I Am a Survivor, Not a Victim, and I’m Grateful for My Pain

“Emotional pain cannot kill you but running from it can. Allow. Embrace. Let yourself feel. Let your yourself heal.” ~Vironika Tugaleva

I was nine years old, sitting on the couch with my dad, watching a Very Brady Christmas (on my sister’s birthday, December 20th) when he first molested me. Terror, confusion, disbelief, and shame comingled to create a cocktail that would poison me for many years to come.

We grew up in a family that, from the outside, seemed ideal.

We would attend church with my mom’s side of the family every Sunday, going to breakfast at a restaurant after. My brothers, sister, and I spent weekends partaking in fun activities that would range from spending the whole day building towns made out of clay to rollerskating while my mom baked homemade bread. To anyone that knew us, we seemed like the perfect family.

And then one day we weren’t anymore.

After that horrible night, my dad promising me it would never happen again, I was lost and confused. Was there something inherently wrong with me to provoke him to do that to me? Had I in some way invited him to touch me inappropriately? I felt disgusting, soiled, and used, convinced that it was all my fault.

These feelings followed through me the next three years of being molested, then spread and grew through the aftermath of me finally telling my mom what had happened. Even after the abuse stopped and with my dad safely behind bars, I carried guilt and shame with me daily. A badge of honor to remind me of what I had been through and survived.

Survival became my top priority, and it didn’t matter what I had to do to attain self-preservation.

As I grew older, I found survival through drugs and alcohol. For a small moment each day when that liquor touched my lips, when that pain pill was ingested and absorbed, I was free. The incessant dark and ugly thoughts that plagued my mind were blissfully silenced and I was able to breathe a little easier.

Once this method of forgetting no longer worked, I graduated to an abusive relationship, playing out the codependency and toxicity that I had grown up with. I ran from anything that was healthy or good for me because, on some level, I believed I didn’t deserve it. How could someone who had had been molested be worthy of true love and happiness?

I sentenced myself to a lifetime of misery and defeat because I truly believed that I was not deserving of anything but pain.

Living this way was exhausting. I was tired of this so-called life that I was sleepwalking my way through, and I knew that the path I was on would eventually lead to death or an existence filled with depression day in and day out.  

So I started making changes to my lifestyle. I went cold turkey cutting out the pain pills and the alcohol. This is not something I would recommend doing, as it’s always best to follow a physician’s orders, but I knew in my heart that I had to stop immediately because if I didn’t stop at that moment, I never would.

Losing the security blanket that the pills provided was one of the scariest things I have ever had to experience. I felt like I had lost a deep, integral part of me, my best friend. I had to walk through life with my eyes open; I was exposed and raw and didn’t know if I could make it through without the assistance of those little pills. Many times I had to reevaluate why I was doing this and what this new journey would look like.

I also started therapy. I knew that I could give up my vices, but if I didn’t start delving into the deep and complex emotions I carried over from childhood, I would not grow as I needed to. For someone who had learned from an early age to sweep everything under the carpet and pretend like nothing was wrong, therapy was difficult, to say the least.

I had been forced to see a therapist on and off as a child and my teens after the molestation, but I never went willingly. Now, as an adult who was doing her best to start making real changes, I tried to approach therapy with an open heart, willing myself not to quit when it got too rough. It’s one of the best gifts I could have given myself.

I started attending therapy diligently, week after week, slicing myself wide open, plunging my hands deep within my heart, pulling out those long-buried emotions, and holding them to the light where they were addressed head-on, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

I began to sift through the complicated feelings that I had held onto for so long. I sat with the emotions and felt them. I cried, I screamed, and I laughed, broken wide open. I was naked and vulnerable and even though it was terrifying, it was also exhilarating. By finally allowing myself to feel what I had repressed for so long, I was able to move through the feelings as I should have all those years ago, to feel truly alive.

Once the feelings were addressed, I begin to journal in earnest. To write about what I could not speak of for decades, to put down on paper what mattered to me, even if it was inconsequential to anyone else.

I began to understand that I matter, that what I felt was important and necessary.

Through journaling, I began to understand that I could look at what happened to me as something horrible, I could continue to feel sorry for myself and wish it had never happened, or I could choose to find reasons to be thankful. Yes, thankful.

Though I wouldn’t choose to be molested, the experience made me stronger than I ever thought possible. I became resilient and self-sufficient, learning that I could turn my pain into something bigger than myself.

One of the main things that helped me shift my thinking  from victim mode to empowered, was starting a gratitude journal. I listed ten things I was grateful for daily, and the more I journaled, the more I found myself seeing the beauty in the hardships I was dealt.

There are going to be things that are out of our control, things we wish hadn’t happened. But if we can look at these experiences with appreciation for what they taught us, for how we have grown because of them, we’ll find it much easier to heal—and handle anything life throws at us.

If you find yourself in a situation where you see yourself as a victim and can’t seem to get past the pain, I urge you to look at the situation as a growing opportunity. See everything you’ve learned and how you might even use those lessons to help other people.

Gratitude is a powerful tool that we can come back to again and again throughout our lives. Not only does it help us reframe our past, it makes us more compassionate—toward ourselves and everyone we encounter.

We begin to see that others struggle just as we do, and we are able to be a little kinder when we understand that we all share a common ground through our pain.

Through gratitude, I learned to start having compassion for myself and I realized I could make a difference in this world. By sharing my pain, I found my voice. I am no longer a victim. I am someone who was dealt an unfair blow, but who has emerged stronger and more resilient, appreciative of the good things in life for having gone through the bad.

By speaking out about what happened to me, by sharing my story with others, I have given that nine-year-old the words she never had. It is for her that I expose myself, that I bare my deepest, darkest secrets.

It is my biggest hope that another person reads my story and knows that they are not alone. If you can relate to anything I wrote, know that you too can turn your pain into something useful to others. You are not broken. You matter, you are loved, and you are worthy.

About Melissa Santillanez

Melissa Santillanez is a writer on a journey toward self-love. As a survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence, she has navigated her way through anxiety, depression, panic, low self- esteem, and substance abuse through writing and sharing her pain with others. She loves to connect with others on Instagram at @my_awakened_path or through her blog at myawakenedpath.com.

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