Just learned my parent was a molester. Now what? (TW: sexual abuse)
November 21, 2018 2:07 AM   Subscribe

I am in my mid 50s. My parents have been dead since the 1990s. I was recently told by someone I love and trust that one of my parents molested them as a small child for a period spanning many years. I believe them.

I was close to the parent in question, and not in a very healthy way. They suffered from severe untreated mental illness for my entire childhood and I had assumed a great deal of emotional responsibility for their mental health. After their death, I spent a great deal of time in therapy learning to forgive myself (for not being able to parent my parent) and my parent (for not being a good parent to me).

I've spent my whole life thinking about this parent as a victim of their childhood. It has broken my heart that I wasn't able to help them heal before they died.

And now I find that while they may have been a victim, they were also a monster.

I have no doubt at all the story is true. The way it was told to me, the detail-- it is completely consistent with my parent's illness. The person who told me had carried it all these years because they were afraid they would not be believed. But I believe the story. And I don't know what to do.

I don't know how to be there for the victim. I know what it cost to tell me. This is someone the same age as me who is an active and deeply loved part of my life. I have no idea what kind of role I can play in their recovery or how I can support them. So that's one question. I feel like the guilty party somehow. I know that's not real, but I feel I ought to be making amends. At the same time, I know that whatever they are going through it is not about me. What kind of role can I play?

I also find myself going through something which feels like PTSD. I can't sleep. My stomach hurts all the time. I have some treasured objects which had belonged to my family or which my parent had given me as gifts. I feel physically nauseous when I look at those objects. When I think about what I now know, I literally cannot breathe. My stomach hurts and my anxiety is out of control.

I wonder how many other victims there could have been. I wonder if I was a victim myself at an age too early to remember. I don't think so. But would I know? We're talking about a very young child, prepubescent.

I realize therapy is the obvious answer, but I'm not even sure what I should work on. This didn't happen to me. But still, my view of my childhood has been changed forever. What do I say? How do I begin to process this? It's also so far away in time. We're talking about events which happened more than 40 years ago. I have a lot of experience with CBT, but that seems inadequate to this particular challenge.

Are there any books or resources anyone can recommend for this situation? Any thoughts at all?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Just wanted to extend my sympathy. You’ve had a great shock. I don’t really know what to say but I hope to contribute to this conversation later when I’ve thought more about it. I noticed that no one else had responded yet, and I wanted to send you a big ((((((((((((( hug))))))))))))))))
posted by cartoonella at 2:54 AM on November 21, 2018 [23 favorites]

Sorry that this has happened, sounds like a rough thing to find out about so long after the fact and when you've already done a lot of processing work around your relationship with this parent.

I'd recommend looking for a therapist who specialises in trauma work and seeing what they suggest, as I agree that CBT is probably not your first-line choice here. To me this seems like a case of, "you had childhood trauma because of [reasons], which you've worked through, but now it turns out there's additional trauma because of [new reasons] and you need help processing the new stuff and understanding how to integrate it into the narrative you already had about your relationship with [parent]."
posted by terretu at 2:55 AM on November 21, 2018 [13 favorites]

I realize therapy is the obvious answer, but I'm not even sure what I should work on... I have a lot of experience with CBT, but that seems inadequate to this particular challenge.

A traditional psychotherapist will be able to help you process this through standard talk therapy.

I've spent my whole life thinking about this parent as a victim of their childhood. It has broken my heart that I wasn't able to help them heal before they died... I don't know how to be there for the victim... I have no idea what kind of role I can play in their recovery or how I can support them.

You cannot do this for any of these people. A good therapist will help you understand this.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:27 AM on November 21, 2018 [14 favorites]

As for how to support the victim, you are already well on the right path - you believe them, and you are sympathetic. So often when people talk about family abuse the person hearing about it is so in shock they want to deny that any of it is true, which can be so painful for the victim. They were able to tell you and be believed, to not be blamed for what happened, and I bet that's a huge weight off of their shoulders. So, now you have to deal with this awful truth, but think of it as taking your turn shouldering this burden. It sucks, and it's going to take time to come to terms with it, but you're taking pain away from this other person that you love and care about, and that is a very good and kind thing you are doing. Keep listening, believing, and caring, you guys are going to get through this.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 3:31 AM on November 21, 2018 [27 favorites]

I'm so sorry this is happening and I can't imagine how terrible this must be for you.

Nthing therapy. I'd start by looking for experienced therapists who specialize in trauma and PTSD - it's a category on Find a Therapist (you'll have to input your city first).

