Not my secret to keep…
For years I have tried to find out how people heal and move on from shame. In my search I have learned that people heal in different ways and on different timetables. As individuals, we will never find a blue print that will work for everyone. However, telling my story in the hopes that it may help one person is my way. This piece of writing is part of my healing. I will share my painful experience, giving up the secret I kept locked up tight for decades. Healing emotional pain is not easy. In fact, once you allow it to scar, the process of healing becomes harder. A scar in the place of an open wound is typically a good thing, but not when the wound does not heal right. This essay is about finding the strength to say out loud the things I do not want to remember and making the decision to heal. Before reading, I want you to understand that the purpose of my writing isn’t to shock you, or to build sympathy on my behalf. I have just been silent for so long that I refuse to censor myself.
I used to play in the basement, we all did, so when my father walked me down the stairs there was nothing strange about it. The front of the basement is where we played. The windows were in the front and the lights of the basement were in the middle, so it was always well lit. As I played I waited for my mother, brother, and sisters who would be home soon. My father had picked me up from my grandparents, but my siblings had stayed with my mother. Johnny had asked me to go with him, so I did. While I played in the front of the basement, he fiddled with the huge storage closet. I knew what was going to come next. That was our secret place. He had taken me to the closet before. This is where he touched me and would show me how to touch him. The other times I didn’t mind because he was my father, and I didn’t know what was going on. He would tell me I was special and I truly felt that way. But this was the night that it all changed.
I did not want to stop playing with my Batman. When he called me to come over to the closet, I ignored him. When he called again I continued to ignore him. When he yelled at me I was paralyzed with fear. That was the voice he used when he would beat my mother. I knew he was going to beat me the way he beat my mother. He walked over to me, pissed, and he told me in Spanish “when I call you to me, you better run to me”. I started to cry and he snatched me by the back of my neck and threw me into the closet. I cried out “Papi” but that made him more aggressive. He told me to stick my tongue out then forced his penis into my mouth. As I gagged he held my head so I wouldn’t turn. I couldn’t breathe and panicked, but I was able to pull away for a few moments. He then grabbed me by the back of my head, forcing my pants down. I screamed but he didn’t care. At that moment I wanted to die. That was the day my innocence was stolen. When he was done he hugged me tenderly and gave me a kiss on the forehead. I accepted it in fear. He took me to the bathroom and washed off the sweat, tears and semen. I cried and he consoled me, telling me that it was my fault for not listening. I believed him. Once I was all washed up he helped dress me and told me in a calm voice, “Nene, si le dices a tu madre ella no va a entender y voy tener que matala” translation: “boy if you tell your mother, she will not understand and I will have to kill her.” I stayed quiet. I told no one. I never said no to him and always went to him when he called. He always gave me a gift afterwards and would remind me to stay quiet, and I did.
This is the secret I have carried for decades in fear that people would find out what my father had done to me. It lasted for a little over a year starting at the age of five ending only when he no longer had access to me after my parents divorced. I am 39 and this short time in my life has affected me deeply over the years, and continues to affect me still. I struggled with this almost daily for three decades. For many years it was just my secret. I told no one. Not even years after my father was gone, did I speak up. I mostly buried it deep within. When I would feel it resurfacing, I would hear his voice threatening to kill my mother and I would bury it deeper. I did find the courage to tell my mother. I didn’t plan it. I wasn’t even thinking about it that day. I came home from school one day during my sophomore year of high school and mom was watching her usual 4:00pm show, Cristina. The topic of that episode was sexual abuse and how this teen told his mother that his uncle molested him. A rush of emotion hit me all at once, and I finally told the truth. I told her what my father did to me all those years ago. My mother took it hard. She took it so hard that I felt the need to protect her when she asked about the details. It could have been because of my shame or because I did not know how to tell her the whole truth, but I lied. I just told her he just touched me. But the truth was brutal and, at the time, I didn’t see any reason to tell her.
My mother loves me, of that there is no doubt. If she could have endured my pain in order to spare me, she would have without giving it a second thought. She did not know how asking me to continue to keep this secret would make me feel. I know my mother was trying to protect me but, in hushing me, I grew more shameful. A16 year-old adolescent can rationalize and cognitively understand that what happened to him wasn’t his fault, but somehow, the five year old in me believed I caused it. I have three siblings; two older one younger, all of whom were not molested. While I am happy they did not experience my torture; it did lead me to question why it happened to me. I told myself I must have attracted him to me somehow. I must have deserved it! If there was innocence to be found in me then why did I have to keep this secret?
