One afternoon last year, I was walking up the street to catch the bus I was taking to get to my grad school classes at night.
As I was walking, a little girl came out of one of the buildings and started walking just a few feet in front of me. She was around six years-old, and was walking alone. I started to panic. I felt sick to my stomach. I was hoping she’d go inside somewhere, but she just kept walking in front of me.
I was scared for her. This girl is in danger. She’s going to get hurt. I wasn’t scared that she was going to get kidnapped or anything like that. I was scared that she was going to be hurt by me.
I am scared to be near children. It’s a crippling fear of mine. I don’t want to hold anyone’s baby. I don’t want to babysit anyone’s toddler. I avoid children at all costs. When I see them, I run away. It’s part of the reason I have not, and never will, have children of my own.
It’s not so much a fear of children (although some are quite scary). It’s the fear that I will hurt them. The fear that I am a predator, an abuser just like my mother was and is. They say the cycle of abuse continues, the abused become the abusers. I think that’s true, because I think that is me.
It’s a topic you won’t find in any support groups. It’s something hush-hush, something to be ashamed of. And I agree. I never told a soul what I had done until I hesitantly brought it up to my therapist last year, after suffering from painful flashbacks of incidents from my childhood, incidents in which I hurt other children.
I didn’t know any better. I was a child, too, a child who believed that all little girls were supposed to be “helped” in the bathroom, a child who thought it was normal to touch parts that shouldn’t be touched. I didn’t know it was wrong. I didn’t know I was hurting other children. I was just doing what I was taught was okay.
I realized the reality of the situation when I started getting flashbacks in my early 20s. At that point, I knew what I had done. I knew I hurt children, in the same ways I was hurt. I was no better than any other abuser.
I hid it from the world for so long, even after I told my therapist. It was the one topic I never discussed with anyone else, the one topic I could never write about on this blog until today. I was still ashamed. I still am ashamed. And I carry that shame and guilt with me every day of my life.
They say the best way to counteract shame is to tell people the wrongs you have done. I realize that this may hurt me further. I realize some will respond with disgust, and even hatred. But I am taking the chance that at least one person will understand. I can’t be the only one out here. I don’t want to be the only one.
Why talk about this now?
I did something last week, something I’ve been afraid to do. I acted against my fear. In DBT, they call it opposite to emotion action. If your fear is unjustified, you don’t run away or avoid, you approach. And that’s what I did.
I was in the mall trying to get to the bus stop. All of a sudden, a group of Daisy girl scouts ambushed me. Usually, I would dash and run away, but I couldn’t do that because I am still using crutches. I froze for a minute, physically and mentally. Then I remembered, approach don’t avoid. You are not your mother. You are not a predator. I came back to reality, and stood there and listened as they sold me two boxes of cookies. The anxiety was still there, stewing inside of me; the panic was, too. But after a few minutes, it was all over. I got my cookies. I talked to children. And I didn’t hurt them.
I faced one of my biggest fears head on, doing something I had avoided for so long. The fear was still there; I would be lying if I said it wasn’t. But here was evidence that I could be near a child without hurting her.
I shared my experience in program the next day (without sharing the details of what caused the fear in the first place). I’m not sure anyone quite understood the gravity of my fear, because they don’t know my story much at all. But they didn’t judge me.
And neither did my therapist at program. We talked about it more in individual session the following day. It was uncomfortable for me at first, because I was afraid she would ask me the question I had been avoiding every time someones asked have you ever hurt someone?
My therapist asked if my fear of children was justified or unjustified, and I told her I wasn’t sure. I really wasn’t. In a way it is justified, I thought. I have hurt children in the past. But not in the present. Not as a conscious adult. Not as a perpetrator. So then it’s unjustified. She asked my reasons for the fear being justified. I felt the shame rising up again. I told her I hurt a child, but I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I was just a child. I was afraid of her reaction. This was a woman who knew me all of two months, and yet she knew so much about it already — and now this.
She asked if I ever had urges to hurt a child. I never have. I can’t even imagine myself knowingly hurting a child. It’s not like that at all. But there is a fear of an urge. A fear that if I am left with children, an urge will come and I will hurt them. Like it’s something that has been ingrained in me. Like it’s something I inherited from my mother.
It’s fear that is both justified and unjustified. There are no easy answers. There is no easy explanation. The only thing I know is that I’ve hurt someone, but I am not my mother.
When you approach your fears, over time, they gradually lose their strength and you are able to overcome them. But this is not one of those fears. My therapist said it might get better over time, but I also may always be afraid of being near children; that fear may never go away. That’s understandable, and that’s okay. But it hurt me when she said that. Even though I know she’s right, I realized it’s just another part of life I have lost because of my past.
While children bring most people joy, they will bring me fear. And I may never be able to change that. Just like I can’t change what I have done, who I have hurt, or those who have hurt me.
I am sorry. Every minute of every hour of every day, I am sorry.