Welcome to the survivor moms speak out blog!

While practicing full-time as a community-based midwife, I had the opportunity to work with many women who were survivors, either of childhood sexual trauma, rape, or both. The experience of being their midwife, and witnessing their challenges and triumphs encouraged me to learn more about the effects of trauma on the body, and on the experience of childbearing specifically. So just as I felt "called" to practice midwifery, I felt "called" to shed light on issues that survivor moms face during the process of becoming a mother. That calling led me to begin the "Survivor Moms Speak Out" project. We surveyed many women who were both moms and survivors; and 81 of those women completed a narrative or contributed a poem for the book "Survivor Moms: Women's Stories of Birthing, Mothering, and Healing after Sexual Abuse."
Read more about the book, or order a copy, at http://www.midwiferytoday.com/books/survivormoms.asp.

Because of space constraints, not all of the narratives that women contributed to the book project were able to appear in full in the final version of the book. So I would like to take the opportunity to share some of the whole narratives in this blog, featuring a narrative at a time.
About reading survivor stories:
Although the stories are encouraging because they represent survivors’ triumphs over adversity, they can also to be hard to read, because of the intensity of the issues and events. I encourage you to check in with yourself while reading survivor stories, especially if you are a survivor of past trauma, and limit your exposure if you become “triggered”. Feeling triggered might take several different forms. You might start re-experiencing a past trauma you have had before, by not being able to stop thinking about it, or dreaming about, or just feeling like it is happening all over again. You may feel distress or have physical symptoms like feeling your heart race or sweating. If you start to experience these things, you may benefit from talking to someone who understands how trauma works and how to help you with post-traumatic symptoms.

To read more about trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder you can check out the National Center for PTSD website: http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/.

The Sidran Foundation offers an information and a referral resource on-line: http://www.sidran.org/

Friday, December 12, 2008

Liz's Story

Sometimes a wide plain, sometimes barely a trail, the path is ever changing and long. In places it has deep ruts that fill with water from the rains, elsewhere there is only twisting sand, under the intense beating sun. It can be almost impassable with thorny overgrowth or so steep and exposed that nothing can grow. But as I travel it, I learn to weather its challenges and recognize its patterns. And I try to always remember it is my path. It does lead somewhere. It goes on.

This path is mine. My path as a woman, a mother, and a survivor. I became a mother before I became a survivor. Although my abuse happened as a child, becoming a mother allowed me to embrace who I truly am and allowed me to look into the dark places. Each birth left me with an imprint of the sacred, and I had no choice but to be transformed.

Now it takes effort to remember what my life, and my path, looked like before having my children. It takes effort to remember that I used to avoid remembering. I used to stuff the memories down into any corner or crevice. I had a mile-long body with rows upon rows of caverns, locked tight. It was my way of coping, shutting in the dark, so only the light would show. I could go on being the person I wanted to be, the person everyone knew--happy, smart, successful, well-raised--a model life.

The Past

Not the person who I really was. That person would have to remember the spring and summer of 1980, when I was twelve years old. That person would have to recall the day my younger sister and I went over to play at our neighbor’s house. Playing in the basement. Her older brother’s bedroom was down in the basement too. The cool, older brother, dressed in army fatigues, with a hunting knife and a BB gun. The popular one who killed the frogs down by the stream and kicked his dog if enough people were watching. No firm memory of the sequence of events, only patches of events and feelings. Him being there, “we will play hide and seek now.” Always, it is my turn to seek. The others must hide. They run away, giggling, leaving me to count. Leaving me to suck. Him up against me, a large penis being pressed into my mouth. When will I get to hide? When will I get to run away? I will get to hide and run away for many years.

I remember being let into his “fort” in the yard. A clubhouse, an older teen-age hang out, a privilege. None of the younger kids were allowed in. But Liz was. How lucky. More blow jobs on a Saturday afternoon. He never reacted. He never came. A robot, just like me. My lips had never been kissed, yet they had been wrapped around a penis. I longed for a kiss.

In the woods, by the creek. Him against me. Smell of cigar. Grabbing on, hands thrust down my pants. With clenched jaws, I hung on and blocked out the searing pain. My head was cut off and put back on when it was over. Running home, afraid of being seen or smelled. A wounded animal with underpants filled with blood. Deflowered. Locked in the bathroom, cleaning, washing, purifying. Wadding my underpants and my shame into layers and layers of paper bags and stuffing them at the bottom of the garbage. The bottom of my soul.

The hunted survive through learning the ways of their hunters. “No, I don’t want to go outside right now.” Sensing, listening, always aware, I rendered his weapons (isolation, intimidation, strength, a penis) obsolete. He turned to humiliation. The teasing began. The cool, older crowd heard his stories. “You begged him for it. Little slut. Little slut.” Shame. Shame. I swallowed the shame. I told no one the truth. Too afraid, too confused. To preserve my dignity, and myself, I split in two. Liz and the sexual Liz. The sexual Liz became the bad one, so the rest of me could stay intact.

This is how I went through my teenage years and early twenties. As half of myself. Demi-being. My relationships, of course, suffered. No one ever knew me. With men, I was curiously flirty and fun in public where I felt safe, but frigid and in control in private, determined to protect myself from abuse and its shadow of humiliation. I had learned that if love does not accompany sexual feelings, only dirty, disgusting acts and pain result. Therefore, masturbation, having sex with people you do not love, and sex for sex’s sake was wrong. By never performing these acts, I salvaged a scrap of self-respect. Read my mind: Even though I used to be a slut, I am not dirty anymore because I now only have sex with people I love, in committed relationships. I don’t let them touch my boobs until we have been seeing each other for at least four months, and don’t let them touch below that for two months after that . . . I chose only “safe” men; men I had been friends with for a long time, men who were gentle, kind, and those who did not challenge me. Men who were virgins. I could have made worse choices.

With women, I felt no solidarity, a mirror for my inability to connect with my own femaleness. I was disgusted with/afraid of the female aspects of myself, and paradoxically, was always jealous of women who seemed to have these aspects perfected--those that I deemed flirty, pretty, and sexy. Competitive by nature, I was determined to perfect these aspects in myself as well, even if it was all an act. I remained a frozen bud; a sense of sisterhood would not blossom until much later.


In my mid-twenties I married. A gentle, loving man, who was, as fate would have it, comfortable with his sexuality and its expression. What a challenge for me. Even so, I believed that on our wedding night, all my baggage about sex would miraculously disappear. It took six months for sex to become THE issue in our otherwise seamless relationship. I felt no power or control in sex with David despite controlling every aspect of our sexual relationship: what we did, when we did it, how we did it. I considered my sexuality as the sum of my body parts--crotch and boobs mostly--and felt that this is what David wanted to have sex with, not me.

So I set out to fix myself. With my motto “there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished through thorough research,” I read a multitude of books about sexuality, adult massage, tantric sex, and being your own sex therapist. In my head, I gained many new insights and ideas, but in my body, nothing changed. I couldn’t make the connection. I couldn’t go about healing in the same way I went about graduate school. It was quite a shock.

Birth of Eric

During the second year of our marriage, I became pregnant. My gynecologist had told us that it might take a year or two to become pregnant due to my erratic and infrequent ovulation, but it took only three weeks. We were thrilled, surprised, and a little overwhelmed. David and I were still dancing awkwardly (and I, reluctantly) the salsa of our sexual relationship, and we worried that having a baby would turn the music off completely. Lose the CD. Sell the CD player. Fire the DJ.

I applied my ever-strong research skills to pregnancy and birth and deciphering the myriad of ways to approach them. I found many studies pointing to the safety of homebirth with midwives for low-risk women. My need for controlling what happened to my body led me naturally to midwives, as did my experience overseas working with a rural African midwife.

As I progressed through my pregnancy, I marveled at how my body was changing. I read everything possible on fetal development, ate well, kept in shape, and generally, felt great. I did have a raging yeast infection for the last six months but loved the fact that it meant I was exempt from having sex. When the day of birth came, David and I were excited and felt prepared. I turned inward to deal with the pain, as I was accustomed to doing, but was aware of David and needed him by my side, literally, for the entire process.

I pushed myself through the birth of my first child through sheer power of will. I was determined to have a “good and natural” birth (read: a “perfect” birth), yet was unable to open up to the pain, to the experience of it. I associated pain with my genitals and knew how to deal with it: block it out. I pushed for two hours with out uttering a cry, only low moans could escape. I could only choke on the hoops, hollers, and screams of joy and agony that I wanted to utter. Despite my midwife’s encouragement to open my throat and voice, so my vagina would follow, I could not. I could only swallow.

Despite this difficulty, my Eric came wailing out of me all at once after a particularly strong push. Bright pink with bright red lips longing to suck. The feelings of relief and wonder were equally immense. I felt the presence of the sacred for the first time in my life. Giving birth gave me the first positive, blessed connection with my own sexuality. My genitals had held only shame for me before; I never owned them, never loved them. Now look what had come out of them! Sex could not be all bad if this beautiful child was the result. I also experienced the strength and power of my beautiful, female body, because everyone trusted it that day. Everyone trusted me and my body to bring this baby here. With the help of some wise and gentle hands, I too began to trust myself. To trust, and therefore respect, my body.

Breastfeeding went smoothly with Eric. I was absolutely determined to breastfeed for as long as he was willing (16 months) and did so whenever and wherever he was hungry. In public places, I did not ask people for permission or go hunker down in a corner. If people felt embarrassed because they stared and got a wee glimpse of skin, good for them. It would loosen them up a bit, as I was becoming loosened up. I tried to be discreet, but I was not going to be ashamed.


But I was afraid. I was afraid of cutting this beautiful child off from his sexuality, as I was still alienated from mine, and afraid of the growing sexual isolation from David. Filled with courage and power from the birth, I went into psychotherapy. This was a major hurdle as I come from a family of teachers, social workers, and psychologists. (We help others; we can’t possibly need help ourselves.)