You can ask the victim if they even need anything from you - they might not. You might want to talk to your therapist about how you can be supportive in a way that does not impede your own healing process.

For now, you are in shock so be gentle with yourself and know that the shock is not permanent. Make an appointment with a therapist. Try to get out into nature. Spend some time with someone you trust and love. If you have access to a pool, go swimming (it sounds very trivial but in times of intense stress swimming has helped me with anxiety).
posted by bunderful at 5:03 AM on November 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

Are you the only one the victim told? If you are, i would try to encourage them to seek therapy for themselves, and to encourage them to seek support by and confide into someone NOT related or connected to the molester.

This most definitely not a burden you should shoulder or attempt to help the victim. You are in no form responsible for a parents actions.
Please find a therapist for yourself, as someone above suggested talk therapy, with option for trauma therapy.

Tbh, the person, as much as it cost them, was imo wrong to share with you. Your parent is dead. they presumably know the massive burden you carried growing up with this parent. What did they hope to gain? You are NOT responsible.

This reads harsh, i know. If we met in real life i would try through voice and expression try to soften it.

The reason i feel so strongly that you need to get help and discourage further information, details and confidences is that something similar happend to me after my father's death. I know how crippling this can be.
Ask this person to get help elsewhere and specifically request they spare you any further details. You cannot help them and need help yourself.
posted by 15L06 at 5:23 AM on November 21, 2018 [8 favorites]

I have only practical advice.

In the short term, box up EVERYTHING in your home that reminds you of this and store it in a friend’s basement until you are ready to deal with it. Get a few nice new decorations and plants or flowers, put them around your home. If you can afford to have a service come in and deep clean, do that. Spend a weekend throwing away broken or old stuff, cleaning out closets, and donating items you no longer use. Move the furniture around. Finish any outstanding repairs. Make a list and work through it.

If all of this sounds too much, just vacuum. Every time you feel a bit or a lot unsettled, pull out the vacuum.

For some reason, cleaning always helps. You don’t have to look at items that upset you, you don’t have to make decisions about those items right away. Just store them elsewhere until you are ready to deal.

Long term I know you will follow all the good advice and seek help. I just wanted to gently remind you of these things you can do right away that will have a positive impact.
posted by jbenben at 5:34 AM on November 21, 2018 [23 favorites]

Regarding your relative, I am quite sure that the very fact that you believe them and have said so will help them. Being believed and the truth acknowledged is a huge relief, and if this is someone you can be friends with, no doubt you will both find it helpful just to hang out now and then with someone who understands.
posted by Enid Lareg at 6:21 AM on November 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

I would make sure to explicitly say to the other person, I believe you completely.

Definitely box up all the items that are painful right now and put them out of sight. You can deal with them later.

Find a therapist (I would think a therapist of the same gender would be most helpful) who has experience with sexual abuse and PTSD.

Encourage the other person to seek therapy as well.

Try to remember that YOU ARE NOT GUILTY. Your parent was an adult who made their own choices. You were a child, and later an adult who didn't have all the information. You did your best and you will keep doing your best.

This is really hard, but you can get through it.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:24 AM on November 21, 2018 [9 favorites]

Yes, therapy, and yes, look for a therapist who specializes in trauma, ideally someone who works with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. They'll have a much better framework for working with you than a standard CBT therapist. (And as a therapist who did specialize in working with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I absolutely would have welcomed working with you. Don't feel like your pain is somehow not "real" enough or that you're not enough of a "victim" to be seeking help -- such thinking is super-common among trauma survivors, and even if you didn't experience trauma then, you're experiencing trauma now.)

I'm so sorry you're going through this. It's not your fault. And it sounds like it's retriggering old patterns of you feeling the need to be responsible for your parent.

I agree with other posters that it would be good, if you haven't already, to tell your loved one explicitly that you do believe them. You might want to work with your therapist about what boundaries to set in terms of how much of your loved one's pain you can really help them to process -- you may not be the person best situated to help in that way. As others have said, though, simply telling them that you believe them is a HUGE help.

At the sexual-assault crisis center where I used to work, we had crisis counselors and therapists who would certainly have been willing to talk through the situation with you (and your loved one, together or separately); they also maintained a list of private therapists specializing in working with survivors of sexual assault and abuse. You might look up your town/city/county's center (if you need help, MeMail me and I'll help) for support and resources.
posted by lazuli at 6:34 AM on November 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

I have nothing additional to add to the good advice above, but I wanted to be one more voice, stating unequivocally- It’s not your fault.
posted by greermahoney at 6:41 AM on November 21, 2018 [5 favorites]

Tbh, the person, as much as it cost them, was imo wrong to share with you. Your parent is dead. they presumably know the massive burden you carried growing up with this parent. What did they hope to gain? You are NOT responsible.

