CW: child sexual abuse, ptsd, suicide
When I was in third grade, I started keeping a diary. Also when I was in third grade, my brother abused me.
I threw out all my diaries when I was in twelfth grade. That original diary, a pretty locked notebook that a friend had given me for my ninth birthday, and a stack of identical pretty notebooks I had bought from Duane Reade and written in faithfully for the past nine years. I was disgusted with myself, with things I had written in those diaries, and I wanted to remove all evidence of my thoughts and feelings. I remember throwing the diaries into the trash – I carried them out to the curb rather than putting them in the kitchen garbage and risking my mother seeing them. I remember watching through the blinds in the morning as the garbage truck pulled up outside, as the garbage collectors deposited our trash into the truck and threw the bins back to the street with a clatter, as the truck drove off with my diaries crushed inside. I let go of the blinds and settled back down in bed with a feeling of relief and lightened load.
Many times since then, I have regretted this action. Imagine what I would discover if I could read those years and years’ worth of diaries! I don’t have to imagine all of it, though. There’s at least one entry that is burned into my brain forever.
It was in my very first diary, in third grade.
No one understands me,
I just want to go to Shiale’s room and kiss him again.
Feeling like no one understands you is perhaps run-of-the-mill for a teenager. Except I was nine years old. And no one, not a teenager nor a nine-year-old, should be writing that sentence. No one should be able to say “again” about going to her brother’s room, locking the door, lying down on the floor, and “kissing” her oldest brother.
I ‘ve been going through some old school files recently. I wasn’t sure why exactly I was doing this. Nostalgia, sure, but it felt like I was looking for something. What I was looking for, I didn’t know. Today, I think I found it in my fourth-grade journal. I don’t remember much about this journal. I have only vague memories of the activity, which I think happened at the beginning of secular studies class in the afternoons. But based on the format of many entries, especially the ones which begin with a “what-if” scenario, I assume that at least some of them were responses to prompts from the teacher.
As I read through the journal now, I began to notice patterns. There are 4 entries telling tall tales about me falling and breaking all my bones, some identified as lies (“Ha, ha, ha”) and some left as if they are truth. There are 3 entries about being an object that is used up and 2 about being stuffed into dark places. There’s one terrible entry about a fictional Esther Shaindel starting a fire because she left a lit candle near her bed, and then almost jumping into the fire to kill herself because she feels guilty.
My Hebrew teacher, Mrs. Baron, sent me to the school guidance counselor in fourth grade because she caught me crying during davening as I recited the words קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראהו באמת – “God is close to all who call to him, to all who call to him in truth.” I was crying because I was wondering why God wasn’t answering me. I spoke to Aliza, the guidance counselor, once a week after that. (Most students never saw the guidance counselor.)
In the years since then, I have wondered – was I being overdramatic? I loved putting on plays for myself in the mirror. I could make myself cry very easily, and I loved doing that – showering took forever because on my way in and out of the shower I would look at myself in the mirror and pretend to be an orphan, or the heroine of the latest Bais Yaakov play, and act out an improv scene with my mirror-self, and it always ended in tears.
And my mother did tell me for years that I was overdramatic and that I liked looking for things to be upset about.
So I doubted myself all these years, and wondered if I was really hurting, or if I was putting on an act that day when I cried during davening, and then continued going to Aliza because I liked the attention.
When I started dealing with the memories of what my brother did to me, I knew that I hadn’t been overdramatic. I had been abused, and that can affect someone.But at the same time, I still doubted myself. I was mostly happy, wasn’t I? I was well-adjusted. I had friends. And as much as the research shows that abused children become fearful, I wasn’t afraid. I trusted people too much, in fact. I was loud and laughing, living life large. I mean, I had enjoyed it and wanted it! And I have no memory of ever telling him to stop. (I actually am bothered by the “fuzzy borders,” the lack of memory I have over how it started and stopped.)
It didn’t affect me then – why should it be affecting me so much now? Why all the anxiety, the panic attacks? Why is it so bad now that I’ve cut off contact with my brother and his wife (who tried to turn the blame on me when I tried to talk to him about it), that I’ve cut off contact with my parents who expected me to show up to family functions with him there, expected me to “get over it” and “move past it” and “stop letting it affect your life” – maybe they were right? Maybe I’m acting this way just because I know that this is what psychology says happens to abused children.
Logically, I knew this was a ridiculous train of thought. I discussed it numerous times with my therapist.
But finding this journal did something to me. It showed me that I am not making this up. It showed me that this anxiety isn’t coming out of the blue. Because look in my journal – look at the kinds of things I was writing. If I had been writing this in public school, or any school with licensed and trained teachers, I would have been flagged as a major risk. But Miss Stefansky saw these entries, as my English teacher, and Mrs. Baron, my Hebrew teacher who sent me to the guidance counselor, didn’t know about this.
(I also ended up doubting the guidance counselor and Mrs. Baron because my mother mocked the guidance counselor to my face while I was still seeing her; and years later, she remarked that Mrs. Baron fancied herself a mother to her students, and that’s why she overstepped boundaries and sent me to the guidance counselor.)
I shouldn’t need proof that little me was affected by the abuse in the “right” way. A survivor shouldn’t have to respond in the “right” way or in the “right” frame of time in order to be believed and nurtured back to health. But in a way – it’s still a relief for me to have this “proof” for myself.
It was difficult for me to read through these entries, especially one after the other. I cried for the little girl I was, for the little girl who needs to be heard, and held, and told it’s okay and it’s not her fault, and she is not a worn-out ball or a rubbed-out notebook or a pencil sharpened too much and too hard and too fast. That she is worthy, that she will grow up and go on to be the wonderful person I am now. That there is hope, that people will love her the right way, that she will find happiness and comfort, that she won’t need to be so desperately loud, that she will be able to find comfort in the quiet again.
But it was worth it.
Transcriptions of a few relevant pages are in this post. You can browse the full document here.