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, December 23, 2009

Erica's Story

My parents were ahead of their time. Though I am technically a Baby Boomer, I have always felt a greater kinship with those that are a few years younger than me. When the characteristics of Generation X are compared with the Boomers, I identify more with the former, and I never could quite figure out why until I looked at my parents’ lives. They were both artists, and the social revolution of the sixties and seventies, which blew through our culture leaving so many warped and wounded children in its wake, manifested itself just that much earlier in the art community and on the university campuses where they taught. I was acutely aware that there were quite a few behaviors and topics of discussion that were normal in my house that would shock my friends at school. It made me feel schizophrenic and frightened that I would do or say something way over the top without even realizing it. The atmosphere was wide open and sexually supercharged. I don’t remember not knowing about sex, and it seemed to be the entire goal of adult life. There was lots of alcohol and switching of partners and fighting about sex. It was overwhelming and exciting and I couldn’t wait to grow up and find out what it was that had such enormous power over the adults around me. If it could make grown-ups act so strangely, then clearly sex must be the most incredible thing in the world. Men wanted women’s bodies, and that gave women power.

Modesty was the only sin. Sexual reticence was a major character flaw, I was taught. That the vast majority of this “sexual experimentation” was indulged in by my father and various grad students and other professors’ wives didn’t strike me as imbalanced or unfair in any way, for I was also taught at home that my mother was either crazy or stupid. Looking at their marriage from my present vantage point, sixteen years married and the beneficiary of much therapy, I see that all the rhetoric about sexual freedom and finding the muse was a shabby cover-up for garden-variety adultery. Though I call it garden-variety, my feelings about this betrayal are anything but benign, because I live permanently with how it has distorted me as a woman, wife and mother. It cost me my girlhood, pleasure in my femininity, and the ability to trust my husband, among other things. And it set me up for the first sexual predator that came along.

My father was by far the most powerful person in our home, and, for survival, I adopted his view of the world. I learned to see my body as my currency. It was what I had to surrender to be wanted. My mother taught me to be careful of the tender feelings of men, but no one taught me that I had the right to say no to sexual advances, or that I might want to. When I look at the way young women are now encouraged to dress and express their sexuality, I am troubled. I’ve been there, and, rather than setting me free, it turned out to be a terrible prison that I’ve spent an enormous amount of energy freeing myself from. I want to run up to them and plead with them not to buy into the notion that their sexuality is a currency to be exchanged for a cheap and transitory power. Torn between wanting to preserve my integrity and privacy, and the desire to be valued by men, I began experimenting sexually when I was ten. My roadmap were the porno magazines my older brother gave me, and my partners were boys and girls my age or a little older, my parents’ friends’ kids.

I was twelve when I was seduced by an older man, a med student who was the son of some casual friends of my parents. Years later, he told me that it had taken him an hour to penetrate me, thought I don’t remember it. He also introduced me to oral sex and anal sex, afterwards telling me that the girls he dated wouldn’t let him do some of the things I had. It was all very antiseptic, very calculated, though I had no frame of reference to know if it should be different. I had my first pregnancy scare when I was thirteen. It took me quite a long time in therapy to see the relationship as anything other than my ‘first boyfriend’. It wasn’t until I began imagining my own children being treated this way that I began to see it differently. When I think about someone doing this to one of my kids, I think of how hard it would be to find the pieces of that guy when I got through with him.

In high school and college, I was obsessed with being wanted by men. My radar was finely tuned and always on: if a guy was attracted to me, I branded him a loser. If a guy was at all indifferent, I needed to find out why, to make him want me. And I had no protective barriers. Having a boyfriend eased the anxiety somewhat, but I was still always looking. Looking for the man who would make me feel wanted. My friendships with women were distorted, too. I saw them as dangerous competitors.

The summer after my sophomore year in college, I became pregnant. This was before single motherhood became fashionable, and I didn’t believe I had any other choice but abortion. I did not want to kill my baby, but I believed that once I had given birth I would no longer be desirable to men. After all, wasn’t that what had happened to my mother? My father had wanted her, pursued her, until she had his child, and then she was undesirable to him. Finding a man to love me (and my body was the only thing I believed I had to attract and hold him) was the overriding principle of my life. It felt like the difference between life and death. I dutifully marched myself down to Planned Parenthood and a doctor stuck a hose in me and sucked out my child.

The unexpected outcome of having an abortion was that I stopped caring so much if a man wanted me. I stopped caring about pretty much everything. A part of me that was young and hopeful died and, as winter’s darkness turned the midwestern landscape to gray, so did my interior garden fade. The ‘girl’ had been sucked out of me, too. Though I wouldn’t have told anyone at the time, I now saw human relationships almost entirely in economic terms. I had something men wanted, and I was going to parlay that into as much power as I could. I was not going to ever let myself be vulnerable again.

Given my mental state, it is not surprising that I didn’t give the next guy I met a lot of thought. Nor is it that difficult to understand why it took me years more of running to realize he was the man I wanted to marry. And it has taken me years of marriage to discover I was in love with him.

From the time I was thirteen, I wanted to be a mother. Even through the years of college and working after, when everything was supposed to be career and climbing some stupid ladder, it was what I dreamed about. Almost immediately after marrying Bill, the desire to get pregnant became overwhelming. I wanted a baby so badly, but he wasn’t ready. I bought every book I could find on pregnancy and watched Berry Brazelton’s parenting show on cable TV. When I finally did get accidentally pregnant, I was ecstatic. I thought I knew so much about pregnancy, but what I didn’t know was what was done to women in the name of modern medicine. I thought if I went into see a doctor and said I wanted natural childbirth, that’d be what I got. I wanted to deliver my own baby more than anything, to finally feel, perhaps, like I was a ‘real’ woman.

Four weeks before the end of a healthy pregnancy, my Dr. discovered that my baby had turned breech. A c-section was quickly scheduled. My protests were met with assurances that a vaginal birth would leave my baby dead or retarded and I must stop being so selfish by trying for what was, after all, window dressing. It was implied, and I believed it, that to feel bad about this would make my baby feel unloved and was proof of my selfishness. Once again, I dutifully climbed up on a table and let a Dr. cut my child out of me. I came home with this baby and a frozen heart. I couldn’t sleep, even when he did. I went through the motions, feeling raped, feeling defrauded, and feeling like I was not a real woman. Hidden deep in all this pain however, was a twinge of relief. Since I hadn’t given birth vaginally, that part of me was still unchanged. I had delayed making myself sexually undesirable to my husband, and he might still want me. In my thinking, men did not want women who were mothers. Mothers were used up. Yet, in a way, I was still “unspoiled”. My husband was completely unaware of all this, since I wouldn’t have dared to utter it to another person.

Then my father went nuts. Literally. He, at 67, had his first clinically significant psychotic episode from the undiagnosed manic depression that had shaped his whole life, unbeknownst to any of us. And it set me free. If he was nuts, then I no longer had to see the world through the lenses he’d given me. I got myself into therapy, and began the long, exhausting process of revisiting my past, of looking at my history with a sympathetic other. About this time, I also began to read about cesarean sections and the feelings women experience, and discovered that I was normal. As relief flooded through me, and I began to let the tears out, I took my first deep breath in months. And I set about planning the birth I had always dreamed of.

By the time I became pregnant with my second child, I had pretty much gotten up the courage to attempt a home birth. Actually, it was more out of fear that the hospital bureaucracy would again supercede my desires, and I’d be treated as an ”obstetrical cripple” because of my previous surgery. Twenty hours of active labor and four hours of pushing would have earned me another trip to the surgical suite under an MD’s care, but I had wonderful, caring midwives who believed in me, and I gave birth to my child. During the labor, my hidden fear about “overstretching” resurfaced. I had been pushing for so long, and I finally tried to speak about it, but all I could say was “I’m scared”. Then I looked around the room and realized that I only had two options: to throw in the towel and head to the hospital for another surgery, or forge ahead and risk losing my desirability by pushing the baby out. No one in that room was going to be able to rescue me, and I wanted so dearly to “give birth” rather than “be delivered.” A half hour later I was holding my sweet son and feeling a surge of something that I’d never felt before: true power. Power that comes from having done something difficult and important, not the false power that is conferred by some man wanting to use my body. It was the culmination of the months of uncertainty that had begun with my daring to act on the best information I could gather in deciding a home birth was a reasonable option, despite the doomsayers with advanced degrees. God used the birth of my first child and the loss of a lifetime of dreams to take away the walls of unreality I’d built to survive my childhood. He used the second to begin reconstruction. In the process He planted seeds of compassion and humility. I put off resuming sex with my husband as long as I could and did kegels like mad, but I never dared ask him if he liked sex with me less. I tried to drown out the constant, nagging fear that he would leave me because I no longer attracted him or pleased him. Even if I had, and he had reassured me, I would have believed that someday he was going to run off with someone younger.

My third labor and birth was the sort that women would forfeit body parts to experience. I had learned something from the previous two births. I had learned to relax into it, so much so that I was able to doze between contractions. I essentially woke up ready to deliver, and the midwife didn’t even get her coat off before my daughter slid into the world. I was the first to notice she was the daughter I had longed for, that I had wondered if I was too unworthy as a woman to deserve. Again, fear too deep to name dogged me, but each birth restored a damaged part of me. I sat in my rocker for a month with my daughter, so incredibly delighted I didn’t want to move.

When I was forty- two weeks pregnant with my fourth child, the midwife did a heavy-duty manual exam to see if we could get things going, and discovered that I was having another breech baby. We were living in Dallas at the time, and had no back-up doctor, and not much time to make any decisions. We decided to have another home-birth as planned, since we both thought this baby would be relatively small. I remember that labor as a time of song and being overwhelmed with a supernatural peace. While not quite as quick as the previous baby, the breech birth was in some ways less difficult. When it was all over and we weighed my “littlest” baby, she was a full pound heavier than my firstborn breech, the one who doctors said I could never have delivered myself. I laughed such a laugh of freedom, and of pleasure, and yes, of power. Each birth brought me a piece of myself that had been distorted by fear and shame. Other women are no longer competitors. I learned, in a way much deeper than just head-knowledge, that women are powerful, whether or not someone “wants” them.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Lisa's Story

I am a survivor of both childhood sexual abuse and Rape as a young adult, but I am so much more than that. I am a woman, a mother, a wife, and a daughter. I am a soul. I have had many experiences in my life, some of which have been incredibly painful, some of which have been amazingly joyous. I have experienced love and hate, acceptance and rejection, protection and violation and so much more; so much that words escape me. As I write this, I ask myself, “What can I share? What can I offer?”

