[trigger warning: sexual abuse, rape, rape culture, suicide, incest]
A few weeks ago a friend of mine was looking for research subjects for a project on people’s reactions to the death of loved ones. I asked her, “what about other kinds of loss?” She said “no, sorry.”
In 22 years of life, I’ve never actually known anyone who died. But I have experienced death in other forms. I think sexual abuse is a kind of death— it kills a person’s sense of self, and it erases a lot of their possibilities for the future. Sexual abuse is a death of potential selves. Many of us can say with certainty that during our abuse, we would have preferred death over continuing to live. I know survivors who, because of their abuse, because of repressed memories, PTSD, and disassociation, no longer feel “alive” in this world. I’ve experienced that before myself…it’s something that can’t be explained, you just have to know it. Only survivors of trauma like this can know that. This is why we use the label “survivor”, because it really is that serious. You survive death and dying on a daily basis.
A lot of survivors attempt suicide or self-harm. Many of us end up experiencing death-by-proxy; we lose friends or family members, teachers and mentors, or concepts of love, justice, and good in the world. This is especially true for those of us who have experienced multiple abuses, or prolonged abuse over time, especially as children. It breaks you down until that’s all you know.
So when my friend told me that I couldn’t participate, I was disappointed. I was disappointed because people still do not see sexual abuse and rape as on the same plane as war and murder. They don’t understand it as a kind of death, and on many levels. I could never see the world in the same way. I could never see my brother, or my mother, or systems of justice, or race, or my sexuality, or my gender expression, in the same way. When I was abused, and as the society and people around me reacted to my abuse, all of these concepts fell apart.
Last year, I briefly entertained the idea of considering myself an orphan— because I’ve felt like one ever since my mother told me to “go ahead and kill yourself” and that it didn’t matter that my brother touched me, I still had to go to school. When I thought about grad school in the future, I realized that I could tell people that my brother was dead, or that I don’t even have a brother at all. I have considered dropping all connections to my family, because as far as I am concerned they hardly exist anymore— they might as well be dead.
There are times when I can’t afford the luxury of their even being in my world. They are too close to my abuse, too close to death.
I have said it before— sexual abuse and rape are a form of death, a death beyond death that reaches past the body and into the heart. It is not something that simply happens and then it goes away. It continues to actively destroy parts of yourself and your life, even after your abuser is gone.