Sunday, February 28, 2010

crisis comes when comfort does not

I was three years old the first time someone touched me 'inappropriately'. Recently I learned that another child I know, also three, has had a similar experience.

When I received the news my instincts took me into helper-mode. I reassured the child's parents that everything would be fine, that they shouldn't panic. The first thing to do was a no-brainer: get the child away from the predator, make the child safe, no matter what the cost.

Once I'd been assured of the child's security I was able to relax and start thinking of the next steps. More than forty years after my own parents responded as best they could, I believe I have some valuable information about what it's like inside the head of an insecure child.

The abuse itself isn't the danger, at least not if violence isn't also a factor. Once a child has survived those confusing, earth-shaking moments, her needs turn to finding out what support she has. Is she on her own to pick herself up? Is it up to her to process what's happened and rebuild the breached wall?

How well do you expect a three-year-old could manage? What skills has she learned by that age? Not many, I can confirm. She has barely a grasp on the concept of boundaries; for that reason, there's no way she can successfully restore them on her own.

Still, it's simple. Looking back, I just needed to hear that what happened was wrong, that I didn't deserve to feel so awkward, that I was allowed to say "no" and that the boy would be punished.

I got none of that. The popular psychology of the day was to avoid discussion, move on and let the event pass out of existence.

Oops.

Within twenty years the confusion I felt had completely clouded my thought processes. I had no boundaries, I was afraid to say "no" and I struggled with depression, promiscuity and cravings for alcohol.

Thanks to time and some incredible therapists, I've made it beyond the years of crisis. I take an anti-depressant to keep the chemicals balanced in my brain, but I've held the same job for four years and I have a boyfriend I adore. Even just a decade ago that kind of stability seemed impossible for me.

And so, I wanted very much to speak with the child, to set her down a different path than my own. When her parents refused me I experienced a brief tailspin of feelings, worrying that their child would suffer as I had. I came to understand their fears, however, and because I trust them to keep their child safe in every respect I will keep a respectful distance, having reminded them that I'm willing to support them whenever they need me.

And when my little friend becomes a young adult I'll be there for her, too. I expect she'll do what I did when it comes time to process what happened from an adult perspective: she'll ask those who were in her life at the time what they know.

And if there are any fragments that need piecing together, I know just how to do it.

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