“It’s time to start dealing with your childhood trauma.” That’s what I tell myself, but what does that mean? I deal with it every day. I get myself out of bed each morning and most of the time I’m not thinking about what happened to me. My moods are pretty even, except around my period. I do fulfilling, creative work. I have everything I could want and need. I feel joy and laugh a lot.
But something made me buy the self-help book. The little girl inside is trying to tell me she needs something.
“What do you want — a label? A title? Some excuse for all our quirks? That won’t make us feel any better. It won’t give us closure,” I tell her.
I understand what she wants from me, but I can’t face it. She wants me to acknowledge that the abuse we suffered wasn’t only physical but also sexual in nature. She wants me to wade through all my adult disgust, all the ways I’ve reframed my memories over the years to cloud the truth, and reach for her hand. That’s where we diverged long ago. At the place in the path where I denied what happened and tried to move on with my life. No matter how far I got, something was always missing. What does it mean to deal with it?
“You’re going to make things difficult,” I tell her.
It’s easier for me to do nothing. Like the boyfriend I waited forever to break up with when I was 21, I take the path of least resistance because who would want to deal with messy feelings? Who wants to shake things up and maybe have to tell someone the hideous truth?
“I survived the abuse, but sometimes I wonder if I can survive the healing process.” — The Courage to Heal
The problem with coping is that the trauma never should have been in the first place and now I have to face it all over again. The world ended. At a time when I was utterly innocent, everything good about being alive was dashed. It’s almost as if someone conjured up a demon right before my eyes, and it nestled itself right into my soul. It’s a secret I carried around with me, certain that if anyone else knew they would abandon me. I say I don’t hate myself and yet I often feel defective in the worst way possible. I’m a weed in the garden, choking out all the beautiful life around me, hoping no one notices.
“Gee, why are all the azaleas dying?”
“I have no idea!”
I’ve tried a million different ways to placate the little girl inside, but I know what she actually wants. She wants what I promised her all those years ago when I told her to keep quiet. She wants the safe environment we never had. A place where she has a right to her feelings, a place where she is respected and heard, not belittled, a place where her needs are a priority.
I carry with me a great deal of bad messages I now have to unlearn as an adult:
- I’m inherently flawed because I’m female;
- I’m a possession not a person;
- My feelings are wrong;
- My feelings are immaterial;
- I’m dismissed as overly emotional;
- Everything that makes me happy is degraded, destroyed, or taken from me.
It’s been difficult to find support. I’ve had to cut a lot of toxic people out of my life. “Maybe one day you can hash it out,” that’s what people say because you’re not wearing a T-shirt that says “I’ve been sexually abused” on it. No, some violations can’t be hashed out. Some abusers will never be sorry. Some victimizers will never change. It’s not my job to maintain a relationship with abusers. When you treat someone like human garbage, you forfeit whatever duty you once had to them.
I think that’s why I bought The Courage to Heal. Part of me wanted permission to pull the real weeds from the garden and start getting myself some true nourishment.
“Now that you are healing, it’s essential to structure your life so that you are in contact with people who respect you, understand you, and take you seriously. This is what you did not have as a child and what you need now.
Consider yourself valuable enough to be discriminating about the people you relate to. Although you are not always in a position to cut off contact completely with people who don’t respect you (for example, a teacher in a required course), weed out the ones who have a pattern of being inconsiderate or unkind.” — The Courage to Heal
This is what the child inside wanted. This is why I went looking for answers. I needed permission to leave behind my guilt and my sense of duty.
I’ve embraced life and learned to appreciate beauty in the world. What’s left is learning to embrace myself.
For me, the opposite of hating myself was not hating myself. The possibility of actually loving myself sounds almost silly. It took me hours just to come up with a few of my strengths for a writing exercise. Now I gotta get all lovey-dovey about myself too?
It’s difficult to emotionally support yourself when you have no model for doing so. It’s much easier for me to imagine the innocent child that I was and then defend her as the adult woman I am now. Of course that child is deserving of love. She deserves security, respect, happiness, everything that any child has a right to.
It’s hard to integrate that child into my identity, into me — there’s some kind of barrier there that I haven’t punched through yet. Perhaps that’s how I protected myself all these years. That’s how I managed to have a relationship with my abuser and other relatives who treated me poorly. Sexual and physical abuse happened to another girl, a younger girl. The older me only knew emotional abuse…
Embracing the child means accepting fully that I’m not the weed. I’m not the one with demons. I didn’t create this horrible situation, and I never have to answer for it. All these years I’ve carried the guilt, pain, and regret that should have belonged to my abuser, and now I need to put it down. It’s not mine to carry anymore.
The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis.