“the greatest gift you can give yourself is time and attention. Build your village to strengthen your connectedness and a sense of belonging.”
*TRIGGER WARNING* The following article contains discussion of child sexual abuse. If you need to talk to someone, please call Bravehearts Support Line on 1800 272 831 (Mon to Fri, 8:30am-4:30pm AEDST) or Lifeline (24hrs) 13 11 14
By John Cardamone
At the age of 6 when most children are playing with toys, and video games and enjoying childhood, I was being sexually abused by a family member. I wanted to desperately to tell my mother what was happening to me; however, due to the threats that were made by the abuser, I was too afraid to speak up.
To this very day, I keep asking myself why didn’t I say something earlier? Why did I allow this to happen for several years? I have now come to realise that whilst I wanted to say something, I just didn’t know who to tell, or how to give voice to the abuse.
I still remember to this day I was in the garage with my older brother, and I desperately wanted to tell him what was happening to me, but I just couldn’t get the words out because I was suffocated with fear. I remember my parents being so worried about me that they organised for me to go and see a child psychiatrist to try and figure out why my behaviour was so out of control, as prior to the abuse I was a well-behaved child. After seeing the psychiatrist for two years, I was still unable to tell him that I was being sexually abused.
“What I needed at that time was the ability to give the abuse voice, to… communicate my trauma, my worries, and my fears. I needed confirmation that unconditionally I was believed.”
Every Sunday I would go to the house where the perpetrator lived and this is when he would abuse me. When it was time to go to their place, I would invent sicknesses and other excuses to avoid going there, and at times I would make myself vomit. Later I learned that this was due to severe anxiety. Unknowingly, my parents told me I had to go; little did they know what was happening to me behind closed doors.
My parents and family had no idea of the trauma that I was enduring. What I needed at that time was the ability to give the abuse voice, to articulate and communicate my trauma, my worries, and my fears. I needed confirmation that unconditionally I was believed.
Over 30 years have now passed since the abuse. I feel fortunate to be happily married and have two beautiful children. I have a successful career in education, a great circle of friends, and an ongoing commitment to health and well-being. I can now state that I have survived. I have survived the pain, the hurt, the heartbreak.
“I can now state that I have survived.”
Survival has not been without its challenges. In my primary years, I suppressed my emotions as a protective mechanism. I suffered immensely, in silence. Until I gathered the courage to approach my mother. To give the abuse voice. To tell her what was happening to me.
Recently my anxiety has peaked, as my son is now the same age as I was when I was sexually abused. I have started to reflect and replay the events of the trauma. To try and fully understand what happened, why it happened, and what actions my family members took when they found out what was happening.
I obtained court documents wanting to know the details of the vile acts against me and the charges that were laid against the perpetrator. I attempted to acquire police records and statements, however back in the early 1990’s the files were only kept for a certain amount of time.
My childhood trauma has taught me that the effects are long-lasting. I have also found that triggers can come and go at different stages of life without any warning. My son, now being my initial age of abuse has brought back memories and images that have been forever etched and cannot be erased from my mind.
Overwhelming emotions of anger, sadness, hurt, betrayal, and the knowingness that an adult, an entrusted family member, could do these unspeakable acts, have shaped me as a person, as a son, as a husband and now quite significantly as a father. I have tried various methods to remove the images from my mind, however, they are still there and will be forever. Some of them are like a movie reel that lasts a short period, in that time, I see and hear the abuser again.
In my mind I relive the forced despicable acts upon my body, these are devastating memories that I am unable to wipe out of my mind. I am practising not to fuse or engage with these memories, with these triggers I have intrusive thoughts, which can bring on anxiety, some of these thoughts involve me overthinking and catastrophising, what if this happened to my son?
“Knowing that my mother believed me caused an overwhelming relief. That was the beginning of my healing journey.”
My mother shared with me that I would always look back when we were driving, thinking he was stalking and watching me. I had this constant fear that he was following me. As a child I would break toys, misbehave, and be physically aggressive towards others, as in my mind, this was my way of expressing what was happening to me without disclosing the abuse.
All these things led my parents to believe that something was wrong. Little did they know, or ever could she have imagined what I was going through every Sunday. It finally took me two years to approach my mum to tell her what was going on.
After telling my mother I repeatedly said, “you believe me, mummy, you believe me mummy”, that’s when the police were called. Knowing that my mother believed me caused an overwhelming relief. That was the beginning of my healing journey.
My journey of healing has been personal, it has been something that I manage in my own way. Due to early intervention and all the support networks, I have fortunately never turned to drugs, alcohol, or any other addictions to escape the hurt.
There have been many additional factors that have helped me manage and deal with my childhood trauma, seeing professionals and speaking about my experience has been healing. I feel exercise and playing team sports has been helpful in staying connected and feeling a sense of belonging that has supported my mental health. Structured cold and heat exposure has also been helpful.
These days I have identified that being vulnerable and not afraid to speak up about my experience and not worrying about being judged has given me the confidence and ability to release my emotions to a range of people. I hope that this openness, and vulnerability with my family and close friends, will in turn support their own healing process.
For me, having the mindset of not feeling like a victim has helped me to become more resilient and understand that although something terrible happened to me in the past, there will always be problems and tough situations throughout life, and that it is the way we manage these situations. As hard as it is, you need to find ways that work for you. The key is to do this with intention, purpose, and consistency. It is about resilience, personal connections, relationships, and commitment, commitment to not letting our past dictate and navigate our future.
“Spending time and being present in the moment with our children is one of the best protective factors…”
I believe that the foundation for our children and anyone going through difficult times to thrive and share any of their worries is through connection and having a sense of belonging. Although I have and continue to have a good connection with my family and friends, these days many support organisations teach, inform and educate on how we can better support our children. Strong research and evidence support that consistent and positive connections are related to positive mental health and well-being, especially in times of trauma.
As a parent, I see the positive impact of being proactive and teaching our children that their private body parts are not to be touched. Parents need to teach their children to know that they can talk to them no matter what situation they are facing and that there are no secrets. As without this education it can be very difficult for children to approach their parents or a trusted adult.
Cultivating a sense of belonging is another powerful protective factor for children, all children need to feel protected and always cared for, to develop their confidence and resilience. This provides them the ability and capacity to manage their emotions, to communicate and share about any concerns or worries.
I believe that children spell ‘love’ a different way, another four-letter word T-I-M-E. They say time is money, however, I want to make a new line, ‘time is love’. It’s a great privilege that we take time to spend with our children and build on our very important family values, build on the great experiences they have and build memories that no amount of money can buy. These important memories create and build family connection.
Spending time and being present in the moment with our children is one of the best protective factors, that as a family we can create and make our children feel safe, happy, and mentally healthy.
The purpose of disclosing what happened to me is to provide readers with courage, compassion, and understanding. I hope that through my words, my truth, and my honesty I have shone a light on various ways to seek help. Don’t wait, just act – small, safe steps. It is scary, it is hard. For me, the best antidote has been feeling connected. Creating, and having a sense of belonging with family, friends, and sporting groups. If you know a child or adult that has been through trauma, support and help them.
You can do this, start small, it’s the little things that make the big things count. I want to give you hope and remember the greatest gift you can give yourself is time and attention. Build your village to strengthen your connectedness and a sense of belonging. It is a journey.
John invites readers to connect with him on social media – facebook.com/john.cardamone or Instagram @john_cardamone or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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