blog · child abuse · Mental Health · sexual abuse · trauma

The Predator

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Abigail Pesta’s book, The Girls, a book about the USA gymnasts who took down sexual predator Larry Nassar back in 2018. If you are not familiar with the case, Larry Nassar was a highly esteemed doctor at Michigan State University. He also served as the doctor for the USA gymnastics national team, where under the guise of treating young gymnasts, he spent decades sexually abusing them. Larry had convinced his victims that his “treatment,” which included digital penetration, was medically necessary for their recovery. 

As Larry’s heinous crimes continued to escalate, he would often abuse children while their parents were sitting in the same room, using his body to shield the parents from seeing what was happening. He worked double-time to develop sincere relationships with the girls and their parents….so much so that they came to view Larry as a friend, a confidant, and a trusted doctor. 

After Larry was convicted in 2018, the presiding judge, Rosemarie Aquilina, gave each of the survivors the chance to speak about their abuse and how it affected them. One by one, the women rose up and spoke their truth about the ways in which Larry’s abuse ruined their families, their psychological wellbeing, their ability to form healthy relationships, and so much more.

The victims blamed themselves for never speaking up, for trusting an esteemed doctor who appeared to have their best interest at heart. Parents of the victims also blamed themselves, finding it inconceivable that their child could have been assaulted while they were sitting in the very same room.

Let me crystal clear about this: There is absolutely no blame to be shared among the victims or their families.

The fault lies entirely with the abuser himself, as well as the other adults who were aware the abuse was happening and chose to do nothing.

What? Others knew and did nothing?

That’s right. NOTHING. There were so many people who did not believe the girls when they tried to ask for help. They explained away Larry’s actions, which left the girls feeling more confused than ever. For decades, people were able to pretend as if this horrific abuse was not happening.

But it was. And the sad, disturbing fact of the matter is that there are many more predators out there, just like him. Abigail Pesta’s narrative about this particular scandal is such an important read for everyone because it shows how even the most vicious of wolves can be dressed in sheep’s clothing. This is what makes abuse so confusing, this is why some people cannot see it coming, and this (among a million other reasons) is why victims should never be blamed or asked “Why didn’t you speak up?”

Predators are often the ones who work their way into your hearts, gain your trust, build a sense of safety around you, and then shatter your sense of safety by violating you. It leaves you feeling so confused that you don’t speak up. You don’t say anything. Because you spent so much time believing that this person could be trusted that you continue to believe he or she didn’t mean to abuse you – that the violation was just a mistake, or a slip-up. You tell yourself whatever it takes to keep up with the belief in your mind that this person is good for you and has your best interest at heart. To think anything less than that is too much to bear.

Time goes on, this person continues to build trust with you, and then just like that, there comes another violation, another boundary crossed. But at this point, you feel that it is too late. If you speak out now, people won’t believe you because they will question why you didn’t speak up earlier or why you continued to be in contact with a person if you knew he or she was sexually abusing you. So you sink into the shame and guilt, blaming yourself for getting into this mess in the first place. 

Before you know it, you have lost all sense of self worth. You continue to find yourself in dangerous situations because you think, after all this time, that you deserve the abuse that you got. You find yourself wondering if your life is worth living, since your body, mind, and soul, no longer feel like your own. 

So many people don’t understand nearly enough about this type of abuse, which is why I highly recommend reading The Girls. It is a devastating, sobering, and extremely important book that is helping other survivors of abuse to realize that it’s okay to speak their truth.

I feel it in my bones – the world is changing. The silence of all of the disbelieved, disregarded survivors is becoming louder. For so long, victims of sexual abuse have been told:

-You shouldn’t talk about that unless you’re REALLY sure it happened. You could ruin that person’s life. 
-Are you positive you remember it that way? 
-Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten so drunk. 
-Maybe you’re confusing this memory with something else? 
-Well maybe he/she was just being really friendly? 
-Did that really happen? That’s a serious accusation. Are you just doing this for attention? 

No more. No more. NO MORE. We are finding our voices.

Can you hear us? If you don’t, you will soon. We’re just getting started.

