This week on 51%, we bring you part two of our series on rape and sexual abuse. Last week we visited the Crime Victim Services Unit of a hospital to learn about what’s involved in a forensic rape exam. And a counselor told us what recovery looks like after an abuse. This week we speak to that counselor’s client about her healing journey.
A warning that today’s program contains details and subject matter than may not be appropriate for all listeners. We’re going to be discussing sexual assault for the next half hour.
31-year-old Jennifer McDade grew up in Averill Park, New York. She loves gardening, meditation, and music.
“One of the artists that I really like is India.Arie,” McDade said. “And a lot of her music has inspirational affirmations in it. And that in itself, especially over the last year or so has helped me with my self-confidence and believing in myself just saying, in one of the songs it says, ‘I’m ready for love.’”
These affirmations she has practiced, like, “I’m a worthwhile woman, I’m worthy of love,” McDade says she needs them because of the abuse she has endured her entire life. McDade says her father started sexually molesting her when she was young.
“The youngest I have flashbacks of… I was 2 or 3,” McDade said.
Aside from the graphic flashbacks she endures, McDade says the abuse has left her with a wide range of trust issues to work through.
“I was molested by someone that I should have been able to trust,” McDade said.
McDade says memories of being molested come back to her in bits and pieces, but trauma later in life brought back even more memories.
McDade’s counselor at the Crime Victim Services Unit at St. Peter’s Health Partners, Emilia Alsen, says early childhood trauma and abuse is often repressed, until an event triggers flashbacks and the memories come flooding back.
“So if you think how hard it must be for a child to work on repressing something over and over, not thinking about it, pretending it didn’t happen, repress, repress, repress, to the point where now there’s like, your brain is taken over psychologically, now it’s suppressed, so you don’t have to work at it. And now it’s just automatically put down, adding drugs and alcohol on top of that, like, keeps it down,” Alsen said. “But it’s kind of like a spring, you know, it’s like resting on a spring so that when you take the alcohol and the drugs away, it pops off.”
Alsen says people in recovery from alcohol and substances, the majority of her clients, experience this spring-loaded memory flood the most.
“Folks who have been in active addiction for a long time, and they trace it back to when they were experiencing abuse, whether it was in childhood, teenage years, adulthood, but mostly childhood,” Alsen said. These are folks who have coped with their childhood abuse, neglect, and victimization via drinking, partying. And then typically what that does is it gets progressive, because that’s the nature of addiction. So then you have this poor, traumatized person that has two very significant issues, a chemical addiction, and then trauma. And because they work in concert, in order to keep the trauma down, you drink more, you use more. But what happens when you drink more, you use more, you make yourself more vulnerable, to being hurt by people that you might not know. So then increase in trauma. And so when you finally arrest the addiction, and you stop, and you try to seek recovery, the first few things that happen while your brain is detoxing and clearing up, is that it comes back — boom, the spring, the weight on the spring has been removed and pop.”
McDade says when she was raped, the memories hit her like an avalanche.
“It looked like he wanted to kill me.”
“It was actually somebody that I had met while I was out drinking, and I didn’t really know them and they had drugs that I wanted. And at first it was consensual. And then it got to a point where I started to feel scared. Like there was a specific moment where I looked at them in their eyes and like it just, it scared the life out of me,” McDade said.
McDade says she ended up in a strange hotel room and felt completely trapped.
“I didn’t have my phone on me, I didn’t have my wallet, like, I didn’t have anything,” McDade said.
McDade says this was when she had just moved to Houston to escape an abusive boyfriend.
“There was just that look in his eye. And like, it was really scary. Like, it looked like he wanted to kill me,” McDade said. “And he said he was going to take me home, he did not take me home, he took me to a hotel room. And that’s where he raped me. And I clearly was saying, ‘No,’ and… he did not listen.”
McDade says the day after she was raped, the man paid for her taxi home. She knew that day that she would tell her mom about her father molesting her. But she says she was still in shock.
“I ended up taking a shower, and I ended up falling asleep,” McDade said. “And I cried. Like, I just didn’t know what to do with myself. And I called her and like calling her I was so terrified.”
McDade says she wasn’t scared her mother wouldn’t believe her, they were close, she would. But she was worried about what her mother would say to her father, because he could be so violent. McDade says even then, she was worried about protecting her mom.
“He would throw stuff,” McDade said. “Like when he was angry, like, he would either throw it at you, or like, almost missing you, to scare you. When I did call her, like, of course, she was mad, of course, she was upset, like, I’m her baby girl. Like, she did everything she could to protect us from, like him, and anybody else I would try and hurt us. Like, she never would have thought that like, he would be the one to do something like that.”
McDade says she even remembers her mom telling her as a kid, “If anyone tries to hurt you, you’ll tell me, right?” McDade remembers telling her, ‘Yes,” but her body was already working hard to protect her from the memories of abuse.
“Because if I really, like realized what had gone on, I probably would have killed myself,” McDade said. “I mean, I did try.”
“You’re so sweet, so beautiful.”
McDade says going through that sort of abuse at such a young age left her vulnerable to being abused more and more in her life.
