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, August 22, 2008

Kathy's Story

I can't remember a time when I wasn't...you know I use the term “abused,” but I don't know if that's correct. I was always fondled inappropriately, and my father was always exposing himself to me, and that to me is abuse. There was never, ever any intercourse – although it was attempted when I was older. There was never a time I can remember that I wasn't touched inappropriately. My father always had his hands on me or something. One of my few but very vivid memories is when my father had some back surgery and one of us kids would have to stay home with him every day. To this day I can't even identify what would go on...strong feeling about that...not wanting to be home with Dad, "don't let it be my turn...”

Let me back up a little bit... I protected myself by becoming really shy and fat. I was so pathologically shy that I didn't speak. We lived in a little farming community where everybody knew everybody else. I lived there my whole childhood. My mother had had to move 27 times when she was a kid and she swore that her kids would never have to do that. So we were stuck. I must have been in 1st or 2nd grade when people started saying that I was just “trainable.” That reinforced what my father said to me, “You don’t have any brains!”

I have very few early memories of my childhood, and they're all bad. Probably the earliest was when I was five or six. The big deal was when we would walk into town. Once we were coming home and my oldest brother was riding his bike. He must have been about 8. He took off ahead of me, and a car stopped. A man gave me quarters and exposed himself. But the unusual thing about this memory is that it wasn't unusual. Looking back I think, “oh my God”, but you know, that was a behavior that I was used to. I don't have any memories before that. Except there was... there was ...a feeling. Through therapy, and the process of doing a lot of imagery and stuff... I find that I don't remember a time when I ever felt loved...except for once, and actually my mom remembered this too when we were talking about it... She had sewed me an Easter dress and it was made of yellow dotted Swiss and I remember my mother looking at me and there was love and affection in her eyes, and she told me “You look good in yellow” and that became a trigger phrase for me. That same trigger phrase came up once recently when my son Adam had a yellow tee-shirt on and my husband Phil turned to him and said, 'Gosh Adam, you really look good in yellow" and I started crying... And I told my husband I was struck by the fact that our son has love all the time and he doesn't have to deal with all that other crap. To this day though I don't wear yellow. I make excuses, like I don't look good in it or... I don't like it... I think I don't feel deserving of it.

We all have our dragons. Once in a while I get glimmers and flashes of the past but no real memory until I was a senior in high school.

Well I was really fat...when I was sick I couldn't get away and I needed some space. My room was on the first floor and to this day I can't sleep with the door shut because my father would shut the door and then something would happen. And that's when I put on the weight ... and then these teachers came and encouraged me to apply myself... and then I discovered that I couldn’t be accepted to LPN school because they don't take fat nurses and will only accept you if you lose weight. I went to the family doctor and he put me on speed. It was the sixties and it was an acceptable way to lose weight and I lost 60 pounds in 3 months and I was accepted into LPN school.

And it got really scary. It got really scary at home because I had started dating and my father was extremely possessive. I dated arrogant, strong young men. These were guys who had gotten out of the war and they were kind of my protectors. I became engaged in LPN school. I was going to get married and get the hell out of there, leave as quickly as I could. I talked to my mom about it and I don't remember exactly what she or I said, but I broke off the engagement, and moved. And my mom said, "This is the only way you're going to survive this", meaning my childhood I guess. Maybe she was conscious on some level of what had been going on, I don’t know. She really hasn't said very much of anything concerning her own relationship with my father. I know that my mother was date raped before she was married to my father. She was engaged to someone and things got out of hand, and she broke off the engagement. She stuck around for a month to make sure she wasn't pregnant... so now my mother perceived herself as damaged goods, and she's told me that my father has used that against her their whole marriage. Gives you a hint of what he's like.

