Freed from Bondage

December 15, 2013

“So, are you coming to the blessing or not? All of the rest of the family will be there, and I’m sure Max and Deb would love to see you.”

“I don’t know, Dad. I’m really busy right now. I’m heading into the end of the semester and need to start getting ready for finals. Plus, there’s my job. I don’t think I could afford to take the time off.”

“Is that really the reason or is it something else? I’ve wondered for awhile now what the problem is between you and Max? What did you two fight about that’s now caused such a rift?”

“What do you mean?” I stutter. I’m stunned. I was certain the anger and resentment I felt towards Max was well hidden, buried deep inside me. How did Dad know?

“It’s obvious to everyone that there’s something wrong. It breaks your mother’s heart to see the two of you at odds. I’m sure if you just apologize he will forgive and forget, and things will be fine.”

I’m flabbergasted. “I should ask for his forgiveness? Did you ever stop to think that he is the one who should be apologizing to me? Of course not! He’s perfect, so I’m the one who must have done something wrong!” I slam the phone down at this point. Tears are streaming down my face, my throat is raw, and I realize I must have been screaming my words. I have to keep my hands clutched together to keep them from shaking. I stare down at them as tears hit and roll down the X made by my thumbs. It wasn’t that long ago my hands were in this exact position, tears sprinkling down on them,  while I sat in my Bishop’s office.

“Whatever it is that has you so upset, I promise that it won’t shock me,” Bishop Stevens kindly whispers.

“I’ve just never talked about it before. I feel so ashamed,” I manage to choke out.

“Would it help to know that you’re not the first person to come to me trying to take the first step towards forgiveness. Sometimes I think that I see it more because I’m not the bishop of a regular family ward. Since this is a college ward, it’s the first time many of the members are away from the ward they grew up in. I’m not friends with or even know your parents. For many members, I think it’s the first time they can even consider going to their bishop with a problem without the worry that it’ll somehow get back to their family or friends. Does that make sense to you?”

I mutely nod my head to show agreement, take a deep breath, and jump right in. “I didn’t have sex, if that’s what you’re wondering. It was mostly touching and stuff like that.”

I’m still staring at my hands, so I miss the look of compassion that crosses Bishop Stevens’s face. “Can you tell me a little more? How long ago was this?”

“About nine years ago or so, when I was around eleven.”

“Eleven? Huh, that seems kind of young. Was the boy your age too? A boyfriend of yours?”

“No. He was older, about eighteen.” I gulp and quietly add, “He was a cousin of mine.” My face is so red with embarrassment that I can feel the heat coming off of it.

“Now I’m even more confused.” Bishop Stevens pauses to pull his glasses off and sets them on his desk. He pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and middle finger and asks, “Why would you need to repent for being molested when you were younger?”

Molested!?! I’m startled enough by the use of the word to jerk my head upwards and make eye contact with the bishop. I can see the bewilderment and sympathy in his face.

“You do realize you aren’t to blame for what happened, don’t you?” he asks. “You were still very much a child and this man molested you. He was an adult and should have known better. You aren’t the one at fault.”

I’m astonished. Molested? Is that true? Is that what really happened? Racing to reorder all the shame and hurt that has pulsed through me for so long, I feel stunned. I manage to nod my head in acknowledgement and mumble a few words of  non-commitment when he suggests, “I can give you a recommendation for LDS Family Services so you can see a therapist. The ward can even help pay if necessary.”

I thank him, but my head is still swirling too fast to process. Yet, the fast motion of spinning and shifting of blame has me feeling a lightness I haven’t known for so, so long. I decide not to see a therapist. Somehow just realizing what happened wasn’t a sin on my part lifts a heavy burden from me. Molested. The word is like a revelation, and I begin to remember that summer from a new angle.

*    *    *

“Is it true, Mom?” I asked excitedly as soon as I hear the back door open. “Is Max really going to spend the summer here?”

“Yes,”she answered as she settled her armload of groceries on the counter. “Your Dad got Max a job in the mines. He’s trying to save up enough money to go on a mission.”

“Ooh, I just can’t wait! I know he’ll take us swimming and all sorts of fun things!” I squeal as I do a little happy dance around the kitchen. Max never talks to me like I’m kid. He treats me like I’m an adult, asks my opinion on things, and is always willing to take me places with him. Like he says, “We’re partners in crime.” We eat ice cream for dinner and stay up late watching movies when my parents leave him in charge of my younger siblings and me while they go out. (Actual movies, not the baby cartoon stuff my mom says is “appropriate.”)