This one single year, early on in my life, had a major impact on my personal development throughout my entire life. Even now as an adult I try to hide from those thoughts I could never say out loud. Although, only five when it started, I questioned why I didn’t tell anyone. As a teen this would haunt me as I questioned my own sexuality. Growing up a strong Latino Christian, you never questioned your sexuality. In all honesty it is still an undertaking to bring up how I felt as a teen. The anger, pain, and confusion consumed me. The smiles that I had shown acted as masks to prevent others from seeing my true emotions. I hated myself. I would regularly take extreme risks and behave in an overall chaotic manner in hopes that some day my behavior would put an end to this life. I would get into fights almost daily, refusing to back down even when I was out numbered. If God is good how could this have happened to me? I was only five, why didn’t he protect me? Part of me felt unworthy of life. I allowed my father to have total control over my life, even though he was absent. He made me feel unworthy, unloved, and unprotected. I felt worthless; unable to change my circumstances. I learned to hate God because, in my mind, he hated me first. I mean, what kind of piece of shit must I have been, in order for God to have given me Johnny as a father? You see, Johnny is the worst type of human being; He could beat on a defenseless woman, rape a child of his innocence, and then smile in church yelling from the top of his lungs, “Hallelujah.” This is the man that God chose to be my father.
This is not to say I did not find happiness. I have been happy, I have just had to ignore my pain in hopes that I would forget. But I could not ignore that which shaped my life. At the age of 22 I became a father for the first time. That was one of the scariest, then happiest, days of my life. When my wife became 9 months pregnant, it hit me again. I sat in the pew of my church in a panic. I was terrified that I would become my father. At best, I would abandon my son and wife. At worst, I would become that monster in the basement closet. But when I saw my son for the first time, all the fears vanished. I knew I was going to be a great father. I was able to let those fears about my father go back to hiding in the darkest corners of my mind. But they never stayed there for long.
Ultimately, my experience with my father had left me with the inability to discuss my emotions. I bottled up my feelings, keeping them to myself. I became skilled at helping others work through their issues, but always ignored my own. My father told me to stay quiet, my mother told me to stay quiet, so all my life I learned to stay quiet. Even today, I don’t complain in my personal life. I am more likely to let the women I love walk away from me, than to fight for her to stay. It’s because part of me feels unworthy of being loved which makes me feel as though she can find someone better than me. When I am challenged to discuss my emotions, it does not come easy to me. Most of the time I end up feeling like the five year old in the basement closet; full of fear and self-loathing. My experience left me scared of who I am, scared of people finding out that I was an emotional inept, and fearful of people thinking of me as less of a man.
Four years ago I started my journey to recovery. I decided that it was time to get help, with the insistence of my wife :). I am a helper. I was born to help other people. This is what I have always done. The problem with this is that the helper forgot to help himself. In therapy I discussed how I tried to forgive my father in the past. I honestly thought that if I forgave him, moving forward with my life would come naturally. It didn’t. Mostly because what he did to me is not something that can be easily dismissed. There was no taking the high road; saying I forgive you was an attempt, on my part, to hide this evil act. To spare myself of having to deal with anyone finding out what happened to me. While the adult I am understands that most people would be supportive and feel empathy for me, emotionally I feared what people would really think. Since I could remember I have always been the toughest man in the room, or at least I acted like I was, but in truth I never was. It is difficult for me to be vulnerable, even with those I am most intimate. I found it difficult to speak of what happened to me. I relived every moment, becoming angrier and angrier at myself for just taking it! For staying quiet all those years and for waiting decades to get help. I punished myself for being five years old! This is where I am today… Fuck fear.
The man who was supposed to protect me, to teach me how to shave, and to give me advice before my first date, violated me. I did not deserve to be treated so mercilessly by my own father. I can say and believe it now… I DID NOT DESRVE WHAT MY FATHER DID TO ME! The rational adult in me knows I did nothing wrong and the emotional five year old believes it. I have nothing to be ashamed of… Not for being confused as a teen, not for taking so long to seek treatment, and not for being mad at God. It was ok for me to be mad at God and, because he is God, he understood my anger. I know that God has a purpose for my life and a plan for me to prosper. While I can’t tell you I understand his plan, I know I am the man I am today only through his will. God, and my faith in him, helped me through this process. I am still working on discussing my emotions and being open with people whom I am close with, but I am getting better at it. And as for my father… I have learned that he is not worth the time I have spent thinking about him. It just takes to much energy to be angry with a person who has, and is, nothing to me.
Why did I write this? Why do I share this with you? Healing is a verb. I will not declare myself healed, but I am working on it. I am still in the process of becoming the man I want to be. I am 39 years old and it took me 30 years to find this peace within me. It wasn’t easy but my family is supportive, my therapists were talented, and while I may have not wanted God in my life for a time, he never left me. My greatest fear was that people would find out about my past and believe I was less of a man. I felt emasculated by what my father did to me. Well, not so much for what was done to me, but because I took and said nothing. But not anymore… I am done with my silence, I am done with self-pity and I am done with fear. This secret was never mine to carry in the first place. It belongs to the monster in the basement, and he can keep it. I am a survivor because I didn’t let my father ruin my life. I share this with you because we all have circumstances that make us feel less. Your circumstances may be different than mine but what holds true for me is true for you. We are not inadequate, none of us are and those things that make us feel that we are less are lies. This is not my secret to carry anymore, it never was… But when does a secret stop being a secret?
Charles De Leon
As an added note I allowed my brother to preview my writing before posting this online. He confessed to me that my father had sexually abused him too. I guess I always knew even though he never told me. He has quietly received help to get passed his issues with our father. I didn’t tell him at the time but I appreciate the bravery it took to tell me. I love you Joe.