“As a teenager, I got into relationships, and they were unhealthy,” McDade said.
McDade says she dated boys who were typically older than her and physically and emotionally abusive.
“I would be able to see this potential in them and think that, like they can, they can change, like, I can help them change, and that they will change,” McDade said.
McDade says she faced constant insults from her father at home, mixed with him casually groping her.
“Even as a teenager, he would sexually harass me, and act like it was totally fine. He would like slap my butt, when I would do dishes in the kitchen or like, I’d be doing stuff, like cleaning around the house and stuff. And like, my mom even told him multiple times that like, ‘that’s not OK,’ like, ‘you shouldn’t be doing that.’ And he didn’t really listen.”
McDade says from a young age she struggled with anxiety and depression.
“There was a point in time when I was 13 or 14, where I tried to commit suicide, because I just felt like I couldn’t take it anymore. I just, I didn’t at such a young age. I just felt like, life was too much. And I just, I, I couldn’t live with myself living in dysfunction all the time and living in a home where there was domestic violence and abuse.”
McDade says when a boy would tell her she was amazing or beautiful, that gratification was like a new addiction for her. She wanted to feel loved.
McDade says she gravitated toward men who were emotionally abusive, who often convinced her that they were all she had in the world.
McDade says when she was 19 and entered into that abusive relationship, she saw red flags, but she moved in with him anyway. She says with her father grabbing at her at home and verbally abusing her, it was the lesser of two evils.
“Move in with this guy versus living in this, you know, my childhood home,” McDade said. “And I look back at it and honestly, I really do believe that I would have tried to kill myself again. If I stayed there, because it just, it was like I was living in hell.”
McDade says even after she got a new job and moved away to Texas, she kept getting pulled back in to the relationship.
“We were having an argument, and I was telling him like, ‘I’m gonna leave.’ And he was like, ‘No, no, you’re not like, you’re safe here. Like, you’re safe with me. You can’t trust your mom,’ like you can’t trust all the like, I couldn’t trust all the people that had been there for me,” McDade said. “He was trying to instill doubt into me, which he had done many times over. And it would be in the slightest things sometimes. And I think I’m not the only one where there were times where it was like, he would try and build me up just to break me down again. And it’s not, it’s not a pattern that I’m unfamiliar with. Because in the household that I grew up in, that’s what I grew up with. Like, that’s what my mom went through. That was what my siblings went through. That’s what I went through, where we would be built up just or I would build myself up really, just to be knocked down again. And being told that how I felt didn’t matter. And what I had to say didn’t matter. And anything that I did, didn’t matter, because the person that was saying those things, was hurting, and hurt people hurt people.”
Pain Begets Addiction, Addiction Begets Pain
McDade says being caught in the cycle of one abusive relationship after another, she spiraled into addiction.
McDade says she grew up watching family members addicted to various substances, and always wondered, “What is it about this drug or what is it about alcohol that they love more than me?” She says around the age of 15 she dove in to find out.
“It was like, all the sudden it hit,” McDade said. “And I was like, wow, like, ‘I don’t have to think, I don’t have to think, I don’t have to feel, I can just be happy.’ And for the rest of my life, I had been have been chasing, I had been chasing that, like my whole addiction, I had been chasing that feeling of not having to think of not having to think about what you think or who anyone else around me thinks or feels. Because for me, I’m a very, like, I’m a highly sensitive person. And so being empathic, it’s a lot. Um, and so I thought, like, well, if I could have this forever, like, this would be amazing. If I didn’t have to think period, if I didn’t have to feel period if I just could, like, have everything be good all the time.”
At her one year sober mark, McDade was talking with someone in her addiction recover program and found Crime Victim Services.
McDade says the biggest thing therapy has helped her to realize is that she has a choice:
“I can decide to do the right thing and stay on course with my recovery or I could let a flashback or an emotion drive me to using again, if I allow it,” McDade said. “Recognizing that there is a choice and I don’t have to allow a drug or a person to prevent me from me loving me, like, that has been instrumental as well. I lived my life feeling for so long that I didn’t have a choice. That was how I was made to feel like through the way that I was treated by my father, by the way that I was treated by ex-boyfriends. By the way, I even treated myself at times, because of being in the throes of addiction and not feeling like I was worthy enough to do anything different. Like that became my therapy. And I had done therapy too, before getting into addiction. And it just goes to show how cunning, baffling and insidious it really is.”
Don’t Contact Me
McDade, now 31, hasn’t spoken to her father in over 10 years.
“And he has still tried to contact me to this day, like, and I’ve had to really protect myself because of it,” McDade said. “Because he’s the type of person that is relentless and will verbally try and tear you down.”
McDade says her father denies ever molesting her. She called the cops in 2013, when she was 23.
“Going to therapy really helped me and helped me understand like, he’s not like, I just… I just found this like fire in me to be like, ‘No, he’s like, I’m not gonna let you do this to me anymore. Like, there’s no way,’ like, even if he would be emotionally abusive, or mentally abusive, I would stand up for myself, and not allow him to treat me like that,” McDade said. “And I would say to him, like, you’re not going to treat me like that, you’re not going to think that it’s okay for you to treat me like that. I don’t care if you’re my father, or whoever you are, like, that’s not okay.”
