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Invisible No More: Healing From Sexual Abuse

Upset-teen
By , 16, Staff Writer Originally Published: June 4, 2010 Revised: September 5, 2012

I was a bit surprised when I came across Invisible Girls during a trip to Borders. At first glance, Invisible Girls looks like your typical teenage novel—simple layout, pastel colors and appealing look. It was only when I walked up to read the title closely that I saw the subtitle, “The Truth about Sexual Abuse,” and realized this book is no novel. It contains some of the most inspiring and powerful messages of healing addressed to young women today.

In therapist Dr. Patti Feuereisen’s book, we meet eight girls who have survived sexual abuse and found strength in speaking out about their abuse. Through their real, firsthand accounts, Invisible Girls offers ways to begin the healing process once girls have come to terms with what they experienced.

More Common Than You Might Think

Sexual abuse happens when you are verbally or physically forced or pressured into being sexual or used for someone else’s sexual purposes when you don’t want to be. Sexual abuse can range from a single act of groping to a series of rapes by a family member.

The truth is sexual abuse is a lot more common than we think, and it’s never OK, whether you know the abuser or not. According to a Commonwealth Fund study, 12 percent of girls in high school report being sexually abused, and 8 percent report being forced to have sex with a date or partner.

Class presidents, valedictorians, musicians and athletes—typical young women who come from diverse cultural and social backgrounds—can be abused. “You cannot tell from the outside who has been sexually abused,” writes Dr. Patti, who I had an opportunity to speak to. “It is possible that you do know someone who has been or is being abused, but you just don’t know it. Girls you’d ‘never think’ had been, or were being, abused,” writes Dr. Patti. (While the book focuses on girls and sexual abuse, boys can also be sexually abused, too.)

If there’s one main message that all survivors need to get, it’s that it’s never, ever your fault.

Opening Up

“Sexual abuse is something you can completely heal from and thrive after,” says Dr. Patti. “The best way to heal from sexual abuse is to talk about it, and the best time to talk is now, while you are still young,” writes Dr. Patti. Reaching out to a trusted friend or adult can be an important first step to beginning the healing process.

Coral, a 22-year-old incest survivor whose father started sexually abusing her when she was twelve years old, agrees. “Each time I talk about my incest, I get rid of some of that shame and guilt. Each person I share with, no matter what their response, takes another piece of the pain away,” she writes in Invisible Girls. By letting everything out and telling someone about your emotions, you can feel better, explains Dr. Patti.

Of course, opening up isn’t easy, but if you find trusted adults, like a counselor or therapist, you begin to heal. “If you hold your abuse inside you, it can deprive you of healthy, loving relationships and self-esteem because you never get the chance to process the shame and the secret,” says Dr. Patti, “but if you talk about abuse as a teen girl or young woman, you will heal in a very deep way.”

Looking back now, Coral wishes that she had known this sooner. “If people had talked openly about [sexual abuse], I could have been saved so many years of guilt and shame and secrecy.” Dr. Patti believes that the time to talk about sexual abuse is now and the sooner you start telling, the faster you start recovering.

Stopping the Blame

If there’s one main message that all survivors need to get, it’s that it’s never, ever your fault. Girls will often blame themselves for the abuse, suffering from feelings of intense guilt, shame and fear afterwards—even when they had no way to prevent the abuse from happening.

As Dr. Patti writes, “You didn’t do this to yourself. It was done to you, and there is absolutely nothing to be guilty or ashamed of.” When I speak with Dr. Patti about this issue, she makes it clear that to take away the stigma of sexual abuse we must “look at girls that survived sexual abuse as completely, 100-percent blameless….and put 100 percent of the blame on the abuser.”

“I felt horrible about myself,” writes Amber, a high school sophomore, who was sexually abused by an older boy when she was twelve and thirteen. “I blamed myself for all my sexual encounters with him.” At one point, Amber writes, “I’m sure I said no, but I’m also sure it was a pretty weak no.” Whether you did or didn’t say “no” and whether it was or wasn’t strong doesn’t matter. You should never be forced or pressured into doing something sexual that you don’t want to do.

Like everything, it takes time to overcome these feelings and heal from sexual abuse. Dr. Patti writes that “sexual abuse tries to rob women of their self-worth and self-esteem,” but it won’t succeed if you fight back.

Finding Hope and Support

So many times, sexual abuse survivors do not realize that there are other girls out there who have also experienced sexual abuse and healed from it. For Amber, it was only when she went to a survivors’ group for the first time that she finally understood that she was not alone.

When building your personal support system, you should first talk to a trusted adult about what is going on. If you do not know someone who will stand by you, you can seek immediate help at rape crisis centers, hospitals, college campuses and victims’ services at police stations. Beyond these places, there are also various organizations, hotlines and Web sites, like the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN.org), dedicated to helping young people stop abuse and begin to heal from it.

“Every day invisible girls, girls who have been scared and alone and thinking they’re to blame or going crazy are becoming visible. They are finding help and hope, and they are healing and thriving,” writes Dr. Patti. These powerful words echoed in my ears as I finished reading the last page of Invisible Girls. I could connect to all the girls in Invisible Girls, whose voices were so real and vivid. Through their gripping stories, these resilient young women have shown me that healing is possible with support, hope and courage.

If you are being or have been sexually abused, call the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673). You can also visit their online hotline at RAINN.org. Trained professionals will tell you how to get help close to home. For more information on Dr. Patti’s work, visit GirlThrive.com.

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