In a few weeks I’ll wish my cousin a happy birthday for the 23 time. This year I’ll send the festive wishes through Facebook, the only way I can get a hold of her. This time last year, she was homeless. Not houseless, not living on the street, but homeless in the sense that she was sleeping on a series of friends’ couches. Since drug addiction limits the number of friends who will let you sleep on their couch, the line between homelessness and houselessness is thin. That’s part of the reason she moved back in with her abusive ex-boyfriend.
This time last year, I was grateful for a year between my 22nd “happy birthday” greeting to her and my 23rd. I hoped that extra trip around the sun would give me greater wisdom, and give her greater health and better circumstances. Maybe the world would change a little.
When I was 22 years and six months old I was working a good job for a good company. And I’d come home from work and feel myself start to dissolve, explode, and sink. As I started to look at websites about recovery from child sex abuse, I learned that in NY, a survivor has until their 23rd birthday to file criminal charges against their abuser. As of your 23rd birthday in NY, you can report your abuse to the police, and at best they’ll say “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do”. Around this time I also read volumes about how important and therapeutic it is for victims to forgive their abusers. I think I’m the only survivor out there who sees forgiveness as something complicated, nuanced and not panacean. Back then there were limited on-line resources for sex abuse survivors, and since I was desperate to hide my past from my cohabitating boyfriend, the internet, and the privacy inherent to it, seemed my only information resource. But the two things no one made clear back then were that forgiving your abuser doesn’t re-write anyone’s history, and forgiveness can be granted to an abuser who’s experiencing legal consequences for their actions.
I chose not to press charges on my father. At twenty-two and a half, I was too young to legally rent a car in NY. I knew pressing charges would completely cut me off from my mother and sister, and it’s hard to embrace living as an orphan when you’re 22. I hoped the new distance between me and my family would give me an opportunity to enjoy them on some level- from a distance, perhaps the broken glass and blood splatters would become a sort of kaleidoscope. I didn’t know exactly what pressing charges would entail, but it seemed that at some point I’d actually have to tell people what my father did to me. I simply could not do that. It also seemed like there would be appointments with police officers, DA’s, and the like… not easy to do while working full-time, and not easily hidden from a boyfriend. As I ate my slice of birthday cake at work that fateful day, I mentally made a toast to forgiveness.
Back then, I couldn’t understand there was nothing in my past worth hiding, and that literal death isn’t the only thing that can permanently separate family from you. Nor could I wrap my mind around the idea that my father was still molesting children. Until I learned he was. Then I started paying more attention to my family. And in a convoluted and slow way, I learned he molested my cousin who turns 23 in a few weeks.
The fundamental struggle of anyone who works with youth is to decide how many of their own mistakes to let them make. Little kid mistakes with unpleasant-but-bearable consequences are easy to learn from. But as youth grow, the consequences of the mistakes become bigger, and the task of imparting wisdom from those mistakes becomes harder. At those times, the person teaching the young person is wise to remember how they saw the world when they were young. Which makes ignoring this upcoming birthday very appealing to me right now.
Surviving sexual abuse as a child changes the way someone perceives the world, from the arrangement of their brain cells to their most abstract beliefs about the universe and its contents. Most sex abuse survivors I know are extremely perceptive, but learning to use those perceptions can be a lifetime’s challenge. Imagine someone who can always figure out which glass of fruit juice is laced with poison, which is laced with vitamins, but usually drinks the poison-laced juice. Especially those who are still young, with wounds un-healed and suffering not yet distilled into wisdom. Abusive relationships and drug addictions can both provide apparent benefits to survivors that other people can’t comprehend. It can take years or decades to learn that poison isn’t worth consuming. Childhood prepares us for adulthood, and when a piece of someone's childhood is taken from them, they enter the adult world unprepared in one way or another. And because of the shame and stigma they feel, they rarely ask someone for the Cliffs Notes for the lessons they missed. If they know what those lessons are. It is vastly unfair for people so young and unready to be tasked with battling the same predators who harmed them. And it is vastly unfair not to tell them what they are tasked with.
I’ll message my cousin before her birthday this year. I’ll ask if she’s safe, and remind her that I have a guest room. If my courage holds, I’ll tell her she has a few weeks left to make a decision that is far from the forefront of her mind. A decision that will have major consequences for her and for others further down the road. Consequences that won’t be entirely pleasant, no matter what she decides. I’ll tell her it’s horrible and wrong and backwards and insane that she has to even think about this now. If I’m really brave, I’ll tell her why I made the decision I made on the eve of my 23rd birthday, and what I think about it now. I’ll tell her I love her, and that even though this won’t be a happy birthday, no matter what, there are better ones ahead.