Part One: AMBIVALENCE
- the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.
One of the hallmark experiences of child sexual abuse is ambivalence. While some people still hold tightly to the idea that abuse occurs at the hands of the creepy, old man driving an ice cream van, many people have accepted the reality that abuse most often occurs within relationships. Abuse perpetrated by a stranger far less frequently results in feelings of ambivalence compared to abuse perpetrated by someone known, loved, and trusted. Ambivalence is a gift to the abuser, but superglue to the lips of the victim.
No one really likes ambivalent feelings. If you’re like me (as an adult), I just want to know things. I don’t enjoy being caught in the middle. I didn’t know what I felt as a kid had a name, and I certainly didn’t know how to navigate the complex and confusing feelings I held. Many adults struggle to navigate ambivalence. It can leave us feeling paralyzed. As a kid, it was incapacitating.
My abuser was someone I loved, trusted, and wanted to know and be known by. He was someone I saw every single day. My family accepted him and welcomed him.
If you’ve followed my blog or read previous posts, you know the excitement I expressed for the popular television show, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. I literally could not wait for the show to air in 1999. We only had antennas and two televisions in the trailer where I could watch the show. One television was in the living room but that is where my siblings often did their homework in the evening. The other television was in my mom and stepdad’s bedroom. When my stepdad invited me to watch the show, it seemed like the best of both worlds. Time with the person I trusted and loved AND I got to watch what I believed would be the best show ever.
It seems strange to label sexual abuse as gentle, but from a physical perspective, it was, in the beginning. I didn’t leave the room that first night in any kind of pain. But emotionally, I was filled with ambivalence.
I LOVED the show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
I ENJOYED getting the undivided attention of my stepdad.
I TRUSTED my stepdad would never do anything to harm me.
I was DISGUSTED by the evidence of the abuse on me.
I was CONFUSED by the passive threat he made before I left the room.
I FEARED someone would find out about our new secret.
At eight years old, these were strong, complex emotions that totally overwhelmed my system. I could not assess what was true, right, or healthy. As a result of the ambivalence, I had to rest on my default belief which was based on a general trust of people older than me. I needed those people to survive. If I could not trust them, how would I make it in the world?
Kids should be able to long for and love quality time with a parent. It is normal and healthy for a child to desire those things. My need for that perception of love was normal. I chose what was normal over and over- quality time with my stepdad and getting to watch my favorite show. Though it came with other hard feelings, the desire for love and acceptance won, over and over again.
So, ambivalence kept me quiet for a long time. And it keeps a lot of kids quiet.
When you hear a child disclose abuse, please know they have likely fought through the power of ambivalence. It is an incredible step of courage and bravery to go against the defaults to tell their story. Please accept that the ambivalence will not disappear overnight. Healing takes time.