This is the blog wherein I talk about the sexual abuse I endured as a child. It won't be easy to read, but not because I will be graphic about the actual acts of abuse, but because the impact of the entire situation will be a heavy one, it always has been for me, whenever I heard someone else's story.
I am always aware when I write that after I have finished writing, and have released the words into the public arena that I then lose control over them. When I am writing, the words are my own mirror and I can look inside them and see myself. But what you see when you look at the words I will never know.
Despite the fact that I must release control, I never lose sight of the fact that I am always responsible for what I write. I know full well that I am writing my own story; I get to choose how this story is told. I could make this story into a tragedy. I could make it into a hopeless drama. I could use it like a tool to drag people down or I could use it like a search light and hope that it will illuminate the darkness, even if just a little.
There are certain experiences that are common for all those who have endured sexual abuse. The first is the burden of unthinkable shame. For me, I thought this must be a normal part of life; I had no point of reference for any other experience. It penetrated every area of my life.
For example, when I was in third grade I was invited to a sleep over. This was thrilling and terrifying for me. I showed up in the evening with my dad, sleeping bag and pillow case in hand, and knocked expectantly. We waited a long time. When they answered the door, they looked quizzically at us and then chuckled good naturedly; we had arrived a day early.
Even though I returned the next night, the shame of having arrived early did not leave me for years. I wrote about it in my diary, decorated by a Precious Moments girl, in my scrawling handwriting, and then I never read it again. I could not physically look at the page. No one had teased me. Nothing bad had happened. But it was marked in my mind with shame that was almost painful to the touch.
For years I had dreams that fungus were growing out of my skin, all over my body. This was terrifying and disturbing. In the dream I would brush them off frantically but more would simply grow back up. It was as though I were contaminated from the inside out.
Another thing that marks sexual abuse survivors is anxiety. Anxiety is by its very nature illogical. It does not arise from an instinct for self preservation like fear; it is not a signal helpful for navigation. It is pervasive and destructive and unrelenting. It prevented me from raising my hand in class because I had a question about fractions. It prevented me from making phone calls, even to my friends, for fear of someone else answering.
It takes away the ability to think clearly, leading to my first boss to ask me sharply if I was dyslexic because I kept entering the numbers wrong on the cash register. Behind the counter at the bagel shop I felt like an animal in a cage, no place to hide. Every customer was terrifying. Eventually I made my way to the back, where I made the bagel dough, safe behind the closed door, just the recipes, the floured counter, the whir of the machines.
Because anxiety is illogical, it does not respond well to reasonable thinking. It did not help for me to tell myself that I had nothing to fear, that nothing bad would happen to me if I spoke up in class, if I made a mistake. The only way to handle anxiety is to face the fear over and over and over again until it wears off. It is difficult to convey the kind of courage this takes.
Or the time. I have been more than ten years wearing down my anxiety; I went from huddling in my parent's house on the couch, script in hand, trying to find the courage to pick up the handset of the phone, to running the secured unit in large organisation, with twenty plus employees and thirty residents all under my care; I never loss the marvel of the fact that without fear my hand could reach out, almost arrogantly, elegantly even, and pick up the phone.
When I was fifteen years old, my mother collasped into darkness. She lay, it seemed, barely alive in her darkened bedroom for an entire year, moldering away. On the infrequent times when she rose from the bed, she looked ravaged, her face pasty, her eyes dull and glazed. The rest of the house turned dark and cold, the linoleum floors grimed and gritty; my father fled the house.
My mother had gone down into the darkness of her own memories and it was a journey she could not avoid and one that she could not take the rest of us on. We were all of us cut adrift. It started one morning when she woke to a voice, the small voice of a very little girl.
"Someone hurt me," she whispered into my mother's ear.
And it had been so many, many years and my mother had built up so many defenses against ever hearing this story that she did not recognize her own voice. And she resisted at first, but the memories came back, each one a bitter blow, each one rocking her to the core of who she was, each one tearing away the innocence she thought she had possessed.
