Welcome to the survivor moms speak out blog!

While practicing full-time as a community-based midwife, I had the opportunity to work with many women who were survivors, either of childhood sexual trauma, rape, or both. The experience of being their midwife, and witnessing their challenges and triumphs encouraged me to learn more about the effects of trauma on the body, and on the experience of childbearing specifically. So just as I felt "called" to practice midwifery, I felt "called" to shed light on issues that survivor moms face during the process of becoming a mother. That calling led me to begin the "Survivor Moms Speak Out" project. We surveyed many women who were both moms and survivors; and 81 of those women completed a narrative or contributed a poem for the book "Survivor Moms: Women's Stories of Birthing, Mothering, and Healing after Sexual Abuse."
Read more about the book, or order a copy, at http://www.midwiferytoday.com/books/survivormoms.asp.

Because of space constraints, not all of the narratives that women contributed to the book project were able to appear in full in the final version of the book. So I would like to take the opportunity to share some of the whole narratives in this blog, featuring a narrative at a time.
About reading survivor stories:
Although the stories are encouraging because they represent survivors’ triumphs over adversity, they can also to be hard to read, because of the intensity of the issues and events. I encourage you to check in with yourself while reading survivor stories, especially if you are a survivor of past trauma, and limit your exposure if you become “triggered”. Feeling triggered might take several different forms. You might start re-experiencing a past trauma you have had before, by not being able to stop thinking about it, or dreaming about, or just feeling like it is happening all over again. You may feel distress or have physical symptoms like feeling your heart race or sweating. If you start to experience these things, you may benefit from talking to someone who understands how trauma works and how to help you with post-traumatic symptoms.

To read more about trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder you can check out the National Center for PTSD website: http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/.

The Sidran Foundation offers an information and a referral resource on-line: http://www.sidran.org/

Friday, January 23, 2009

Kate's Story

“One or two things I know for sure; and one of them is what it means to have no loved version of your life but the one you make.” Dorothy Allison

The day I read the above quote was the day I decided that being a victim no longer had to be my primary identity. I was a survivor and I could embrace that. I may not be able to change my history, but I could write my future.

My life was one of fear and hate. My father was filled with the hatred of one who was wronged in life and would continue to perpetrate the chain of abuse. My mother was filled with the hatred of one who had no idea how to escape her situation or how to protect her children. She hated life and she was very afraid.

My first memory of my father was at the age of three. I was tied, bound around my wrists, to the bed my parents slept in. My mother wasn’t there. I remember the wood grain of their closet door as I tried to lose myself in the patterns of the wood. I remember my father standing next to the bed. I remember nothing else.

This was the pattern of my childhood. Later, when I was recovering in an incest survivor’s support group, I learned that I had disassociated. This survival technique served me well during my childhood, but robbed me of years of time.

When we moved year after year to different apartments as I grew up, my memories would differ depending on the room and floor plan of each apartment. When I had my own bedroom, I have full memories of my brother and mother, very few of my father. When the apartment space demanded that I sleep on the couch, I have far more memories of my father, along with a sense of dread and dis-ease. Often, few memories of my mother and no memories of my brother existed. It was as though I was putting far more energy into my father’s presence. Still, even in these situations when I have memories of my father, specific memories of nighttime elude me. I do not remember going to bed when I slept on the couches.

By far, the most disturbing memories evolve around a neighborhood in Cincinnati in the 1950’s called Mt. Auburn. I was five years old and attended kindergarten in the year of 1955. It was a racially mixed neighborhood and, except for my father, I was very happy there. My best friend was African-American. We held hands going to and from school. Her family was what I considered a real family; loving and caring. There was joy in their house. When I would get home from school (I would walk my friend home and them come home afterward . . . my father would have never allowed me to go into their home and I would have been beaten if he knew I stepped through their door), my father would say terrible things about her, simply because of her skin color. It was at that age that I decided that my father was wrong. I could sense his intense hatred and knew that my friend loved me and he could not, since me made me do terrible things at home and at the bar down the street.

