I woke up in cold sweat, barely able to breathe. It was the same nightmare, second night in a row. In the dream, I was molested at my babysitter’s house. It has been years since the nightmare, but I can still remember every part of it – the dress that I wore, the way my hair was tied, and the coldness of the kitchen’s metal sink. I tried to scream, but a man covered my mouth with his hand. I remember how frightened I was.

For years, I had brushed it off as just a dream. But every now and then, the nightmare haunts me.

Six months ago, during a therapy session, the issue resurfaced. Up until then, it was just symbolic of how I grew up without having a voice of my own. But as my therapist started to probe further, fragmented memories began to take shape.

I could vividly remember witnessing adults engaging in sexual acts on numerous occasions, and we were encouraged to participate in the abuse of other children. It was confusing for all of us because while we felt violated and ashamed, it was also pleasurable.

Bit by bit, pieces of the puzzle started to come together. I began to remember those secret afternoon treats at an ice-cream store, followed by the viewing of pornographic movies.

As a child, I never thought that any of these things were wrong. I didn’t know what it meant to be sexually violated. Growing up neglected, I craved for love. After all, weren’t these adults supposed to take care of me? They showered me with the affection that I didn’t get at home. I longed to be touched.

My memories are still very fragmented. There are huge gaps in my childhood that I do not recall. I do not know how bad it got. Was I raped? How often did it happen? It is normal for amnesia to occur, especially when a young child has been traumatised.

During therapy, I learned to listen to my body. Even though I did not have any recollection of any violation, my body remembers. There were nights when I woke up breathless, as though someone was lying on top of me. Worst of all, I would at times feel a hand groping me.

I am still extremely uncomfortable in crowded places, and would jump when accidentally touched. At times when I recall my experience, I start to shake.

Survivors of child sexual abuse often grieve over the loss of innocence.

Survivors of child sexual abuse often grieve over the loss of innocence.

All these memories have been recorded in my body, and it’s a reminder that something traumatic happened. The first step in healing is to accept the reality. I was overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and shame. I felt responsible for what happened to me.

I questioned myself. Why didn’t I yell for help? Why didn’t I run? Why didn’t I protect the other children? I felt defiled, as though no amount of cleaning and scrubbing could make me feel clean again.

Years after I left the babysitter’s house, I had another experience. I was a teen then and had signed up for a youth camp.

One of the adults who was conducting the week-long camp took a special interest in me. He used to hug and kiss me at every opportunity.

I remember feeling confused again. On one hand, I enjoyed the display of affection; on the other hand, I was extremely uncomfortable.

When I revisited the experience years later, it dawned on me that it was all so wrong. The months following this “discovery” was perhaps the toughest. I didn’t know what to do, or how to move forward. I didn’t know who to talk to. I was afraid of being judged.

Eventually, I allowed a handful of close friends and confidantes into my dirtiest secrets. Even though they did not always know how to help me, it was a relief that it wasn’t hidden anymore.

The effects of child sexual abuse can be devastating. Over the years, I’ve learnt to cope in ways that were unhealthy. I turned to self-injury at the tender age of 10, and struggled with binge eating.

To heal, I had to accept that I was violated. What happened wasn’t my imagination. I had to acknowledge that I was in a very dark place.

Once the shock and denial were over, grief set in. I grieved over the loss of an innocent childhood. I grieved over having to deal with adult issues way too soon. I grieved over the loss of trust and stability. There were nights when I cried myself to sleep, wondering if things would ever be all right.

I am learning to remind myself that I was a vulnerable minor who was craving for love, and didn’t know that what happened was a form of violation. I was warned against asking for help. What happened wasn’t my responsibility. I am still learning every day to treat myself well. It is important to allow myself the space to heal.

Perhaps the most important aspect of recovery is forgiveness. I am still learning to let go. Forgiveness is a decision that goes beyond emotions. I refuse to allow my past to hurt me anymore than it should. It cannot rob me of my joy and peace. I am no longer that helpless little girl who could not rescue herself. I may have no control over my past, but my future will not be dictated by it.

By forgiving, I’m letting myself out of the prison of bitterness.

Not only do I have to forgive those who hurt me, I also have to forgive those who did not protect me. My mum knew something was going on, but she did not take any action to protect me. I did not understand why she left me in a vulnerable position at the babysitter’s house late at night, when all the other children had gone home.

My breakthrough came when I realised that God has not forsaken me. He has given me the resilience and strength to overcome every adversity in life.

If you’re journeying with someone who has been hurt as a child, it is all right if you do not know how to help her. At times like these, there is no need for convincing words. Just allow your presence to bring healing, your ears to bring assurance, and your hugs to bring comfort.

I am on my journey of recovery, but I am excited to know that life does not have to end with abuse; it can be the beginning of something beautiful.

My experience has given me an empathy for other survivors of child sexual abuse, and it is my prayer that my story will bring redemption and hope to someone.

Beyond Barriers is a platform for sharing and raising awareness on disability issues and any chronic medical condition. We welcome contributions from readers who have a disability or any special needs, caregivers, advocates of disability groups, or anyone living with any chronic medical condition. E-mail your stories to star2@thestar.com.my. Contributions which are published will be paid, so please include your full name, IC number, address and contact number.