I can tell you that I have been on a healing journey for a longtime. Some of my healing has been specific to recovering from sexual abuse. Most of my healing has been about discovering me. My journey has been about seeking, and so, it has been a necessary and an important part of my process to move beyond the labeling of "survivor". Sure, I have had to admit and face the fact that I have been violated sexually. And in doing so I have learned that violation has many forms and presents in the subtlest of ways. Violation is self-hate, self-abuse, criticism, betrayal, deception, manipulation, judgment, cruelty, hostility, and all the places in my soul that I have separated from. I have learned that it doesn't t really matter, in the long run, what form violation takes, whether it is blatant or subtle, violation impacts the spirit regardless. It is the spirit, along with the wounded child, that needs attention and healing. It is through connection to my spirit that I have found healing.

My journey has been a journey to find myself, to become whole again, to reclaim all the parts of me that I either denied, cast aside, or was just unconscious of. It has been a journey to reclaim who I am in all my flaws and divinity and to learn to like that person. It has been a journey of self-discovery through self-responsibility - a process of looking at all the experiences I have had, both painful and joyous, and seeing the choices I have made and the intentions I have held, then seeing how I have created these experiences and finding the reasons for doing so. It has not been easy. It is not easy or pleasant to look at a painful experience and ask- "For what reason did I bring that into my life?” It is incredibly challenging to look at a person who has been cruel and unloving and ask - " What in me brings that person's hate or cruelty to me?” But these are questions that have been instrumental for me because they have been freeing. They have taken me away from being a victim and maintaining a position as a victim, and brought me back to myself.

A main part of my journey back to wholeness has been my work with a spiritual helper. Doing my healing through a spiritual path has broadened my perspective about everything and shaken up my perspective about everything. I have learned about spiritual law (self-responsibility, brotherhood/sisterhood, cause and effect), when in my life I am aligned with spiritual law, when I am disconnected, and what manifests. Some of the most intense work I have done is with a woman in Toronto, named Sagewalker.

She has offered a transformative process called, “Stages of Initiation, Divine Sexuality,” which focuses on one's expression of sexuality, to see where one is connected and disconnected from God. My personal work with Sage has been so helpful. I actually feel that I am reclaiming who I am. I actually feel that I am disconnecting more and more from those places in me that were drawn to, attached to, and connected to abuse. She has helped me to see the gifts in the challenges and helped me to honor and hold sacred the lessons that life brings to me. She has helped me to have compassion and love for myself.

When I think of myself as a mother, it is very clear that motherhood has been instrumental in my healing. The challenges and blessing that I have experienced as a mother are not only a part of my larger journey back to wholeness. They are also clearly related to my recovery from sexual abuse. When I contemplate how motherhood relates to my recovery from sexual abuse, I immediately think about the birth of my first child, my son. Before his actual birth, I still had the association of sex as violation. After he was born, I was able to see and feel the connection between sex/intercourse and life. I remember thinking to myself, " So this is what sex is meant for." It was as if the violation of rape dissolved once my son emerged from my body. It was so incredible and so freeing. It was amazing how immediate the letting go process was once I had a different association. I feel so grateful for that experience. Now that he is older, six and a half, I am aware of how important it is for me to teach him how to honor someone's boundaries and how to respect the word “NO.” I often ask myself how to teach him these important life lessons without tainting it with my own wounds or projecting my perpetrator onto him.

The issues and challenges that come up for me with my daughter are totally different than those with my son. I am acutely aware of how people respond to her. I have an overwhelming need to protect her and keep her safe physically. I want to insure that she likes her body, that she not experience shame about her sexuality or femininity. I wish for her to experience herself in a way that I did not experience as a child and that I am still seeking to experience as an adult. I also ask myself how I can bring my gifts and wisdom to her and show the world to her through the woman's eyes, rather than through the wounds.

One thing for sure about having kids, they bring up so much. Just when I thought I had it all figured out and all worked through, my kids remind me that I am still healing, and that my journey continues.

Today, as I reflect on my words to you, I have faith that I can heal and find the pleasure and self-love that I have been seeking for so long. I wish each and every one of you the best as you continue your own healing.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sarah's Story

I don’t remember how old I was when my dad started fondling me. I know I was always a very shy and withdrawn child. My dad was a heavy drinker and also read and looked at pornographic magazines.

My mom tried to instill her values in her children. I have two sisters and one brother. I went to private school for eight years. We went to church regularly (just Mom and children – Dad didn’t go), and also to prayer meetings at my grandparents’.

It seems ever since I can remember, I’ve always been very shy. I did not have a friend in school until I was in third grade. I always remember feeling inferior to my classmates.

About the abuse, my dad never had intercourse with me. He would fondle me and tell me to put his finger where it felt good. He would look at and touch my vagina under the covers at bedtime. I think I struggled so much with my abuse because a lot of times it felt good.

I remember one time carrying a blanket to the TV room, hoping my dad would fondle me underneath. One night I remember my mom had gone to bed, and we were up watching TV, my dad pulling me aside in the hallway and whispering to me to put his finger where it felt good. I did.

Sometimes I dreaded him coming to our room at night because I knew what he was going to do. I think sometimes I would turn over or pretend I was asleep if I didn’t want him touching me. Then he would go and touch my older sister. Sometimes I welcomed him touching me because it felt good, but it did make me feel shameful. He never made me touch him or have sex with him. I don’t know if he got aroused while touching me. I never saw his penis.

I guess my older sister got tired of him doing that, and she told my mom. I will never forget the day my mom called me to her room because she needed to talk with me. I just couldn’t go. She called me again, and I remember her asking me if Daddy had been touching me, and I told her yes. I remember feeling so ashamed I just wanted to disappear. I guess I felt like I was the one to blame because at times it was enjoyable.

She said to tell her if he ever did that again, and asked if I thought she should divorce him. (I don’t remember her asking me the latter question, but she told me she did.) I said yes, and my sister said no. I must have been nine years old. I guess my mom confronted him, because he never touched me again. I remember him starting to spend time with my younger sister and I wondered if he were doing that to her now. He would also tease me and try to make me jealous of my younger sister.

After my mom talked with me, it was never discussed again. I tried to forget about it and go on with life. I remember always feeling like something was wrong with me, like I was damaged somehow and not as good or worth as much as other people.

I started to act out during my teen years. It started in eighth grade. I stopped trying. I was always a good student and got good grades, but I started hanging around with another girl who had a lot of problems and we got into a lot of trouble at school. We would smoke and try to drink, disobeyed the teachers and just acted defiant. We were asked not to come back to the school.

Ninth grade was one of the worst years of my life. In addition to already being a difficult time in a girl’s life, I had to make the transition to public school after being sheltered in a small, private school. It was culture shock, and I didn’t go to school for the first two weeks. I was so scared. I would feel nauseous every morning, and got sick a lot of times. I skipped a lot of school my ninth grade year. I don’t know how I passed, but I did.

I was in a special class for kids with emotional problems. We would smoke before school, and I started smoking pot.

My tenth grade year was better, but I still skipped classes and didn’t try very hard, although I did like high school. I failed that year and was held back. I finished half a year and quit.

My parents were very disapproving and said I had to get a job. I worked part-time at K-Mart. That didn’t last too long, six months at the most. I just wanted to party, get high and drunk and hang out with my friends.

I was also becoming very promiscuous. It started in eighth grade, maybe ninth. It was like I couldn’t say no to guys. I did not have a very good reputation and I was so ashamed of it. I knew I was a good girl, and I knew better, but I couldn’t say no. So many times I remember not wanting to have sex, but just going along with it. I even slept with my best friend at the time’s boyfriend.

I was very self-destructive. I really hated myself and the things I did. I would get depressed a lot and just sit in my room and cry, and wonder what was wrong with me. I knew, though, that it was related to what my dad did to me.

I remember wanting to talk about it, and I did share it with a close friend for the first time when I was 15, maybe. She cried for me, but I just sat there thinking I should be crying too. But I was too detached from my real feelings.

My depression grew, and I was out of control. My parents could not control me and wanted to try to scare me. I ended up in juvenile detention for a few days. I think that was the most depressed I ever was or would be. I cried all the time. The whole time I was there I cried because I knew I didn’t belong there. It was very scary.

After that, I think I tried to do better, but soon fell back into my old ways. I would stay out all night, and did not listen to my parents. I ran away twice, once in ninth grade and again when I was 15 or 16. The first time I did not even want to run away, but a girl I was a friend with at the time did. So, I just went along with her. I was sick I was so scared. I just wanted to go home. Luckily a few days later a girl talked me into calling my parents.

The second time I ran away, I called my parents to let them know I was okay. So, by age 16 and 17, I didn’t have a job, and I just partied all the time, trying to escape the terrible feelings I had about myself. We drank a lot, and smoked a lot of pot.

One day I had a bad experience. I mixed pot and a prescription drug. I thought I was going to die. After that, I didn’t want to smoke anymore. I started to clean up, and that’s when I started getting anxiety attacks. I thought I was going crazy. One day, in a state of depression, I took a handful of pills and lay down to go to sleep. Thank the Lord my sister came to my room a little later, and I told her what I did. My dad rushed me to the hospital. That’s kind of a blur, but that’s when I finally started to get help. I was in the psychiatric ward for a few days, I think, and I had to talk to a therapist. I would cut myself with razors and burn myself. I had slashes on my wrist at the time (not deep). That’s also when I started dealing with my dad’s drinking. I couldn’t tell the counselor about what he did to me. I had to go see someone either every week or every other week. That’s when I learned how my dad’s drinking affected me.

That and a bad experience with pot and prescription drugs started me on my road to recovery. I smoked pot while taking a prescription drug, and I thought I was going to die. I didn’t want to smoke or drink after that. Then I started getting anxiety attacks. I thought I was going crazy. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I was starting to deal with past issues, some things I didn’t have alcohol or drugs to escape, and I couldn’t suppress my emotions any longer.

My anxiety got very bad and I didn’t want to leave my house. I would get sick after I ate because my nerves were so bad, and I was scared. I started reading about anxiety, and keeping a journal. I tried to start doing good things for myself, taking better care of myself. I didn’t want to take medication for the anxiety because I was too scared, and had stopped seeing the counselor. I would make myself do things, like go to the store or mall, or just for a walk. Gradually I got a little better and was able to get a part-time job.

My mom and I also started to become close during this time. She would pray with me, support me, just loved me, and listened to me. I tried to find another job that I liked better and found a position as a nanny, watching a nine-month-old baby. I really enjoyed this, and it also enabled me to move out with my older sister. I had just turned 18.