I don’t remember being abused after the age of 16. I do remember standing up and starting to fight back, and him screaming at me. So I remember that. He never hit me, but he was very verbally on the attack. And I would argue back with great force, just to survive. And I still was in denial about anything going on sexually. It wasn’t until I had been living on my own with the roommates that I started to realize the extent of the abuse. My roommates were incredibly protective of me. Also, I happened to walk into some really good relationships with men as well. One time I had come back home to visit. My parents were still together. Dad and I were going out someplace. We used to go to bars, like I was his girlfriend. I look at that now and I go "How sick!” And I remember we'd been out, both of us had been drinking, and we were driving home. We were going down some dark, dirt roads, and he became very passionate, and tried to rape me again. I screamed. I fought. It's the first time I'd ever really fought back physically. He just looked at me, shocked, and I remember his saying, "Well, we're not going to tell your mother about this.” And we drove home, and that was it. But I knew that this had happened before, even though I didn’t have the actual memories. The healing had begun, I guess. Since I had at that point in my life lost my virginity in a very sensitive way, I then knew that this incident was different, that this was sick, this was really sick, and that this was really disgusting, and that he wasn't going to do that to me anymore. And I immediately put on about 75 pounds.

Now, even through the period of time of gaining weight again, those sensitive men still hung around. It didn't start right away, but the beginning of an idea had begun, that they didn't like my physical body; they liked me, who my being is. At that point, things started happening with my father. After this I just didn't go home. My parents split when I was 25. I cut off contact with my father. Things got so bad my mother was calling me all the time. The divorce took years. She kind of put up a shell after that.

It was still years until I was consciously aware that my father had sexually abused me, after I was married for the first time. People are so stupid. I hit 30. I had been living with Dick, about 4 years, in a mobile home in a community neighboring the one he grew up in. I felt it was real important to get him back to his hometown. The only way to get a loan for a house at the time was to get married. Things weren't great, but I wasn't feeling really good about myself either, and Dick had a drinking problem. He was verbally abusing me at that time, but we got our paperwork together to be married anyway. He turned to me right after that, moments after that, and said "I got you now, you're trapped.” He laughed, and I thought “Whoa.” And that's when he started drinking heavily again. And he got real affectionate, and once when we had sex he came up to me and threw his check at me and said "here, ...paid for.” And I'm sitting here and thinking, "Oh, my God, what is this?” And thinking that, “oh, well, maybe this is what marriage is about, too.”

I started reading every self-help book you can imagine. I don’t know when the conscious moment was, but at some point I said to myself, “I can't continue like this. I have to do something.” In that moment I thought I was either going to kill myself, or I was going to get some help, some professional help. During that period of time too was when I had my tubal ligation done, because he didn't want to have kids, and because I was thinking, “your going to be a really shitty mom, you know.” And at that time I would have been. I didn't want any kid of mine to have to ever go through that. I didn't want to be responsible for that. I couldn't put that hurt on anybody. Like I said, I was doing those self-help kinds of readings...some of which suggested to me that if you come from an abusive household, you're going to become an abusive person, and I couldn't do that. And my God, what happens if I have a little girl? So, the tubal ligation was done...

At first I had a really good sense of humor about having the tubal, and I just kind of blew it off. “I don’t want any kids,” I told myself. To the outside it was kind of like, “ah, there are too many bad moms in my family...I don't need to have a child to be complete...I’m too old, whatever.” I felt so hollow inside, though, so incredibly hollow. My parents had been divorced about 5 years at that point, and when my mom heard about the tubal she was so sad. She said that despite all the things that her kids had gone through, she thought that having a kid was one of the greatest joys in the world. I felt really hollow then.

My whole marriage, my suicidal feelings, my divorce, it all happened in 2 years. Dick and I had gotten married in March, and got the house. I think I had the tubal in May. ...It was all very quick. I started in therapy right after the tubal was done. The whole scenario was incredibly bizarre, too. Dick and my best friend wound up having an affair. They sat down and talked to me in an attempt to justify what they were doing, and they were so convincing! Here are the 2 people who were supposed to love me, and I 'm sitting there looking at them and going, “what?” With the help of my therapist I thought, “these 2 people who love and care about me wouldn't do this, you know?” So what I ended up doing was flying out to California at the invitation of my girlfriend. She and her psychologist husband at the time helped me to see that what I needed to do was get my butt back home and kick Dick out!

When Dick picked me up at the airport, he had expected things to be just hunky-dory, thinking I had just needed a break, and we got home, expected to have sex. I said "no way" and told him he was moving out. He said I didn't really mean that. I called my brother Dennis. I said, “Dick's moving out, will you help him move?

