I’m trying to write a chapter on coming out as an incest or child sexual assault survivor for the book.
There are a lot of reasons to come out, and a lot of reasons not to. I’m not going to say one is always better than the other. You need to decide for yourself what you’re up for and what you need. What I believe is that the situation, persons involved, purpose and your own tolerance for social isolation all have bearing on when and to whom you should disclose you are an abuse survivor.
Coming out is good for you
Coming out can get you social support and people that get you. It can reduce the chances of being scapegoated by people who seem to sense it when you hold yourself apart and separate. Being closeted isn’t good for your health. A study of gay people, for example, comparing those who keep their sexuality secret and those come out found that
“Lesbians, gays, and bisexuals who were out and open about their sexuality had fewer signs of anxiety, depression, and burnout (i.e. emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and [lack of] feelings of personal accomplishment), and lower cortisol levels [the stress hormone], than those who were still closeted to friends and family.”
It can be hard to have a simple social conversation while trying to hide the fact that you are not in contact with an abusive family, that you spent an evening or weekend at a therapy group, or that you can’t go into an apparently normal situation that triggers you.
Coming out can expose you to prejudice and stupidity
On the other hand, being open about abuse history can provoke prejudice from people who believe falsely that abuse creates abusers. This is not true. Convicted abusers will say they were abused if there is a benefit to do so, but when verified with a polygraph, their rates of child sexual abuse history drops to close to normal. There will also be stupid comments from people who don’t want to believe that bad things like child abuse can happen to good people, and so it must somehow be your fault. Telling people you are a survivor or have PTSD can also be perceived as oversharing. Most negative reactions by ‘civilians’ (non survivors) fall into one or more of three categories: denial, minimization and blame. Denial is when their response indicates that they don’t believe you. Minimization conveys that they don’t find it (very) important or serious that you were abused. Blame means they think it is your fault.
Social Isolation Begins During the Abuse
During the time an abuser is abusing a child, the number of people who know about it varies. In some situations, everyone in the child’s life knew about the abuse, because they were either perpetrating or complicit. In others, only the abuser(s) and the survivor knew. And sometimes, when traumatic amnesia protected the survivor from the memory fragments that held that information, only the abuser knew the facts of what they’d done, leaving the survivor feeling crazy coping with feelings and flashbacks without any context. Many abusers groom children to keep the abuse a secret, programming that can be difficult to undo. As a result, most survivors have experienced extremes of social isolation during or following being abused. Social isolation, otherwise known as ‘lack of social support’ is really bad for your emotional, even physical health. Many survivors, including me, spent years in social isolation even after the abuse ended, because we were unable to share our authentic emotional experience, needs and reality with other people.
This social isolation, combined with the feeling of being different and the shame or self-hatred that often is an effect of being violated, is one of the things that survivors talk a lot about among ourselves. Support groups with other survivors are often really helpful, as it allows us to see that we are not alone, or even particularly odd. We are behaving normally for someone who has experienced what we have. I have found talking and being friends with other survivors to be very healing.
How to come out in 4 really difficult steps
Step 1: Come out to yourself and your therapist or a close friend.
Begin thinking of yourself as a survivor of childhood sexual assault, or incest or childhood sexual abuse. If this goes well, it can be really helpful to begin to heal the shame and isolation. Some survivors never take it further than this, and that’s okay.
Tech tip for this stage of disclosure: If your therapist responds in any way other than relatively calm interest and the statement that they believe you and it was not your fault, you almost certainly need to get another therapist. If you feel ashamed after the session where you tell your therapist, this is also a sign you need to work with someone else. When interviewing a new therapist, you can ask them on the phone before booking what theories they work from and if they have experience or specialized training in working with survivors of childhood abuse. You can also read their website or brochure scanning for this information if you’d rather not disclose over the phone. Therapists who list humanist, feminist or Rogerian as one of the theories they work from are also a good bet to start with. Be cautious with Freudian trained therapists, as some of his theory was created to justify his patients’ reports of childhood sexual assault in a way that let the abusers off the hook and find a reason why they were making it all up. Many good Freudian style therapists exist, but those who are suitable for survivors are going to be clear that you are not making up abuse out of an unconscious desire to have sex with your father. Yes, this is a thing in Freudian theory.
Step 2: Come out in really safe group situations.
The second layer of disclosure is to bring up one’s history of child sexual abuse to some degree within contexts that are about healing, support. This could be a survivor support group, feminist group, therapy group or in some cases a church study group or prayer circle. This will allow you to practice the skills of dealing with people’s reactions, which won’t all be good, in a safe environment where people are likely to have your back.
