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'Filled with doubt': victim speaks out over lasting traumas from childhood sexual abuse

Last Updated Mar 21, 2021 at 12:07 pm EDT

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CityNews and OMNI News have launched a new investigative series “Behind Closed Doors” detailing the epidemic of family violence plaguing our communities. If you or someone you know is a victim of abuse, please visit our dedicated resource page.

WARNING: This story contains graphic content related to violence and abuse, and may be disturbing to some readers.

The names and identities of the victims in our stories have been changed to protect them.

Their stories and circumstances aren’t unique. Thousands more are being silenced as their trauma continues daily behind closed doors. These are just some of their first-hand accounts.

To watch this story in Punjabi, click here.

One in three Canadian women experience sexual violence in their lifetime and according to Statistics Canada , over half of the time (52 per cent), the perpetrator is a friend, acquaintance or neighbour of the victim.

In Jenny’s case, that abuser was a member of her own family.

“[He was] someone that has a lot of stature within the family. Someone that is very loved and respected and someone that has had a really large impact in my life,” said Jenny.

Though she was sexually assaulted at a very young age, it wasn’t until Jenny – whose identity has been changed for her protection – reached her 20s that she processed what had happened to her. She immediately turned to her parents for help, but the respected role Jenny’s abuser played in her family’s life made it hard to convince them the assault had actually happened.

“Everyone around me thought that I was lying, that I had gone crazy and that I almost belonged in the psych ward, because something like this was coming out of my mouth,” said Jenny.

Despite being presented with medical documentation proving the abuse, her parents refused to acknowledge anything wrong had happened, going so far as to have her admitted for an extended stay at a local hospital.

That lack of support and denial left her feeling isolated and for a while, Jenny said the heavy doubt from her parents began to influence her own memory of events. She almost convinced herself that it didn’t happen.

“When you’re constantly questioning somebody for what they’re trying to tell you, yes, you’re filled with doubt,” Jenny said.

“You’re like, ‘Did that really happen to me? Am I just making this up?’ And then you’re like, ‘Who makes this up?’”

Looking back now, Jenny said it was clear her parents feared the implications of accepting the realities of the abusive situation so much that it was easier to just deny anything had ever happened.

“To be honest, I know that deep down, if not my father, my mother knows that it’s true,” Jenny said.

“You know the saying ignorance is bliss? I think that’s what it is. The bliss comes from the fact that nobody wants to face the pain of the situations that are happening around us.”

Lasting effects of sexual assault

There was little Jenny could do to distance herself from her abuser, a close member of her family, at that young age. As she got older, Jenny said it took dropping out of university for her to realize just how much the trauma of being forced to grow up in an abusive environment had affected her.

“My lifestyle in university was really underlying (with) a lot of depression, a lot of anxiety which I didn’t know the source of; and I know now that this trauma was a major, major source of that,” Jenny said.

According to Dr. Gaurav Mehta, Medical Director of Psychiatry at Southlake Regional Health Centre, issues with mental health can be just one of the many long-term impacts of childhood sexual assault.

“Even in adulthood, victims of childhood sexual abuse are about four times more likely to develop substance abuse disorder,” said Dr. Mehta.

“Another complication could be post-traumatic stress disorder; and they’re three times more likely to develop a condition called major depressive disorder, commonly known as depression.”

Mehta said the effects of this trauma often manifest when victims enter romantic relationships.

“It is seen that [victims of childhood sexual assault] develop depression or even low self-esteem and they don’t have much sexual confidence in their partners,” said Dr. Mehta. “They have difficulty in having intimate relationships.”

It’s a problem Jenny found herself struggling with while dating her first boyfriend.

“When I look back at my past relationships or the way that I interacted with guys, I can now see where those insecurities and that seeking attention [came from],” said Jenny. “I saw myself a lot in like really crappy power dynamics and controlling relationships”

Healing from childhood sexual abuse trauma

Healing from a traumatic experience like childhood sexual abuse is not easy, but Dr. Mehta said the first step to recovery comes from acceptance that the incident happened.

“It’s not an easy thing because it requires a lot of courage to accept,” said Dr. Mehta.

The next major factor needed in the healing process, according to experts, is reporting the assault, or confiding in someone about the abuse and the perpetrator.

“If you are of a young age and you need support, you can always confide in someone you can trust.”

Family members are usually top of the list when it comes to finding a trustworthy person in a young person’s life. However, because her parents were in denial about her abuse for so long, Jenny never felt comfortable enough to fully confide in them.

“You’re always trying so hard to protect the image of your parents and protect the image of that person who has done that to you,” she said.

“If I’m having a bad day and I know I can’t go talk to my mom about it, do you think I would go discuss rape with her?”

For kids to be comfortable enough to report an injustice, Jenny said parents need to prove they are actually willing to listen. It’s a particular priority for her as a future parent to cultivate that.

“I know that hearing something like that is not easy, but isn’t it better to know that your child is suffering because of someone close in your life that you may have put into their life as well, then them living with trauma and suffering for their entire lives?

Even when children are too young to communicate, Dr. Mehta said there are non-verbal cues you should be watching out for that indicate signs of abuse.

“I saw a case where a young person or a young girl was playing and she was ripping apart the dolls feet and trying to insert a candle into the private parts of the doll. When this was investigated further, she was actually was a victim of sexual abuse. This girl was only three years old,” Mehta said.

He also pointed to other warning signs, including changes in eating patterns, random violent outbursts or even children playing with their private parts at a young age.

Jenny believes parents should be attentive enough to notice any major changes in their child’s behaviour and trusting enough take them at face value.

“Don’t get angry at your child for not wanting to be around a certain person, or if they are expressing anger towards that individual. You don’t know where it’s necessarily coming from, respect your child enough to know that they’re going through something and you as a parent or as a sibling needs to be there for them,” she said.

As she got older, Jenny was able to take matters into her own hands, cutting off communication with the abuser’s side of the family as soon as she could. It took her parents a while longer to follow suit, but eventually they too cut themselves off.

Now, Jenny said she’s focused on healing.

“It has to come from a place of wanting better for yourself and knowing that whatever you’re going through is not your fault,” she said.

“At the end of the day, who’s going to take care of you? And who’s going to understand you and live with your pain? It’s yourself.”