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Breaking the last silence around my sexual abuse Add to ...

Earlier this year, Phillip Nolan, an Ottawa music teacher who played drums in a band with former prime minister Stephen Harper, was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual interference involving a 13-year-old girl. The events happened 16 years ago, when he was her 29-year-old teacher. Now, that woman is breaking her public silence for the first time. Anna Côté, a 29-year-old law student, had the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General lift the publication ban about her case to write about it for The Globe and Mail. Anna hopes to contribute to an atmosphere of support and understanding for those who have experienced sexual abuse.

You might have read about my secret in news headlines in February, 2014, when my abuser was arrested and charged with five counts each of sexual assault, sexual interference and sexual exploitation for events that happened when I was 13 years old. Or maybe you learned it in October, 2015, when he officially pleaded guilty. Or earlier this year when he was sentenced to two years in prison.

For a long time, it was my secret alone. Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. What happened to me was being reported by the media across the country. But due to a publication ban, no one apart from my closest circle knew the story was mine.

At first, the publication ban allowed me to process the most difficult parts of the legal proceedings in relative peace. But now, as I continue to reclaim my experiences, it no longer serves me in the same way. People are talking about my experiences in front of me and I can’t participate. I don’t want another authority telling me to keep silent.

I don’t want to propagate the idea that my story – and those that share unfortunate similarities – should be kept silent. I don’t want to contribute to the idea that survivors of sexual abuse ought to hide their experiences for reasons of shame and stigma. We need to create the space where each survivor is empowered to make their own decisions.

So I’m choosing to tell my story.

Processing an experience of sexual abuse often requires breaking the silence. Not once, but dozens of times. Each time can be a terrifying experience, especially if you’ve kept silent for 13 years. That was how long I needed before breaking my first silence – half of my life at the time.

Staying silent was never a decision. It was survival. My abuser – not only an adult but also my teacher, a person in authority – told me I had to be quiet, but it wasn’t only obedience that kept me silent. My silence was a comfort, creating a lonely but protective space for me to distance myself from a fear of shame and stigma that I couldn’t comprehend and didn’t want to face. When I cried to my friends, I told them a lie so that they never knew what was really wrong.

Even if I had wanted to talk, I didn’t have the words, only feelings of confusion and discomfort. It was impossible, at 13, to understand what happened to me and know to call it “abuse.” No one was there to analyze my experiences and give them a label. Learning about abuse in school and in the media did nothing to connect the dots. I repressed the feelings, the memories and the processing of the trauma, which meant that while my feelings of unhappiness and discomfort grew, my understanding of the situation remained fuzzy, stagnant and immature.

But then one summer more than a decade after the abuse, the silence, once comforting, began to feel harmful. My fear of talking about what had happened to me was overcome by the fear of not talking about it. I was afraid that I would keep withdrawing from my family and friends, afraid that I would never fully trust a partner. I was afraid that I was, somehow, more prone to manipulation than other people, afraid that if I had kids I would, out of terror at what had happened to me, keep them overly sheltered.

So I broke my first silence. It was only after talking to my therapist, six months after I decided to confront my fears, that I realized that what had happened to me was abuse. For years, I had pushed my experiences to the farthest edges of my consciousness and tried to distance myself. Now, slowly, I was allowing that pressure to subside. I finally had the strength to consider what happened.

Looking back now, I’m shocked at how my understanding of the manipulation and degradation I had suffered was virtually nil – my comprehension of the situation had remained fixed in my 13-year-old mind. Then I started to make connections. I could almost feel the neuron pathways forming.

Yes, it was manipulation when he tried to gain my trust by comforting me, alone and removed from my supportive friends, when he saw me upset one day in the hallway. No, it was not part of being an obedient student to go to his classroom every time he pulled me out of math or French class for “rehearsals.” No, it was not my fault that I didn’t know who to turn to or how to protest. Certain things are hard to acknowledge after years of denial, but as I started talking about the abuse, my comprehension advanced – sometimes rapidly, sometimes painstakingly.

