Sunday, November 25, 2012

Survivors of Childhood Trauma Now: What Are We Going Through?

Who we are, what we look like, our jobs, interests, pleasures, joys, struggles... Are myriad.  Each survivor's story is unique.  Most survivors' stories remain mysteries to the world at large, and often are mysteries even to the family and friends of the survivor.  I've come to believe the pictures we make and the stories we tell -- the songs and poems we write -- the music we create, the dance we live are means to healing, not only our own wounds, but a means to larger healing in the world.

I am a survivor of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands and in the home of my parents and my grandparents.  A tremendous amount of healing has gone on in my life and I now experience a marriage and a community of friends, children and grandchildren who are my champions and my safe place to rest and be my best self.

I recently published my story,  A STORY LIKE TRUTH, a fictional memoir that tells my story in the form of a character who does not bear my name, does not share my career and whose heritage is somewhat different than my own.  My character shares with me the experience of being beaten, threatened, humiliated and neglected by her father in her childhood home.  My character shares with me the experience of being sexually abused by my mother's father several times between the ages of three and eight.  My character shares the effects of grasping, voiceless and blind for safety and purpose over a period of decades after leaving home the first chance she had as a teenager.  I call my book a "novel" yet it reads very much as a memoir.  Though I don't know yet the true ending to my story, I have created a mid-life resolution for my character that leaves her free, safe and thriving after walking away from her family of origin whose denial served to re-traumatize her when she allowed them access to her.

My family of origin has known my story for more than forty years.  They've let the story come in and out of focus off and on and always briefly.  They wish I would get over it already.  They've expressed how tiresome it is for me to tell how I continue to struggle and sometimes hurt from the message that was beaten into me...  that of what a burden I was, how troublesome and demanding...  For many of my adult years -- For the most part, just these past ten years since my father died -- I have imagined I could retain a sense of wholeness and safety in the presence of my mother and my siblings.  I thought I could be my true self, sometimes share what I was going through, be there to listen to their stories and what they are going through.  I subscribed to the concept that "we teach people how we want to be treated" and thought that by being in their presence, lifting them up, championing them, delighting in their gifts and contributions I would, in time, be the recipient of similar treatment.  I eagerly awaited their compassionate responses to my fully telling my story ...  I thoroughly expected they would want to take the time to read it, hear it told, front to finish... That all these years they might have longed to know what it was like to be me growing to become the woman I am now.  Over the years, when in their presence, I've felt the damper it would put on any conversation for me to make reference to the trauma that came before, so I rarely spoke of it or the ongoing struggle of finding a welcome in the world.  {In my mind I hear the scoffing now -- their version being I imposed it on them constantly..}  I asked after them, I hosted them, I gave them gifts made of my hands, held them, sang them songs, played games with them, asked if there was anything they needed or wanted from me that I could give, apologized for the hurt I caused (often for my very existence).  I took the blame on myself for pain they experienced in proximity to me.

