Guest Blog from Melissa A. Nimijohn
“Every October, Children’s Aid Societies across Ontario raise awareness about the important role that individuals and communities play in supporting vulnerable children, youth, and families through the provincial Dress Purple Day campaign. The campaign is more important than ever, since the COVID-19 pandemic has created additional stressors for families, and in some cases has increased risk for the well-being and safety of children and youth.
This year, Dress Purple Day will take place on Tuesday, October 27, 2020.
We are calling on all Ontarians to wear something purple to show children, youth, and families that they are here to help!”Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies
Today is a day that is not only extremely important to families across Ontario, it is also one that is very personal to me. #idresspurplebecause
This is my truth. My story, if you will. I am not a victim; I am a survivor! A warrior who, despite everything, has risen above trauma to become the strong woman and mother I am today.
My truth may trigger uncomfortable feelings in some readers – some who have experienced abuse and perhaps even some who haven’t. It is triggering me as I write this. It brings me back to a place I hid away. It’s a place that terrorizes my senses, knots my stomach, makes my heart pound, and fills my eyes with tears.
I’m writing this to heal the deep wounds of my past, to be able to speak openly about the abuse I endured at such a young age. My hope is that it will help others to speak their truths, and share their stories.
Abuse should not be a taboo subject. It happens daily. One out of three women have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their life. To put it into perspective, think of your three closest female friends or relatives. Chances are that one of them is part of this statistic. It’s a huge percentage; one you would think would be more widely discussed. Except you don’t hear about it, and it’s rarely mentioned.
Abuse is incredibly traumatic, and I completely understand why survivors wouldn’t want to dredge up those horrific memories. You’re not alone. For 35 years of my life, I didn’t, either. Then, things shifted. The world shifted. I slowly began to want to share my story. I wanted to help others – I just didn’t know how. With the COVID-19 pandemic, and all the injustice currently going on in the world, was this even the right time? Should I wait? Would there ever be a right time?
Like many survivors of abuse, I kept that time of my life tucked away in a nearly inaccessible place. I imagined it locked up in a frosted glass box; there was a key with a silk tassel. Others couldn’t see what was in the box, but some knew there was a secret buried inside. I was in control of that secret, and only I had the power to unlock it, and share what it held. It was a way for me to regain control.
Every once in a while, though, something would trigger me – even to this day. A smell, a place, a name, someone else’s story. Then the box would open, and I had no control over the nightmares it would release. I still kept it a secret, though. There is almost a sense of shame that comes with being a victim of childhood sexual trauma, or any abuse, for that matter. In hindsight, I was just five or six years old. I should feel no shame for what happened to me – but I was young, and I thought it would be safer for everyone if I kept the abuse a secret.
The problem is that keeping it secret is what allowed the abuse to continue.
I always felt sad for my parents; how could they possibly have known what he was doing to me? At five years old, I had become a master of hiding trauma. Concern for my parents is part of the reason I stashed that frosted glass box away, even as an adult. I wanted to protect them. Protect them from having to relive what happened to their little girl. I also wanted to protect my younger brother from knowing what happened to me. He was only a few years old at the time. He wouldn’t remember the police who came to our house one night, or the weekly group therapy sessions I had at the CCAS (Catholic Children’s Aid Society) with other children who had been through the same horror. Still, I felt I needed to protect him.
Aside from the abuse, my childhood was truly picture perfect, and I was a typical happy kid. I had two incredibly loving parents, a sweet little brother, two sets of amazing grandparents, and many, many cousins with whom I’d spend countless summer days and holidays. I lived on a beautiful sprawling dairy farm, with a wooden swing set and sandbox my father built, a swimming pool, and access to acres of new adventures every day. I took piano lessons from the time I could sit up on my own, and always had food on the table.
I’m mentioning all of this to let you know it can happen to anyone. Your socioeconomic status, race, gender, religion, or where you live doesn’t matter. Predators don’t discriminate.
