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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

What if I Fly? What if We Fly?

“I’ve Never Told Anyone”

Four words. Well, three words and a contraction. They are certainly as painful to me as a contraction. I’ve lost track of the number of times I have heard these words since I began to tell my truth.

On the other side of #MeToo, there is #MeNeither. For the thousands who said #MeToo there are thousands more who said, “What on earth are they doing? I am NEVER going to tell my story publicly like that!” I get it. For 60 years I was a #MeNeither.

Every time someone says those four words to me, I visualize a cage door opening. Inside is a hurting person who has lived in the cage created by abusers. The bars are shame and the only way out is that first step of being brave enough to begin to tell the story.

Some tell me, “Well, my husband knows” or less common, “My wife knows.” I am so glad this is true. I think it is the only way to understand each other and our reactions. I wish I had been able to say that, but my repression skills were pretty thorough. The truth is that most will never tell what happened to them—and many will not consciously remember.

I have thought a lot about why we don’t tell. The more I heal, the less I understand it. This was not true the day I walked into therapy. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would tell his or her story in any public forum. Maybe they had no shame. That may be true, but at that time I didn’t think of it as positive.

Now, having no shame is the most positive place I could imagine. Shame says there is something wrong with me. That is so far from the truth. Something wrong was done to me—it had nothing to do with me.

There are so many layers to why I believed that my abuse, from the age of three, was my fault. Even writing that seems like the most ridiculous thing. I would have told you such a thought was ridiculous, but the belief that it was true was embedded deep inside my subconscious. This is true for every victim of abuse.

We always subconsciously believe it is our fault—not because we did anything, but because the only way it could happen is that there was something horribly wrong with us. Maybe we drew the abuse to us? In some cases, maybe we wanted the abuse? That last sentence is so tragic, but I found parts of me that believed it was true.

The abusers know these thoughts will get embedded in us. They tell us we ‘wanted it’ or that no one will believe us. We see what those who speak the truth go through. We see how often the system protects the abuser and not the victim. We often see our abusers held up as model citizens. We wonder if what we know to be true really happened. We understand that the chances of ever receiving justice are so slim. We sense, probably correctly, that to fight for justice will only bring more pain.

Every facet of society is designed to make victims choose silence. The internalized shame. The cultural myths that judge the victims. The religious teachings that call on us to forgive but provide no room for healing. The emphasis on leaving the past behind, living above the pain, and thinking positively about he future. All of it convinces us that silence is really the best choice.

All these reasons are why so many say these four words to me. “I’ve never told anyone.” The only way out of the cage is to tell someone. No one begins by telling the world. They begin by telling one person they know they can trust. It might be a friend. It might be a spouse. It might be a therapist. It might be someone who has been brave enough to tell his or her own truth.

(I wish I didn't need to include the following paragraph, but I do. It is simply true that some we should be able to trust fail and victims and bury the pain even deeper. There is a reason "position of trust' needs to be ever before us.)

I realize that I didn’t say, “It might be a pastor.” I know this is a path for many. I don’t discount it in any way. I don't list it as an option because of the number of stories where it went very wrong. When a religious leader fails, it adds a layer of spiritual shaming on an already fragile life. It is one thing to be betrayed by another equal human, it is quite another to be betrayed by someone who is a representative of God. God doesn’t have anything to do with the failure, but it is very difficult for the victim to unwind God from the betrayal. We also know of therapists or teachers or other professionals who have failed and the result would be similar, but it would not be so intertwined with what the victim believes about God.

It is important to chose who you tell very carefully. Maybe choose someone you can trust that really has no connection or power in your life. That is probably why some have chosen me to be the one who allows them to open the cage of shame. Each one who shares their pain honors me. I always say right up front that I will be very insistent that they seek professional help. I am not a therapist, but I do give others permission to seek help—and I then I try to help them begin that journey.

I did not come to the place of publicly telling my story quickly or easily. I removed the bars from the cage for two solid years. Layer after layer. The fear of someone, anyone, knowing what was done to me and that it is probably because there was something horribly wrong with me was no small mountain to climb over. It was really like climbing Mt. Everest. Hiding for 60 years creates an incredible number of layers.

So, when the #MeToo posts began to pop up on my newsfeed, I took the path of no shame. I did that because I really don’t have any. Not that I don’t have moments of forgetting that I don’t have shame, but I quickly help the child inside of me who thought it was her fault. I hold her hand and remind her that there was nothing wrong with her—something wrong happened to her.

This is really what saying #MeToo means. We are saying that there is nothing wrong with us. The longer we are silent, the greater the power we give to those who abused us. There are many that need to open the cage of shame and begin healing. They are saying #MeNeither out of the fear their abusers embedded in the deepest part of their being—maybe those abusers still hold power over them. While being safe is essential, the only hope is to tell someone. It is the key that unlocks the cage.

If you begin to tell your story, you will hear the words, “I’ve never told anyone.” Hearing these words has empowered me to believe that we can make a difference. Together, we can end the silence and free each other from the cage of shame that makes us say #MeNeither and begin to say #MeToo..

What if we fly right out of the cage?

What if we fly?

There is freedom waiting for you,

On the breezes of the sky,

And you ask, “What if I fall?”

Oh, but my darling,

What if you fly?

~Erin Hanson, The Poetic Underground

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