By Liz Kinchen
[Trigger Warning: child abuse, sexual abuse]
My childhood was a lonely one, even though I had loving parents and four siblings. There wasn’t a lot of conversation, interaction, or involvement from any of them in my young life. I was physically provided for, and I know there was love, but it didn’t manifest in attention to or connection with me. In psychological terms, I had ‘insecure attachment’ to my primary caretakers, which told me that I wasn’t important and that my emotional needs did not matter. I learned that invisibility was my rightful place.
So, in eighth grade, when my middle-school English teacher took a liking to me and began treating me differently than my schoolmates, I felt seen and special for the first time. This began a five-year relationship of what felt like trust and love. On one hand, the sexual attention seemed exciting, making me feel lucky to have him caring for me so well. But I also felt guilty about the lying and secrecy it required, and I dreaded the sex.
Still, I didn’t think the relationship was harmful to me. It was the 1970’s and ‘love was good’, even if others would not understand our love. This is how I first learned to keep secrets and feel comfortable exchanging sex for attention while at the same time unconsciously protecting myself and dissociating. Even after our relationship ended when I went to college, and even though he proceeded to sleep with my best girlfriends, I believed for decades that no harm had been done.
In my twenties and thirties, I had many relationships with men, but in all of them, there was a way I was not present, not fully open and engaged. I seemed to be drawn to relationships with older and sometimes married men. There was an unconscious familiarity with secrecy and deception. I couldn’t see this in myself at the time; I thought all was ‘normal’. Even when I married a kind, engaging man who adored me, I remained hidden and was afraid of too much closeness. We struggled mightily with this, but I had no idea how to be any different or what the root of the problem was. Living this way was utterly painful. I felt like a failure where it mattered the most – in relationship, and I despised myself.
In my forties, a job working with children required me to attend a training day on how to notice and respond to various abuse situations. I watched a video that showed a handsome priest befriending a lonely and vulnerable teenage boy, eventually leading to sex. As I watched, I recognized in my gut the seduction, grooming, abuse of innocence, and betrayal of trust that exactly mirrored my own adolescent experience. They called this experience abuse – I had never thought of it that way.
This watershed moment sent me into therapy, working with someone trained in abuse and trauma. I learned that the trauma from sexual abuse as a child leads to shutting down or compartmentalizing the emotional parts of us that were hurt. This is what I did. This made being open and loving in adult relationships difficult for me. I came to see how I had blocked off access to feelings of trust and safety in a relationship; it was easier to keep my innermost self invisible. I was invisible to myself too! Therapy helped me uncover, dismantle, and rewire those messages of unworthiness that had been hardwired into my psyche from a young age.
Why did this take decades to do? Unless it is addressed, trauma shuts us down emotionally, and our experience and all its associated emotions live in our unconscious. From there, they silently govern our lives – drive the bus of our lives, as they say. At the time, no one identified my experience with my teacher as abusive or traumatic. Not the culture and certainly not my abuser. Additionally, I had no one I felt I could talk to about it, so there was nothing to show me that what was happening at the time was harmful.
In the trauma world, they say ‘the body keeps the score’, meaning we store our traumas literally in our bodies. When I watched that video, it was my body – my gut – that re-felt what had traumatized me decades earlier. Without it being addressed, it had entrenched itself further over the years, especially when others asked for what I could not give. It was the love of my husband, my therapist, my friends, my children, and walking a spiritual path that slowly thawed what was frozen inside, and I emerged more whole. Accessing my emotions, feeling empathy, compassion, and a connection with myself and other people all came more easily. I learned there is joy, always available, waiting for me to embrace it.
It is from deep gratitude for my healing that I wrote my memoir, ‘Light in Bandaged Places’, and it is my hope that it can be of benefit to others who have touched experiences similar to mine.
Liz Kinchen is a writer, meditation teacher, and Buddhist practitioner. With graduate degrees in computer science and counseling psychology, Kinchen worked in software development management for 21 years before moving into the nonprofit sector for seventeen years as the executive director of a small organization working with underserved children and families in Honduras. She is a contributing author to the anthology Art in the Time of Unbearable Crisis, published by She Writes Press in 2022. She lives in the greater Boston area with her husband of over 30 years. Her debut memoir is “Light in Bandaged Places: Healing in the Wake of Young Betrayal” (September 5, 2023, She Writes Press).