Soon after, I began to tell other people in my life about the abuse. Every single time I fought off the weight of stigma, shame and fear that had kept me silent for so many years. Silence had been a comfort, yes, but it was a comfort because I knew that outside of it destructive beliefs circled. I don’t know where I had absorbed them, but they were deeply ingrained: that people would tell me it was my fault that I had been abused, that I was complicit, that I had been foolish enough to be manipulated. I thought people would think less of me and would only be able to see me as a victim of abuse – that it would become my defining feature in everyone’s eyes.

Facing those emotions and false beliefs was crushing and often brought me to the edge. The edge of my emotional capacity, the edge of my nerves, the edge of the life I thought I had. Sometimes long-buried emotions flooded my system and I could barely cope. I became depressed, I had panic attacks and insomnia and, for a while, I struggled with a hugely skewed world view and perspective of myself.

But slowly, I broke away from the false beliefs. Though stigma, shame and fear still haunt me today, I can see them for the paper ghosts they are. They linger because they’ve been a part of my world view for so long, but they’re false and they continue to fade.

While confronting my experiences, I googled the name of my abuser. I could see, from the nauseating write-ups of his teaching accolades, that he was still teaching – that he was still in a position to manipulate and abuse children. I began to feel an unexpected power mixed with responsibility and terrified dread. I realized I could stop the man who had harmed me and continued to pose a threat to others.

But I choked on what it might take to get there. I wanted to go to the police, but I was wary of triggering a process with one phone call that would be out of my control, traumatic and drawn-out. I tried going to the Children’s Aid Society as an alternative, but despite their efforts, they were legally prevented from taking action. If I wanted any intervention, I had to go to the police myself.

I stalled. For weeks, I sat with the decision of breaking another silence.

Then one November day in 2013, early in my first year of law school, I picked up the latest issue of our faculty’s student journal. The previous week’s issue had printed a so-called joke about rape. In response to the heated and divisive debate that it had triggered, a feminist group at the faculty had taken charge of the publication, rallying anonymous submissions from my peers on their experiences of sexual abuse and putting them into print.

The issue was full, page after page, of poignant and personal struggles. I was floored. These were the otherwise happy, successful classmates I sat next to everyday. Something clicked. For the first time, I was furious about what had happened to me and to so many others. Sadness, shame and confusion were emotions I had become familiar with. But hearing others break the silence of their sexual abuse buoyed me to a place where I was able to act.

The next thing I did surprised me. I called the police. I reported my former teacher for the months of abuse he inflicted on me years before. I was finally angry enough and finally felt supported enough through the community of anonymous contributors to break one of my biggest silences.

Talking about experiences of sexual abuse places shame and stigma where they belong: on the abusers. It opens up pathways of acceptance and dialogue in our society that allow others to come forward. It helps demystify what is often a confusing, horrific memory. It has the power to begin to address an often silent, all-too pervasive suffering.

But silences are much more frequent, and they’re often the place that anyone who goes through an experience of sexual abuse starts. It’s a silence that doesn’t even feel like silence, but a necessary way of coping. It only looks like silence from the outside.

Some people never break that silence, or only do so decades later, and certainly not to the police. Making a decision to go through the criminal justice system is rightfully massive and extremely personal. I was fortunate in my case – thanks to enduring evidence, a supportive Crown attorney, a great police detective and a dream team of childhood friends with sensitive intuitions and sharp memories – to experience the best version of a horrible process.

As I’ve spoken out about my experiences, I’ve integrated them into my perspective of myself. No, I have not become defined by my abuse, as I often feared, but I can now acknowledge how it has affected me and stays with me. With that acknowledgment has come strength. I no longer fear the thoughts at the edge of my consciousness. I understand myself better. Best of all, I feel so much more connected to the people around me. I’m not hiding a part of myself from them. I’m happier, calmer, more free.

So now, I’m breaking this last silence in honour of my peers who found the strength to speak up in that issue of the student journal. I hope that I can help contribute to the growing atmosphere of support for survivors of sexual abuse that they – along with the women who came forward with allegations about well-known figures such as Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby – created for me.

I’m also doing it for the thousands of silences that are still waiting to be broken.

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