I thought I understood the devastation that keeping child abuse a secret can cause. I had grown up with eight foster sisters, who were all placed in our home because of some kind of abuse in their home of origin and I had worked in mental health programs with countless survivors of abuse. Even with those experiences, the full impact never really hit me in the face until my wife and I became foster-parents to our then fourteen-year-old foster-daughter. The reality of her life broke through any illusions we may have previously held. I would have sworn we were prepared for her moving in and knew just what to expect. We were gravely mistaken.
Night after night, we heard her crying herself to sleep. It alternated between soft weeping to heart-wrenching sobs and wails. As hours turned into weeks, we did our best to comfort her with our presence, words and actions. She needed to know she was a person of value, strength and beauty. In addition to her physical and sexual abuse, she had also endured extreme emotional trauma. Slowly, the tide began to turn. She got involved in school, plays, attracted friends like bees to honey and appeared happy and sure of herself. But, just as all seemed quiet on the western front, a new internal assault flooded her mind and began to wreak havoc on her heart and soul.
It was midnight when we heard a loud thumping sound coming from her room; shrieks and screams followed. As we got to her bedroom door we heard her yelling, “Help me, help me, help me. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Stay out, stay out.” We tried to open the door but she’d locked it and would not let us in. We tried everything we could think of shout, beg, bargain, demand and still no luck. Finally we jimmied the lock and got in. As we entered, she was lying under a blanket, hiding in the closet. She refused to look at us, and we saw that her hand was black and blue from slamming the wall. She was having a flashback and was grabbing at her throat and clawing at her face.
That night seemed to last an eternity. After hours of holding, talking and crying, she slowly came out of her hell. She told us of suicidal thoughts and actions. We called her therapist for help and over the next few days did the best we could. A little light began to seep back into her consciousness.
And so it went. Day after day; week after week; month after month. Far from being experts on parenting and abuse, we discovered that we were more like babes in the woods.
Fortunately, our adopted daughter is one of the lucky ones. She had enough strength and courage to leave her abusive environment, break through her denial of the abuse and begin a new life. She went on to graduate from UC Berkeley, is now married, is an amazing tutor and pregnant with a baby girl. Her abuse had lasting impacts on her and those around her, but she hasn’t let her past define who she is or limit what she can become.
There are many times I still forget or choose not to think about, the secret abuse that remains in the dark recesses of thousands of lives (women and men) and is kept close to the vest and under wraps; for some, until the day they die.