and healing.
I hope that whatever struggles and burdens you have, you are working toward removing them and marching onward toward restoration.