Entering therapy was like entering a new world for me. I realized I wasn’t crazy--that the things I felt and did, my “coping techniques” were normal. I began the long process of turning myself as victim into myself as survivor. And being proud of it. David was steadfastly by my side. Encouraged by his reception, I slowly gained the courage to tell a few close female friends my story. I showed them my dark side, and they didn’t turn away. This brought warm, welcome light into my cold dark caverns of shame and self-loathing. I began to feel known and whole. To realize just how many women felt devalued and shamed, by men and by greater societal beliefs and values, and that we were together, fighting on the same side.

Through visualization exercises in therapy, I became aware of a coarse rope around my neck, inhibiting access to my voice. This made it difficult for me to cry, to become angry, to voice any scary feelings, to make sounds. I had to regain my voice. I began group therapy in a women’s “circle of sound” for survivors. A combination of music and voice therapy, I grew more in this setting than anywhere else. Not only did I see my experience reflected back to me in the lives of the other women again and again, but also I was challenged by the experiential aspects of the group, its intuition-led, let-come-out-what-comes-out structure. There was no goal, only to be where you were, to feel what came up, and to trust that it would be all right. The non-judgment the women showed me will forever serve as a model for how to be in relationship. David and my relationship, as well as my other friendships grew immensely during this time.

Birth of Will

I was in the midst of this therapy when I became pregnant with my second child. At first I considered stopping therapy, as I did not want to expose my yet-to-be-born child to the dark places we entered during our sessions. I was afraid of what he would hear and feel in utero. After much internal debate, I realized that the personal growth I was doing, the growth of this child’s mother, would more than make up for any damage done. I chose different midwives for this birth. As I was filling out the required forms I checked the box marked “yes” for the question “Have you ever been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused?” for the first time in my life. A warrior wears her battle scars with pride.

Will’s birth was different for many reasons; he was my second child, he was smaller than Eric, he was born into water. He was born to a woman who could make noise! I moaned and groaned and felt so open during the labor and birth. Much of this openness I attribute to therapy and to my midwives who allowed me to create the setting, energy, and space I needed to bring my child into the world. And to David who was right there in the pool with me, my quiet pillar of support. I felt again the gratitude that something so precious could come out of a place I had loathed for so long.

Having two children was a transition, especially for Eric (he was almost three). I breastfed Will for a year and made sure Eric got enough hugs and other physical time with me. Now, with the boys at almost six and three, we are in a groove, the four of us, together.

Being A Mom

Being a survivor has affected how I mother. In good and bad ways. On the positive side, I am determined that my sons not be cut off from their sexuality. I want them to see it as beautiful and special. For me, that means not overtly or covertly expressing things that would make them ashamed about their bodies; pooping, peeing, masturbating, or being naked. Also, I want them to be comfortable with all their emotions. I don’t tell them that “boys don’t cry” or that feeling angry is wrong.

Do I mother in ways of which I am less proud? Oh, yes. Though I encourage the expression of emotions, I overreact when my sons are aggressive towards others. My reaction can be out of proportion to a petite offense. I want them to know it is never O.K. to hurt people. Yet I am also afraid they will be hurt by people. Suspicious of strangers, care providers, older boys, well, really anyone male that I don’t know, I can be overprotective. I only want them to have sweet, joyful play with kind, safe people. This, of course, is every mother’s wish for her children and also ridiculous. It exemplifies the fine balance that mothering must accomplish; protecting one’s children from the truly damaging experiences of life, while still allowing them some struggles so they develop the skills with which to cope with adversity. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But how is a mother to know?

Being A Woman

As for my life outside of kids (threadbare, but existent), my path of healing has continued. I do energy work. I take dance classes that move me through my chakra centers and keep the energy flowing through the places that shut down easily. Dance helps me remember that I can move my body however I want to and that it is beautiful and my right. The sexual relationship between David and me continues to be our biggest struggle. I must remain conscious and vigilant of my sexuality. But we have learned slowly to stop trying to fix me and instead grow as “us.”

My experience as a survivor has also helped to shape my professional life. I worked for years at Planned Parenthood to support women in their choices about their bodies and sexual lives. In public health graduate school, I studied women, social power and support, culture, and birth. I worked with inner city, community-based organizations to increase the choices that women had in birth. Through these experiences I was reminded of what I knew well in my own heart: the best way to help women is to listen to women.

Now my interests have led me to examine birth and women’s lives in other cultures. With the global dominance of Western ideology, practices surrounding birth can often be a last vestige of a traditional culture. In fact, healthy traditional practices and rituals surrounding birth can be a sign of a culture’s very survival. And so I ponder: if we brought this idea down to an individual level, to what degree are we destroying a woman by not letting her determine where she wants to give birth, with whom, and how? I believe having a voice can mean a woman’s very survival: of her spirit, her will, and her identity. I believe that for a woman who has been marginalized, either through race, socioeconomic status, or past history, having choice in birth is especially critical. It can plant the seeds of trust in her intuition, her knowledge of her body and of how to mother.

Sometimes a wide plain, sometimes barely a trail, the path is ever changing and long. My path of suffering, survival, and healing. Out of this suffering comes compassion; compassion for others who are suffering. I can love them because I am not afraid of them. I am not afraid of them because I am not afraid of myself. I am a warrior and will wear my scars with pride.

To learn more, order Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse

Friday, December 5, 2008

Lynelle’s Story

I had an extremely typical American pregnancy, you know the type: OB care from the start, all the necessary tests, and hospital-based childbirth educator. I had read every mainstream book I could get. After all my preparation, I was delivered of my 9lb, 6oz son in 1993 via cesarean section. A failed Pitocin induction because I was “big” added to the premature artificial rupture of membranes, leaving me with no other choice than to agree with my doctor that I couldn’t deliver vaginally.

I remember during the prepping for the c-section I felt very panicked. I had once seen a movie in college about a woman who was undergoing hypnosis and re-living a botched c-section where the sedative had worked so she was asleep but the anesthetic had not worked and so she felt everything. It was horrible, she was screaming and crying as they cut into her flesh, her body memories amazingly strong as she recounted that experience. I was terrified I too was going to be able to feel the surgery, even though I had a very strong epidural in place. The hospital staff seemed more annoyed at my panic and told me to “calm down and quit crying”. In an effort to appease me they re-dosed the epidural, which only served to completely over-anesthetize me. I couldn’t feel anything, not my face, arms, legs…nothing. I couldn’t even be sure I was still breathing. None of this helped to calm me down and my arms were tied to the table in a crucification pose to keep my numb arms from falling off the operating table. As I cried and begged them to wait just a minute before they started so I could calm down, my doctor made the first cut. I have a vague memory of praying to God to keep me safe and get me through this, and thoughts of my baby were nonexistant.

When my son, Ian, was removed the doctor popped him over the sterile drape so I could see him. After he was cleaned up he was given to my husband, Dave, who brought him over to me. Since my arms were tied down I asked my husband to rub my son’s cheek against mine. I smelled him, sniffing like some primal animal, it being the only way I could relate to my baby since I couldn’t move.

I don’t remember much after the surgery, I was very ill from being over-medicated. I do remember there being a room full of people, family and friends, all coo-ing over Ian in the corner. I was jealous. I was the one who was just cut open damnit –why wasn’t anyone paying attention to me!!

It was a bad start to parenting to be sure. The next few days and weeks were awful. I didn’t feel bonded to Ian at all. I didn’t know what to do when he cried; I didn’t know why he cried so much. I didn’t know why I cried so much. Dave took 1 day off work after the c-section and left me alone with this infant and postoperative pain. I felt so sorry for myself. I began fantasizing ways to hurt myself. Not kill myself, just wound myself enough so I’d have to be admitted to the hospital and no one would expect me to care for an infant and I could get some sleep. I also envisioned hurting Ian – throwing him against the wall in desperation for peace and quiet. Please God, just 5 minutes of sleep. Thankfully I did neither of those. My pitiful cries for help went largely unheard. Dave was never home, he worked all the time and when he was home he was mad that the house was a mess, dinner was not cooked and why was everyone crying?

Finally, a neighbor who had a c-section 10 weeks earlier called to see how I was. I burst into tears and she promptly came over. She forced me to go to a new-moms group at the hospital. It was a good start. A room full of women who were just as screwed up as me. So I’m not the only one who doesn’t know the first thing about parenting? The group leader recognized my signs of major post partum depression and had me stay after class for a one-on-one chat. Knowing that I may have a real illness made me feel better, since I thought I was just an awful person. The next day she called me at home and invited me to meet her at the hospital to meet with a lactation consultant. I wasn’t having breastfeeding problems other than normal engorgement but she saw what I couldn’t.

At that meeting the 3 of us decided that given my mental and physical states, what I really needed was some food and rest. I didn’t have the energy (or care to) pump breastmilk for Ian so I switched to formula. Dave’s mom, sister and aunt came to the rescue after that day. I still wonder if the nurse called one of them and told them how very serious my problems were. We had a schedule where either Dave’s mom or sister came over every day at 5pm and took Ian away until 10pm. During those precious 5 hours I could eat or sleep or do nothing at all. On Friday afternoon, Dave’s aunt would come get Ian and take him for the whole weekend, returning late Sunday afternoon. Dave never seemed to care that other people were raising our child. I watched the clock like someone waiting for a fix. I would tell myself “ If I can just keep it together until 5pm…I only have to survive until 5pm….”

I didn’t care about who had Ian as long as he was gone so I could be alone. It took about 4 months for me to be “ok” with Ian. I regularly attended the new moms’ group and had private chat-sessions with the leader. Things slowly got better. When Ian was 6 months old I discovered I was pregnant again.

About 6 months into the new pregnancy I heard about doulas. They sounded interesting so I checked it out. I decided I wanted to be a doula and during my eighth month of pregnancy I enrolled in the Seattle Midwifery School’s doula training program. Talk about an eye opener!! In a few short classes I had a whole new perspective on childbirth, breastfeeding and parenting. I developed an intense desire for a VBAC and knew I would breastfeed this new babe.

At one point in the class we were to watch a c-section video. I thought it would be interesting to see what had been done to me. Wrong!! Within the first minute of the video I began to hyperventilate and cry and had to run out of the room before I threw up publicly. Penny Simkin (an angel from God for sure) was teaching the class and followed me into the bathroom. I was curled up in the corner, on the floor like a frightened animal. She kneeled down and just smiled at me. I whispered that I didn’t want to go through that again, meaning a c-section. She reached out a hand and said, “Then don’t”.

