By Aimee MaloneMay 11, 2017
Healing is a highly individual process, but talking about sexual assault is one of the ways to both help victims and prevent future abuse, said guest speaker Jennifer Nadler during her "Voice of a Survivor" presentation April 26 at Fort McCoy.
Nadler is a professor at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, N.Y., and a speaker's bureau member for The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network and the New York State Office for Victims of Crime. She also is a survivor of sexual assault and child abuse. She's received several awards for her presentation about surviving sexual assault, including the 2016 Exceptional Women of CNY Award from New York state Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter, the 2015 Visionary Voice Award for New York state, and the "Makers: Women Who Make America Award" from WCNY.
"Some people can't fully comprehend the struggles of a sexual-assault survivor - the struggle to try to keep the secret, the struggle to try to carry on as if everything is OK, and the struggle of trying to heal those deep wounds," Nadler said.
Nadler survived being sexually abused by her uncle for two years. She moved in with her aunt and uncle when her family moved because she wanted to keep attending the same school. She didn't tell anyone, she said.
"Many people don't understand why survivors don't tell," Nadler said. "We're afraid."
She said she was afraid no one would believe her or they'd say it was her fault. She thought her Family would be angry and upset with her. Children are especially prone to keeping it a secret as they struggle to make sense of the abuse, Nadler said.
"Kids are really egocentric. They think that everything that revolves around them. They make what they think is the logical assumption that they're the ones causing the abuse," she said.
"There are people who walk through life with one or two pieces of carry-on-style luggage," she said. "And then there are people like me who need that cart, the kind you find in a hotel lobby, to lug around all the baggage we are trying to carry with us."
Nadler said she buried the experience for years, going through high school and college without confronting her memories. It was only after she began working as a middle school teacher, with students who were the same age she had been when she was abused, that she began to break down. She said her students became "walking, talking triggers" that would bring back memories of the abuse she'd gone through.
"Each person's experience of abuse is different, as are the effects, Nadler said. She said she struggled with depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, and her perception of her body image and weight, among others. She began avoiding going to work, even though she liked her students.
She said she realized she'd hit rock bottom when her sister had to come over and help dress her and get to work because she was lying on the bathroom floor, "crying like a child," because she didn't want to go to school that day. She checked herself into inpatient psychiatric care not long after.
Like the symptoms and effects of sexual assault and abuse, each person needs to find his or her own way to work through it, Nadler said.
"I'd like to point out here that the process of healing is not one size fits all. I know people who never needed to confront their abuser to feel healed," she said. "I know people who don't see spirituality as part of the process. For each person, the process is different."
Nadler said she struggled with therapy at first, partly because she's a very linear thinker. She said she thought she could heal herself by making a list of steps to follow and working through them until she'd checked off everything on the list.
"My counselor would tell me numerous times that healing is like an onion. There are so many layers to it," Nadler said. She struggled with this concept, wanting to get straight to the heart of the matter.
"I just wanted to take a butcher's knife and cut right down to the onion's core," she said. "But the process of healing is the peeling away of every layer of that onion."
Peeling away the top protective layer was a necessary step to heal, Nadler said, but it also made things worse at first. She fell back into destructive behaviors after leaving inpatient care, but she said it was worse this time around because she knew what she was avoiding and what she was doing to herself.
She persevered, though, continuing with her therapy even when she felt like all it was doing was dredging up bad memories.
Nadler said she needed a multifaceted approach to healing, but listening to music was one activity that helped her a great deal.
"During this time period in my life, I listened to lots of hard rock and heavy metal," Nadler said. Her presentation was set to songs by Linkin Park, which is still one of her favorite bands. She said the songs resonated with her, but she didn't find out until later that one of the lead singers, Chester Bennington, had also been abused as a child.
"This teenage screamer band that many people think of when they hear Linkin Park - for me, that was so far off the mark," Nadler said. "Bennington's torment, his angst, his screams of rage (are) the angst, torment, and rage of every survivor."
Part of her healing process also involved telling her friends and Family. She filed a police report despite the fact that the crime had passed the statute of limitations. She said she wanted to make sure there was a record of her uncle's crimes in case someone else came forward later.
Nadler said many people ask her if she's forgiven her uncle.
"I can stand here today and tell you that I have, but not in the way that most people think when they hear the word forgiveness," she said. She said she will never accept or condone what he did, but she has let it go. By forgiving him, she said, she's no longer bound to him and is no longer afraid to say his name.
Nadler said she still struggles with the effects of her abuse. She still has nightmares sometimes, and she struggles with her body image. But talking about both her abuse and her healing process helps her continue that process.
"Being here with you today helps me peel back another layer of my onion," Nadler said. "Today you've heard one person's truth, but there are so many others out there.
"As more people reach out for help, ... we begin to break out of the darkness and into the light of healing," she said. "As more people begin to speak their truths and start to heal, we open up the possibility for change for the next generation."