I remained in therapy through the breakup of my marriage. Started off dealing with the alcoholism in my family. Then the abuse started slowly coming out. I allowed myself to remember and feel bad, and told myself that it was ok to feel bad, and then to start feeling good. My father's mother died during the time I was in therapy. I did go to the funeral, but I arranged it so my brother Dennis was my protector, and he escorted me into the church. I didn't sit with the family. I saw my father and walked out. Then I went through the whole agony...

I had kicked Dick out in December. I met Phil New Year's Eve. It took about a year before we started dating. Lawsuit at work, credit card debts. After I testified, I called a friend and went to her house. Phil was there. He was very kind and sympathetic. We arranged to get together. My family had been so sweet. I had no money. Gotten very skinny. Had lots of chicken my family had brought. He brought a bottle of wine. He was somebody I could tell my story to.

He knew when he moved in that I couldn't have kids. He knew from the first date. His family didn't know the particulars, they knew I couldn't have kids but they didn't know why. We moved in together in April. We went on a cross-country trip, and stopped in to see his brother in Texas. He asked if we were going to get married. I wasn't even sure if I could say yes to Phil, because of my background and the fact that I couldn't have any children.

We got married in November. In January I was going to kick him out and find him somebody that could have kids. I loved him so desperately. I was in tears all the time. He was really cool. He said he didn't need children. But he said if I really wanted children, there are things we can do. He was very optimistic. I didn’t realize I wanted to be a mother. My whole focus was that he needed to be a dad. It didn’t realize I wanted to be a mother until I had Adam. I was doing it for Phil. He suggested we think about doing something medical, so I talked to infertility specialists. They said they could reverse the tubal with a 90% success rate.

So from the time I saw the specialist until the time of the surgery was 2 weeks! “It costs $20,000,” I said to Phil. He said, “ It's only money.” And we didn’t have money! I still was doing this for Phil. So, I had the surgery. Rounds of drugs, shots, husband giving me injections. Hysterical every month, couldn't get pregnant. I was 36 years old at this point. I had surgery in '88, and got pregnant in '89. It took a year.

I felt kind of like this was what I deserved - all the pain. Like I was punishing myself for having had the tubal. I had all the tests. When we started running out of money, that was when I started getting my migraine headaches back.

I had had migraines hit really big time when I was with Dick. I took drugs to try to get rid of them. I was a head nurse. I had this alcoholic husband that would call me at work - so I was getting hammered with horrendous headaches about once a week. I finally realized I should do something about this. I saw a specialist, took lots of drugs. They worked. I got rid of Dick; I got rid of the headaches. The migraines started coming back when I was doing all the fertility stuff so I went to a homeopathic physician, and started taking massive doses of the homeopathic remedy Arnica. Within 6 weeks I got pregnant.

We had already started looking for potential adoptions. At that point we had gone through $27,000 dollars that we couldn't afford... And then Phil and I started working on the house. At which point I finally decided that my husband loves me, he's not going to leave me, and if I can't give him a child, we'll still be together.

I bargained so much with God at that point. If someone's going to die let it be me so that Phil can have this child. 37 years old, first child, it's ok, whatever you want to give me it's ok. Do my penance.

I was able to experience my womanliness. Not that that's the only thing women are made for. I felt I could really take care of this person, I could make it better. Bring out the best. I would talk to this child. It was incredible. People would touch my belly.

Then I had to have a C-section. I couldn't even have a child the normal way. Then I couldn't nurse him. I had a hell of a time keeping up with him. I thought that I wasn't good enough, because if I couldn't have him the normal way, and couldn't feed him like he should be fed, maybe I wasn't going to be good enough to be a mom.

Breastfeeding was difficult because the baby wanted to be fed every hour, and I didn’t have enough milk, so it was frustrating. And then Phil was helpful in some aspects, but in other ways he wasn't. Adam nursed until he was 12 weeks old, with supplementing. It was difficult for me to breastfeed. Everybody wants to watch. I felt very protective, holding this little creature in my arms. Breastfeeding was hard but the overwhelming love overcame that difficulty. “I can tolerate this,” I told myself, because I was doing it for the sake of my child, even though it wasn’t comfortable to me.

