Welcome guest blogger and one of The HEAL Project’s Advisory Board Members, Walter Castaneda.
Walter Castaneda, age 28 is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse that lasted over a decade. He’s an El Salvadoran-American, Latino, student, bisexual, and community organizer living in San Diego, California. As an advisory board member for the Heal Project, Walter brings his personal experiences to the table to offer better solutions for all survivors, especially men because of a lack of resources he’s faced. He believes that everyone plays a role to protect the lives of innocent children, encourage male survivors to thrive in their healing journey, and shift society’s narrative of sexual violence against men, especially those within our LGBTQ community. He is currently working on organizing a support group for gay, bisexual, and transgender male sexual violence survivors with folks and support from the San Diego LGBT Center, Centers for Community Solutions, and San Diego Pride.
The abuse lasted for a little over a decade, from the time I was 6 years old. The experience, in many ways, has hindered who I’ve always been. It’s stopped me from seeing and embracing my full identity. Before I began to take care and love myself, there was confusion, blame, guilt, shame. The shame I felt and continue to feel makes me want to hide or disappear. It was so severe that I attempted suicide twice when I was younger.
I felt responsible for his sexual advances because I got hard, and I orgasmed every time he touched me inappropriately. My body was just responding physically…emotionally I was in a different place. The years of abuse stunted my emotional growth and created confusion for me on many levels.
At the same time that the abuse was happening, I was growing up following the example of and advice of my father — a very traditional man. His idea of what it means to be man was steeped in machismo. As a young Latino boy I received messages like I wasn’t allowed to show emotion or express myself. I was to be the “man” of the house. That I had a role to play as provider and protector and decision-maker. I was taught in the form of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. All for “good” reason, to teach me how to be tough and survive in the real world. Instead, it provoked chaos. Deep inside, I was learning how to compartmentalize the pain from the sexual abuse and cope with it – on my own as a 6, 10, 14, and 17-year old boy. Overtime, I began to internalize and develop a persistent negative perception of myself. It created confusion and feelings of disappointment for letting my family down.
When I started having sex with other men that were not my abuser, I was forced to come to terms with my sexual orientation. I’m bisexual. However, I didn’t know right away. Some time went by where I believed that I was gay. I came out as a gay man. I believed that if a person had sex with the same-sex that they were gay. Not long after, I acknowledged that my attraction and feelings for women hadn’t left and was equally as important to me as those for men. After doing some research on my own, I came to a conclusion that I was bisexual. But it wasn’t always easy, I felt shameful anytime I had a sexual experience with another man. The feeling hasn’t completely gone away.
I have mixed feelings about sexual experiences. There’s the feeling of happiness. There’s also the feeling of shame. A painful feeling of humiliation. It’s caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. I’d experience this every time I orgasmed while being abused. Actually, I’d mix these two feelings up. It felt great, but it felt wrong. It felt wrong for one reason: because it was a sexual experience imposed on me, forced on me. It also didn’t help that my sixth grade sexual education class was taught from a heteronormative perspective. It caused so much confusion. I began to have a negative association with my sexual experiences – especially gay experiences outside from the abuse.
For a long period of time, I thought my sexual orientation was highly influenced by my experience of sexual abuse. While there is research that links childhood sexual abuse and internalized shame, there is no evidence to support the misconception that I am bisexual because I was abused. A model of comprehensive sex education that includes sexual orientation in grade school would have been beneficial — a resource to turn to. It would have helped me understand that my same-sex exploration wasn’t because of the abuse. It may have helped me understand sex without feeling a sense of shame.
Up until a few years ago, it was tough for me to understand my sexual orientation. Undergoing sexual abuse made me feel like I wasn’t man enough because I enjoy same-sex sexual experiences. I’ve overcome that thought. I’ve learned that sexuality is fluid. I didn’t know the abuse was a bad thing because I was too young to understand that part. I enjoyed the experience because it was a form of exploration and curiosity as a child. Now, I understand the long-term effects that I experienced because of the abuse and why I enjoyed it. Understanding why I enjoyed the feeling of an orgasm, when my body was responding physically, has helped me understand why I’m not responsible for the abuse. It’s allowed me to talk about my experience in a very open way. I’ve let go of most of the shame. Each day, is an opportunity for me to emotionally evolve and grow.
Every morning, I look in the mirror and see myself. My whole self. Over the course of four years, I’ve learned to take better care of myself in ways that benefit my mental health and overall happiness. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve continuously asked myself hard questions. As a result, it’s been rewarding in the fact that I learn a little more about the person I am today. I share my story with others to inspire and encourage, not just survivors, but everyone to practice self-care. I’m learning how to love my whole self and disassemble the negative perception I developed as a young boy.
