Finding My Voice as an Incest Survivor: Breaking the Silence of Incest
I didn't go to therapy because I was an incest survivor. I went to therapy because my life was a mess! My unresolved trauma was wreaking havoc on my life. I was married to a functioning alcoholic. My daughter had run away from home – twice. I was the “yes-girl” extraordinaire – always giving, giving, giving. I was angry all the time – exploding over little things like the toilet paper being put on the dispenser in the wrong direction. And, if I'm honest with myself, I was a shopaholic. What I discovered is that my unresolved trauma from being an incest survivor had taken control of my life and was causing all my issues.
I worked with my Transpersonal Psychologist on mother issues, father issues, ex-husband & current-husband issues, as well as my father's incest abuse from the age of 16 to 18. But there was one memory I chose not to go into no matter how many times my therapist asked me about it: the incest when I was 5. Though I wasn’t sure who it was at the time, I felt like it was no big deal. It was one time, he didn't hurt me. It was only 15 minutes. But, years later at 58, I was still a “yes-girl.” Meek and mild, I had no voice. So any time my therapist brought it up, I would choose not to discuss it. There were so many other issues that felt more pressing.
Silenced by my incest, I couldn't voice my opinions or ask for what I wanted. In fact, I didn't even know what I wanted! I'd been a “yes-girl” for so long, I had no clue who I was. No wonder I had no voice.
Often, I used writing as a healing modality. One morning as I finished my daily writing exercise, a little girl standing in the doorway flashed before my eyes. "Wow, I hadn't seen her in over a year," I thought to myself. "Who is she and why is she coming to me now?"
I'd done enough personal work to know this was a sign that I needed to pay attention to. So, I gathered my journal and my pen, practiced some deep breathing until I was calm and centered. I started writing...Tears streamed down my face as I relived those moments from my childhood.
For the first time, I allowed myself to remember everything, feel everything, see everything, hear every word that was said.
I saw the small trailer, the kitchen, the bedroom where everything happened. I wasn’t supposed to go into the room that my 18-month-old sister was sleeping in. My uncle took my hand and led me into the room with him. My 18-month-old sister laid on the bed. I remembered how it felt to have him touch me at the young age of 5. Suddenly I knew that it was my uncle who molested me at that young age.
We heard the front door open. We knew it was my parents coming home so he was out of there in a flash saying “put your underwear back on and come out.” I stood in the doorway, afraid to walk out into the kitchen. My uncle stood by the kitchen sink as though nothing happened. "Will they still love me?" I wondered. I felt that I'd done something wrong. Even though my uncle took me by the hand and led me in there– even though I said “no.”
I knew I'd disobeyed my parents when I walked into that room, as they’d specifically told me, “Don’t go in the bedroom, you’ll wake up Jeannette.” I was getting in trouble and he just stood there. My parent’s sat at the kitchen table. "We told you not to go in the bedroom so that you wouldn’t wake up Jeannette". I heard my mother say. Tears streamed down my face as I tried to explain. "Don't talk back," my father said. I was silenced.
"Why didn't my uncle tell them he took me in the bedroom?" I wondered. I made a decision in that moment that in order to be loved, I had to be anything anyone wanted me to be and to do anything anyone wanted me to do.
I became “the good little girl” at home, at school, with friends. As I got older, I became a “yes-girl” at work and in close relationships. I married a man who was abusive, but didn’t realize it was abusive behavior for many years. The fear of being unloved and unaccepted always stood in the back of my mind. Always saying “yes” when I meant “no.” I took on the belief systems of those around me even though I didn't agree with them. I didn't know who I really was or what I believed in.
Unable to voice or even know my own opinion, "Will they still love me?" was my mantra for over 50 years. I lacked self-confidence. Even with my second husband, if I did something I felt he wouldn't agree with, guilt would ensue.
I lived by the decision of that 5-year-old until I finally allowed myself to go back there. Allowed myself to remember – to feel it, to heal it. Fifteen minutes had changed the track of my life from a joyful little girl to one who would live the next fifty years as a “yes-girl” who had no clue who she was.
When I stopped writing that day, I felt a weight that I didn't know I'd been carrying lifted from my shoulders as I realized I was still living by the decision I'd made when I was five. I now knew that I no longer needed to live by that decision.
In that defining moment, I knew it was time to empower other women who'd been through the same. I knew unequivocally that I had to help other survivors find their voice. It took a while to change my long-standing habits. But today, I empower women to become more confident, feel comfortable in their skin, and be seen and heard. I help them shatter the long-held silence of their sexual abuse. I am the founder of Voices Heard – the interactive e-Zine that empowers sexual abuse survivors to shatter their long-held silence through story-telling and expressive arts. My hope is that they heal not just themselves, but others as well through sharing their story.
If you or someone you know is an incest survivor, don't wait like I did until you're 58 to heal from your unresolved trauma. I understand how incredibly challenging it can be to confront memories of incest abuse, but I encourage you to find the support to do so as soon as you can. You deserve to heal. If you need resources, if you’re struggling with feeling unseen and unheard, if you’re uncomfortable in your skin or searching for more self-confidence, reach out. If you’re still silent about your abuse don’t stay silent any longer. Your voice deserves to be heard.
- Claire O'Leary
Claire O’Leary shatters the silence of sexual abuse and empowers survivors to become more confident, feel comfortable in their skin, and be seen and heard. She is the founder of the Empowered Voice Traveling Exhibit, which she created to empower the voice of sexual abuse survivors, as well as the Voices Heard interactive e-Zine that empowers sexual abuse survivors to shatter their silence through story-telling and expressive arts.
Claire shares her own story as a Speaker, Mentor, and Advocate. She lives in Colorado with her husband and enjoys being a mother and grandmother to her adorable grandson. She’s an avid reader, meditates and dances her heart out any time she can.