I finished my training and the next day met with Penny for a private counseling session. One of the first questions she asked was if had I ever been sexually assaulted or abused. A few hazy memories leaped into mind, which I promptly tucked away where they had been for years and told her no, of course not. We chatted for a while and she gave me the name of an OB who was very pro-VBAC. I met with her and at 37 weeks pregnant switched doctors.

6 days past my due date labor began. This labor was very long and drawn out. I labored hard, all day long with the help of my mother-in-law who was very supportive of VBAC. Sidenote: Dave had fought with me about the dangers, he wanted another c-section; he didn’t want to see a baby come out of my vagina. After about 19 hours of hard, long strong contractions I was only at 1cm. My doulas were with me (I had hired 2, against Dave’s wishes: I was beginning to find my fire) and after I began begging for pain medication they advocated for me to get an epidural even though I was only 1cm. About 2 hours after the epidural I felt the urge to push. Anna was born, vaginally, in September 1994.

I immediately breastfed her and bonded like I had not known with Ian. I felt strong and proud and was ready to parent. I had a support system to help me if I began the downward spiral into postpartum depression again (which I didn’t). A few days after Anna’s first birthday I told Dave I was leaving him. His response was “no kidding”.

I began therapy because of depression around what I thought was the divorce. I saw a cranial-sacral chiropractor (Peter) and a hypnotherapist (Nancy) simultaneously. We began to explore experiences I had locked tightly away. In their gentle hands I allowed myself to relive a rape I had suffered when I was 15, my first sexual experience. I was at a party, drinking, and woke to find myself in bed, being raped by a young man who was at the party. I remembered that it had felt much like the c-section. I was so drunk it was like my brain was functioning but not my body. I was crying out “STOP STOP” but no sounds came from my mouth; no one was listening. I tried to move but my limbs didn’t work. The realization of the similarity of the two events was a turning point for me. Using hypnotherapy, I relived the rape, stopping it in my mind and reframing it. I fought off the boy and told authorities. The pain and shame and anger were diffused; it didn’t hurt so much any more. I used the same technique to re-do (my therapist and I call them “do-overs”) Ian’s c-section. I replayed the memory but this time the c-section was calm and quiet and lovely. I bonded to him and we were in love. It was a catalyst for change in my parenting and in my outlook.

Further down the road, Nancy and I worked on letting go of the shame I held from being molested by an uncle when I was a very small child. I realized I had been mad at my dad for not protecting me. He had known that my uncle was a pervert, yet he allowed me to be alone with him. This was especially difficult for me to let go of because I loved my father dearly and he was killed when I was 15. How could I be mad at my dad? He was dead for God’ sake; I had martyred him in my mind and allowed no room for human error. In hypnosis, I spoke with my dad and told him about what had happened and how I was mad at him about it. He apologized and I forgave him. We sat by a stream and talked. I devised little angel/demon people to take care of my uncle. I still saw him at family functions and confrontation was not an option for me. Now when I see him I also see these little angel/demon people sitting on his shoulders and flying around. It reminds me of how he’ll get his punishment – someone did see what he did-someone he’ll have to answer to someday.

The c-section reminded me of that molestation because I held Dave responsible for protecting me and he didn’t. Much like I held my dad responsible for protection and he failed me too.

All in all I spent about 2 years in intensive therapy. A lot of it was to resolve and let go of the c-section, the rape and the molestation. But I also learned patience and forgiveness. I became my own best advocate. I became my children’s best defender and biggest fan. I became a mother. Now don’t get me wrong, those were the hardest, most painful years of my life. I would NOT want to do that over again. I cried so many tears.

I created a guardian angel out of those hypnosis sessions. She’s still with me today. A big, strong Amazon woman who can beat the crap out of anyone and doesn’t take shit. She’s kind of like Xena, from the TV show (which I LOVE.) When I feel small or frightened or overwhelmed she pops up, carrying her sword and stomping around the room. I get strength from her; we’re good friends her and I.

Now I’m a new person. People who knew me years ago are astounded at the person I’ve become. I work in maternal child health as a birth doula and lactation consultant. I regularly pick fights with the medical establishment to test my resolve. I don’t let people push me around and I speak my mind regularly, much to the dismay of a few of my more timid family members and friends. I’m a bit of a bitch!

Oh yes, and Anna breastfed until she was 5 and a half years old and is the feistiest girl-child I know. Ian has the heart of an angel; always concerned for the well being of others. He tempers Anna and me when we get a bit shortsighted. We’re a great family!!

To learn more, order Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Amy's Story

I don’t really remember a time when abuse wasn’t a part of my life. From the time I was born, my real father was abusive to my brother and I and our mother. He physically abused us, and I imagine he was emotionally as well as physically abusive to my mother.

About a year after they divorced, when I was six, my mother married Fred, and that’s when I entered hell. He was extraordinarily controlling about everything down to the way that we closed doors, and raked the yard, to how much toilet paper we used and how often we took showers. Breaking the rules brought punishment that might be as small as being grounded for a few days all the way to a beating with the belt. Beatings were carried out in the bathroom, with our pants around our ankles, and our hands on the bottom of our claw foot tub, as he beat us with his belt on our legs, butts and backs. My mother would go to their room, close the door and turn up the stereo so she wouldn’t have to hear us crying. She would run away, and leave us to him. A pattern she would repeat for many years to come.

As we grew older, he became more and more controlling. He would check to make sure the garbage was filled to just the exact fullness when we emptied it, and if it wasn’t, we were punished. He would buy dozens of boxes of cereal at a time when they were on sale, and store them in the basement, where they would invariably draw bugs. But that was ok, we could still eat it, just pick the bugs out before putting it in our mouths. I still won’t eat Cheerios.

This environment made it very easy for him to begin molesting me. I think his feelings of power and control made him feel as though he could do no wrong. He never threatened me with violence, or told me not to tell. He didn’t have to; I didn’t believe I could tell. Who would care?

I was nine when he began letting me take more frequent showers, but there was a catch. They had to be with him. We were a very open family, and often walked around nude, so this wasn’t that unusual. My mom joined a bowling league around this time that met every Tuesday night, and she wasn’t home until after I was in bed. He couldn’t have had a better opening. The sexual abuse progressed from simple back rubs and showers to him fondling me and masturbating in front of me. He never penetrated me, I think that was somehow going too far in his sick mind, but he did just about everything else.

I have something in me that helped me during that time, and that helped me to finally confront him. I remember very vividly how that confrontation took place, too. I had done something that had earned me a beating, and I became furious. I was about twelve, and had started to realize that what he was doing was very wrong, not just the stuff he was doing to me, but the beatings and the control issues also. When he grabbed my arm to drag me into the bathroom, I pulled away and grabbed a Time magazine off the table that I had read earlier. On the cover was a little girl holding a picture of a scary monster with big hands and teeth, all done in black with the words “Daddy” printed in a child’s hand on the front. I threw it at my mother and screamed,

“This is what he’s doing to me!”

“No he’s not”, she said. “This is totally different.”

I looked her dead in the eye and said, “No, that IS what he is doing to me, and has been for a long time.”

Well, she of course became very upset, and asked him, and he couldn’t say much, but his inability to deny it told her what she needed to know. She went into a rage and started to beat on him with her fists, yelling, “How could you?” the whole time.

Then she sat me down, and broke my heart and my spirit in one fell swoop. She told me that we could tell the police, but that that would mean Mark, my little brother, would be taken from us and we would never see him again. And that we would have no place to live, and would have to live on the street and go on welfare. And who knows, Will and I maybe taken away, too. And if the police thought that my mom knew, she would go to jail along with Fred. And then she said it.

“He did it to you, you decide. Should I leave him or should we just stay and pretend it never happened?”

I was twelve, and my mother forced me to make a decision that no adult should ever have to make. She betrayed me so badly that she might as well have been in the room as he fondled and violated me. I realized then that I was all alone. Totally, completely alone. No one cared enough, I wasn’t worth enough, for anyone to bother with me. I was an afterthought that was to be used when needed and then discarded. A part of me died that day, and I’d like to think I have resurrected it, but I just don’t know.

I became a model child. I did what I was told, I smiled and laughed at school and at home, I never did anything outstanding, or incredible. I just survived. And I slept with everyone. I had 8 partners by the time I was 15 years old. I contracted chlamydia from a one-night stand with a college kid who thought I was 18. I thought that sex was a way to be loved, and if I had sex with them, they must love me, right?

I had nightmares about running and running through a dark place with horrible monsters that looked like the drawing from that Time magazine. I flinched if Fred came near me. The sexual abuse stopped, and he was hesitant to even beat me, but he became ever more controlling and still found ways to refer to me as a sexual partner. He walked in on me one day when I was 14 and changing a tampon, and stood there and watched. He told me it was ok, he understood because he had taken them out of my mother before so that he could put something else in. And the showers continued. Often, it was the only way I had to take a shower, but he didn’t touch me. He would, however, masturbate in front of me.

Those years were hell. I had no childhood; I went from being nine to being 30. I often thought of suicide, but I realized that he would really win then, and that I would beat him, one way or another. And the betrayal by my mother hurt more and more every year. She was so weak, and so incapable of standing up for herself or her children. I was determined that I would not be my mother, and I think that stubbornness helped me to survive.

When I was sixteen, at Christmas time, I began to date the boy who would become the wonderful man that is now my husband. I had a reputation around school as being easy, but he dated me anyway. He was handsome and strong and sensitive, so unlike any of the boys I had been with. He actually wanted to talk to me, not just sleep with me. I think I began to heal with every passing day we were together.

After we had dated for a few months, I told him what had been happening at home. He was so angry; he wanted to hurt Fred, to just do anything to get back at him for what he had done. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that I was important enough for someone to want to protect me, and that someone cared about me enough and loved me enough to be so angry. I look back now and realize how horrible it would have been if Ray had done anything, but it was a turning point for me.