In terms of how I feel about myself as a mother, it's only been since Adam has been verbal, and able to express himself, that I feel ok about it. Sometimes now I actually feel good at it.

I took 16 weeks maternity leave. Then put him in daycare. We did everything we were supposed to do. Checked it out. He was in daycare Sept. until mid-December. Then I picked him up one day and he was dirty. One time he looked like he had been in the crib screaming. The second time they said I have to understand that they were short-staffed. Part of me was like, "Oh my God, look what I'm doing to my kid, he is being physically abused.” I called Phil at work. We went out and had this conversation. We looked at what we could do. One of us could stay home. I worked because I had the benefits.

It was hard. Families didn't understand about Phil letting his wife support him. I don't know if I could have done as good a job. We planned for Phil to stay home with him until he went to school, but eventually realized he needed some interaction with other kids, and so when he turned 4 we sent him to a wonderful preschool. It cost more than our house payment! Phil got this job a block and a half away. Kept an eye on him. Phil’s whole salary went to childcare.

When Adam was 2, I became pregnant, but it was an ectopic pregnancy, and my tube ruptured. I thought I had caused it, that it was my fault, from having had the tubal ligation. I know that was my daughter. I felt responsible. Phil’s parents didn't help any. They called us to say, "We've decided you shouldn't try to have more children, it’s much too dangerous.”

We didn't do anything either way in terms of fertility. Our attitude was if it happens it happens, still thinking I could get pregnant. But the ectopic was scary. Phil was terrified afterwards. He wanted the whole picture. He had the son he always wanted, but he wanted me too. I realized that I fit in that equation.

I have not been in therapy since the breakup of my first marriage. Sometimes Phil will do stuff that triggers the past for me, but I can identify that that's coming from behind, from the past. I ask myself, ”What do you need right now?” It allows me that time to back up.

I think that my child is good. He's a bit spoiled. I howled at him the other day, and he asked, "Why didn't you do that when I was a little tyke?” I guess I finally realized that it's ok to yell at him. He was being disrespectful. I'm finally at a point that I can discipline him. I’ve always been afraid of over-doing it. My son had an incident with another kid where they were exposing themselves to each other. It was probably a normal kid thing, but I lost it. I told Phil that he would have to deal with that one, that I could not. All I could think was “I've raised an abuser.” Talking to other parents really helped. Boys will be boys...

So there's still issues I have to deal with. I’m very cautious about dealing with discipline. I have the idea that because it was done to me, I could do that to my child. I couldn’t survive that. I tried so desperately to stop it. He's a good kid. That makes it easier.

It's important for me for my child to have good memories. I get into over-decorating for the holidays. I love to hear “Remember when we did this, mom?” It's been a riot to watch a childhood through his eyes. It really pisses me off that I don't have that. So I tend to go overboard.

God forbid, I could die tomorrow, and at least he knows he's loved. He'll just walk up and throw his arms around us and say I love you. I feel good that I could pass this on to him. That's ok.

I'm a survivor. If I can survive my past, I can survive just about anything. If I can take those horrendous experiences and I can grow from them, then I can be a better person, even if all I have done is not continued the abuse. It’s good being able to look at my brothers, still in so much pain, saying, “I survived it.” I have this bizarre sense of humor, but there are a lot of worse things than that!

I have learned how important it is to visualize. Deciding what you want to be, how you want to be, working through it, allowing yourself to accept that you could be that. I’ve found that it’s also important to be realistic. When I started, the biggest thing I wanted was my father to say, “I'm sorry.” Well, that's not going to happen. Then I thought I could get him to just acknowledge what he had done. Well, that's not going to happen either. Finally I started realizing that by still wanting those things I let him have the power.

He doesn't have the power anymore. There are still little things that trigger me. But the power is mine.

Other things that have been important to me: talking to people, especially other survivors, and reading. But if I had to give another advice, I would say, “ Take your power back. Don't let him have it. By being a victim, you let him have it.” Avoid the language of the victim. ‘Survivor’ is such a better term than ‘victim.’ The fact that we survive is so much more important than the fact of being a victim.

