As part of our continued outreach for Boys and Men Healing documentary, we invite guest blogger, Ken Followell, a survivor of boyhood childhood sexual abuse and leading advocate, who writes from a personal perspective about self-forgiveness. His journey to self-forgiveness required self-examination, determination and placing the blame where it belonged — on the perpetrator. In overcoming complex roadblocks to self-forgiveness, he offers hope to others. Read Ken’s bio below this blog. Welcome Ken!
Anger is not an emotion I am comfortable handling. Most often when I find myself being angry, I learn that the cause is something I have done and need to correct. Being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, at times I’m angry about how those events of long ago continue to have impact on my life. So, it is very easy to accept fault when my anger about the abuse comes up, believing some of the things perpetrators said — which placed the blame on me (the child) and not them (the adults). Accepting that fault, I have looked for ways to forgive myself, and to continue in my healing from the sexual abuse.
Forgiveness is a topic that can cause all people to stumble at times. When dealing with pain that others have caused us, there truly is no shortage of opinions on how, when, where, why and if you should forgive another person. I am not going to add my voice to that topic, yet I am looking at self-forgiveness and how that can impact recovery from sexual abuse.
I experienced sexual abuse throughout my childhood from several perpetrators over many years. In dealing with this history of abuse I often found my inner voice repeating the false accusations which the perpetrators said to me and accepting fault for the crimes committed against me.
Like other survivors of trauma, I found myself stuck along the way toward healing — in a place where shame and guilt seemed to be blocking the path to happiness and recovery. Often survivors are told by well-meaning friends and advisors that a great place to start is to forgive ourselves. Since struggle with guilt and shame is common for survivors, this makes sense as a necessary step in the recovery process. When receiving that advice, my first step was to learn how to do so.
In my rush to find the self-forgiveness I thought I needed, I presumed there were acts I committed in need of forgiveness. Please understand, I know there are things in my life for which forgiveness would be appropriate. However, I have learned that having been sexually victimized is not one of those. This lesson was not easy to learn. Seeing how I arrived here may be helpful to others similarly unable to move forward in their healing.
Initially, I realized many of my childhood coping mechanisms. Surely, if I could learn to forgive myself for these, healing would be enhanced. There are many coping mechanisms which get us through the trauma, but long term these are not effective ways to live life. My coping mechanism was deep denial to the point where I repressed knowledge of the abuse until late in my 30’s. Many symptoms of being a survivor were present in my life, but understanding why those symptoms were present was not. Until the memories began returning and disrupting my life, I lived with what was a carefully edited version of my past. I felt I had betrayed myself. It felt as if I had chosen to forcefully block those memories. Surely, I was in need of self-forgiveness for that.
Having the memories of being victimized return to my awareness gave me a new way of thinking of myself. Knowing that I had been profoundly victimized removed the feeling of safety I had previously took for granted. In forgiving myself, I had collapsed the coping mechanism of denial with the abuse itself and took ownership of both. So, I began to look for ways to prevent repeating both the denial and the abuse. Taking ownership involved becoming aware of ways my behavior could allow others to victimize me again. Turning my attention to preventing such from happening, I not only began controlling my behavior, I started looking for ways to control how others behaved around me so that I could control my reaction. After all, wasn’t that the way the perpetrator interacted with me that started this entire painful experience? If only I could be sure the way I acted would always encourage the “better angels” in others, then I could be safe – and if I was safe, I would not need coping mechanisms.
I always felt that I struggled with making friends and keeping those I did have. However, since I now had the key to correcting that fault of mind, I thought friendships would become more numerous, and I could trust more deeply the friends I already had. Funny how that is not the way the experience went. It seems people resent when you take responsibility for the way they act. Some used the phrase “control freak”, others were not so kind. I could see that while pursuing self-acceptance, I ended up not being very accepting of others. While encouraging others to act in a way that lessened my fears and anxiety, I frequently became judgmental and manipulative. Forgiveness was now something I did need, but it wasn’t from myself. I was back to feeling guilty and stuck.
Sharing my struggles with other survivors I learned this experience is not one unique to me. Cycles of isolation, controlling behavior, rejection and shame seem common. Forgiving myself for this did not provide and escape from the cycle. So the question returns, “How can I break away from the continuing pain this cycle brings?”
Thinking about the benefits of not changing my controlling behaviors could possibly offer some insight. Through this behavior I had gained a sense of control which I lost when the memories of the abuse returned. When the memory of being abused and subsequent memories came back to me, my life felt completely out of control. The memories came back to me without me seeking them, stealing my sense of safety – I then knew I had been harmed quite profoundly. That loss was one I desperately wanted to recover, and the “control freak” cycle did place me back in charge of my life. The cost was it left very little room for others.
That is a cost I was not willing to pay so I needed to find another strategy. One phrase that is often used by those speaking of healing is “moving from victim to survivor”. Feeling like a victim is truly awful. The word brings up feelings of helplessness, danger and injury. No one want to be a victim; and if they have been, then never again. Like many male victims of sexual abuse, I had more than one perpetrator and multiple occurrences of victimization. The multiple instance of being victimized made the transition from victim to survivor in a difficult one. Looking back, I can see I claimed that victory long before I actually achieved it.
It was easier to accept some responsibility for the abuse, than to accept I was in situations where I had no control over what was happening. Accepting that truth is difficult because it means accepting that we live in a world in which personal safety is not assured. Victim blaming not only is done by others, sometimes the victims themselves chose to accept blaming in an effort to believe they can prevent it from happening again. It is comforting to believe that with forethought and care we can guarantee our safety and the safety of those we love. It is without a doubt true that being reckless and giving not a thought to safety, places us in danger. That being the case, it would seem that with care and planning we could remove danger, but the truth is all we can do is lessen it, but not eliminate it. I truly hated believing that.
Once I was able to let go of the misguided responsibility for the abuse and placed the guilt where it belonged — on the perpetrators — it took some time to move past the fear. It would have been easy to allow that fear to cause me to retreat into isolation, but isolation would not increase my safety, it only would limit my resources. Having fewer people I would allow to be in my life would do nothing other than decrease my happiness. Accepting that I had been victimized and was able to survive the experience led me to see the coping mechanism in a new light, not as a character fault or weakness, but as an example of my strength. I had found a way to hold on until I could more fully heal from the trauma. Recognizing that strength is an incredible source of courage, hope and joy. I know I cannot prevent hurt from coming into my life, but I will survive if it comes, and my life with not be made smaller by it.
Contrary to the popular wisdom, forgiving myself was not the solution to what I needed to deal with the shame I felt, however, correctly placing the responsibility was. Many perpetrators of sexual violence spend much time grooming their victims before the assault occurs. They lay careful groundwork to trap their victims. Often leading them to believe they have somehow caused the perpetrator to act. This lie serves to silence the victim and block any hope of escape. Years later, it can stand in the way of healing from the trauma. I hope others who are stuck in a similar trap can find their way out to the other side. I know it is worth the work to get there.
More about Ken:
Ken Followell began is recovery by joining the discussion board at NOMSV.rog which is now MaleSurvivor,org. He currently is a board member of MaleSurvivor, serving as immediate past president. Ken is an alumni of the Weekend of Recovery program which he credits as the second best thing he has ever done for his recovery. The best this is being married to his best friend, Vicky; with whom he will celebrate his 35th anniversary this year. He also started and continues to participate in a peer support group in Bradenton. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.