From the age of five to 17, Donna Mae DePola was raped and molested on a daily basis by her father. She turned to drugs and alcohol at an early age to cope with her feelings and numb out.
"As a kid, I thought the incest was normal," she said in an interview. "I remember telling a girl at PS 94 about what my dad did to me the night before and she was horrified. I asked, 'Why? Don't you have sex with your father too?'"
When her father died, Donna Mae DePola discovered twelve film canisters documenting the rapes. She was early in her path to recovery from drugs and alcohol and she turned the films over to her psychologist who discovered their contents.
Always a resilient person, Donna learned to cope as best she could from the abuse she endured. The trauma prompted her to write The Twelve Tins about the experience.
Donna is an out lesbian and founder of The Resource Training Center in New York State. She’s been clean for more than 25 years and now trains other drug and alcohol counselors. She is passionate about giving those who want help a second chance.
Donna Mae DePola spoke to us about her book and her journey beyond.
Lesbian Life: Why did you decide to write The Twelve Tins?
Donna Mae DePola:
We'll to tell you the truth I thought about it for years but wasn't sure if I could handle it. My main reason is and was to help people understand they are not alone. Also to let them know there is hope out there and if I could do it anyone can.
Incest is an issue that is not talked about much, yet it impacts so many people—not just the victims, but their partners, children and other people in their lives. What advice do you have for someone who is being abused right now?
This is two fold actually. If they are under 18 they need to tell their teacher or principle. People in the Department of Education are mandated reporters. The issue arises their fear of not being believed and fear that things will get worse for them. Which might happen. Also will they be believed? It is such a hard question to be answered so directly. I know for me it was different times and now there is more help for incest victims. Also it all depends who it is also. Tell the other parent or tell someone close to you. Call the police or go to the police.
What if someone reads your book and resonates with your story. What are some first steps an adult survivor of incest can take?
The first step would be to get help. The Internet is a great place to start. You need a therapist
that has experience in incest issues. Also there are many hot lines to get referrals also. A man from Vermont read my book and asked for help and I found him someone. It is hard work to find someone qualified. I spoke at a conference for over 150 people and at least four people came up to me to talk about their childhood. Now that is four that were brave. How many others where there? When I speak I don't take questions I wait till the end and see everyone who wants to talk privately.
When did you realize what was happening to you was wrong and what did you do to get help?
To be honest I really didn't realize it was wrong until around 13. I knew it wasn't right but didn't know that is was wrong if you understand that. See if you grow up having sex with your father you think it is normal. I realize that is hard to believe but I use the analogy of we teach children to eat with a fork, to chew with their mouth closed etc. I thought this is a normal thing. That is why I then started having sex with everyone from age nine. I never got help. When I was 35 I stopped using drugs and then I feel I had PTSD and had flash backs, smells and anxiety. I went to treatment and then to a therapist and I started to talk about it with her. It was a horrible two years. Then I found the Tins.
Be gentle be patient and talk to your partner when the partner wants to talk. I was in a relationship for 31 years I never mentioned it. Then we broke up
eight years ago and I am with a new woman and we talk about it all the time because she experienced the same thing from another family member.
Is it possible to have a healthy sex life after years of abuse?
Yes it is possible. Only if you have received help for your issues. I don't think I thought of my father once when I had sex. I think that would f**k me up. So to speak. Also it all depends on the person. As you know a women get raped and she doesn't even tell anyone and goes on and acts like everything is ok. Another women will experience the same thing and never be the same.
One of the things you’re known for is having a positive attitude and great sense of humor. But there must be days that you’re bitter. How do you turn the energy around?
I have never been bitter. I have never acted like a victim. My energy has always been up and positive. Now that is not saying I don't think about things sometimes but I have friends and a partner that I can talk to and work out my thoughts. To tell you the truth I think that is how I get though life good bad or indifferent. It works for me. I actually feel lucky.
You turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain. And now you run a program that trains drug and alcohol counselors. How much of drug and alcohol abuse do you think stems from trying to cope with some sort of trauma? What are some other healthy ways can people deal with their pain?
My company is a training program but I also have treatment that opened in January of this year. That was a dream of mine and with help we did it. My classrooms have around 45 people in them. Less than half are women. MOST have been sexually abused. Drugs work.
I read in one of your interviews that your identity as a lesbian (dyke) is important to you. Why?
We'll I am and why do I identify myself as such. One reason is when I was with my former lover I was embarrassed about being gay now I cherish it. Also I feel there are a lot of lesbians that have this issue and hopefully I can help our community.
Have you heard from people who have read your book? What have some of the reactions been?
I do evaluations after my conferences and I haven't had one negative comment. I had around 11 WOW'S. Most are I can relate, you are strong and taught me a few things. People have bought my book from as far as Australia and have said thanks. So I think it has been positive. I realize there is always someone who says something negative things but I haven't had that yet. But also understand I have only printed 300 books so the feedback is not that much. I was offered to have my book published I am still working on those details.
For more information about Donna, visit her website. You can order her book on Amazon.com.