I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, abandonment and neglect in my early twenties. I got a label. What I needed more than therapy or experts, support groups or books 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.
This woman 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 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 know how to navigate telling the truth which might ruin or put at-risk family relationships. She would apprentice me with the truth and school me with her wisdom. In essence, she would teach me how to live on Earth after being raised in hell because once I escaped childhood, I needed to learn a whole new way of being human.
Where was she?
Where were the everyday women talking about childhood trauma and more importantly, life after? I couldn’t find her.
Where were all the others? How can there be so many survivors of childhood trauma and so much silence? How can there be so much pain and complexity and so little support or instruction on how to people, parent and partner better.
So often when not in crisis we hope to “pass” for normal, and we remain invisible to one another. Maybe we don’t want to be reminded where we came from or admit we still struggle. Or, we are too familiar with shame. We are deemed “damaged goods, ” and on the other, we are told to “get over it already” – sometimes by the same people. We live in a world where we are judged, belittled and stigmatized for being abused as children. Sometimes even by those in the helping professions with good intentions.
Trauma is not a hard candy we refuse to stop sucking on. Developmental trauma shaped us – without our permission or consent. The impact of adverse childhood experiences on adults is well-documented.
Safety is the second language many of us seek to learn as adults. Self-care shouldn’t feel as unfamiliar as driving on the opposite side of the road. For far too many of us it does. We have spent years or decades scanning for danger – a trait which kept us alive but makes it hard to relax or be healthy, human and inhabited. In the world or our bodies.
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 (am always still learning) to mama my trauma symptoms, tell the truth about childhood trauma and realize that I can’t change the past but I can feel better in the present. I am becoming the woman I needed.
We can recover. We do recover. We can find symptom relief.
Often we move on from helping ourselves to helping others. But the journey is not fast or linear. It helps to have company and others who get it.
We can’t change the past, but we can make the present and future better. We can make childhood safer for others. Telling the truth is the start, because, as my friend Heidi says, “We are not survivors. We are warriors.” We don’t have to wait to be totally healed or to have all the answers to share our experiences, questions, and journeys. We can heal write now and help right the future.