Following is the full transcript of filmmaker Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s TEDx Talk titled: Trauma is Irreversible. How It Shapes Us is Our Choice at TEDxBozeman conference. This event occurred on March 27, 2015.
Sasha Joseph Neulinger – Filmmaker
Each one of us was born into this world with a clean slate. There was no concept of pain or joy at the beginning. At the very beginning, we didn’t know right from wrong, judgment from compassion, fear from love. And from the first breath we took, it was both the painful and the joyful experiences that helped shape who we are today: how we view the world, how we view ourselves, and how we view those around us.
Trauma can shift the scales. Take a look around the room; there are 500 open-minded human beings in this room, and the truth is we’ve all had traumatic experiences, have struggled with self-limiting beliefs and have judged ourselves harshly for flaws or imperfections that we believe make us less than. Everyone in this room, at one point or another, has probably struggled to love themselves. Based on the most updated statistics, one out of every three women, and one out of every five men, were sexually abused as children. That means roughly 125 people in this room were sexually abused as children. I’m one of the 125 survivors in this room today.
When I was four years old, I was sexually abused for the first time. At four years old, I didn’t know what child sexual abuse was, I only knew that what my uncle was doing to me was extremely painful. I loved him, and I trusted him, so if he was inflicting this pain on me, it must have been because I was awful, and I deserved it. And in that moment, the world became a dark, evil place, and I felt dirty, disgusting, and unlovable.
In that moment, I lost the ability to accurately see, respect, and love myself. And over the next four years of my life, I was sexually abused on multiple occasions by two uncles and one male cousin. One of my abusers would say to me while he was raping me, “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you.” While I feared for my life, I barely valued it, and holding this painful secret I became introverted, I gained 30 pounds, and I became suicidal.
After I threw myself out of my mom’s car while she was driving on the highway, I started seeing a psychiatrist. I was eight years old when I first disclosed what had happened to me, and over the next 10 years of my life, I met with my psychiatrist twice a week, and I testified in three separate trials. It wasn’t until the day before my 17th birthday that the last trial ended.
From the time I was four years old, and through my childhood, I thought I was the dirtiest person on the planet, unworthy of love and I wanted to die. I resented the part of me that was in pain. I hated four-year-old Sasha because no matter what I did, I couldn’t reverse what had happened to him. So I threw four-year-old Sasha in a dark closet, and I threw away the key. I wanted to forget about him.
By the time I started college, I felt that for the most part, I had dealt with the pains of my past, and I look towards my future. Instead of being Sasha the victim, I could be Sasha the whoever I wanted to be. So I moved across the country to Bozeman, Montana, and I was going to study film production. While I was excelling in school, making new friends and enjoying all of the activities that these mountains have to offer, four-year-old Sasha was still locked away, somewhere in my past, rejected, harshly judged, and terrified. The quality of my life continued to improve, but my past continued to weigh me down all because I didn’t know how to love the part of me that I really believed made me less than. I was convinced that if anyone knew that I have been sexually abused, they’d know that I was dirty, disgusting, and unlovable.
So fast forward to today – I’m standing here 25 years old, working every day to own my voice and share my greatest vulnerabilities with the world, to love myself. My journey to this stage started when I made the choice to face my greatest fear, to unlock and embrace the terrified child inside of me, learning to love him so that I could learn to truly love and embrace all of myself.
So three years ago, I decided to tell a friend about what it happened to me. It felt absolutely incredible. So I told another friend, and I told another friend. Holding four-year-old Sasha’s hand felt so good, I’ve decided to direct a feature length autobiographical documentary about my life surviving multi-generational child sexual abuse. I wanted to share my story with the world and push for a conversation that I felt our society was struggling to sustain. I digitized 200 hours of home video, and I rewatched my childhood. I watched the moments where my abusers were interacting with me at family events.
But I also watched some of the most beautiful moments of my life, moments that I’d completely forgotten about, moments that had been overshadowed by the painful ones. I decided to title my film, “Rewind to Fast-Forward.” Last April, my crew and I ran one of the most successful documentary Kickstarter campaigns in history, and in sharing my film trailer with the world, I received over 6,000 personal messages from survivors around the globe, many of whom had never told another person about what it happened to them.
So many of us struggle silently, isolating ourselves and further perpetuating this idea that we’re separate from or less than those around us. While not all of us had been sexually abused, all of us, at one point or another, have struggled to love ourselves. I still have moments where I really struggle to love myself, and that makes me human. There’s an old Chinese proverb that I like, and that states that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. I can’t change the past, I can’t change the fact that I was sexually abused as a child. I can’t reverse the trauma, I can only choose so I show up in the present moment of my life.
Every day when I wake up, I have to embrace the fear that comes from being a survivor of child sexual abuse, the vulnerabilities that I feel, the voice that echoes in the back of my mind from four-year-old Sasha, who still says, “You’re dirty, you’re disgusting, you’re unlovable.” I look into the mirror, and I look deep into my own eyes, and I find four-year-old me, and I say, “I love you. You are a beautiful human being Sasha. You are worthy of love, and I love you.”