Mom tries to bring my excitement down a notch and hands me a box of cereal to put away. “I don’t think he’ll have much time to play around. The work he’s going to be doing is hard and tiring, so don’t expect too much from him.”

I nod my head in agreement, and walk to the pantry to shelve the cereal obediently, but I just know Max will find the time. I know my friends are going to love hanging out with Max too. They all think he’s so cute. Way cuter than any of the boys we giggle and dream about giving us our first kiss. I just roll my eyes at them. I mean, he’s my cousin after all, so I don’t think of him like that.

The summer starts off great. In fact, it’s even better than I hoped. Max is busy and working a lot, but he’s always willing to go swimming with us on the weekends. If I want a friend to come along, Max is always willing to go pick them up. We horse around in the pool; he grabs and tickles me, and I howl with annoyance and delight, then dunk him under the water. I can tell I’m his favorite out of all my brothers and sisters. It’s our secret, but it’s pretty obvious to everyone.

After two weeks at our house, Max walks in on me while I’m in the shower, I accept his explanation that it was an accident. I’ve never been good at remembering to lock the door.

Then it happens a couple more times, and not just when I’m behind the shower curtain. Sometimes when I’m getting dressed in my room or just using the bathroom the door unexpectedly opens. I’m confused. Can someone accidentally walk in on person while they’re naked that much? It never seems to happen while I have all my clothes on. It happens so often that I am sure to lock the door anytime I have to get undressed in any way.

Max doesn’t say anything about the locked doors, and still likes to laugh, talk and hang out. Maybe I’m making too big of a deal about it. But when he starts talking about my body; how I’m looking so grown up, like such a young lady, I feel strange. I know they’re compliments, and I should feel flattered, but I feel uncomfortable and dirty. Touching soon follows: a brush of his hand on my breast or backside while we are in the pool, when he squeezes past me in the hall or reaches across me for the TV remote. They could easily be dismissed as accidental and unintentional, so why the gut-feeling that it isn’t?

We are watching TV together in the basement; another late night watching movies together like the millions of others we’ve had, or so I thought. He reaches over and puts his hand on my thigh and slowly moves it upward.  “Stop Max” escapes my lips on a whisper when his hand reaches the top of my thigh.

“Don’t worry. You’ll like it. I promise. We’re partners in crime, remember.” I’m frozen, unable to move. I just keep staring at the TV and let him touch me. I want to shout and yell and hit him. There is so much I could do to get him to stop, but I just sit there and sink further into myself until I’m numb    it all started out so gradually. Now it’s so persistent that I don’t know how to stop it, so I don’t.

*    *    *

Realizing I was molested, I see that Max had been grooming me through the summer. Getting me ready and moving slowly. I didn’t have any idea of this, though, at eleven. I knew what we were doing was wrong, but my adolescent body reacted and responded to his touch. When it happened, all I felt was mortified and ashamed at myself. It never entered my mind then that Max was the adult and taking advantage of my innocence. Confused, betrayed, and certain I was at fault, I didn’t let anyone in on what was happening. I couldn’t, telling someone would mean confessing my own wickedness.

The abuse continued throughout the summer. I became adept at pushing my feelings of disgust and shame deep inside where I don’t have to look at them.  I have never been so glad to see a summer come to an end.

I came to hate even hearing Max’s name.  “Max is coming home from his mission. What a wonderful young man he is.” (Ugh!) “Max got a scholarship for college. He is so smart. I just know he’s going to be successful.” (Eye roll!)  “Max is dating the most wonderful girl.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a wedding soon.” (My stomach hits my knees in a free fall.)

It became harder over the years for me to hide my repulsion and hatred of Max, but I thought I was managing it.  I avoided him at family gatherings, but my reaction to him couldn’t go unnoticed. Max saw how I’ve avoided him. Sometimes, when we couldn’t avoid contact, I caught this look in his eye that tells me he knows why I’ve distanced myself from him, but we never talk about it.

“Did you and Max have a fight or something?” My mom questions me the summer I’m sixteen, as she drags me through the reception line at his wedding. “You two used to be so close. That summer he spent at our house you were practically joined at the hip.”

“It’s nothing, Mom,” I mumbled. “It was different then. I’m older now. We just don’t have much in common anymore.” But I knew it wasn’t nothing. I muttered congratulations when we got to archway he was standing under, and took off while my mother was still chatting, telling Max how great he looks and what a lovely ceremony it was. I felt sick and deeply ashamed.