I began by disclosing to a therapist or a women’s 12 step group (Adult Children of Alcoholics) I was in. If forget which. As I became more comfortable with talking in about what I could remember of what had been done to me, I also shared about what I was struggling with in mixed 12 step groups. This was where I first ran across negative reactions. By and large people were supportive, but a bit misguided. I found that after the meetings, people often had emotional reactions to what I’d said. For many, I was the first person they’d met who had survived something that to them, was horrible beyond comprehension. They had reactions that were about their own personal gunk. They broke the kvetching order a lot, by dumping those reactions on me.
Sometimes other survivors would come up after a meeting disclose to me, which was usually good, but at other times people would offer advice or pity, which was not. I even had one guy, who in retrospect was probably sexually stimulated by what I’d said (ick!!), ask me out, which was quite creepy. However, over time I got comfortable with talking about my abuse healing in ‘self-help’ culture groups. I learned to deflect the pity with assertions that I was just fine and taking good care of myself, and I eventually even learned to say a firm ‘no’ to the rare guy who got creepy. I developed a style or persona that was hyper-competent and confident, as an attempt to deflect the condescension and pity responses, and by and large it worked. I’ve had to learn how to step outside that persona now, 20 years later, as it forms it’s own kind of barrier with people I want to be close to, but at the time it did the trick. With each new therapist, I learned to make a point of disclosing in the first session, so I could gauge their response. If the therapist seemed uncomfortable in any way with talking frankly about a history of child sexual abuse, I knew I could not work with her or him.
I have more to write on this topic, but accidentally pressed the publish button, so I’m going to end this post here. To be continued soon…
7 thoughts on “What I’ve learned about coming out as an incest survivor (part 1)”
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“It can be hard to have a simple social conversation while trying to hide the fact that you are not in contact with an abusive family,”
That really struck home with me. My mother died when I was fairly young (pre-teen years) and my father became abusive shortly after she died.
I later found out that my dad had a history, before meeting my mother, of violent crimes. He was disabled during the commission of one of those crimes & was arrested, but because of his new disability, the judge felt that he’d already been punished enough & he was set free. But court records show that several members of the family were aware of his history & did absolutely nothing to protect me after my mother died & I was left in my father’s care. They even allowed my father to lie (to me and later to my step-mother – and possibly my mother too) about how he became disabled. (I distinctly remember having a conversation about it once in front of some of his family.) As a result, I don’t trust any of his relatives that were old enough to be part of his deception (which is all but a few cousins who are close to my age.)
I’ve recently been contacted by my mother’s best friend, who I hadn’t seen in all these years because we’d moved away from her just before my mother died. I’m loving the contact I have with her because it links me closer to my mom, but I’m dreading the day she asks anything about the rest of my family on my dad’s side. If it ever does come up, at least it will be an opening for me to ask her about my parent’s relationship – I never saw any obvious signs of him being abusive to my mother, but I suspect he was just as good at hiding it then as he was later when he was abusing me. As my mother’s best friend, though, I’m sure if anything was going on, she’d at least have had her suspicions…and if there wasn’t, well, maybe she can reassure me that my mom was happy. But at the same time…I’d rather avoid it all, even though I know it’s probably not the healthy thing to do. (I do have plenty of people who I have come out to about the abuse, so it’s not an issue of bottling it up…just am ambivalent about opening up to this particular woman for some reason…maybe because it would be like talking to my mom about it as she’s my closest link with my mom at this time.)
Hi Faith Eve. That’s a tough one. Sometimes people once removed from an abusive family can be great sources of relatively unbiased information, and if you want that, it can be good. Maybe your gut says that her response is likely to be not what you want? My experience is that my first conversation with them gets the best information and the most authentic and supportive response. After that the persons denial and minimization sets in and they may retract a previously supportive response. This is not to say your mom’s friend will do that, but to not be surprised or blame yourself it she does. Since I’m in the process of writing my chapter on disclosure and coming out, it would be helpful if you could check in about how this goes and what you learn about coming out. Thanks for connecting. SDW
I think the hardest thing about coming out was the fear of not being believed and knowing the person and having some trust was important cos one is already carrying pain, loss and trauma that does not need to be added on too.
This is so true.
I agree with you. I told a freudian therapist first but fortunately had disclosed to my flat mate, a pro active feminist. She pointed out the absurdity of me, “fancying my father”, he was not a pretty sight. That allowed me tp stop taking any therapist’s inappropriate viewpoint to heart and I interviewed them after that. I was told it was unnecessary information when I disclosed in a group but I said,
“Secrets mean, some of me will not be present and I want as much of me here as possible”. The male leader agreed and supported brilliantly which allowed group members to feel there way, cos different viewpoints were present. My worst experience was telling a dentist, “I am an incest survivor”, and she said,”That is not my fault”….eek I couldn’t let her near me cos I had had two awesome dentists prepared to help me heal.
the journey of coming out is a painful one. There is no real ‘right way’ to come out, but goodness it all feels so wrong. It is helpful to read this and know that my struggle is not mine alone.