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/

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Carrie's Story

I grew up in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, a child of the ‘50’s. I am the youngest of three, with two older brothers. Being the only girl had its advantages and disadvantages, and I was always aware of being the only female child in my family. My parents are both alcoholics, and they drank throughout most of my childhood; they decided to get treatment and stop drinking during my last year in high school.

My mother was psychologically unstable and self-medicated with alcohol. She suffered from depression, was possibly bi-polar, and was hospitalized for a brief period when I was very young. It was around this period of time that she began to abuse me sexually. I was about two years old, I believe, when the sexual abuse began. It lasted until I was roughly five and started kindergarten. She mostly abused me in the bathroom: when I was on the toilet she would “wipe me,” which ended up in genital fondling, and I remember her coming up to me from behind at the sink as I washed or brushed my teeth, and she would touch or caress my bottom and reach around to handle my crotch.

More commonly, however, she would give me a bath, often getting into the tub with me. Not only did she “wash” me with her hands, she also had me “wash” her – putting my hands on her breasts, using my hands to rub her genitals. As strange and upsetting as this was, the most frightening thing was that during these episodes, she would seem to disappear, or dissociate: her eyes glazed over, her breathing changed, she was off in another world somewhere. It really seemed to me that she had fallen into a hole in her world somewhere, and as much as I hated what she made me do during these “baths,” I was even more terrified that she would disappear and never return.

My mother said that if I ever told anyone what we did the police would come and take her away, or else take me away. I didn’t like my father very much – he was unpredictable, violent, and often seemed uninterested in me – so I neither wanted to be left with him nor be shipped off to a big, unknown place. Once she even told me that if my father found out he would kill her. I had seen enough of his drunken behavior to find this plausible. So in spite of my terror of her, my love for my mother and my belief that I needed her in order to survive were paramount. In fact, at the age of 2 or 3, a child is truly dependent on her mother. Mom was indeed sick, and in her sickness she took advantage of my vulnerability and trust – as do all perpetrators.

I didn’t remember any of this until I was 30 years old. Up until that point, I just knew I continually had conflicting feelings about my mother. Because of her alcoholism, I didn’t need to look very far to see why I would have such mixed feelings, and so once I started school, I just buried the memories of the way she touched me as a preschooler. She didn’t actually ever try to touch me that way again, but there were plenty of covert and inappropriate episodes – especially as I entered puberty. She made numerous comments about my developing breasts, she showed me how to insert a tampon in a way that was extremely painful and humiliating (I didn’t want to do it and she forced me to try,) she made constant angry reference to my interest in boys, and so on. I can’t remember a time during my childhood that I didn’t feel embarrassed and disappointed in her; and yet my love for her and my hope that one day she would change never died.

The sexual abuse I always did remember, though, was inflicted on me by my brother Tom beginning at age 11. He would come into my bedroom late at night and ask to “cuddle” me. Our home was such a lonely, horrible battlefield from day to day that cuddling was a welcome change. I enjoyed and found comfort in my brother’s hugs and holding. It began as a safe refuge for me. Soon it became just another battleground as Tom started touching me, trying to kiss me, trying to get me to feel his erections (he was 13). I constantly denied him, pushed him away, said no. Eventually he would leave my bed, angry and frustrated, trying to make me feel as if there was something wrong with me for not wanting to “love” him, as he put it. I began locking my door at night, but the lock was pretty flimsy, and was easily sprung with just a toothpick, so he got in anyway. This continued off and on for about two years. I think the only reason he stopped was that he found regular sex partners and was getting his “needs” met. One of his lovers, as I later found out, was our high school music teacher. So, as one of my therapists said, my family of origin was “inappropriate all over the place.”

Since I never forgot this aspect of my history, when I began therapy many years later, it was one of the focal points. Tom and my other brother Ted both became drug addicts, and as part of Tom’s recovery process, I had the opportunity to confront him about his abuse of me. This helped me move forward, but I’m afraid the same cannot be said for my brother. Tom’s sexual addiction makes it impossible for me to have contact with him anymore. He is about to get married for the fourth time. I love him deeply, but I need to protect my family and myself.

Now, what I really want to say, the reason I’m writing this – my life has a very happy ending. My life is a series of miracles. Although I’ve been deeply wounded, I continue to experience a great deal of healing. Becoming a mother has been one of the best ways I’ve found to heal from this nightmare. My children, and the process of birthing and raising them, are the strongest, most positive gifts I’ve received. My work on earth as a mother is empowering and joyful.

