The author writes about recovering from childhood sexual abuse. She discusses the symptoms of developmental trauma. Please take caution when reading.
In 1989, I was 22 years old, and I had just been diagnosed with PTSD stemming from childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, abandonment, and neglect. What I needed more than therapy or books or experts or support groups was to meet a woman, decades older, who had a childhood as bad as mine or worse – and who 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 needed 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 that is also a trigger – the scene of the crime.
She would know about nightmares and trust issues. She would know how liberating it is to tell the truth and how it also can mean 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, as adults we fear seeming like a “victim” if we speak of it now. 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 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.
But safety shouldn’t be like a second language we have to learn as adults.
Self-care shouldn’t feel as unfamiliar as driving on the opposite side of the road. But for far too many of us, it does.
Childhood abuse is preventable. Feeling at home in the body is birthright. 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. Then I learned to “mama” my own trauma symptoms, to tell the truth about that childhood trauma. I learned that I couldn’t make the past less bad, but I could feel better in the present.
And I started to talk and write about my 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.
Your story matters too. And if no one has said it to you yet:
I believe you.
It’s not your fault.
You are not responsible for how you were treated and what was done to you.
You are responsible for the way you treat yourself and how you advocate and respond to your own body, mind, and soul. You can impact your own health, happiness, and wellness now.
You can’t change the past or even all of the symptoms and pain that go with it but you can write a different future. You can release shame. You can love yourself and the world more. You can accept and nurture yourself.
You can be the person you need. Now.
In light of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we’re working with RAINN to highlight survivors and their stories. If you need help, please visit our FIND HELP page or call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. You can also find RAINN’s online hotline here.