I agree with this. My father molested two people that I know of. One of them was his sister, my aunt, who told me after his death, and should not have. There is nothing I can do about it and all it accomplished was further trauma.

You need to insulate yourself from this because, as everyone in this thread is going to tell you, it's not your fault and it's not your responsibility. You've already borne a terrible burden and now it's time for you to protect yourself and live your own life. Tell the other person you 100% believe them but for your own sanity you can't talk about it any more, encourage them to seek therapy, and get therapy yourself. Then make sure to enforce your own boundaries.
posted by HotToddy at 6:55 AM on November 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

There's a lot of good advice above, I won't repeat it. I will say: what's done is done, and no-one can roll it back. You can't change your parent's crime, and you also can't change your relative's need to tell you. Those things happen and will not ever change. What you can change is your feelings and actions.

Because of a recent traumatic experience, where cognitive therapy didn't move anything, I decided to try psychotherapy again, after having given up on it 20 years ago. Back then, I tried it after a difficult divorce from a man who was abusive in many ways, and I felt the reason he could snare me in was because he could trigger my reactions to childhood trauma and the insecurities I felt as a consequence. But the therapist was no good for me back then. Now I tried again because the same ghosts are still there, and as I said, CBT was useless. Maybe it's because I've found a better therapist (for me), or maybe it's because I'm more mature. Or it's a combination. But this time round, the therapy is really helpful and I feel life-changing. Yes, there is woo, this week she wants me to focus on the color orange, and IMO it's ridiculous. She is also religious and I am not at all. But I go along with it and it helps even though it makes no sense to me. Most of the time, I'm doing the analysis, but the therapist is guiding me, and just by being there she helps me verbalize my pains and fears. I take her superstitious stuff as metaphors. Probably the way this works (not necessarily the actual format) is what psychotherapy should be.

My situation is not very different from yours. I can feel the helplessness in your words. There are questions about how to talk with close and dear relatives I can't resolve on my own. The therapist helps me sleep at night, she helps me define a boundary between my problems and my relative's. She helps me look forward, while not denying or forgetting the past. She helps me find love where it is, which I think is the most important thing.

Hugs from here
posted by mumimor at 8:55 AM on November 21, 2018

Hi. I am home with strep throat reading this so I haven't read all of the other responses, but I wanted to jump in with some advice, such as it is. You've had a tremendous shock. Learning this about your parent is life-altering. It will forever change you. The feelings you are experiencing are all common with shock, not PTSD. This kind of stress and tectonic change releases a lot of energy that is incredibly raw and overwhelming. Most people, in this situation, look for things to do. It's an emergency - emergencies require action, right?

But sometimes the best thing you can do to stop a shock from turning into a trauma is to just stop and let the energy rise and fall. Give yourself time to adjust to the news. This is not a good space to act from, instead, in my experience, the best thing is to just ride it out, like a raft on scary waves, and do what you can to calm your limbic system. Slow your breathing. Deepen your breathing. Tell yourself you are safe, even though it doesn't feel like it, and there is nothing you need to do right now except get through the next space of time. The feelings you say feel like PTSD will calm. They will calm more quickly if you let them go through you without feeling like you're damaged or ruined. It's releasing energy.

I think that people want to do things because it distracts from the pain, and this is 100% understandable. I also things doing things makes us feel more in control, but it's a false sense of control - to frantic to be real. The pain is hard, but you will be so much better in six months, a year, five years, if you just let it hurt. The pain does not stay the same, even right now. It will ebb and flow. You can watch it and you can watch it try to tell you there are things you need to do. Now! Action!

Remind yourself, if it helps, that what you are experiencing is no outside the realm of human experience. You are safely within the bounds of the survivable. Your internal relationship with your father is going to have to change, but your world does not need to end. The absolute best thing you can do is give yourself some time and the permission to ride it out.

Your father did dark things. You now know about them. He brought darkness into your home in ways you may never fully understand. But his deed are not your deeds and you are not responsible for the person who told you. You can feel sad for them and bad for them, but your job is not to fix them. The best thing you can do for them is take care of yourself so you can process this is a non-toxic way.

If it helps, read online about shock. Most people find it comforting to see their symptoms reflected back. I know I do.

