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  • nancydahlhauser

Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse: Trying to Thrive through Creativity

I was once a typical eight-year-old girl that experienced the unimaginable. This included a sexual assault, attempted murder, and a near-death-experience. I repressed the memories of my assault in order to emotionally survive in a dysfunctional family, and in my small world where rape and incest were not a part of my vocabulary or comprehension.

I went on to become a successful adult. I went to college. Got married to a wonderful man that I met during my freshman year. Became an elementary school teacher. Adopted three beautiful children. I was living the "American Dream." That is, until the cracks in my psyche started to spew forth chaos into my carefully constructed life.

I began to have flashbacks of my assault in my late twenties. They were quick, violent images that shook me to my core. I tried reasoning with myself. These images were just like nightmares except they were happening while I was awake. Just random neurons in my brain firing senselessly. They were not real memories. I barely ate, barely slept. I was a mother and wife on autopilot. For nearly a year, I continued to perform my duties, but I felt detached from everyone and everything.

I wasn't fooling the most significant person in my life, my husband. One night when he initiated intimacy, I had a full blown panic attack. I remember he said, "Someone has hurt you deeply, and we need help." All I remember saying is, "I'm a disgusting freak. You deserve better than me. I'm so, so sorry." He held me tight until I fell asleep. The next morning, he took me to a psychiatrist who put me on an anti-anxiety medication. We found a female psychologist that specialized in childhood sexual abuse. Thus began a lifelong commitment to healing from my childhood trauma.

I eventually wrote my memoir, Fallout; memoir of a freckle face freak. I left my family and spent two months in Sanibel Island, Florida in the summers of 2003 and 2004 writing my story. It was painful yet liberating. My husband had my memoir published by Trafford in 2008. I felt that sharing my story with other survivors would give my assault meaning.

The obstacle I encountered is that some of my family members, most especially my mother, did not understand my need to publicly discuss my trauma or reveal the truth about our dysfunctional family. My mother was devastated when she learned of my sexual assault. She felt she had failed to protect me. I'd put her through enough so I did not pursue sharing my story. I took down my website and hid my book in a drawer that rarely saw the light of day for years.

Flash forward to 2023. Within a five-year period of time, I'd lost my baby brother to brain cancer, my mother who essentially died of a broken heart, a husband who died of a massive heart attack while we were watching his favorite movie, and my sister who committed suicide in my home. There are some things that can't be unseen. Brain matter scattered across a pillow in my son's childhood bed. So what is a girl to do when she is drowning in grief and regret? I started drinking. Heavily. I could not see myself in the future. Life felt hopeless.

One morning, when I awoke with a massive hangover, feeling shame and disappointment in myself for being so weak, I wrote on my bedroom wall: "I Will Not Be Defeated." I asked God and all my holy guardian angels to strengthen me, to help me rise above the darkness, to help me fulfill my destiny whatever that may be. I began to crawl through that storm of sorrow to a place where light prevails. Towards my children and grandchildren. Towards family and friends who were very concerned for me. I crawled towards the only thing that truly matters in this world. Love.

I'm truly sorry if the existence of my book makes anyone feel hurt or embarrassed. That was never my intention. I've come to believe that sharing my story is part of my destiny, and I can't turn away from it again.

If my story helps another survivor, in even the smallest of ways, it gives meaning to my life. I don't have the answers to healing. I only know what works for me. Therapy, creating whether it be my writing or artwork, and immersing myself in nature. My advice to fellow survivors is this: do the work. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to heal. It's painful, messy, and downright exhausting. Do it for you because you're worth it, because you deserve to feel some peace and happiness.

In this blog, I will share art and poetry by fellow survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I will share books and experienced that have made a significant impact on my life. If you would like to participate by sharing your creations, please contact me through this website. I look forward to hearing from you.

I'd like to end my first blog post with this quote by Thich Nhat Hahn who wrote the inspiring book entitled, The Heart of Buddha's Teaching; Transforming Heartache into Joy.

"To transform suffering, your heart must be as big as the ocean."

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