When I attended the first Say It, Survivor workshop I was nervous. I write a lot about recovery and trauma and post-traumatic stress. I write very little about my abuse. And that’s by choice.
I hate writing about what was done to me. The abuse is about my abusers. I prefer to write about how I make sense of it and deal with the aftermath. I write about recovery because that’s about me.
But maybe there’s a little bit of avoidance too. Maybe there’s some pain and fear I’m trying to tip toe around still.
What would a workshop about being a survivor be like? How would it feel? I wasn’t in acute pain but I was eager to meet other survivors, adults and women creating survivor community. Plus, I wanted to support the work Laura and Mary are doing because it’s revolutionary, radical and necessary.
I took a risk. I’d done lots of “work” in therapy. I’d met my inner child. I was ready.
But when I was invited to write a letter to myself, to really look at a photo of the young me and to write to that girl – I struggled.
One of the assignments was to find a pre-abuse photo and bring it, and to address our letter to that girl.
I couldn’t find one before/after trauma date. I don’t tend to think of sexual abuse as separate than neglect or physical abuse. They all contribute to post-traumatic stress and not feeling safe. Plus, I wasn’t sure there was a “pre-abuse” time, ever, really.
So I struggled. Silently. I started to resist. But remembered it was fine to go off script. Participants are reminded to take care of ourselves first and foremost so that’s what I did. I wrote at the edges of what I wanted to say. I dipped in and out of it.
But the exercise stayed with me.
What might I say to my child self as the adult I am? Could I have a direct conversation with the past from the present? That was a new approach.
At home, alone, I’d start and stop. I’d pick it up, put it down and circle back. It never felt done or complete. Weeks turned to months.
But I just kept pouring my heart out to the little girl I was. It turns out that was what I needed. In the end, to just be honest and clear and direct. I made direct contact with my younger self. I wasn’t writing about her but TO her. It felt different, hard and good.
I saw where and when I developed a lot of faulty beliefs. And why. It was hard to remember how much I hated myself and the world.
It was how to reconcile how young I actually was when I’d always felt I was born ancient. The little girl in that picture was not ancient. There was a lot she didn’t know. I knew intellectually I was just a kid but I never felt like one.
Staring at a picture changed that. It helped me soften some towards my own self. I was just a kid in trouble trying to survive.
And though the abuse wasn’t about me there is no denying the pain is mine. The pain shaped much of my life and I’ve spent a long time battling with the pain rather than grieving the sad fact.
I’d tried so hard to change myself when what was wrong was my circumstances. It was good to get clear with my young self, to address and even reassure her.
So this isn’t an essay. It’s a letter from survivor adult me to surviving kid me.
It’s raw and vulnerable but I’ll share it – in case anyone else feels alone or damaged or hopeless.
Thanks Say It, Survivor for helping me find words I needed to hear and say.
Dear Little Girl Surviving Abuse & Neglect:
One day, you’ll wake up happy. You’ll be rested and at ease. The sun will greet and warm you and you won’t wince or squint. You won’t think the sun is beating you.
You will feel eager and ready to go out into the world.
It will feel like home.
You don’t believe it though yet. Not a word. I know that. How could you?
You think something about you is evil. You think it’s what causes people you love to be bad. You think the kindest thing you can do is keep people from loving you because of what you bring out in them.
You think the problem is you.
I get why you feel that way. I do.
But it’s not true. Look at how young you are? There’s nothing evil about you.
You aren’t scary.
You are scared.
You are just a young child.
And you don’t know what it means to be safe. How could you not be confused?
You think of yourself as a blow up doll others use. You think your body is the cause of all your problems.
You will spend a long time trying to get out of it.
This will not go well. It’s not your body that’s the problem.
You didn’t cause a thing by having a body.
You are just in pain. But you hate that pain. You are afraid it’s a disease that will spread. You think you can keep it inside like a bomb you will jump on and sacrifice your life for to protect others.
You are wrong.
You are not a bomb.
Scared, not scary, is what I will keep saying. I wish I could make you understand this important distinction.
But you don’t know what these words mean yet. You have no context.
Sweet girl, I’m sorry it’s so hard.
It’s going to get bad.
You are going to criticize and condemn yourself relentlessly for being soft as shit. You will call yourself crazy.
You will admire Underdog, Mighty Mouse and Wonder Woman. And Robin Hood.
You will deem yourself a failure.
The palpable persistence of your aching you will call proof of your weakness.
You will turn on yourself and hurt and neglect yourself the way others have.
Oh sweet girl if you could know that your pain is not a character flaw. You are not weak or screwed up.
You will berate yourself for having “all in your head” problems like anxiety, nightmare and depression. You will hope for car accidents and cancer and visible scars.
You will feel contaminated and toxic and like a bottomless pit of need. You will blame need itself. For your craving of food and love and people.
You will think need is what makes life dangerous.
You will despise being human. That’s also not the problem.
