We can’t hide from it: sexual assault happens in the frum community. It happened to me. It’s time to talk about it. It’s time to tell my story.
(this post was first published in my blog, Midnight Musings. To see more like it, please visit: https://midnight-musings.wixsite.com/midnight-musings/my-blog )
Here’s my truth: I’m an expert at numbing. Emotional, physical, mental, take your pick. For me, numbing is the strategic way in which my mind and body attempt to gain control of my messy, chaotic thoughts, emotions and behaviors by gently beating them into submission. After many years of practice, I have it down to a science: any time I am in danger of experiencing even the slightest discomfort, I flip a subconscious switch that instantly envelopes me in metaphoric bubble wrap.
To some, this may seem like a brilliant plan, to others a very unhealthy practice. But to me? I never even debated the pros and cons of going through life completely cut off from my feelings. Instead, it was an instinctive decision born out of the necessity to protect myself from the pain I was being subject to.
I’ll be honest, I’m absolutely terrified right now. Scared out of my mind that by opening up to myself and to you, I’ll be judged, or worse, found guilty. After all these years I’m still afraid to find out that it was all my fault. But one can only live in hiding for so long. Eventually, the secrets that have been marinating in shame have to emerge. And for me, that time is now. It’s time to feel. It’s time to tell my story.
When I was six years old, I was repeatedly sexually assaulted by an unrelated adult in my life. He bought me flowers, gave me chocolate and presents, and then, when he had succeeded in making me pliable and trusting, shattered the bubble of innocence that was my existence. He played with my mind as well as my body, simultaneously threatening and caressing me until I didn’t know pleasure from pain, agony from enjoyment. It was in those moments that I realized I would only survive if I left my body and let my emotions drain out of me. I may have been there physically, but the rest of me was floating high above, in a place where monsters didn’t exist.
The more abuse I endured, the less connected I became to my thoughts and feelings. Months of repeated assaults contradicted everything I had learned up until that point- that the world was, for the most part, a sunny, safe place to be. I began feeling bewildered and lost; nothing made sense. While my friends were together playing ‘house’ and ‘school’, I was scribbling the words ‘I feel blue’ and crying myself to sleep.
The effort it took to keep my unfathomable secret hidden began to take a toll on my body. Every single part of me was in pain. I complained daily about stomachaches, headaches and earaches; every muscle in my body hurt. I was constantly exhausted and worn-out.
Each time I looked in the mirror I could swear I was slowly disintegrating from the fear and guilt that were weighing me down. I desperately wanted to confide in someone, to let them know that I was falling apart. But I couldn’t. I was terrified that no one would love me anymore, that they would think I was evil. So I continued to be the ‘good girl’ everyone expected me to be, never considering the fact that doing so might destroy me.
Eventually, the barrage of physical and emotional pain that accosted me daily became more than my six-year-old brain could handle. For the first time in my life, driven by my survival instincts, I compressed all of my feelings into a tiny hole so deep within me that I had absolutely no memory of the assault until I was 19 years old, newly married and had my first flashback.
Although I can’t tell you why or how, I do know that the abuse ended when I was seven. My memories from ages seven through twelve are hazy and amorphous, as though I was sleepwalking through life. I hadn’t yet learned how to completely numb my thoughts and feelings, and, despite my success in suppressing the memories of the trauma, I remained a quiet and secretive child who was often depressed and anxious. Much to my parents’ dismay, I became obsessed with reading books about the holocaust, chronic illness and death and would burst into tears at random times for no obvious reason.
I continued to complain incessantly of headaches and stomachaches but the more vocal I became, the more my parents, teachers and doctors became convinced I was making it up to get attention. No one took a moment to wonder if all the aches and pains I was experiencing were a symptom of a much larger problem. After years of futile complaints, I finally gave up trying and forbade myself from paying attention to any ache or pain that didn’t have an obvious cause. Every time something hurt, I told myself that it was all in my head until I barely felt anything at all.
