I was first raped at the age of five or six, I am not sure exactly which, but that’s when it started.
That sexual abuse lasted for years. I was raped more than once and molested during the evening news following dinner every night regularly during those years. I was not scared, I did not feel like something bad was happening to me and I do not remember my abuser ever telling me not to tell anyone. What was happening was just the normal part of the day.
It was not until I was 20-something years old and battling postpartum depression – undiagnosed and untreated – that I even began to face the fact that I was a victim of childhood sex abuse.
I had been acting out for most of my life because of that abuse but I did so without a vocabulary or understanding of what had happened to me. My first husband’s struggle with drug addiction after the birth of my third child led me to leave my children in the car out front of the bar he was at with friends. I walked in the bar, gave him the keys to my car and told him the kids were in there. I walked off to the bus stop. To this day the sound of my oldest son Anthony yelling “Mom!” as I walked away haunts me. Especially in the aftermath of his suicide.
Days later I was sitting in a room with a psychiatrist who was giving me an evaluation.
When I described to her all of my “symptoms” she began asking me about my childhood. That is when I spoke the words, “I was raped when I was five,” out loud for the first time in my life. Before then I had only spoken about my abuse one other time when I was fourteen and my uncle had picked me up after I ran away for the millionth time. He asked me what my problem was and I said, “He did stuff to me.”
That is all it took for him to take me to his house and make sure I never again walked through the front door of the house where I grew up in and my abuser shared with me and my mother.
The meeting in a psych ER where I spoke those words for the first time was the beginning of me healing from the traumatic events of my childhood. That was in 2000. Twenty-one years later I sit here writing this article and I have barely come to a place where I can write about those events without feeling a panic attack coming on. I went to therapy weekly for 6 years before I understood that I had even been traumatized and how to recognize my triggers.
By the way, I do not like saying “trigger” – precisely because they are a “thing” – there is a legit reason to use the term, in other words, when something comes up that could impact the health and wellbeing of trauma survivors. I cannot imagine it ever being ok to take a word used to describe any other illness and turn it into a meme and joke. But we do it with mental health every time we use the word “triggered” as a punch line. Even worse is having people, especially priests, use it as a way to mock something so serious and with deadly consequences.
I have seen this mocking happening in different settings and it hurts.
When I wrote about the need for a space to have mature and holy discussions on sex I talked about how the theological language used by the Church does not take into account the way those words sound to someone who has been the victim of sexual abuse.
What I mean is that those of us who have been molested and/or raped as children hear the words, “If you have sex before marriage you are sinning,” differently from those who have not been the victims of those kinds of assaults. I cannot speak for every victim of childhood sexual assault, but I can explain what those words sounded like to me.
Because I had been victimized as a child, I felt that what had happened to me was me “having sex” and that I had sinned and needed to ask for forgiveness. I internalized a guilt for my situation that was not mine. I had done nothing wrong, but because I did not understand that before therapy and treatment, I thought that it was my guilt and that there was something dirty about me.
So, when I talk about being trauma-informed, and about the need for the Church – for Catholics – to be trauma-informed, I’m speaking from experience. If it sounds like I’m saying, “You guys need to do better,” it’s because I am. I’m also saying, “I get it.”
I want us to find a way to do better together. I’m pretty sure that starts with listening to victims. We are people and we have stories to tell. This is my story.
Leticia Ochoa Adams is the creator of the Catholic Speakers of Color resource for conference organizers. She writes from Texas, on life, death, grief, suicide, faith, motherhood, doubts and whatever (else) happens to be on her mind.
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