(Grace’s Note: This post deals with a topic that some of you may find stressful: sexual abuse. If this is too difficult for you to read about, you may want to skip over this one.)
My abuse continued for almost four years, right up until my abuser’s sudden death.
My abuser always told me not to tell anyone. He said he would tell my parents, tell the school, get me in trouble. He asked me what my parents would think if they found out. He made it sound like I had done something wrong.
Worst of all, he’d remind me of the hardships my parents endured to become American citizens. Something like this, he said, would mean our whole family would be sent back to Mexico. I remember trying to scream, but no sound would come out—just a dry rattle.
When my parents would leave to visit family in El Paso, I would cry and come up with every excuse I could think of not to spend the night at my abuser’s house. My mother would yell, “They love you! You’re going to hurt their feelings!” I wished for a way to really hurt him.
My abuser died of a heart attack and everyone wept for his sudden, tragic death. I wanted to believe my prayers killed him. I cried too, but my tears of joy turned painful when I realized I would never see him being arrested or beaten up by my older brothers. I wanted to tell everyone the truth at last, but I was afraid they would think it was my fault or that I was making it up for attention. So I buried my feelings and built a wall around my pain.
I kept up my façade through middle school and into high school. I was committed to graduating top of the class as the valedictorian. But I didn’t stop there. I was class representative, Treasurer, and then ASB President. I was a cheerleader and also started working at 15. I was earning money, making straight As, and applying to colleges so I could get a business degree. I saw pictures in magazines of powerful ladies in suits holding meetings, and I believed that was the definition of success. I knew no one would question a strong woman.
One day in my junior year, I became very ill, vomiting uncontrollably. But I couldn’t think about going to the doctor: I was cramming for my final exam in honors chemistry. My grade had fluctuated between A- and B+ all semester long. Anything less than an A would destroy my valedictorian dreams. I pushed through the pain and studied through the night.
After the chemistry test, I saw a doctor who diagnosed a bleeding ulcer. I was seventeen. “Are you under any stress?” he asked. “Just your normal school stress,” I responded. The doctor told me to slow down a little after I rattled off a dozen clubs and projects I was participating in just that semester. “You’re going to blow a gasket going at that speed. You’re young; enjoy these times. You’ll never get them back.” I couldn’t wait to prove this doctor wrong.
In my mind, I had everything figured out. I was filled with rage. I would devour anything that came into my path. My drive was a deadly cocktail of insecurities, anger, pain, and fear. I knew my family wanted a smart and successful daughter, not a damaged, sexually abused embarrassment. It was my duty as the youngest to surpass my siblings. Anything less, even telling the truth, was unthinkable.
Sexual abuse happens more frequently than we’d like to think. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men are victims of sexual abuse, with children being most vulnerable between the ages of 7 and 13. Sexual abuse can lead to lower self-esteem, distorted views of sex, and even suicide.
I wish I could have given my younger self this advice: if this has happened to you, you must talk to someone. Don’t do what I did and convince yourself that you can hide the truth forever. Only after years of working through my past could I tear down the wall I placed in front of my darkest secret. I could have avoided years of grief by speaking up.