I opened the Baltimore Sun recently and saw a page of articles on childhood sexual abuse. Southern Baptist Church delegates were meeting in Birmingham, Ala., to begin addressing years of sexual abuse by pastors and youth ministers. And Catholic bishops were meeting in Baltimore to discuss the next steps in addressing the ongoing problem of decades of sexual abuse. I felt exhausted by the overwhelming evidence of abuse everywhere you look, but also hopeful that finally something can be done to prevent future abuse.
I attended the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse symposium in April, and there was much discussion of prevention, but also of the lifelong damage inflicted on survivors. It was estimated that survivors spend at least $300,000 in therapy over their lifetimes, but I was thinking of the personal cost to myself.
I thought about how things could have been different if my step grandfather had never entered our family. If my family had never attended two particular churches. I imagine I wouldn’t have temporarily dropped out of college because of an eating disorder. I would have still had student loans to pay off, but maybe I would have paid them off before the age of 50, because I wasn’t spending so much money on therapy and surviving.
Maybe I would have been able to commit to relationships with men, and perhaps I would have gotten married in my 20s and wanted all the traditional things that I instead rejected. Maybe I would have wanted to have children and would not have been paralyzed by the idea of not being able to protect them. The lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety are difficult to assess. Perhaps I would still have those as part of my genetic make-up, but who is to know this?
I was struck by the final words of Stephen Moore who founded the Moore Research Center. He said that statistics show that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of childhood sexual abuse. He asked “Where are they today?” Although the symposium was attended by a respectable crowd, clearly these numbers would indicate that the room would be overflowing with survivors, eager to be involved in preventing child sexual abuse. But, for the most part, survivors avoid these types of events. When you’ve spent your whole life trying to forget what happened to you, the last place you want to go is to an all-day symposium on this very subject. It can be a very triggering event. It can take days afterward to “heal” from the trauma that you feel when immersing yourself in this topic. As Maryland Del. C.T. Wilson noted when he spoke last year, the act of being there and talking about what happened to you, as he did, can take weeks to “get over.” Why do that to yourself?
For whatever reason, I am always drawn to these types of events, even if they traumatize me for a few days. I will be closely watching what grows from the meetings this month in Baltimore and Birmingham. I believe in taking these negative experiences and making life better for myself and others, and I have a very good life now. I cannot understand what the point of all of this pain is for if not to bring us all together so that no one feels alone anymore and no one has to suffer in silence. And, above all, to ensure that future generations of children do not ever have to endure these experiences.
Betsy Schindler is a clinical social worker. Her email address is email@example.com.