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By Émilie H-P
I don’t even remember whose birthday it was. I had arrived at a new school the year before and it was still hard to make friends.
Content Warning: This personal essay contains references to child/sexual abuse. Please be advised if those are potential triggers for you as you read this essay.
I was seven years old, and I was wearing a pretty dress and my hair in braids because we were still faily new in town and had to make a good impression. I felt intimidated, but I loved birthday parties and well, this was supposed to be fun.
There are many things that I can’t remember about that day, either because I’ve blocked out some memories, or perhaps because I was so young. I don’t really remember getting there, for example. But the sensation of fear and the shame of having control over my own body taken away from me so easily remains engraved into my brain.
It all happened so fast. We were running in the garden and suddenly, I was on the ground, boys melting on me like a swarm of bees. Buzzy, messy, thorny... That’s how I remember it. My dress was rolled up, my underwear pulled down. Hands started to explore me, and I remember one of the oldest boys saying: "Well, that’s what I call a good fuck!". I did not understand what that meant but maybe the boys knew because it made them laugh. It felt like the entire world had been reduced to that small space between me and them.
How old were they? Twelve, thirteen maybe.
Later on, when they finally got bored of me, I met Clara, one of my classmates. They had touched her chest, she said, and it alleviated the loneliness for a minute. I don’t remember telling my parents about this but months, perhaps only weeks, later, I was diagnosed with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and my family was moving again - in the middle of the school year. I was already a shy kid but after the birthday party, all I longed for was to become invisible. I was put in a catholic school (was it supposed to be safer?), but I hated it there and pretended to be sick as often as I could. My new schoolmates seemed eager to bully the weird new girl and our religious education on kindness and compassion did little to help.
Adults described me as a mature child: I was "wise for my age", a very serious kid. My parents never talked about the birthday party so, with time, I started to doubt it ever happened. I became a good listener, but only because I had never been taught to express myself. I was screaming inside but no one seemed to hear. Decades later, when I discovered the literature on COCSA (Child On Child Sexual Abuse), some of the feelings and behaviors that I had developed as a young child started to make sense: the violent nightmares, the scary drawings, the panic attacks, the skin-picking, the psoriasis, the crippling anxiety… Trauma had leached into the core of my DNA and created chaos.
By the time I had reached my teenage years, I had internalized the idea that "boys will be boys". At fourteen years old, I found myself hiding in the aisles of a small supermarket because two older guys had followed me and my girlfriend on our way home from school, threatening to "fuck" us that day. A female employee overheard us whispering and led us to the backdoor so we could run away. I felt distressed but would have never thought of reporting the incident to anyone because this just felt like one of these things girls have to put up with. From a young age, we are taught that it’s our responsibility to protect ourselves from men. When I was eighteen and moved out of home, my father gave me some pepper spray. He didn’t say a thing because he didn’t have to of course, I knew what that was for.
That year, I would shyly tell my first boyfriend that I preferred to take things slow. That boys had hurt me before. I remember him rolling his eyes: "Why am I always attracting girls with problems?!" I hated to be seen as that but felt guilty for being such a bore. So I didn’t say anything when, for three years and a half, I lived with a guy who mentally abused me to the point where I was left with almost no personality. He made me believe that my taste in music was awful, that my parents were stupid, that my hair would be better blond, that his friends found me hard to like, that I shouldn’t manage my money that way, that I had no talent whatsoever. The day I finally dumped him, he weeped on my shoulder until he realized I wasn’t crying at all. I remained a disappointment to him, up to the very last second of our relationship.
By that time, my anxiety had become such an integral part of my personality that I honestly just thought I was a freak. I later learned that over a third of sexual abuse of children is committed by someone under the age of 18. But because COCSA remains largely underreported, victims often grow up believing they’re responsible for what happened to their childish body.
Sometimes, I wondered what they’d become. The boys. They must be in their forties now. Married perhaps. With a family. Do they remember the birthday party? Are they anxious when they drop their precious little girls at a friend’s house or was this afternoon so insignificant for them anyway that they’ve forgotten all about it?
A more terrifying thought arises sometimes.
Have they hurt other girls? Other women?
I have shared the past ten years with a man who is kind, gentle and who makes me laugh every day. I’m grateful for that. But it took me a long time to allow myself to accept that what happened that day was not okay. That, despite my efforts, it had created a wound (some) boys would so carelessly enjoy rubbing salt into. Over the years, I recognized that wound in many other women who, on the path to girlhood, had been hurt too and had learned to hush their soul, even when it howled in pain.
When I recognized it in my mother, I started to see how deep the wound was.
But also how deep it could still get.
'The Birthday Party' is an autobiographical short essay which deals with COCSA (Child on Child Sexual Abuse) and my own experience of sexual and mental abuse as a child and young adult'.
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