Trigger warning: Child abuse, sexual assault
Prior to my current relationship, I have been in love with 4 other people. With each person, I have felt that I could see myself spending the rest of my life with them. With each person, I hold positive memories of us laughing, going out to different places, sharing hobbies, talking about the future. But with each person, I have cried consistently at how I was treated. With each person, I did not feel completely safe or respected. With each person, I have felt many moments of happiness but also many moments of sadness.
Being a survivor of child sexual abuse, my understanding of love is severely skewed. My first experience of physical intimacy was overshadowed by a breach of trust, a breach of safety, a major breach of my innocence. I didn’t get a choice in consenting to being touched. I didn’t get a choice in whether I was able to wait for marriage. My abuser told me he loved me as he ripped away my innocence and tore away at my clothes, sometimes with people in the same room, with people asleep, or through bribery and threats.
As much as I watched TV as a child to give me some insight into a “normal relationship”, as much as I tried to surround myself with friends whose families consisted of respectful relationships, what I understood to be “true love” was limited and distorted. I didn’t know how it felt to hug someone and not have to pretend that I immediately didn’t want to let go. I didn’t even know how to enjoy playful banter because all I knew was verbal and psychological abuse.
I remember the first time I fell in love, I was 16 years old and he was much older. 21, in fact. I was doing things I didn’t feel comfortable doing because to me, that was what love was. Just making someone else happy. It didn’t matter if I felt uncomfortable or even if I just didn’t want to – I had to do what they asked, otherwise, I would not be lovable or be loved. Even when he started to distance himself, when he wouldn’t return my calls, when he called me a retard, somehow I still thought it was all my fault. Even when he told me many, many years later, how sorry he was for how he treated me and how letting me go was one of the biggest mistakes of his life – I somehow still blamed myself and considered myself defective.
My next experience of love, I thought, was going to last a lifetime. I had high hopes that it would work, would always work, that nothing we faced could ever be insurmountable. But that child part of me who never really learnt what “true love” was, failed to realise that you can’t truly love someone else, if you don’t love yourself. And loving yourself means being true to who you are, understanding your own boundaries, and not jeopardising your own values to live by someone else’s. And so, two and a half years ago, I began the true journey of learning to love myself by deciding I had to walk away after 14 years. Not only for me, but for the several people whose lives would be better if I lived more truthfully.
In the two and a half years that followed, I began a very confusing journey where I second guessed my decision constantly. I reflected on the past of my childhood, I dwelled on the mistakes I made in that second relationship, I wondered, yet, again, if the failure of the relationship was all of my fault. I replayed so many scenarios in my head, thought back to what I could have done and said differently, I asked myself if this was really what I wanted.
I knew though, that it wasn’t just what I wanted but what I needed too. The decision I made had not been made lightly. Deep down inside, I knew this decision had been brewing inside me for many years but I was too afraid to admit it.
The two loves that followed were my wake-up calls that really, I barely loved myself at all. I opened my heart fully and completely to these two men, to only have my heart trampled on. And as dramatic as that sounds, it is the truth. I thought I had finally realised what I deserved, but I had become so lost that I tolerated far more disrespect than I should have.
After being sexually abused as a 6 year old until I was 11 years old, being forced into silence for almost 20 years, then threatened with legal action by my abuser, then having these 4 men in my life …
I was absolutely shattered and feeling broken.
I had come to accept that my life was going to be a lonely one. At least, in my romantic life.
I told myself that I would dedicate all my love to my three children, because at least, my children would always be there, would not disrespect me, would not hurt me, would always appreciate the time and energy I put into them.
Then something remarkable happened and I have never looked back.
When I felt absolutely shattered and as though I was broken beyond repair, I had someone fighting for me, cheering me on, supporting me in my really really low moments.
I had someone telling me that I deserved better, that I was amazing for having turned out the way I have despite my childhood, that I was amazing for doing the work that I do.
I had someone who never pushed me to feel anything but happy, but love and respect, who never asked anything of me but that I simply take care of myself.
I had someone who called me an idiot because they couldn’t continue to watch me accept less than I deserved. I had someone kiss me on the forehead and tell me to take care of myself. There was no hidden agenda, no motive on their part – just genuine kindness and concern.
That person is now my partner. That person is now my best friend. That person is the first person I have ever felt completely safe with. He is the first person whose behaviour never consistently triggers my abuse. That person never makes me feel he is too busy for me, that I am ever a burden, that I am being unreasonable or too emotional. He takes the time to listen, really listen to me. He knows what I need even before I need it.
That person is the reason I am making much better decisions for my mental health. That person treats me as an equal, empowers me to make my own decisions, but guides me when I need some more direction.
That person’s presence in my life alone helps me to heal every day from my childhood trauma.
That person makes me love myself more and more each day.
I know that each of those 4 men loved me. I know that loving all 4 of them, has taught me how deeply I can care about someone, how hard I am willing to fight. But it’s also taught me that I can’t just tolerate behaviour because I love someone. I have to love myself too.
If I had not loved these 4 men, I wouldn’t know how to communicate my needs well in my relationship now. I wouldn’t know how to express when I’m uncomfortable. I wouldn’t know how to say sorry when I’ve hurt my partner. I wouldn’t know that life is too short to spend it arguing for hours. I wouldn’t know that ultimately, love is about choosing to love that person no matter what and it’s a choice you have to make even when it feels really hard.
By loving these 4 people, I’ve learnt how to love the right one.
I’ve learnt that “true love” is feeling secure in the relationship and trusting that the other person wouldn’t intentionally hurt you.
“True love” is feeling completely comfortable and being able to be yourself – because you know the other person will accept you regardless.
“True love” is feeling safe and knowing that no matter what, your partner will support you and trust in your judgement.
I have experienced enough trauma, heartbreak and pain in my life to know what respect, love and feeling safe is all about.
And I feel it every time my partner looks at me, holds me, or tells me he loves me.
Just having him in my life reminds me that the world is still a safe place despite what my abuser did to me, that I am deserving of love and respect regardless, that I am much more capable than I realise.
When you start to truly love yourself, what you are willing to accept from others changes.
And I feel myself changing every day. I feel the transformation of my trauma. I am finally on my true path to healing.
Thuy Le (formerly known as Thuy Yau) is a freelance writer and Youth Work graduate living in Perth, Australia. She loves to share her own personal experiences about overcoming adversity, as she believes that human beings are more capable than they realise. She writes to make a positive difference in the world and to inspire others to learn from themselves and their own experiences. Her writing has been discussed on radio, won writing contests, appeared on The Huffington Post UK and major Australian sites such as news.com.au, SMH, Kidspot and Essential Kids. She is currently writing her first book.