Most 6-year-old girls should be playing dolls and dress up. Their biggest decision should be what type of candy to choose from the convenience store.
While I was doing this as well, the meaning behind it was far less innocent than anyone could have imagined.
The candy or toy I'd select from the local corner store was a “reward” from my abuser for "letting him" perform oral sex on me. I put "letting him" in quotations because I was brainwashed to think what he was doing was OK. He told me I could trust him, so I did. He told me that if I told anyone what was going on, he would disappear.
I was manipulated to think that this person cared about me, so I kept our secret sealed.
Abusers follow six stages of grooming. These include targeting the victim, gaining the victim's trust, filling a need, isolating the child, sexualizing the relationship, and maintaining control. My abuser — a family friend, a grandfather figure, and a former role model — groomed me to evaporate any of the physical and emotional boundaries I had learned in school or from my parents throughout my short six years of life.
That's what caused my abuse to go undetected for so long. That's how my abuser and I were able to frequent the candy store on a weekly basis without suspicion.
The guilt I felt from keeping this secret was eating me alive inside, but I was forced to pretend that nothing was wrong. According to my family and doctors, the nightmares and daily anxiety that plagued me were caused by “normal” circumstances. In reality, though, I spent all those years having my childhood innocence ripped away from me, and no one knew.
No one knew that I was being abused by my neighbor, Sam.
A few years later, Sam did disappear. My 4-year-old brother unknowingly walked into Sam's house and witnessed an abusive act taking place. Sam thought my brother was too young to say anything, but it turns out he wasn't.
That same night, my mom came into my room balling her eyes out. She screamed out my window at Sam's house, saying, "I know what you did!" Next thing I knew, I was sitting in the police station and being videotaped by the prosecutor's office. It was traumatizing. Once the abuse was exposed, I felt exposed.
Sam has been safely locked up in a prison cell for 16 years. That prison cell is also where he spent his last day on Earth. I find peace knowing that I got justice for myself and Sam's other victim, his granddaughter. I'd also like to believe that I saved the other little girl next door from being exposed to the same trauma that we had to endure. She was just a few years younger than us, and was luckily spared the paralyzing abuse.
But even after all this, I spent years feeling “tainted” for having been exposed to sex at such a young age by a 60-year-old man.
The feelings I thought would get better only got worse. I had mastered the ability to hide behind a smile, but the truth is that most of the time, it was just a facade. I kept asking myself, "Why me?"
Eventually, my parents set me up with a great pediatric therapist. He helped me find myself again after being controlled by my perpetrator for over three years. Like many victims of childhood abuse, I was diagnosed with anxiety and PTSD.
Although it was uncommon for me to have direct flashbacks after the abuse was revealed, I was paralyzed by fear. Everything I did made me feel threatened and unprotected. I would wonder, “No one saved me from my abuse, so what else is putting me in danger?"
I slept with my mom every single night and couldn't go to a babysitter or sleepover without feeling like my whole world was crashing in. Because I was brainwashed by my perpetrator for so long, I constantly questioned the difference between right and wrong, safe and unsafe. I was crippled by the fear that another person or event was going to take away my safety or control. I felt powerless at all times.
Luckily, I learned that I could protect myself on my own. I did talk therapy, which entails reliving parts of the abuse in order to link past experiences with present emotions, then identify effective ways to combat those irrational triggers. I continued these sessions for several years. But nothing could prepare me for how the PTSD would affect my dating life.
When I was 16 years old, I had my first kiss. What should've been a fairytale moment was followed by a night of tears and washing my mouth out with soap. I felt dirty and I didn't know why.
Although my abuser never kissed me, I'd learned at a young age that intimacy could only be associated with negativity. The last time someone touched me intimately, my whole world had turned upside down in that police station. My parents had told me they felt like a failure to their little girl, and my mom went into a deep depression.
In my eyes, intimacy was the root cause of my family's destruction.
Later that year, I had a huge schoolgirl crush on a popular senior. He liked me and I liked him, but it didn't matter — I couldn't be physically intimate with him, and I was afraid intimacy was the only way I could get him to like me. That's what my abuser taught me.
After an incredible date, we stood on the porch to say our goodbyes. He was expecting a kiss, and I was trying to come up with any excuse to run inside. Not because I didn't like him, but because the only intimacy I'd ever known was the kind that made me feel guilty and dirty. It was so engraved in my brain and I couldn't reverse the psychological effects.
