Desperate Housewives made me think, last night. Can life ever be the same after sexual abuse? What can young Marisa expect now that the abuse has come to an end? In her favour is the fact that she has been brave enough to speak out; brave enough to share her burden with her mother and begin the long process of “recovery.” This in itself shows great strength which will hopefully stand her in good stead.
Often, when people realise that you have been abused, they cannot understand why you wouldn’t “just say no” or tell someone straight away. Surely that’s the simple answer to a horrific situation? Only, it’s not as simple as that. What if your abuser has threatened you or your family? What if it’s a person that your family trust? Or even love? Who will believe you over them? And even if you realise that you need to speak out, what do you say? How do you put it into words?
I’ve heard some people argue that we don’t need to see such things on TV, and they can’t understand why people read books by survivors. Perhaps it can become a little gratuitous, but consider – nearly a quarter of young adults experience sexual abuse in childhood. Look around you. Even if you are not part of that statistic, how many of the people you know are? How many of the young people you love are living this nightmare right now? Would you know how to spot it? Would you know how to help? If these storylines help end the abuse for even one child, is it not worth it?
I know just how easy it is to hide what’s happening – to wear a smile like a sticker and act as though life is still hunkydory. I know what it’s like to keep acting like a child – even when you are with family and have to be in the same room as the man who has stolen your childhood. Bringing the abuse to an end means first, realising that what’s happening is wrong – properly realising, not just a gut feeling, and secondly, realising that you hold the power to bring it to an end. It seems much easier to just pretend it isn’t happening, and it’s no wonder that more than 1 in 3 children don’t report it. I was abused for 4 years but know that my family weren’t negligent in not realising what was happening. How could they know? I worked so hard to hide it.
I was just 11 when I finally told my dad what my grandad was doing. I’d tried to tell my mum but just couldn’t make the words come out – it was her dad, why would she believe me? I waited another 6 months and then I told my dad because, though I knew my grandad would never hurt me again, I also knew that if I didn’t speak out he would probably hurt my little sisters. I couldn’t have lived with that. I was a little girl – not even at high school – with the weight of the world on my shoulders.
Once I’d spoken out I just wanted it all to go away. The general feeling in my family was not to report it and instead handle it internally (some uncles were even angry that they’d been told about it). I was more than happy to go along with this – I was about to start high school, people would know my grandad and I didn’t want them to know all the sordid details, and I didn’t want to put my grandad in prison. In fact, all I really wanted was for it all to stop. I never wanted my grandad to lay a finger on me again and I wanted people to stop trying to talk to me about it. If I didn’t talk about it, it would all go away, right? I can still remember the last day I was ever alone with my grandad – the day it all ended, 20 years ago – with the same clarity that I can recall yesterday.
Even though we came to realise that his abuse had actually spanned decades and multiple family members, we still chose to keep it to ourselves. I don’t judge my family for that – at that time it felt right. At that time I believed it was what I wanted, but with the benefit of hindsight I wonder if I simply didn’t understand the process. I wonder if part of me thought I’d be taken from my family and perhaps what I needed was someone to tell me that everything had to be dealt with properly, but that I would be ok.
Instead, I buried the jumble of thoughts and feelings down deep, figuring that when he died the jumble would disappear with him. Of course, it didn’t and I ended up in counselling – something I thought would be pointless but which actually helped me more than I could have imagined. My counsellor, Mae, will always have a special place in my heart as my guardian angel.
I suppose we can never know what life would have been if there had been no abuse, but once it has touched your life it casts a long shadow. As time passes the shadow diminishes and days, weeks, maybe even months go by without it rearing it’s fearsome head, but it never disappears completely. A memory can be triggered, out of the blue, by a sound, a touch, a smell. It can colour how you perceive things – your innocence and trust have been taken and you can never really get them back.
In Desperate Housewives we see Gabrielle; a wife, a mother, a fiesty woman, and a survivor of childhood abuse. Her life, though not as charmed and glossy as it may appear at first glance, is testament to her ability to move forward but look more closely and she is not without scars. But those scars show strength, not weakness. They show that however damaged you may once have felt, you can heal, you can live, you can smile again.