One of the biggest myths surrounding child sexual abuse is that it is perpetrated by strangers and pedophiles. However, most people who sexually abuse children are our friends, partners, family or community members. About 93 per cent of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser. My abuser was a member of our community, who ended up working on our farm for several years.
I don’t remember when the abuse started. I do, however, remember the exact moment it ended. It plays like a Super 8mm movie in my mind. I was around six years old, outside on the swing, one sunny afternoon. The air was sweet with the smell of fresh cut hay, and the clouds were like little fluffs of pulled cotton. Our babysitter, we’ll call her my guardian angel, was outside with me. She was the older sister of a classmate of mine. I felt safe with her. We did crafts, she read me stories all the time, and had freckles just like me.
As I was swinging, I remember asking her if it was OK that a man kissed me. I don’t recall her exact reply, or if I went into more detail about the other things he did or made me do. The movie skips at this point, to our phone ringing that evening. It was my guardian angel calling, to tell my parents what I had shared with her earlier that day.
As an adult now, I can’t possibly fathom how difficult it must have been for her to hear me say those things. After all, she was only a teenager. When my parents got off the phone, I remember my mom coming into my room. I was sitting on the edge of my bed crying, thinking I was going to be in trouble.
That’s what the abusers do to keep a child quiet. They make you think that if you tell anyone, it will be your fault and you’ll get in trouble. He instilled so much fear in me that it’s a wonder that little six-year-old girl was finally able to muster the courage to speak up.
The movie jumps again, to two police officers at my house talking to me that same night. I remember that one was a woman, and her hair was tied back, but she had these little wisps of hair that framed her face. Then the movie cuts out and all you hear is the flickering of the film.
This happened about 35 years ago. It was a time when lawyers, police officers and social workers all advised that it was best not to go through the courts. They wanted to protect me from having to relive the torture that I endured. I get it. Living through it once was hard enough.
I honestly don’t know what happened to that monster from a legal perspective. I think he had to go to therapy – basically a slap on the wrist – and he wasn’t allowed to go near me again.
It has taken me a long time to get to this place. It’s a place of strength and empowerment. For quite a while, I wanted that monster to pay dearly for what he did to me. I wanted the world to know his name, so he could be shunned. However, now I feel like the guilt and shame he has to carry on a daily basis, for the rest of his life, is at the very least some form of justice.
There is always the option of pressing charges as a historical sexual assault case. However, I’ve witnessed first-hand how those typically turn out.
A year or so ago, a close friend came to me incredibly upset. She had just found out that her adult son was sexually assaulted as a child, by his uncle. Her son decided to press charges and go to court. He had to testify, enduring the pain that I was spared so many years ago. I was proud of him. He did what I and so many others couldn’t. He spoke up and shared his truth, and told his story.
I was with them in court the afternoon the verdict came in. It was an acquittal. The judge said it didn’t mean the accused was innocent; it meant there wasn’t enough physical evidence to convict him. This is one of the biggest reasons people don’t come forward to speak about their abuse. How could there be physical evidence from 10, 20, or 30-plus years ago?
It was hard for me to be there that day. From the beginning, the entire ordeal triggered me, and opened up that frosted glass box I had tried so hard to bury. It was OK, though, it wasn’t about me or my past. This was his journey, and I was only there to support him. I took comfort from this fact. I didn’t know what to say to him that afternoon, or how to tell him that with time, it would get better. That the nightmares would never really go away; but, they would become more manageable. Sometimes, just being supportive and saying, “I believe you,” is all a survivor needs. Especially when it feels like there is no hope.
As an adult, I’ve lost track of the times I questioned hope and the presence of a greater being. How could God, The Gods, The Universe or whichever sky friend you believe in possibly let this happen to a child?
I was gifted a book from a dear friend, someone I met at the children’s hospital. Our daughters had the same paediatrician, and it turned out we only live five minutes apart. The book was about a man who was physically and emotionally abused as a child, by his step-mother. It was about that very question: How could God let this happen? In it, he bravely calls out those who use Bible verses as a form of reasoning. Phrases such as, “God only gives you what you can handle.” Like the author, I call bullshit!
