When I go back and think about my earliest memory, I am two, in the bathroom trying to go pee in the potty like a big girl. I am having trouble. I don't have to go but my grandfather told me to go, so I sit. The door cracks open and he pokes his head in. It is dark. I only remember his face, and him touching me in the same place where the pee was supposed to come out.
I am sitting on his lap when I am five, watching television. His hand slowly creeps between my legs and I think it must be a mistake, he must not know it's there. I think back to when I was two. I remember him coming in the bathroom and I am mad at myself. Why did I sit on his lap? I get up to sit on the floor next to his recliner. My cheeks are red, he is silent. I want to run but I am afraid to move. I feel a little safer here, but not as safe as I would be if I ran upstairs, but then he might come after me. I will just stay.
These moments keep coming until I am 12. There is always enough time between each incident for me to start to think I must have been mistaken, maybe I misunderstood my grandfather's intentions. Maybe I was just imagining it. After all, I never told him to stop. I never used my voice. Each and every time I would try, only to be paralyzed. I start to believe I had a part in this.
I tell my mother when I am 16. I am in my room, crying, throwing perfume and makeup bottles on the floor. They are in perfect lines on the wooden dresser my father made. The brass handles look ugly to me. I am ugly. I hate how I feel when I am with my boyfriend, when I want him to put his hands on me. I hate how I look in clothes, I want to cover up, I don't want to be asking for anything, but I want something. I want to be touched, loved, desired and to feel normal about it but I don't know what that feels like.
I know now I was viewing myself this way. And the self-hate would build, and build, and keep building.
After years of counseling and fighting with my mother, I am told to move on, to stop talking. She is loyal to her father, never confronts him. The bond my mother and I once shared is broken and will never be repaired. I feel the void as a grown woman with kids of her own. When friends talk about how they can't wait to see their mom, or they need to talk to their mom, or their mom always makes it better, I feel empty. I don't have that. And in so many ways it's a reminder that she chose her father over me.
But I tell myself I am fine, I can still love someone and not need them. I don't need her, I don't.
As a woman I have punished myself over and over. I feel sexual and sexy. I like being a woman but for so long those feelings were laced with shame. I started to view myself as someone who was only good for one thing: to get a man off. I wasn't worthy of much else. I wanted to please men, yet I would feel humiliated when it was done.
I saved myself for men I cared about—I didn't lose my virginity until the age of 19—and still thought they were only able to view me as an object. I know now I was viewing myself this way. And the self-hate would build, and build, and keep building.
When I am 35, I see a cousin I have not seen in over 20 years. She meets me in the bathroom during a family reunion I feel brave enough to attend because my grandfather is now dead. "Me too," she says. She knows she doesn't need to say anything else to me. He did this to her too, she was told to be quiet, and we exchange so much in those two minutes where we are finally allowed to talk about the ugly betrayal.
It's then I realize I need to let go of the feelings associated with my abuse that don't make me strong. Looking at her, my beautiful cousin, I feel I can do this.
I am not what happened to me.
It doesn't define me, it doesn't define my grandfather, it doesn't define my mother. I still struggle and get all tangled up in thoughts and emotions because that is what happens when we endure abuse of any kind. We can't escape the self-abuse that comes when we are hurt by others.
I have wondered who I would be without this story. How would I see things? How would I move? Would I feel things as deeply as I do? I am thankful for every story, for every experience, because without them I wouldn't be me: the woman, who at the age of 35, realized she was so much more than what happened to her, and vowed to throw away the shame, the guilt, and be her whole self and never look back. All because another woman stood before and said, "Me too."
25 years ago, I was told to be quiet about what happened to me.