In 1989, I was a twenty-two year old just diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, abandonment and neglect. What I needed more than therapy or books, experts or support groups was to meet a woman, decades older, who had a childhood as bad as mine or worse, and went on to have a life.
A personal life. A professional life. A sex life. A family life.
I was aching to see with my own eyes this middle-aged survivor. I craved proof of her existence because she is what I feared I could never become.
Ordinary. Typical. Free.
She would know the frozen paralysis of a soul in terror and the raging heat of adrenaline coursing through the system uninvited.
She would know the enemy who shares the face of caregiver, who doles out abuse and ice cream.
She would know the complexity of staying present in a body which is also a trigger – the scene of the crime.
She would know nightmares and trust issues. She would now how liberating it is to tell the truth and how it means strained, ruined and at-risk family relationships.
She would apprentice me with the truth and school me with her wisdom.
Where was she?
I couldn’t find her. Not in person. Where were the everyday women talking about childhood trauma and more importantly, life after?
I wanted the ones with eyes I could look into knowing they remembered the past but were no longer caged by fear.
How could there be so many survivors of childhood trauma and so much silence?
Often, we are invisible to one another. When not in crisis, we don’t want to be reminded where we came from. And we live in a world where we are judged, shamed, belittled and stigmatized for being abused as children. On the one hand we are deemed “damaged goods” and on the other we are told to “get over it already” – sometimes by the same people.
Trauma is not a hard candy we refuse to stop sucking on. Developmental trauma shaped us – without our permission or consent.
Even though we were victims as children, if we speak of it now, as adults we fear seeming “victimy.” We live in a society where being a victim of violence is still more shameful than being a perpetrator.
Which is why I fear silence more than exposure.
I won’t lose my job, housing or more personal relationships by speaking out about the long-term impacts of childhood sexual abuse, addiction, abandonment and neglect. But that wasn’t always true.
I have the self-care, respect and enough support to risk being vulnerable now but that took decades.
I’ll still make coffee tomorrow morning, shovel when it snows and weed in the summer no matter what I write or speak about. My daughter will need a hug, a ride and something for dinner. That is the victory.
We can recover. We do recover. And often we move on to helping others. But we need to communicate and to be able to find one another.
Safety shouldn’t be like a second language we have to learn as adult. Self-care shouldn’t feel as unfamiliar as driving on the opposite side of the road. For far too many of us it does.
Childhood abuse is preventable. Feeling at home in the body is birthright. Our lives are deeply impacted and throughout the lifespan. Sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally and sometimes socially. No one gets out unscathed.
We have have higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. We have a higher chance of being raped and in relationships where there is domestic violence. We are more likely to smoke, drink and use I.V. drugs. And there is more. Even if we find and create stability, we have higher rates of stroke, heart disease and autoimmune diseases as well than those with healthier and happier childhoods.
Those with lots of abuse and trauma die 19 years earlier, on average, than those without! See the ACE Study here. There’s no way to parcel about pain, the past and what happens in the future no matter how strong, resilient and optimistic we have been and are.
For so long, I waited, for rescue from my parents, from lovers and even from trying desperately to be good and significant – to prove to myself that I mattered.
Eventually I learned to mama my own trauma symptoms, tell the truth about childhood trauma and realize that I couldn’t make the past less bad but I can feel better in the present.
I started to talk and write about I learn and experience without shame or hiding. I sign my full name now so that younger survivors know there is a way, a future and it need not be dismal.
I have become the woman I needed.
And some of you are looking for me as I am looking for you. We are a community and we can band together to speak directly to one another. Aren’t you tired of having experts or others speak for us? They don’t always get it right even when they mean well? Plus, it’s nice to be with those who get it and know what life is outside of a therapeutic hour – where we live.
Where we work. Where we parent. Where we love.
I tell the truth about how it is for me and how I learned (and am always learning) to live, love and parent well after being raised in hell. I share what it’s like to live when post-traumatic stress flares up and how I manage the way the past intrudes on the present.
And hope. What we can do now to feel safer, to be healthier and to author our lives.
We were made to be victims in the story of another but we can narrate the now.
We are the only ones who can tell our own story.
Your story matters. It’s not your fault you have pain.
Writing can be healing.
We can’t change the past but we can become the people we needed for ourselves and our children and each other. Now. We can heal right now.
Note: This essay was published in To Write Love On Her Arms as well. Please go to the site to read the comments from dozens of survivors. There are 100 beautiful comments.
The Shape the Work Takes
“There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.”
Zora Neale Hurston
I never seem to get to the answer part. The questions turned quest are these:
How do I live on earth when I was raised in hell?
How do I live, love and parent well as an adult after the childhood I had? How do others and where are they?
How come no one is talking about this on T.V. or at playgroups or over coffee because there’s a whole lot of trauma survivors trying to figure this out and suffering and feeling isolated and alone.
I wasted decades at war with my pain. I lost years hunting for love, validation and solutions from experts, lovers and my parents. And hiding in a box of carbs or trying to “be good” so I wouldn’t feel bad. I warred and numbed and ate and gave myself away.
One day I promised myself I would lie no longer. Not to myself or others about what I felt or needed or wanted or about the pain I was in. Instead of hiding I became to ask questions instead.
- How can I be in less pain?
- Why didn’t my parents protect me more or get more help for them selves?
- Why can’t I let go, feel more joy and be more grateful?
- How come the pain keeps coming not matter how hard I try, how good I am and how much willpower I use?
- How can I do better for myself and for my daughter?
I’ve got no cures to sell but truth to share.
- We get inspired from quotes and real-life survivors.
- There’s gut honest memoir and articles.
- If there are portable and affordable tools from experts, they are interviewed and/or referenced.
- We gather at Parenting with ACEs and the ACEsConnectionNetwork to be the best people, parents and professionals for ourselves, kids and others.
Mostly though, we show up as who we are and how we are and we speak for ourselves.
We get it together by being with people who get it. Together. Period.
We make sure that any policy, program or plan that calls itself trauma informed is informed by trauma survivors.
- We make sure the face of PTSD is also known as female because women get PTSD. She PTSD is real. We are #FacesOfPTSD
- We insist on being visible.
- We insist on being seen.
- We see and hear each other. WRITE NOW.
We can live, love and parent well after being raised in hell. It’s possible but that doesn’t mean it’s easier. We can make it easier for others and one another.