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The Stigma of Words

I've been thinking lately about silence and how it is the number one reason why childhood sexual abuse is epidemic. It is not a topic of conversation that people are comfortable with. As the founder of The Lamplighters, an international movement for recovery from incest and childhood sexual abuse, whenever a new chapter of The Lamplighters is formed I am as excited as a kid at Christmas who sees that bicycle she's been praying for waiting under the tree. I envision our world with Lamplighters in every country, my army of survivors and advocates helping others learn to tell their story.  That's what starts the healing, telling your story.

I'm also the author of two published books on recovery from incest and childhood sexual abuse: REPAIR Your Life and REPAIR For Kids.  A third book REPAIR For Toddlers will be released before the end of the year.  When I devised the REPAIR program I knew that the first thing one needs to do if they were sexually abused as a child was to Recognize what really did happen as exactly what it was. REPAIR is an acronym that stands for the stages of development that the program is about: Recognition, Entry, Process, Awareness, Insight and Rhythm.

There are many reasons why so many people can't do that first stage. "He was probably just playing doctor even though I didn't like it and fought back", My mother said grandpa was just a dirty old man and don't pay any attention to him when he chases me through the house, pulls up my blouse and plays with my boobs",I know what my Dad did to me was awful but it must have been my fault",My life isn't too bad even though I keep having nightmares about when my uncle forced me to play with his privates",I've learned to live with it",My husband said I should just forget it and get over it".

These are just a few of the excuses I've heard.  Some continue to replay their excuses in their head until one day the pain is so great that they pull the plug on life.It takes great courage to begin your story and even greater to use the words. The stigma of the words paralyzes us. I have friends that don't want to hear how the Lamplighters are doing.  In fact, most of them don't. If I tell them anyway they change the subject.  One friend not too long ago, when I was talking to her about the possibility of doing a series of talks in the hometown where my abuse happened, made the comment, "This doesn't really happen to very many people so I doubt if you'd have anyone interested."I was startled.  When I told her that just because someone hasn't told her what happened doesn't mean it didn't happen.  We're very good at keeping our secret. Another friend (in reference to the work I'm doing with the Lamplighters) said,"Isn't it nice that you have a hobby". Most get a stiff look as if they are preparing for a physical attack.  Those same people could hear a neighbor talk about the mugging she'd had in a local park.  She'd hear words like,"hit me,"bruises on my face", "stole my purse", and other descriptions of her terrible experience.  But if you were to use words like "raped me",incest", "my father was my perpetrator"and so on she would be shocked and that would be the end of the conversation.

I hate to think that part of the solution is to "normalize" what happens to us. We keep it locked in a secret room in our mind, one whose door we rarely open. Shortly before I began recovery I wrote a poem that so eloquently expressed what happens in the mind of someone who is on the verge of recovery from incest or childhood sexual abuse. I called it My Attic In Mind

My attic is filled with fragments of time, That make up the essence of me,
Memories of love and friendship and joy,And some I don't want to see,
Compartments I locked like a security guard,And watched so no entry was made,
Secrets of grief and stress that I chose,And lessons whose dues I have paid,
The contents are rich with scraps of my soul,And chapters I waded on through,
With hidden remains of skeletons there,And puzzles without any clue,
Sometimes at night, when I'm tired and lost, And the doors are bursting their seams,
All of the memories start screaming at me,From the depths of bottomless dreams,
Then the assault bursts forth, as the lock gives way,And pictures I've lost are reborn, Drenching my heart and splashing my soul, Leaving me weary and worn,
So I crawl up the stairs and open the door,And turn all the trunks on their side,
Tear open boxes rotted with age, Spill everything trying to hide,
Open the windows and look at the sun,And breathe in all I can find,
I remember it all, the essence of me,And savor my attic in mind.

In the 40s and before the word "alcoholic" was a shameful one.  We didn't use it.  Instead we referred to Daddy as "sick today".  We explained Uncle Ben's weird behavior on,"He's always been a bit odd". Or maybe we made sure that anyone who lived with us that was an alcoholic was kept in the back bedroom if there was company.  Today we can use words like alcohol, alcoholism, Twelve Step Program, Alcoholics Anonymous, hangover, the shakes and so on.  We normalized those words and brought help to millions of alcoholics. Can we do this with child sexual abuse? Do we have the courage to say, "He raped me while I was sleeping". "I need help for my incest issue". "The neighbor boy forced me to do oral sex on him when I was only 8".

These things happen and they happen every day to millions of children all over the world. Are we going to step away from this problem?  Are we going to continue to shun people who need our help because we are repulsed by their words? Can we leave a friend at lunch who tearfully said she needed help because of what her dad did to her sexually when she was a child and go home feeling yucky with thoughts of, "I wish she'd stop talking about that".Can we walk in our door and use our own yucky words like cursing when you can't find something, like saying "I hate you", to our sister and not see that the words are not important.  Doing something so that no one ever has to say those words again is what is important.  Not turning your back on family and friends who desperately need to tell you their story is what is important.