This is heavy, heavy stuff, but you have all the time you need to get through it and your job right now is to take the best care of yourself you can, not feel responsible for anyone else or worry about how big the problem is, and wait until the initial storm settles a bit. If you feel unsafe or overwhelmed and you think you need therapy, then by all means seek it, but you can also just take more time - as much as you need - to exhale and let the dust settle a bit from the bomb that's gone off in your life.

I say all this as someone who 100% believes in therapy, has spent many years in therapy, takes medication, has PTSD and depression. I also say this as someone who has met hundreds of people weeks, months, and years after a horrible event and has seen the wide array of outcomes from great truama and believes that the best thing to do in the beginning is nothing.
posted by orsonet at 9:09 AM on November 21, 2018 [7 favorites]

I’m so sorry you and your relative are going through this. Nthing that self care is critical (put on your own mask...)

If it helps in your framing of this, I think your initial assessment of your parent is correct: they were a victim of their childhood. Tragically, many people who where abused go on to abuse others. This does not excuse the behavior, but it is a common pattern. Their abuse led them to be an abuser.

Try to remember that you are not responsible for your relative’s recovery. You have done so much by believing them. You can encourage them to seek help and be supportive of them, but that’s all. I agree with the idea of explicitly saying you believe them completely.

You say they are active in your life. Give yourself some time to deal with the shock, but if you can, work to keep them in your life. Don’t let guilt for something that you didn’t do and couldn’t prevent, poison your relationship with them.
posted by jenquat at 9:17 AM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

As a counterpoint, I don't necessarily agree that it was wrong for your loved one to tell you, especially given how much a part of your life you say they are. If this was something that was interfering with their ability to be close or real with you, their disclosure can, over time, serve to deepen the relationship further.
posted by lazuli at 9:32 AM on November 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

I was molested by my cousin's father and told my cousin and his wife about 5 years ago. This was about 30 years after the molestation. His father is still alive and my motivation for telling him was to protect his 2 young daughters. I was relieved that my cousin and his wife believed me. I honestly felt free and perhaps it brought back some self respect that I didn't know I lost. I think you've done great and if it makes sense and isn't painful for either party, continuing to have a relationship is affirming.
posted by PeaPod at 10:11 AM on November 21, 2018 [8 favorites]

Hi. So, almost this exact same scenario happened to me, with the one difference that I was also a victim of my father so it wasn't as much of a surprise I guess.

It is my understanding that he had many victims, only one whom I know and am related to. In my early childhood, it began to come to a head, with legal action pending against my father from several women. Ultimately he took his own life before it reached court, which threw my life into a different sort of upheaval. I can't help but be thankful for it, as harsh as it sounds. I think about those other women almost every day and I hope that while it probably wasn't the closure or justice they deserved or wanted, that they are doing ok now, wherever they are.

I no longer speak to the relative who was also a victim of my father, not because of this situation necessarily, but her treatment of my family has become very harsh over the years. I empathise with the anger she carries because of my father and also other things that have occurred over her lifetime. However, my family is not my father, we were as much victims of his actions as she was, and we are not the appropriate dumping ground for those feelings. As I came to terms with my childhood and began to create a healthier life, I found forming that boundary to be necessary and helpful for my own wellbeing. Perhaps it was selfish, but that doesn't automatically make it a bad decision. If I could take away her pain and deal with it on her behalf, I would, because she clearly struggles. But I am not a mental health professional and I cannot fix this for her. To be clear, I am not upset with her for sharing what happened to her, at all. It is what came after that went beyond what I could reasonably be expected to shoulder.

Hopefully this is not the dynamic that will result from this revelation. The takeaway message is exactly as others have said, that while your heart is in the right place, this is not your responsibility to fix. Being there for them and believing them is huge, and if the situation arises, directing them to therapy would be appropriate. You cannot help them because you are not trained to help them, and it will keep you stuck in the trauma. No one can make amends for the actions our fathers took. Not even themselves if they were still alive, I imagine.

For you, definitely therapy. I tried CBT, didn't really work for this (though worked great for some other bullshit I was struggling with) so I think your instinct is right here. I ended up doing regular talk therapy which helped me identify and separate helpful, healthy thoughts from the rest, as well as examine my motivations. I'm doing pretty well these days. I know it sucks so bad right now but if you take the steps to take care of yourself, it'll get better with time. We are not our fathers.
posted by BeeJiddy at 2:35 PM on November 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

« Older Cool arty jewelry shops in Portland?   |   On the market for a Task Manager app Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments