Being Fully Human, childhood sexual abuse, Children, darkness to light, healing, listening, sexual abuse, sexualized violence, shame, survivor, vulnerable

Bound By Shame

Barbara Lee survivorHappy New Year! How many of you celebrated? I wanted to go see Jack Leaver perform at the Highway Inn, but I didn’t feel well enough to go out. Were any of you there? Did you hear what happened there? One of the waitresses announced that it was time to get ready and that at the stroke of midnight she wanted every person standing next to the one person who makes their life worth living. Well, it was kind of embarrassing. As the clock struck, the bartender was almost crushed to death.

Leif and I spent a quiet night at home ourselves. I had an interesting dream the night before that Leif had given me a diamond necklace as a New Year’s Eve present. I asked him what he thought it meant and he told me I would find out that night. At midnight, as the New Year was chiming on his grandfather clocks, Leif handed me a package. I was so excited, I ripped the paper off and there in my hand was a book entitled:  ‘The meaning of dreams’.

There was something much less funny posted in the news during the holidays. I know that some of you saw it because I was so appalled I posted it on Facebook. Someone in a bar posted a sign on the door that said, “We like our beer like we like our violence… domestic.” It was eventually taken down, but it served as a sad reminder that despite our holiday merriment, there is much pain that people are somehow managing to endure and that we have a responsibility as human beings to try to bring to an end.

Darkness to Light

As you know, today we will be having Darkness to Light training after the Gathering and I hope you will stay for it. This training is specifically about recognizing and responding to child sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where this training is critical. I wish it weren’t so. I wish this nation lived out the ideals it says it does.

  • But the reality is that half of all music videos on MTV feature or suggest violence, present hostile sexual situations as acceptable, or show male heroes abusing women for fun.
  • The reality is that there are 4 times as many peepshows and adult bookstores in the US than there are McDonald’s.
  • The reality is that one in eight Hollywood movies depicts a rape theme.

Can you imagine what life would be like if we were not such a civilized and morale people? Clearly we human beings continue to make a mess of this world we’re living in.

And we know it. Retired Republican Congressman James T. Walsh said, “The sexual abuse and exploitation of children is one of the most vicious crimes conceivable, a violation of mankind’s most basic duty to protect the innocent.”  That failure to protect the most vulnerable among us has deep and lasting consequences. And it happens far too often. At least 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.

The Legacy of Abuse

Most people who are sexually abused as children experience difficulties related to the abuse. They can experience strong, sometimes crippling emotions, even decades after the event.  These emotions include:

  1. Fear: of recurrence, of sexual intercourse, of intimacy.
  2. Anger, with God, with the molester, with people in general.
  3. Guilt, thinking they caused the act, that they didn’t fight hard enough, that their body betrayed them by responded to the act.
  4. and perhaps most debilitating of all, Shame.

So what is shame? Have you ever felt as if there was something happening in your life over which you had no control? Clinical Psychologist Gershen Kaufman describes shame in this way. He calls shame an impotence-making experience because it feels as though there is no way to relieve the matter, no way to restore the balance of things. There is no single action that is wrong and can be repaired. Shame isn’t about feeling like you did something wrong, it’s about feeling like there is something inherently wrong with you. Shame arises out of the belief that one has simply failed as a human being.

And shame is a binding experience. Shame is the painful feeling of being exposed, being made vulnerable, being uncovered and left unprotected, being naked and looked at by others. Shame implies that we were at some time vulnerable to the scorn, disrespect and even the hate of another human being and that no repair followed.

Shame leads to self-shaming, to rejecting our self before others can reject us. Shame brings distance between people and even within parts of our self. As a result we may find ourselves raging at others, mistrusting people, striving for perfection, striving for power, or internally withdrawing all in an effort to protect our self from further hurt.

It’s hard for me to think of anything more binding in our culture today then the painful reality of sexual abuse and the shame that too often results. Any activity that a person feels violates her or his boundaries may fall within the realm of sexual abuse, but today we are focusing on childhood sexual abuse. We’re especially aware of the children in our lives right now having moved through the holidays with our own children, grand children, nieces and nephews. And now we are more than ready for them to return to school. And we would do anything to keep them from being hurt.

Unwanted Sexual Attention 

Child sexual abuse includes any experience during childhood or adolescence that involves inappropriate sexual attention by another person, usually an adult, but sometimes an older child, teenager, or even a same-aged playmate. The behavior may be forced, coerced, or even willingly engaged in by the survivor, but it is understood as abusive because a child cannot truly give free consent.

Fear, anger, guilt and shame influence behavior, causing irrational, sometimes hostile reactions to natural life situations.  Often, a person is bound in their own secrecy, ashamed and afraid to share this part of the self and the past with others.

I was bound for 22 years before I could claim publicly that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was bound by shame that set in when a traumatic silence followed the abuse. As with most child sexual abuse, my perpetrators were not strangers, but the son and the daughter of my father’s friend. When my father learned about the abuse, nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. In the end, it was that lack of any noticeable reaction at all that was more damaging to me than the abuse itself.

I was confused and puzzled. Was it really acceptable that this had happened to me? Apparently, it was. I internalized a sense of being deeply flawed and I filled my emotional warehouse with a great reserve of shame.

Suffering in Silence

People who are bound by shame suffer in silence that they cannot break. So it is up to us to speak. We need to speak the truth about their experience. We need to say out loud and regularly: You did nothing to deserve sexual abuse.  There was nothing in this act that God or anyone else willed. This abuse hurt creation because you are creation’s precious child. Love wants you to be healed, to be loosed from your bonds and to once again stand up tall and straight. You can feel whole and clean and joyful again.

And if a survivor is able to break his or her own silence, then we need to be able to listen. Victims of sexual abuse struggle with trying to find a sense of universal love and compassion in the midst of their horror. We need to listen to their stories if we are to appreciate the reality of that horror and confront the hard questions about sexuality and violence in our culture. More than easy answers, they need us to listen carefully, to not assume that we can easily understand their pain and their grief.

And if we are to really take seriously our task of healing the binding results of abuse, then we cannot only pay attention to individual victims and their recovery. We must also act to heal the ills of our society. Frankly, we live in a rape culture in which primarily children and women receive messages every day that their bodies are meant to be used as commodities and that violations of their bodies will be ignored, tacitly condoned or blamed on them.

Confronting Sexualized Violence

It is natural for us to recoil from such a harsh truth, to close our eyes to the pervasiveness and the horror of sexual abuse in our own backyard. It is much more comfortable to redirect our attention to the outward and reprehensible abuses of other people in other lands because acknowledging the cold, hard truth of our own country’s atrocities forces us to question our belief that we are part of a democratic society that is both rational and decent, as well as our desire to believe that we as a people are loving and kind.

We need to face up to the reality and horror of sexualized violence in our media, in our neighborhoods, in our lives – not try to cover it up. And we need to monitor our own actions, our language, our choices in this life so that we do not contribute to a society that continues to harm, to bind and to cripple our sons and our daughters.

Shame is a biding experience, but it is not a life sentence. Even the bonds of shame can be untied. And that starts with us. With our actions, our words, and our awareness. Please be part of the untying and the healing by joining us for the Darkness to Light training today. An unknown author wrote, “You can’t fight the dark. You can wait for the light, you can look for the light, you can share the light, or you can shine.” Today I invite you to shine.

The light in me recognizes and bows to the light in you. Namaste.

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