real life

'My stepdad always made me uncomfortable. Then I woke up to find him on my bed.'

This post deals with abuse and might be triggering for some readers.

I have lived with my mum, stepdad and sister since I was nine years old. 

Despite the obvious cracks, everything felt quite normal in our blended family, until I was 15. My stepdad began to overstep boundaries and make me feel uncomfortable. It would happen when my mum and sister were out of the house.

Whenever he and I would cross paths at home, he would pull me in for a hug for what felt like an excruciatingly long time. When I was finally let go off, we’d both walk away like nothing strange had just happened.

A long hug doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but I couldn’t help feeling weird about it. We weren’t a touchy-feely family. In fact, I don’t remember ever hugging my stepdad willingly. It just wasn’t our dynamic.

I remember it happening maybe three or four times. It didn’t happen often, but the fear and discomfort I felt was constant. When I was alone with him at home, I went into alert mode. One time we hugged and fell on my bed together, but I didn’t bother to tell anyone because it was ‘just a hug’.

I blamed his behaviour on the fact that he hadn’t seen his daughter for years and maybe didn’t understand the boundaries between a parent and a child. We also fought a lot. I was an angry teen and thought he did it because he was trying to say, “I forgive you”. I didn’t think too much of it until August 11, 2017.

My mum was overseas for my cousin’s wedding. My sister was at her boyfriend’s. My stepdad had gone out with friends and I had the house to myself. I loved an empty house. My night was filled with movies, junk food and some good tunes to end the night on a good note.

I went to bed. Then I remember waking up, feeling something in my hair. I opened my eyes and adjusted to the dark. I saw my stepdad sitting on my bed, staring at me, with his fingers combing through my hair. I closed my eyes, trying to process what was happening, hoping that he would leave. But he didn’t. 

I reached for my phone and saw that it was a little past midnight. “It’s nearly one. What are you doing?”

I remember trying to make my voice quiet, so I wouldn’t sound rude. I waited. He finally spoke and asked me if I wanted him to leave. “Mmm” is the sound that came out, but on the inside, I was screaming “get out” repeatedly. He said “okay” and left. I don’t remember what it was like falling back asleep that night.

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I couldn’t look him in the eyes after that. I found it difficult to speak around him. I was constantly in debate with myself, wondering if telling anyone about it was worth tarnishing his image or ruining my mum’s marriage? I decided not.

Not too long after I booked an appointment with a counsellor at my university. The only time available was with a male. I hesitantly spoke to him about my experience. I was shaking. 

He looked up at me from his giant watch that he placed on the table between us and asked me, “Are you sure that’s what your stepdad had meant to do?” I left before the hour was up and didn’t speak about it to anyone else after that.

Almost a year later, my sister and her boyfriend had noticed I was acting weird. I couldn’t hold it in anymore and as the truth came out, I was crying and shaking. They convinced me to tell my mum, so I did.

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Fast forward another year, and nothing had changed. I was living at home with my mum, stepdad and sister, but this time, everyone knew the big secret. I went from being mad at one person, to being mad at everyone. That was a painful time for me.

I didn’t know who I was anymore. An action so small had managed to leave a big scar. I’ve noticed since then that the small behaviours don’t get enough attention. They get treated like they’re not a problem worth causing a scene over. They go by unchecked. 

It’s only when that small action leads to something big, that we pay attention to it and publicly denounce it. Why wait until it becomes that big?

I do understand it. It’s not easy calling out someone out of fear of overreacting. Trust me. It took me four years to say “no”, and even then, I didn’t actually say the word. 

But I understand now that if it makes you uncomfortable, you’re entitled to say something.

A year after I told everyone, I moved in with a friend. It broke my heart that I was leaving this way. I didn’t want to, but I had to. My struggle with my mental health didn’t get much better when I left, but 10 months after moving in the light at the end of that seemingly never-ending tunnel began to show. 

I made the decision to start seeing a psychologist. A big improvement came when I validated my experience. It didn’t matter what fuelled my stepdad’s horrendous actions. What mattered was that I had experienced a trauma so big it had taken over me.

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It was the best I had felt in a long time, but healing doesn’t happen in a day. I still have those dark days. The ones where you’d rather give your day to someone else because you know they would use it better. 

Some days I spend the entire day in my bed, trying to avoid my wonderful roommate because I don’t have enough in me to muster a “good morning”. I desperately look up the mental health websites providing PDFs and articles on how to deal with the bad days. 

Exercise, mediation, communicating with friends, cooking, listening to music, taking a break from the media, cleaning, reading, watching comedies, learning something new... I’ve had days where I’ve exhausted everything on the list, following the advice almost religiously and yet have still ended the day feeling the exact same as to when I started it. Tired.   

Three years later and I’m onto a new phase of healing. I’ve learnt to be more patient with myself and give myself permission to not be my best or even okay on those days. I keep my friends close, and they give me space when I need it. 

I take social media cleanses and try reflecting on the things I was interested in when I was younger to try restoring a little bit of that raw teenager zest I used to have. I also prioritise myself and my healing. 

The person who hurt me the most made the wrong decision more than once, yet I’m the one facing the consequences. I no longer feel the need to protect him because it was never my job to carry his cross for him.

I don’t know where I’m going at the moment, but wherever it is, right now for the first time in a long time, I’m happy to be going there.

To others who have had a traumatic experience and have chosen to remain quiet for whatever reason, you’re not alone. Find your outlet and confide in whoever you trust. I see you, and I’m rooting for you. 

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. The feature image used is a stock photo.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

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