My deep, dark secret
Stories of Survival
The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) shows the ongoing psycholgical and medical harm caused by childhood trauma like childhood sexual abuse. A quarter of children get sexually abused before the age of 18, that’s a lot of children, a lot of abuse and a lot of ongoing trauma that ripples throughout society.
Stories of Survival helps make that connection.
A childhood trauma left me with fear of intimacy and a truth about my sex life that’s almost too painful to reveal
At the time of my mother’s ovarian cancer diagnosis when she was 65, she wanted to be a grandmother. I just wanted to be normal.
I was 36 years old and I’d never had a lover, a fact I was ashamed to admit and had only divulged to my therapist.
Although I’d wanted to be in a relationship, my attempts to date brought on a total body fight-or-flight response. I played out idealized romantic scenarios in my mind, but when it came to actually being with a man, I felt like somebody’s prey. At the same time, I was terrified of being abandoned.
When I noticed a potential boyfriend looking at me with interest, I was convinced he’d pass me over once he saw through my superficial appearance: with my clothes on, I believed, I was false advertising. I imagined that once he saw me naked he’d view me in a light of lesser worth, because of what had happened to me, because of what I’d been involved in when I was a child.
As a girl, I’d been sexually abused, manipulated into acts that entailed the same body parts and motions as intercourse, but that was rape, my therapist said, that wasn’t the same thing as having sex: I was a virgin.
But I didn’t consider myself to be a virgin. I considered myself to be an anomaly.
* * *
“You could meet someone in the next year or two,” my mother, who frequently lamented that her life was “miserable” because she didn’t have grandchildren as other women her age did, encouraged me. She was positive: “You could have a baby by the time you’re 40.”
I don’t know if she knew I wasn’t having sex.
The truth was, despite my fears, I wanted to have sex. I desired to share myself with a partner and to ultimately create a life together with him. I wanted to have a baby within a committed relationship, within a psychologically and financially stable home. I didn’t want to replicate the family circumstances of my childhood but wanted to make sure I was emotionally healthy before raising a family, because I understood the consequences if I, as a mother, was not.
I knew that not all women in stable, committed relationships chose to have children. I also knew that many were not physically capable. As a teenager, I’d been to doctors for menstrual irregularities caused by the abuse: my body shut down in response to the emotional stress and I was told I might not ever be able to conceive on my own. But in my early 30s, after I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and began to process my past, my cycles regulated.
I was able-bodied.
At 36, I despised my biological clock and the women’s magazines that pointed out, with unrelenting persistence, that time was running out, if it was not already too late. Colleagues and acquaintances suggested that if I ever wanted to have a child I should become a single mother, a “choice mom.” I shouldn’t wait, they said like an alarm, I had to do it right now.
But I was in no position to have a baby. I didn’t have job security. I could barely make ends meet on my college instructor salary. I used any cash surplus to pay for my PTSD treatment. I was in therapy three days a week to cope with debilitating anxiety and depression. To me, there was no choice.
“I’m not going to have a child,” I said, “just to have a child.”
* * *
The closest I’d come to having sex was at 33, with a man I was dating named Rob. We met on eHarmony.
Rob was a 35-year-old clinical social worker, tall and lean with thinning dark hair and glasses. Although I told him my parents had gotten divorced when I was 18, I withheld the fact that I’d been sexually abused. I didn’t reveal that I’d never made love.
I wanted to be normal.
One evening, as we cuddled on my couch, my ear was to Rob’s chest and I could hear his heart beating and the vibration of his voice speaking…