The Cost of Silence, Part 2

I want to be angry. I want to hate the teacher that gave me that bunny. I want to hate everyone that turned their backs on me and stayed silent.

But I can’t be angry, and I can’t hate. Because I, too, stayed silent.

When I was in Catholic elementary school, students were encouraged to serve the church as altar servers (basically, assistants to the priest). I didn’t do it because I enjoyed it or wanted to be a good Catholic; by then I had already turned away from God. I actually did it for the money (altar servers were paid to serve weddings and funerals).

One day after mass, the priest told the other server I was with to stay back (we were supposed to go back to class), and they went back into the rectory. I didn’t understand what was so important that he had to go back to his room, but I shrugged it off and went back to class.

And then it happened again. The same priest, the same boy. At first I was mad, thinking that I was missing out on something. My instinct led me to follow them to the back, but the priest turned around and stopped me. I told him I wanted to go, but he said it was a special thing for boys only.

In that moment, I knew. Those words he spoke were words I had heard before. But I didn’t say anything. I left them alone and went back to class as if nothing had happened. I never told anyone what was going on. I stayed silent, just as everyone else had stayed silent. That boy was much younger than me and I failed to protect him, just like others had failed to protect me.

But how could I have known? I grew up in a family that taught silence. I was raised in a religion that promoted secrecy through its own action (and inaction). I attended schools where the tuition not only paid for education, but for silence as well. Speaking up would be too much of a financial risk. One allegation and the student gets pulled out of school, along with the thousands of dollars per year in tuition. It’s much better to turn the other way and ignore it. Just pray about it. Jesus will help.

Jesus didn’t help me, and Jesus didn’t help that boy. Prayers don’t stop abuse. Plush bunnies don’t keep children safe. Silence isn’t the answer. Yet people keep choosing it. I keep choosing it.

And now I am left with unresolved emotions.

I am left with anger I’m not sure I deserve to feel. How can I be angry at others for doing the same thing to me that I did to that boy? Every time any inkling of anger rises to the surface, I can’t let it out, because being angry at them means I would have to be angry at me. I can’t put someone down for the same sins I have committed. That would make me a hypocrite. So what can I do? I want to be angry, but I can’t. It’s not that simple.

I am left with tremendous guilt. I think about that boy, about the other boys that could have been hurt. All because I chose to be silent. If I had just spoken up, it would all be different. No one else could have been hurt.

I think about the children my mother could have hurt. If I had just spoken up about her, she would have been stopped. I wouldn’t have been hurt anymore. Others wouldn’t have been hurt. My mother would be sitting in a prison cell, unable to hurt anyone ever again. But I didn’t speak up. Instead I let my mother continue to destroy me. I chose silence.

And now I am the one paying the price.

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The Cost of Silence, Part 1

When I was in first grade, my teacher gave me a small plush bunny. She told me to hold on to it, that it would help me feel safe. And I did. I held on to it for years. I never thought anything of it.

While I was shopping in a store awhile back, I came across a small plush bunny. The bunny looked just like the one my teacher had given me. I remembered. I remembered everything. Then I immediately pushed it all away.

It was not the sweet childhood memory it should have been. It was much more complicated than that. And I didn’t want to bring it all up, so I pushed it back down and buried it and pretended like that memory didn’t exist.

Until the memory came up again. I was sitting in therapy, trying to think of childhood memories, and that memory popped through once again. I smiled at first because I felt the care I was given when my teacher gave 7 year-old me that bunny. Then my smile disappeared and I remembered things I didn’t want to remember. I had thoughts I didn’t want to think about.

I wanted to bury it all again. I didn’t want to think about what that memory meant. I didn’t want to feel the pain in my heart. But I did. And all I could do was cry.

Why did that teacher give me that bunny? Why did she tell me it would help me feel safe? Why did she think I needed to feel safe?

Those were the questions I thought of when that memory first came up, and I immediately pushed it all back down. In my adult mind, I knew the answers, and they were the answers that I did not want to hear. They were the answers I could not handle. And here they were, coming up again. I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to face the reality of what it all meant. The possibility that my teacher knew the truth, that she knew I was being abused.

My child self may have thought that bunny helped, because my child self didn’t know any better. But my adult self knows that a bunny wasn’t going to help me. A bunny wasn’t what I needed to be safe. A bunny wasn’t going to stop my mother from hurting me. I needed someone to help me. I needed someone to be my voice. Instead all I got was a plush bunny.

That teacher wasn’t the only person to stay silent. There were others: teachers, family members, family friends. Some of them admitted that they knew something was going on but just didn’t want to get involved, they didn’t want to cross any lines. Then there were other people who had to have known, but just ignored the signs.

It hurts. Sometimes it hurts worse than what my mother and father did to me. I think that it’s hard for people to understand. It doesn’t make much logical sense. How could being ignored hurt worse than the actual abuse?

It’s a different type of pain. It’s not the sting from a cut or the ache from a bruise or shooting pain of a broken bone. It’s a deep pain in your heart. The pain of being invisible. The pain of being unworthy of anyone’s love or attention. The pain of being so worthless that no one would help you.

My parents always told me to stay silent. Did they tell all of those other people, too? Why did no one speak for me? Why didn’t they help? Why did they stay silent? How was I supposed to know I mattered if no one ever acted like I mattered?

I was a child who held out hope that someone would save me. I needed to matter to someone. I needed to be seen. But time and time again, people turned their backs on me. I wanted my parents to be wrong. Instead I grew up believing they must have been right.