You will try to control who and what you let in and out. Food. People. Love.
You will starve yourself first and then stuff yourself silly. You will never be full enough to forget. You will never be able to empty your body of experience.
You believe you are a hunger pain you can try to satiate by depriving yourself of food. You believe you can protect youself by depriving and punishing yourself.
You are just vulnerable, fragile and young. You just need someone to cry with and and confide in.
You are not a wrong that needs to be made right. You don’t need to try harder. You are a child needing parenting. You have a wound in need of tending. You are not a trauma. You have been traumatized.
You will worry if you will ever be capable of love, parenting, full-time employment or intimacy of any kind.
Spoiler alert: You are capable of so much more than you believe. You will do more than live to tell the tale. You will have words, feelings and passion. You will have love, dreams and connections. You will make a life, career and most important, a home with your own family.
You will inhabit all parts of yourself and even have healthy sex. None of it will be quick or easy.
There will be bumps, stumbles, detours and struggles.
I’m not going to lie. It will take a long time. And it will be hard for you to stop waiting for a rescue. For so long you will ache and pray and long to be fixed. You will seek and search and hope your parents will show up and be more than it is possible for them to be.
You will not be rescued. I’m sorry. It won’t happen. not ever while you are a child.
You will not be scooped up and held, fed and bathed, protected and reassured or even believed. It will go from bad to worse when you speak the truth.
It will almost break you.
You will spiral and freak and crash. You will hunt for love like a junking needing a fix. You will try to snort and inject approval and acceptance and it will never stick.
You will be strung out trying to get water from broken faucets.
You will bang on metal pipes til you bruise and bleed. You will almost die of thirst before you realize those pipes aren’t ever going to bring you what you need.
You will have to get your thirst quenched elsewhere. You will need to leave home to survive. You won’t want to. But you will.
Finally, you will understand your parents did the best they could. They never withheld anything from you that they had or kept for themselves. They needed healing too. They were in as much or more pain.
They did the best they could and it wasn’t near enough. You’ll grieve as you understand both things can be true. Their best love didn’t protect you. In fact, you were injured most in the place you were supposed to be safest. That is your truth.
You will be lonely and desperate for a long while. You will be pissed at the world and feel as though God is punishing you.
You will worry that you are a bottomless pit incapable of happiness or peace.
It’s true that you will never feel the warmth you long for in childhood. There will always be a chill. But you won’t freeze to death. You will make it.
You will carry on.
You will survive.
That’s not nothing. Not everyone does.
You are scrappy.
You are a wonder.
You are not the overripe banana attracting flies. You are not rotten, damaged or spoiled. You never were. There are no maggots crawling from your ears.
There is nothing about you that is dangerous.
Someday you will trust this and yourself.
Someday you will know you are a secret ingredient in the world’s mixing bowl. Needed. Unique. Essential. You – exactly as you are. You are not a half-made cake of promise and potential. You are already substantial and valuable. Even as a child.
Even while in pain.
I know you don’t believe this. You won’t for quite some time.
And I wish I could go back and get you to protect or spare you or comfort you regularly.
It won’t be easy or fast – but trust me – it won’t stay hard, grueling and punishing.
There will come a time where you will have more than enough food, love and money to get by.
You will feel at peace and present and safe most of the time. Count on it.
In fact, one night, at bed time, you will look up at the moon and feel it is smiling at you.
You will feel bathed by light even when it is dark.
You will feel safe, at ease, whether clothed or naked.
Like you are meant to be.
Like you belong.
The stars and the sun will ground you.
You will go to bed without hiding your face in a pillow, without your arms and legs crossed and under you.
You will have nightmare free sleep.
You will have flashback free sex.
You will have a child who is not afraid to wake you up if she is scared.
And you will go to her to ease her.
You will learn to mother your own self as well.
You will feel safe on your back with your arms outstretched.
You will inhabit your own soul and psyche and body.
You will be vulnerable and safe.
It will feel like your body and your life.
I know you don’t believe it but it’s the truth.
You will be at home in your own home and body and in the universe.
To others that might seem ordinary and routine.
Not to you.
You will never forget how unlikely it felt, how impossible.
You will know you deserve this feeling and in fact, you always did.
It will look like a woman just getting ready for bed. But the triumph will be epic-sized.
I’m sorry you aren’t there yet.
You will be. Someday.
I’m certain. You get through however you can and need to. So just hang the fuck on.
You’re doing great.
With my love, respect and admiration as I wait for you,
the me you eventually become
* * *
Note: This writing was born in a Say It, Survivor workshop.
Laura Parrot Perry and Mary Lovely are cousins and silence breakers who have joined to shamelessly to speak up about childhood sexual abuse, to work with adults who have been abused and to speak with parents and educators to help prevent abuse.
You Matter Mantras
- Trauma sucks. You don't.
- Write to express not to impress.
- It's not trauma informed if it's not informed by trauma survivors.
- Breathing isn't optional.