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/

Monday, July 28, 2008

Ann's Story

"Then I will make up to you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten...” Joel 2:25
"...you meant evil against me, BUT God meant it for good...” Genesis 50:20

I must go way back to my birth to begin my story. I was born 24 months after my parents were married. They had my sister exactly 9 months after they were married. My father was finishing a college degree and working two jobs. My mom was newly married, living away from her family, and taking care of a toddler and an infant. Finances were tight. My family followed very strict and legalistic Roman Catholic rules and doctrine both before Vatican II and after. My mother had a nervous breakdown approximately nine months after I was born. She was hospitalized for a few weeks. She readily admits that she was not able to care for me as well as she would have liked. I spent a lot of time as a baby propped up on the couch, and when feeding time came, my bottle was propped up with a pillow as well. With the emotional condition she was in, my mom did the best she could, and when my dad was home, he helped out as well. My maternal grandmother also spent some time with us to help out. Regardless, the family situation, and perhaps even my genetics, created a little girl who felt insecure, afraid, alone, and unloved.
This was the perfect set up for a little girl to be sexually abused, and I was. Beginning around age four, my best friend's father, our next door neighbor, and a close friend of my parents, began to "set me up" by telling me how beautiful I was, how much he loved me, how precious I was, etc. He really made me feel special. Then came the subtle moves. First he began by showing me pornographic pictures of himself. Then he started physically molesting me and teaching me how to please him. I knew it was wrong, I knew I shouldn't talk about it... I felt ashamed, yet I was drawn back to him again and again, because he made me feel special. I remember the romantic feeling of being in his arms as he taught me how to ice skate. I remember the infatuation feelings, conflicting with the shame and fear I felt.

I was stuck in a state of ambiguity far beyond a four year olds' ability to comprehend. In fact, this continued until I was about 11 or 12 years old, when we moved. He came over for a visit, and wanted to take some pictures of me, in a dress, in none too modest positions. I finally said no. He quickly left our home and I never saw him again until my wedding day, when he shocked me by french kissing me as he went through the receiving line!

I never considered it sexual abuse because though only a child, I felt I was a willing participant. I never talked about it because of the shame. In fact, my sister had even warned me to stay away from him. I felt weak, confused, stupid and very guilty.

As a child, I was a good little catholic girl who went to a catholic school and followed all the rules. But the God I learned about was a harsh, judgmental God, who was not safe. I had to live a perfect, sin-free life to be worthy of any kind of love from Him, or relationship with Him.

Then when I was 15, I worked on Saturdays at our local rectory for the Priest of our church. There was a missionary priest on furlough also staying there. He and I became close friends. Even though I was overweight (and always had been, which contributed to my low self-esteem), he told me I was beautiful, that I was special, and that he loved me. Again, I fell prey to a perfect set up. He would ask me to come into his office for various projects. Originally, he showered me with presents and trinkets from his home country, India. From there, he progressed to fondling my body. When I resisted, he would say, "It's ok, I love you, I just want to feel your heart and soul. I want to feel Jesus in you." He also used the excuse that he wanted to see if American girls were anatomically like Indian girls. And it was ok, because he was a Priest, he wouldn't hurt me. I resisted somewhat, but again felt confused by all the mixed messages in my head, and how my body reacted. I remember at one point standing there while he fondled me, looking at a picture of Jesus on the wall, and thinking, "What are You looking at? What are You thinking?” “ Where are You?

I finally went home one day and told my mom about it, who reassured me a Priest would never do such a thing, and I must have misunderstood his touches. One Saturday I was in his office, and the regular parish Priest came in and turned towards me with a very stern voice, and said, "What are you doing in here?" I responded by saying I was working on a project for Fr. Frances. The parish Priest said, "You work for me, not him, and I don't ever want you coming back here again." I was ashamed. I knew that he knew what was going on, and it appeared it was my fault. Eventually I got another job, and the Priest left the area, and I was left feeling even more dirty and ashamed. Again, I didn't consider this as abuse, because apparently it was my fault. Again, I felt judgment from God too.

By age 12 I had learned many things. I had seen a lot of pornography, I had been sexually used by two adult males who told me wonderful things about myself, and was raised with a fairly liberal set of guidelines, as was typical in the 60's. I learned very young what I thought men valued women for. I learned at a very young age how to please a man. And I learned at a very young age; I was dirty, disgusting, and valueless, except for my sexuality. Eventually as I entered my teenage years I also learned how much control and power my sexuality gave me. It seemed that was the only valuable or powerful (perhaps dangerous)? thing I possessed as a female.

Life went on for me. I struggled with anxiety and depression when I went away to college. I started a lifestyle of "partying" which involved drinking, smoking marijuana, and being sexually promiscuous. Not surprisingly I fell away from the Catholic Church and God. I was desperately seeking love, affirmation, feelings of worthiness and acceptance. And now, I realize, I was also seeking revenge, control, and power over the males in my life. I thought sex was the answer to feeling acceptable to a man, but deep down I knew better.

