I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. More specifically and brutally, I was raped by my stepfather several times a week from the age of 7 until I was 11. I use the word “rape” very deliberately. Childhood sexual abuse is a fairly broad and nondescriptive term. Asking someone, “What should we do about childhood sexual abuse?” is far less compelling than asking, “What should we do about all of these children being raped?”
My family tells me that before the abuse began, I was a happy, outgoing child. I loved to laugh. I loved to play. I loved to sing and dance to my favorite song, “Rubber Ducky” from “Sesame Street.”
I have no memory of that kid. I have no connection to him now. He’s not me. I cannot recall ever feeling that free.
I do remember the day my mom caught me with one of my stepfather Harold’s Playboy magazines. I wasn’t looking at that magazine because I had any kind of sexual feelings. I was 7 and didn’t even know what sex was. I was looking at it for the same reason a lot of little kids do what they do: because I knew I wasn’t supposed to.
Still, my mom was horrified, and she decided Harold should sit me down and give me “the talk.”
I still remember that day as if it happened yesterday. Harold took me into my parents’ bedroom in our house on High Street in Clinton, Massachusetts, sat me down on the edge of the bed, unzipped his pants and began to masturbate in front of me. He grabbed my hand and made me touch him. When he ejaculated a few minutes later, he said to me, “That’s the stuff that makes babies.”
That is how I learned about sex. The first time I had sex a few weeks later, I thought it was a punishment.
Harold was the janitor at my school, St. John’s Catholic School. He used to take me to work with him on weekends to help him get caught up on things before school began on Monday. Even before he began raping me, these weekends were traumatizing for me. He would spend most of the day telling me I was stupid and useless and yelling at me every time I made even the tiniest mistake.
On the first day he raped me, things began as they normally did with him berating me for making another mistake, but before long he had forced me up on the desk in his little office in the basement. He then tore off my shoes, socks, pants and underwear and started ramming into me. I can still feel his grubby hands on me. I can still smell his Old Spice. I can still feel the agony in my body.
Of course, that really wasn’t the first time I had sex. I didn’t have sex ― I was raped. There’s a difference. The trouble was I was just 7 years old and I didn’t know that.
“Grooming” is a term often used when discussing childhood sexual abuse. I was groomed ― or taught ― by my stepfather to be compliant and to keep my mouth shut. He certainly terrorized me into silence. He also convinced me that if I said anything, people would think there was something horribly wrong with me, and they would send me away forever. So I kept my mouth shut and didn’t look anyone in the eye for fear someone would see the sickness there inside of me and have me locked up.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, I kept my head down and I kept my mouth shut while I was being raped repeatedly, both at the school and at home. My mother had a second-shift job at a book binding plant, so Harold was alone with me and my four siblings most evenings. He could take me into the bedroom and do anything he wanted to do to me. He could take me into the bathroom and do anything he wanted to do to me.
The painful timidness that resulted turned me into a target in the schoolyard. I was teased and mocked ― anything the other kids could do to try and get a rise out of the weird kid who never talked and always kept his eyes on the ground. And when none of that worked, they would knock me down and hit me. Still I kept my head down and I kept my mouth shut.
Still, there’s only so much pain and trauma anyone can take before they break down and eventually cry out in whatever way they can. For me it was one line scribbled on a little slip of paper ― “Daddy makes me do things with him like you do in bed” ― that I slipped under the door of my mom’s bedroom while she was taking a nap.
Harold was out at the time. When she awoke and read the note she immediately grabbed me and demanded to know if what I had written was true. I nodded meekly that it was. The abuse had been occurring for a year at this point. She latched the chain lock across the front door, and when Harold returned, she screamed at him that she knew what he was doing and told him never to come near her or us kids again.
Harold bellowed, “You can’t keep me out of my own house,” and he smashed open the door. I hid in my room with the door locked, rocking back and forth on the bed while I heard screaming and yelling and a THUD followed by the sound of my mother sobbing. A little later, I heard the front door slam one more time as Harold left, I hoped forever.
But, inexplicably, she still handed me over to him for occasional “child visits,” making it possible for him to continue raping me for another three years.
The pain and trauma got to be so great that I began to dissociate. I left my body during the abuse and went somewhere else in my mind, because I could not survive the experience in any other way. Because of this I do not have a clear memory of why Harold stopped being a part of my life after the age of 11. He was just gone.
I wasn’t able to start putting the pieces together until after my mother died of lymphoma in 2010. That was when I learned from her sister, my favorite aunt, that my mother had herself been sexually abused as a child. Like some survivors, she had become very passive aggressive, sometimes ready to stand her ground and other times easily manipulated by predators like Harold.
I was also at my mother’s bedside not long before she passed, and she suddenly said to me, out of the blue, “I’m sorry.” I had waited years for my mother to tell me she was sorry for the way she had handed me back to my rapist, but in that moment she seemed delirious, lost, so I’m not sure if she knew what she was saying. Still, it was something. I accepted her apology and replied, “You have nothing to be sorry for, Mom. I love you and I know you did the best that you could.”
