What I Told My Kids about the Sexual Abuse I Suffered as a Child
No parenting book could prepare me for the discussion I had with my kids about the sexual abuse I had suffered as a child.
Two years ago, I flew back to Maryland from Colorado, ostensibly to visit family. It was a plausible cover story. The primary focus of my visit, however, was to meet with Montgomery County Maryland police about the sexual abuse I had suffered as a child.
It felt like a sting operation, even beyond the recorded phone call to my perpetrator I made from the detective’s office. Except for my husband and the detectives, nobody knew what I was doing in Maryland in March 2014. In fact, nobody knew I had been abused as a child. After all, I had compartmentalized the abuse for decades, keeping the secret from myself.
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My perpetrator was arrested shortly after I flew back to Colorado, and because of his standing in the community, there was a press release about the crimes. I had to tell my close friends and family the truth about my childhood before they found out from media reports. Even though I chose to remain anonymous at that time, it would have been painfully obvious who his victim was based on the timeline and his role in my life as my swim coach.
Conversations with my parents and grandparents were difficult, but figuring out what to share with my children seemed like an impossible task. They were in elementary school and middle school at the time, so I wondered what would be appropriate to share about my past. Complicating matters is that they knew my perpetrator. They, too, swam on his team, although he did not coach them personally.
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The ordeal of reporting the crime and speaking to my perpetrator about the numerous incidents of abuse had taken its toll on me. I ended up suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Flashbacks, dissociation, and episodes of emotional dysregulation had become my new normal. Making matters worse, my kids were the ages I was when I was abused. My twins were 9, my middle one was 10, and my oldest was 12. Oftentimes, my own children were triggers. At dinner, I would have to get up and go for walks just to avoid a meltdown at the table.
It did not take long for me to realize that I had to tell them something. Chapters on “How to Disclose Your Childhood Trauma to Your Own Children” don’t exist in parenting books. I told them the truth haphazardly. First, I told them I had gone back to Maryland to help the police solve a crime, not just to visit relatives. At that point, they had a slew of questions. What happened? What did I know? How was I able to help them? At that point, I had to tell the rest of the truth. I explained that I knew about the crime because I was the victim. I told them the nature of the crime—that I had been molested—and the name of the perpetrator.
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In a separate conversation, I explained the impact the abuse had on me. My children had already heard of PTSD since it is in the news so often in stories about war veterans. I explained that victims of other types of trauma can have PTSD as well. I tried to explain dissociation. It’s like leaving my body for a while, so I might be sitting on the sofa, but the rest of me really isn’t there. I explained flashbacks, reexperiencing the event, unable to realize I am actually safe.
These were certainly awkward conversations, way worse than “Where do babies come from?” and “What was that handout about HPV I saw in the doctor’s office?” My kids were creeped out. There really isn’t any other way to react to the reality of sexual abuse. It helped them to see that I was OK, despite the PTSD and stress of bringing my perpetrator to justice. I was open with them about getting help from counselors and other mental health professionals. That was an important lesson, too. There’s no shame in mental illness and no shame in being the victim of childhood trauma.
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Two years—and hours and hours of counseling later—I feel a lot more normal. I still have flashbacks and nightmares, but I am able to manage them a lot better. While sexual abuse isn’t a daily topic in our household, my children know that although I am a teacher, my main mission in life is reducing the shame and stigma surrounding sexual assault. I took the first step in that journey when I shared my painful past with those closest to me, including my children.