In recent months since my book was published and my story was made public I have experienced a renewal of trauma in regard to my family.   At first my mother read my story and expressed her sorrow for not  providing me with protection and told me I was courageous and a fine, fine writer.  I was grateful she was able to read my story.  I have forgiven her for her role in what I suffered as a child.  She has been protective of my father and my grandfather and wanted my story to be a secret effecting no one but me.  When my older sister was presented with the opportunity to read my story she declined interest saying she couldn't bring herself to read something that presented her parents in such a negative light.  My other three siblings and my brothers-in-law said nothing.  They never mentioned if they would read the book or not.  Never acknowledged its publication.  A local paper interviewed me about my childhood experience, my lifetime of coming to terms and about the book itself.  My older sister was angered by my characterization of my father and upset at my thoughtlessness in sharing the article publicly in that distance family members and friends of my mother might hear the story and the family skeletons (which I thought had been out in the open for many, many years...) would be revealed and our mother's feelings would be hurt.   She chastised me for my insensitivity to my mother's feelings.  In an effort to let my other siblings know what I was going through and that I was being bullied by my older sister, I shared with them and my mother her email to me and my responses to her.  As a result I received emails from two other siblings telling me what they thought I should do and how I should do it and to basically leave them out of this... that it really had nothing to do with them as far as they could see.  I received letters and emails from my mom asking me to explain myself and site witnesses to scenes she herself had witnessed but couldn't acknowledge.  It became clear to me that there really was not a single family member who was willing to hear my story.  I would be welcome only in my willingness to buy into a family myth that denied the truth of my experience or, if they had once acknowledged that truth they fully expected I was over it now, it was in the past and, as far as they cared to know I was just fine and they were not interested in knowing otherwise.  I realized not one of them had read a book or done any research on the on-going effects of childhood abuse in one's family of origin.  Did they know anything about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?  Did they know the stories of other survivors?  Did they know that recovery and healing and ultimate thriving are not about blaming and guilt and shame...  No.  After the sad barrage of emails among family members I received a nice note from my middle sister saying how sad she was that my feelings had been hurt so badly by my older sister and I wrote back to say how sweet it was that she chose those words for me.  Because I found myself experiencing full-blown PTSD symptoms when I allowed my mom and/or siblings to tell me what they thought, how they felt, what was bothering them about me, how much they had cared in the past, how much they had done for me over the years...  I felt a need for protection from their judging voices.  I asked them to communicate with me only through my husband for the time being.  I sought treatment, comfort and safety because I had returned to a place of self-hatred for the burden my existence and presence in their lives represented.  It hurt so much I just wanted to fade away.  I am afraid I will never feel safe from their message that I am a nuisance, a burden and a selfish trouble maker.  Any message my husband has received from the three who have made contact has expressed anger and frustration with me.  I'm embarrassed to admit how much it would mean to me to have one or more of them say to me, "Hi Sweetheart...  What's happening for you?  What are you going through?  Do you need somebody to listen?  Just listen and be there for you?  I can do that... "   Without that I don't know if I can ever go near...

There.  That's my story today.  I've been seeking your stories.  I did find an interesting article published a year or so ago in PSYCHOLOGY TODAY that is pretty clear about the ongoing effects of childhood abuse and trauma and I think I'll post the link here.  Maybe we can get a conversation going ...  I'm eager to learn about how you folks who were so badly hurt as children by trusted others are faring... What is you story like today?  Was it your priest?  Your teacher?  Another trusted family member or friend?  Who supports you in your healing (in your health) today?  Has your family gathered 'round? 


  1. Hi,
    I know this was posted last year, but I'm just finding this site and I can comment on this. I was sexually abused by a trusted friend called "uncle" when I was a child and 2 or so years after it happened, a friend told my mom, and she did not believe me, she asked me if it was a dream, at first. We did stop going to the person's house, nobody ever talked about it. I found a letter when I was a teenager, written by my mom, telling my abuser that we would never go again and "how could you do this", etc. I don't know if it was a copy or the letter was never sent. I am 29 years old now, and when I speak of it to my mom, she goes quiet and does not comment, only listens. My father just recently, broke down and cried and told me that he "has to live every day of his life knowing what that SOB did to me and what he himself put me through", seeing as he was emotionally abusive and neglectful. I was an only child, so I completely internalized EVERYTHING from my childhood. I was given no explanations and had to create my own reality and existence. I would like to say thank you to my creator, who had to have been with me every step of the way, and to my inner child, for being so smart and strong, as I am a survivor today.

  2. Thanks for your comments Heather. It's always a comfort to hear from other survivors/thrivers and get a sense of how they have coped and continue to cope with messages sent to them about how little they are valued or how little they matter when a family's reputation or sense of shame are at stake. I imagine it has been a lonely road for you as an only child. I created this blog with the idea I would continue to add thoughts, songs, poems, references to books and other resources for people like you and me who, while surviving and healing in or adult lives still have setbacks requiring a listening ear or a soft shoulder. Feel free to share anything here you think will offer support and comfort to others like us. Thanks for sharing your story with me. Deborah Padgett