I was still struggling with anxiety, but found a boyfriend I really liked. One night he told me he loved me, and I got really scared and didn’t want to see him anymore. I did, but I was scared because I wouldn’t allow myself to love him. I was scared of being hurt and of falling in love. Thankfully, a few months later, we got back together and we’ve been together ever since.

At first it was very hard. We moved in together, although I didn’t feel ready for that. I started to get anxious and depressed again, and started feeling suicidal again. I still had not dealt with the sexual abuse, although I had talked to my boyfriend about it. I even confronted my dad and asked him why he did that, and asked him if that happened to him when he was younger. He said not, that he was sorry, but that it was in the past. I didn’t feel any better after talking to him. I was reading, “The Courage to Heal,” and that’s why I did it.

One night I just broke down with my boyfriend and told him I wanted to die. I knew I needed to get help. I started seeing a counselor, talking about the abuse, and reading everything I could about sexual abuse. Just talking to someone about it helped a lot. I didn’t feel like I was hiding such a shameful secret anymore. I started to accept myself, and forgive myself.

My boyfriend got a job offer in a city about an hour from where we lived at the time (my parents too). So, we moved. A few months later I found out I was pregnant. We moved back and lived with my parents and at my grandfather’s winter home until we could afford our own place.

Having a healthy baby was definitely the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had. I felt fulfillment like I never knew. I felt important and needed. I loved her so deeply and strongly it scared me. I loved staying home with her and taking care of her. Two and a half years later, I was pregnant again. We married when I was almost three months pregnant with the first baby.

We moved again and started being a real family. I’m so happy now. I never thought life could be so wonderful. I have a great relationship with both my parents. I love them deeply, and have forgiven them. My husband has been very supportive of me.

I still get anxiety from time to time, but now very rarely. Last year I started getting anxiety again, and I had to re-evaluate my life and the impact the sexual abuse had on me. It was hard. I saw a counselor for a few months. I still wonder if at times I should continue to see a therapist, as I lack self-confidence and still feel inferior to others at times. Sometimes I feel like I can’t really be myself, like I don’t really know myself.

I’m growing, and I’ve made a ton or progress. I’ll be 30 this year. Looking back, I see how God protected me and helped me. He really loved me when I was a confused and troubled teenager and I would cry out to Him for His help. It wasn’t always easy. We would sing a song at church that went, “Something beautiful, something good, all my confusion, He understood. All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife, but He made something beautiful of my life.” I would cry singing, because He did make something beautiful of my life. To God be the Glory!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Denise's Story

There is no question that my past abuse history had a major impact on my ability to handle even the thought of having children, my pregnancy, birth and adjustment to parenting.

From the moment I fell pregnant I went into a total depression – even before I knew I was pregnant. I felt exhausted, stressed, and irrational at times. It was really most unfortunate timing since my husband (then fiancĂ©) had just organized a wonderful trip to explore Britain and Europe, and we were to marry in Edinburgh just before New Year. I completely lost energy and any kind of joy or curiosity. Everything just felt extremely tiring and difficult.

Four days after our wedding we crossed the channel to France and I was horribly sick into somebody’s coke cup on board the ferry (much to the delight of the other diners, I am sure!) We gathered together our bits of French grammar and got a pregnancy test on the Champs-Elysees. Both tests were positive. I was quite happy about the pregnancy. It wasn’t totally convenient yet, since we had intended doing a lot more traveling, but we were committed and had intended to start a family soon anyway.

I had secret fears that I possibly couldn’t get pregnant, because I had had a termination when I was twenty-four. I had an IUD inserted and the gynecologist had not put it in correctly. I hadn’t realized because he had said that one could experience some pain for a while… so when it was painful and uncomfortable, I thought it was normal. I was at the point of a nervous breakdown when I realized I was pregnant at that time. I was a dancer with the City Ballet where salaries were extremely low and I was fast realizing that my fiancĂ© at the time was an incurable drug addict and a repeat of the “father” pattern. I became very ill and the doctor suggested the termination. All my fears of being abused and perhaps becoming an abuser or subjecting my child to someone who was an abuser came up. (My mother had also played on my fears a couple of years ago when I told her briefly about what had happened. She said that she was totally anti- abortion and that I would probably never be able to have children now. As usual it was much easier for her to make me out to be a bad person and to disempower me than to face the fact that my Father’s behavior had impacted my life so drastically. )

I was very nauseous and depressed for the rest of our tour. When I got home I knew there was no way I could stay in the same city as my parents. I just didn’t feel safe living in the same town as my father. Bruce was wonderful in that he understood, and he organized for me to move cities.

My parents were coming to the wedding and that threw me even deeper into stress and depression. On the one level, they were being very helpful, especially my mother with the making of the dress and decoration of the venue, but I had no way of feeling okay about my father who had reacted aggressively when I had first mentioned the wedding. I had fears that he wouldn’t be able to handle the jealousy and that he would go mad and stab my husband or me as he had threatened to do for so many years. There was definite underlying tension all the time and he kept going off and sulking or getting horribly drunk and high and there was major tension between him and my mother because he kept ignoring her. There was definitely an element of him behaving like the jilted lover. My mother was bitchy and sarcastic with me and made me cry in front of my friends, because of her jealousy and sense of rejection.

On the day of the wedding the tension grew partly because I refused to let my father give me away and my mother was making a big deal of it. At the reception he waited for Bruce to leave the room and then sidled over to me and in a lecherous way ran his hand across my back while I tried to edge away and then got his fingers inside the edge of my low-back wedding dress. It shocked me so much that I went completely blank for a few seconds. Then I turned around and saw that my mother had seen and that she was glaring at me like it was my fault, as usual.

That was a turning point for me. It just epitomized how it had been for all the years. I knew then that I had to get myself away from these people because nothing was ever going to change with them. No matter how much I fought not to be a victim I was just totally a victim in the family pattern and I would just have to break out completely to change anything. I gave up on the hope of normality on my family.

About a month later I went to meet my midwife, Donna and she asked if there was anything coming up for me and I told her about the abuse from my father. It is funny how people assume that abuse from a parent must be something from a long distance past. On my file she wrote that I had been abused and was still very angry about it- the implication being that I was harping on about something from the ancient past. She referred me to a clinical psychologist who works with her. The first day I went to see her what came out of that session was that it was imperative for me to have a complete break from my parents. I felt so relieved that I was finally getting support from her and from my gynecologist to protect myself and get away from these destructive people. I must say that there is almost a level of resentment that it took me getting pregnant first for anyone to take my plight seriously, so that it comes across that they were more concerned about my baby than me. It always seems that I don’t count! Even when the case went through the court again it was all aimed at the fact that I was pregnant and the baby needed protection, not necessarily me!

Anyway, during that whole thing I became so depressed that sometimes I could hardly move for three days at a time. I would just lie on my bed and fret or sleep or read and was only able to get up to go to the toilet or get food from the kitchen. I wanted to go to the gym or go for walks but I just couldn’t, and then my psychologist advised me to just go with this process since she realized that I had always avoided my feelings by being physically active. The dancing is probably what kept me sane, but it also stopped me thinking or feeling too much. Now it was affecting me so much that when my father tried to phone and I heard his voice while I was at a therapy session I spontaneously threw up. It wasn’t because of pregnancy nausea because I was well past this stage in my pregnancy- it was sheer nerves. I didn’t even speak to him, but it was enough to cause a severe physical reaction. I wrote a letter to my parents telling them not to contact me and I did as much as I could in terms of the court and protection. After that I started slowly feeling a little better but I was still chronically depressed.

I went to antenatal classes as my due date drew near…and then passed…and after a week and a half my midwife started panicking. I wasn’t worried because the baby was moving nicely and I even went to have a stress test to put my midwife’s mind at ease. I was getting ready for the imminent birth and I knew that your birth and psychological history can affect the whole birth process and I realized during therapy that the way it would probably affect me is that I would struggle to let go and lose control. I also knew that the whole nausea thing was a big issue, because for me nausea equals fear. My nerves were expressed in nausea and vomiting as a child. I thought that vomiting during the birth would be traumatic for me. So I prepared a copy of my abuse history and I gave it to my midwife Donna so that she would be aware of things that could trigger off a hold-up. She absolutely floored me by saying that other people give birth and don’t even mention abuse in their past and they get through it. I know that could be interpreted as a positive affirmation from her but it really sounded to me like she was saying that she wasn’t really interested and that I should stop being indulgent and just get on with it. We then had a fight about me having to do more tests etc. when I really felt that I just had to go home and relax so that I could go into labor naturally. She insisted on stimulating my cervix and when I said that I was nervous about the internal examination, she reacted as if I was being childish. I was stressing out as she listened to the baby’s heartbeat and when I stress I tend to hold my breath, so of course the baby’s heartbeat slowed for a few seconds. I tried to explain that I had held my breath and that it was definitely connected and we listened again and it seemed fine, but by the time I got home there was a disagreement going on between Donna (on the phone) and my husband about having to go for more tests. Donna and I got into a fight about destiny and I eventually went for another test just to shut her up, and again it was absolutely fine. By this stage Donna was definitely not my favorite person. I had found her extremely abusive, and she had threatened to withdraw from the birth if I got funny about internal examinations and said that I should get myself a “spiritual midwife” (in a derogatory tone.)

I had said that I wanted my birth to be really spiritual and my psycho-spiritual healer and counselor was going to be at the birth. So I felt that she was knocking my feelings, and spiritually disempowering me. It seemed to me, for some reason that my birth and me were bringing her “stuff” up rather dramatically. I know that she was very busy and stressed and in the process of moving etc. but I found her behavior unacceptable. I had to back down and placate her because I knew that I was about to go into labor and I didn’t have the confidence to do the birth myself, but I was tempted. The internal examinations weren’t originally such a big issue- I was just tense because it was the first one I had had, and because I had heard that cervical stimulation could be sore. As far as I am concerned, anybody gets tense for an internal examination whether they’ve been abused or not. In fact, speaking to other mothers in my antenatal group after the birth, they all said (unsolicited by me) that they found the internal examinations the worst of the whole birth – worse than the pain. I think her style is unfortunate too. She sort of closes her eyes and gets a goofy expression on her face and she kind of grunts, and breathes deeply. I don’t think she is lesbian (not that I have anything against lesbianism – lots of my friends are gay) but one gets that vibe somehow… it just doesn’t feel like a straightforward examination. Maybe it’s because she likes feeling the baby, but it feels creepy. I think midwives should be very aware of how they are doing it.

