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, June 6, 2008

Shakta's Story

I grew up in an extremely sexually repressive household. I never even had the language until I was quite old to describe things like breasts and genitals etc. I feel that had I had the language/knowledge to describe the things that were happening to me at the age of nine, I would have had an easier time stopping it. Although, even as I write this, I also know that nothing in the world I did could have stopped it.

My perpetrator was the least likely suspect-a sibling. It's interesting how abuse between sibs can be passed off as normal. I assumed that I felt icky and uncomfortable about the whole thing merely because I was "chicken". I was vaguely aware that sex caused pregnancies and the whole thing stopped when I was around 12 and started making noises about having had my period. It also corresponded to the first time I tried to kill myself. It chills me now that a seventh grader can be so serious about suicide, but this was not a gesture thing. I waited until my mom and dad were out for the evening (both my brothers were away from home at the time) and took every pill in the house that I thought wouldn't be missed. A few Valium, a couple painkillers, bottle of Tylenol, and a bottle of aspirin. I can still remember the way my ears rang. I spent the next day and a half throwing my guts up, but I never told anyone what I'd done. Only later did I find out just how toxic a cocktail I'd mixed up for myself. I can only think that I had either an unusually strong constitution or divine intervention was involved somehow.

This was the first of three serious suicide attempts. The third and last time was when I was 16-this is the one where I was actually caught in the attempt. People (teachers & shrink) decided I was attention seeking, so long term counseling was not really necessary. Of course, I never revealed the level of premeditation I put into the act-I said I was down, that it was an impulse thing, that I just saw the pills and swallowed them. In actuality, it had taken me months to fake the illness to get me the proper pills (antibiotics and Tylenol 3's).

I couldn't tell you what was going on with my brother at the time. Most likely, someone had molested him and he was only passing on a learned behavior. We have a distant relationship now; after my mother dies, it's very unlikely that I'll ever speak to him after that. In the mean time, I hope my mother is dead before he does something truly heinous as an adult.

Skipping ahead to my teen years, I was still clueless about sex. By that time I knew more or less the mechanics, but nothing about things like consent. I bought the idea that rape is only rape if it happens in a dark alley by a stranger. I also had no idea whether or not I was a virgin, if you can believe that. I didn't know if what had been done to me when I was younger "counted". I also wasn't quite sure if I'd actually been penetrated.

When I was 15, I was raped while drinking, the whole time I cried and said "nononononono". I eventually made him realize I wasn't kidding by biting into the tendon of his shoulder really hard. Ironically, this all happened in a graveyard.

It was six months before I confessed what happened to a friend of mine. She gave me the strangest look and said "Uh, there's a word for that." "Oh, yeah?" says I. "It's called rape."

Much of my life up to then had been a total blank. I was always spacey (some time later, I found that part of it had to do with having an undetected learning disability). In that year I became more so...to the point of complete dissociation. Most of the time I didn't know what day of the week it was. I failed most of my classes senior year because I honestly couldn't remember what I was taking. I knew that no one would have believed that, so I just let myself gain the reputation of being spacey and unreliable.

I had a few boyfriends and a girlfriend that I experimented sexually with. I had few friends and no social skills. I spent lots of time with the burnout crowd in high school because they were the most tolerant. I was very naïve, but put up a really good front as tough and streetwise. In my school that wasn't hard because it was a white upper-middle class suburb. Smoking cigarettes qualified one as "tough".

During my high school years, my parents had a truly evil divorce. My biggest regret about that is that my mom didn't dump my dad sooner.

In the years that followed, in no particular order, I started therapy, I left home, I became active in feminist groups, I went to speak-outs, I identified myself as a survivor, I had several horrible relationships, I discovered that I had pretty severe emotional problems, I told everyone who'd listen about my emotional problems, I became quite ill with a form of arthritis (a rather eloquent gesture on my bodies behalf I think), I took jobs, I quit them, I went to school till I ran out of money, I took self defense, I cried a lot.