I finally "crashed" emotionally. I knew I wasn't getting what I really needed, and that I couldn't continue living life this way. But the pain of reality was too much for me. I didn't know which way to turn, what to do, where to go (I had decided I did NOT want to stay in nursing school - it was too emotionally draining). I entered a period of major depression. Fortunately God had His hand on me.

I was befriended by a Christian family who took me into their home, to get me away from an apartment that had become a party center. This family was a living example of what Christianity SHOULD be. They didn't know me well, but knew I needed help. I still got involved with an abusive relationship, but God was at work. I started going to church with them, and finally was starting to feel someone loved me, someone cared. That someone was not only the people that surrounded me from that church, but God! It seems as my relationship with people went, so did my relationship with God. At the same time, I met a Christian man who for some reason was drawn to me. Our lifestyles had been entirely different. He had been raised conservative Baptist, he didn't drink, didn't dance, etc. When I asked him if he wanted to go out and "party", he said, "No, but would you like to go to Denny's for a piece of apple pie and a cup of coffee?" This intrigued me, I had never had such an offer, I was used to a beer and a joint! I went and we developed a "friendship". We both decided we just wanted to be friends because we both were dealing with major issues in our lives. One year later he proposed to me. God's hands were definitely upon both of us.

So my life seemed to be getting on track, and God was now an important part of my life. I accepted God as Lord and Savior. I knew he forgave me for all I had done. I knew I was going to heaven, should I die. I got a taste of His love for me, by being cared for by all the Christians I was now hanging around. I got a taste of unconditional love and forgiveness from my husband.

Tom and I got married and all was well. The depression had lifted, I still struggled with anxiety, but given my family history, I just assumed it was all genetic, and I just had to grit my teeth and get through it. I found that if I could control the circumstances around me, I felt in control and did not have much anxiety. When circumstances reeled out of MY control, so did my anxiety. I prayed for God to take away the anxiety. But it didn't leave. It eased up, but left me with irritable bowel syndrome and a constant fear of having a panic attack, going crazy, and having to be hospitalized, as I had seen what had happened to my mother and constantly feared going down the same path. I had seen what happens to someone in isolation, I had seen a patient coming out of shock treatments; I had seen my share of mental hospitals and was terrified that would be my fate too.

Then we wanted to start a family. We went through 12 years of the pain of infertility. However, as an attempt to shut down my anxiety and pain, I had decided I was NOT going to let things like this affect me emotionally. I vowed I wasn't going to "feel" the ups and downs of infertility, and eventually even life! I learned to make jokes out of everything to help me stay numb. We went through testing, daily hormone shots, ultrasounds and artificial insemination. I got pregnant with twins, but ended up in the hospital for eight weeks with life-threatening symptoms, from a diagnosis of hyper-ovarian stimulation. Most of the fluid in my circulatory system went to my ovaries, which swelled up with fluid, and I looked as if I was 9 months pregnant. My fluids and electrolytes were totally erratic; my potassium levels were all over the place, which put my heart function at risk. I was in kidney failure and unable to pass any of the fluid. Finally they inserted a tube into my abdomen and drained out a majority of the fluid. Within a few days, it was back.

Finally, the Dr. said he would have to stop the hormone therapy I was getting to maintain the twins' pregnancy, but then I would certainly miscarry, but the pregnancies weren't normal any way. One fetus never developed much past fertilization, the other was underdeveloped for his/her gestational age, and was not implanted in the uterus correctly. Thus, the hormones were stopped, my abdomen was drained again, and I was sent home.

The remaining fluid started leaving my body, my kidneys started working and I miscarried the twins, about a month apart from each other, and I figured this was all the consequences of my sins when I was younger. I was well ingrained into a lifestyle of NOT FEELING, so I miscarried my two babies with no tears, head held high, and a toughness that showed my heart was surrounded by steel! You see, in my head, I was able to accept God forgave me, but not in my heart, and I could not forgive myself! I was still dealing with the consequences of a God who wasn't exactly the loving, Godly Father I needed and longed for.

The doctors said there was nothing more they could do for me, and would I consider adoption. Friends from church continued to pray for me and for the opening of my womb. But I knew it would never happen. You see during my period of promiscuousness I feared at one time I was pregnant and I went to church and prayed like crazy that my womb would be closed. Little did I realize I was in a sense, making a vow! Having learned to be emotionally numb, I never shed a tear over the trauma we had gone through, over the loss of my two children, or over the loss of the hope of ever having children. My mom was suicidal again, and as I tried to contain and control my life and my emotions, my anxiety turned into panic disorder. I was treated with medication, but I still struggled emotionally. I still felt like God had "lured me in, and then pulled the carpet out from under me, one more time, as punishment or consequences for my "sins".

