Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Survivors Speak: Remembering Childhood Sexual Abuse

Every Tuesday I feature the words of a survivor who struggles/struggled with PTSD. Today, the painful but inspiring story of a woman awakening to memories of childhood sexual abuse and finally beginning to heal. [Note: There are no graphic details here, but read with caution if this topic is triggering for you.]

When I Was A Child

I was a young child when I was sexually abused. I blocked it out, along with most of my childhood and I went on with my life, as ‘normal’; as I knew ‘normal’ to be. I didn’t realize that people don’t just block out years of their life. I didn’t realize not remembering a 6th birthday party was something most people take for granted. I thought it was normal to have violent nightmares every night. I argued with people who said it was impossible to die in your dreams, and if you did you would die in real life – I had died too many times to count in my dreams and I remembered every time thinking, “It’s not so bad.”

I didn’t think about what it meant that I hated being tickled or held down – by my friends, my brothers, my boyfriends. It awakened in me a primal response. I would fight back as if my life depended on it. If the person was bigger and stronger and persisted, I would shut down, I would go away where it wasn’t scary and where I was safe and I could watch from a safe distance outside of myself until it was over.

When I Became An Adult

My first awareness of sex was that sex meant power, and that I had something others wanted. The power struggle with sex has haunted me for my entire adult life. When I was 24 I married and got pregnant. Something about the pregnancy hormones opened up my vulnerability and the nightmares (which had subsided for a period) began again - this time in greater detail. Having a child opened up a door that I was fearful of looking behind. I crept up to the door, but the sights and the sounds were too dark and frightening. I looked the other way. I became very depressed and finally went into counseling, confessing that I remembered something, I wasn’t sure what, and I didn’t know what it meant.

I went on in partial oblivion from the monsters behind that door, and I ignored everything. Ignoring it had “worked” for 24 years, why wouldn’t it continue to work? After my second child I took a new job working at a consulting firm that specialized in investigating child sexual abuse allegations. I was thrust into a world of abuse and details. In becoming completely educated in the business, I found myself suddenly fighting for air. It was all too real, it was too close, it was too much like something I could not quite put my finger on. I was intrigued, I was morbidly fascinated, and I read on – I read every book on recovering from sexual abuse that was on our shelves in my office. I read every story of a child being abused that I could get my hands on. I went to therapy and I talked, and at night I dreamed.

When I Began to Remember

I don’t recommend my method – total immersion – because it overloaded me. I remember getting in my car one day after leaving my children with my husband and driving away from the house and feeling that every nerve in my body was raw and on edge and that I could not breathe or concentrate or focus. I had taken in everything I could take in and my mind could not handle it all. The memories I had worked so hard to push away came flooding back – a stream of fragments pouring into my consciousness. I could not close my eyes without seeing images of death and violence. I could not function and just went through the motions. The door I had so carefully ignored, the door I had cracked open and peeked around, was flung wide open and I did not know what to do with it.

So I drove. I drove to my counselor’s office and when she wasn’t there, I dealt with the intensity the best way I knew how – a way that I had tried before and had worked: I hurt myself, and in that hurting, I went away. Dissociation was my friend. I didn’t want to see my reality. I drove to my best friend’s house and she took one look at me and drove me to the hospital. I couldn’t talk to them, I couldn’t talk to anyone; I wasn’t in my body. A man came to examine me and I looked at him blankly while he evaluated whether the cuts would require stitches. He asked me why and I could not tell him – I didn’t know. I spent 4 days in the hospital where I heard the words “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” over and over and over. I heard the words but didn’t understand the impact on my life those words would have.

When I Began to Heal

Opening that door to my past began my relationship with PTSD. It was always my silent companion, protecting me when I felt I could not protect myself. But opening the door made PTSD become more than my silent companion. My PTSD became my ferocious protector. The door was open, the fragments of my life were there all around my feet, and I talked. I spoke to my counselor in fragments, in metaphor, in poetry, and in confusion. I went about my life, normal, fine, good – but PTSD was beside me, a hulking body guard. Someone coming up behind me and surprising me would see fear and uncertainty in my eyes. My husband and I divorced and other men could sense the vulnerability beneath my smile. They could see that I was weak and they exploited it. I struggled hard not to be a victim. I struggled to stand on my feet and make choices, but when I felt overpowered or controlled, I stopped fighting and my PTSD stood over me, the hulking watcher, and I disappeared.

I began a meaningful relationship with a man who cared about me, and I told him softly about the abuse. He listened respectfully, he was gentle and kind. Over time, I have gotten better. My PTSD has begun to trust this relationship, which is not like my other relationships where I was forced to do everything against my will. Even my marriage was about abuse and control, and so my PTSD was fed and grew.

What I Think About the Future

Over time, I have talked to others about PTSD. I have heard that everyone’s experience is different and everyone deals with it differently. I have talked to people who rarely deal with it, or haven’t dealt with it in a long time, and I am envious. I have talked to my counselor – I have asked about hypnosis and any other possibility for getting rid of the monster that accompanies me everywhere because for me, PTSD is as bad as the abuse. It never leaves me. It makes me different; it makes me unacceptable and alone. I struggle against it. Sometimes I win. And sometimes I lose.

But I will never BE my PTSD. It is a part of me, but it is not ME. It dictates my life sometimes, like the men in my past who told me what to do and I did, and maybe that’s why I see PTSD as a hulking man, but I am not my PTSD. I am simply a girl, trying to become independent and walk on my own two feet and look behind doors and into eyes without fear.

Every day I become stronger. I read, I talk, I reach out – and it all helps because every time I expose my PTSD, he becomes weaker and his hold on me lessens. The door to my past remains open. I glance back at it from time to time, and the fragments still scattered in the doorway. I don’t venture too near, but I know it’s there and my eyes are open to it. My counselor told me that in order to protect my children from what happened to me, I have to stop being blind to what happened. So I’m not blind anymore. I don’t have all the answers, but I have all the answers I need, for now. I walk forward, PTSD beside me, but I am no longer in his shadow.

If you'd like to participate in the 'Survivors Speak' series, please contact Michele with topics for guest posts.
(Photo: Hagner James)


Anonymous said...

"I didn’t think about what it meant that I hated being tickled or held down – by my friends, my brothers, my boyfriends."

I too react this way. And for me it is one of the few clues that something much worse happened than I allow myself to remember. I too have large gaps in my memories of childhood at home.

Thanks for writing this - it is terrible to know that there are others who live with some of the experiences that I do. But it's also reassuring to not be the only one.

Anonymous said...

I had an argument with a self-serve checkout at a store yesterday.

It was a female voice 'barking orders' at me to which I could not respond - "Insert you loyalty card".

"I don't have a fucking loyalty card".

It's just a machine but my brain doesn't know the difference. I'll argue less with the machine over time!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comment... It IS reassuring to know that you're not the only one... and I hope someday I'll be able to speak about it openly without the shroud of fear that surrounds me.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing post how mindful and insightful. I am working with PTSD and found this post very useful.