How is a five or six-year-old child supposed to handle being abused? Why would God allow this to happen to not just me, but so many children? Still, I feel, there has to be a greater purpose for what I have endured. Reading that book lit a fire in me, and a higher being was pushing me to do something about it. I grabbed my phone and started typing a note. It grew longer and longer. Then, I went into a writer’s trance. As I was typing, words, thoughts, and feelings began to flow effortlessly for the first time.
Typically, whenever I had thought about what happened, I would have flashbacks. They would bring me and all my senses back to the very moments when the abuse occurred.
It was horrific and I’d have to force myself back to the reality of present day. This time, though, it was different. I was recalling my childhood without going back to those places.
Nothing about what that man did to me was OK, or will ever be OK. I may never be able to forgive him, nor should I have to – and I’m at peace with that. It is a personal choice, and one only you as an individual can make. I don’t have the answers; I really doubt anyone does. All I know is that it made me strong; it made me a force to be reckoned with, especially when it comes to my own children.
I’m a mother of three now. I have a beautiful little girl, two incredibly handsome little boys, and a strong, caring, supportive husband – with a side of smart-assery. They are my world. My daughter has a very rare disorder and wasn’t supposed to live beyond one year. She is nearly 11 years old now. She’s non-verbal and has multiple special needs, including a feeding tube and seizures. I can draw on the strength I’ve built since my own childhood. That same strength and fight to survive has helped me through the struggles of having a medically fragile daughter. I fight for her; I’m her voice, her protector.
I now know that I can use my voice to help others – people who are survivors of abuse, or know someone who is. You’ll notice I’ve hardly used the word victim. I despise that word, even though that’s what I was. I was his victim. I personally feel it sounds weak, and that’s not me. That’s not us. I am a survivor.
I don’t have to be silent anymore. I can use my experiences to help others who may be struggling, and encourage them to find their strength and their voice. Believe me, it has always been there. Don’t be afraid to talk about what you or a loved one has been through. I’ve found more healing in writing this than I ever did in years of counselling as a child. I’ve also found solace in playing the piano, and listening to music. Praying by Kesha and Shake it Out by Florence & The Machine are both beautifully written and executed songs. They have become like anthems while writing this. I love that they fill me with strength and empowerment.
Because of my childhood trauma, I have taught my children the skills they will (hopefully never) need to prevent it from happening to them.
Here are just a few:
We NEVER EVER use the word “secret.” There are no secrets in this house. We can have surprises, but we do not keep secrets from Mommy and Daddy.
From the time they could talk, we taught our boys all the anatomically correct words for their body parts. Yes, my kid was that kid who would tell neighbours and family members, “Boys have a penis, girls have a vulva/vagina.” Ensuring your child feels comfortable using these words, as well as knowing what they mean, can help them talk clearly if something inappropriate has happened.
Discuss that some parts of the body are private and that only Mommy, Daddy or the doctor can see them naked. (As a mama of boys who feel comfortable dropping their pants and peeing freely outside, I’m finding this is still a work in progress.)
Lastly, let your child know that they have the right to say “NO,” if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable with anyone, including known adults in their life.
As your child gets older and can comprehend more, there are many wonderful resources that you can find in the links below.
The National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse http://www.naasca.org/010111-Resources.htm
The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies
My story is meant to be shared and heard. It’s meant to help others who went through, or are going through, childhood trauma. It’s meant to offer strength and give courage and hope to those who need it the most.
October is Child Abuse Prevention Month in Ontario, Canada
Please feel free to share this story, and reach out to me if you have questions or just need someone to listen. I am now the ambassador for the National Association of Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse Ontario, Canada chapter. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Oh, but after everything you’ve doneKesha
I can thank you for how strong I have become
No more monsters, I can breathe again.”
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