Here’s how I got to that point: The initial psychotherapy I did was a good start, but there came a time when I realized how disconnected I was from my body. This was around the time I was preparing to get married – a happy but often scary time for an incest survivor. One day, while lunching with my friend Ryan, he began to tell me about taking lessons in the Alexander Technique (AT). I had heard about AT work for years, as my background is in the performing arts. I didn’t really know what it was, though it sounded fascinating and I knew it was helping Ryan with some of his vocal problems. The vague sensation that I wasn’t really in touch with my body rose up again during this conversation, and I decided to try Alexander lessons. I loved it immediately, and within the course of six months or less I began to recover my memories of what my mother had done to me. It was profoundly disturbing, but at the same time, a relief to remember – it explained so much about how I had always felt about myself and her, and the choices I had always made. I began working with a psychotherapist again, and I started attending a 12-step program called Survivors of Incest Anonymous (SIA). The combination of a good shrink, a peer support group, and most of all, my truly gifted, kind and compassionate AT teacher provided me with the resources I needed to heal. The Alexander work, in particular, was most effective, because I was working with my body – reclaiming it actually – and I learned how to let someone touch me deeply and intimately and not have it be abusive or manipulative. I learned about boundaries and self-respect.

Becoming a mother about two years into this process is what gave me the courage to confront my mother and father about what happened. There’s a kind of fierceness that only a mother possesses, and when I learned in 1991 that I was pregnant, I felt all my priorities shifting into protecting my unborn child and myself. Once my daughter was born, I could not fathom how anyone could sexually abuse his or her own child (or anyone else’s for that matter). The tenderness and trust, which my baby extended to me, made me even angrier with my own parents. It didn’t matter that my mother had been ill; she hurt me. It didn’t matter that she hid what she was doing from my father; he should have known and protected me. These basic feelings needed to resurface, and my daughter’s birth assured that they did.

My pregnancy gave me the opportunity to “call the shots” when it came to my well-being and the well being of my baby. I hired midwives instead of doctors, created a birth plan with my husband, felt some measure of control by taking childbirth preparation classes. As far as the birth experience goes, ironically, my history as an abuse survivor was helpful. I have a lot of experience “disappearing” into myself, so during contractions I did just that – I went really deep. Of course, two-plus years of AT lessons were a big help as well. But I also believe that having worked out a lot of my issues about my mother really prepared me well for the intensity of the birth experience. Compared to the intensity of re-experiencing my forgotten abuse, birthing a baby was easy!

Four years later I gave birth to another daughter. I had even more control this time, because I chose a homebirth, where I could have only friends and family with me. No impersonal hospital or strangers hovering around. My older daughter watched her baby sister come into the world, an exciting, powerful experience for her which I hope will prepare her in some way should she choose to have children.

In both birth experiences I yelled my head off – a positive antidote to years of enforced silence. It felt good to make noise, it felt like the vibrations of sound coming out of me were helping the baby to come out as well. And I think the part of me that wanted to scream when my mother or brother were molesting me was really satisfied by the sounds I made in this more positive context.

Breastfeeding was a big challenge for me, because I found it difficult to “force” my baby’s mouth onto my breast. It felt like what my mother had done to me, even though I knew there were no similarities. Once I got the hang of it, it was a nice experience, but my anxiety about it, coupled with a gross lack of information and support, led to a mastitis infection one week postpartum. The second time around, I hired a lactation consultant, who helped build my confidence. Still, this is probably the only area of motherhood that the incest affected negatively. I never enjoyed breastfeeding the way other mothers describe it; I never got that nursing “high” I’ve heard about. I appreciated being able to provide the food my babies needed, but when they weaned themselves I didn’t miss it much. I think it must have reminded me too much of the enmeshment my mother forced on me as a toddler.

Most importantly, perhaps, my children have shown me that, in spite of the damage done, I am basically okay. I learned that I have the capacity to love appropriately and sanely, unlike my parents. I had been afraid that I wouldn’t be capable, or that I would slide into some kind of dementia, but that is not the case. Of course I make mistakes – big ones, sometimes – but they are teaching me to be the best mother I can be. Their presence in my life reinforces the idea that I am good enough, that I am deserving of love. Mothering these two beautiful girls, in fact, teaches me what love is.

My experiences with healing from my childhood nightmare led me to become a teacher of the Alexander Technique myself. I now help others learn about how to live in their bodies with more ease and awareness; I use a gentle touch to guide my students in the way I was so beautifully guided. I am also completing my certification as a Childbirth Educator. I want more women to know what an empowering experience the birth process can be.

There were times when I wanted to give up; there still are, though not so many as before. What helps me go on is knowing this: even though so much was stolen from me – crucial moments of my childhood that I can never get back – I have also gained the most precious gifts of my adulthood as a result. I am a more compassionate mother, wife, teacher and human being because of what was done to me and because of my unwavering insistence upon healing it.

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

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