All her years of nightmares about bears chasing her through the house and toilets overflowing with filth, with no doors or no locks, all of them came true in the most brutal way. She was not a virgin, she had been raped as a three year old. She had not been safe in her own house. She had been preyed upon repeatedly, in rooms and in the bathroom in the cellar with no lock. She had turned for help and been verbally abused for even suggesting the things that were happening to her. Worst of all, the deal she had made with the devil, to stay silent and endure in return for her sibling's safety had been for nothing; he had preyed on them all.
In fact, this man was like a pestilance that raged through my entire extended family; but those are not my stories to tell.
By the time my mother was able to acknowledge her own voice, it was too late for me. When I was seven or eight, I remember going up the hill to visit him. I choose to. This stuns me even to this day, that I willingly went to visit him. But such is the bitter and terrible edge of the sword, the one that divides the nightmares from the daylight hours, the one that allowed me to grow up with the damage stuffed out of sight, but that left me wide open to my enemy.
I remember going to visit him but I do not remember returning; how I left, when I left is not an accessible memory. But this time, afterward, I remembered how the abuse began. It lingered in my mind and a few years later when my mother asked me if anything had ever happened to me, anything that felt wrong or bad, this memory leaped to mind, like an x on a map, it was a flag of something.
When I told her of this, her own memories were still buried. She could have turned me aside, she could have treated me the same way she had been treated as a small girl. She did not; she leaped to action. I was banned from ever seeing him again. We no longer visited, they were no longer welcome in our house; my mother did everything she knew to protect me.
This created shock waves through her family and throughout our church. My great uncle was considered a prayer warrior and a pillar of his church. It was only years later that he was asked to leave, after he brought a butcher knife to church with him and went on sharpening it during the service.
My mother was considered a liar and many of her extended family members refused to speak with her. She took the heat for this, I don't remember feeling any. She never doubted me once, despite what it cost her.
It was not until I twenty seven years old that I was forced to face my own damages. I was forced to because I was running out of the energy to keep my defenses up against them. It takes incredible amounts of energy to not remember something, it does incredible internal damage. After a while, the weight of this wore me down.
I remember talking on the phone with my father and he asked me what was preventing me from going to therapy and I broke down into tears at the same moment I began to speak; I was afraid of falling apart, like Humpty Dumpty, unable to be put back together again.
It is a ridiculous thought, that people who go to therapy are weak. No one will ever know the kind of courage it takes to face one's own personal darkness. My first therapy session I was terrified the entire time. As I told my story, I felt the weight upon weight of it, the chaos.
My therapist carefully and slowly prepared me for what is called trauma therapy. She told me the work we would be doing would take a long time. She told me it would take courage and energy and that I would have to take very good care of myself throughout.
There came the moment when my therapist asked me, very quietly, if I thought there was a part of myself that wanted to speak. It was very quiet and dim in the room; it was a very comfortable, with a deep couch and lamps, a roll top desk in one corner. It was a small room with no windows, the walls painted a soft gold.
In the quiet of the room, at her question, I felt the chill of goosebumps run down my arms, I felt the hair on the back of my neck go up. I felt eyes open up deep inside me, eyes dark and impenetrable. Terror washed over me. I could only nod, electrified.
But I could not and would not speak in that therapy session. However, in the week that followed, I felt the weight of this new awareness and I was terrified of myself. I did not want to hear what I would say. I was terrified of my own unrelenting rage.
Years ago I had seen that horror movie, "The Ring." In it, there is an image of this dead girl coming crawling up out of a well. Her body is disjointed, she clings to the wall like a spider, with deadly and disturbing speed she comes crawling up the slimed stones, legs reaching over her shoulders, her hair obscuring her face.
I felt as though this girl was inside me and I did not want to meet her. I felt that if I released myself, I would not survive. It was with great relief that I came in for my next therapy session. My therapist immediately told me I should not watch any more horror movies.
