Good at Looking Good

Those of us who are adult survivors of child sexual abuse are good at looking good. After all, we’ve kept a terrible secret throughout our childhood and often into adulthood. We’ve learned to appear untroubled and unshakable. No one must guess how shaky we feel inside.

Writer Shelley Wildgen realized this when she wrote about a woman she’d known for many years. Shelley calls her Charlotte:

“Charlotte is an undeniable force. As a fearless woman with dark eyes and a driven spirit, she is nobody’s fool.  In her twenties,  Charlotte was a Toronto jazz club hostess.  Her thirties and forties were spent raising kids and saving wolves. Now, at seventy, Charlotte serves her church and her community, and not at all in a passive fashion. Rescuing comes naturally to Charlotte and she tackles it with a vengeance. From stray cats, to troubled people who’ve lost their way, Charlotte finds them and helps put them right. Never one to hold back, she speaks expansively about her valiant causes in a passionate, intelligent voice. With a wide flourish of her cashmere draped arm, this woman imbues a sense of style unsurpassed by even the most elegant of Manhattan mavens.

Charlotte was sexually abused when she was seven, and it does not show.

Who would dare touch this beacon of bravery and saver of souls? Who indeed.  Charlotte’s abuser was a respected neighbour, in the quiet western Ontario beach town where she grew up.  He lived in a house down the street.  A house the young girl walked past everyday.

‘Well, he was a pervert; that’s it. I was a kid. He gave me seashells, and before long I noticed other girls had the same seashells, so I knew what he was doing and I’d be damned if I was going to keep his secret for him. I told my parents. I told the neighbourhood,’ she says emphatically.

‘They thought I was a troublemaker’. She shrugs her shoulders. ‘No one helped me then.  I told them all, and was amazed that they didn’t believe me. I was seven! What a disgusting man.’

Looking into Charlotte’s eyes now, you can see the pain, as well as plenty of determination and a good measure of anger.

The sexual abuse changed Charlotte…much as if a car swerved onto the sidewalk and knocked her over. The rebuke of her parents then kicked her while she was down.

Charlotte was shocked and hurt, and went on to brandish her fury at any injustice that came her way.  Now, sixty-three years after her abuse, and just as many years fanning her rage, Charlotte has grown weary.

With her older husband requiring more care, this strong, determined woman must depend on her energy and her health more than ever.  Charlotte’s lifelong frustration has become something she needs to understand, and so at seventy years of age, she has entered a psychotherapy program, reinforced by prayer, which she has relied on for most of her adult life.

‘I prayed hard about my anger and was answered with one word.  ‘Rejection.’  I took that one word and discussed it with my psychologist.  It was revealed to me that the rejection by my parents created a part of me that fights against unfairness everywhere.  Children and animals especially.’

Charlotte’s combination of prayer and therapy was the right first step for her, setting this bold adult and damaged child on a road to understanding.  She found that her anger was rooted, not just in the abuse, but also in the way her revelations were ignored after the abuse.  According to Marlene Richert M.S.W., R.S.W. of New Directions in Winnipeg, Manitoba,  often times ‘childhood sexual abuse is not as big a problem as the reaction. Hearing the news could cause parents to cry, possibly separate, or worse yet…do nothing.’ This was certainly true for the seven year old Charlotte, and that initial response has affected her enormously. She’s been fighting to be heard ever since.

As formidable a personality as Charlotte is, the same cannot be said for Eve.  Like a cool breeze on a summer day, Eve’s gentle nature belies a history of childhood sexual trauma at the hands of her father, witnessed by her mother, then followed, when she was fourteen, by a secret romantic relationship with a thirty year old boyfriend.  By eighteen Eve was married to another man who beat her relentlessly. With a light, lyrical whisper and dancing blue eyes, she tells tales of horror and indignation that many would not survive. Eve is not angry. She is never angry. She recites her life’s sordid details as if she were reading from a menu. The experiences have left her with a certain numbness, along with the inclination to tend to the needs of others and avoid conflict.  Eve is ever watchful. She does not like anyone to be unhappy, and does not recognize any true emotions in herself. Eve’s career choice is social work, and  her stressful role as life skill facilitator of the developmentally disabled, which includes sexual abusers,  has contributed to her recently diagnosed autoimmune disorder.   After thirty years of helping the disadvantaged get back on their feet,  Eve has recently taken on trauma treatment for herself.  To heal the body, she must heal her mind and her soul. All three life sources contain a myriad of pain.

Now at the half century mark, Eve is opting to fight for her health and her life, by attending sessions of EMDR, Focusing Oriented Psychotherapy and Voice Dialogue.

