Updated: May 28
Healing has taken me down two distinct, yet intertwined paths. This is Part 2 of a two-part blog series. (Read Part 1 here)
Finding out that your child has been sexually abused is probably in the top 5 list of a mother’s worst nightmare.
I found out about my daughter’s abuse when she was in college and I found out through a friend she had confided in. Perhaps my daughter would have carried this secret for the rest of her life had her friend not told me. Like many incest survivors, I suspect she was worried about how her truth might impact our family and/or whether or not we’d believe her. (You can learn about why children don't usually tell; or even why they don't disclose when they are adults.)
Before her friend told me, I knew something was wrong. I was starting to put the puzzle pieces together. The mental health struggles she was exhibiting were unlike her and I wasn’t buying the reasons she was giving me. My instincts were telling me that something terrible had happened to her. I was thinking that she had been assaulted or raped at college. I kept letting her know that I would be there to support her no matter what she was going through and could not understand why she was not opening up to me about what was really troubling her (remember, this is not about you). Her behavior continued to be worrisome and after several weeks and many late-night, concerning phone calls with her and her friend, it was finally revealed to me.
In that moment of truth-revealing, everything froze. Shock and awe. Reality slap. It was if a nuclear bomb just exploded on my life.
I was sitting in my car, on the phone with her friend, just minutes from the school bell ringing when my other two children would soon be coming. Pull.it.together. Hang on. Breathe.
Somehow I managed to get us all home without incident (or my other children having any idea what was happening). As soon I arrived home, I immediately called my husband. I don’t know how he held it together at work the rest of that day, but he did. Probably just as I did — because we had to. Because life continues on. Dinner had to be made. Meetings needed to be attended. Someone had to get to practice.
Yet even through those initial hours of finding out I can still recall a feeling coming over me that I hadn’t expected. It felt like something heavy had been lifted away from me. Even through the shallow breathing, racing heart, and panic attack I was fending off, there was a strange sort of calm that came over me. This flowed from the revelation that I now knew what was really happening with my daughter. I knew her truth and suddenly the last few confusing months now made sense. I even started to have flashbacks to some of the challenging moments we experienced during her teenage years and now saw those through a very different lens.
Two things were happening simultaneously: At the same time my heart shattered in hearing that it was my father who had abused her, I also felt tremendous relief because she no longer had this terrible secret to hide or carry alone. No matter how “unbelievable” it felt, I knew it was her truth and I immediately believed.
I then did what so many moms do when our children are hurt — I launched right into ‘mommy fix-it’ mode. And boy, has that been a learning and growing journey for me. As the mother of an adult survivor I quickly learned that her recovery plan needed to be shaped by her, not me. I could not force her into therapy. Nor could I make her do all the things that I believed would have been good/important/helpful/necessary/etc. to healing. But I tried. I forced. She went. And that is a whole other story I may someday share.
What I will say is that my intentions have always been rooted in love, concern, and care, but I am learning how to support her in a way that is empathetic and respectful of her journey. It’s akin to what every parent experiences in raising children, and that is learning how to give our children space (See my blog on "Holding Space"). What I am learning to do is to open my heart, offer unconditional support and let go of judgement and control. And boy that is not easy to do when 1) you know your child has been hurt; and 2) you believe that what happened to them has the potential to adversely impact their lives, in ways that they may not even see or understand. That’s what makes supporting an adult survivor so different than a child because as their own adult self, they are in charge of their lives now and in making their own decisions — not you. As a parent, and a parent of an adult survivor, we have to get our egos out of the equation.
That gets balanced with the reality of a mother's creed, or at least mine, and that is this: even though I am working on holding space, I will not remain silent if/when I ever believe my daughter is in danger of hurting herself or if I think others may be hurting her. If I perceive her health and well-being to be in jeopardy, I will speak up.
Since day one, I’ve committed myself to learning about incest and its impact on survivors and their families. Sometimes maybe I get immersed a bit too much and that’s where I’ve had to get out of the “let me diagnose and recommend treatment options” mode. I will say that for me, I do find that reading books, attending seminars, and connecting with the CSA community has opened my eyes, generated an awareness, and cultivated empathy. Learning and understanding what my daughter may have experienced has also helped me to process the trauma and impact I felt as her mom and to be aware of some possible signs and impact the abuse may have on her physical, social and emotional well-being. I may have been naive before, but darn if I was going to be naive any longer.
This part of my healing journey is about continuing to find my voice and my role in advocating for incest abuse survivors and the people who support them. Psychologists like to call this post-traumatic growth. I think it's pretty simple and something everyone is trying to do with their lives -- figure out how to take all that life has given to us (opportunities and adversities), determine what we do with all of that and turn it into something we can give back to the world to make it a better place.
This part of my journey is the part that fills me with hope because I am ever so grateful that my daughter and I have each other.