We can all say three words, right? Seems pretty simple. What if I tell you these three words could be the most arduous words you may need to say? What if I say these three words could mean the difference between hope and
despair, security and endangerment, and possibly even life and death? Could you still say them even if they may wreak havoc on life as you know it?
When the pain and distress of facing my abuser each day at home outweighed my fear of his threats, I made my first disclosure of the abuse. I wonder how often this is true. When the pain is so great and the threats no longer seem to be the worst thing that can happen, how often is that the point that disclosures occur? It makes sense. I can remember thinking that if my abuser killed me (as his threat implied) at least I would be free. It felt like I had absolutely nothing to lose when I wrote that letter in the fifth grade.
I remember that day (although I don’t know the date) as clear as yesterday. My abuser and I had been in an argument over something likely trivial, but it was the breaking point. It just could not get any worse in my child mind. I went to my room and scribbled a letter that began with an apology before detailing incidents of abuse. I delivered the letter to an adult in my life. In that moment, it felt like I was putting my life in someone else’s hands.
Unfortunately, for the person who received the letter, it was just too hard to believe that someone like my abuser could actually be an abuser and the things I wrote simply could not be true. Therefore, no action was taken to end the abuse. My abuser later learned of my disclosure. Instead of hurting or killing me or my loved ones, my abuser learned that he had total control of me. Because now, I had said something but no one believed me which abusers often warn will happen.
In that moment following my disclosure, the only three words I needed to hear were “I believe you.”
So, here’s what happens when the words “I believe you” do not follow a disclosure. I learned my abuser was right… in so many ways. I learned the abusive acts were not bad or wrong, they must be normal because no one said otherwise. I learned my abuser was right, no one would believe me. I learned my abuser was right, this is what I was made for and what I was supposed to do.
I don’t write this post to blame or bash people who don’t or haven’t immediately acted on an abuse disclosure. I have forgiven the person who received my first letter and have a relationship with that person to this day.
I write this post to challenge you to commit to the response a child needs even when those three words take every ounce of strength in you to voice.
Take this journey with me. It is not going to be easy. It will be uncomfortable. It may be the most difficult thing you do today.
Imagine receiving a letter from a child that your best friend or your sibling or husband or child’s coach or pastor has been abusing said child. Take a moment and imagine that that.
I know it’s incredibly hard. It is not something anyone wants to imagine. It is something we usually believe will never happen or could not happen.
Then decide, in that moment, what words, if any, are going to flow from your mouth.
Will you question the child’s truthfulness? Will you say, “no way, he/she could never do such as thing.” Will you push the letter away and say tell someone else? Will you say, “if this is true, then…” Will you begin digging into the who, what, when, where, how, and why?
I have made a commitment to myself (and I hope you will too), that if I ever encounter such a situation, the three words from my mouth will be “I believe you.”
It is my belief that if a child has trusted me enough and/or has reached a place of seeing no other way out it is my responsibility to believe them in that moment. I know a lot can happen in the days, weeks, months, and years after disclosure, but in that moment, I am going to fight for that child with every ounce of my being.
I’m very interested in hearing other perspectives and thoughts on disclosure and responses, so please share them. Leave a comment or drop me an email under the contact me tab.