Breaking Free of Silence and Shame

By Dani BostickJune 15, 2015

This post was originally published on Huffington Post.

At 36 I walked into a police station and reported a crime that happened nearly three decades ago. In doing so, I gave voice to the voiceless child who endured years of sexual abuse by her swim coach. Through a phone sting, he confessed to the crimes, was arrested, and was ultimately sentenced to prison. While it was a relief to know the community was protected from this perpetrator, the biggest relief was unburdening myself of the secret I had carried for so long.

An estimated one in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. It took me nearly three decades to come to terms with my own abuse. When I finally faced the reality of my childhood, I felt ashamed, defective, and isolated. I knew the statistics. Others endured what I had. Where were they, though? I’d walk through the grocery store and think, “There are seven people here in the checkout area. Who can relate to my experience? I can’t be alone in this.”

Few disclose their abuse to anyone, and when they do, they present themselves as empowered and strong, avoiding the word “victim.” Looking up this definition, though, I am indeed a person harmed, injured — even destroyed — as the result of a crime. I am a victim. I am victim who suffers from PTSD as a result of abuse. I am a victim who reported her crime to police and saw her perpetrator handcuffed at his sentencing. I am also a victim who has a name and a face. Underneath my strong façade there has been pain and suffering.

Most victims of sexual assault remain nameless and faceless, bearing their burden alone, unable to face the reality of their abuse. While the perpetrators are the real criminals, victims often feel as if they have done something wrong, burdened by a sense of shame and the horrors of their past. Post-traumatic stress and feelings of shame can lead to suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, feelings of depression and anxiety, and failed relationships, all of which revictimize men and women with abuse histories. The abuse would be bad enough, but living with the fallout — particularly alone and in silence — can be even more painful and devastating. Denial and numbness can help manage the pain, but constricted range of emotion and living life with a mask can also be disruptive.

I was not a person when I first reported my crime. I was depersonalized. I was not Danielle Bostick. I was Victim A. I have never introduced myself to anyone as Victim A, and I certainly prefer people call me Dani or Danielle, not Victim. To me “Victim A” said, “There is something wrong with you. We will hide you.” While anonymity facilitates the reporting of a sex crime, I resented it. Why should I hide when I’m not the one who did anything wrong?

There are many reasons the majority of victims keep their abuse history secret. During a sexual assault, victims are left both voiceless and powerless. Victims often carry this sense of impotence with them when it comes to their assaults even if they feel empowered in other areas of their lives. It is not unusual for victims to either not form clear memories of the event, or bury the memories shortly thereafter. Victims can also become detached from the event and view it as if it had happened to someone else. So even those who would be inclined to report their abuse to law enforcement do not have much to work with. Others remember their trauma and keep the secret out of shame, fear of judgment, or because confronting their abuse would disrupt their family dynamic. Victims, often taught to lie or cover up the abuse, might not even trust themselves or their own memories and work to create a life story that does not involve such devastating experiences.

Until recently, I — like most victims — participated in a code of silence, burying all memories of my traumatic childhood, feeling a deep sense of shame, and walking through life burdened by a secret I was keeping from everyone — even myself. While for a long time I didn’t have conscious awareness of this secret, it has always had a pervasive and profound impact on my identity and way of functioning. Even when I was keeping the secret from myself, the effects of my sexual abuse were extensive and consuming. I think the best metaphor is gravity. I can deny all day long that there is no gravity, or even be unaware of the concept, but the results of gravity are evident because I am not floating away. Even when I have denied it, trauma has been as real and powerful a force as gravity in my life.

When a house is robbed, there is property missing. After a physical assault, there are generally visible injuries. Sexual assault is a largely invisible crime, and my hope is to disrupt the culture of shame and silence that surrounds it. The default should not be that victims ignore resolving their personal trauma at the expense of their mental health and community’s safety. Disclosing the abuse and naming the trauma can put victims on the path to healing instead of the shadowy path of shame and secrecy.

I’ve had to expand my definition of strength — stoicism and numbness are not strength. Strength is confronting the scariest parts of our pasts, even if it is messy. Even if it involves tears and anger. Even if it — at times — overwhelms us. Strength can be abject brokenness, but it is also self-acceptance and hope for a healthier future.

Many have shared my experience, yet I have met so few. Who is like me?

If you need help, please visit our FIND HELP page or call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. You can also find RAINN’s online hotline here.