Because I couldn't reciprocate my emotions in a physical way, he misconstrued my actions as being uninterested and standoffish. He completely ignored me for days, and I had to find out through a mutual friend how he felt. I felt frustrated that my childhood trauma was causing me to repel someone I really cared about.
As if I didn't feel broken enough, my classmates made it worse. Petty high school girls who I thought were my friends would whisper comments to me in class like, “How could you not kiss him?” or “Why are you leading him on?”
The worst part was, I felt like I couldn't explain myself. Society views sexual abuse as a rather personal topic, and I felt too embarrassed to share my darkest secret with anyone other than my family. Instead, I let my classmates paint their own picture of me to justify my seemingly unexplainable behavior toward the people that I cared about.
The PTSD was robbing me of having a normal teenage life and I hated Sam for that.
Reluctantly, I gave in to the peer pressure and decided that I'd rather face my fears than lose my crush. I felt like I had no choice. I asked him out on a second date months later with the intention of proving to him that my feelings were genuine by using physical affection. I told myself at the beginning of the night that I wouldn't say goodbye to him without a kiss.
As he walked me to the same front porch I “rejected” him on a few months earlier, I kissed him goodbye. And to my surprise, it was OK. It was actually better than OK; it was great.
I'm not sure what gave me the strength to let my heart overpower my mind, but that's the thing with PTSD. It's not a one-size-fits-all illness. Sometimes you're OK and sometimes you're not, because many of the triggers are subconscious. While the triggered moments can feel very heavy, it feels like such a relief to be able to live in an intimate moment without a flashback or trigger. It's almost as though the brain turns off its past emotions and only focuses on the present.
My goal for the future is to have more of these moments.
After assuming I had overcome my phobia, he brought up the topic of sex and the PTSD resurfaced once again. Anytime he tried to advance to something greater than kissing, I had flashbacks of my abuser on top of me. My only experience with sexual intimacy was with someone who took advantage of me and then disappeared (to prison) after he got what he wanted from me.
After spending a magical (sexless) summer together, I went on vacation for a few days and came home to find out he got a new girlfriend while I was gone. He knew about my abuse, my secrets, and my scars, but he left anyway.
Because of my abuse and this dating experience, my PTSD began to manifest into a constant fear of men taking advantage of me. I had anxious thoughts 24/7 and overanalyzed every word that was spoken or texted to me. If their answers were short, I assumed they only wanted me for one thing. If there were less smiley faces than usual in a text message, I assumed they were bored.
While these thoughts may be considered “normal” on some level, it's the duration and weight they carried that really set themselves apart from rational thoughts. I couldn't enjoy dating because I was overpowered by irrational fear and panic that the feelings I had during my abuse would repeat themselves. I couldn't stop the "I'm not good enough, so they're just going to use me and leave me" thoughts.
After all, that's what Sam did.
Now, 16 years later, I've invested myself into a serious relationship and we just celebrated our one-year anniversary. Our relationship is built on respect — for me, my mind, and my body.
But a year into our relationship, I'm not "cured" of my PTSD. Because me and my partner now live together, one of the biggest triggers I've learned to communicate was the feeling that he now had access to my body 24/7.
Even though he's made it clear he would never force me to do anything I don't feel comfortable with, I still have emotional flashbacks of the feelings I had with Sam. Every time Sam and I were in his house together, his only intention was to be sexually intimate with me for his own sick benefit. Although that is the complete opposite of my boyfriend's intentions, I still can't help but look at my body as an object for someone else's pleasure rather than a way to become physically and emotionally closer to my partner.
Over the years, I've found that the closer I am to someone, the more triggers are ignited. The way perpetrators “groom” their targets is actually very similar to the way a significant other would spoil their partner and earn their trust, but obviously with very different intentions.
My issue is, my triggers make them feel the same.
That's the thing about PTSD; it has the tendency to irrationalize your reality.
I can't follow my gut or listen to my heart like most people can. No matter how perfect a situation may appear, my inner 6-year-old tries to convince me otherwise. When I'm safe, I feel unsafe. When I'm protected, I feel threatened. And when everything's perfect, I find its flaws.
That's where therapy and medication come in. For me, a combination treatment has proven to be the most effective. This includes time, weekly therapy, and a very small dose of anti-depressants. I'm not in any way ashamed of these things because I would do anything I could to become the best possible version of myself. It's a work in progress, but I'm looking forward to continuous growth.
For several years, it was Sam who was the powerful manipulator. But I've realized that I, too, have power — to get help, stand up against what he did, and share my story.
He doesn't deserve to have control over me any longer.