True surviving doesn't really begin until the abuse is over, when you're left to pick up the pieces. To heal. To look at what has happened and to decide for yourself: What's next?
I have spoken to this for years as a survivor who struggled with eating disorders and self-harm after disclosing the sexual abuse I endured for six years of my childhood. Healing is hard work. Surviving is hard work. Thriving is even harder.
And while I know that healing is a lifelong journey that can sometimes be two steps forward and three steps back, I am in a good place in my life. This year, I turned 29, got engaged, became an aunt and started to think about beginning a family of my own.
Then I got some news that hit me like a ton of bricks: because of the things my nanny Waldina did to me -- using objects like forks, spoons, knives and lighters to torture and control me -- I may not be able to conceive a child. And if I do conceive, there is a question about my ability to carry a child to term.
Not only did Waldina steal my childhood, she may have stolen the promise of childhood for another.
Last week, while walking through Tampa on my annual 1,500-mile "Walk in My Shoes" walk across the state of Florida, I met a young woman named Betsy and was reminded that I am not alone. Betsy had a hysterectomy last year, knowing it was the right decision for her health in more than one way...on one hand, the procedure put an end to the medical complications she was suffering as a result of years of horrific and violent sexual abuse. On another, Betsy viewed this as an opportunity to rid herself of the "poison" her abuser put into her body.
True surviving doesn't really begin until the abuse is over. When you're left to pick up the pieces. To heal. To look at what has happened and to decide for yourself: What's next?
But what if you don't have the ability to choose? What if, like Betsy, and like me, that choice is taken from you?
When do survivors get to reclaim full control of their lives? When do we stop feeling tremors from the aftershock?
Just when you feel you've heard it all, seen it all, been through it all and have made it to the other side, another wave hits you. Another hidden scar is revealed.
I try to keep this in mind as I meet survivors like Betsy, like little Kaylee, like Daliana, Ken, Chris, Penny, Coley, Scott and the thousands of others who come walk with us for hope, healing and recovery.
I try to embrace the African Zulu greeting sawubona, which means, "we see you." We are witness to your journey, to your hidden scars.
Step by step, mile by mile, day by day, survivor by survivor and story by story, sawubona.
This April, during National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I challenge you to join me in sawubona. To pay attention to the issue of sexual violence, and to the people living in its aftermath. To be present to the issue, and to be a part of the solution. Because 95 percent of child sexual abuse is preventable through awareness and education. Learning, knowing, paying attention is more than half the battle.
Sawubona: we see you.