The following fall, Ray was leaving for the Navy, but we knew that we were going to be married someday, and we promised to wait for each other. And we did. He came home at Christmas, and gave me a ring.

My senior year, I finally told someone in authority what had happened. I had been put into a Pre-calc class that was a little too hard for me, and I wasn’t doing well. When I learned that I was going to get a D in the class, I went to the counselor in hysterics, and told her everything. When I was done, she brought in the school psychologist to talk to me. I cried so hard as she told me that none of it was my fault, that my mother was an awful person for not helping me, and that Fred was an evil man to have harmed me in such a way. I couldn’t believe that they were being so nice to me, and that they knew it wasn’t my fault. It was also a great relief to hear that my mother was an awful person, and that I could be angry with her, and hate her as much as I hated Fred. Someone listened, someone believed and someone helped me for the first time in my life.

They contacted the police and a child psychologist. The police said that I wasn’t in any danger now, so they would not pursue the matter, let alone press charges. That still bothers me to this day. I was well within my rights to press charges, but I was only eighteen, I didn’t know that then. And all they had was my word.
The psychologist was a little more helpful, thank heavens. I saw her for about three months after school without my mom knowing. They thought I was at work, and never questioned it.

They did eventually find out when I confronted my mom and Fred a few months later. My mother and I had been arguing, when it escalated and Fred intervened and started to hit me, that was it, I wasn’t doing this anymore. I turned around, pushed him away, and said very quietly,

“If you ever touch me again I will be at the police station faster then you can say your own name.”

He went white as a ghost and stepped back as if I had burned him. I told him to leave and he did. I packed clothes for work, and left without saying anything to either of them. I take a lot of sick joy in hoping that they sweated it out thinking that I was at the police station. Instead, I went to my future in-laws house and told them what had happened. They had had their suspicions about my home life, but now they knew for sure. I asked to stay there for a few days, and they asked if I would stay until the wedding.

I confronted them again after work about the abuse. Fred said,

“I don’t understand what all the fuss is about, I thought this was all done and forgotten about.”

The jerk. He really thought that it was nothing. He never really thought he had done anything wrong.

My mother was a little more sympathetic. She again went over why we needed to keep it our secret, and just forget about it. That’s when I quietly informed them that I had told the school and had been seeing a psychologist for the past few months. Of course my mother panicked, and wanted to know what had happened. I told her not to worry, she was going to be just fine, and told her what had been said. I then told Fred that he was to stay away from me for the rest of the time that I lived under that roof. He wasn’t to talk to me, touch me, look at me if at all possible, and if he did, I would be going to the police.

I knew that I wouldn’t stay with my in-laws until the wedding. I still had the need pounded into my skull that we needed to keep the abuse quiet. What would everyone think? What would we tell them when I wasn’t living there anymore? It would take many more years of therapy to erase all the brain washing they did, and I was far from that at 18.

We were married in July of 1989. It was and still is one of my happiest memories. I was free, and I was with someone who loved me. I won’t lie and say that my getting out of the house wasn’t one of the reasons we were married 3 weeks after my high school graduation, because it was. I was more than willing to just move in with Ray, but my mother wanted to pay for the wedding, and not have the disgrace of us just living together, so why not?

It was great being married, but something was still wrong. I realize now that I was in a very deep depression, and even wonder if I was dealing with some post- traumatic stress. Ray was wonderful during this time, as he always has been, without fail.

I finally made a good friend, Maxine, a year after we moved to New York whose husband worked with Ray. We quickly became inseparable, and we began to tell each other everything. She was also abused as a child and teen. She became my angel. I again started to see a psychologist, and even though it didn’t last very long, it was a big step. Maxine has been my counselor for many years as she has given me her love and support. She showed me that everything I was going through was ok, it would pass.

An incident in the second year of our marriage made me realize that I could overcome this, and that I had what it took to never let anything like that happen again. Ray and I were arguing and it became pretty heated. We didn’t fight often, and when we did, we rarely would become nasty with each other, but this was one of the worst arguments that we had had since we were married. So we were yelling and hollering, and he raised his hand to me. And it just hung there, above my head; time stopped and did a quick rewind. And it wasn’t Ray anymore, it was my father, and it was Fred and it was all the boys in school who had slept with me, and then made crude jokes about me. I stepped forward and put my face inches from his. Then told him,
“Touch me and I’m gone, and you will never see me again.”

It was as if time stopped for him, too. He looked at his hand as if he didn’t know how it got there, and then he just crumbled. He has apologized for that day a dozen times through the years. I don’t know if he would’ve hit me if I hadn’t said anything. I would like to think that he wouldn’t have, because he has never raised a hand to me again. Which is a good thing, because I would be gone. I will not be my mother; I will not let anyone treat me that way ever again. Or my children.

That was the day I realized I was strong. I was strong, and fierce, and I was not a victim. I was a survivor, and I knew that I would get through anything else that came at me. And I have.

In our third year of marriage, Ray had to go to San Diego with the Navy for an entire year, and I was alone for the first time in my life. I found myself doing a lot of soul searching that year. I confronted my mother again, and tried to impress on her the damage that had been done to my life, and how I was still struggling to get through it all. I don’t think she grasped it then, and I don’t think she ever will. I tried to make sense of my life and all the anger and hatred I had inside of me. I also became very independent, and started to comprehend how submissive I had been the first few years of our marriage. I realized that I had always deferred to Ray, and had felt that if I didn’t, he wouldn’t love me anymore. So many things tied back to what had happened, I was just beginning to realize how much I was letting my past control my life.

It was very hard when he came home after that year. We were almost separated at one point, and we weren’t sure we would make it through. My independence was a new thing for Ray, and it took us both a long time to adjust to our new relationship. It was worth it though, and we are both happier with the new me.

It was just a few months after he came home that I realized I needed to talk with someone about my anger, and the feelings I was having about my mom. I called the local rape help line, not knowing what I really wanted, but hoping that that was a start. It ended up that I had contacted our local chapter of Contact USA. They are a wonderful non-profit organization that centers around a telephone helpline for the community. They also have AMAC (Adults Molested As Children) and rape survivor support groups. What a gold mine! I attended the meetings for about 6 months or so, and saw an individual counselor occasionally. I realized that I didn’t have to forgive anyone for what was done to me. It was ok to feel angry towards my mother for not protecting me, and for being so weak. It was ok to be angry and outraged at what Fred had done to me, and for stealing my innocence and my childhood. It was as if a weight was lifted from my shoulders. And I realized that once I allowed myself to be angry, to be horrified, to hate them both, it all stopped. I wasn’t angry any longer, and I didn’t hate them anymore.

I will always be horrified at what was perpetrated upon my body and my mind, and I will never forgive them for allowing it all to happen. Because to forgive them is excusing what they did, it’s letting them off the hook, and not holding them responsible for their actions. Forgiveness is for the perpetrator, it doesn’t benefit the survivor. Think about it. What am I telling you if I forgive you? I’m telling you that I am forgiving you of your sins upon me, I am giving you absolution. I can’t do that. Only God can do that. I am not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination, but I do believe that we will have to answer in one way or another for the things, good or bad, that we have done. I will not give absolution for these horrible acts, and the inaction of my mother. I will not because I am a survivor, and to forgive is to excuse, and that is not an option. I will move on, and that will be a part of my past, but I do not have to forgive.
After coming to this incredible revelation during my group sessions, I realized that I wanted to give back some of the help that was given me. I left the group, and began volunteering on the phone lines. I then went through training to also help with the rape crisis counseling that Contact does. I went to the hospitals several times to console and talk with rape survivors as they went through the horrible ordeal of the rape evidence collection kit. I also talked with husbands, boyfriends and parents of these women and gave them information on what they could expect to happen next with the legal system, and with their loved one’s reactions.

This was an empowering time for me. I was making my life, and all that I had gone through mean something, and I was making a difference. I lived and breathed the abuse for days, weeks, and months on end. I examined it, dissected it, and held it up in front of myself like a badge of honor. I am a SURVIVOR. I am strong. I am healthy. And I will never allow myself or mine to be hurt.

This lasted for about a year, until I realized that I was defining my life by my abuse and my status as a survivor. This was a step that I needed to get through and that I feel was essential for my healing. But after awhile, I realized I needed to make a life for myself, a life that was removed from my childhood. I needed to put it where it belonged, in the past. I left Contact, and I cut ties to the people around me that I felt were having a hard time getting beyond their abuse. I know that sounds cold hearted, but I needed a clean break. I survived a horrible childhood, I came through, and now I have my own life. That’s what I wanted to portray to people, if I ever told them of my abuse. And I stopped telling people, for the most part. If I knew someone for a while and our childhoods came up, I may refer to it, but it doesn’t become the focus of our friendship as it would’ve before. I found I make a better friend this way, too!

We waited six years to start a family. With the baggage that was brought into our marriage, it only seemed fair that we clear our own minds and hearts before having someone join us. We were so young, we had some growing up and growing together to do, also. We had a hard time at first. I miscarried our first pregnancy at twelve weeks, and it scared me very badly. I had a few months of serious doubt whether I could handle being a parent after that. Wondering if I was worthy. A lot of my old self-esteem problems came into play. Ray was a rock for me, and helped me realize that we could be good parents, and that we could get through this hurdle. We planted a lilac bush in our front yard as a memorial, and I think of our little angel that helped us realize just how precious the children we do have are whenever I look at her. I talk to her on the occasion while I’m in the yard, and tell her about my day, or my life, or the children. I always felt that that first baby was a little girl, and that she is watching me now, knowing how badly I wanted her, and how badly I missed her once she was gone. I miss you Amanda.

I became pregnant again right away with our son Jacob. A beautiful, happy, wonderful little boy. I never felt that my abuse affected my birth or my nursing him. I do know that whenever I changed his diapers, I would wonder if I was abusing him when I cleaned him. I finally made myself stop and take a look at what I was doing. I was cleaning my baby! Not violating him or hurting him. Once I overcame that, things went smoothly.

