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, 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

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