Healing from Child Sexual Abuse is a Lifetime Journey
“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, ‘cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters
I open this healing “peace” with prophetic words from the late Black feminist writer and my teacher Toni Cade Bambara because healing from child sexual abuse is “no trifling matter.”
I am an adult survivor of child sexual abuse (CSA) who was also raped during a study abroad program in my sophomore year in college.
While growing up, my paternal grandparents’ home was my second home because my divorced parents traveled extensively for their global human rights activist-work. When I was ten-years-old in 1979, my paternal step-grandfather began sexually molesting me. It lasted for two years. Shortly after Pop-pop began sexually abusing my prepubescent Black girl body, I cried out for help. When I told my parents that Pop-pop was molesting me, they wanted and needed to believe it wasn’t true.
My parents never confronted or held Pop-pop accountable, and they never told my grandmother. They never removed me from harm’s way. My parents’ actions or lack thereof taught me to endure the sexual abuse and lovingly engage with Pop-pop, the first man who took the night away from me. My CSA became a taboo subject that no one discussed with me. I was left to put the pieces back together as best I could. When the abuse ended, I didn’t receive an announcement. Throughout my adolescence and teenage years, I was always afraid Pop-pop would return to my bedroom at my grandparents’ home late at night. I both loved and feared Pop-pop. He was the devoted husband to my grandmother, the doting grandfather to his grandchildren, cherished family member, and also my sexual terrorist.
In my early adulthood, Pop-pop became the undisputed family hero because he almost single handedly took care of his wife, my Nana, around the clock for ten years while she declined with Alzheimer’s disease. Pop-pop’s decade-long selfless work in support of his wife (my Nana’s) care was phenomenal. And, yet it could never neutralize the impact of his reign of sexual terror on my life and the aftermath including my being raped in my sophomore year of college.
Based on the global statistics of sexual violence committed against humans, I don’t want to imply I wouldn’t have been raped as a young adult woman. Yet, I know my child sexual abuse was a primer for my rape by an acquaintance on a study abroad program in college.
I firmly believe child sexual abuse is both the frontier and the foundation of all forms of sexual violence. We will never eradicate adult rape, including campus rape if we do not work on eliminating child sexual abuse. Despite the current, heightened awareness and discussions around sexual violence, child sexual abuse, most notably in families, is still a very taboo topic. Contrary to popular belief, CSA and other forms of sexual violence committed against children and adults are not private, familial, and personal issues. We are in the midst of an epidemic in all communities. The assumption that CSA only or primarily affects cisgender girls is not true. Cisgender boys, transgender, and gender non-binary children are just as prone to be sexually abused in their families. Because of the impact of white supremacy, homophobia, audism, and ableism in society, survivors of color, queer and trans survivors, blind, deaf, hard of hearing, and/or disabled survivors all carry extra burdens of putting their families and caregivers before their own protection.
What happens in the family stays in the family.
Child sexual abuse is an epidemic that no one wants to believe happens in their family. If it is occurring, most of us, regardless of our race, gender identity, physical ability, sexuality, religion, and socioeconomics, are taught that we must protect the family institution at all costs.
If you don’t experientially know, imagine how child sexual abuse survivors are treated by their families when they break their silence both as children and as adults. Instead of addressing their pleas for help, they are too often maligned and even told they are mentally unstable. The reality is that many survivors are dealing with mental, emotional, and psychological challenges, which are either a direct byproduct of or compounded by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from being sexually abused or raped as children by family or other members in the designated circles of trust.
Healing from child sexual abuse is multilayered, delicate, relentless, patient, compassionate, self-loving, transformational, and ongoing work.
First, it’s imperative that you develop an unwavering belief that any sexual violence committed against you was not your fault. It is also essential to recognize that healing from child sexual abuse is not a one size fits all. What may work for multiple survivors may not work for you, and that’s fine.
Second, your healing and wellness can never be contingent on others. Holding the person(s) accountable for sexually abusing you or for allowing the sexual violence to occur/continue without attempting to disrupt or end it is a right that every survivor deserves. In an ideal world, everyone responsible for their direct roles as harm doer or bystander in child sexual abuse would express remorse, and be accountable for their actions. Tragically, this is a rarity. You may never receive the apology or accountability that you want and deserve. However, this should not prevent you from seeking help and pursuing healing. If you make your healing contingent on the actions of others, you may never get healed. Instead, you are giving them power over your wellness.
