This is often very difficult for survivors. Denial is like a safety net. Survivors sometimes go to great lengths to deny their memories. This might seem surprising, but in reality it is a self-protective way to deal with traumatic pain. Moving in and out of denial is a natural part of the healing process.
This next section is taken with permission from Courage To Heal p.96-98, it is entitled: Believing It Mattered (this speaks about women, but remember that all this can equally apply to male survivors too)
Sometimes women have no doubts about the actual events that took place but play down their significance. Over the years, many women showed up at Ellen's survivor workshops afraid that their abuse wasn't bad enough for them to be allowed to participate. They said things such as "It wasn't incest - it was just a friend of the family" or "I was fourteen and it only happened once" or "He just showed me movies" or "It was with my sister. She was only two years older than me."
Such statements show the gross extent to which abuse is minimized in our society. The fact that someone else has suffered from abuse more severe than your own does not lessen your suffering. Comparisons of pain are simply not useful.
There are many ways to de-emphasize sexual abuse. A particularly offensive one is to claim that if a man didn't force his penis into some opening of your body, you weren't really violated. This is not true. The severity of abuse should not be defined in terms of male genitals. Violation is determined by your experience as a child - your body, your feelings, your spirit. The precise physical acts are not always the most damaging aspects of abuse. Although forcible rape is physically excruciating to a small child, many kinds of sexual abuse are not physically painful. They do not leave visible scars.
Some abuse is not even physical. Your father may have stood in the bathroom doorway, making suggestive remarks or simply leering when you entered to use the toilet. Your uncle may have walked around naked, calling attention to his penis, talking about his sexual exploits, questioning you about your body. Your tennis coach may have badgered you into telling him exactly what you did with your boyfriend. There are many ways to be violated.
There is also abuse on the psychological level. You had the feeling your mother was aware of your physical presence every minute of the day, no matter how quiet and unobtrusive you were. Your neighbour watched your changing body with an intrusive interest. Your father took you out on romantic dates and wrote you love letters.
Nor is frequency of abuse what's an issue. Betrayal takes only a minute. A father can slip his fingers into his daughter's underpants in thirty seconds. After that the world is not the same.
Believing It Mattered: Vicki's Story
Many women believe that their abuse doesn't count because it happened only once. But as the following story shows, all abuse is harmful.
There was always a creepy feeling in my house of my father being really inappropriate. He'd be too affectionate, too close. He was always kissing me too long. It got worse when I was a teenager. He had a more difficult time containing himself. My girlfriends felt weird around him and he was really hostile to my boyfriends.
My father only molested me once, when I was twelve years old. I was asleep in bed. He came into the room and lay down next to me. He put his hand down my pajamas and started playing with my vagina. It woke me up. I turned away from him. I pretended I was turning over in my sleep. He must have gotten frightened that I would wake up, and he left. I remember watching his shadow outside the door. He never did it again.
Before he molested me, I felt very free in my body. I felt wonderful. I was coming into the height of puberty. I was outgoing and friendly. I had boyfriends. Everything was awakening. And my first intimate sexual experience was with my father. He was the first man ever to touch my genitals.
It was very upsetting and confusing to me. I loved my father. We had a really strong relationship. After he molested me, I went into a deep depression. I shut off communicating with the outside world. It was like this veil just came down, and that was it. It took me until I was twenty-two to even realize something was wrong. I've had to find out what my real personality was underneath.
I never forgot what happened. It sort of went underground. I didn't think aobut it a lot, but it's had long-lasting effects. I've had a really difficult time getting close to my lovers. I need a disproportionate amount of control in relationships.
I've been estranged from my father for the last five years, ever since I confronted him. Our relationship has basically falledn apart.
I never compared what happened to me to what other people went through because I really felt the hell inside myself. I knew it was wreaking havoc in my life and in the lives of my lovers. You don't have to have it happen over and over to know "This is really terrible." It doesn't take much for a child to feel the devastation of a parent crossing over those boundaries.
If I was talking to someone and she said, "Oh well, he just fondled me a little bit. It's not such a big deal," I'd ask, "When you connect with another human being in a deep way, how does it make you feel? Does it make you feel scared? Like closing down? Or like being completely one with that person?" Really check it out with yourself. In the deepest part of you, how are you connecting with people? Then reasses if you were affected.
It counts if it keeps you from being close to another person. It counts if it's devastated your life, if you're missing a part of yourself. Even if it only happened once, it counts.