Veronica had a lot of reasons to be angry at the world. Born into a family with a history of domestic violence and incest, she never had anything even remotely resembling a "normal" upbringing. One of her earliest memories is of her father taking nude pictures of her when she was barely 6 years old. "Even as a small child, I knew that there was something terribly wrong with what he was doing. When he told me to take my panties off I remember starting to cry. But then I got angry. I knew that he could force me to take off my panties but he couldn't force me to smile. And I didn't. I paid dearly for that act of defiance, but at least I preserved some sense of self in the process."
The abuse, however didn't stop and the last time Veronica's father attempted to molest her when she was 16, she punched him in the groin with all of her strength. Then she braced herself for her father's inevitable retaliation. Rather than strike back at her, he walked away, shame-faced, and never touched her again.
"It wasn't the sexual abuse itself that was so painful," Veronica told us, "It had more to do with the fact that my father was untrustworthy and a direct threat to my life and wellbeing. The power differential between us was extreme."
As anyone who has ever been a victim of childhood abuse knows, the experience involves an almost complete eradication of personal boundaries, a loss of control over one's own body, and deep shame, since the child almost always feels to some degree responsible for the transgression. Veronica's situation was compounded by the fact that everyone else in her family, including her mother, knew about the ongoing abuse and treated it as a normal reality of everyday life. The family's preferred way of dealing with the situation was extreme denial.
"I thought I must be insane," Veronica told us. "Everyone in my family seemed so happy, and they were always saying to me, 'What's the matter with you? Why are you so hard to please?'"
Veronica left home to pursue a college degree. But her past haunted her wherever she went.
"I became addicted to drugs and alcohol. I was very promiscuous and kept trying to find love through sex."
"I ended up engaged to a man much older than I who was also into drugs and alcohol, and for a while it was a wild ride. After only about two years of this fast lifestyle, I knew if I didn't get sober, I'd be dead soon. That was when I made the decision to get into therapy and give up drinking and drugs. Without the numbing effects of drugs and alcohol, my emotional pain became very intense. My first therapist was a Catholic priest who was the first truly safe man I ever met in my life. He helped me to see and to trust that there really were good men out there; that they weren't all after sex. Through his loving support, I gradually learned to open my heart.
I became very committed to my recovery, which it turned out would be a life-long process. I discovered that there was a long history of incest on both sides of my family. I guess that helped to explain why everyone saw it as "normal," or as my mother would say, "something that all girls go through." I didn't just see a therapist once a week; I literally spent nearly all of my time and energy healing the places in my life that had been broken for so long. I put everything I had into the process, as though my life depended on it, which of course it did! I went to 12-step meetings several times a week. And I also joined a sexual survivor's support group that fortunately had members who were both victims and perpetrators. That was an incredibly powerful and healing part of my recovery because I was afforded the opportunity to confront perpetrators in a mutually healing format.
Another crucial part of my healing had to do with writing. I wrote a lot of letters to my father, many of which I never sent, but the process was very therapeutic. My father never admitted to what he had done to me, although at one point he said, "Even if what you're saying is true, what does it matter now?"
"One of the most important people in my recovery process was my husband, who became the good father that I never had. He re-parented me. He didn't always know what I needed to hear him say when I was hurting, so I would often just tell him. I would give him the actual words that I needed to hear and he would speak them and that would comfort me greatly. I also practiced setting personal boundaries, which I never had a chance to do while growing up. This was especially crucial when it came to physical contact as I had more than a few 'triggers' as an incest survivor.
"I worked long and hard at identifying the triggering events that activated my old emotional wounds and together we found creative ways to work around those. Sometimes it was as simple as asking permission to touch me. For instance, when I was washing my hands or the dishes, my husband was always careful to ask if he could hug me. This was enormously healing for me, as my father often molested me while I was washing my hands.
My recovery wasn't just a high priority in my life, it WAS my primary commitment. Everything else was secondary to it, because I knew that if I didn't do the work that my recovery required, whatever else I accomplished in my life would be empty.
My passion for healing myself was so consuming that I barely had time for a part-time job. My time was taken up with 12-step meetings, individual therapy, group therapy with my survivor's group, reading, and a lot of writing and journaling. I was obsessed with recovering. There was nothing in my life that I wanted more than to feel fully alive and if that required me to feel pain that I had covered up with numbness for decades, then so be it.
There are still times that pockets of sensitivity get activated in me and I find myself feeling hurt and fragile. Sometimes I feel moments of shame and unworthiness, but that's all they are: just moments. And when they arise if I'm not able to soothe myself with compassionate self-talk, I have a huge 'family' of supportive friends that I can call and in an instant get a massive dose of affirming, reassuring reminders of who I am, and then I'm back on track again.
I'm able to truly take genuine pleasure in sex now and I feel free and uninhibited in my sexual expression. I've also become more trusting and can tap into my intuition which is finely honed and helps me to distinguish trustworthy from untrustworthy people.
I had to find a way to forgive my perpetrators for my own peace of mind, and I feel that I finally have. Although some members of my family still hide behind walls of denial, I no longer feel the need to take that away from them. I understand that each of us engages in some level of denial until we are capable of facing the truth. I have no desire to push anyone into an awareness they are not ready for. There are lots of other places in my life where I can be my exuberant, vibrant, honest and authentic self and there are lots of people who love rather than shame me for being that way! It's been a long road home but I made it and it was worth every ounce of effort that it required of me. It's true that recovering your capacity to love yourself and your life and the ability to experience life fully and openly can be hard work, particularly when there's been serious abuse and betrayal. But with a commitment to do that work and the right support, miracles can happen. I know. I'm living proof."
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.