Trigger Warning: depictions of sexualized violence
*The following story is a client composite built incorporating the experiences of many real survivors. A composite was created for privacy.
SSAIC’s #HolidayGivingCampaign 2020 – Jill’s Story
My name is Jill; I am an adult who identifies as female. Throughout my life, I’ve experienced sexualized violence multiple times, and these experiences have impacted every facet of my life: my physical and mental health, my family, my employment, my friendships and my intimate relationships. Thanks to SSAIC, I’m beginning to get my life back. This is my story.
I was 6 years old when my uncle sexually abused me for the first time, and he continued to sexually abuse me for the next 9 years. I never told anyone. I loved my uncle, and so did the rest of my family, so I didn’t know how to make sense of the awful things he did to me. I was scared to share what was happening to me with anyone because I didn’t think anyone would believe me, and I didn’t want to cause a rift in my family. These are things my abuser told me would happen, and I believed him. When I turned 15, the abuse gradually stopped. I didn’t know why. I also never knew why he chose me to abuse me in the first place. He told me it was because I was special, so I thought that maybe the abuse stopped because I wasn’t special anymore.
After the abuse started, I became a very moody child (what was later in my life labelled as anxiety and depression). I tended to overreact or underreact to situations; I rarely felt that my responses to circumstances or to people were considered normal or appropriate. Sometimes large chunks of time would pass by when I wouldn’t really be present, which impacted my learning. I remember all my teachers telling me how much potential I had; I felt stupid for not living up to it. Other times, I would have outbursts in school, so I would get in trouble with my teachers and then with my parents. I had a really hard time making and maintaining friends because my behaviour was so unpredictable. This erratic behaviour carried from the day into the night where I began to have difficulty falling and staying asleep. My relationship with my parents was greatly impacted. They didn’t know how to help me because they didn’t really know what was wrong. I carried these impacts with me into adolescence and adulthood.
The sexual abuse is was experiencing from my uncle had stopped, but the impacts had not. In highschool, I began skipping and got farther and farther behind in my classes. My childhood dream of going to university seemed like it belonged to someone else. I started binge drinking and using marijuana to help me to sleep and to cope with all the emotions and difficulties I was experiencing. I didn’t know how to make things better. I worried about what the result would be if I told someone what happened to me. Fear of the unknown convinced me that telling would make things worse not better, so I kept the secret. I used self-harm to numb my pain, and I struggled with suicidal thoughts. In grade 10, I was sexually assaulted by a friend in his car. We were all drinking at a house party, and when he offered to drive me home, I accepted without thinking twice; I thought I could trust him. This experience led me to question my own judgement and evaluations of people. Now, in addition to not trusting others, I didn’t really trust myself.
I told no one about this assault. I isolated myself, sinking into a deep depression; I’d sleep for days, not eat, shower, or sleep, and cry a lot. My parents were worried, but when their efforts to help me didn’t work, their worry turned to frustration and anger. Whatever self-esteem I had at this point plummeted; I felt ashamed of the assault, and of what others would think about it. I didn’t think I was worthy of help or support, let alone love. I believed that there must be something wrong with me because if there wasn’t something wrong with me, why did this keep happening? It was after this assault I really remember my intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks starting. At random points throughout my day, I’d be flooded with memories of the childhood abuse or recent assault, and I’d struggle for hours afterward to calm my mind and body. My substance use increased; I wasn’t able to sleep or to cope with each new day without it.
As a young adult, I was frequently sexually harassed in the street by strangers, at bars by random men, and at my first few serving jobs by customers and employers. Honestly, most of this harassment didn’t compare to the abuse I’d experienced as a child, but each of these situations triggered me, which I didn’t realize at the time. In many respects, I accepted this behaviour as normal, but at the same time, each time I was harassed generated an internal reaction like I was being molested all over again. I couldn’t picture a life where sexualized violence wasn’t a normal part of my day-to-day. My substance use continued in response, and most of my relationships with friends and family continued to deteriorate.
After a string of boyfriends, who, in hindsight, were all abusive to me in one way or another, I married my now ex-husband. I’d only known him for eight months, but he was the nicest man I’d ever been with. My family pressured me to “settle down”, and I was hopeful that marriage would protect me. We had been married for 6 months when things started to gradually change. It was so gradual that at first I didn’t notice, and I certainly didn’t see the behaviours as the “red flags” that I do now. Over time, he became increasingly manipulative, threatening, and eventually violent, both physically and sexually. Once again, I told no one, and dealt with the abuse and the shame in private for years.
Through early adulthood, I continued to struggle with developing healthy relationships and found it difficult to trust others as well as myself. I had difficulties with sexual intimacy, often experiencing triggers during sex. I had challenges with knowing and maintaining healthy boundaries; I never said “no” to people I wanted to like me. At some family events, when I knew my abusive uncle would be there, I either wouldn’t go or experienced great anxiety and would suddenly leave. I still have a strained relationship with various family members, including my parents, due to the impacts of sexualized violence that I have experienced and that they don’t know about.
My world changed when my abusive uncle was charged with abusing another young girl. I was horrified and flooded with guilt that I had never told anyone about him abusing me; perhaps if I had told, he wouldn’t have hurt anyone else. Feeling overwhelmed with my secret, I told a close friend about my history of sexual violence. She was incredibly supportive and gently encouraged me to see a counsellor. I resisted for a while but eventually agreed to therapy. That’s when my friend brought me to SSAIC.
I told my counsellor everything, but not all at once. It took me several sessions to fully open up and share my whole story. My counsellor validated my experiences, allowed me to cry, and didn’t push me to tell my story before I was ready. They taught me about triggers and flashbacks, and how to manage them. They shed light on so many other impacts I’d experienced that I would never have connected to the violence I endured. In addition, they were able to refer me to other healthcare professionals. I was able to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder, general anxiety disorder and depression and helped create a suitable treatment plan with me.
There were approximately 23 years between my first experience of sexualized violence to when I accessed counselling services for the first time here at SSAIC.
I’m now in my 30’s, single, and working to heal the trauma from my past. I’ve developed a strong network of professional and personal supports, which I couldn’t have done without the assistance of SSAIC. For the first time, I have hope for my future – I feel worthwhile and capable of having a future. SSAIC absolutely saved my life and also provided me with the support needed to find joy in this life.
While Jill is not a real individual, her story represents the reality of many. The abuse that Jill experienced in childhood happens to 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys before the age of 18. In addition, many of the impacts and barriers to accessing support that Jill faced throughout her life are common experiences of survivors.
This holiday season, please consider donating to SSAIC to save and enhance the lives of survivors in our community. Your support makes a difference.