I never suspected that my statistically common lack of self-esteem, depression and anxiety was rooted on sexual abuse. I thought I was just one of the rest of my fellow female population with body image issues and poor self-esteem. I had never been raped or molested by a man, so the case never occurred to me during my psychological screenings. It wasn’t until a year into my journey of self-improvement, during a deep meditation session, that I associated my distressed feelings with the memories of my grandmother examining my vagina as a child and later touching my breasts as an early blooming ten year old.
The realization was absolutely shocking, so much so that I couldn’t quite grasp that what had happened to me could be called sexual abuse. I came from a Mexican household where touch was very common, and my grandmother was an OBGYN by trade, which made boundaries very confusing. “This is normal!” she’d tell me when I’d push her away. “I’m just taking a look, I am your family, it's ok.” As a kid, I couldn’t help but trust her words; after all, she was the only adult I had for a good number of years while both my parents were working abroad. For years she’d gotten up early to make me breakfast and take me to school. She paid for my beloved ballet lessons and had gotten me every kitten I had loved as a kid. I admired her too for who she was; I loved her courage for being such a strong leader in medicine and social justice through the retrograde 1950’s Mexican society.
Still, I knew something was off when she’d say those words with a hungry tone, when she would strip in front of me, when she’d describe other girls’ bodies sensually, or insist on us showering together or sleeping in the same bed. The emotional enmeshment was plainly screwed up to me all along, as she would send me love letters or describe me as her “true love.” But how can a child make sense of that? I started pushing her away early and finally banned her from making any physical contact with me by the time I was eleven, to which she’d react violently, but by then I was too quick and rebellious for her.
As a young teen, I’d become heavily confused and thus, filthy-mouthed, sarcastic and, I’m ashamed to admit, cruel to her. I think I was looking for some sort of reaction from her, some admittance that our relationship was broken, but I often got nothing. She’d tell everyone we knew that I was a loving, obedient child, the most perfect girl in the world. She, to this day, addresses me as nothing else but “Mi amor lindo y adorado”—“My lovely, adored love;” no f**king joke. Those words still give me a nauseous cringe. The few times I was mean enough to get some sort of acknowledgement of our dysfunction, I got blamed as an unthankful child, and her confusion and heartbreak towards my behavior seemed genuine. At this point I’d feel guilty, as I was battling an old lady in crippling health who had worked every day of her life since she was sixteen and who genuinely loved me after all. I think that’s when the serious self-loathing took hold as well as the compulsive lying.
Still, I was functional. A straight-A student, a scholarship winner, a competitive dancer. It wasn’t until that meditation day that I realized the extent of the damage. The chronic depression, the disordered eating, the codependence, the complete inability to build lasting friendships or relationships, the painful and ashamed sex with men, they were all there. As I came out of the trance in a panicked state, I remembered The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass as the classic title for sexual abuse cases, so I left my house immediately and drove straight to my college campus’ library for a copy. At that point, and sometimes to this day, I felt like I did not have the right to complain or identify as a survivor. I was not violently raped like so many brave women who have spoken up. The first page of Bass’ work, however, brought things home: "No matter how small, how subtle, molestation is molestation and it is incredibly destructive."
“It was your fault,” were my mother’s words when I mentioned to her some of what had happened. Thanks to Bass’ book, I knew that that was not true and instead of hanging up the phone, I asked her what she meant. “You should have told me, I would have stopped it,” she answered, and I realized that this was my fellow codependent, anxious, frightened mother speaking; refusing to believe that her mother had molested her only daughter for years while she was away working. I let the subject drop and we never talked about it again. She finally stopped harassing me about calling my grandmother more often.
It’s been almost five years since that day and the progress from then has been significant. I binge eat much less frequently, I seldom feel the need to lie, I have experienced pleasurable sex, I have taken up running and yoga and learned to love my body. Still, I have not been able to make sense of my experience and carry around a bad taste in my mouth and a heaviness in my chest that sometimes doesn’t let me leave bed. I thought for a while I had made peace with this; that I had forgiven my erratic, unexplainable, loving, fighting yet sexually abusive grandmother, and myself for loving and hating her so passionately for so long. However, spending the last few weeks around her, my mother and my evangelical stepfather has sent me down the spiral again and I could use some help from this community.
How have you released this kind of trauma? How have you found peace? Have you confronted your abuser? Whoever you are, whatever you’ve been through, your words and shared experience would make a world of difference to me. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.