Behind that smile was already 6 years of sexual abuse. At the time of these photographs I was 14 years old. I look at my smile and feel haunted by it now. I did not have any concept of the magnitude of what had been done to me. I would not have known that 40 years later, I would still be waking up to nightmares.
In the photo of all of the girls, we are on swivel skis. The boot, where you put your foot into the ski, turned 360 degrees. It was very challenging for me. To some people, waterskiing came naturally. To me this did not. Smiles are deceiving aren’t they. To do this trick we were doing, we would put one foot in a special handle on the rope and then turn around backwards. Oh it was so difficult for me! Every other part of waterskiing was almost magical. Climbing to the top of a pyramid on the water I felt like I was on top of the world. To master this trick I had to be abused for years by a man who gave me lessons in exchange for using my body.
In the other photo, the ski team was in Costa Rica doing a ski show. Three men in that photograph had abused me. Many others in that photograph knew I was being abused. One man I confided in that I was being abused. I thought he’d save me. He didn’t. I look at myself in that photo, casually leaning on the knee of the guy next to me smiling. I remember that moment. The abuse had been going on for so long and by so many. I had been groomed for years. I had been brainwashed for years. I had no instinct, no intuition, and no gauge for the severity of what was being done to me. I had a “feeling” but did not know at 14 years old what that feeling was.
That ski team bled over into all areas of my life. Members of team went to my church, they were in my theater group, they were in my ballet and dance center. I could never escape. There was no escape for me.
I did not know what safe felt like. My “no” was never a no. My words were silenced, threatened, and shamed. This was not a one time event. This was an ongoing weekly abuse that lasted until I attempted suicide. I was thinking just last night about those who visited me in the hospital after that suicide attempt. They had no idea why I did what I did. They still came to see me. I remember them and their concern and love. A person doesn’t forget things like that. But an abuse victim does forget many other things. It is a protection mechanism. A survival technique that our brain does on its own so that we can live through the horror of each time.
My mother called DCFS after I told her about one of the men. I had turned 15 and something happened. I don’t know what happened in my brain that told me all of this was very wrong but I knew it was all wrong. After I knew, it became this identified feeling: traumatic. I did not know at the time that EVERY TIME prior was traumatic. But from that moment on I felt the trauma and I felt it hard. At that moment in my life of abuse, each time I had a pit in my stomach, thinking: someone save me, get me out of here. Once you know it is abuse, fear comes. Shock comes. The hope that someone will stop it comes. But no one did.
When the DCFS older white man came to my house and asked me what had been done to me, I had no idea what to tell him. I did not have the words to tell him what had happened. I did know I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t know what I had been shown was porn. And he did not ask if I had been shown naked people. He did not ask anything. How could I tell him that I was made to model and shown naked people and praised, etc. I did not know. I did not know. Anything! I was still a child. I did not know that what I had experienced by him was an erection. I knew there was something hard pressing against my butt but I did not know that was what it was. I did not know the right words to tell this man what had happened. I didn’t even know which parts were gravely heinous and which parts were just, eh, over the line…ofcourse I know now it was all abuse. I did not know because I was still a child. At 47 years old it is very easy to express every single detail of what happened. The DCF guy did not help me. He did not offer any way for me to tell him what I did not know how to tell him. This is hard to explain. I felt traumatized, invalidated, and even threatened. I had wasted this man’s time he said. I had now accused someone of something and I had no valid experiences to share he said. How did I expect him to help me…and it goes on and on. I did not know that men were not supposed to “accidentally” show you their penis. I did not know that I was not in the wrong for being forced to do things to men. “ Put my penis in your hand NOW. DO IT!” I mean I was doing what I was told. I was being a “good girl” so was that on the list of things to tell this man? And did I tell him of the 10 other men too? What was right and what was wrong was so blurry and I could not put it into words. Because of that one meeting, nothing ever happened to anyone.
After DCF was called and nothing came of it, more abuse came upon me. I was no longer on the ski team but I was waterskiing in shows with other groups of people who knew this secret of what had happened to me. I was pulled aside at ski tournaments, I was picked up for skiing jobs by men at the airport, I was placed time and time again in situations when I was still under 17 years old, where men were abusing and raping me. THEN I knew and THEN I dissociated from my body so often that anyone could do virtually anything to me. And they did.