After my last horrible relationship (a story in itself), I started dating my husband. In the previous year some profound experiences had caused some kind of change in me. Suddenly I wanted more than the meager existence I'd allowed myself up to that point. We were engaged for a year then we were married for a year before we decided we wanted a child.

I was still in therapy at that point and still a basket case. I was beginning to suspect that my therapist had more invested in my really interesting emotional problems than helping me get better. The more bizarre my behavior was when I came into her office, the better she seemed to like it.

I started attending Alcoholics Anonymous, not so much because I had a problem with drinking, but because I wanted to understand my own family better. I went to my first meeting under false pretenses-I made up some really light alcohol problems- I attended meetings weekly for a year because I liked being around people who were trying to be normal.

I found out I was pregnant in June of '94 and suddenly everything was different for me. It was as if I had a gun to my head; I had to get better RIGHT NOW. I was convinced that, if I didn't, I was going to be the worst mother on the planet.

I decided that I would have a home birth. My therapist was against the home birth-telling me horrible stories about incompetent midwives etc. Suddenly it became clear to me that this particular therapist was not going to support any decision I made that she was personally uncomfortable with. In fact, she appeared to be uncomfortable with any adult decision I made. I terminated my therapy and found a midwife.

I found myself less likely to talk about my experiences and my emotional problems than before. I let my midwives know that I was a survivor and that I had "some problems" emotionally, but I didn't tell them the whole story by any stretch.

All during that pregnancy I was a twitchy mess. I felt colonized and invaded. Even though the pregnancy was planned. The first time I saw the baby move I felt like "Aliens part VI". And I was horribly, desperately lonely.

I made some very difficult choices when I was pregnant. I found myself taking stock of my work and personal life and saw that my rescuer complex was completely out of control. My midwife was very clear that my responsibility right then was to care for myself and my baby. The rest of the world would happily spin on without me.

It’s a funny thing, but many people have told me how brave I was to have a homebirth. I actually wanted one out of fear; I was afraid of the loss of control and afraid of dying and afraid of pain and afraid of needles and afraid of a whole litany of other things. I figured that I had more of a chance to deal with my fears in my own environment than anywhere else. I had a lot of false labor, but I believe much of that was my need for “dress rehearsals”. I was terrified that I’d have to be taken to the hospital because I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in my body. My health issues seem to be perpetual and I think I’d always blamed my body for my abuse. I’d worked in various medical settings and knew I couldn’t have my baby there. I also had a horror of surgery—essentially I’d have to be dying to consent to a C-section.

I was in labor for 36 hours with my daughter. In retrospect, mentally, I needed it to go slowly so that I could ease into it. I was never afraid during the birth of my daughter. Although I started losing it when I was near the end. I couldn’t focus on where I was or why I was in so much pain. I remember babbling nonsensically a lot. People kept reminding me that I was here to have a baby and that helped.

The sensation of giving birth to my daughter was amazing. I use words like indescribable and I mean it. Physically it felt like rape feels; it hurts so badly that your mind goes away in a shower of sparks. Mentally it was an inversion of that experience. An initiation rather than a violation. When it was all over and the sparks coalesced into thought, I had a baby and the room was awash in sunlight.

My daughter’s birth was very healing, but I was still me, with my problems. I couldn’t say how being a sexual abuse survivor effects being a mom, but being a mom helps me heal as a survivor. I will do things on my children’s behalf that I would never do on my own. I hardly think about being a survivor most days. I give talks to freshman college students on safer sex and how to avoid date rape. My five-year-old knows all about birth and menstruation and genitals and has the words for them. My two-year-old knows that the words “go away” are to be heeded. We talk about personal space and how people must respect each other’s space. I hope nothing bad ever happens to my kids and I think about what I would do if it did. I live a long way away from my family and I like it like that. I have learned about boundaries and being afraid and being courageous and being safe and being wise.

If I were writing a novel, this would be the happy ending. Having said that, I feel vulnerable and jinxed. I can still never quite feel deserving or safe in good fortune. One consequence of being a survivor is that I know good times can never last and it all eventually ends in a hole in the ground. On the up side, bad times can never last either.

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