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SHEsurvivors: Sexual Abuse, Survival, and Thriving in the After

CW: sexual abuse


Our last piece in our #SHESurvivors series is written by Sarah Payne, a young boss SHE and mother of two who lived through one of a parent’s greatest fears: her daughter was sexually abused by family members. Sarah has decided to speak openly about this experience, refusing to stay anonymous and risk protecting the person who abused her daughter:

“With October being an awareness month, as well as the recent landscape of social media being permeated with stories of sexual assault, I think it is imperative to give tools, encouragement, and hope considering any kind of abuse, but especially sexual.

We all know someone in the #MeToo movement, but do we really know their story and why it is crucial that we speak up and speak out against sexual violence?  I’ve chosen this piece to not be anonymous for a few reasons. First, I’m incredibly proud of my family and the way we’ve chosen to handle the challenges we’ve faced over the last decade. While many would call my daughter a survivor of sexual assault, I would call her an ultra-thriver.  She is smart, wise beyond her years, compassionate, kind, driven, successful, and focused. Sexual assault has not defined her, nor confined her. I want our story to give hope to other survivors and thrivers that there is life after a sexual assault and it is fulfilling and full of joy if you make it so. Lastly, anonymity of victims gives perpetrators the unspoken permission to continue.  When you anonymize a story, you give the perpetrator the peace of mind that no one will hold them accountable or make them stand in the spotlight for their crimes.

There is no shame in being a victim of sexual violence. It is past time that we change the culture of questioning or shaming sexual assault survivors.  They deserve a voice and to be buoyed up by our support.  They deserve our encouragement and unconditional love. I believe this is the way we will assist a survivor in becoming a thriver. I’m honored to be a contributor to Young&BosSHE’s blog and hope that the rawness of my experience will bring understanding, acceptance, and love to whatever your story is.”

In 2010, my then 4-year-old daughter came to her father and I and disclosed some earth-shattering news.  During the year prior, her paternal grandparents had sexually molested her.  While the details would bring anyone to their knees, they are less important now. At the time, we’d been dealing with very troubling aggression and anger with our daughter, seemingly overnight.  Finally, I at least had an idea of what could make a 4-year-old scream in anger for 4-6 hours at a time. Finally, I had some sort of explanation as to why she had such extreme separation anxiety.

After about a week of sleepless nights and a few therapy sessions to figure out what to do next, my daughter’s father and I decided to report the incident.  No matter who the perpetrator is, sexual abuse is NEVER acceptable. We wanted, no, needed to send a very clear message to our daughter and to the world: sexual abuse is always crime–regardless of relation between the victim and the perpetrator(s).

With reporting came hours of phone calls, interviews, tears, anger, frustration, and retelling the same incredibly painful story multiple times to multiple people we’d never even met before.  All of this alongside the continued struggle with one (rightly so) very angry little girl. I wish someone had warned and then offered to sit through the nightmare with me; I was vastly unprepared for what reporting would entail and with what parenting would be like after something this traumatic.

The reporting process coupled with my already in-process marital separation made me feel as though my head was going to explode with stress and anger at everyone and everything. I remember lying in bed one night, headphones in, trying to ignore every aspect of my reality while blaring Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down”.  I truly was at the gates of hell and there was no easy way out.  In a world that kept pushing me and my beautiful little girls around, I knew I had to stand my ground and not back down. I remember around the same time reading the children’s book “We’re Going On A Lion Hunt” to my girls at bedtime and thinking it was the same message; there is no other way around this except straight through it. Looking back, I know that something in the universe had shuffled my old iPod onto that song, and led my girls to picking that book; those messages brought me strength and resolve when I felt the most alone and unsure of every part of my existence.

Another thing that kept coming back was how grateful I was that our daughter told her father and me.  I’m so grateful for the openness and communication we cultivated with both of our daughters since the time they could speak. It was because of this communication and the no-shame-about-any-topic policy we parented with, that our daughter could tell us in real terms, exactly what had happened.  Because of this, we had a frank, factual conversation with law enforcement.  I will never forget the detective telling me how she wished all parents would teach their children anatomically correct words because when they don’t, her job becomes that much more difficult and cases are harder to work.

In the end, we decided not to continue with charges because of the lax laws for perpetrators in our jurisdiction and in talking with other families that had been through the trial process and reported it to be miserable for children. For us, this was the right decision because we needed to move forward with life, instead of being stuck in a lengthy court process. For others, this wasn’t their “right”. I’m still in awe at the families we met and the many years they spent fighting a system that often feels way less than just for sexual assault victims. I think it is imperative to note that this reporting/prosecution process looks so different for everyone, but whatever your choice, it is the right one for you and your family. Often victims feel powerless, and it was important for our family to gain back the control of leading a normal life.

Normal life looks a lot different than I’d originally imagined adulthood, motherhood and parenthood to be.  We are ultra-vigilant now about strangers, about personal boundaries, child-driven affection, and about managing our emotions. We have a secret code word for when the girls feel like they need an emergency excuse in any situation and they know they can text, call, or say this word anytime.  Both girls have taken self-defense classes before age 10. Both girls do not know what it is like to have grandparents now either, as we gave up many family relationships as part of our experience.

But, nearly a decade later and my anger and desperation have turned into many other emotions far less destructive. I’m amazed at my daughter’s resilience. I am in awe at the relationship my girls have together and the support they give each other.  Their sisterhood is unlike any other sister relationship I’ve seen. I have triumphed countless fears and personal struggles since this incident that have made me a more agile and capable human being.

Lastly, I am grateful. I have watched in utter disbelief the way my girls both fearlessly stand up for others and speak up when they see something wrong. They are strong and courageously driven to do what is right.  I also have stood up in numerous ways, including volunteering my time, becoming a certified victim advocate for victims of sexual assault, and dedicating my resources to helping others through similar experiences.  From this experience, we’ve been fortunate enough to take away the priceless gifts of advocacy, understanding, compassion, and love. Those gifts may not have come the way I initially imagined or would have preferred, but for this, we are a grateful family.  In the face of sexual assault, we are thrivers.

If you or someone close to you have been sexually assaulted, please know that there are resources that can help. A great place to start is with RAINN (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network).Wherever you are in the process of healing, know that you aren’t alone, you aren’t at fault, and you deserve to ultra-thrive.

SHE’s everywhere, this one’s for you!

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