Not too long ago, I was a 13-year-old closeted queer girl, naive to what dangers existed in the world. I feel like I’ve lived an entire lifetime since then. At the time, I was living in a traditional home. I had a wild imagination and an unquenchable thirst for the outdoors. That would all change after meeting the woman who would quickly gain my trust and eventually rob me of my innocence.
It all started while I was packing for a family trip. My mum told me I was going to be sharing a room with my friend and her older relative. I was immediately turned off at the thought of having an adult ruin our fun, but being an optimistic pre-teen, I was determined to have the best week, ever.
By the time the vacation arrived, I was so excited that I ran down the halls searching for my room. I slid the key in, opened the door, and ran to hug my friend, who was already inside with her aunt, a thirtysomething woman with long hair, green eyes, and a smile I’ll never forget. This seemingly harmless woman I just described is a paedophile.
I know what you’re thinking. But not all paedophiles are balding, bearded men who offer kids candy or ask them to help them find their dog. At 13, I was prepared to run from that guy, but not this woman. She seemed one-of-a-kind; she intrigued me. The way she spoke made me want to listen to anything she had to say. Her body language was so inviting that I wanted to stay with her forever.
Within six months, she had gained my trust and my parents'. She’d take me to the mall, out to lunch, to the movies — any place a 13-year-old would want to go. I ended up seeing her nearly five days a week. I was confused about my sexuality and she used that to her advantage, telling me that no one understood me like she did and confiding in me how much she wanted to be in a relationship. All I wanted was love and she gave me that butterfly feeling in my stomach. We started exchanging "I love you's." In my young mind, I truly believed it was love. She began to have a strange power over me. Her wish was my command; nothing else in the world mattered.
Although the signs of abuse were there, I ignored them. I didn't quite understand abuse, but I did understand right from wrong — and I knew what was going on wasn't exactly "right." It started a month after meeting her, when she forced me to kiss her. Within six months, my once-innocent crush turned dark and violent. After months of saying no to her sexual advances and wandering hands, she became manipulative and verbally abusive so that I’d agree to let her do sexual things to me. She would say things like, "It doesn't matter what you want," and, "It's okay, because I love you."
She would say things like, 'It doesn't matter what you want,' and, 'It's okay, because I love you.'
She would force me to have sex with her and, on occasion, she’d bring in another adult — always men — to join. When these men got involved, I became far less cooperative. I already felt uncomfortable around strange men, especially the ones she knew, who were rough-looking middle-aged men — the kind I was taught to stay away from. The first time this happened, I remember thinking to myself, This is my worst nightmare. I cried for days after and even contemplated suicide. I had reached a breaking point; I knew something was terribly wrong with this situation.
My reluctance to participate in the abuse made her angry and she’d use that anger to hurt me in any way she could. I can still see the marks she left on my body today. Handprints from when she choked me; scratches, cuts, and bruises from when I resisted; and self-inflicted wounds from when I wanted to make myself as unattractive as possible. But at the time, no amount of self-mutilation would stop such a power-hungry paedophile.
I felt utterly alone. I knew telling someone was the only way to stop the abuse, but she had told me that she’d never talk to me again if "our secret" got out. I was young, confused, and thought I should do what she, an adult, told me to do.
So, I came to the dark conclusion that the only way to end the abuse was to end my life. I was 14, and I thought it was better to die than to upset this person who said she loved me. I began searching for the right car to throw myself in front of or the right bridge for my final jump. These suicidal thoughts kept on for years after the abuse.
The 11 months of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse finally came to an end when I tried to tell a family member. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time to explain what had happened to me and I was terrified that I’d get into trouble. So, I sugarcoated the story and said that she and I had been in a "relationship." I wanted to be as discreet as possible, so I never mentioned the sexual abuse and only said that we had held hands.
It was only a matter of time before a large tribe of family members, both immediate and extended, knew the story — or thought they did. Most were quick to point fingers and place the blame on me. I was called emotionally unstable, a liar, an overly dramatic child desperate for attention. I was again told to keep quiet by the adults in my life, so I did.
Once word got out about our relationship, I never heard from her again. I went from being a happy, energetic child to a victim, a timid and fearful mute who didn’t want to speak to anyone. I thought that when I spoke, people could hear the shame and guilt I felt inside. I became self-destructive and started falling down the dark hole of addiction. My abuser got away with her crime free and clear, while I was reprimanded and shamed. So, I joined the adults in my life and blamed myself.
Prescription painkillers and self-mutilation became my sources of relief. No one talked to me about what happened; I was left in the dark, heartbroken and abandoned with so many unanswered questions. I didn’t completely understand that I was sexually abused and it took me years of mourning the loss of my "first love" before I realised that what I had experienced was, in fact, abuse. All I wanted was to feel that love again. I felt more alone than ever. I would cut myself to feel control over my pain and take pills to numb the emptiness.
I still felt lost, but I was determined to create a meaningful life.
A few years later, I lost a relative to drug abuse and reality smacked me in the face. I realised that no amount of painkillers were going to kill the pain I felt inside. It was something I needed to face head-on. So, I reached out to a few close relatives and told them exactly what had happened to me. They became my backbone as I weaned myself off addiction. Withdrawal from the pills was painful, but in the end, I emerged an addiction-free 18-year-old. I still felt lost, but I was determined to create a meaningful life.
I was lucky enough to find support around me — being able to talk about my experience helped more than anything. After I finally broke my silence, I started to set short-term goals for myself. With each achievement, I felt my life become more meaningful. I soon found a passion and ran with it, starting a career in the beauty industry. I realised that I loved helping people look and feel beautiful; nothing compares to the joy I feel when clients leave with smiles on their faces.
Ultimately, finding a support system and pushing myself to step outside my comfort zone and set goals was what helped me find happiness. It wasn’t long before I was able to love myself again. That was when I came to realise that I couldn't find happiness. It’s not something you find; it’s something inside of you. For me to tap into that happiness, though, I had to learn to show myself the love and compassion that I lacked during those dark years.
I’m no longer a teenager and I ask myself all the time how I made it through the abuse and the awful period that followed. Was it sheer luck? Or was the universe telling me I had a purpose to fulfil here? I have to believe it’s the latter.
Although my abuser still walks free and people in my own family still don’t believe me, I work every day to heal myself. I want to be able to help young women and girls like me by having a positive attitude and sharing my story of survival. In this small way, I hope I can touch someone who might be feeling as abandoned and unloved as I did years ago.
I'd be lying if I said I was completely healed from the abuse. I often wonder if I'll ever go a day without thinking about it or her. When I pass places where she abused me, see the same car she drove, hear certain songs, or smell certain perfumes, I have terrible flashbacks and even panic attacks. And I still get nightmares about what she put me through. But I refuse to let any of that hold me back from healing and living my life. I won't give her that kind of power. Looking back and seeing how far I've come makes me realise how powerful I am. It makes me feel like I can conquer the world.
I’m no longer a victim. I’m a survivor. The abuse I suffered doesn’t define me, but moving past it has given me the strength to tell my story and let other survivors know they’re not alone.
*The author's name has been changed to protect her identity.