Whether my mom put her foot down and finally kicked Harold to the curb for good or not, I’ll never know.
“I was left physically and emotionally battered, plagued by nightmares and flashbacks and panic attacks. I turned first to alcohol to numb the constant replaying of the abuse. I was a full-blown alcoholic by the age of 13.”
When the abuse finally ended at 11, I was left physically and emotionally battered, plagued by nightmares and flashbacks and panic attacks. I turned first to alcohol ― starting with beer and then gin and rum and tequila ― anything to numb the constant replaying of the abuse in my mind and across my body. I was a full-blown alcoholic by the age of 13. Soon after I turned to pills. My preference was for downers because they helped bring on the peace of a blackout.
Late one night, when I was 16, I woke up lying in the middle of the street during a brutal New England winter. I tried to stand up, but I slipped and fell on the ice. The last thing I remembered before this was laughing and drinking at the apartment of some guy I had met that evening. He said something derogatory about my earring and then… nothing. It was all gone. And here I was freezing and alone and sure this was the end for me.
Fortunately, I was picked up by the cops and thrown into a cruiser. Back at the station, the officer told me to go into the bathroom and clean myself up. When I saw my battered, bloody, swollen face in the mirror, I knew it was time to call it quits on the alcohol and pills. My fear of death overtook my fear of my nightmares and flashbacks. I never drank or took another pill after that night. I wasn’t even old enough to buy cigarettes and I was already a recovering alcohol and drug addict.
Of course, the memories of the abuse were still there, waiting for me, now that I was sober. And I no longer had that numbing shield between me and the constant panic attacks and the crushing depression. I recall many years feeling like I was at the bottom of a black pit, and no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I craned my neck, I could not see the top.
By the time I was out on my own, I had come to accept that I would never be free of the abuse. It would always define me. I was in and out of therapy throughout my 20s and 30s, but nothing seemed to help. I wasn’t making any progress. I was still locked up inside my trauma, unable to free myself.
Aside from ― and because of ― dealing with my personal trauma, my relationships were also a nightmare. I continued to keep my head down and my mouth shut, terrified to share my truth with a partner for fear they would leave me. Who needs to deal with all that? I assumed it would be an unfair burden to lay on anyone.
Then in my early 40s something miraculous happened. I found myself in a relationship with a woman who refused to allow me to stay locked up inside of myself. She saw me tearing myself apart, putting myself down, and she drew a line and said, “No more.” Thanks to the urging of that amazing woman, who is now my wife, Kristie, I got back into therapy after a long absence and finally found the right therapist.
I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. I began to understand the intricacies of how my trauma was limiting my happiness. I learned coping mechanisms to deal with panic attacks, anxiety, and manic and depressive episodes. I could not completely eliminate the deep effects of the trauma, but I did have strategies now for facing them and finding some happiness.
By this point in my life, I had also become active in theater, writing and acting, and I had even written and performed a few monologues about various aspects of the abuse. As I became stronger in therapy, I began developing a full-length show about abuse and healing.
Finally, in 2014, I shared my ideas for an interactive theatrical show titled “Ask a Sex Abuse Survivor” with my therapist. She was reticent at first, worried that allowing the audience to comment on my story as I was telling it might undo some of the hard work we had done over the years. When I explained that, as a theater artist, this was the way I processed things, she relented and served as an important sounding board as a I crafted the piece.
When “Ask a Sex Abuse Survivor” premiered in the summer of 2014 as part of the SoLow Festival in Philadelphia, my therapist and my wife were in the front row. The interactive portion of it worked better than I could have imagined. During the feedback breaks I included throughout the narrative, I was gifted with fascinating questions, wonderfully supportive comments and even the powerful words of a few survivors sharing their own stories. Just as miraculously for me, at one point in my show, I gave myself the opportunity to dance. Finally, just like that happy 6-year-old child I lost so long ago and may never meet again, I danced.
I have been traveling the country and telling my story ever since. I have been fortunate to meet so many fellow survivors, social workers, therapists, academics and others who have helped me to continuously reshape and refine my show. And hearing from some of my fellow survivors that the show has made them feel empowered is incredibly gratifying. Performing it has certainly done so for me.
Of course, the effect of the abuse has not magically vanished ― and it never will. I still have bad days. I still have panic attacks and flashbacks. I still experience depressive episodes. I wake up in bed each morning and I have to decide whether I’m going to climb out of that bed or climb under it. But I now
have far more good days than bad ones. The abuse no longer rules my life.
I have learned that even though Harold took so much from me and altered the course of my entire life, I now have the chance ― and choice ― to live for myself, for my wife and for those I love. I can’t change what happened and I can’t get any of that time back, but I can keep moving forward, and I can take what happened to me ― and what I learned from it ― and use it to help others who might be going through the same thing. That feels like peace to me.
Michael Broussard is a theatre artist and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. He has been traveling the country telling his story and inspiring conversations about abuse and healing since 2014 with his interactive theatrical show "Ask A Sex Abuse Survivor." More information can be found about at sexabusesurvivor.com.
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