Throughout junior high and high school, I did everything in my power to smother my painful emotions. I was mortified by the strength of my depression; the way it broke me down and took control of me. As I had no memory of past events, it shamed me to think that I had no legitimate reason to feel the way I did, and I hated myself for it. The cycle of shame, depression and self-loathing continued until I became absolutely desperate to make it all disappear. I stopped eating after discovering that the pangs of an empty stomach overshadowed any other emotion. The hungrier I became, the better I felt.
At 15 years old, I met a boy who made me feel safe enough to let my guard down. When I was with him, I didn’t feel the need to bury my feelings to protect myself. In fact, I savored the intensity of the untempered happiness and excitement that constantly bubbled up from my heart. My life was suddenly full of the vibrant colors of love and passion, a stark contrast to the dull, colorless days that had been my normal for as long as I could remember. I didn’t feel the need to starve myself anymore, as I was no longer threatened by difficult emotions. I felt indomitable. When we got married four years later, I was in the best emotional shape of my life.
I started having flashbacks the very first night I was intimate with my husband. I was still completely unaware that anything had occurred to me when I was younger. The moment I felt the gentle touch of his fingers on my arm, an image of a man’s face suddenly appeared and then vanished just as quickly. The more nights I spent with my husband, the clearer the images became. After months of silently enduring the flashbacks, I began to dissociate in order to prevent the terror I was experiencing from completely devouring me. Each time my husband and I hugged, kissed or touched each other, my mind would float away until it was high above us, observing the scene from a distance instead of being an active participant in it. This added yet another layer of protection, making it even more difficult to access my emotions.
In the years that followed, I was blessed with two wonderful children, a loving husband, close family and great friends. Although the dissociations and flashbacks continued, their power was diminished by the love I received from those around me. As that love broke down the walls surrounding my heart, the emotions that had been held captive rushed out. Having access to those emotions gave me the courage to process the flashbacks with my therapist until I felt safe enough to admit to myself what had happened. I was incredibly thankful to actually feel the emotional pain that ensued, as it kept me tethered to reality and prevented me from losing myself completely.
I wish I could say that my life magically transformed after working with my therapist. But healing doesn’t happen linearly and I soon fell back into the grips of my trauma. I became furious at myself for breaching the wall that protected me from my memories. I was sure that if I let myself feel again, my emotions would suffocate me. Instead of processing my feelings of heartbreak, loss and grief, I spent most of my time sleeping the feelings away and sitting in front of the TV for hours on end. I was barely functional.
At the encouragement of my husband, I finally admitted to myself that I needed more help than my usual once a week therapy. After researching numerous options, we made the decision that I would go to a residential treatment center in Florida called The Refuge for people with complex PTSD.
I spent five weeks away from my family doing the hardest emotional work I had ever done. There was no place to hide from my emotions there; I was forced to face my demons head on. Through journaling, meditation, yoga, group therapy, equine, art and music therapy, I once again tore myself wide open, shattered the barriers that held my emotions captive and began the long process of putting myself back together.
It was at The Refuge that I found myself feeling deeply for the first time in years. It wasn’t easy, as my mind was an exposed nerve, raw and vulnerable. I felt like I was suffocating under a
barrage of emotions; a stark contrast to the numbness I was used to feeling. During one particularly cathartic group therapy session, as I laughed and cried simultaneously, I came to the realization that in order to experience happiness I needed to open my heart to sadness as well. The magnitude of that statement changed my world; Joy, pleasure, gratitude and contentment were all possible, as long as sorrow, despair, disappointment and loneliness were embraced as well.
After five weeks, I left The Refuge armed with my new realization, healthy coping skills, and the ability to feel. Although I knew I had a long way to go, I was no longer as terrified to get there.
Here’s my new truth: I know that I will never succeed in avoiding or outrunning my emotions, no matter how hard I try. Instead, I need to let go, surrender to them. Feel them in all of their complicated glory. Because to feel is to live, to live is to feel. And I most certainly want to live.