So I went into labor the next evening after typically cooking a huge pot of soup (the nesting thing.) After about two hours my contractions were getting really painful and were already about 2 minutes apart… so we phoned Donna. My husband first spoke to her because the contractions were too much for me to speak, but she seemed to want more information and then when I spoke to her I found her tone rather sarcastic (maybe because it was one in the morning?) She decided to come but from that moment my contractions slowed down and became less intense…my theory is that speaking to her and feeling the context of our very recent argument my body must have pumped some adrenaline into my system and that retarded the birth process. I was 4 cm dilated when she arrived. The contractions built up again but when I was 8cms something happened that just ground everything to a halt. Not the pain and contractions, but I stopped dilating and the labor didn’t progress – I was in transition for 6 hours!

What also affected me was the following incident: I was on my bed leaning forward on pillows, wearing my gown because it was cold and I was having some really big contractions. Next thing Donna whips up the back of my gown, exposing my bare behind and tells my husband to start massaging me. He, poor dear, had been standing by for weeks with massage oils and couldn’t wait to get started so he pounced from the back energetically …and it just totally freaked me out. I started screaming and told him to leave me alone.

The whole scene just brought up too much stuff all at once; the way my father used to humiliate me and make me pull down my pants and bend over the bath edge and made me stay like that while he looked at my exposed rear, and took his time before he whipped me with his belt…and the way he used to massage me or make me massage him, even in front of my brother as a “safe” way of molesting me in front of others and getting away with it. Waves of anger and resentment and fear filled me, and very little progressed in the labor for a long time. Donna also did an internal examination every hour or so and of course I now felt this was something I was being subjected to against my will or otherwise she would leave…so it was just like an abuse situation, “You’ll let me touch you there or else.” She kept saying things like “I’m going to give you another half an hour and then I’ll check and if nothing’s happening I want to give you drugs to increase the contractions.” So there was this time limit thing and I felt that I was supposed to be performing. She even said that my cervix was lazy! I felt like a disempowered failure…and my body was not okay and not to be trusted.

No one there realized the extent of mental trauma I was going through, because like a “good little girl” I just carried on breathing and toning – like a threatened little girl, and I tried to remain in control at all costs and not show the world what was really going on. About five hours later Donna told Joan (my counselor) that she felt that the hold up might be due to emotional issues. Joan hadn’t even realized what was going on. So Joan did some work with me to try to get me to “be real” and let go and scream if I need to. She tried to get me to use this opportunity to get in touch with the anger and to let it out. I had trained as a child not to scream, cry, or react to pain. I was threatened with another beating if I cried…so the letting go of control thing was nearly impossible, and even when I screamed it felt false.

Even though it was very hard for me, I tried, and after about an hour there seemed to be a breakthrough and things started to progress again. During that hour I lay on my side because I was totally exhausted by now. I think it was about 11 hours into this very active labor. Between contractions I would drift away into a different consciousness. I was still aware of everything but I seemed to drift into the past and into my feelings of resentment. At one stage I am sure I astral traveled…because I saw myself at my father’s work just looking at him in the passage and then drifted away and back into my body for the next contraction.

The whole pushing thing confuses me. I never felt this “overwhelming urge” to push. After a while I started experimenting with pushing gently during the contractions and I found that it helped with the pain. But Donna seemed to think that it was too soon to push, because I wasn’t displaying any urgency. Eventually for me it was just a conscious decision to push. I don’t know if this perhaps due to being a dancer and being very in control? Sarah, the second midwife, arrived during transition and she was amazed when I smiled at her and was very aware of what was going on. She remarked that it was nice to see someone still smiling at this stage. I think I cope exceptionally well with pain because of the physical abuse history as well as years of painful pointwork and physicality as a dancer, and then of course yoga/meditation techniques, as I am a yoga teacher as well.

So there was this weird misunderstanding or hold up as a result. I was waiting for permission and they were waiting for something that never happened. I just eventually said that it feels right to push. I pushed for one and a half hours before Xavier made his appearance into this world. He was a great big 4.1 kilos with a head circumference of 37cms. I was fortunate to have only a very small tear. The whole pushing process was very humiliating as well. I don’t know why midwives think that it’s comfortable to push with someone’s face staring up your fanny. They might be midwives, and to them it’s just another fanny, and they are used to seeing fecal matter and so on, but let me just say that when it’s my birth, it’s my fanny and fecal matter, and it’s all very new to me. Even my non-abused friends agree on this point. I felt very inhibited and they kept carting me around the room onto the bed with a leg up to the side…then back on my back, legs up, pushing on shoulders etc. I finally gave birth in a squat position of course because that was the only semi-private position available to me. When I give birth again I will definitely make sure I am left alone to get on with it myself.

I don’t want to seem horribly ungrateful to Donna and her efforts. At least I managed to have a home birth with no drugs and a partial water birth…I got back into the tub after the head crowned. At least I had a birth that was beautiful by comparison to most, at home, with flowers and candles and aromatherapy oils, etc. I just felt betrayed by her because she from the beginning said that she was very aware of abuse issues, and was into the natural way of birthing, and into empowering women, etc., but when “push came to shove” (if you’ll pardon the pun) we found her very conditioned by her medical background, and not very aware or empowering at all. I think a big factor is that she hasn’t given birth herself…so she doesn’t really know how it feels. No matter how much you read or see, it’s just not the same as doing it yourself.

Attached is a list of points, which my husband and I feel are critically important for any labor, whether the person is a “survivor”, or not. My husband had formulated them through extensive reading, and through our experience. He is a sociology researcher and a great promoter of the natural birth movement and stopping violent birth practices, as well as an advocate of the continuum concept/attachment parenting practices. I didn’t even know one could have a baby at home before I met him. My baby and I are lucky to have such an enlightened and aware dad around. Their bonding has been very special and unusual in this day and age.

I had no problem bonding and Xavier Angel latched on like a little trooper soon after birth. He is now six months old and we have a very good nursing relationship and he is thriving and his weight gain has stayed constant and above average. I have struggled to adjust but it hasn’t been too bad. The postpartum blues thing didn’t hit me in crying fits or anything like that. I just felt totally numb and feelingless for a few days, which was quite scary because I didn’t feel anything for Xavier.

As a mother, at first I was very much in the process of trying to show "I'm fine", "I can do this perfectly," and, “ I AM SUPERMOM!” (Which of course is also a "survivor" side effect.) But looking back now I can see the effects more clearly. One major issue for me is that I felt really watched. I had just come out about the years of abuse, and now I felt that everyone was watching me to see if I was going to abuse my child. This is because of that popular psychology theory (which is very destructive) that became very popular in the seventies, and which I actually read as a child while I was being abused. It made me even more fearful and scared of telling anyone what was happening because I felt branded or ruined for life.

Even as a child I was such a nurturing type of person that the thought that I might one day be a terrible mother was absolutely horrible... my fears regarding that were largely instrumental in my deciding to have an abortion later in life. I have met many other survivors who haven't had children for the same reason. It’s ironic that because of 20 years of my father threatening to kill me I opted to end my own child’s potential life rather than bring it into this “unsafe” planet.

Since I fall into the category of the "good little girl" or “over-achiever” type victim, I have put enormous pressure on myself to be the world's most perfect mother. I have this constant inner battle between sacrificing myself and nurturing myself too. I read and study all the right ways of doing things... just after my baby was born I started studying developmental psychology. I am also following the Jean Liedloff, Continuum Concept ideas and the Dr Sears, attachment style parenting system. It is quite sad, because the most important thing should be just to relax and be, and tune into your inner wisdom, which I also try to do... but with me there is desperation behind it... a need to prove that I'm okay.

Because my spirituality is very important I struggled to remain with my original psychologist and then went to a psycho-spiritual healer and lifeline counselor. She really helped a lot with adjusting to my new life as a parent and the birth etc. I try to read a lot on developmental psychology, child abuse, and various spiritual teachings. But I’ve learnt to not be too caught up in the spiritual stuff, because you can wind up being a bigger victim for it. For instance “respect your elders” is very biblical or part of many teachings but so many “elders” deserve no respect at all. And how can you “forgive” if the abuser just takes that as an opportunity to abuse you more? I spent years trying to be a “good person”, and forgive my father or “let go”, but he just used that to continue abusing me up until the age of 31!

The one thing that I also really struggle with is staying "in body". I often just drift off, and go to that place of "nothingness" that I went to when I was being tortured and abused. So sometimes, although I am totally there for Xavier in a physical sense, mentally and spiritually I am miles away. When I catch myself I obviously bring myself back quickly. The problem is that I think through all the years of trauma I have developed the kind of detachment that Buddhist monks spend whole lifetimes trying to achieve. I fully realize it can be a very good thing in the larger context of the meaning of life, but sometimes it worries me in terms of parenting.

I don't think it is affecting Xavier too much… He is a very happy chappie. We are very bonded and loving with each other, and he gets a lot of touch-although-that brings me to another side effect. I find that I touch him a lot less in public. My mother was very touch phobic and my father was totally touch invasive, and I lived with the whole secretive touch thing. I have an automatic reflex to give him a lot more space in public and I suppose that it ties in with the whole thing that I am scared that people will think that I am an abuser. Don't you think that it is just totally unfair? I've lived through the whole ordeal myself and now I am permanently scared that people will think that I am the perpetrator.

I find that I am also surrounded by people who just don't want to know. They have a "just get on with it" and stop delving in your “stuff” reflex. I know that it is because they are not dealing with their own stuff, and my honesty and openness bugs them. It is so weird being in this healing process, (which is one of the amazing things that children bring us!) and everyone just wants you to shut up and pretend, and wear the mask.

Key Birthing Tips

* Being relaxed and being able to maintain this is pivotal

* Also absolutely essential is the woman must learn to have self-reliance and empowerment, backed by a strong feeling of inner calm.

* Respect the woman’s intuition.

* Respect the wisdom of the woman’s body

* Those present must have a harmonious relationship with the mother. Any disruption of trust or trace of conflict can disrupt the labor badly. Be confident enough and able to have anyone you’re uncomfortable with in any way leave immediately (including your midwife or family or doctor.)

* The birth experiences of those present have a profound impact on the labor. The mother has to process it.

* The more we encourage a woman to find her voice, tell the truth, let go and be all that she is and feels during pregnancy, the less likely pathology will develop in labor.

* Patience in all aspects of labor – especially if the woman birthing is calm about the situation.

