Our national conversations about sexual harassment, abuse and violence have become much more prevalent over the past few years and, in fact, have sparked a movement. Gaining confidence from the testimony and courage of others, many women across the spectrum of society have said, “Me, too.” My declaration of sexual abuse in my past predated the Me Too movement, but I am an abuse survivor and a member of a club that nobody wants to join. (I want to make clear that although I am directing this letter to women, there are male members in this horrific club and they, too, must be heard.)

The movement has its fair share of critics. Some believe that women are just being too sensitive to “boys being boys.” Others believe that so many women could not possibly be victims and that there is a lot of copy- cat behavior going on. Despite the cynics and naysayers, the movement has enabled many women to tell their truth. I am, however, speaking directly to those who have not. It is time. The truth can set you free. Whether your abuser is ever punished or brought to justice is not the primary reason to come forward. Reclaiming your soul is.

For over 40 years I hid the facts of my abuse from the world, and thought I was doing a good job of putting them all behind me. Then, one situation at work brought it all back and I was living the hell all over again. Thanks to wonderful professional help and the support of family and friends, I began to heal. And the healing became transformation. I learned that I had PTSD and had never been willing to speak up for myself. My trauma, left unacknowledged, had robbed me of my voice and my choices. I am a smart woman but I could not outsmart the crippling effect of living a lie. I could never be who I am today, or do what I do today, without the acknowledgement that someone brutalized and marginalized me but I refused to let him destroy me.

I understand that speaking out comes with risks. Some people will not believe you, some people will pity you, some people will not want to associate with you for fear that what you have may be catching. If any of these people purport to be your friends, they are not. If any of these people do not want to associate with you, no matter. You must surround yourself with people who truly love you and seek professional help to at least ease the time of transition from the old you to the new you. There are also hundreds of us whom you don’t even know yet who are praying for you and pulling for you. You are not alone.

There is no sin greater than depriving a person of the right to live their own best life. When we do not speak out about those who would seek to disable us, we become co-conspirators with them. We give them power because we keep their secret, as if we are the ones who are guilty. Enough! Love the person you are and demand that others love you, too. Tell the secret story so that it can blow way like so much smoke in the wind. Let your truth set you free to be whomever you choose. This is my wish for you.

Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, of Ocean City, is a Cape May County freeholder.

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