We all face struggles with our identities. Through some raw, honest, and difficult conversations with amazing people, it’s inspired me to take leaps of faith and work through these struggles. Healing is a journey. It’s not a race to see who gets to the finish line fastest. It takes time and patience. It takes going back to those dark places, somewhere in the very back of my brain – to face them with courage, strength, faith, and hope.
Sex is positive. I understand that, but I struggle learning how to embrace it.
Societal norms have also reinforced these feelings of shame. Stopped me from embracing sex. I ask myself, “Why am I afraid of sex, although I enjoy it?”, “Why must I be drunk to let loose?” and “Would I be bisexual today if I wasn’t sexually abused?”.
I’m in a different place in my life than I was six years ago. I look back and smile proudly with gratitude because I’ve traveled on this journey with my therapist, friends, and family. Nonetheless, I still have healing to do. April shines a light on sexual violence. I see so many organizations, activists, and survivors use their voices to create awareness. It gives me the motivation to continue to use a negative experience and turn it into something positive. It gives me the strength to continue to advocate for survivors and to heal. Finally, it gives me the faith that gives me the ability to believe that it gets better. Will you join me today by subscribing to The Heal Project, like us on Facebook, and help create awareness, not just during April, but year-around? Your support is important to me and survivors across the world.
Thanks so much Walter for your honesty, vulnerability and advocacy.
Welcome guest blogger and one of The HEAL Project’s Advisory Board Members, Hyunhee Shin.
Hyunhee is a queer survivor of child sexual abuse, family violence, and sexual assault. As a person with psychiatric disabilities and the child of working class, Korean immigrant parents in rural Pennsylvania, Hyunhee brings to this work her personal experiences of violence in the context of intersecting issues of race, class, immigration, gender, sexual identity, and disability.
TW/CW: child sexual, physical, emotional Abuse/ PTSD
When I started learning about child sexual abuse four years ago, I was working at a feminist foundation fresh out of college. I didn’t realize I was a survivor of CSA at the time, but I did hold onto other childhood traumas — physical and emotional abuse from my father, the pain of growing up poor immigrants in rural Pennsylvania, navigating mental illness.
I didn’t know at first, but as I delved deeper into the subject matter, I was being triggered just by doing my job. I knew I was a survivor of abuse and that I identified on a deep level with the survivors I was reading about. It wasn’t until half a year in, my memory as a child of being sexually assaulted by a group of neighborhood teens surfaced and I realized that what happened to me was child sexual abuse.
One of the fascinating things I learned about the brain is that one of the ways it protects you from trauma is to hide those memories away. That sometimes, despite your brain’s best efforts to keep them concealed, a steady hammer of triggers can break the walls down and reveal your past trauma to your conscious mind for the first time.
Reeling from this repositioning of memory in this new context, I waded through the mud and haze of PTSD in the months that followed. I navigated coming out as a survivor to my employer while struggling to focus on a project that had me immersed in readings and research looking for practical tips on preventing CSA. My supervisor was warm and supportive and patient. I couldn’t have asked for a better support while working full time on an issue area I didn’t realize would trigger me.
I went back to therapy and worked hard to get a baseline handle on my wellness. I sought support from a tiny handful of friends I trusted — it felt too soon to talk about the abuse in more than a whisper to many others. Once I felt confident that I wouldn’t stomp all over professional boundaries, I slowly started reaching out to survivors I knew in the field. Learning with them and diving deep into the ways trauma impacted my life was incredibly transformative.
In the last few years, I’ve learned a lot about trauma and how it affects my life. There were the obvious things, like classic PTSD symptoms — avoidance, hyperarousal, anger, guilt, insomnia. There were the ways in which my PTSD made best friends with my bipolar disorder and sought to pull the rug out from under me whenever possible. There were the myriad distortions I believed about myself and how I related to other people that I could now trace back to childhood trauma. One of the many things I’m grateful for is the realization that I was not an inherently shitty, mean, and unfeeling person.
Trauma threw my heart in a thick glass box and gave me a toothpick to chisel it out. It’s not that I lacked empathy because I was some sort of sociopath. I just had a harder time accessing those feelings largely because of what happened to me. Once I cracked the code of my emotional inner life, I started working hard to chisel out of the glass trauma box. I explored vulnerability with my therapist and tried connecting with emotions beyond rage and despair. I started dismantling bolt by bolt the iron fortress around me that I deluded myself into thinking protected me. I stopped seeing myself as an island, an independent person who could help and support others with their needs, but never needed help myself. I started to understand that acknowledging that I needed help and reaching out for support from loved ones isn’t a sign of weakness, but is a source of strength.