I still do. The secret he forced me to carry has changed me. I’m less sure of myself, more introverted, and withdrawn. And now my dad has brought it all up again just because I don’t want to go to a stupid baby blessing.

“Has he brought it back up or has it always been there?” a voice in my head mutters. Maybe the bishop was right. Maybe I do need to talk with someone. My blowup with Dad certainly seemed to indicate I’m keeping a lot bottled up inside.  I just don’t know if I can do it. I’m used to keeping everything in, how am I going to be able to not only lay it all out on the table but also scrutinize it from every angle? And not just by myself but with another person. It just doesn’t seem possible.

*    *    *

“I know by your initial paperwork that you’re here because you were sexually abused as a child. Do you feel like you could share with me why you’ve decided to start therapy now? What made you finally decide to talk to someone, Claire?”

I look up at the sound of my name. It is my turn to talk. I open my mouth for what feels like the first time in a decade. “Anger. I’m just so angry. All the time. I thought it could cool off when I realized it wasn’t me. But it’s not. I even have these dreams that I go up to my molester and start hitting him and I can’t seem to stop. I just keep hitting and hitting him until I wake myself up crying.”

The therapist looks down to write something on her legal pad and then makes eye contact with me again. “Well, he did some pretty awful stuff to you. Things that altered your view on life and trust and sex. I’d be more surprised if you weren’t angry.”

“But it’s not just him. Not long ago I had this conversation with my Dad where I ended up yelling at him too. I was so furious by the end of our conversation that I was shaking. I don’t ever remember being that angry at anyone.” I absently wonder if every client gets their own pad of paper, and how many pads I’ll have to fill to feel normal again?

“Ok, let’s talk about that a little more. What was the conversation about?”

I reach over and grab a tissue to stop the tears that begin to spill over from my eyes and trail down my cheeks. “He wanted me to go to a baby blessing for my cousin’s new baby girl. Max is actually the cousin who abused me. I told him I couldn’t go, and he said I should just apologize to Max and heal the rift between us.”

“Again, I can understand why that would be upsetting. Does your dad know about Max molesting you?” She writes something else on the paper pad.

“No, I’ve never told him or my mom or anyone but my bishop and now you.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Shame mostly. I’m so ashamed by what happened. I should have been able to stop it.”

“We’ll talk more in-depth about your feelings of shame throughout our sessions, but I want to be straightforward about one thing.” She places the legal pad upside down on the table between us and puts her pen on top of it. I know whatever she says next must be significant if she’s willing to put away the pen and paper.

“You are not to blame for what happened! I see you nodding your head in agreement, but right now you don’t really believe that. Really believing it will take time. You will have to repeat it to yourself thousands of times before it becomes your mindset, but I just want you to be clear on my stance on the issue. It wasn’t your fault. You are not to blame. And you have nothing to be ashamed of.” She picks the pen and paper back up while asking, “Is there anything else you hope to get out of therapy?”

“I just want to get to the point where what happened doesn’t affect me every day. I’m tired of avoiding family gatherings because Max might be there. I hate the way my stomach feels in knots when I see him. I want to stop being angry and sad and still affected by something that happened almost ten years ago. I want to fall in love and get married, and I don’t know how that is even possible when just being touched by a guy makes me uneasy.” There, I’ve said it. It’s only taken me close to a decade, but I’ve finally given voice to all my deepest doubts and fears.

“I can see you’re still very much controlled by what happened. What I’ll try to help you to do is untie yourself from what happened. Max still has a lot of power over your life even though he hasn’t abused you for years. I hope to help you to get some of that control back so that the focus is no longer about him but about you, Claire, and what you want.”

During the couple of weeks between our sessions, I keep thinking about what the therapist said. That I’m still tied to Max, and I need to untie myself. The idea is still there, in the back of my thoughts, when I come across 2 Nephi 24:3 scripture during my daily reading.

“And it shall come to pass in that day that the Lord shall give thee rest, from thy sorrow, and from thy fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou wast made to serve.”

That’s what want. I want a break from being sad and worried that I’ll never live a normal life. I didn’t ask for this and I’m tired of feeling ashamed.

I want to stop being bound to Max and what happened. I don’t want what he did to me to define who I am. I want to stop hiding inside myself and withdrawing from life.

I realize I can’t do this alone. I need help, and not just from my bishop or a therapist. I fall to my knees.

“My dear Heavenly Father . . .”

December 15, 2013

RELATED POSTS