I lost another pregnancy three years later when Ray and I were trying again. It was a blighted ovum this time, which is basically a false pregnancy. This time, I didn’t have nearly the emotional trauma that the first one caused. There wasn’t a baby there that I lost; it was just my body playing tricks on me. We were disappointed, but we knew we would try again. A few months later we became pregnant with Anne, our beautiful, tiny baby girl. She was such a joy, and came so fast; I grabbed her from the doctors and didn’t want to let her go. She is our blue-eyed baby, and I am fiercely protective of her.

I don’t feel that my abuse came into play with either of my children’s births. I feel that I had healed enough by the time they came along that it simply wasn’t an issue. I nursed both my children, Jacob for only seven months because I ended up doing hospice care for my grandmother, and lost my milk after she died. I was devastated because he was such a super nurser, and I wanted to nurse him for as long as he would want to. I’m still nursing Anne; she’s only ten months old. I hope to nurse her for at least a few more months, but she is a stubborn little girl, and is too busy to be bothered with nursing when she can grab cheerios and a cup.

We practiced a family bed with both our kids, although Anne would rather be in her crib. Jacob is our snuggly child, and even though he is four, he still climbs into bed with his dad and me several times a week. We do have a very open home, and we run around the house naked without a second thought. But we have also been very careful to keep any kind of sexual contact out of the sight of our children. Nudity does not equal sex, and that is an important lesson I want my children to understand.

I have noticed that since we have had Anne, I have had a few issues come up because she’s a girl. I look at any man who comes near her with suspicion. Ray insists that I am much more protective of her then I ever was of Jacob. It’s because I have so much hope for her, so much joy for her, I want to make sure she never has anything taken from her future, or from her childhood. I want all of this for my son, too. And I do know that boys are molested and preyed upon. But there is something about my daughter that brings out the mother lion in me, I just can’t explain it. I will defend both my children to the death, and the person that would ever lay a hand on my children had better be right with God because they won’t survive long after I am through with them. But with Anne it goes farther. I feel that I am making up for my mother in how I raise my daughter.

I refuse to spank my children, and I have already taught Jacob about good touching and bad touching. He knows that his body is his and his alone, and if anyone ever makes him uncomfortable, even mom or dad, he should say no, and tell mom or dad right away. He is a good, bright, independent boy with a bright outlook on life, and I will keep it that way.

I will break the cycle. My mother was molested, as well as one of her brothers, and her mother, and her mothers’ mother. This will not continue in my children. I will not allow it. It stops here, with me. So yes, my abuse has affected my motherhood. It has made me a better, more protective, more ferocious mother than I think I could ever have been if I hadn’t been shown what happens when a mother is not.

To learn more, order Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mary’s Story

When I was 11 years old, I was molested by a friend of my parents. He lived in the upstairs apartment of our house, along with his wife and five daughters. He was a “good Christian man.” I hated when he did that to me; it made me feel dirty and helpless. Finally, I told my brother about it and he, who was nine at the time, said it was a serious thing he had done, and that I had to tell our parents about it right away. He said if I didn’t tell, then he would, and he called my mom in right way and said I had something to tell her. So I did, but I felt so ashamed.

A couple of nights later, I sat down with my mom and dad, a good family friend, and two counselors from the church who I didn’t know as anything more than faces in the congregation. They all told me it wasn’t my fault, and that what he did to me was wrong. I still felt all the more ashamed, weak, and pathetic for allowing such a terrible thing to happen to me.

Years went by. I never dealt with it much. When it came up, I felt as though a dark cloud covered the sun, and I felt all that guilt and shame and pathetic weakness swelling up inside, like I couldn’t hold it in, like it was going to explode. Finally, it did.

I was 16, on a ski trip with a bunch of other 16-year-olds. I flirted a lot with boys, and I was flirting a lot with the boys on the trip. One of the counselors/chaperone people pulled me aside and told me I’d better be careful or someone might take my playful flirting the wrong way, and I could find myself in a lot of trouble.

It triggered something in me, and I immediately burst into tears. I sobbed harder and harder, right there in the laundry room with this strange woman. And she asked me if it already had, meaning had I been raped as a consequence of my flirting. I felt angry with her for seeing it that way. Through my sobs all I managed to say was “it wasn’t my fault,” again and again. I spent the rest of that night and the next morning grieving, crying hard, weeping, in fact, for… I don’t quite know exactly. My lost innocence? My uncontrollable flirtatious nature that was going to “get me into trouble?” For the first time, I let myself feel a little angry, and I began to realize that it really wasn’t my fault. Regardless of whose fault it was, the consequences were mine to live with, to deal with, and I didn’t know if I had it in me to break free. Anyway, it felt good to have cried like that about it. I had dragged it up out of the dirty cellar of my memory and had begun looking at it in clear daylight. It was an ugly mess, don’t get me wrong, but there it was, sitting on the table in front of me, and I couldn’t put it back in the cellar even if I tried.

Three years later, I went to a “Take Back the Night” rally with a new friend. Women who were abuse survivors wore armbands of a certain color. I didn’t put one on. The woman I was there with asked me straight out if I’d been sexually abused. I was at first taken aback by this very direct question, but I told her that I had been molested at age 11. I said it so matter of factly, she didn’t act shocked or surprised or even pitying. It felt good to say it like that and not feel ashamed.

A few days after the rally, I met my daughter’s father. A month later, I was pregnant. I realized early on that although our month-long romantic adventure had been fun and carefree, the honeymoon was definitely over. We were both 19. We were still kids ourselves. It seemed I had no choice but to grow up, and fast. I felt angry that he had a choice. Try as he might, his presence did not feel supportive. In my frustration, I told him I didn’t want him around at all, not for the birth, not for the life. This was the only way I knew how to protect myself in this lonely, vulnerable time.

So, I was a single pregnant woman, 19 years of age. My parents were of great assistance, (though not without disappointment and embarrassment in my “out of wedlock” pregnancy) and for this I am eternally grateful. I moved back in with my family and began preparing for the baby, choosing midwives, gathering baby clothes, etc. I didn’t think much about my status as an abuse survivor during the pregnancy. When I did think about it, I felt afraid that my child would also be abused, and I felt at a loss as to how I was supposed to prevent that from happening.

I’ve read that there are two common and opposite reactions to sexual abuse. Some sexual abuse survivors become very protective of themselves, especially of their bodies. It is common for them to feel ashamed of being naked in front of people. They earn titles like “prude” and “uptight.” Others take the opposite approach, becoming very sexually promiscuous, “free” with their bodies and their sexuality, or so it appears. They are often called “slutty” by the other girls as the boys wait in line. I fell into the second. So I didn’t have much fear of being naked or of having fingers in my vagina or of having a baby emerge from/through my vagina. These things did not scare me. I was mostly afraid of the sexual abuse affecting my mothering.

So the nine months passed and I went into labor without much expectation. I could write five pages on that whole journey of childbirth, but I’ll try to capture it in a few sentences. Childbirth was indeed a powerful transition, a trial, a “right of passage,” into motherhood, you could say. After more than 40 hours of early labor, I hit rock bottom. I was alone and terrified. Terrified of what was ahead, of birthing this baby, of becoming a mother. I considered my options. I could tell the midwife to take me to the hospital and order a cesarean. I’d still have a baby in the end, so I’d still have to be a mother. Or, I could pull myself together, buckle down and push this baby out. I realized that if I chose the second option, I would have to do it. No one else could do it for me. Although I felt no strength within me, I’d have to find it. I’d have to find a whole hell of a lot of it, too.

After about three hours of hysterical exhaustion, extreme pain and feeling completely out of control, I got into the bathtub and pulled myself together. I turned inward and focused on my breath. I listened to my baby and felt the power rushing through my body. I was not thinking consciously about my sexual abuse, or about all the other abusive relationships I’d been involved in in recent years.

I was barely even aware of the sexual/spiritual pain I held, of all the hurt and abuse that I endured, all of the confusion. What I felt was the power in my body. Each contraction, each power rush of energy which began in my womb and then radiated outward, filled my whole being with focus and strength. And then I realized that this flood of strength was being given to me; it was mine. I surrendered to the pain, to the power in my body, to fighting with my fear. Really, I was surrendering to myself. I accepted that I was not really in control, but that I didn’t have to be “under control” to be strong.

But, it wasn’t about being out of control either. It was about accepting what was coming at me, not trying to stop it or control it necessarily, but using it to my advantage. I realized that the pain was there to work through, to come out of on the other side, stronger than ever. The pain of my sexual abuse, the pain of my labor, it was a test, a mission for me to look within and find it in me to overcome.

I pushed her out in 10 minutes. It was the most incredible feeling of release. After all that tension had built up within me, I could at last let it go, or push it from me with all the strength in my body. Later, I reflected upon what it was I was releasing in those moments. Obviously, I was releasing the baby that I’d held for nine months, but there was more than that. It was as if all the abuse, all that filth, all the shame and guilt and pain of my molestation at 11 years of age, and the subsequent sexual abuse I’d suffered, all of it was in a big gooey glob beneath my daughter’s head. It was as though she wouldn’t come out until I’d released it all. I couldn’t be a mother until I pushed it all out of me. And as I pushed, it all came pouring out of me. And I felt as though my birth canal, my vagina, was being purified so my baby could pass through it into holy light. It was a cleansing, a reclaiming. And when at last she did emerge from me, she felt so pure and uncontaminated, so perfect, and I felt freed at last, so grateful to her for carrying me through such a challenging phase of my (our) lives.

Now she is one and a half years old. I still worry a lot about not being able to protect her from molesters and rapists, and all that perversion. All I can do is to do my best, to protect her without hindering her growth, and to know that as with me, she will have to deal with whatever life throws at her. And if, in spite of all my efforts to protect, she does suffer as I did, I just pray she learns that it is there for her to learn from, it is there to challenge her to overcome, and the power lies within her.