Furthermore, she explained that I should not allow myself to relate to myself as though I were the girl in The Ring. That part of myself was not evil but because this part of myself had carried the abuse she had become saturated with the feelings that the abuse had caused. I would have to separate the feelings from the girl and release myself from the darkness.
She told me instead to realize that what felt like a daemon girl was actually a part of myself that had sacrificed herself for the whole, she had willingly chose to be shut up in a small, dark place with the abuse alive inside her so that I could grow up as normally as possible. Now it was approaching the time for her to come out and to let go her burden but first I would have to be strong enough to survive the backlash of it.
She explained to me a model of thinking called Internal Family Systems, which describes how any one person can have different parts to their personality. For example, she explained that a different part of her personality came out at work than at home, a different one with friends, etc. This was natural and healthy and just a part of being human.
But when a person has been subject to severe trauma, the personality takes on rigid roles to contain and survive the shock and the aftermath. Parts of me had guarded my mind from the truth for so long that it would take time to no longer respond in that way.
She was careful to explain that this was not in anyway indicative of multiple personality syndrome, though there were times throughout the two years of therapy when I seriously wondered. It was not fun to even wonder if I was that broken.
I think I would have been unable to deal with this had my mother not gone before me. Her therapy had progessed along the same lines and what she had suffered was so destructive that many of her memories were viewed with co-consciousness; that is, she was outside her own body, floating above and looking down, feeling great sorrow over what was happening to the little girl far below her.
It is hard to imagine the kind of pain that my mother was going through as she went with me throughout this journey. Despite the unthinkable horror and pain that my mother must have felt, she never once withdrew from me or my experience; I knew at all times that she was there for me, she would not turn away from one bit of my story.
At one point, she flew out to be with me. I will never forget sitting on the couch while she held me in her arms, feeling her body shake with the force of her sobbing.
Part of preparing to hear my own story was my therapst explaining the specific form of trauma therapy that she would use, called EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. I have cut and paste a paragraph or two from this site; it describes better than I could how it worked.
"When we are exposed to overwhelming events, our brain is unable to process them.
The distressing thoughts, feelings, images, and body sensations are memorized, becoming locked up in our nervous system, to be triggered over and over as we are exposed to anything that reminds us of what happened...
For over 20 years, people around the world have used EMDR to process symptoms of traumatic stress (PTSD) into more adaptive ways of being.
Clients use EMDR to engage the brain's innate healing ability:
1. integrating the brain's two very different hemispheres,
2. unblocking dysfunctionally stored negative thoughts, feelings, images, and body sesnsations,
3. and reprocessing them into more adaptive ways of being.
The result is accelerated insight, resolution, and genuine healing."
My therapist and I did a trial run; I was to bring to mind something distressing but that had nothing to do with the abuse. I was to let all those feelings come over me and to state aloud the conclusions I had drawn about myself; that I was worthless, shameful, helpless, hopeless.
She then asked me to go back to the memory and reprocess those conclusions, to tell myself a different way to believe. I told myself I was full of potential and courageous even to get out of the car, that in a few years I would become known for my ability to handle responsibility, my excellent follow through and problem solving skills. Then we went back to the memory again and my feelings of shame, worthlessness and hopelessness were measurable decreased.
This was the process we would be using over and over again in the coming months. Even in the trial run, in the midst of a memory removed far in time and in distance from the abuse, I felt the whistling cold wind coming from a long, deep tunnel just at my feet; the memory went down deep into the dark; I told my therapist this and she said not to go down there, we would go down there when I was ready.
The first time we did this, my therapst told me to view the memories as though from the windows of a train; I wasn't there anymore, I was just watching, to let the memories fly past me, not to hold on to them. My body was physically twitching in terror, I felt the muscles in my face spasm in horror, but the images I saw were disappointingly unclear. Most of the time I didn't even know what I was seeing; they were like broken shards of mirror, all reflecting a small piece of the large picture.
