WELLNESS
09/19/2014 08:25 am ET Updated Sep 19, 2014

'When I First Started Having Panic Attacks, I Thought I Had A Brain Tumor'

C. David Moody, Jr

C. David Moody, Jr., 58, a childhood sexual abuse survivor, lives with panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in Lithonia, Georgia.

I was about 9 or 10 when I was abused, and it happened twice. It was sexual acts. He was a fill-in babysitter for his mother, but my mother had an inkling something was going on, and removed him. It was 1965 or 1966 -- you didn't talk about this kind of thing. I was fortunate in that we moved in 1970. When you don't have to see that person anymore, it's easy to bury it. I learned how powerful the mind is. I didn't forget, I just put it away in the back of my mind for over 20 years.

I never said a thing to anyone until I told my wife. I kept it quiet for 26 years. I told her near the end of 1991 or the very beginning of 1992. We had found out a family member on her side had been sexually abused, and I just blurted out it had happened to me too. That's all I said. I had no plans of ever saying anything. Over the next month or two, I started feeling like I just wasn't in control.

I was driving to the gym one day, and I had a panic attack. I called the ambulance from the car. My doctor gave me some pills to take and said I was under stress. A month or so later, I was out of town by myself, and I had a real bad one. I got the shakes, the panic feeling, uncontrollable crying, and this sense of doom and gloom like the world was coming to an end. The first thing I did was I went and got a bunch of tests because I thought I had a brain tumor or something. It wasn't until I was talking to a psychologist friend that I ever put the panic attacks and the abuse together. It was probably two years before I really understood how to handle the panic attacks and the triggers. For a while, I was afraid to drive by myself because the first one happened when I was in my car.

When I first started having panic attacks, I thought I was losing my mind. People are always telling you, "It's just in your head, let it go," but it's not that easy. I don't tell people that; it has made me more compassionate over time.

I got good, good counseling, got on the right medicine, and it took time and patience and learning. You’ve got to have a desire yourself to want to get better. I'd always been very happy, very outgoing. I wanted to continue to be a happy person. I saw the wear and tear it was putting on my kids. I didn't want to live the rest of my life with no "umph."

I had to forgive. I couldn't be in the same room with him, but I've had to forgive him. This has been a 22-year journey. Part of the reason it took so long is that you don't see many role models who have gone through the steps. You hear about survivors of childhood sexual abuse doing great things, but you never hear the in-between, nobody really talks about the journey. There is really nowhere to realize you're not weird.

In 2010, I went to the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy and took a tour with my wife. I broke down crying. It was tears of sadness that we even have to have something like this, but tears of joy that we do have something like this. Children are resilient, but we forget that they become adults. I started a blog, originally to tell the story of my contractor business, but I realized I couldn't tell my true story if I don't talk about [my past].

I beat myself up for years saying I let this guy get away and hurt other people. I realized that one of my issues is that I never got closure. I told myself I was letting my abuser win as long as I didn't get better. I said to myself he wasn't going to win twice. Even though it was bad, it is such a small portion of my entire life. I can't let it become the majority.

Magazines always show sexual abuse victims as sad, like we have no life. I want to put a different face on it. Yes, it's horrible. Yes, I will live with panic attacks and PTSD forever. But I wanted survivors to know we can still thrive and have a great life. We don't have to live in shame, we don't have to live in fear. Some people will never speak up about it, but I want to give hope to the hopeless and a voice to those who still suffer in silence.

The responses I've received from telling people about my panic attacks and PTSD have been phenomenally positive. I found out there are so many people suffering. I don’t want people to think that once we’ve been a victim, we have to be a victim forever. We're actually much stronger than people realize -- even ourselves sometimes. The most important thing to me is being positive. The last thing we need is to suffer more. It's not an easy journey, but it's a doable journey.

As told to Sarah Klein. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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