I finally cracked enough that I had to stay home from work for a while, and started practicing anorexia and bulimia, until I lost around 100 pounds and started vomiting blood. I started Christian counseling as well. I thought that I was just under too much stress and had to learn how to deal with it. I never mentioned anything about sexual abuse to my counselor, because I never considered myself a victim. I considered myself the PERPETRATOR! During one session, however, I told my counselor about a phone call I had received from my mom. She called and said, "You'll never guess who got arrested for raping a four year old little girl." I said, "Oh, I bet I can. It was Mr. X." My mother was shocked, as they were still close friends. "How did you know?" she asked. I remained silent. She said, "Did he ever do anything to you?" I remained silent. "He did, didn't he? What did he do?" I said, "I don't want to talk about it." (At this time my mom was still struggling with depression, and I didn't want to add to her burden, nor was I sure she was a "safe" person to tell.) I told my counselor about this phone call from my mom, only because I felt guilty that if I had spoken up years ago, perhaps this little four-year-old NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOR to Mr. X would have been spared being raped! My counselor calmly said, "What do you mean, spoken up?" I proceeded to tell him about my past. My denial was so thick he couldn't get me to accept I had been "sexually abused" (for some reason I hated that word - it sounded so disgustingly weak - like I had been used) - my toughness was trying it's hardest to keep its' shell on. My counselor tried to convince me it wasn't my fault, that I was only a four-year-old when it started! He suggested perhaps I could attend a Christian-based sexual abuse small group ministry called SALTS (Sexual Abuse Light To Survivors). I said, "No way, I don't even want to talk to you about it, let alone go to some kind of group of sobbing, wimpy women, living their life with a victim mentality, crying over things that happened to them years ago." He didn't push me to attend the group, but we spent a lot of time talking and praying about my abusive history.

In the mean time, my friends from church continued to pray for a child for us. I also received some healing prayer at a women's retreat from the leader of the retreat and her worship leader. But as part of the healing prayer, I had to repent of being angry with God, of being angry with my mother, and blaming God. In counseling with my Pastor, I also had to repent of the "vow" I had made for God to close my womb during those wild years. Exactly one month later I conceived our daughter, Laura Elizabeth!

I stopped all eating disorders, partly because I was pregnant, and partly because I was NOW attending the SALTS group and because the Christian counseling I had been receiving was very helpful in helping me cope with all the major issues in my life. The SALTS program provided a group of very STRONG women who were Christians and were willing to bare their hearts and souls in order to help others walk through their woundedness. Learning what "loving well and being loved well" looked like was modeled well at SALTS. I started learning what boundaries were and how to establish healthy boundaries. I learned how to tell my story to others, as a testimony and encouragement of how the Lord can heal us. The women in my group prayed with me and walked alongside me as I went through nine months of pregnancy. I was very fearful the first four months of my pregnancy, afraid that once again, I would be disappointed. But God's miracle was born on January 21, 1994.

She was a beautiful newborn baby girl, perfectly healthy, and all her parts were present. She didn't like to sleep much at night or for very long at all, any time, so fatigue was a constant state. She started losing weight, but was eating constantly, and we were at the Dr.'s office every other day getting her weighed. At 3 weeks, I asked the Dr. when her yellow eyes would turn white, and he immediately held her and said something like, "She's jaundiced, we need to get some lab work done." I thought yeah, well, a lot of newborns are jaundiced, no big deal. But he told me it was a big deal, because this wasn't typical newborn jaundiced, this was "late onset" jaundiced, and could indicate a problem.

To make a very long story short, after two weeks of all kinds of testing, and phone calls and visits to a specialist, she was diagnosed with a genetic enzyme deficiency, called alpha-1 anti-trypsin deficiency. She was in liver failure. There was no treatment at her age. There was a 50% chance she would die, and a 50% chance her liver would adjust to the missing enzyme and start functioning again. All we could do was wait. I was furious at God. How could he bless us with a miracle, only to "test" me again, by taking her away! Again, I assumed some blame. I was somehow having to live out the consequences of my past sins. I constantly needed assurance from the Dr. that her condition was genetic and not caused by anything I had done during or before my pregnancy. My emotions were off the charts. The emotional deadness I had learned to practice was gone, I was alive, felt emotions, and it felt terrible! My dam broke; tears came for hours at a time. My steel heart absolutely melted while I was "in the fire". I was given anti-anxiety medication and an antidepressant to cope. Obviously my emotional healing and relationship with God was tried again. I still wasn't trusting God as I should. I was still blaming myself, and thought I was being punished again.

