Words by Ashley Avina
"It all begins and ends in your mind. What you give power to, has power over you, if you allow it." -Leon Brown
At 18, most girls are preparing to begin fall semester at college, starting their first job and grasping the possibility of the future. I was all these things on the surface, and below I was struggling with the effects of sexual abuse that had taken place throughout my childhood. It was the morning of my first day, at my first job, working at a local grocery store chain. My mom entered my room to tell me that my dad’s father had passed away in his sleep earlier that morning. He was 93 years old. This is it, this is the moment that would alter the focus of my entire young adult life.
In the following weeks after his burial, I had become unbearable to be around in any social form. I knew it, my family knew it, and yet I could not admit to myself, let alone anyone else, the true cause of my pain. It’s a lonely place to be, trapped in your mind with no outlet or release. Hearing the news of my paternal grandfather’s death had unlocked something that had long been protected by my mind. I found myself recalling events of sexual abuse, committed by my grandfather, from the age range of two to seven years old. When I confessed this to my mother, weeks after his passing, she broke down. She herself is a survivor of sexual abuse. Though at the time I understood her response, it gave me no relief. I had never felt so alone in all my life.
It became a daily struggle to attend classes and work. I couldn’t look at myself anymore, all I saw was his face looking back at me. I hid myself away from the world, everyone and everything were too bright for the shadows existing inside my mind. This continued for months, the seclusion and pain becoming more intolerable. I eventually succumbed to an encompassing numbness that spread like a disease through my psyche. I existed as a shell among the living, I could see no end, no way of recovery. My mind, a part of me I had cherished, so powerful and steadfast, felt like a hollow darkness filled with memories of the abuse. At 18, I debated taking my own life, but something I did not understand at the time, always stopped me from following through. I knew I could not continue this way forever, a part of my life would have to give.
Six months later, I was home alone one night organizing my bookshelf when an abusive memory surged through my reverie like a bolt, hitting the depth of my senses. As I was gasping for breath clutching my chest, I thought I was having a heart attack, I thought I was going to die, in my room... alone. In that moment, I knew I wanted to live, I had courage left in my heart fighting its way through my mind. As the memory still plunged through my brain, I told myself, “I am okay. You are safe. You are okay. You are here.” I said this as a mantra, repeating over and over, willing myself to control my response to my own mind. For the first time I saw a shred of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. I had won a small battle in a long journey to acceptance and recovery. What had always stopped me from taking my own life, was myself. In my heart I knew I wanted to live, and I had needed an experience that could remind me of that fact.
I made slow changes that led to larger ones - new job, new school and everyday the memories came, I would repeat to myself, “I am okay. You are safe. You are okay. You are here.” I realized in the coming months that I could not change what happened to me, but I could choose how I would let it influence the rest of my life. It was in my power to gain control of how my mind reacted to the abuse. I could allow my mind to be subdued by the abuse, or permit it to be my solace and pillar of strength.
The following years were filled with good days and bad, personal and professional setbacks. And every instance I was emotionally vulnerable was an opportunity for the helplessness to return. With time, it became easier as I began to heal and grow. There were days I would scream out loud, “WHY?!”, and days I was thankful because the abuse allocated me with the ability to understand someone else’s pain, in a manner only few could comprehend. The memories of my sexual abuse became fewer and farther in between, and my life continued with a positive outlook for the future.
The next 10 years brought healing and forgiveness, as well as a happy marriage and a life I love to share with those close to me. I did not forgive my grandfather for him, or for any deity, I forgave him for myself and for the love of life. I will never say forgive the abuser because they deserve it, I will say to survivors, forgive them because you deserve the release and peace of letting go. My mind had come full circle, it was old friends reuniting after years of someone coming in between us.
The mind is powerful, but it is yours to choose how it will burden or strengthen you, how you as a person allow the mind to break you in dark moments, or choose to find heart and healing from it. To the survivors of sexual abuse, and their loved ones, know you are not alone, this is something that will be part of you, but it in no way needs to define you. You did not have the ability to stop what was done to you, but you have the power to choose how you overcome.
"You can chain me, You can torture me, You can even destroy this body, But you will never imprison my Mind." -Gandhi