I remember once at a ski tournament I went back to my hotel room to get something I’d forgotten and a guy from another ski team was there waiting for me. I can honestly tell you that I have only flashes of what happened but I do recall another guy coming in and telling him to put my bathing suit bottoms back on because adults were coming. I think I had just turned 15 then.
That time in my life I don’t even think I was alive. Most of me was dead, being killed, or quickly disappearing.
I have nightmares now and flashbacks now of things that I had no idea ever happened. Then in a flood of agony my body remembers.
I was still smiling when I was 14 years old in those photos because I was a child who had been sexually abused for so long that smiling was all I could do. I smiled through it all until I could not smile anymore. Once the ski club abuser threw me into the water because he wanted the other guys in the boat to see my breasts through my shirt all wet. They all laughed. I covered myself and I cried. I was 12 then. The next day at practice I smiled like it never happened.
40 years have passed since those photos were taken. I have PTSD. I have anxiety attacks. I throw up at certain scents, and flashbacks. I freeze when I should stand up for myself to this day.
Everywhere I turned I was not helped. The gynecologist, after multiple times seeing her thought I was a whore. At 15 years old. I already had sexually transmitted diseases and had a chunk of my cervix removed. I had been later raped and given who know what medication after although no rape kit had been done because I had no words. My BODY was the proof. But no one cared. I am not exaggerating. Hundreds could have stepped in. Falling through the cracks is just a catch phrase people use who CHOOSE to not do anything when the truth is staring at them right in the face.
I had no words.
I was a child.
I was then a teenager, still with no words. When I tried to speak my truth I was shoved aside and disregarded like trash. My family sent a clear message to the ski team when they allowed my brother to still ski with them after I had accused the ski team member of abuse. I spray painted the ski jump that he was an abuser. I told multiple people I was afraid of him, he had done things to me I did not like. I did not have the perfect words so my words meant nothing at all. The words I painted on the ski jump was very clear though. I named the abuser, said he was a child molester, said to protect your children, and it was covered up.
I WAS A COVER UP.
And NONE OF IT WAS MY FAULT.
I spoke what I could. If one person would have helped me to express the details I would have. Had one person put their arms around me and told me that it would never happen again and I was safe now, that would have changed my life forever.
After being put into a mental hospital after the first suicide attempt, I got to come home on the weekends to see my brother skiing with the man who PUT me in the mental hospital.
I was blamed for years for not being able to tell all of the details. I mean, there was that smile! It could not have been that bad right?
I’d go to new waterskiing jobs and encounter the same abuser or a different one. My name was out there and they all knew I would do nothing, say nothing, and that my body was there for the doing.
I did not understand fully what had happened in my childhood. I saw it from a child’s skewed and groomed perspective. It was not until my best friend’s husband sexually assaulted me and held me against my will with a gun that my life flashed before my eyes. That was 14 years ago now. We are coming up on that date. Hmm, maybe that explains all of the nightmares. Anyway, I believed he would kill me because that was his plan. He said so. I was happily married with a 10 year old at home and my life was PERFECT! And then it wasn’t at all. I froze and I could not unfreeze. I stayed in shock for days and told no one. So the cycle repeated. And every single memory of my past came back and has been coming back ever since. I eventually told but “ it was too late.”
I started seeing a psychiatrist who helped me to understand the enormity of what had happened throughout my childhood and his assault. The affects of sexual trauma over and over and over again. She helped me to see it through an adult’s eyes, and I was horrified. I had a child the same age as I was, when I was being abused. She was just a baby! I was just a baby! I started remembering the details of the clock ticking on the wall and the smell of his breath and what was playing on the tv. I remembered watching myself outside of my body. I remembered his weight and I then understood that all of the words I could not speak were words a child should never have to. Those words were words a child should not know. I could not have known. They were abuse words. They were rape words. They were violation words. I did not know those words as a child and certainly no one helped me to find those words. It was much easier to pretend they never happened. My psychiatrist brought it all into focus. She allowed me to finally understand why I felt the way I felt. It was all normal. I am normal. My reactions are normal for a person who has been through so many traumas with so many men. I know that I will never be ok. I know that this will haunt me forever. PTSD does not go away. I have been given great coping skills but the flashbacks still come.
