Hello, her name is Mary, and she’s an incest survivor. It took Mary three meetings to be able to say her greeting out loud.

This breakthrough came in 1999–”43 years after Mary was first sexually abused, at age 7, by one of her older brothers. Since then, she says, Survivors of Incest Anonymous, a 12-step, self-help support group modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, has guided her through the healing process.

But when she recalls her first meeting, she remembers fear. “I was afraid people would hate me and judge me,” says Mary, whose full name is being withheld to protect her identity. But she quickly learned that if she wanted to do anything about her past, the meeting was the place to do it.

Survivors of Incest Anonymous has helped many others cope with their experiences. The group was founded in Baltimore in 1982 by people like Mary who suffered the same pain but had no relief or support. The program is open to any victim of sexual abuse older than 18.

Over the years, it spread to cities like Chicago and even to other countries like Sweden and Nigeria–”with up to 1,000 active groups. “We never thought it would take off so well,” said Linda, one of the group’s three founders.

On average, about 10 survivors attend a meeting, but attendance can fluctuate from as few as three people to as many as 40, Linda said.

Chicago has four meetings, each targeting a distinct group: gay and lesbian survivors, male survivors, female survivors and supporters of survivors. There are four additional suburban meetings.

With the help of the group, Mary says she is continuing to learn ways to let go of the guilt forced on her. Usually, she says, abuse victims are told to keep quiet because of the fear of negative backlash. The meetings are designed to challenge this notion and “allow people to say out loud the secret they’ve been keeping inside for so long,” she says.

For Mary, the secret was the abuse inflicted by two older brothers. It all started with Mary’s innocent craving for her 15-year-old brother’s comic books. But it soon became something else: In exchange for lending the comic books, her brother made Mary play his “game.”

At 18, Mary was abused again by another brother and also found out that it was happening to one of her sisters by a third brother. The boys faced no consequences, leaving Mary feeling guilty and ashamed without anywhere to turn.

Mary’s mother knew about the abuse but she turned a blind eye in fear of public shame and scrutiny, Mary says. Her father did nothing to his sons and scolded Mary’s sister, who told him about the abuse–”blaming her for tempting and seducing her brother.

For years after she was abused, Mary went through a period in which she felt worthless and blamed everything that ever went wrong on herself because of her guilt, she says.

Now, Mary knows it wasn’t her fault. After 11 years with the group, she now knows she cannot take responsibility for everything that happens. Mary says the program saved her life: “It’s given me the desire to live.”

When Mary first sought support, she was struck by the sense of serenity that some women in the group had–”an experience that motivates her attendance to this day, she says.

“I can be the person with serenity to the new people,” Mary says. “I can share my experience, strength and hope and let them know it’s not as bleak as they thought it was.”