* “I had the overwhelming feeling that what we needed to do was nothing.” (Elizabeth van der Ahe, midwife)

*“My real work as a midwife has been to get out of the way and let women do their work.” (June Whitson, CNM)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lena's Story

When you remember, you remember...Sounds a bit like Yogi Berra in a TV commercial. But for me, the words ring a profound truth.

In the autumn of 1998, right after I began therapy for incest, I attended a conference for survivors. I felt so jealous of the people who had always clearly remembered their abuse.

If one recovers from an illness, this presupposes one becomes ill. I became symptomatic when my son was born; I began recovering after my mother died.

Before my husband and I conceived our son, I recalled my father being “inappropriate” with me as a baby. I also remembered a babysitter I had at the age of four whom I hated. Only after my mother’s death did I connect the two incidences.

My pregnancy was fraught with challenges. After a medical miscarriage in my mid-thirties, it took 6 more years to conceive and carry to full term. A positive AFP test resulted in an amniocentesis, which was rescheduled twice because the needle wouldn’t go in. My husband and I had a fight on the way to a party and I walked back to our apartment: 5 months pregnant at night, 48 blocks. The baby turned breech days before the window closed negating a vaginal delivery. He turned back around just in time! Finally three days and 23 hours of intermittent labor ended in a “dry birth” and my son was whisked off to ICU for 3 days.

Our baby was bright, beautiful, and high-strung. I saw his life fraught with unknown, unnamed perils lurking behind every door. Breastfeeding was easy but the infant fed every 2 hours. My family of origin was supportive but tiring- alcoholism, cancer, death, and heart disease. My husband’s finances spun out of control. I slowly dissolved.

When my mother died in 1998, I regained the courage to fight for myself. I looked up “incest” in the phone book and found a therapist who is one of the most knowledgeable, professional, generous, kind human beings I’ve ever known. With her guidance and the help of a support group, I finally recalled being orally raped when I was 4 years old. Afterwards, the babysitter (the perp’s wife) had knotted my hair into a hair-pulling braid to remind me never to tell anyone what had happened to me under her care.

So when I remembered, I remembered. The myriad, jumbled pieces of my life finally began to fit. When I remembered WHY my hair was done in a high fashion “do” that day in 1951, I could cease compulsively pulling out my body hair. When I remembered my self betrayed at a gut-wrenching level, I understood why I married a man who is emotionally unavailable. When I remembered the child sexual abuse, I knew exactly what my therapist meant by “Your life sounds so exhausting.” Yes, it’s tough running the marathon with a hole in your heart.

My greatest pain could be how erratic my parenting has been- to my pre-teen son as well as to my 30-year-old stepdaughter. So I talk with them- age appropriately- about alcoholism, compulsions, tricky people, self esteem, and so on.

A baby is a process, not a product. With the help of my therapist, husband, friends and support group I transformed myself from victim to survivor. I feel now I’m an adventurer. My life is not a scripted play. Every moment can bring surprises, challenges- the rediscovery of who I really am. It’s not easy coaxing adventure from chaos, but at least now I get to choose to do so.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Hope's Story

My mother left my father, my little sister and I when I was 5 years old. It’s very hard for me to separate the damage that was caused by sexual abuse from the damage caused by my mother’s abandonment (especially when it comes to my mothering journey). Then I have to consider what damage my father’s neglect and emotional abuse following the divorce caused. I was a pretty mixed-up kid. However, I don’t think very many survivors out there are only dealing with sexual abuse. Life is never that simple. So I’ll tell my story as best I can, for this all part of who I am.

It was May 3, 1971. I was 3 ½ years old. While playing outside with a couple of older neighbor boys, I was sexually violated with a stick after being bribed with candy to remove my clothing. The pain was so intense that I was unable to pee for over 24 hours and was eventually taken to see my family doctor. After the whole story came out, my parents were shocked into silence. They didn’t speak a word to me all the way home and the incident was never referred to again.

My child’s mind knew exactly what was going on. I had done a very bad thing. Apparently there was something wrong with me and I had embarrassed my dear parents with the knowledge that their little girl had a defect. No one mentioned to me that it might not be my fault; no anger was directed toward my “playmates”. I was cast adrift in a sea of pain and silence. It was then that I internalized two very profound teachings. 1) It was OK for people to hurt me and 2) It was not OK to tell anyone about it.

I guess that was when I got the invisible “tattoo” that so many survivors talk about. The one that tells every creep and degenerate out there that I’m easy pickings. The “victim sign”. I was abused by my elders and my peers over the next 15+ years. When I finally gathered up enough courage to tell someone again I was 11 years old. I received such a long and abusive lecture from my father on how evil I was for spreading those ugly lies that I buried my secrets and went on in silence, again. I entered puberty under the impression that the sexual abuse had damaged me so badly that I would never be able to conceive. I now know that this belief is fairly common among survivors, in fact, two other survivors passed it on to me. One of them was my aunt. My mother’s little sister has accused her parents of sexually abusing her (among other things.) Her only “proof” has been that not once in her fairly promiscuous life has she ever conceived a child. My aunt and a school friend of mine both confided in me, separately, that due to early childhood sexual abuse their doctors had assured them that they would never bear children. I both believed and feared that the same fate had befallen me. Surely I was too badly damaged to become pregnant. I began field-testing this theory and proved myself wrong when I was 18.

I quickly made an appointment and got the abortion I desperately wanted. The procedure went well. I was well supported. I recovered easily. I have no regrets. The relationship I was in was turning abusive and I am grateful that I was able to leave him, no strings attached.

At 19 I met the man of my dreams. David was my only experience of love at first sight. We married quickly and decided early that we would never have children. We used to sit in restaurants watching young families and count the reasons why we did not want to be like them. It all seemed so noisy, messy and chaotic. We didn’t need the trouble.

Ben was an old friend of David’s. He was one of our roommates back when David and I first moved into student housing together. He was kind, eager to please and very attracted to me. It took quite awhile before I realized what was happening. David was absorbed in Graduate studies and a full-time job. I was a homebody who did a little theater work for “candy money” and watched too many soap operas. I didn’t want to sleep with Ben but I had no clue how to say No. He was persistent in his pursuit of my favors and, eventually, I allowed myself to be seduced. I was too ashamed of what I had done to tell my husband. I was also unable to extinguish Ben’s desire for me and unsure of my own true feelings for him. When I became pregnant with Ben’s child I was devastated.

I was willing to abort if Ben never found out. David refused to keep silent and pretend nothing had happened, so I chose to find a childless couple to adopt my baby. I spent one last highly emotional week with Ben early in my pregnancy while David was out of town and then cut off communication completely. I allowed David to convince me that Ben did not love me and that there was no hope of a future with him. I knew that if the child I were carrying were a boy, I would have no choice but to give him up. I was unable to imagine David raising Ben’s son as his own; it seemed too unpleasant for all of us. I prayed for a girl.

My pregnancy was awful and miraculous. I loved being pregnant even while I hated all the pain it caused David. I would stay awake at night holding my belly and crying. I wanted to be able to love my child without having it hurt everyone so much. Our families were dumbfounded by the idea of us giving our child away. My friends told me that I’d never forgive myself. My stepmother offered to raise the child for us as my half-sibling. I had to say something to her, something that would make her stop hounding me about my decision. I told her I’d been raped. It became my truth. It did have some truth to it and it became easier and easier to tell to people as time went on. I told it to my family, my in-laws, my doctor, our adoption worker, the couple we’d chosen to raise my child and eventually, my midwives.

I wanted to birth at home. I had attended a friend’s homebirth a couple of years back as a support person for their 2-year-old son. I had already developed an acute fear of hospital birth. I knew I would not do well under a doctor’s “control”; it still makes me queasy imagining it. I began prenatal care with a female OB while my search for a midwife began. I had already rejected one when I realized that the author of the book I was reading on birthing lived in my town. I decided that she was the one for me but she had serious misgivings about my having a homebirth when I did not intend to keep my child. Better to give birth elsewhere and not have to live with the memories of the birth in my home space. Lucky for me she happened to run a birth center not too far from my home. I decided to have my baby there instead. I met my midwife’s partner when I began going to the birth center for my prenatal care. I felt very blessed to have two such warm and loving women caring for me.

At some point in my last trimester, I told my midwives my cover story about having been raped by a friend. Probably to avoid some pointed question about my reasons for giving my child away. The effect it had was profound; it transformed our relationship. I became a special case, I suppose. I know that they really wanted to help me keep my child despite my husband’s objections. I don’t believe they had ever come up against a problem they couldn’t solve and they were determined that I would not be an exception!

I went in for my 35-week check and was given an internal exam as a matter of course. They wanted to get a sense of how my body was arranged before labor started in order to better gauge the changes I would undergo during labor. I don’t know how or why but I was found to be 50% effaced and 2 cm. dilated. Under normal circumstances this would have been a bad sign. I would have been advised to rest and try to avoid having the baby before 37 weeks. They might have begun to talk of transferring me into the care of an OB. Instead they took it as cause to rejoice. My belly was big enough for them to convince everyone (including me) that my dates had been wrong. I was told that my baby was full term and it seemed that David was most likely the baby’s father. I was told that I would have a baby by the weekend (this was a Wednesday). I went home in a fog. Deep down, I knew that my dates were right, I was keeping very close track of my cycles, but I wanted to believe them so much. I prayed and squatted and walked all week long trying to speed things up. By Sunday, I was a mess. I didn’t know what to think or who to believe anymore. David was only slightly more interested in his own child than he was in Ben’s. We did select our baby names during those days of waiting, but they were only chosen to look good on the birth certificate 18 years later when he or she found it.

Late Sunday night my backache began and we headed off to the birth center. Everyone was tense, edgy, waiting for the answer to the unspoken question, “whose baby is this?” My body fought giving birth. I didn’t want to let go. It was too soon. I’d only gotten 8 months of pregnancy and I wasn’t ready yet. I remember repeating the word “open” over and over through clenched teeth, a classic symptom of childbirthing fear. It’s a miracle that I was able to dilate at all. I stalled out at 9cm in my body’s last-ditch effort to avoid letting go of my baby. No such luck, the midwife between my legs reached in and pushed my cervix over the baby’s head. She was born with the cord wrapped around both her neck and her body. My body had done all it could to hold her back but here she was, a perfect little girl. As the midwife lifted her up onto my belly, I swear that she looked at me and said “Hi.” (I’m not the only one who heard her say it either.) She looked enormous to me and as I held her to my breast, I felt my heart burst with joy and break from pain all at once.