-To the army of survivors who rose up to take down Larry Nassar: I have the utmost respect for all of you.
-To the judge who gave those survivors a voice in that courtroom – I hope you know that you broke the mold and changed the world, especially the worlds of the victims. 
-And to the ones out there who still suffer in silence, to the ones who are not ready to speak, to the ones who are not quite sure yet or cannot find the right words to say what happened – there is so much hope. You are so much more than the abuse you endured and you can reclaim what taken from you. 

Speak up. Seek help. Find support. And know that you are believed.

child abuse · Mental Health · trauma

When Children Cannot Speak

After being cooped up in quarantine for months, last weekend I jumped at the opportunity to meet up with my cousin and join a friendly, low-key horseback riding competition. I am a novice rider at best, but my cousin has been riding basically her entire life. I have always enjoyed spending time with her, being on the farm, and gazing around at all of the gentle giants. This competition was by no means cut-throat, and I operated at turtle-speed, weaving in and out of poles and around barrels. The obstacle courses were timed, but truthfully, I didn’t care if it took me 10 seconds or 10 minutes to go through the course. I was just happy to have some sense of normalcy in my life in the midst of this global pandemic.

Given that I have not been on a horse in a year, the first time I tried to mount my cousin’s horse, Duncan, I swung my leg over him with too much force. I was lopsided on him and he was uncomfortable. He started neighing and spinning around to try to get me off of him. I flew off and hit the ground (ALWAYS WEAR YOUR HELMET). Yes, I was hurt, a little bruised, a little banged up, but I was alright. I understood that Duncan was just trying to tell me I was making him uncomfortable because I was sitting on him lopsided. I took a moment to collect myself, got back on Duncan, and had a blast riding him for the rest of the day.

The following day, as I was speaking to my therapist about falling off the horse, she asked “Weren’t you angry at that horse for trying to get you off of him?” 

Truth be told, the thought of getting angry at Duncan (who is a total sweetheart, by the way) for trying to throw me off of him did not even cross my mind. Why would I be angry? That was his only way of communicating with me that something did not feel right, that he was uncomfortable and possibly even in pain. It seemed odd to me that my therapist would even ask me that sort of question.

And then it hit me. In that moment I realized why I have such a deep-seated connection with animals, big and small, mean and kind. Animals do not have voices to let you know when something is wrong; and throughout many parts of my life, neither did I.

You see, animals simply do not have the language to tell you when something is wrong with them. Therefore, they communicate with us in other ways. Sometimes this looks like a dog who bites and growls viciously at humans when he feels threatened. Other times, this looks like a horse trying to get you off of him because he isn’t comfortable with the way you are sitting on him. The only way animals can let you know that something is wrong is by acting out. 

Sadly, child abuse can cause us to behave in similar ways. 

When something is being done to us as children, our brains have not developed the language to speak about what is happening to us. We do not know how to tell others that something is wrong because we don’t even understand it for ourselves.

So what do children do when they can’t speak up about being abused?

They try to communicate through their actions. Sometimes those actions involve self destruction, such as self harm, refusal to eat, binge eating, sneaking alcohol, etc. Other times, those actions involve hurting others, like getting into fights with peers , bullying others, or stealing. Some kids become the dog who feels backed into a corner who will growl and bite anyone in order to protect themselves. Other kids may become the horse who hurts its rider because he had no other way of communicating that something didn’t feel right. Silenced children often hurt themselves or others in the hopes that someone will realize that they, too, are being hurt. Abused children can relate so much to animals because both have learned to speak without using their voices. 

In my practice, my patients with histories of child abuse tend to connect with my therapy dog, Noel, much more than my patients without an abuse history. Again, I believe that this is because child abuse survivors relate to animals on a different level. They bond so well with animals because they have learned, from childhood, to communicate without using words. 

One of the biggest parts of healing from childhood abuse is learning to find your voice and use it as a way to remind yourself that you are no longer that scared, silent child. As we heal from our abuse, we become different than animals because we develop the ability to speak up when things do not feel right. As survivors of childhood abuse, however, I do believe there is a part of us that will always have a special connection with animals, because we will always know what it is like to be vulnerable, scared, and silent.