To learn more, order Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse

Friday, October 24, 2008

Sara's Story

The parts of my life story that lead me to claim the title of survivor began such a long time ago, it feels like it happened to someone else. It wasn't always that way, I remember the memories and feelings would come bubbling up to the surface periodically and consume me. Sometimes this would be triggered by some event in the news. Like the day I was walking across campus and heard the radio broadcast of Anita Hill being rudely cross-examined. I abandoned the lecture I was headed for, and rushed to the campus-counseling center, heart pounding and struggling to catch a breath. It was all too familiar. I had left another university due to the stress of a sexual harassment case. The assistant dean felt comfortable introducing himself as a fellow student, offering me rides to get groceries, proposing I try sex with him, stopping by my apartment frequently. When I discovered he was, in fact, the Assistant Dean, he said it was to my advantage to have a friend in a high place, and if I "lost" that friendship, I would never get a job on campus, and I would be turned in for having a pet rabbit on campus. I avoided him. The times I saw him on official business, he ran his hand up under my shorts, then reminded me of needing his "friendship" to get the job I had applied for. I remained quiet, until he raped someone. They told me over one hundred women came forward as character witnesses against him. My boyfriend, and others I saw on a daily basis in classes and across campus, was angry about my part in bringing down a good man. How could I cause him to lose his job? He was a family man! What he had done to me "wasn't that big of a deal!” I got tired of the verbal lashing I got everywhere I turned, so I left. I thought it was over, but Anita Hill's abuse brought it back.

My first university paid for counseling, where I learned for the first time the term "sexual harassment.” This was the eighties, and I had not heard of it before. She asked if this type of thing had happened to me before. Wow! How did she know? She explained that men like this carefully select women, that survivors stand out in a crowd, like we're waving a flag: "come and get me, I won't put up a fuss or tell later."

I did the campus counseling, for a while, at two universities. They seemed well intentioned, but I could see through their patronizing and I felt like I had more to teach them than the other way around. Then the contraction ebbed and I went on with my life.

Healing for me really has been like childbirth. I had no conscious control over when the contractions came. They came when I was in a space that felt safe. I coped with the feelings and memories when they came, then they went away and I got back to living. Over the years, it seemed like the resting between became shorter, the episodes became more intense until it became time to "push.” I was in the safest, healthiest relationship of my life, with the man I later married. I was unemployed, living with him, and being supported by him. The book Courage to Heal (Bass & Davis) leapt off the display at my favorite bookstore. My parents left the country for a year, and we moved into their house. I found out about a survivor group in town. I spent about a month sobbing in the bath and shower, writing in a journal, and talking to my partner. I went to the weekly group meetings, and met normal, functioning women with similar stories. My partner cooked, paid bills, and lost sleep with me, while feelings and memories washed over me, preventing me from working on anything else. I don't think there was a precipitating event this time, only that the external environment was finally ready.

I allowed myself to examine ad nauseam the memories of a teenaged neighbor holding my four-year-old body down, corduroy pants with red barns and farm animals printed on them around my ankles, face against the cold, damp cement stairs of the church basement, while he tried to sodomize me (I don't think he could get it up.) The other boys in the neighborhood watched from the top of the stairs. Finally, I yelled for my six-year-old brother to make him stop, and he pushed his way to the front of the crowd, yelled for him to stop, and then we ran home. I thought, even two years later, in kindergarten, that my rounded belly was, perhaps, evidence that I was pregnant. Mine was the longest pregnancy, and I was so young, yet I reasoned, there's always a first. I remember examining my profile in the mirror repeatedly. Later, he would taunt my brother "have you butt-fucked her yet? You'd better do it!” Like it was his duty as my brother to take care of the unfinished task. Bath time became intolerable, my brother asking me if he could so they'd "leave him alone.” Finally, I consented, my mom walking in on us, him lying on top of me trying to figure it out. I burst into tears, and she took me into the bedroom, asking, "What WERE you doing?” I told her he was trying to butt-fuck me, like the neighborhood boys had tried. I sobbed because I had to say fuck to my mother, because I was ashamed to have consented.

Now that I have more information about this family, I believe they were part of a satanic cult. He began by gathering the boys in a circle, explaining what they were going to do, calling me over, then led us to the church's basement stairs. They lived in an old home they painted dark brown and black, and decorated with wooden spider webs. Their antique store stocked Haitian figurines depicting sex acts, and horned men. A man, who bought a house they recently moved from, spoke in an article in the paper of the strange paintings on the floors and walls, admitting to being unable to sleep in the house until it had been painted. My brother has no memories of his life before sixth grade.

I asked my mom not to tell, even my dad, I was so embarrassed. The boys in the neighborhood continued to hide in the bushes around the church, hunting me as I walked home from the park. My brother and I no longer bathed together. My daughter is four now. She is sooo little. I have so much fear for her; I wish she could have a happy naïve childhood. I feel the only way I have to protect her is to warn her about people who hurt children, make sure she knows she is safe telling me anything. We have a rule in our family- no secrets. It has spoiled some birthday surprises, but is worth the trade-off.

She has latched onto a satin comforter I got when I was in elementary school. I had a flashback the other night of an incident when I was seventeen where my 24-year-old boss came for dinner with an open bottle of tequila. I had only one or two shots before I woke up wrapped in my satin comforter, wearing a red negligee, with no idea how I got there, if we'd had sex or not. I think he drugged me; I had so little alcohol. I never went back to work. Years later I saw him on the stairs at a party. I looked away.

When I was 14, I skipped school to go to my 17-year-old boyfriend's house. His mom was going to be there, but she'd let us make out. I was a virgin, and he knew I'd planned to wait, but that I would play around. His mom wasn't there. We were playing around when all of a sudden his fingers in my Yoni felt different. AHHHH! I had to fight to get his strong wrestler’s body off of me and his penis out. He had promised! He gave me orange juice to quiet my tears. I couldn't tell anyone; I wasn't supposed to be there. I thought people would just say what did I expect, his mom wasn't home, I was skipping school, I let him touch my genitals, how could I expect him to control himself?

I read an article ten years later about how it is better to define losing your virginity as being the first act of consensual intercourse. I felt like since I wasn't a virgin anymore, I was unclean, it wasn't special, why save myself, and I became promiscuous.

I also had a creepy phone caller for a few years. I had my own phone line. He'd call and say scary things, tell me he was going to do things to me, that he had shaved his balls, that he was touching himself. The first call, he knew I was wearing a blue skirt and white shirt, and was standing in my mother's office, and that I was home alone. The police checked out the boys in the neighborhood, as this was before cellular phones, but never found out who it was. He found me when I moved to San Diego, later Seattle. His calls were far enough apart that the phone company couldn't do anything. I still panic when there is a long pause when I answer the phone.

Then there was the time I was working out at the gym on a Sunday. I was 16, an athlete, and feeling so healthy and good about my body. I lifted weights, and then swam laps. I was showering, shampooing my hair and my suit, eyes closed, when every hair on my body prickled. I opened my eyes to see a pair of steamed glasses peeking through the crack between the curtain and the stall, and I reflexively pulled the curtain closed. Taking a deep breath, I filled with rage, pulled it open, and found a naked man beating off. He moved toward me, maybe trying to leave, but I started yelling "WHO THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU ARE!" over and over while I pummeled him with my fists and legs. The owner of the gym came running in, upset over my use of profanities, to see him limping out the back door to his little red truck. I blacked out-I don't have visual memory of beating him up, but still remember the feeling of my fists against his body, my knee in his groin, and can hear myself screaming at him. The owner was stunned, gave me his name and number, as he had signed in, and offered me a ride home. I was embarrassed, assured her I'd call my boyfriend, but he wasn't home, I walked, shivering with wet hair, blinded through a haze of tears, home to an empty house. When my parents got home later, we called the police. For a while they hung out at my school, in case he came looking for me. I was too embarrassed to tell the other students why they were there. I identified him in a line-up, in spite of the addition of a beard and no glasses. I'll never forget his creepy, intense eyes. His lawyer called, asking in a friendly way, when my trip to Europe was, then scheduled the hearing during that time. He knew I wouldn't give up my trip to Europe to try him for indecent exposure- I had to let him touch me before he could be tried for more. He was a repeat offender, had molested two younger kids, at least, before me. His glasses were like my dad's, and he had similar coloring and build. Ten years later I explained to dad why it was so hard for me to hug him, and I know it broke his heart, I am crying just typing this. He knew what had happened, but I didn't want to hurt his feelings by telling him about the resemblance. He has different glasses now, gray hair, and has thinned out, so I don't make the association. For a while, my mom sat in the bathroom with me so I could shower. I have to have clear shower curtains. I shampoo with my eyes open, and my husband and daughter know to talk loudly to me if they come in the bathroom while I shower. I'm not sure why this incident still affects me more than the others. Perhaps it is that this time, I finally involved the police, and lawyers and they let me down. If it happened again, I honestly think I could kill a man with my bare hands, just to keep him from being a threat to my kids.

I later had the chance to be the voyeur. I stood on a hill, over-looking a cove, watching this molester prepare and eat a meal on the beach. My boyfriend, another gem I have found, stood holding me wordlessly while we watched from the bushes until I was ready to go. It was empowering. Funny, I also "happened" to drive by and see the "buttfucker" get arrested and dragged from his house for something, twelve years after he dragged me down the church's basement stairs. I don't believe in coincidences.

Having survived these events has made me a very strong person. I know I can do ANYTHING. I also will be a great midwife, as I am a strong advocate for women. One of my specialties will be serving fellow survivors. It has been my experience that we have a way of seeking each other out, and are more comfortable with each other.

Homebirth can be ideal for a survivor. When I had my first child, I knew I wanted a homebirth so I could control my environment. I chose who would be there, when I had vaginal exams, the position to birth in. I had a relatively quick labor, about eight hours. I pushed only a couple times, moving from squatting, to reclining, to side lying, to hands and knees where I easily pushed her out. I think I gave birth on hands and knees to heal from the church-steps memory. Giving birth vaginally to my daughter cleansed me, and made me feel so good about my body again. I felt powerful, clean, and the strongest memory sensation my body could conjure up was that of my daughter sliding into the world. It felt so good!