Through therapy, McDade says she has finally learned to stop blaming herself for what has happened to her.
“As much as I try to, like, say, well, ‘Oh, I could have done this.’ Or, ‘Maybe if I had just done that.’ Like, even when I was raped, thinking like, ‘Oh, I could have done this differently.’ Or, ‘Oh, I could have fought harder.’ But like, I, I couldn’t have,” McDade said. “I was in complete shock. I couldn’t even think straight. And when I was molested, and thinking back to that, like it was the same thing.”
Counselors say one of the most common reasons women don’t “fight back” when they’re being raped or molested is that they’re scared of the rapist growing more violent if they resist. McDade says this was true for her when her father was molesting her.
“I mean, there were certain flashbacks that I’ve had, where I did fight,” McDade said. “And I did tell him, ‘No.’ And he didn’t listen. And one of the times for the flashbacks that I had, he had hit me. And he slapped me across my face.”
McDade has two younger brothers. She says she often thinks back to her younger self, wishing she could protect her. Especially when she was 6, when she remembers her father hitting her for resisting his advances.
“My inner child, like my little self, went through that,” McDade said. “And wanting to have kids of my own and like, thinking about that, I couldn’t imagine… like there’s a part of me that’s just like so proud of myself for like saying no and like knowing that it was wrong the whole time. But being afraid to say something and like there was even a point in time where I thought that if it was only me, then at least he wasn’t hurting like my siblings, and he wasn’t hurting my mom.”
McDade says finding a 12 step program was a game-changer for her.
“When I was 13, 14, I prayed, like, the hardest I could have probably ever prayed. And I asked God, like, ‘can you please, like, help me, like, help me find a place where people understand me and I understand them and like, they’re going to, like, love me, regardless and for who I am. And know that like, regardless of what I went through that and who I am, that they’re not going to judge me.’ And for me, that’s a 12 step program and for this program, with my therapist,” McDade said.
On a recommendation from someone in the 12 step program, McDade found the Crime Victim Services Unit and started counseling with Alsen.
“The PTSD that I have and had, like, my symptoms were so unmanageable,” McDade said. “I couldn’t really even, like be close to anyone, even my husband, like I didn’t want anybody to give me a hug. I didn’t want anyone near me. Like, I just wanted to be completely alone. Like that’s what I was saying. But inside I was feeling like, I just want love. Like I want somebody to love me. I want somebody to hold me. And my husband would and my family members would, but I just didn’t feel it inside. And like that was the missing piece was me feeling that inside and like, finally, like, once again, being confronted and asked, like, ‘Do you want help?’
Alsen says you need to find the right time to seek help. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that enough time will pass for your trauma to just float away.
“The sad thing about trauma is that it’s not going anywhere,” Alsen said. “So for those individuals who are steadfast in avoiding it, I want you to know that that is a hallmark symptom of PTSD. And also, it makes it very challenging to figure out when is the right time.
McDade says when she first started counseling, she wished it didn’t have to be a process with several steps of peeling back layers of her trauma. She wanted to just rip off the Band-Aid, face it all at once, and be done with it. Be magically all better. She told her counselor this.
“Even before I could fully finish my sentence, she was like, ‘Don’t say that. Like, please don’t say that. Because that is there to protect you. I know it may feel like you want to know everything right now. But you’ll come to see that you’ll be grateful that your wish was not answered.’ And when I when I look back, and all the stuff that has come to light for me… I am like abundantly grateful that I didn’t, because it would have killed me,” McDade said.
McDade has been in therapy for about five years and in recovery for about six years.
Wonderful Worthwhile Woman
McDade wants other women who have been abused to know that they actually are going to be OK.
“No matter what has happened in the past, or even what’s happening currently, that you’re going to get through it,” McDade said. “And it may feel really hard right now and it may feel really scary. But listening to your gut, listening to your intuition and letting that guide you, it’ll know never steer you wrong. Like, that’s one, one of the other major things that I’ve learned is learning how to trust myself again, like, or just trust myself period. And that, again, even though it feels scary, that doing it a step at a time, and knowing that no matter what comes, you can handle it.”
McDade says it probably feels like you are, but you’re not alone.
“This last year, I’ve really felt probably the best that I’ve ever felt,” McDade said. “And I contribute that to the programs that I’m a part of whether that be here or in a 12 step program. And being able to write down like in working the steps and journaling and seeing the strength that I actually have. And it’s not just like you were someone else saying it to me that I actually am strong and I’m actually understanding it. And it’s not just someone saying it.”
But when she forgets, McDade has her affirmations.
“I am everything that God made me to be,” McDade said. “Exactly in this moment. I am perfectly imperfect in this moment. And that’s okay.”
McDade adds one more thing:
“If nobody’s told you that they love you, I love you,” McDade said. “Because I know for myself going through that feeling like I was on loved even though other people did love me. I needed to hear somebody say that I was loved. And you know, hearing it from my mom hearing it from other people, like it just didn’t measure. But in time it will. And to remember that you’re a wonderful, worthwhile woman.”