Dani Bostick is a psychotherapist in Colorado Springs who works with individuals, couples, and families. A Maryland native and former Latin teacher, Dani now devotes most of her energy to disrupting the culture of shame and silence surrounding sexual abuse and assault. She uses the rest of her energy to take her dogs to the dog park, dominate her fantasy football league, and write about football for Behind the Steel Curtain and Crooked Scoreboard. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.


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Comments (12)

  1. holly

    I have been going through the messy process of actually speaking about it….healing. 15 years after it happened. You are definitely not alone.

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  2. Mary

    Hey Dani,
    I am like you. My step father’s brother groomed this lonely, often unloved young girl for years when our family would visit their family during summer vacation. After about 4 years the grooming(emotional build up) became physical when he _________ me-this while his own daughter lay sleeping in the same room, my parents, younger brother, his son, and his wife lay asleep down the hall.
    Thank you for letting me share.

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  3. Mary

    This is the very first time I am saying this publicly. I was sexually assaulted more than once starting at age 4 by one person. That was in 1953. I kept it secret for 48 years, until 2000. It has taken me 15 years to try to come to grips with those events and deal with the damage and the loss of parts of myself. I am 65 years old and looking forward to feeling whole again. No one really understands. But I see that you do. That is a monumental relief to me. Thank you.

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  4. Jill

    I was raped in college… The usual bit of underaged drinking, he said she said and what I can recall/remember was the issue back in 1993. Even today, the law hasn’t changed much, the feeling of shame and the constant its his word over hers is still equally valid. PTSD is more common now than ever for various reasons; war veterans, Boston bombing, 9/11, violence & crime. Back when I had dropped out of college because of PTSD it was unheard of & a form of guilt. Guilt of what? Drinking – yes. Asking for a man to punch me in the face and rape me in the woods – no! I was embarrased to be known as “the girl that wandered back to her room to avoid looks on campus with a black eye, bloody lip and ripped clothes”, I cried every night, because I lost my virginity to a selfish man. And I had nightmares of the woods. No one understands unless they are a victim too. The woman that took my case was a raped victim too. She could see something in me that no one else could. She said “its a small flame, just waiting to grow… It burns deep inside. If you continue to be your rapist’s victim the flame will disappear/extinguish. Or you make it grow by overcoming this experience. It is your choice, you control it…”

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  5. b.e. noll

    Thanks for sharing this. Especially for sharing that you “hid it from yourself”. I didn’t know anyone else ever did that. It has taken years to heal. [& a few therapists] Still, to borrow from U2: “some days are better than others”. I still look for exits. I still see ordinary objects as things to defend myself with. Though I had some scars, thankfully they are gone. I’ll never forget telling my wife the details, 10+ years after our wedding [I hope I never hear another human cry like that again. It’s burned on my heart forever]. Over the past 8+ years I’ve told several people, & still have a friend’s kind words, from a message left on my phone. I replay it every so often.
    All that to chime in on the “you are not alone” comments here.
    Which makes me think of a scene from an X-men movie.
    Professor X: [to Wolverine] “So you see Logan, we’re not as alone as you think.”

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  6. anonymous

    I’m like you. I have been sexually abused by three different men in my life. Only one got punished for his actions, he may have gotten more punishment but he was the first man outside of my father that I trusted, so I lied to the police. That remains my biggest regret in life.

    Thank you for the work you do to diminish the shame we feel.

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  7. C.

    Two days ago I told someone about something that happened to me four years ago. They were the first person I’ve told, and it’s still hard for me to even allow myself to accept that it happened. I have felt so incredibly lost and overwhelmed and bewildered since then, and part of me has wished that I had just stayed silent. Reading this today helped me more than you can know. The worst part is feeling like you are so alone in this, and I completely agree, even though you know statistically speaking that there are so many others who have gone through something themselves, you still feel very much alone. Your words captured my feelings and my struggle extremely well and it helped me feel more whole than I have in days. Thank you for sharing.

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  8. Tammy

    This story is incredible. My mom told me recently that she had lied to me about pressing charges on my predator when I was little. His mother doesn’t even know what he did. I remember it. I looked him up and he has children. I know the laws are different now than how they were 23 years ago. Your story is powerful. This has been one of many things that have haunted me the past 23 years.

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  9. geenie

    I am like you

    Reply  |  
  10. Fruityy

    I’m like u …

    Reply  |  
  11. Tiffany

    Thank you for posting!!! <3

    Reply  |  
    1. Tiffany

      I think it is great that you are a psychotherapist. We need more people in your field. And a way to be able to reach more people who may be suffering in low cost+ easily accessible ways!

      Reply  |  
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