God provided a second miracle, I believe, and answered many, many prayers, and Laura's liver finally adjusted to not having the enzymes and started functioning normally. Although to this day, she is followed by a pediatric gastroenterologist, her liver continues to function well. I was VERY thankful to God to say the least.

Because of my dysfunctional childhood, and now seeing all the affects it had on me as an adult, I had decided I wanted (actually needed) to think I was a perfect mother. This meant, I put a lot of pressure on myself and my anxieties continued. I hadn't truly turned her over to God. I just wasn't sure I could trust Him. After all, look what He allowed to happen to me?

I became a very controlling mom. I became very protective. I was also very affectionate. I held her constantly as an infant (I was NOT going to repeat a cycle!). I actually spent the night vomiting the first night I tried to leave her. Probably the healthiest choice I made was to go back to work and put her in day care at six months. It helped me to put things into perspective. There was a world outside of my daughter and my husband. (Actually even my husband got a lot less attention at this point.)

I continued to get good Christian counseling, continued in the SALTS program for two more years, and emotional and spiritual healing continued for me. I started to learn about God's grace. At SALTS, it was embedded in my brain that I WAS abused, that I was NOT responsible for it, and that it was OK to be angry with God, but that He does and DID love me. AND, most important, recovery is possible! My biggest question was "Where was God when I was abused?" I finally got my answer when the director of the SALTS program held me in her arms as I was sobbing and said, "Ann, He was standing right next to you crying for you!"

As a result of SALTS I learned how I had become emotionally DEAD and shutdown, so I didn't have to deal with my feelings. I also learned how to come alive again! I learned how to feel. I was forced to take a look at how controlling I was, and how I didn't trust God. I learned (and am STILL learning) how to let go of control, to realize, as much as I THOUGHT I was in control I wasn't. It was a facade! I learned how to feel the pain of living in a fallen world, and not take on blame or shame. I learned that God WAS a safe God after all. That He would never hurt me. That life is hard because we live in a fallen world; with people who are evil and who sin. I learned how to release my daughter to God's protection. I learned all this through the SALTS program, as well as having friends surround me that were also walking through the recovery process and provided encouragement, prayer and could speak truth to me, through their own experiences. I learned it was OK to cry! It did not mean I was going crazy, or that I was weak. God gave us tears for a reason. It's a release. It's ok. I'm ok when I cry.

I wish I could say life is wonderful now. I wish I could say I am fully recovered, and never struggle. I can't. Recovery is a life-long process. I will always be in the recovery mode. I will always live in a fallen world where there is illness, sin, death and sadness. I still have control issues, and try to deaden my negative feelings with over eating and over spending. I am still taking medication.

My past still affects the way I parent my daughter. I still do not like to leave my daughter alone for very long. I still am very careful about who I chose to baby-sit. I still am very protective and probably overly enthusiastic about teaching her about good touches and bad touches. I check her private parts on a regular basis by watching her take baths, etc. I have to admit I spoil her. I do not like to hear her cry, or say, "I hate you". I don't follow through on discipline, as I should. I indulge her too much, and often let her have her way. I give her too many choices and too much power.

BUT, I CAN say, "GOD IS GOOD". I can say I have a healthy personal relationship with a God I can cry out to. I can say, " I was sexually abused, but I have walked through the results of that and am in the healing process!” I have my eyes opened to how I am raising my daughter and though I can admit I am not a perfect parent, I am aware there are areas I need to work on with her. I am now able to teach my daughter about having a personal relationship with God - about having Jesus in her heart and how much he loves her. I believe the cycle has been broken, and she has earned what unconditional love is, from God, my husband, and I. I have learned to repent of my sinful patterns, which are a result of having been abused. I've learned how to repent of putting up walls and controlling relationships because of my issues and fears. I'm learning how to let my husband be the leader and initiator in our marriage. I'm learning how to establish authority over my daughter. (There's that healthy boundaries issue again.)

Ironic as it is, I am now a paid employee at the Open Hearts Ministry/SALTS office! I CAN offer an ear to others that are going through what I went through. I can offer hope to those who feel they will never smile again, never trust again, never love again, never see the sun shine again. I can tell people, "God IS good, He was right there crying for you!" I cannot make sense of what I went through as a child, BUT I am using my past to minister to others. I am aware that I still have imperfections and issues, but I am also aware that I can stand in front of God with all my faults and He still loves me, accepts me, DELIGHTS in me, and even SINGS over me! I am learning that to be whole before God means to stand before Him with my imperfections and virtues and to hear Him telling me I an acceptable. I am learning I don't need to be perfect.

I can truly say to Satan and my abusers, "...you meant evil against me, BUT God meant it for good...” (Genesis 50:20), and I can hear God saying to me, "I will make up to you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten.” (Joel 2:25)

One of my favorite quotes now is from Joyce Meyers, "I am not where I want to be, but THANK GOD I am not where I was!"

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

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