John came into my life when I was around 14. He had been invited to our Church as a guest speaker and had soon moved to our town to start a new life for himself. He was charismatic, friendly and liked great music. I was attracted to him because he was in a band, which I assumed made someone instantly cool. Being twice my age, he took an interest in me and we soon began to hang out as friends. He would encourage me, tell me that I was a great drummer and buy me food. Oftentimes we would meet at his place on weekends and watch movies together. We used to go on drives to the countryside. We would laugh, blast music and talk about our favourite bands. He would also molest me.
These were confusing events for me, and I cannot say that they truly registered as traumatic at the time. In fact, part of me probably enjoyed the sensation. It was new, felt good and was rebellious. However, my encounters with John were not my first experiences of premature sexual awakening. Some 7 years earlier I was attacked in the toilets of my local swimming pool by a mentally ill man who had been let out for the day for good behaviour. Luckily for me, I was able to elbow him in the balls before he could finish his unholy task. I was about 8 or so.
The point of my writing here is not to get into the particularities of the abuse, for that is the domain of therapy. Rather, I want to share my experience of some of the enduring impacts that sex abuse has left in my life. Each story is different, and there are no easy formulas when it comes to figuring out how these kinds of traumatic events will linger into adulthood. Yet I strongly feel that there is a distinct lack of awareness as to how early sexual abuse experiences impact and shape a person in later life. As a society, we tend to assume that one’s sexual activity (including sexual-related failures and transgressions) define the core of an individual heart, when in reality one’s sexuality is the result of an extremely complex interaction of emotional and psychological influences which often go right back to childhood. It is often not easy for people to understand how sexual abuse shapes a person’s life, which means that the victim is always on the back foot and at risk of re-traumatization. It feels like one is permanently misunderstood.
The first thing I remember feeling in the immediate years after these events was a distinct dissociation from my physical body. I felt- and continue to feel- that there is a profound chasm between my physical self and my inner life. It is as if my body is just a random vessel which houses the only thing that ultimately matters- my mind. The ideal of a harmony between spirit and body for me remains an aspirational goal. I have never felt in control of my own body, and have developed this weird idea that my physical self belongs to others and is their rightful property. I remember one time back around 2009 in which I found myself at a bar. As I was standing alongside the wall waiting to order a drink, an American girl approached me out of the blue demanding to come home with me. I agreed, but as we neared my place I changed my mind. I didn’t want to go ahead with the assumed sexual experience. Something about this girl just didn’t feel right, but I went ahead with it anyway because I did not have the right to turn her down.
This feeling of dissociation led one of the most significant long-term struggles in my life, which has been a pathological inability to say no to others. This has been particularly manifest in my intimate relationships, in which I have allowed myself to be caught-up in situations that I know are not good for me but for which I have lacked the inner confidence necessary to articulate my boundaries. Unfortunately, and to my lasting regret and sadness, this inability to assert myself has led to me hurting and causing pain to others.
Finally, sexual abuse -and the range of complications this brings- leads to inner emptiness. For most of my life, I have felt as if there has been a shadow following me through my days, and that my view of the world is through a faint lens of sadness and longing. I don’t know how to fix this. Several months ago, a so-called ‘minister’ told me that my experiences and perceptions of the world were indicative of one who was ‘not living their best life.’ This may well be the case, but such reductionistic thinking fails to grasp how sexual abuse affects a person. I crave a deep, profound, and existential feeling of joy and meaning, but I find that it still eludes me.
I would like to end this reflection with some words of hope. Despite a confusing mixture of love and loathing of the Church, I have found that my faith in God has sustained me throughout some very dark periods in my struggle. I have also come to a place of both acceptance and (as bizarre as this sounds) thankfulness for the experiences I have had. They have offered me a first-hand experience of the true shades of grey which make up our human nature. What matters in life, I believe, is that one views it as a journey of self-discovery. There is usually not a clear destination in mind, but this is irrelevant. We each have our struggles and demons, but the candle of hope only really flickers out when we stop striving to grow in maturity, wisdom and compassion. I leave you with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, who in The Birth of Tragedy wrote following: ‘There is no truly beautiful surface that has no terrible depth.’