Third, your family of origin may be unable or unwilling to communicate about or be accountable for your child sexual abuse. If this is the case, it may be necessary to create and cultivate a chosen family or sacred community. This work will not prevent alienation from your family of origin, especially if they demand that you refrain from talking about your CSA. Your family of origin may directly or indirectly require you to choose them over your healing. Creating a chosen family and sacred community can hopefully circumvent isolation, but it will not prevent potential alienation from your family of origin. I do not believe we can or should do healing work alone. It’s essential to have relationships with others who support you and advocate for your healing.
Fourth, deep, cellular healing is layered, resulting in a slow process. Healing will not happen, instantaneously. Often, it is also intergenerational. View patience and time as your companions and closest friends. Please remember this, especially in this fast-paced digital age, whose pace increases every single day. The healing journey is not necessarily a linear one. Some days you may experience exponential progress, and other days you may experience a setback. All of it is par for the course. Take your time. Healing is not a sprint. It’s a long-distance run where the goal is continuing, not ending.
Fifth, I believe in utilizing the services of a mental health care professional and bodyworkers to support survivors on their healing journeys. If you are BIPOC, LGBTQIA, physically disabled, hard of hearing, deaf, blind, low income, it’s imperative to try to find and work with individuals who have a demonstrated, radical, intersectional framework from which they approach access to mental and physical healing from sexual violence. You do not want to be inadvertently re-victimized or traumatized because of someone’s lack of awareness and sensitivity around sexual violence and its’ direct relationship with race, gender, gender identity, physical ability, religion and socio-economics. To find local resources, check out ‘metoo.’ healing resource library
Love WITH Accountability™
My intentional healing journey began in October 1992 with my first appointment with Dr. Clara Whaley-Perkins, a licensed clinical psychologist. While I was seeking wellness, I didn’t start out talking about my childhood sexual abuse in any detail. Instead, I talked about my rape in college. While difficult, my rape was easier to discuss than my CSA. In 1994, I entered the anti-sexual violence movement as a documentary filmmaker in pre-production on NO! The Rape Documentary, my feature-length project on intra-racial sexual violence and healing in Black communities. In December 2002, I sat my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course, which marked the beginning of my continuously learning and applying Buddhist principles to heal my life, support and inform my cultural work.
Even with all of my psychological, cultural, and spiritual work in support of my wellness and the wellness of others, it wasn’t until Pop-pop became gravely ill in March 2010 that I cultivated the strength to begin fully excavating my childhood sexual abuse herstory and its’ detrimental legacy. The conscious and intentional pulling back layer upon layer reminded me of peeling an onion where each layer was more intense than the first one. I couldn’t have done that work without therapy with Dr. Whaley-Perkins, a daily meditation practice, activism, and my cultivated circle of trust. This layered work around my CSA was and still is by far the absolute hardest thing I’ve ever done, including surviving my rape in 1989, and proudly coming out as a Black feminist lesbian in 1990.
I unearthed the indelible imprint of the impact of child sexual abuse and its legacy on my life. By this time, Pop-pop had joined the ancestral world. However, in January 2015, I began demanding “love WITH accountability” from my mother and my father as my response to their bystanding roles to my childhood sexual abuse. My love for them would no longer shield them from my holding them accountable. It took my mother 37 years before she began her accountability journey with me in September 2016.
My “personal is political” healing work led to my developing and creating the #LoveWITHAccountability Project, whose focus is on the use of transformative storytelling by adult, diasporic Black child sexual abuse survivors, and advocates. Launched with an online forum on TheFeministWire.com in October 2016, Love WITH Accountability seeks to address healing from, disrupting, and ending the inhumane epidemic of child sexual abuse, humanely. My edited, 2019-released Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse anthology (AK Press) features writings by 40-diasporic Black survivors, advocates, and my mother, who writes about the horrible impact of parents/caregivers not believing their children when they disclose their child sexual abuse. Centering the expertise of Black child sexual abuse survivors and advocates, my edited anthology is a clarion call for accountability and healing from this pandemic
One consistent theme that I’ve experientially learned and witnessed over the past 26-years as a survivor-cultural worker in international movements to end all forms of sexual violence is that healing is a lifetime journey and never a destination.
Author’s Bio: Aishah Shahidah Simmons is the award-winning documentary filmmaker of the 2006-released film, NO! The Rape Documentary and the editor of the leading-edge, 2019-anthology Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse. Simmons’s long term-activism, cultural work, and scholarship are informed by her lived experiences as a child sexual abuse survivor, adult rape survivor, and Buddhist committed to preventing, disrupting, and ending the inhumane epidemics of sexual violence, humanely. She has presented her work and lectured extensively across North America, and in numerous countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. She is on Instagram and Twitter, @AfroLez