Survivors of Sexual Abuse: Should You Confront Your Abuser?
I once wrote a poem I call "Pit Permanence". It was written after I had been reflecting on the numerous brave men and women whom have shared their stories of childhood sexual abuse with me. I’ve seen them all come to a place where they at least contemplate confronting their abuser(s), as well as others complicit in the abuse. In their stories, there is usually a bystander adult that saw, heard, or felt something was “off” – but never said or did anything to protect them.
I’m a psychiatrist, I understand emotional problems, psychopathology, relationship dynamics and drug addictions. But it still shocks me that some parents have allowed abuse to happen to their children – even in their own homes.
I vehemently despise violence of any sort against children – sexual, verbal, physical or otherwise. And in my opinion, our legal system comes nowhere close to serving true justice to victims of such acts. Can people heal and be restored? Yes. But it’s the gall of perpetrators that angers me. How dare they steal emotional and physical security from anyone else – especially the most vulnerable among us?! When these folks have to face their crimes, I feel no pity for them. I may understand the life that lead them to commit crime, but know they had choice before they offended against anyone. And for failing to make the right choice, they must pay.
But I have grappled over the question of confrontation for years. The survivors I’ve worked with often are pulled between suppressed rage and fear of futility when discussing confronting their abusers. Many have tried to inform their parents, only to be blamed, shamed, or dismissed. When I was a budding psychiatrist, I couldn’t believe how many survivors told me their parents did not believe their stories of abuse. It made me feel sick, scared and sad just hearing it – the idea of living it pierced my very soul.
So, in counseling those who are considering confrontation, I’ve often asked, “What is your objective?” I suggest they search their hearts – then tell me what they are wanting to accomplish. We go through this exercise to be prepared for some of the truly ridiculous and infuriating reactions they will likely receive. Most perpetrators will lie, claim amnesia, act pious, squeeze out 2 fake tears, or blame their victims when confronted with how their heinous behavior devastated the life of another. I want my patients to be ready for the feelings that will rise within them.
Most of all I want them to know and honor their voice, and to create a sense of safety for themselves.
No matter how much time passes, sexual abuse absolutely obliterates that sense of safety and freedom healthy adults adore seeing in children – and sick adults exploit. Regaining those feelings usually requires a declaration of, “No! No more! Not for me, not for anyone!”
I was, and continue to be, very impressed by the fierce confrontation Aly Raisman executed on her abuser. She gave us a beautiful example of the iron-strength of vulnerability and authenticity. See, that's the thing about speaking your truth. It is inspiring and frees everyone else around you to speak theirs, too. Women like Aly are helping a lot of people get free.
If you are contemplating confronting someone who abused you in childhood, talk it over with a therapist. Yes, hopefully you’ll get to a place of forgiveness (which I say only because you can’t be free if you’re holding pain and resentment). But, no, forgiveness cannot come without acknowledgement of anger. All human pain is an indicator that something is wrong and needs to be changed. A therapist can help you figure out how to go on the journey toward healing change in your life.
You have every right to call out your abuser. Under the guidance of a therapist, find a way that works best for you, whether it’s in person, over the phone, in a letter – or even in a journal entry that no one ever sees. Just be prepared that you may not receive from them a contrite apology. It doesn't matter though. Reclaiming your voice and power is what it's all about.
You are worthy of your peace – go get it!
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