It was called the Flatiron Bar. It was a funny building. Built on a corner, at the top of the hill, the front of the building was very narrow and, as the streets expanded on each side of the bar, so did the building that housed the bar. It looked like a flat iron. My father would walk me down the street at night to go to the bar with him. I would always have a dress on. I remember having to dance on the bar tops while the men watched and cheered. I would be given shot glasses of beer to drink. For many years, I never remembered getting down off the bar or ever going home. Later, in my adult years, I would remember lying down and the men’s faces being close to me; the stench of stale beer, and then blanking it all out. That year, my attendance in kindergarten was terrible. I missed two-thirds of the school year. I remember day after day of lying in my parents’ bed, with my mother there, trying to calm my upset stomach with glasses of ginger ale. I was still passed that year to the first grade and, thankfully, we moved.

The next three years were happier ones. The apartment we had provided me with my own bedroom. I could shut the door and escape into my own little world. I have few memories of my father during those years (except for occasional beatings with a wooden paddle), but well remember my mother and brother. I remember how my brother (10 years my senior) would practice his rock and roll on me. I was delighted to be his jitterbug partner and developed a life-long love of music and dancing. If my father was abusing me, the memories are totally buried still. I only remember the happiness. We then belonged to a Baptist church and I had friends there too, and have many fond memories.

The years following, however, are murky and vague and continued that way until I entered junior high. My father moved me to an all-white neighborhood in 1962, and we had the third floor of an old home. I have one clear memory of the two years I spent in that apartment. I would come home to an empty apartment because my mother had a job then. I would sit at the front window and look for her each day. I remember the feelings I had . . . a jumbled mix of terror and dread. I never felt like I could breathe in that place. I have no memory of my father and do not even remember where I slept. I only remember the living room and that window.

The last year of junior high and my high school years were spent in the home my parents finally bought. I had my own bedroom again and I believe this is the first time that the physical, sexual abuse ended. My memories of this home are complete. As my body began changing, so did the method of abuse my father used. He would continuously say inappropriate comments about my body and, simultaneously, insult my mother’s body in front of me. (My mother stopped speaking to me, for the most part, during these years. She must have been so hurt and felt so helpless.)

My father had a factory job that required he leave at 5:00 each morning. With my mother standing there, he would open my bedroom door and kiss me on the lips before he went to work. I would rarely fall back to sleep afterward, and bought a transistor radio. I would listen to the Detroit station, CKLW, which played all the popular music. I learned to love the Motown sound. Once again, music was the lifesaver I could grab when I couldn’t bear to think about what was happening. My father also subscribed to a filthy adult magazine that had multiple pictures of people performing various sex acts. My father would open to one of the pages in this magazine and leave it on the living room coffee table.

At 16 years of age, I turned a corner in my life. I felt that I couldn’t cope any longer. I was experiencing many body memories at that time. Of course, I had no idea what was happening. I just knew that I couldn’t stand being in my own skin. One hot summer night, my parents were visiting a neighbor across the street. I had a bottle of pain reliever pills and took all that was in the bottle (maybe a little over half full). (One of the other habits of my father was to not allow proper medical care for my mother and I, so I knew he wouldn’t do anything to help if I got very sick.) I remember taking the pills and can still see myself crawling into my bed that night. I was calm and prepared to not wake up again. Our home was small and, to get to the bathroom, I had to walk through their bedroom. The bathroom was part of their bedroom. Later that evening, as I began vomiting violently for hours, neither my mother nor my father asked me if I was okay. The next day, nothing was mentioned.

The next day I was drained and sick. But, for the first time, I found a will to live. I knew that if my parents did not care if I lived or died, then I had to. As I grew older, and had more freedom to be away from the house, I would be gone as often as possible spending time with my friends.

My father tried many manipulative tactics. He basically ruled through fear. He would tell me that, for example, if I made him angry, he could be killed in a car accident the next night and it would be my fault. Of course, he frightened my mother as well. Every night she stood at the front door, wrenching her hands, frightened he would not come home. He was her survival. She was not allowed to drive, handle her own money or speak her mind. She found the control to be her safety.

