The Burden of His Secret: Life Beyond Sexual Trauma
By: Donna Weathers
I can never truly be me. Never truly be my whole self to everyone that knows me. To do so would be to betray his secret. I live a disingenuous life. I can name less than five people that know all yet none of them know the whole of it and two are no longer part of my life. I’ll be the first to repost the “Live your true life” meme and the first to say “screw them, you do you!” Yet, I’ve never been too keen on telling his secret since to do so would completely wreck the lives of innocent bystanders that buried him with grief and love and despair. They lamented his death. I lived for it. They praise his life. I grew to pity him. They lovingly reminisce his past. I eye it with distrust. He’s been dead for almost eight years, but I still hold myself back to protect them. I cannot write even a simple family cookbook for fear they will question his absence from the stories and photos.
I long to tell my mom that the hatred I spewed at her actually was harsher than the typical pre-teen angst. That at the time I truly did hate her and blame her for what I’d gone through, but not now. I long to tell her it’s ok, that the adult me knows it was not her fault and that I know she tried to help me but I couldn’t let her then. I need for her to know why. To tell her this now, though, would do nothing but scrape and pick at the wounds left by my teenage self. I try to convince myself that she would want to finally know that the lies, the manipulation, the acting out, the promiscuity — that they were all his fault. But to tell her that much would be to tell her the whole truth, that he capitalized on an opportunity created by her choices, and that’s what she would hear, that it is her fault. That’s the truth she would latch on to. She would acknowledge the trauma, perhaps, but since she experienced her own (as she shared with me much later) she would not focus on this. Nothing is gained in my telling her, because she already holds herself so responsible, she already blames herself unnecessarily for each of her children’s failings.
I’m not the only person in the world with a secret. I’m not even the only person I know with a secret. What I experienced was not as physically or even mentally traumatic as what other have gone through. I never blamed myself. I never used it as a crutch or an excuse for future bad behavior — it wasn’t until well into adulthood that I even considered that some of my acting out was a result of the abuse. Yet what I experienced shaped who I am and has impacted my life in far-reaching ways. But no one knows that. I am often described as “independent” and “strong-willed” and “determined”. I’ve got skills and talents and interests to fill an encyclopedia. Because of the abuse and manipulation I endured at the hands of a sad pathetic excuse of a man — someone I was expected to love and respect and admire even until his last breath, I was able to see later sexual trauma for what it was and not let it define me. But it did define me, all of it did, just in ways that couldn’t be shared or politely described. Could I have been as competitive as I was in the “man’s” Navy if I hadn’t learned the art of dickery and emotional detachment? Would I be the bold person I am now if I hadn’t needed to be bold in my youth? Would I dare to live the life I live now if I hadn’t grown up so young?
How genuine can a person be if they are hiding part of who they are? Does it really matter to anyone but the person? How well can you truly know a person if you don’t know their past? Does it matter? No one is perfect. No one doesn’t have a past. To know a person superficially, to enjoy their company, respect their work, seek them out for advice…all of that is possible without knowing their past, their secrets. But to make a genuine connection, to really know a person is to know everything. The raw bits that make up the whole.
Over the years, the familial connections have eroded because I didn’t trust them or myself enough to share my secret. Not the kind of trust that keeps you from leaving your wallet out, but the kind of trust that preserves your sanity, the trust that protects your heart. I have never trusted my mother to respond appropriately. I’ve never trusted my extended family to believe me. So we have superficial connections. There are unspoken boundaries that are never tested. Maybe flirted with in fits of weakness or rage, but never tested. I didn’t see the value in the sacrifice until it was too late.
And so it is with romantic relationships. Ever the aggressor in my hormone-frenzied youth, ever on the offense lest I be taken advantage of, I kept the boys at arm’s length, and even the men as I matured. I was driven to “man up” because those were the survivors. I was holding a man’s secret; I was playing a man’s game. I latched on to the ones that I couldn’t have because they could be trusted most of all — trusted to do exactly what I had learned they would do — betray me. But to outsiders, the ones that don’t know my track record, I’m just a strong woman with high standards. Loyal to a fault but not one to settle.
And yet I have settled. I’ve settled for a lesser me. I’ve settled for a partial self. I’ve settled because it is safe. It’s easier to hold the secret than to share it with those that love me. It’s easier to let them see who they think I am than to be who I really am. How else could I have stood, saluting the flag-draped coffin while taps played? How else could I have researched, commissioned, and paid for his shadow box to honor his military service? How else can I sit and listen to the family stories about him?
I am a survivor of childhood sexual trauma. I am also a survivor of drug-facilitated sexual assault. I protected the former to gain access to my estranged father. I protected the latter because it was the early 90's in a man’s Navy and I’d been somewhere I probably shouldn’t have been. Later, I worked for victims to redeem myself. Now, slowly, I hope to reveal my true self and live a genuine life. I fear many people will have to pass before that goal is fully realized.
This isn’t a story you tell for entertainment. It isn’t even one you really tell at all, yet I feel compelled to share it despite not knowing who my audience is. Maybe it’s just me, allowing myself to be me to those that would listen without judgment. Without pity. I definitely don’t want pity. Is there a lesson? Is there something for someone else to gain? Courage to be themselves, maybe. To be what I haven’t been? I don’t think I am defined by the trauma I experienced, but we are the sum of our experiences, right?