A few short weeks into her therapy, Eve wondered why her therapist didn’t need to see her regularly.  After all, she said she didn’t feel much different, except for one thing. Eve startled herself when she realized that she had expressed anger in a disagreement with her son. In Eve’s words, it was ‘a very unpleasant emotion.’  She learned that her trauma therapist was not abandoning her, and she was free to stay in touch with him, but what was actually happening, according to her therapist, was that by expressing some anger, Eve had started to live her life without avoidance.  The reframing of her story was emerging, and Eve was seeing things differently.  She then utilized her professional organizational skills to sort out the many people in her life.  Over the years, Eve’s pleasing nature had allowed people to take advantage of her, so she started cleaning house.  She evicted some rent-free tenants from her home and then began questioning her marriage.  No one was more surprised by her actions than Eve herself. After confronting the troublesome people in her life, Eve noticed that ‘I felt sad for all of them, because change is hard, but it was not my fault. I was not overwhelmed with guilt, and I got on with things. Even felt some relief.’  Eve has separated from her second husband, but she’s having a difficult time nurturing herself instead of others. Her physical health has improved dramatically and she sleeps better than ever in her new apartment.  Still, adapting isn’t easy. She often returns to her old home to cook dinner for her estranged husband and grown son.  Eve is about to enter her second phase of EMDR therapy.

Charlotte and Eve each reacted differently to their childhood sexual abuse. Their healing methods are just as diverse.  Charlotte is seventy. Her spirituality and regular talk sessions with her psychologist continue to guide her.  Eve is fifty and she has embraced three forms of psychotherapy, as well as yoga to help her through.  By finally asking questions and investigating their options for acquiring some joy in the years ahead, these grown up women have taken steps to unravel the complexities of their lives, and proven that healing from the trauma of sexual abuse can occur at any age.

Charlotte and Eve are beginning  new life chapters. Watching each of these brave women enter a room, you’d never guess the violations that befell them as children, but now as mature adults, they are finally comfortable with the events that have shaped their lives.

Charlotte and Eve are lovely women, and they are getting better.”

Bio: Shelley Wildgen is a freelance writer who lives near Frankford Ontario.  In addition to writing for various magazines, Shelley is a professor of media studies at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario.

3 comments

  1. Anne E Watmough says:

    Dear Mary, thank you for your wonderful website and your wise words. I suffered quite a lot of trauma in my childhood. Growing up in the post War Britain of the 1950s there was not only poverty and childhood deseases like polio but sometimes teachers were allowed to get away with physical abuse also. I was sexually molested by a brothel owner with a hair lip when I was 11 years old and just starting my periods and wearing my first bra. My parents did believe me though. But my father continued to do business with him. Then approaching bonfire night (which is where children light fires and set fireworks off on November the 5th here in the UK) I was told by my father not to go down the entry to collect wood with a boy who lived next door as my parents thought this older boy was sexually immoral. Protesting my innocence I disobeyed and later my dad beat me. Then after recurring psychosis from the age 13 at 16 years of age I was convinced that I had cirvical cancer. My mother took me to our family GP who whilst examining me was learing down and also sexually abused me. My mother was present and wanted to know if I was still a virgin. A few years later the same doctor attempted to sexually molest my younger sister who slapped his face and somehow because I hadn’t I was made to believe it was my fault what he did to me. I met my husband of 32 years in a psychiatric hospital who suffered manic depression. I have a son who also suffers for his sanity. I am diagnosed schizophrenic. After years of abuse from the so called carers and doctors of the NHS I am still attempting to come off medication. Biopsychiatry is hypocritical not hypocratic. There are no psychotherapists in my area that will take me because of the label I have been given. But now at 60 years of age I will succeed. My husband is passed these last 3 years and I feel I am starting a new phase in my life. I enjoy life although lately have suffered withdrawals and still have to contend with paraniod delusions. But I am hopeful and also for my son. We support each other. Thank you once again for your empathic website. Anne.

    • Dear Anne: I’m so sorry you’ve suffered so much throughout your life. In view of all your childhood trauma I would wonder about your diagnosis of Sz. I wonder if there is a hospital out-patient clinic, for example, where a psychiatrist knowledgeable about trauma could diagnose you.

      I suggest a second opinion because I would wonder if you actually have a dissociative disorder. In view of your traumas this would make sense. The average person in North America is mis-diagnosed 6 times before getting the right treatment for their dissociative disorder. Before getting the right diagnosis and treatment they are diagnosed as having Sz, bipolar or manic depression disorder,etc. etc.

      If you have a dissociative disorder medicine for Sz won’t help. If you have a dissociative disorder there is a known path of treatment and the prognosis is pretty good.

      Therefore I urge you to seek out someone willing to diagnose you. You won’t be asking for treatment, just for a diagnosis. Most experts will agree to that much.

  2. Jan says:

    >>According to Marlene Richert M.S.W., R.S.W. of New Directions in Winnipeg, Manitoba, often times ‘childhood sexual abuse is not as big a problem as the reaction. Hearing the news could cause parents to cry, possibly separate, or worse yet…do nothing.’<<

    Oh boy, did this quote raise my dander!! "Not as big of a problem?" NO.

    NO.

    NO.

    Never never EVER, does the lack of reaction eclipse the abuse itself. It doesn't even come close. But it's a horrible secondary wounding to the abuse. It's the equivalent to getting hit by a train, splattered and destroyed, only to get up and get hit by the rescue vehicle. There's nothing like struggling for (in some cases) YEARS to find the courage to let the voice within you tell what happened only to have your vocal cords ripped out. It compounds the damage in terrible ways.
    But it never surpasses the damage done by the initial abuse. To infer that it does so only serves to diminish the import of the abuse itself.

    Wrong.

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