The birth of my son was similar. This time, I picked a different midwife, and we decided not to do any vaginal exams, but to trust my body. She was so nonchalant about my history; it was refreshing. My first midwife pitied me after I shared my story with her. She adopted the attitude of "You poor little thing, let me take care of you.” Our relationship was better before I told her. My second midwife never ceased to see me as a powerful capable woman. My prenatal care was also more empowering; I did the urine dips, I opted not to be weighed, and declined tests and exams I felt unnecessary. When I felt I was in labor, I told her when I wanted her here. I was much noisier, and let go more this time. The last time I had given birth, I stayed “in control,” and my midwife had doubted whether I was ready to push because I never lost composure. This time I moaned, and groaned, yet no one tried to rescue me, they just encouraged me. It felt really good to lose control. There was no doubt I was ready to push, just whether I could make it out of the tub and bathroom in time! Again, pushing was easy for me. With my daughter, it felt good to push her out. With my son, my urethra hurt. I'm not sure yet what that was all about. They were the same weight, but he had an enormous head. Also, this time, I had only about three hours of labor.

If I had one message for every pregnant survivor, it would be to choose carefully where you give birth and who will be with you. Birth has the power to heal like nothing else. It also has the potential to deepen the wounds. I have left births feeling like I stood witness to a rape, like one of the boys at the top of the stairs. After one birth I developed a severe throat infection, I believe due to stifling a scream during procedures done to a woman, with her consent, by a male OB/GYN. It gives me the chills to write that. I don't hold it against the woman for consenting any more than I do my four-year-old self. How can someone with so little power in a situation genuinely give consent? How can someone with so much power, like an OB/GYN, take advantage of someone, like a woman in labor? Why do we give up so much power to health care providers?

To learn more, order Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Lanie's Story

I knew from about the age of 13 that I would have my babies at home, if I had any. I had a sister who gave birth at home and I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do. So when I was expecting our first child we found the only local licensed midwife and sought her services. I liked her right away and felt comfortable with her, though I dreaded the appointments that would include vaginal exams. The pregnancy was uneventful other than nausea throughout its entirety. One fear I had was having a girl. I wanted a boy very badly and would even become nauseated at the thought of having a girl.

I went past my due date and had to go to the local clinic for fetal monitoring and a nonstress test. I became very frustrated and upset. I was very afraid of having the baby in the hospital, but was unable to voice my concern and frustration. The doctor who I saw was someone the midwife recommended but I felt uncomfortable with him. I was given permission to go further overdue and still be a homebirth candidate, which both relieved and frustrated me. I was frustrated that I needed permission and that I had no control over when this baby arrived.

On the 17th day past my original due date I took castor oil to induce labor. Labor began that evening about 6:00. The midwife arrived the next morning about 6:30, however it was a long, slow labor and 30 hours after labor began the decision was made to move to the hospital. My husband did not like the idea at all and voiced his concern. I was so tired at this point that I agreed because I thought it would be nice to not feel any pain for a while and get some rest. My midwife and her assistant had been wonderful throughout this long labor and I trusted them completely.

The first time I felt frustrated and frightened was at the hospital, when a nurse was pushing me into a room in a wheel chair. I felt a contraction coming and asked her several times to stop so I could relax through it. She ignored me and did not stop until the midwife positioned herself in front of the chair. Once in the room I felt frustrated at all of the people coming and going and not explaining who they were. There was a disagreement between a nurse, the midwife and myself over the position I was laying in and my comfort. After a heated moment the midwife left the room and asked that the nurse be removed. I agreed totally.

When the doctor came in to check me I felt he was very rough, and I was very tense. It hurt and I cried out from the pain. The next time he checked me he was a lot gentler. I was given an epidural and pitocin. I really did not like the anesthesiologist. I asked him to wait until my contraction was over before beginning and he ignored me. The midwife asked and he ignored her. Finally my husband told him to wait and he left me alone. I cried while the epidural was being started and became very apologetic for my behavior. I struggle very much with control. I wanted to be able to control the situation and my behavior and could not. My midwife sat in front of me and held my face in her hands. She made me feel very safe and I remember that moment fondly.

Six hours after our arrival at the hospital my son was born. He arrived gently and we were ecstatic to have a boy. He was born five minutes after a shift change so there were several strange faces in the room and that frustrated me. I felt that some of the nurses who helped after his birth were rough. What frustrated me most about being in the hospital was all the people who were touching my body, or taking blood and poking me without taking the time to explain why. We left as soon as we were allowed and were home by 6:30 that evening. After his birth I really struggled with feelings of failure at having to go to the hospital and was frustrated at myself for not speaking up and portraying my concerns and feelings better. I longed to have another child and do it “right” at home.

I became pregnant again when my son was almost two. I hoped for another boy because I was so afraid of having a daughter, though in the back of my mind I longed for the experience of a daughter. At this time another midwife had joined our original midwife. They saw clients on an alternate basis so every other appointment was with Brenda, the new midwife. For some reason I did not open up to her or trust her like I did Laura, the first midwife. I am still unsure of where my uneasiness came from, though I believe she too was aware of my feelings. A few months into my pregnancy I learned that Laura had to be out of state around the time of my due date. I really hoped to have the baby early so that she would be able to be there. I also learned that the person who had abused me had moved back to our town and was living close to us and working at a location that was hard for us to avoid.

I began having nightmares about the abuse during my pregnancy. I struggled greatly with intimacy with my husband and physically hit, scratched and pushed him to get him off of me at times. We have a good marriage and he loves me dearly, and has been my greatest support, though this time was very hard on him as well. I never mentioned any of this to the midwives; it never even entered my mind that I should. I did discuss it with a close friend, who came to the birth. I went a week overdue, but by this time I was feeling more comfortable with Brenda, and was happy that the assistant who had been at our son’s birth would be with us again as well.

When I was about 8 months pregnant we met with a counselor to discuss some of the issues we were dealing with and some of the details of my abuse. It was just a one-time meeting and I don’t think it really helped a whole lot. I had worked with a counselor to deal with the abuse about 8 years prior to this. It was extremely frustrating to me that I was having to deal with things all over again.

I had another long labor, most of which was not difficult. The last three hours were extremely hard for me and I felt as if I cried and screamed through most of that time. I felt like I was fighting very hard for control and failing miserably. I wanted the assistant with me, next to me all the time. I think I made her my safety net. I remember being very angry that labor was taking so long again and that it hurt so much. I was so uncomfortable and needed to keep moving. I got out of the bathtub and onto the bed. At that point I stood up and my body began to push. I remember feeling very afraid, that I did not know what to do, how to give birth. They quickly got me back on the bed and propped up by pillows. The baby’s head was right there, so Brenda instructed me to just push her out very gently and not to push when they told me to quit pushing. I said, “I can do that”. However, when the contraction hit I screamed and closed my legs and called out for my mommy, which is strange because I have not referred to my mom as mommy since I was just a little girl. I remember Brenda yelling over the top of my screaming to stop pushing and open my legs. I said they were open. At that point she told my husband and the assistant to hold them open for me. I screamed louder and tried to push away from her. I ended up almost flat on my back with my legs held open.

My baby had arrived. They placed it on my stomach and I said give it to Jared, my husband. I asked him to please take the baby. I remember someone said no, take your baby, here is your beautiful baby. At this point I think I just needed to get away from the whole thing and so I just sort of left, went somewhere safe in my mind. My husband said later it is the same place I go when I am afraid of sex. Fortunately, Jared knew I wanted to announce the sex of the baby so everyone encouraged me to look. I discovered I had a daughter and was very happy. I said over and over, it’s a girl! And then I hemorrhaged, I felt myself bleeding. When the midwife realized it she said, “Lanie, I want you to stop bleeding right now.” It was just her first reaction, but it scared me. I needed to be assured over and over that I was okay. They were trying unsuccessfully to get an IV started and ended up giving me pitocin in my thigh. They also wanted me to try to get the baby to nurse, but I couldn’t, they always had one arm poking it and I just did not feel connected with the baby yet. I quit talking and responding and just wanted to be left alone. After the bleeding stopped I asked them to just leave me alone for a while. I had torn quite badly but they had not looked at that closely yet. I was not ready for that.

About an hour after she was born they stitched me up. That was worse than labor and extremely painful for me. I cried through the whole thing. It took a long time. I kept moving and jumping so the assistant held my leg still between her legs. My mom held my crying baby, my husband held his crying wife; I made him promise to never let me forget how horrible the experience was because I never wanted to do it again. He sang to me to help calm me, and that helped a lot. I kept asking how many more stitches, and Brenda would say, “just one more,” and I kept saying I could handle it, but I didn’t. She warned me before she checked my rectum, but I knew what she was going to do even before she finished telling me. I just wanted to be left alone; I remember at this point burying my face in my husband’s chest. The smell of him, his clean shirts have always been comforting to me.

After I had been stitched up was the first time I realized that I was naked and felt uncomfortable and asked for something to cover me with. I got into the tub after that and really wanted to take the baby with me, which was okay and that was good, I had held her so little. Brenda helped us bathe, and I felt proud of my little one as she relaxed in the warm water. It was nice to see Brenda smile at her, too. I think I made quite an impression on the midwives, not necessarily good, I think I might have scared them a bit. I felt really bad about my behavior.

It was late when they left, and everyone was tired. I was so happy to have this baby, but I felt a little afraid of her after everyone had gone, and I felt alone. At my six week check up Brenda asked if there was something in my past that had made me react the way I did. I was floored; it had not even crossed my mind that this horribly disappointing birth and my abuse were connected. The more I thought about it the more it made sense. The fear of having a daughter made sense too. I really hate that I did not want her after she was born; I was just too out of it at that moment. My feelings were just too intense.

I am very thankful that Brenda brought it up. Now it’s no longer such a big secret. The whole thing has always been this big secret I have to live with. It affects me in so many ways, which makes it a hard secret to keep. I know that when and if there are more babies, everyone involved will be aware, and hopefully I won’t have to have that kind of birth experience again. I really want more babies, and part of me knows I have to birth again to experience complete healing. I am still afraid of birth.

My sweet daughter is almost a year old and I have fallen completely in love with her. She is so full of joy and always happy. I worry about protecting her as she grows. I don’t ever want her to be ashamed of being pretty or being a woman, like I was. I am thankful for her birth because it has opened doors for me, and made me more aware, it has made me want closure on that part of my life. I see another birth as one more step I have to take toward closure and am happy that will have caring midwives, friends, and my husband there with me.

