“Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.” — Abraham Lincoln

Sometimes the trouble with a self-help book is that it makes me feel like a predictable sum, a product of what’s happened to me, someone with no free will. Does that sound familiar? Sure, maybe it’s comforting to read that our feelings are fairly universal. I can see how the little anecdotes in Richard Carlson’s Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff eases tension. But universal feelings are mortifying when I’m reading a self-improvement book on trauma and abuse.

  • Sudden panic attacks
  • Pervasive sense of shame
  • Prone to depression
  • On alert, startled easily
  • Often worry about “going crazy”
  • Rarely feel relaxation
  • Don’t know who to trust, or trust too readily
  • Afraid to trust my intuition
  • Frequently feeling used
  • Difficulty with affection
  • Using humor to cope
  • Using self-harm to cope
  • Suicide attempts, low self-worth
  • Spacing out a lot
  • Avoiding people
  • Having a tremendous need to maintain control
  • Making every effort to be busy all the time
  • Being adaptable and responding well in a crisis
  • Escaping through books, reading a lot
  • Having a rich internal life and vivid imagination

The list goes on. Apparently, nearly everything about me stems from my trauma history. Instead of feeling like an interesting person, I feel like a toxic chemical byproduct. It was hard enough just to crack the book, but then to be faced with that list…

Obviously I’m not eager to face the trauma if I made it to my thirties without really accepting it. I can write all day about being beaten. I can face that violation. But the sexual abuse was harder to accept — it seemed like I needed permission to do so.

I hate to feel reduced to pages in a book. It’s enough that I feel all my life choices are somehow prescribed by my trauma history — a history I tried to conceal from myself for most of my life. It’s worse to feel as though I’ll never know who I would have been if something horrible hadn’t happened to me. I don’t mean, “Perhaps I would have been an astronaut.” Sure, maybe I would have. But what I feel most disconnected to is the basics. What was my temperament? Was I always going to be an anxious child? Would I still have had a million books and a wild imagination?

You know that question, “Are you a born leader or a born follower?” I don’t know how to answer that question. Anything I was born to do seems eviscerated.

Everyone always said I was “shy” because it took me a long time to warm up to people. I used to climb my mother like a tree whenever a male stranger approached us in a grocery store. It sounds like more than just shyness to me.

I quit ballet at age six because the little brother of a girl in my class put his hand between the elevator doors as they were closing. I moved his hand before the doors closed. His mother didn’t even notice. I was so terrified I’d have to do it again or witness his hand getting crushed that I refused to go back to ballet. I never told my mother why. Would I have been so controlling and fearful if I wasn’t abused?

Facing all the ways my life has been affected by this violation makes me feel as though I don’t know who I am. I have to remind myself that everyone’s life is shaped by their experiences. Nobody knows who they might have been if an experience was added or removed. That fact doesn’t demean them in any way. I know that about them — I need to learn to feel that way about myself.

It’s hard to see strengths through all the darkness. But I have to believe that no one could be me, but me. I am much more that the result of betrayal, in part because I am a survivor. I’ve endured more pain than a person could ever be expected. I mistook my anger for self-hatred and survived suicide attempts only to realize the devaluing voice in my head isn’t my voice. I don’t hate myself. I love myself. And it’s the love I feel for myself that heard the child inside asking for help, that bought the book and began reading, that started the healing process.

“The highest function of love is that it makes the loved one a unique and irreplaceable being.” — Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

When I think about the shame, disgust, and revulsion I feel, it seems like they’ll never go away. One thing I can focus on and do believe is possible is to learn to love and accept myself exactly the way I am. I have had good practice in this over the years. I love and accept many other people, but there’s also a lonely child inside me who’s waited patiently for me to do the same for her.

Reference: The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis.

Abuse concept image available from Shutterstock