On night, shortly after my suicide attempt, my father was angry at me about something and, the evening afterwards, was late getting home from work. My mother was frantic, but admitted to me that he was going to be deliberately late to “teach me a lesson.” She insisted I go to my room, get on my knees and pray for his safety. I went into my room, got on my knees and prayed that he was killed on the highway and would never, ever step foot into that house again. If felt SO good. But, come home he did, drunk and disgusting.

About that time, as his drinking problem increased, he would either bring out his loaded gun, or at least threaten to kill my mother and I if he was angered. My mother would just sit quietly during these threats, as if she was just waiting her turn to die. I learned to be an expert arbitrator. Regardless of whether I was telling him the truth or lying, I was always able to defuse the situation. I have the negotiation skills of a SWAT team.

I married when I was barely 20. He was in college to become an engineer. As soon as he finished his degree at the University of Cincinnati, we moved out of the city. My children came and with them a fear that somehow, something would happen to them. The underlying tension I felt was endless and draining. I was as protective as a bear, and would watch them like a hawk. If I couldn’t find one of my daughters playing outside after a few minutes, the panic and terror would nearly overwhelm me.

Back home when we would visit our families, my father seemed turned-on to the fact that I was a married woman. As in high school, he continuously told crude, dirty jokes and the content and frequency worsened as I grew older. They were senselessly dirty. He never tried anything but, when I got pregnant, he would look at me in a way that would cause such terror in my body. I made the decision to not nurse my babies. Even though we lived five hours away, I didn’t want him to think of me in that way. I knew that when we visited them, I could never go to another room and nurse my children. I couldn’t bear him knowing.

The body memories worsened during pregnancy, and visited me frequently until I began extensive therapy at the age of 35. I didn’t understand them; I just knew that I felt dirty, like I was on fire, and couldn’t get away or breathe.

In 1983, my husband and I were at a Wednesday night church potluck dinner. The kitchen phone range and my friend, Ted, picked it up. It was my brother. My father had been ill with throat cancer (a combination of decades of alcohol abuse and cigarette smoking). My father had been on the telephone the hour before with his doctor. My mother was upstairs on the extension. As the doctor explained to my father that his cancer had spread to his brain and lungs, my father took his handgun, placed it to his temple and pulled the trigger.

As my brother told me the details over the church phone, I felt a weird calmness come over me. I hung up the phone and sat down next to my husband. He asked me what was the matter. The first words I said were, “I don’t have to be afraid any longer.”

Within the next two years, my marriage ended. I joined the work force after staying home for eight years caring for my daughters, and I began therapy. Between my therapist and my survivor’s support group, I retrieved some memories, but most importantly I created a life for myself. I stopped thinking that I was a victim who had to fear life, and found that I could make the choice to embrace the life I would make for myself.

March 9th of this year marked the 16th anniversary of my father’s death. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. Sometimes I still feel afraid and raw. It could be an old song I hear on the radio that triggers it, or someone who looks like my father that walks by on the street. The body memories are much less frequent now. I have the skills to handle them now, and they control me no longer.

I have learned to love myself. In learning to love myself, I give myself the nurturing and support that was not available when I was little. The version I’ve made of this life continues to evolve, and I feel certain that it’s going to unfold in a way where inner-peace is a primary focus. I’ve earned it.

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


BookChick said...

I'm grateful you have chosen to share these stories, and to collect them in a book. I'm a survivor, and have long been aware of the absence of books on the issues faced by moms who have suffered childhood abuse. I'm wondering, though, if you know of any books or online support groups for women survivors who are well past the issues of pregnancy and birth. My son is 7 and has borderline ADHD, and the challenges feel overwhelming, especially when abuse issues intrude. Anyone out there have any suggestions?

Mickey Sperlich said...

There are three books I can recommend -
"The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood" by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett (New Harbinger 2001), "The Courage to Heal" by Bass & Davis (Collins Living, 2008), and "Protecting the Gift" by Gavin DeBecker (Dell 1999). Good luck to you! -Mickey