One thing I have had to survive recently is meeting up with my father at my brother’s wedding. He is the one that was still in contact with my father when he got married. I knew my father would be there. Phil said we would not bring Adam. He knew what I needed. It took the guilt out of my hands. I knew it was ok to lean on Phil. That took a lot of time.

We went to the church. Didn't see my father at the wedding. At the reception, however, he was sitting there with his wife. And he motioned for me to come over. I saw Phil and I saw my brother Dennis. I was thinking, “There's nothing he can do to me.” But he still had the power at that point. I still let him have control. I thought, this demon is going away. I'm going to go deal with this.

I sat down and talked to him. The first thing he said was "I’ve missed you, honey.” Pats me on the knee, too. And all this stuff is flashing through my brain, and I am thinking, “ how dare he?” But I knew that once I started getting angry and emotional, I would be lost, and I wouldn’t be able to stand up to him. So I looked at him and I said, "You know, I can honestly say I haven't missed you.” And he moved back. He decided not to validate it, not say anything about it. And he said, "I understand you have a son. I want to meet him.” I said, “ No. When he gets old enough, if he wants to meet you, and if you're still around, that will be his choice. He said, "No, it’s my right to meet my grandson.” And I looked at him and I said, "You have no rights when it comes to my son.” This mother lioness came out in me and I continued, “No, if I have anything to say about it, you will never meet my son.” Then he looked at me and said, “I'm really disappointed in you.” And I said, "You'll get over it.” And I walked away. And he left shortly after. And I thought, "It's your right? You are not going to fuck up my kid like you fucked me up.” I know that I could not have been that strong and that powerful if I hadn’t had Phil and Dennis right there. I wrote my brother a long letter explaining what had happened and telling him that I could not have stood up to our father if he had not been there. I told him it was time for me to let go of this burden. I probably would still have been having the same conversation with my father if he had not brought up my son. I remember thinking; "It stopped here. It's not going to continue. That genetic part of it, it's not going to go on.”

My son is pretty astute. He knows his grandfather is alive and that if he wants to meet him he can. He knows that he wasn't very nice to me and to grandma, and that that's why he and grandma are divorced. We have told him that his grandfather just wasn't a real nice person to be around at that time. And he knows that when he is old enough he can make his own choice about him. And when I told him about this, he looked at me and he said, "You know, if I ever met your dad, you know what I'd say? You're not my mom, and you're not my dad, you let me go!” I guess he got to this conclusion because we had been talking to him about “bad people.” But I've never said that his grandfather was horrendous or villainous or whatever, because I don’t think that's going to benefit anybody. When Adam asks me about specific things that happened, so far I have just said that his grandfather “hollered a lot.” Possibly, when he's older, I’ll tell him more. He's too young right now.

Forgiveness is a hard concept. I'm not sure it's the right word. By moving on, that's a “forgiveness” in some aspect. I'm not sure I'm the person to judge if I should forgive my father. I think in some ways I have forgiven. The divine has an answer for it. I don't think about him, except those little trigger times. Don't spend any energy on him. I don't hate, dislike, like...It took me a long time to get there. I hated him for a long time. But that just gave him more power. I did need to forgive myself for the things I did later because of the situation, the first marriage, the tubal, and those kinds of things.

I can't remember my OB ever asking me about my history. But I just love him. After going though fertility treatments, what could be more degrading? Post-coital tests? He said that this should be the most beautiful time of my life, and that he wouldn’t do anything I wasn’t ready to do. He told me I deserved respect, and dignity. He didn’t know me from Adam at that point. I had gone to him because I was a high-risk pregnancy. But I stayed with him, a male OB/GYN, because this man knew what women were about. He always had time for me. I was impressed with that. I was lucky. There's been some incredible guidance.

Having a child is the most amazing experience. You can't explain it to anybody who isn’t a mother. Having a child didn't make my life complete. I'm a complete person without having a child. But having a child made my life so incredible. It has been a joy seeing life through a healthy child's eyes. Watching his wonder of things. I guess that in some aspects I'm experiencing my childhood again in a healthy manner with my son. And that's amazing. Sometimes I have to remind myself of that, when my 40+-year-old body is tired, and the dishes need to be done, but that’s ok. I've grown so much.

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

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