She was born at only 36 weeks. The midwives checked and double-checked every feature of her tiny body looking for signs of her being term. Finally they regretfully agreed on her age although the quickly added that while she was born early she was in no way premature. She weighed in at a very healthy 8lbs. 13 oz. They even sent a sample of her cord blood in to the lab to have it typed in case that could tell us anything about her true paternity. It was the same blood type as mine. No help there either. Looking back I can’t help but appreciate everything they did for me, for all of us. We called the adoption worker to come down to the birth center. That really flustered the midwives who were busy with another birthing mom at the time. They thought she was going to take her away right then and there but I wanted my baby to come home with me, and David reluctantly agreed to it.

The ride home was tense and silent. We both knew what an impossible choice we were facing. The reality of raising a child we didn’t even know if we really wanted was overwhelming but the idea of giving her away forever was like a knife in my heart.

She was born on a Monday. We brought her home Tuesday. On Thursday, we called our family to announce that we were going to keep our little girl. I knew that if I had given her away I would only want to replace her. Neither of us felt it made sense to give away the perfect child in our arms just to turn around and try again. I can’t even imagine how hard it must have been for David to agree to keep her. I hope I never have to experience such a decision myself.

All of a sudden, I was a mother. I had not prepared for it. I had read no books, gotten no advice, made no plans. All I remembered of my own mother were the traumatic events that led to her leaving and the weekend visits when I was older. I had no clue what I was doing. I did know one thing, though. I knew that I was going to protect her from sexual abuse. My mother’s family has a history of sexual abuse that goes back into obscurity. It had touched every family member I knew, but it was not going to happen to my baby. I became the ultimate “attachment parent”. I never left her with anyone I didn’t fully trust. I slept with her in my bed for years. I taught her the word “Stop” and I made sure everyone respected it when she used it. I taught her that everyone has a right to their own space. I avoided any mention of sexual abuse persay, but made certain she was safe and strong. It was a lot of work. I didn’t go out alone much. I couldn’t take a job because I was terrified of leaving her in daycare. It ticked off more than a few people who didn’t think tickling a child was a big deal, even after she said, “Stop”. It wasn’t easy for me but I knew what I had to do in order to live with myself. I was obsessed, but happy.

Then, one day last fall when my daughter was 7, we were laying on my bed talking when the topic turned on sex. I can’t remember why or how, but my daughter pressed me in to giving her information on sexual abuse. I knew it would happen eventually. I’d been involved in survivor support groups on the Internet for 6 months or more by then. She couldn’t be kept in the dark forever. Anyway, she asked me questions for awhile before I broke down and decided to give her the information she wanted as simply and gently as I could. I told her that there were adults in this world who liked to have sex with children.

She was stunned. It took her a second or two to process this new information. She looked at me incredulously and said, “Mom, that’s so gross” or some other equally sophisticated comment like that.

That’s when I felt it. This power surge, this overwhelming feeling of success, of achievement. It’s hard to find the words to express how complete I felt at that moment, how triumphant. “I did it! I won! I broke the chain of abuse, here and now. It’s over.” My little girl won’t grow up with the shame of sexual abuse in her life. Even if someone raped her now it wouldn’t be the same. She would know she could tell, she would know it’s not her fault. Sexual abuse needs silence in order to thrive; it only grows in the dark. My daughter no longer has those vulnerable dark places in her soul. She is no longer ignorant about abuse; she can no longer be shamed into silence. She will never believe that it was her fault. She now knows the truth and somehow, that truth had set us both free. My years of hard work and dedication to her safety paid off big for me. I now hope to be able to help others work through the hidden wounds of childhood sexual abuse or, even better, protect other mothers’ children from ever experiencing it at all.

If I could give only one gift to my daughter, to all daughters, it would be for her to have all the knowledge, all the strength and all the self-assurance to allow her to choose if, how and when she becomes a mother herself. I feel that childhood sexual abuse took that choice out of my hands, and, while I feel very blessed to be a mother now, I cannot help but wish that I had been able to embrace motherhood willingly. If I cannot have that experience for myself, I will do my utmost to create it for my child.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Kristy’s Story

I'm only 36 now, but I have shared my story with so many groups and people that the trauma has been diluted by the years and retellings. The pain associated with the original events has been replaced by insight, understanding, and reframing. I have come to regard those aspects as more important than my story itself.

My father first approached me sexually when I was 13, the summer between seventh and eighth grade. I had been washing dishes, with my two younger sisters playing with Play-Doh at the kitchen table behind me. Without warning, my father came up to me from behind, put his arms around me, and thrust his hands down the front of my shorts. I was shocked not only because my father was touching me in a sexual way, but especially because I was mid-menstrual period and still adjusting to the teenage angst and awkwardness of wearing maxi-pads.

My first thought was to yell or to fight him off, but I didn't want to alarm my younger sisters, who were only 7 and 9. Instead, I slipped from his grasp and walked through our laundry room to the back door. He managed to stop me before I could walk out, restraining me by running one hand back down my shorts, fondling one of my breasts with the other, and kissing my neck as he rubbed his penis against my butt.

I gathered my wits, shoved open the door, and extricated myself from his grip. As I stared at him incredulously, he uttered the completely unoriginal but completely predictable line, "Don't tell your mother.” What he hadn't bargained for was my quick response of, "That's exactly what I intend to do." I brushed by him back into the house to find my mother. He made no attempt to stop me.

I found my mother in an upstairs bedroom vacuuming out a closet. She was a high school teacher who used her summer breaks to catch up on housework. Later I came to realize cleaning was part of her unconscious strategy to keep busy enough to avoid dealing with more pressing household problems.

I turned off her sweeper and told her, "Your husband just put his hands down my pants." Although he was my biological father, at that moment I couldn't seem to bring myself to call him 'dad' or 'father." It was a feeble attempt to create some distance between him, me, and the event that had just transpired. Mom's reaction brought me back to the here and now.

"Are you sure?" I was more stunned by her question than I had been by my father's inappropriate sexual behavior.

"Of course I'm sure," I responded. "Why would I make up something like that?” But the damage had been done. She had managed to wipe out 13 years of mother/daughter trust with three words. Twenty-three years later, I still have not reassigned to her the trust she lost from me that day.

To her credit, Mom did stop cleaning the closet and went to find my dad. I have no idea what she said to him, but she immediately came back into the house and called a mental health clinic in a nearby city and got them an appointment for later that day. Mom took my sisters and me to my maternal grandmother's house a mile down the road, where they spoke in hushed tones for most of the rest of the morning. Not once did she ask me how I felt or even offer a platitude, such as, "Everything will be okay."

My older sister, 15, had spent the night at a friend's house. My mother called there and told the parents to drop her off at Grandma's instead of at our home. When she arrived, my mother took her aside, whispered what had happened, and she burst into tears. It turned out my father had been violating her sexually for the past two years, but she had been scared and honored his request to not tell anyone. My reporting of Dad's incestuous behavior had forced her secret out in the open. Instead of feeling relieved, she resented me for it. "See all the trouble you've stirred up," she hissed. "You and your big mouth."

Mom and Dad went to see the counselor later that day in what was to be both their first and last visit. Dad spent the night in a trailer we had set up by the lake at the back of one of our farms. He was back at the table the next morning for breakfast, sitting in his usual chair. It must have been some therapy session, to have "cured" the problem in only one hour. Even my 13-year-old's sensibilities bristled at the notion. Nothing was said about the previous day's incident. I found this unbelievable and maddening. My father emerged unscathed; while I became the villain for reporting he had molested me. Back in 1977, awareness of and treatment for child sexual abuse was virtually non-existent. The resources simply weren't in place to handle reporting and prosecution of the perpetrators, let alone counsel the victims. I had done what I could to the best of my knowledge and ability: I had told a trusted adult. Unfortunately, I had no control over what she did or did not do with the information.

Home life grew increasingly stressful. It was awful to live with someone who had molested me and my sister, especially when he knew nothing was going to happen to him for what he had done. Why shouldn't he try it again? I started carrying a knife with me everywhere. Bathing was especially traumatic, as we had two doors on the bathroom and neither of them locked. Part of me worried he would try and touch me again, while another part dared him to so I could have the satisfaction of using the knife.

In addition to being sexually abusive, my father was physically abusive. He always had been. When his temper flared, he would cuss a blue streak, throw things, and hit people. Naturally, I was his favorite target. While I could not prevent him from striking me, I wouldn't give him the satisfaction of crying when he did. It was one of the few family power struggles I won, if you could call it winning.

Once I tried to talk to my mom about taking us away from there to live somewhere else. Okay, what I asked her was, "Why don't you divorce the son of a bitch?” She looked at me as if I were crazy and asked me what people would think if she did that to my father. "He's worked so hard to buy these farms. It wouldn't be fair to make him lose them in a divorce." The irony of the situation didn't escape me. She was more concerned with the opinions of others and my father's career than she was with the safety of her own children.

About the only thing I had control over in my life was my attitude. I threw myself into my studies at school, sports, band, piano lessons, quiz bowl, student council, and anything else that would take me out of the house. To the rest of the world, I appeared to be a healthy, fun-loving, talented child. I did what I was asked around the house and farm, but treated my parents with a barely-concealed contempt. It was my way of creating distance between them and me. For their part, when my parents grew frustrated at me or feared I might share the family's secrets with outsiders, they would threaten to send me to the local juvenile home. I think they reasoned the threat of being sidelined from my school activities would make me more compliant. In truth, my real fear was that my father would take advantage of my absence and molest one of my younger sisters. I felt as if I were walking a tightrope. I reined in my blatant contempt for them and settled into a routine of quiet distain and bitterness.

My attitude effectively kept my parents at bay and restricted my father from trying to molest me again, save a couple of occasions. Both times I let him know to leave his hands off of me. I have no idea if he continued to molest my older sister, as she has never talked about it, except in the vaguest of terms. Ironically, Dad insisted on giving us dating advice. He would make comments like, "Men are only after one thing." Never one to miss an opportunity, I replied, "You should know."
I spent several years hating men and as a teen and young adult took great malice in sexually attracting men, using them, and then dropping them once they became emotionally attached to me. My over-sexualized behavior, along with the development of anorexia and bulimia shortly after I was molested, are now regarded as textbook indicators of underlying sexual abuse. But back then, I had no idea they were compulsive coping mechanisms.

To say I developed "control issues" would be an understatement. I had learned at 13 that I could trust neither men nor women. It was a disturbing revelation that led me to be highly independent. Most of the men I met and seemed intent on hurting (before they could hurt me, of course) were actually nice guys whom I had attracted via my good qualities. Even though that registered intellectually with me, I never allowed the knowledge to penetrate the tight hold I had on my emotions. I wanted to be close to people, but feared if I let them get close they would betray me as my parents had.

