Trigger warning: sexual abuse of a minor.
Nothing could set those small town cheerleaders abuzz quite like an out-of-town football game. The bus was all pom-poms, giggles and gossip as we bounced our way along to Mobile for what would turn out to be yet another heartbreaker. But we had high hopes and school spirit to spare—and the fumes from emptied cans of glitter spray probably contributed to the happy atmosphere.
Conversation circled around boys, and before long, an unfortunate game of Truth or Dare fired up. I had been around those girls long enough to know that “dare” was a fool’s choice. I opted for truth. Chances were slim that my life would yield anything juicy.
“OK, Mary Katherine…what is the farthest you’ve ever been with a guy?”
The girls leaned in for my answer. Everyone was curious what their youth-groupy cohort was going to confess. My response was a huge disappointment, met with boos and a few tossed pom-poms.
My response was a lie.
I was in second grade, still sleeping with stuffed animals, when the sexual abuse began. He worked the graveyard shift. I remember his shadowy form looming in my bedroom door. I would close my eyes harder.
Maybe if I pretend to be asleep, I would hope. My neon yellow dinosaur never left my side.
On the trip home that night, I stared out the window and cried. The girls probably chalked it up to my devastated school spirit. But 9th grade me was nearing a decision: It was time to step forward. And in the weeks that followed, my entire life would be flipped upside down.
My senior year, every Wednesday was Current Affairs Day in History class. A newspaper was thrown in the middle of a laminate table with some plastic scissors. Our task was to choose an article, summarize it, and report it to the class.
I remember racing to the table that Wednesday, flipping to the middle section, and hoping it wasn’t too late. A rectangular-shaped cutout confirmed my worst nightmare.
Thirty minutes later, a clueless young lady was sharing her summary with the class. A well-known local had been arrested for sexually abusing a minor. Details were vague, but the abuse had gone on for years, and my classmate explained that the poor victim was probably a family member.
Then, with emphasis, she added, “Ew, how gross is that?”
The trial hit the docket right before graduation. It was both terrible and perfect timing. Terrible because, once again, my darkest secrets were all over the news. Perfect because it would be over before high school ended. In one day, a plea bargain was reached: Guilty in exchange for no prison time. And just like that, my trauma was over.
Except that, really, it wasn’t. I went to college with wounds I didn’t know existed. I made horrible choices in an effort to medicate those wounds. I sought comfort and distraction in dark places. I failed classes and compromised friendships. There was no excuse, but there was a reason: I was broken, and broken things don’t behave as they should.
I have been contemplating sharing my story for years. I’ve always believed that the most powerful and life-changing stories are the true ones. Stories of heartache and pain that eventually end in triumph. So why have I struggled so long to find the words?
It took a while, but I think I realize now: Being a survivor of abuse is never a triumph. I haven’t fully conquered my pain, and I never will. A major event forever altered the course of my childhood.
But there is still a victory. Mine is that I am actively fighting to minimize the aftermath of that event, as a mother, as a wife, and as a human being.
You see, writers hate arcs that don’t resolve. But in real life, there are some story lines that don’t wrap up neatly. Yes, I am happily married with a beautiful child and a life that is blessed. I am grateful for that.
But gratitude doesn’t erase the past.
My message is for anyone who will hear it, whether you were a victim of abuse or you know somebody who was. Maybe your life trauma was different from mine; it doesn’t matter.
Understand that being a survivor doesn’t mean your pain will disappear. It means you learn to manage it. Being a survivor doesn’t mean that your past will be rewritten. It means you have chosen to actively write your own future. Being a survivor does not mean you “turned lemons into lemonade.” It means you’ve had sour experiences, but continued to believe that life offers sweet ones.
Eventually, you will revisit the pain less frequently, because your mind will find better places to exist. While the shadows sometimes find a home in your heart, you will be a survivor because you never quit believing in the sun.
If you are a survivor of any kind of abuse, know that there is no shame in your dark secret. Your story is yours alone, to keep or to share. But please know this: You are not alone, and it gets better. Occasionally, it will get bad again … but it always, always gets better.