Healing from something means you never quite heal. In order to heal, there is a recognition and an acceptance that damage has been done and futures have been altered, and then there must be a slow and deliberate choice to walk forward from the events that caused pain. Healing means realizing that you have been hurt and that you will never be okay again, while simultaneously realizing that you are definitely okay, and that the sun continues to rise as the Earth continues to rotate.
For example, when I work with victims of abuse, I see them using all kinds of tactics to avoid the pain they feel from it. They can tell themselves that what happened to them wasn’t as bad as what has happened to others, making it easier to push their own pain away. They can focus on taking care of the needs of others to avoid their own needs. They can drown their pain in work, or alcohol, or co-dependent relationships, or religion. They can scream and rage at the world for not giving them an easier break after what they have been through. They can learn to hide in plain sight. But none of these are healing, and all of them can go on for a lifetime.
As a therapist, I’m astounded at how often victims of abuse come forward, much later in their lives. Rarely do I hear stories of violent sexual assaults, instead I hear stories of coercive date rape, of fathers convincing their sons to do special favors or visiting their daughter’s rooms after mom has fallen asleep, of babysitters who took advantage while parents are gone. And the younger the child at the onset of abuse, the longer the duration of the abuse, and the greater the severity of the abuse… well, the more impactful the damage seems to be.
I myself am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a male family member. As a child, when these events took place, I had no context to understand what had happened or why it was a problem. But years later, when I approached adolescence and began experiencing sexual attraction, and I realized my attractions were toward men, I began to realize how impactful the abuse had been. I reasoned internally for many years that the reason that I was gay was because I had been abused, and that reinforced my religion’s principles that homosexuality was something that could be cured. I learned to avoid pain through helping others, through work and school achievements, and through religious devotion.
I told my family about the abuse in a rather dramatic moment on a Sunday afternoon over dinner. I was in trouble for something trivial, like dropping my fork, and my step-father snapped at me, and I snapped back that maybe he should go easier on me because of what I had been through as a kid. It was a bombshell, and I’d rushed off to my room, but just a few days later, everyone stopped asking questions and stopped talking about it. It became the big family secret, at least it felt that way, a thing that was known but never to be discussed.
Years later, while I was a Mormon missionary, struggling with crippling depression over my inability to stop being gay through church service, I began journaling about my abuse for the first time. I wrote down everything that happened. I had vivid flashbacks to that time in my life. I checked out books from the library about healing from abuse, and I kept them hidden from my companions so that they wouldn’t know what I was reading. Over time, I grew to separate out the abuse from the other areas of my life. My being abused, for example, had nothing to do with me being gay, yet it did negatively impact my feelings about being gay. I did a lot of crying at the time, and then I put my journals away and kept them there for years longer.
And then, in my mid-20s, I started going to therapy. I wasn’t ready to come out of the closet yet, but I was ready to heal from that portion of my childhood. I told my stories about what happened, I learned how they had impacted me, and I learned that I would never quite heal from them. As my therapist at the time vividly put it, “You are never going to wake up one day and say ‘I’m so glad this happened to me!’, but you can wake up every day and say ‘That sucked. What happened to me was horrible. And I’m okay. I’m living life on my terms, and I survived, and I’m okay.” I learned not to compare my abuse to the abuse of others, but just to let my story stand on its own. I learned to recognize the impact it had on my development. I learned to embrace myself with whatever I was feeling, be it scared or furious or devastated, and I learned how to feel the feelings and decide what to do with them in healthy ways, rather than avoiding them or pushing through them with unhealthy habits.
I received a surprise phone call from my mother yesterday. She and I talk nearly every day, but this time she had a different tone in her voice. She told me she had come across some photos of me as a child, and she’d been thinking about that day at the dinner table when I told everyone I had been abused. She apologized, sincerely and sweetly, for not being there for me at the time, for not getting me into counseling then or at least asking me what had happened and how it had impacted me. We had a long conversation about things, and I told her that I accepted her apology, and that it was beautiful of her to offer it. And I told her that, these days, I give little thought to the abuse itself. It changed me, it altered me, and I’m not happy about it. It still makes me feel gross and in pain when I remember it. But I’m doing fine, and I’ve created a wonderful life for myself. I help others with their healing. I’m a good person who is working hard to make a difference in the world. I have love and light, people that I love and people who love me. And I’m a father.
And that conversation led me to thinking about my children, one turning nine soon and one newly six, and I realize that I was that small when abuse was happening to me. And the sharp jab I get from that realization teaches me once again that I’ll never be okay from all of that, and that, once again, I’m completely okay. I’m okay because I let myself feel the pain, and I choose what to do with it. And I choose to help.
And that, for me, is healing.