This sounds like I am writing just about me but I am not. I am writing for every other individual in the world who has gone through what I have been through. I sit here right now wondering what my life would been like had someone comforted me, loved me, made me feel validated, made me feel safe, been outraged, fought for me. I have no idea what that would feel like because to date, no one has ever done those things for me that were a part of my life then. No one who knew has apologized. No one who knew has reached out to me. No one has been held accountable. I’ve had two separate individuals reach out to me to tell me they knew I was being abused and tried to help but were stopped. I have told my story and people who did NOT know have supported me and been outraged that they did not know what was happening. That has given me some comfort. Those who did know, still have said nothing.
When telling my family the entire truth about my childhood they chose to do what they did back then but in a more severe stand. They turned their backs. They are no longer in my life. All they ever wanted were the details and when I gave them they still were not the perfect words they wanted to hear. They wanted me to shut up. The lies trickled and rippled through our town and friends and family so far that they have taken on a life of their own. I still tell the truth about what happened to me. I still try to protect girls on the ski team where the same abusers exist. No one cares. I have had the loss of my childhood and then the subsequent loss of my family and: NONE OF IT WAS MY FAULT.
In reflecting I’d have to say one derogatory thing about my family…they are all pathetic cowards and I deserve so much better. When you watch the movies and hear the dad’s say, “ If anyone hurt MY daughter, they’d never find his body,” know that in real life, dads don’t do that. My story is not original. I’ve met many victims who have the same family I did.
Some of the things that happened to me may not have been preventable. There are pedophiles and sex offenders and predators everywhere.
I am writing this because AFTER the abuse, HAD I been treated as I SHOULD have been treated, perhaps I would not be suffering now in such an incomprehensible way.
If you know of an individual who has been or is being abused, DO SOMETHING. I’ve heard it said, “ Well it wasn’t really my responsibility to do anything.” Whose responsibility is it then? Each person who knew and did nothing plays a part in the abuse. Each one. Their part, the ones who knew and did nothing, is, on some days, worse than the abuse itself. I needed to be saved. I needed to feel safe. I needed one person to fight for me. I was so very alone. An alone most could never understand. In some ways I still feel that.
How do you save someone? How do you make them feel safe? How do you validate?
There is not a perfect formula for how to treat an abuse victim. I can just tell you that you should try anything. TRY. You may not be perfect but TRY.
I used to crawl into my parents room and sleep next to their bed after they fell asleep because I did not feel safe in my own room. They never knew this. I would sleep in my closet because I was afraid to sleep in my own bed. My dad and mom divorced soon after all of this and my dad soon remarried and started a new family. It was like nothing had ever happened to me. I was…invisible.
Had I found out my daughter had been abused I would have asked her: What can I do to help you to feel safe? If you don’t know then can I make suggestions? Would you like me to put a mattress on your floor so you don’t feel alone? Would you like to sleep in bed with me? What can we do as a family to make you feel like we support you? We support you! We will fight for you! We will hug you if you want, not touch you if you want. We will do whatever it takes for you to feel loved and heard and safe again.
That is what I would have done. Had that been done for me then my life would be different. I know this. Shoot I not only had no one to make me feel safe, I still have family and ski club members who refuse to acknowledge anything that happened. They are angry at me for telling the truth. It “taints” their facade. They have said taints. My truth taints their memories. I will keep telling the truth of the abuse because their is one little girl or boy or adult who needs to know they are not alone. There is a parent who doesn’t know what to do. There is a friend who doesn’t know if she should do something and how. If you know someone is being abused don’t stop fighting for them until they are safe. No matter how many people turn their backs or shut you down, fight. Fight for those you love who have no voice and are unable to fight for themselves.
I remember bleeding in a back room and not knowing what to do. I was searching for something to scrub the floor so no one saw. I pulled my jeans up and there was blood all over them. Why was their blood? I didn’t know. I was told I was supposed to be happy. I was supposed to hurry and get dressed and act happy. But the blood. What was I to do about the blood?
And that was what was behind that smile. That smile when I was waterskiing in those photos. Behind that smile was a damaged, pained, horrified, traumatized, broken girl. No one wanted to know. And those who knew did nothing. So I am haunted. Haunted by the me with a smile. Haunted by the men. Haunted by those who used me and shared me like I was worth nothing. I am haunted still behind a smile. I may always be.