My therapist was a petite woman who asked if it was my first time.
I reluctantly replied, “Yes.”
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“My friends suggested I come to therapy.”
I had commuted from my college campus to a Behavioral Health center in Queens. Despite the therapist’s encouragement I had difficulty talking about the trauma I was there to share. She gave me a three inch handbook titled, “The Effects of Childhood Sexual Trauma.” I did not go back for the next appointment. It would be five years before I attempted therapy again.
As a child, I did not know I was one of the thousands of children who are sexually abused before the age of 12. About 8% to 12% of children are sexually abused annually nationwide. My parents and I moved to New York from Mexico when I was five years old. Once we left Mexico, the sexual abuse by a family relative in our hometown was never spoken about again. The perpetrator was not punished and relatives were skeptical of my account. Even if we had sought legal justice, the chances of receiving it were slim. For every ten cases, there is only one case that results in a sentence.
Latin America is still a highly patriarchal society. Mexico exemplifies this dynamic, the effects visible by itsincreasing rates of femicide and violence against women. A remnant of colonialism, the national religion is Catholicism, which dictates cultural practices and beliefs. In nuclear families and society at large men are in charge of households and families must be kept together at all costs. This sociocultural framework punishes victims, making it difficult for survivors to come forward and attain legal justice. The intersection of skin color, education level, poverty, age, and mother tongue keep colonial power dynamics of race and socioeconomics in place.
On the exterior, I was like every other kid my age. I went to school and socialized with my classmates. I did my best to compartmentalize and push aside the abuse that had taken place in Mexico. Then the nightmares started, followed by discomfort with affection, and appetite loss. I was encouraged to eat, stay away from fear inducing situations, and told to be cautious with strangers. While these were practical solutions to keep my body safe, they did not address my mental health.
Mental illness is stigmatized in Latinx culture, it is perceived an American privilege. “Laziness” is unacceptable as a first generation immigrant. SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows Latinx mental health is steadily decreasing and the percentage of Latinx seeking mental health is low. Substance abusers are the least likely to seek help. This stigma needs to be addressed in order to provide adequate support for survivors of CSA and the general community.
My parents did not speak English and were just starting to learn how to navigate paperwork, bills, and a new culture. Financial security was their first priority, all else was secondary. As a child I was still learning English and there was no way I would have been able to fully communicate in a language other than Spanish. According to the American Psychological Association, 88% of practicing therapists are white. Only 4% of therapists are Latinx. It is harder for English as a second language learners and speakers to find a therapist.
CSA survivors are encouraged to attend family therapy, group therapy, or individual therapy within two years of the abuse. Unfortunately, my abuse was not a topic my family was ready to discuss, much less in therapy. A lack of treatment can result in alienation, self blame, and self hate, all of which I experienced growing up.
As an immigrant I also understood our family was different. Family socializing was restricted to other Mexican and Latinx immigrants. I didn’t fully comprehend the meaning of being undocumented until I applied to college. All the stress and years of coping with the effects of CSA, growing up undocumented, and an ethnic minority came tumbling down on me. I spoke with mentors who recommended therapy and medication. Despite not having access to mental health care early on in life, I was fortunate to have a good support system.
I didn’t attend therapy until my early twenties. It took thirteen years to muster the courage to walk into a therapist’s office for the first time and another five to finally talk about the experience. My second attempt at therapy was in my college therapist’s office, who told me it was safe to cry, scream, and express anger. This was the first and only white therapist I worked well with. Biases in American healthcare create barriers to kids and adults of color in receiving the treatment that is needed. I was fortunate to have a therapist who treated me with patience and respect.
After so many years of attending therapy I finally had the language to articulate what had happened. With awareness came self forgiveness and compassion. I understand the effects of CSA never go away– maintaining mental health care is a lifelong process.
I have met CSA survivors who did not speak about their experiences until their 30s, 40s or 50s. Healing is not linear. What matters for CSA survivors is adequate support and resources. Services should be available to all children regardless of language, citizenship status, or wealth.