It took me a while to realize that I was expecting to see them as though it were a movie and I were looking at a screen. Of course I wouldn't remember them like that, I would remember them from the stand point of the victim; I would be looking up from a prone position, or my face would be stuffed into a pillow or bedcase, or it would be physically too dark to see anything in the room.
The memories were further obscured by the fact that I had been three when the abuse had started, I knew this because one of the few things I ever saw clearly were a tiny pair of big girl panties, cheerfully patterned and in a strange relationship to myself in the memory. Finally, the memories were obscured by the fact that I had absolutely no reference point for what was happening to me and no words.
I sat in my therapist's office mute and stunned. I was alone in the dark with the unthinkable. I wanted my mother, my father; I didn't know how to find them, I was unable to call out to them. My therapist told me to talk to the little girl and tell her that is was all over and she wasn't alone anymore. I was to take the little girl out of the dark room and make a safe place for her stay.
In my mind, I built a room with no windows and no doors, all the walls were padded with carpet. There was no bed because beds were not safe places to be. She slept in a corner with pillows and bedding bunched up. There was a doll house, but mostly it was empty, clean carpet and quietness.
My therapist did not allow me to process more than one memory per session. Besides, sometimes more than one session was required to process even one of them. I had to see these memories again and again, until I could look at them without fear, until I was released from their hold over me.
During this time my regular life went on. I met what seemed to be a nice guy on eharmony and eventually moved down to the city to live with him; I lived in a large and sunny house in a very upscale neighborhood, I was taking on more responsibility at work. I paid my bills, went shopping, went out to eat.
Sometimes I would get flashbacks during my day to day life, I dreaded these. Once it happened when we were up in the mountains, at a sky resort. I had finished brushing my teeth when I suddenly felt as though something were jammed down my mouth and throat. Immediately I wanted to vomit but I couldn't and I couldn't let myself come to the obvious conclusion of what I was experiencing. I put both hands on the sink and leaned forward, I told myself I absolutely could not have this memory right here, right now; I couldn't take care of myself under the present circumstances.
I made it until my next session; I was driving more than an hour to still see my same therapist. When we went back to the memory, it exploded onto me with a vividness that was physical, I literally smelled. I didn't just remember what he smelled like, in the dim quietness of the room, I physically smelled the rank odor of my abuser; that is how tightly wound up and preserved that memory had been, locked away so tightly that unlocking it was like opening a jar of rotten mayonnaise.
Another time I was at the symphony. The music had lulled me into a sense of perfect peace and contentment and as I sat listening, the shadows across from me suddenly became a room and the door opened and in the light I could see a figure. Terror and helplessness washed over me. This time I was more prepared.
I physically looked away and down. I told myself that I was no longer in that room, that I was right here, right now at the symphany, I looked at my own hands with the thin twist of silver on one finger. I told myself that I had grown up, that I lived in a beautiful house, that I wore a timeless and expensive suit from Ann Taylor and that when the symphany was over, I would go home.
I told myself that in fact, he had not won. I had survived and he couldn't drag me down anymore. That little girl had taken the worst that he could dish out and had grown up into someone strong, elegant and full of light. I was free to choose who I was; he did not define me.
I no longer dream that spores of filth are growing out of my own skin; I no longer dream, as my mother did before me, of long, unending bathrooms full of clogged toilets, some on platforms, without walls or doors, the filth overflowing the floors.
It may be that at some point in my life I will have to go back and revisit the memories, perhaps more will come to light. My therapist explained that this is very probable, but that it is the rythm of life to break from this work for years and then return to it when the time was right. She encouraged me to let myself do this as well.
When my therapy sessions turned into small talk, I knew it was time to let that part of my life go. By then I had recognized the abuse patterns within my relationship at the time, and had found the courage to end it; not abruptly, but with thought and self awareness and then I had the courage and confidence to step out into life on my own.
I write my story not only to experience freedom from it, but also because if there is a chance that there is even one little girl out there lost in the dark, I want you to know that is it possible for you to put your burden down now. You don't have to keep on carrying the weight of atrocities.
You have already survived and now you can walk out into the light.
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1 year ago