Recently, a trigger reminded me of one of the earliest abuse experiences I can recall. I am so thankful that this trigger no longer causes emotional turmoil and strong physiological responses. Instead, I could reflect on the incident and consider how I might provide useful knowledge that may help someone today.
My abuser’s profession when he first entered my life was driving trucks. I have many pleasant memories of traveling down to Wilmington on Friday nights with my immediate family in the “Big Truck” to eat at Western Sizzlin and pick up or drop off a trailer at the port. My siblings and I would ride in the cab on the bunk bed and occasionally we would get the chance to blow the horn. I can remember walking to and from the truck feeling like the coolest kid in the world. Unfortunately, that truck soon became a place I feared to enter.
If you knew me as a child, you may be aware that my favorite word was “go.” I was always excited to travel. One day I was given the opportunity to accompany my abuser to work, riding with him in the big truck to and from his destination for the day. We left the house around 3 or 4 am because the location was about three to four hours away. On the way, I slept in the cab of the truck. We arrived before the warehouse opened where we would deliver the shipment. During the time between our arrival and the opening of the warehouse, my abuser abused me. While I can identify grooming behaviors prior to this time, this incident is the earliest remembrance of being sexual abused.
What stood out to me recently, after being triggered, is the immediate feeling of fear, confusion, and guilt. As a child, I felt like I was thousands of miles away from what I considered my safety net and support system. I thought my abuser was a member of the “safe people” in my life. Yet, this incident caused me to question his status. I was conflicted with feeling like something was bad and wrong with the situation, yet I also believed that adults in my life would always do the right thing. I became confused about whether this was just a normal part of life. The guilt response has resulted in much reflection this last week.
This was the first incident of sexual abuse. All it took was this one incident for life to be forever altered. The entire ride home I felt like I, a 7 or 8 year old child, was going to be in the worst trouble when I got home. I can remember hoping and praying that my abuser would not tell my mom what had happened between us. I could not see this single event as a crime my abuser committed, instead I believed that I had done something wrong. One of the questions I’ve been pondering is how do we equip our children with protection from the response I had (and my others have had) as a result of being abused? I was trying to think about what I could have known or been told as a child so that when my abuser abused me for the first time I would have been able to tell an adult immediately rather than feeling like I would be the one to blame.
Honestly, I am not totally sure what the answer is to this question. I know my responses were normal for a child experiencing abuse, especially with an abuser that is a master manipulator and expert groomer. However, I want something different for other children. I want them to know that acts of abuse are never their fault. I want them to know (and I want to know) that a trusted adult is going to hear them when they speak up and believe them without hesitation and take action to provide them with safety quickly. When I was a child I was able to connect wrongdoings with consequences, generally some form of punishment. If I hit one of my siblings, I was going to be sent to my room for timeout. If I got in trouble at school, I would lose some of my extracurricular activities for a period of time. I had a feeling the abuse was a wrongdoing, but I was not able to perceive it as something my abuser was doing wrong.
I believe one of the important lessons to teach children at an early age is what to do if someone does something wrong to them. It will accompany educating our children about good touch/bad touch and ensuring they know who to turn to for help. I think we need to specifically state the abuse is never the fault of the child. If a person engages in bad touch- whether the abuser touches the child or the child is forced to touch the abuser- it is not the child’s fault (there are a multitude of other crimes against children that can be listed). The child is never to blame and they need to know they will never be in trouble for telling an adult about such incidents. If children fear adult’s responses, their opportunities to speak up about abuse are limited. An environment that fosters safe, open, and loving communication is absolutely necessary for children to acquire the courage to speak.