To learn more, order Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Rebecca’s Story

Do you remember the day Elvis died? I’ll never forget it. I was nine years old. My rapist was 22. I knew him from the neighborhood. That afternoon I ran into him, and he told me that his cat had given birth to kittens. Did I want to see them?

Nine-year-olds can be too trusting. Elvis was dead, and so was my innocence.

He said that I had teased him. I didn’t understand. I thought teasing was what I did to my little sister. He threatened that same little sister if I told anyone.

“Steve” had a cold-water flat apartment. After he raped me, I remember walking downstairs to the community bathroom. I found a white washcloth and tried to clean myself. I scrubbed my skin raw. There was so much blood. I left the washcloth in the sink. It would never be white again.

“Steve” moved out the next day. Now, no one would ever believe me, even if I did tell.

I kept my mouth shut for years. I was 12 before I knew that there were names for what had happened to me. Rape. Child molestation.

By then, I had learned a lot. Suspicion, mistrust. I was a master at shutting down, and being “dead” inside. My secret had eaten away at me.

As a teenager, I learned that by using my body, I held power and control over men.

Eighteen years later, my husband and I were expecting our first child. I was thrilled, but also secretly terrified. I was losing control over the body that I had spent so many years learning to control. I was terrified of ripping during childbirth. The thought of an episiotomy gave me panic attacks. Please, God, don’t let anyone cut me there. The dark places in my head had convinced me that my child would be born “damaged.” All my “badness” would finally be shown to the world.

My son, and then 15 months later, my daughter, was born perfectly healthy. They were big, beautiful, perfect babies. God didn’t hate me. He had blessed me. All my shame, inhibitions, mistrusts, my fears... they were gone.

I held my newborn son, and put him to my breast. My body, the one that I had always thought so horrible, had given birth. Now it would sustain the life of my child. There are no words to explain the depth of that feeling.

Almost five years have passed. I have high self-esteem. I am a confident woman. I love myself. I give all the credit of my emotional healing and well being to the birth and breastfeeding of my babies.

Ten years ago, I would never have believed that I could do these wonderful things. I was so wrong.


To learn more, order Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse

Friday, September 26, 2008

Mary J.'s poems


Daddy loves me.
He wouldn’t hurt me.
I made him do it – I’m bad.
Shame on me.

Mommy looks away.
It must be OK.
I wish she would open her eyes – I’m bad.
Shame on me.

Daddy touches me and teaches me.
He says it’s OK.
I don’t like it – I’m bad.
Shame on me.

Mommy doesn’t want to know.
She pretends.
I must be wrong – I’m bad.
Shame on me.

Daddies don’t lie.
Daddies don’t hurt their little girls.
Mine did – I’m bad.
Shame on me.

Mommies love their children.
Mommies protect their children.
Mince didn’t – I’m bad.
Shame on me.


Today I watched Gretchen become a woman.
Time after time overpowering her attacker.
Using and practicing life-saving self defense techniques.
I was proud, amazed, and in awe of her strength – her voice.
I was doing what my mother didn’t do – protecting my daughter.

Keep breathing! Keep breathing!
I told myself.

Surrounded by strong female voices
I sounded weak and small.
Shouts of “NO!” and “STOP HIM!”
Drowned out my whispered “No.”
My father didn’t hear me either.

Keep breathing! Keep breathing!
I told myself.

I wanted him to stop.
I wanted to scream at him.
I wanted to hurt him like he hurt me.
But I couldn’t – I was too small.
I had no voice.

Keep breathing! Keep breathing!
I told myself.

Gretchen has a voice – I had none.
Gretchen has ways to defend herself – I had none.
Gretchen has power – I had none.
Gretchen has a father – I had none.
Gretchen has a mother – I had none.

Keep breathing! Keep breathing!
I told myself.


Mom, Dad is doing things to me.
I don’t like it.
I’m scared.
Tell him to stop.
Please help me.

Well, dear, what do you want me to do?
You know how angry he gets.
Maybe you shouldn’t go into the bedroom.
Oh, and close the door to your bedroom, too.
I think you’re too old to wear those kind of pajamas.
Sitting on his lap probably isn’t a good idea either.
I suppose I could say something to him but…

To learn more, order Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Melanie's Story

When I was five years old, my mother started dating another man. Some time after that, maybe when I was seven or eight, he started sexually abusing me. I don’t remember many things clearly such as when and how it started or exactly what took place over the next several years. I'm also not sure when it ended. I don’t have clear memories of abuse after I was about 14. When we would visit him at his house he would tickle me, or at least that's what he said he was doing. While tickling, he would touch my breasts and my crotch in very sexual ways and would rub himself against me. When I told him to stop and tried to move away, he told me to hold still and insisted that I liked it. Often he would put his hands inside my shirt or pants. I would tell my mom to make him stop tickling me, but never told her what was really going on. I didn't know how to say it, and I just assumed that she probably knew.

My parents divorced when I was in junior high, and he moved in with us. The abuse continued for at least a couple more years if not longer. I don't remember an actual end-point, but I think there may have been things that I’ve blocked out. I do clearly remember one night when I was probably about 16 when he came into my room in the middle of the night. I woke up and realized he was at the door of my bedroom. I was terrified that he would come in, so I pretended I was still asleep. He came into the room, sat on the side of the bed and put his hand on my shoulder. I didn't want him to know I was awake and didn't want to be that close to him, so I rolled over onto my other side, at which point he got up and left.

I don't know why this episode scared me so much or why I remember it so clearly compared to some of the actual physical touching. The only thing I can figure out is that it was one of many times that he came into my room at night but the only one that I remember because nothing actually happened. As I said before, I don't remember a lot of what happened, but over the years I have come to believe that I've repressed some things. There were physical sensations that I felt sometimes as a teenager that I couldn't explain. I never really knew where they came from, but they occurred in what I thought was a half dreaming/half waking state. After becoming sexually active as an adult, I realized that these were sensations of a sexual act and that I would not have recognized them as such as a teenager because I'd never experienced them before. Now I wonder if these things actually happened to me and I somehow removed myself from the situation by entering something of a dream state and refusing to acknowledge what was really happening.

When I was a senior in high school, the relationship between my mom and this man was deteriorating. Late one night, after they'd had a big fight and he'd gone back to his other home, my mom asked if he could give me a hug and kiss at my graduation. I said that I didn't want him to, and she asked if he'd ever done anything out of line. I told her he had and gave a few of the details. She was surprised, said that she would end the relationship and asked if she could confront him with this accusation, to which I said yes. When she talked to him a day or two later he denied it and said I'd made it up, but my mom defended me and refused to see him again. I don’t think we’ve talked about the abuse since shortly after she confronted him because it’s a difficult subject for both of us. I've often wondered how she could not know that it was happening, but I believe that, at least consciously, she really didn't. I know that it’s helped a great deal that my mom believed me without hesitation even when he accused me of lying.

It was difficult for me to see the real effects of this abuse in my daily life, although I know that it definitely affected who I was and what I did. It wasn't something I thought about every day, but over time I came to realize that I needed to think about it, deal with it and try to put it behind me. That is easier said than done. It's a painful process that I’ve been working on for probably 15 years now, and I'm still far from done. I've read a couple of books for survivors of sexual abuse, talked to a few close friends about what happened to me and spent a lot of time thinking about how to move beyond this experience and grow from it. I think that counseling would probably help me deal with it more quickly and fully, but have not found the courage to go that far yet. I’m still afraid of digging too deeply. I’ve spent a lot of time trying not to blame myself and not be ashamed of what happened. I do think that talking to others about it and admitting that it happened has helped a lot. Somehow, just letting it out and telling others what happened takes away some of the power it has over me.

I'm now married and have two beautiful little girls, and I believe that has really sped up the healing process. An intimate relationship with my husband has not always been easy. Fortunately, I'm married to a wonderful man who has always held me and let me talk about the abuse when I've needed comfort and support. He has tried to understand when my past interferes in our sex life and has been completely supportive of my doing anything I need to do to heal.

Having children has been a wonderful experience for me. In unexpected ways, it has helped me overcome some of the effects of abuse. Before my children, I really disliked having my breasts touched, which I attribute to the abuse. Once in a while I didn't mind it, but generally breast touching was not allowed in our relationship. This was frustrating for my husband and disappointing for me. Interestingly, I really wanted to breastfeed our children, and wasn't worried about my experiences interfering with it. When my first child arrived with health problems and was unable to breastfeed, I used a breast pump to express milk for her. This became physically painful for me, but otherwise was not difficult. After I stopped expressing milk and our sex life returned to something more normal, I discovered, much to my surprise, that I was not only no longer turned off when my husband touched my breasts, but that I actually enjoyed it.

Since the birth of our second daughter, I seem to have become even less inhibited sexually. I’ve also stopped thinking quite so much about the abuse and how it has affected me. Maybe this is because I’m busier or because my focus has moved to my children as I try to be a good mother to them. Or maybe it’s because the parts of my body that were violated, that I associate with these memories, were the parts involved in producing, nurturing, birthing and nursing two beautiful children I love more than anything.

As a mother, I think the biggest fear I have about the abuse I endured is how it will affect the way I treat my daughters. I’ve read statistics about how often those who have been abused, in turn abuse their own children, whether sexually, physically or emotionally. I can’t believe that I would or could actually abuse my children, but it scares me to death that I’m at a higher risk to do so because of my past. Every time I get upset with them or yell at them I hate myself for it and wonder why I react the way I do. Is it because of the abuse? Am I headed for something worse? I guess that fear is a good thing and remembering and acknowledging it will hopefully help me to keep from doing anything to hurt my kids. I try very hard to be the best, most understanding mother I can be, but the fear is real and I resent that it’s there.

I wish this thing had never happened to me, but I try sometimes to look for good that may come from it. It’s pretty difficult to imagine anything good. I guess the best I can say is that I survived it, and I really do like myself. That in itself is really something.

To learn more, order Survivor Moms: Women’s Stories of Birthing, Mothering and Healing after Sexual Abuse