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When I was fourteen years old I was diagnosed with a very rare, very aggressive cancer. To be able to start my treatment, we learned, I would need to go to a hospital in a different city. There we met the oncologist responsible for heading up my treatment protocol. He was my future abuser.
At first he seemed really nice. At that point I had no idea that I should see any of his behaviour as a form of grooming or something to be worried about. I remember my first night starting my chemo, when he came into my hospital room. We were alone. Nothing happened, but we talked about books, and I remember feeling strange yet flattered that he took a special interest in me. I didn’t understand until years later that this was when the grooming started. Fortunately, I was able to undergo most of my treatment in a city closer to mine, so I wasn’t near this doctor as often as I could have been.
Things changed when I finished my treatment. At this stage I was fifteen and my hair was slowly growing back. I was required to have follow-up appointments with him at the main hospital, and tests to make sure that the cancer hadn’t returned. These were every three months, and one test was done by him in his office every appointment. He was required to check my lymph glands in my groin to make sure there was no spread of the tumour there. This test was done by the surgeon and the radiologist too, at different appointments, but with this doctor it was always different. Wrong. With the other two doctors it was simply an examination. They always took care to avoid any area that was too close to my most personal place. With the oncologist it was never like this. He seemed to enjoy being able to touch me there. He always lingered much longer and touched much more than he was supposed to. My parents were also in the room, but he blocked their view with his body. I had always thought sexual abuse was obvious in nature, more like rape. I didn’t know that a man brushing his hand over my private parts or putting his hand down my underwear, under the guise of doing a medical examination, would qualify as sexual abuse. I thought that because my parents were in the room, it couldn’t have happened.
I tried to explain to my parents that I didn’t like him touching me. It was years later that I found out that my parents thought I was just being a hormonal teenager, and overmodest. The thought that somebody would do something like that never entered their minds, because they had been in the room for the exams. I had no words to be able to say “I don’t like it when he puts his hands down my underwear and touches my….” I had no words because I was never taught them. I didn’t know the names of my body parts. I didn’t know how to describe what he did to me. Worst yet, I thought that I deserved it. I thought that I must have asked for it, because why else would it have happened? So I endured it until I was 18 years old. Every three months I would prepare myself for what I knew was going to happen. Every three months I would hide behind my wall as we journeyed to the hospital some three hours away. Every three months I would travel to the hospital feeling alone, terrified, and helpless. Every three months I would travel home feeling guilty, ashamed, and dirty.
The mindset of total submission to those in authority, not just to my parents, was drummed in from as early as I can remember. This set me up for abuse in not just this situation, where the abuse was sexual in nature, but for numerous other occasions, whether at the mercy of an extremely emotionally and verbally abusive boss (in a number of jobs I worked), or an emotionally manipulative, verbally abusive, and isolating boyfriend, to name a few. This kind of thinking sets up the victim for failure and abuse over and over and over again. I was trained to be completely vulnerable in every way. It effectively hung a sign over me stating “target.”
It wasn’t just the teaching of total submission that was the problem, though. Emphasis on modesty was so strong that words to describe the body were never taught to me. To this day I still can’t say out loud ‘vagina.’ I still feel dirty saying it. I know in my logical mind that this is a clinical/scientific word to describe a part of the female anatomy, but because I was not taught or allowed to say it, it still feels wrong. Because of this I couldn’t physically say what my abuser did to me. I literally had no words to describe what happened. I was totally powerless to help myself, to get my parents to understand what had happened. I understand that the thought of something like this happening didn’t cross their minds because they were in the room. How could it? I don’t hold them responsible for that aspect of what happened, but I do for not giving me the skills to protect myself.
To seal my fate, as it were, there was also the teaching that bad things don’t happen to godly people. So in my mind, because of this teaching, I felt that I had somehow earned this, that it was my fault. I must have asked for it, because why else would he do that to me? I must have dressed provocatively in my almost floor length, figure hiding, not-sexy-at-all skirt. My sack of a shirt must have created such an eye trap—even though I was so completely hidden under it all that I may as well have worn a burqa—that he just couldn’t help himself. I honestly thought all of this. I had no knowledge of sex, didn’t know the names of my body parts, dressed to hide myself from men because I didn’t want to cause them to sin, was ashamed of my body, and was ashamed for being a woman, because men just couldn’t help themselves if I looked remotely beautiful or attractive.
All of this false teaching was drummed in from as early as I recall. I was literally brainwashed for years. The guilt of what happened clung to me for years, because I thought I somehow stepped outside of my dad’s authority to cause this to happen. Either that, or God somehow let this happen to teach me something.
About three years after the abuse stopped, I finally faced what happened and gave it a name. My world came crashing down around me as I began to understand exactly what happened. I began to realise that this was why I wouldn’t let anyone, man or woman, into my personal bubble. I hadn’t felt human touch for years. I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t know how to respond in a safe way. I didn’t know how to feel anything other than terror when somebody came too close.
That year was the hardest year I have ever experienced. In facing what had happened, I opened the door to acknowledging the fear that I constantly felt, and I had multiple panic attacks on a daily basis. I developed bulimia as a means to punish myself for the part that I thought I had played in the abuse. I stopped spending time with friends and family, and felt that I couldn’t trust anyone. I had been taught to believe that bad things happened through disobedience, through not trusting God enough or having bad thoughts, through not spending enough time reading the Bible or praying. If something like this happened, then it was my fault because I was a girl. I asked for it. I must have tempted him in some way, so therefore I deserved it. The shame and guilt of being a woman was almost too much to bear. I completely derailed. It was like I had to hit rock bottom to strip away all the junk and lies that I had believed for so long.
And then I started to rebuild. I realised that even if I hadn’t had the words or skills to be able to express what had happened, it still didn’t mean that I had let it happen, that it was my fault, or that I had asked for it. What happened wasn’t on me. It was on him. He did it. Not me. And now I have the words to say, “no more.” Now I know that God’s plan isn’t abuse of the vulnerable, that it wasn’t my lack of faith or not working hard enough to earn my safety or salvation.
My story isn’t like those of many, in the sense that what happened to me wasn’t as horrific as what a lot of other people experience. The ramifications, though, were far reaching. It has been a little over 10 years since it ended, but the effects are still felt. I still can’t set foot in a hospital without hiding behind my wall. The joyous occasion of my son’s birth was marred with fear of being in that place. I still don’t like people touching me, but am finally more open to it, and know that some people express their love and affection that way. And that’s okay. I still find it hard to trust people, and wonder what their ulterior motive is but this is improving with time.
My faith has not been shaken. I was created as a woman for a reason. My womanly body gave life and nourishment to my son. There is no more shame in who I am as a woman. I can be beautiful without causing a man to stumble and lust after me because of my womanly form. My wonderful husband has taught me a lot, too: that I’m worth more than what a man can do to my body.
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