Over time and with the help of survivors in solidarity and loved ones, I developed my emotional intelligence and empathy. In holding space for myself, I learned how to hold space for others who were navigating similar journeys. I tapped into those particular feelings in my body and heart that helped me build trust and hold space with other survivors. I realized how powerful deep empathy can be in helping ourselves and each other heal. I took stock of all the times someone has said to me that they felt safe and deeply understood when we talked, or when complete strangers have opened up to me, or anytime someone shares something with me they’ve never shared with anyone else. It’s a power I’m learning to tap into and harness to help pay my healing forward.
Survivors of child sexual abuse are forced to bear the burden of violent experiences early in life. Post traumatic stress is well documented and researched. How might we build power together if we spent just as much time understanding post traumatic growth? And not in a way that undermines or diminishes the pain we suffer in the aftermath of violence. Just in a way that also uplifts those survival strategies that become great gifts. Survivors have a remarkable ability to take the pain that we’ve been forced to hold and forge it into an inner light that heals ourselves and those around us.
When I think of my favorite fictional characters, like Harry Potter or Avatar Korra, they were all kids who harnessed great power from the pain and violence they suffered. Our superhero origin stories stem from a root trauma. They grapple with the relationship they have with their power and the origin of it. These stories sound not so different from ours. We are the heroes we’ve been waiting for.
What’s your post traumatic super power?
Thanks so much Hyunhee for your bravery and superpowers!
Welcome guest blogger and one of The HEAL Project’s Advisory Board Members, Hari Ziyad:
Hari Ziyad is a New York based storyteller and the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, deputy editor of Black Youth Project, assistant editor of Vinyl Poetry & Prose, and writer for AFROPUNK. You can follow them on Twitter @hariziyad.
TW/CW: Child Sexual Abuse, Survivor, Racism
As a writer who constantly deals with the question of Black liberation in my work, I’m often asked, “What does a free future for Black people look like?” I never quite know how to answer. Any response would posit to be the solution to a problem over 400 years old, and any answer less than a book’s length couldn’t possibly address all of the complexities that have festered in the bloody cracks of those broken centuries.
I usually reframe it as a question of what liberation would feel like, and somehow words are able to come to me a little more quickly then. Perhaps it’s that I am so used to my eyes playing tricks on me–claiming there is so much color in a world that feels more Black and white (violence) by the day–that I trust them much less than the rest of my body. My body has always seemed to know when things weren’t right, even when I hadn’t the sense or maturity to listen.
The way I think about the sexual violence that happened to me as a child has had many iterations over time. When I was younger, I convinced myself that my body was wrong, and that what had happened to me wasn’t that big of a deal. At the time, I thought I was only convincing myself that I was misreading the way my body collapsed into its center at every sight of him, or the way my memory began to fog the nights in question over until the details suffocated underneath the clouds. I was creating a new truth–it wasn’t as bad as it seemed.
But I think now I was also convincing myself that I was misreading how my body gave itself to him. I was telling myself that my erection, probably one of the first I’d ever had, asked for what the rest of me soon after received. And that was what I meant by “It wasn’t as bad as it seemed.” If I were old enough to want it, at the cusp of my first decade, I was old enough to get it.
The thing about bodies is that they won’t let you stick with a lie for too long. They will slowly unravel, and I eventually came undone. My body both craved unsolicited touch from strangers and would react with extreme violence to the same, with no understanding of the line separating the two responses. The longer I stuck with the story that my body was malfunctioning, the more and more violent error messages it gave to me and the rest of the world also lying to it about what it experienced as Black, nonbinary, and queer, too.
My harm-doer is dead now, and, after lots of work, so are many of the things keeping me from listening to my body today. With him, however, I lost something that I still cannot see or name, much like that free future people keep asking me about. A free past, maybe. But I did not lose this feeling, of being forever altered before I even had an original self to be. Of knowing something was mine before the world that sold my ancestors into slavery took it from me. Again.
I think Black liberation feels like that thing lost–like having a self, an innocence that is undamaged. Of not always being wrong before you even open your mouth. Of not always being criminalized before the crime. Of not always having your body turn into a cage, or a cage surrounding your body. Of having pathways to redress. Of mattering.
It feels like the joys of childhood, before that is taken away from you. And it starts with children, Black children, the world having not yet been able to completely take them from themselves, even though it has always already began hunting them. This is why I center Black children and ending childhood sexual violence in everything that I do. If we could protect this thing I cannot name, but that Black children feel–unbridled Black joys and rages and everything that comes with being fully alive–then perhaps we will finally see what that future might look like.
Thank you Hari for your time, energy and forethought.