This changed when I was 23, following a vicious argument I got into with my older sister, whose family lives on the farm across the street from my parents' farm. I don't even remember what we were fighting over, but she had phoned my dad and told him I had come over and caused trouble with her. When I walked back to my folks' place, he stormed out the front door, eyes blazing, and punched me in the shoulder without asking any questions. I felt so angered by his aggression that I shoved him backward and kicked him. He yelled at me to leave his property. I surprised both of us when I yelled back; "I don't have to follow orders from anybody who would molest his own children."

My words completely took the wind out of his sails. His reply was, "Whew, I can't believe you still think about that." I turned and began the litany I had unconsciously been formulating for 10 years. "I think about it every day. I think about it every time I meet a nice man and can't let myself trust him. I think about it every time I'm afraid to think about having children because someone like you might molest them. I think about it every time when I wish I'd gone away to college instead of commuting from home so I could protect my younger sisters from you. I think about it every time I can't let myself relax and enjoy life like other people seem to be able to."

Those are just a few of the comments I recall from my rant. But as I rambled, my older sister walked over from her house, sobbing, and put her arms around me. My father suggested we not talk about it any more, but I told him I had waited 10 years to say these things and he was going to start listening to me RIGHT NOW. Inside my mother's kitchen, where Dad had initially molested me, I told both him and my mother how little respect I had for them and how their behavior had negatively affected my life and limited my choices. I told them I was sick of carrying around their secrets and tired of being blamed when I had in fact been the victim. It was the first honest communication we'd had in years and all of us ended up crying. As a result, part of the family burden was lifted.

Over the next four years, I was able to rebuild my relationship with my father. I learned he had grown up in a highly dysfunctional environment and that his alcoholic father and one of his brothers had also been sexually inappropriate toward other family members. I would love to be able to say we established the kind of love and trust that usually develops between characters toward the end of Disney films, but that was not the case. I was able to care about and enjoy Dad from the perspective of a competent adult who is no longer vulnerable because she knows her strengths, weaknesses, and options. And unlike many women, I did get to hear from him the most highly coveted phrase: "I'm sorry."

A longtime smoker, my father died of lung cancer when I was 27 and he 56. I truly miss him and the relationship we had developed. Despite molesting me and my sister, he had lots of admirable qualities. At the time he died, I had not yet had children, so I was spared announcing the decision I had made long ago: Dad would not be allowed access to my children unless under my direct supervision. I might not be able to alter history, but I could prevent it from repeating itself.

My relationship with my mother hasn't improved much. On the rare occasions when I have brought up her role in my childhood drama, she still defends herself for not protecting us. Her explanations today ring as hollow as they did then. Through my adult eyes, I see her fear, helplessness, and ineffectiveness as deeply embedded character flaws that influence her behavior in most areas. As a child I took her reactions and inaction personally. As an adult, I know they say more about her than about me.

From hearing and reading other women's sexual abuse stories, I know mine is not at the severe end of the spectrum. Many women had it much worse over a much longer period of time, frequently at the hands of multiple perpetrators. But I think we are bound together by the universal feelings of fear, distrust, and betrayal that have continued to affect our outlooks and relationships long after the sexual abuse stopped. As when a nuclear bomb is detonated, the fallout/exposure is worse than the initial explosion.

I've spent money on therapy and time in support groups to deal with the effects of growing up in a sexually dysfunctional family. I stopped this guided exploration of my past in my late 20's because I found the process to be more recovery sabotaging than empowering. I found I'd researched more into sexual abuse dynamics than had most therapists and I tired of educating them at my expense.

Frankly, I can't regard my parents' behavior toward me as "victimization." I think the word "victim" implies an intent that was simply not there in my case and isn't there in most other sexual abuse incidents. I prefer the term "object of sexual abuse" because I think it more accurately reflects the objectification that must occur in order for the sexual abuser and his/her secrecy collaborators (i.e. my mother) to carry through with their selfish behaviors. I have come to view sexual abuse as an unhealthy way the abuser uses the abusee to get his/her needs met. A true victim is someone who was helpless in a situation. In my case, I did what I could to the best of my abilities to cope with what was going on. I didn't shut up and put up like my father requested and I used what options I had available.

I always wonder what a dramatic difference would be made if the first responder professionals in sexual abuse cases made it clear to the abusees that they were 'objects' versus 'victims.' They could actually tell someone, "It looks like you just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time when someone tried to use you for their own sexual gratification.” Such a reframing would arouse a natural, healthy anger at being used, rather than induce shame. Surely it's more recovery enhancing to recognize you were more pawn than prey.

I also resist describing myself as a "survivor" of sexual abuse, for that implies a nobility of behavior that simply wasn't there. I only did what I could to get my needs met under less than desirable circumstances. Such is life.

Parenting is an arena where I can see the progress I have made in processing my childhood sexual abuse experience. There was a time when I vowed never to have children, probably because I feared what might happen to them at the hands of another family member or a perverted stranger. Then I went through a phase where I wanted to become a parent to a son or two, probably because I felt sons were somehow safer than daughters from potential sexual abuse. I'm now seven months pregnant for my first child and welcome the possibility of having a daughter. While I recognize I could not possibly prevent everything bad from happening to her, I feel I would transmit to her the resiliency to handle whatever life might send her way.

I don't spend a lot of time worrying about all the bad things that might happen. My time would be better spent developing healthy self-esteem with which to deal with life's uncertainties and misfortunes.

I visualize the medieval castles and how their moats were used as a perimeter defense to protect from outside attackers. I spent years cultivating a strong perimeter defense so others could not penetrate it and harm the part of me I hid inside. It was quite the screening process and required 24-hour vigilance. As a result, I was lonely and miserable in my safety. In that way I ended up victimizing myself.

I worked six years as a probation officer and in that time handled several cases involving sexual abuse. A lot of criminal justice and corrections employees have trouble dealing rationally with this population. But I believe I was able to proceed relatively objectively and comfortably with the perpetrators on account of my experiences with my father. I also did a counseling internship with an agency that treated sex offenders and other sex addicts. That further reinforced to me that they are more than just the sum of their deviant behavior. While I don't believe sexual addiction can be cured, I do believe it can be managed. And although my view is not popular among those who believe sex offenders should be taken out and shot, it nevertheless is informed by both personal and professional experience. How many people can say that? I fail to see where a polarized view of sex offenders as "evil" serves anyone.

My own sexual abuse and the pretense that surrounded it have given me very little tolerance for other kinds of secrecy. I was especially disturbed by the "don't ask/don't tell" posture adopted by the military with regard to gays in its ranks. Either let them in or keep them out, but stop pretending that what people know is going on isn't really happening. How unfair to purposely put people into the middle.

As a stepparent and mother-to-be, I know the quality of my relationships with the other sex is a reference point for how the children develop their own relationships. While my husband and I definitely have our moments, we demonstrate love, physical affection, and respect on a daily basis. This is something I never saw in my family of origin and had to learn largely through trial and error.

I believe that when I have my baby and begin to rear him/her I will pass on the characteristics of strength and insight so the child will be able to cope effectively with whatever and whomever life sends his/her way. I plan to communicate these concepts more through my actions than through my words.

When the child is old enough, I will make available my journals and other writings that speak to important emotional issues. More importantly, I will try to actively listen to and believe the concerns my child brings to me.

In addition to love, I plan to make trust and consistency the hallmarks of our parent-child relationships. For I know their loss is far more devastating than the physical violation of sexual abuse.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Elizabeth’s Story

My one recurrent prayer in high school was to live long enough to move out of my parents’ house. Every night at bedtime I had wanted to kill myself. Images of me dead, ways of dying, and an overwhelming sense of oppression invaded my nighttime thoughts. By day I was a straight “A” student in high school – someone others respected and knew well, or at least thought they knew. I was the only one who understood my double life. For as far back as I can remember, I had the sense of leading two incongruous lives: one on the outside of my family’s front door and one on the inside.

My last birthday was one of celebrating living away from my parents longer than living with my parents – a celebration of survival! It has been a year of change and struggle, the years before leaving my parents’ house seeming always to influence those after. In honor of my struggles and my survival, I dedicate this story to all those who are my friends, colleagues and family and to those souls I may have hurt in my attempt to find out who I am and to love myself. I hope that all truth will help others be free.

I am the older of two sisters born to a woman who grew up in a family where physical punishment was common and where she was sexually molested, and an immigrant father who lived through the work camps of WWII, was also physically abused as a child and probably has borderline personality disorder (a new, recent, realization for me), as well as being an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler in my childhood.

My younger sister is now one of my most cherished friends, but this was not always the case growing up, however. My father was a binge alcoholic for my entire childhood and most of my adult life, until approximately six years ago. He was a compulsive gambler who lost all of our family’s savings several times over, as well as being an inventor with many patents in his field, but who always wanted to be a physician. My mother was a teacher of emotionally disturbed and learning disabled children until an early retirement was necessary due to her disabling heart disease. Both my parents smoked one to two packs of cigarettes per day and had multiple conflicts between them while I was growing up. I remember my mother saying out loud repeatedly how she should divorce my father when I was a child, but she never did. My sister and I were overly compared to each other and were forced into an almost competitive relationship as children. She and I had almost no privacy at home, with my father and sometimes my mother not knocking on doors and trying to keep us busy most of the day. Reading was one of the few things we were allowed to do for pleasure. I was not allowed to date until after graduating from high school, when my parents had little control over me in college. This lack of basic dating constraints and forced avoidance of almost all normal social activities left me unprepared for the freedoms of college life at age 17, when I matriculated into college and left my parents’ house, never to live there again. For example, I was never allowed to attend even one football game or dance in high school, even if I asked to go with girlfriends. I was valedictorian of my high school class of 800 and received many scholarships to college, even winning my father’s company college scholarship, which included students from all over North America. No matter how “good a girl” I was, how many “A’s” I received in school or how many scholarships I won, I was not allowed to be trusted with normal teen activities.

The exception to the “No to anything I asked to do rule” was that my mother would let me and my sister participate in activities that my father would not, if we would not “get caught”. Therefore, my mother, as the only way that her children could get to do anything that was “normal” for kids, always condoned lying to my father. However, the consequences for getting caught were severe, so that we became very adept at not only lying, but also covering up the lies completely and covering for each other, so that no one would know the truth. It seemed that even our mother did not want to know the truth at times, so she could take my father’s side and say that she did not know what was going on, and subsequently, not get into trouble herself. This set up a terrible, insidious pattern of lying in my personal life that I have just recently overcome through therapy and my Christian beliefs, but still have to be constantly on guard not to replicate in small ways in daily life.

