“I have felt the sharp sting of abuse. Sexual, physical, mental. And it’s felt like shame for so many years and to speak the words into this world makes me want to howl and hide. But I say them out loud anyway so my sisters know… they do not stand alone…” ~ Salmaelwardany
As an abused child, I learned to keep secrets.
The heart of an abused child is laden with them. We carry the abuse as our fault, somehow we are to blame, somehow we deserve it. Our voice is taken from us; silent and powerless, we protect the ones who should have protected us. This is how we keep our secrets safe.
Often, even when we expose the abuse, we are dismissed. We come to believe it is us against the world. We are on our own, there is nobody we can trust.
We become the keeper of secrets.
I reflect upon this as waves cavort with the shoreline and salt air adheres to my skin; upon how the heart of an abused child looks much like the heart of an abused woman.
This, I came to understand when, as a woman, I was abused.
And kept it a secret.
The keeper of secrets.
Broken shells scatter around my feet and in them the disorder of the last year reflects back at me. The gift of time and distance has offered me perspective, I find myself often in moments such as this; outside my body, detached from the experience yet desperate to put order to the chaos. To feel whole again, to mend, to grasp at some sort of closure.
I’m positive this is why women stay in abusive situations for so long. Because we believe for the happy ending promised in the fairy tales of our childhood. We are nurturers, healers, fixers, empaths; it goes against our very nature to abandon that which is so very broken, until invariably, it breaks us.
Hindsight leaves me to wonder how an intelligent, educated woman like myself allowed this to happen, allowed myself to be verbally and emotionally abused for so long by someone I trusted. But here lies the key. I trusted him. Respected him. Admired him. Not only did I, but so did my husband, my children, my friends. He was welcomed into my home, into my family, into my life.
Into my secrets.
And then, he took my secrets and turned them into his power.
You fucking whore. You fucking slut. You are nothing but a fucking whore who fucks around. You make me sick you fucking slut.
Messages like this continued for months, enabled by my silence. There is no physical proof with this kind of abuse. It is oh so easy to be the keeper of secrets, to pretend it isn’t happening, to delete the messages and pick your kids up from school and make dinner and kiss your husband goodnight as if your heart hasn’t been ripped from your chest and obliterated by words that will forever be seared on the back of your eyelids.
I consider why I didn’t reveal the abuse the first time it happened, and can only concede that his abuse was tied to my shame. The two were inseparable. To tell of his abuse would be to admit I believed his words were justified. After all, he knew of my past, my pain, the choices I had made out of the places I had suffered. And he threw these things back at me, made sure I was smeared with the filth of them, made sure I knew how worthless that made me.
I was no longer a grown woman, but once again a child, betrayed by someone I trusted, someone who should have protected me. Confused, scared, ashamed, I believed it to be my fault. I had made it happen, I allowed someone too close. I had been too vulnerable, too trusting, too naive. I deserved it.
As if any woman deserves to be abused. As if any woman deserves to be shamed. As if there is any justification for destroying another human, ever.
He apologised, of course. He never meant to hurt me, he knew he was wrong, knew that’s not who I was, promised it would never happen again. I forgave him, of course. For not only had I been raised by generations of women who exemplified the female doormat, but had also been subjected to years of religious teaching on how we should love others. If someone slaps you on the right cheek? Offer him your left. How many times do I forgive the one who hurts me? Seventy times seven. My heart cracks wide open for the women under this teaching who stay in abusive relationships, who are told, if you love him better, he’ll come to understand love and will no longer hurt you.
No dear woman, he won’t.
I no longer believe in a love that must suffer for the cause of another. For months I suffered. More months that I would even care to admit. I suffered for my own fear and shame. I suffered out of love for our mutual family and friends. I suffered for him, to protect him, because I wanted to believe the best of him, I wanted to believe he was a good man who operated from a place of his own pain, and maybe with more compassion, more love, more understanding, maybe he would heal. Maybe he would become the person I thought him to be. Maybe there would be reconciliation, restoration, a way for closure.
Overhead, seagulls circle and I pick up a stone, feel the smoothness of it between my fingers, trace the outside of it. I ditch it toward the waves but like everything of late, the effort is halfhearted and lacks conviction.
I had learned about pretence in my childhood, about the masks we wear and the words we say to ensure there is never questions of what lay behind the falsity. In fact, I reached beyond a level of skilfulness to complete mastery of such impression. To many, this could be construed as deceit. To the rest of us, this is a tool of survival we have carried into our adulthood, one we are disinclined to trade for the perils of honesty when we are so accomplished in our secret-keeping.
To keep the secret of abuse, whether as a child or an adult, is to learn to live two different lives. There is your outer life, the one where you hold yourself together for your family, where normal is rehearsed and practised, where you go about your life and hope the people around you don’t notice the tiredness in your eyes and the way your hands shake when you pick up your phone.
Then there is your inner life. The one where your husband leaves for work and you are finally alone and can fall apart right there on the bathroom floor. The one where you cannot find the energy or motivation to get dressed, where you haven’t showered for days, don’t answer your phone, and find every reason not to leave the house. Where your work suffers, your health suffers, your spirit suffers.
Secrets destroy us. They eat away at our flesh and rot our soul and soon we begin to decompose, and all that festers inside our putrid body can no longer be hidden. We see it in our anger, our addictions, our depression. In the way our bones ache and our joints hurt. In our mood swings and outbursts and the way we do not sleep for days, weeks, years. In our fear, anxiety, isolation, numbness, irritability, hyper-vigilance, disconnection, self-destruction. We see it in our crushed spirit and dried up bones. In the way we turn away from life, turn away from ourselves.
My secret stayed hidden within the darkest places in my soul until it almost destroyed me. This is the power of shame. But what I have come to understand is that shame can only survive in the darkness. The moment shame is exposed to the light, it loses its grip over us.
My shame allowed his power over me, as did my silence.
My shame almost destroyed me, until the moment I said no more.
No more will I allow this to happen. No more will I believe I have done something to deserve this. No more will I allow another human to destroy me. No more will I hide in the dark. No more will I be afraid.
No more will I be ashamed.
No more will I be silent.
No more will I be the keeper of secrets.
It is over.
The sound of children’s laughter from across the bay arrives on a warm gust of wind. I breathe the air deep into my lungs, hold it there, allow it to fill me anew with life, for breath is life and I have been dead too long. My warrior heart beats again, the one he tried to destroy. The one he almost destroyed. But not quite. Here, in this place, I once again find life.
I will not speak his name out loud. I carry no bitterness, for this will only destroy me. I am instead thankful for the way this struggle has transformed me. Through this, I have become aware of the parts of my childhood not reconciled. I understand more of the human condition, of the way we operate out of our unhealed wounds, and project them onto other people and other relationships. I understand more about the hearts of women who live with abuse, the reasons they stay, the reasons they cannot leave. I am wiser, stronger, braver. I have found my voice, and I will be the voice for my sisters still trapped in their silence. I will spend the rest of my life fighting for the rights of women. For them, for me, for my daughters.
There are reasons people enter our lives, reasons they become part of our journey.
Sometimes those reasons are to break us wide open.
I walk deeper into clear water, feel the sand squelch between my toes. The shock of cold awakens my soul and I run, dive, break through the surface, plunge beneath, deeper, deeper still, until I lift my face to the sun and rise back to the surface. I emerge, and I am weightless, washed, made clean.
I am born again.
Much has been broken; there is much to be healed.
But sometimes, brokenness carries its own kind of beauty.