My mother seemed jealous of my doing well in school and would often put me down for doing well. I never knew if my mother had some role to play in me not getting to do certain activities, even though she let my sister and I participate in others. My sister and I somehow managed to survive, but each minute in our parents’ house seemed one of survival. We were severely physically punished as young children as well as psychologically, alternately neglected and wounded. Because my father was so volatile much of mother’s energy was spent in trying to “keep him happy”, while working full time and trying to raise two girls. Because of this particular situation, many of our needs as children were overlooked or were not as important as my father’s needs. We always served him as the king of the castle as children. We washed all the dishes and clothes, mowed the yard, polished his shoes, fed him first, and anything else that we were told to do as soon as we were old enough. About the only thing that might take precedence was schoolwork, but not generally before house chores.

As for the physical punishment, it was not restricted to my father. I was tied to chairs for long periods of time with ropes (for not keeping my shoes on as a one or two year old), beaten with belts, hair brushes, and fly swatters and had soap shoved in my mouth. Many of these memories are clear, but with others I just remember hiding, shaking, and being so afraid. I remember one incident clearly when my father was drinking heavily and my sister did something to annoy him (she was 3 or 4 at the time and I was two years older.) He started to go after her and hit her in a particular corner of the room that I remember well from having been in the same place as my sister often. She was screaming and crying, huddled in the corner. At a break point when he had moved away momentarily, I placed myself between him and her and told him not to hurt MY SISTER. This enraged him and I got the worst of the severe punishment that day. Although I remember the pain and hurt, I cannot remember if it was a belt, hairbrush, hand or something else. I am crying with a well of emotions as I write about this.

I even remember being slapped in the face while I was home visiting from college and I was dating my future husband. We were deciding to stay together or not and I was out late one night talking to him until 3 or 4am, which was typical for me as a college student when I was away from home. My father called me a prostitute and slut and was convinced that I was having sex that night, even though I was not. He could not understand the need to talk so late. It was also customary to call my sister and I those degrading names if we asked if we could use lipstick or nail polish or look feminine in any way. Even after we had both lived away at college, he could never think of us as being adult women, making our own choices. Instead he treated us as children for the longest time and therefore something ugly would always happen when we came back home.

The standard at home was that it was acceptable to lie to my father. It was in the context of meeting with friends that my mother allowed seeing my first “boyfriend”. He and I had become friendly and had a dating type of relationship, although I wasn’t allowed on any dates at all, really. We would sit together at speech meets and see each other at lunch. I told him in no uncertain terms that I did not want a full sexual relationship with him, since I wanted to wait to be married to have intercourse. I was very clear and adamant about the limits of our interactions. Nonetheless, he raped me the first time when I was 15 years old in a public park. I did not share the information with anyone at the time. I was too scared and ashamed. My fifteen year-old brain then constructed the scenario that I had to marry him, since we had had intercourse. He also said he wanted me to marry him (he was age 16 at the time). My mother actually took me to his house when he moved out of town so I could see him. I was still thinking that I had to marry him. While she and his mother were having tea inside, he raped me in the woods outside his house. My mother failed to notice my tears and the blood on my shorts as we drove home for an hour. I don’t remember how many times I was raped, but somehow it dawned on me that I did not have to continue to be hurt and marry the perpetrator. This pattern went on for about six months. I never filed charges, nor did I tell anyone for two years.

I told my sister that I had been raped when I was 17 and asked her not to tell anyone and she did not. I could not tell of her of the multiple rapes, however, because again, I was too ashamed. During those high school years, which were hell to start with much of the time because of my family, I became suicidal. I felt like a split personality - the straight “A”, innocent student by day, pleasant and successful in school and the young girl who ruminated every night about suicide and felt unclean, unworthy and hopeless. My nighttime prayer before sleep was that I would survive until I finished high school and go off to college, where I would have the possibility of a real life and happiness.
Later after I told my sister and she was confidential with the information, I got up the courage to tell my mother, asking her not to tell anyone about the rape(s.) Within 24 hours she had told my father. I felt raped again. My father became very upset, talking of killing the person, putting a curse on them, etc., but no one really seemed sympathetic towards me. No one suggested filing a police report or getting me into counseling. My father called it my fault because I acted like a prostitute and did not tell him right away. No one comforted me or said they were sorry (except my sister) and I felt more violated than ever. Obviously, telling the truth got me nowhere.

I left home at the age of 17 and finished college in three years matriculating into a prestigious medical school at age 20. I had always told other people that I completed college in three years because I was paying for college mostly myself. I had tested out of classes and by attending summer classes for two summers, it was cheaper. Recently, in my therapy with a psychologist whom I have seen for the last three years, I have come to understand that I chose to go to college year-round to not have to be with my parents as much as possible. I did not go home, nor has my sister, for more than a few days, in our adult years because of how unpleasant it always is at our family home. I have now lived in one house that I finally feel very comfortable in, especially since I’ve made it my own in the last few years. Before that I always felt as if I never really had a point of reference or permanent home. My sister has even spent up to 5 years at a time not setting foot in the house my parents live in, because of the increase in abusive incidents that continue to happen while in our parents presence, even when they visit my home. My mother enables my father’s behavior and acts like a battered woman as well as the wife of an alcoholic. She may be both.

Since I was 20, I have been married and divorced twice, with three children from my second marriage. I am a board certified obstetrician/gynecologist, a faculty member at a major teaching institution and now a single woman for the last three years. My research and teaching interests focus mainly on interpersonal violence.

In college I attempted to get help in my recovery from the rape(s) and my childhood home by seeing a psychologist, but did not get very far in therapy for some reason. Then, I was almost fatally injured in a car accident on the way to finals during my third semester at college. I took my finals a few weeks later and continued to study, barely slowing down. Being at home for two weeks over that Christmas break was nearly unbearable. Since that time I have only spent a few days in my parent’s presence at a time. I also saw a therapist at the beginning of my fourth year of residency, when I had intense suicidal ideation and almost committed suicide. I gained little insight into my situation, however.

In my current long-term therapy I came to understand my suicidal ideation as anger directed toward myself, rather than outwardly where it belonged, but where I was afraid to have it be, because of the severe consequences. My suicidal ideation has been gone for one and a half years and I have stopped hitting my children for almost as long. I would only spank them only occasionally, with one spank, but this was unacceptable to me. After noticing when I would get the most upset, I realized it was when one of the children hit me first. My spanking the children was a deep and ingrained self-defense mechanism to survive. It was as if I was the child again being hit, and I had to defend myself by lashing out. I am the adult now, not the child, so I could release the behavior as unnecessary. Now, if one of the children hurts me, I can cry or say, “Please stop, it hurts.” It is no longer necessary to fight back or be scared. What a long lesson it has been to learn. I can love my children and myself so much more fully now.

How did my experience of multiple rapes affect me? How hasn’t it affected me? How did those first violent, sexual experiences shape my births? How can I tease apart multiple aspects of my past to know? I have chosen to have three unmedicated home births with midwives present, all close to a hospital in case of emergency. I have chosen them for my sense that they would be best for each baby and for me. This approach has minimized the need for unnecessary intervention, allowed for my control of who would be present, and allowed for natural labor, unrestricted immediate breastfeeding and the inclusion of many family members. I have done this three times with three different states of mind: first, as a medical student with no professional birth experience, unmarried and poor; second, as a physician who just completed her residency, married and seemingly happy and; third, as an unhappy married woman and board certified obstetrician/gynecologist.

I have never had any physical difficulties from my abuse that I know of. I have had no problems with intercourse, pelvic exams performed by men or women, or my births, which were all fairly uncomplicated. I did have an overwhelming sense that I might die during my first labor. I had a longer first labor and hemorrhaged after the baby was born. No transfusions or transport was necessary. I wanted to be induced after 41 weeks in my second pregnancy because I was moving. I hemorrhaged again after a short third labor, but was exhausted to labor after working 10 hours that day.

As part of what I think is important in a healthcare setting, I screen for violence in the lives of my patients and try to help them make meaningful connections between their past experiences and their current physical and mental health concerns. I write, teach, and conduct research on violence, especially against women. It is at once therapeutic to be a bridge for my patients and colleagues and is exhausting always being focused on violence in some way.

Having asked about many violent histories of women, the large variation of long-term responses in women is striking. Some women in labor feel out of control – they and their baby are “dirty and polluted” having a vaginal birth, finding C-section more appealing, because of less vaginal contact. Others find that C-section recreates their violent pasts by “being paralyzed, naked, and strapped down while other people are there.” Some women completely dissociate and have no pain in labor whatsoever, while others are indistinguishable from their non-violated peers. Breastfeeding responses are similar and varied, with some women having a great aversion while others are very comfortable with the process.

One of the many possible impacts of the rapes on me were my decisions to marry who I did when I did, as well as getting pregnant, where and how to birth, breastfeed and mother. I’ve always felt that I was running through my life. I was always busy and doing, always busy and doing, ever since I can remember. I didn’t understand why I was busy and doing all the time, but I remember always being that way.

I realize now that I knew what I wanted to do when I was a teenager in a lot of ways. It is extraordinary to see my clarity as a young woman, especially as I now look back at how divided I was in other ways. Part of me always wanted to be either a midwife or go to osteopathic medical school, because I aligned myself with more natural kinds of approaches to health and illness. I also knew after considering going to these more alternative occupations that I would probably not get the full respect that I needed or wanted in order to do what I wanted to do. I knew when I was 17 that a person could say the same things, but get respected and heard very differently if she or he had standard medical training.

I just assumed that everyone was like me, being busy all the time. Just recently, through my therapy, I realized that most people are not as busy as I am. They sleep 8 hours each night. They watch television and movies. They sometimes don’t do anything at all and just “be.” I still always seem to be on a mission about something, even writing this story. My trick is to slow down even in the midst of three children and a full-time career. I now realize that part of my busi-ness was running away all the time. I was very good at school. It was a way of feeling good about myself, because I had so few other ways of feeling good because of the physical and sexual abuse in my past. It legitimized my not dealing with a lot of ugly stuff with my parents and others. Now I spend as much time as possible with my children and try to focus on them. I am trying to be less busy at work, at home, and inside. I have stopped needing to run incessantly and am trying to make each day more meaningful, slower and complete, with God’s help.