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, February 13, 2009

Deborah's Story

I was born in the early 1950’s into a conservative, Christian home. I was well cared for and felt secure. I don’t believe my mother knew how to bond very well with her children, and didn’t know how to relate very personally with her friends either. I did not feel close to my older brother, or even my only (older) sister, although we were only 15 months apart. I played with my two younger brothers and tried to give them the attention I felt was lacking from my mother. My dad was better at relations, and tried to spend time with us children, but was very busy with work and organizations. I was a good, compliant and reserved child. I took a very responsible view of life, including commitments to God.

When I was 13 and starting to mature, my older brother (by three years) started interacting more with me. He asked personal questions about the developing bodies of my girlfriend and I when she spent the night. Another time he wanted to demonstrate wrestling moves on me, and gained sexual arousal, as he had planned, I’m sure. I did not like any of this; was shocked and unassertive. However, I never participated again. I had not had any sex education besides the fifth grade health film at school.

One night my sister had a friend overnight, so I slept in my brother’s room. He slept in the family room, separated by sliding glass doors. He came over several times to touch my breasts and bottom, even making comments. I was scared stiff, literally, wanting to escape, yet frozen. Finally I managed to say stop, when his hands reached my vaginal area. He left. Again I waited in suspense, and he did not return. My mind and emotions were buzzing. In the morning I acted as normal as I could. I don’t remember even thinking of telling my parents or sister. It was just too unbelievable and shameful.

A few weeks later, I told my girlfriend. I don’t remember her response, other than it was short. A month or so later, my girlfriend and I spent the night with another girl. My friend threatened to tell her the story if I didn’t. So I felt forced to tell it myself, to keep it short and quick. I felt I had been betrayed and that I had betrayed myself. I always felt like that betrayal affected my life more than the abuse itself. It cut me off from deeper friendships that could have allowed me to share inner thoughts and feelings, perhaps even the pain of my abuse. I decided women couldn’t be trusted, and only my husband would be worthy of that trust. I don’t remember thinking about it again and, in fact, treated my brother with love and respect.

In high school, I was more quiet and withdrawn, and sometimes sensitive to the point of tears, without knowing why. Since I could not share or even articulate my problem (I didn’t connect it to my brother), I couldn’t get help, and had some depression.

I went away to a small college, and decided it was my big chance to change. I was more outgoing and friendly, especially toward those I thought needed a friend. I had an easier time making friends with guys, and actually had some fun and happiness. I enjoyed these platonic friendships. I did date, but did not enjoy the kissing, and never allowed anything further. The dating relationships were short. I got depressed and restless, wondering what was wrong with me. I just couldn’t relate closely with girls, and felt different from them, left out but not wanting to be “like them” (foolish and too talkative). I was rigid about eating only healthy foods. When I strayed I would regurgitate, although I never binged. I avoided going home by volunteering at a mental hospital for the summer. I was very depressed, thought of asking for help, but did not.

My second year at college, I dated a guy my intuition told me to beware of. I was so “nice” I thought I should give him a chance. Outdoors on one date, he leaned against me and made me feel his erection. I believe I spaced out after that. I remember being naked on my bed, digital penetration, and his saying I was beautiful as he walked out the door. I don’t know what I did immediately afterward. I told no one. I saw him once more when he told me he was leaving campus for good. (He wasn’t a student.)

I told God I’d quit dating until I got help, but I didn’t know where to get help. Soon after, I met a guy who was different. He talked about God and didn’t make a lot of physical moves toward me. He seemed to really care about me. I knew he was the one I’d marry. I told him very brief accounts about my brother and the date incident, releasing some emotion. We had a lot of fun together. We married and were part of a close-knit home church. I still did not connect with women in a deep way. I was quiet, yet nice. I still felt something was wrong with me, and sometimes felt depressed. I never thought about the abuse. Our sex life was fine. I didn’t initiate, but could go along and even receive some pleasure.

At first I did not want children because I knew childhood as a time of pain and isolation; being in the midst of a family, yet unable to connect and share. Marriage created a desire for children, and I had no career to distract me. I thought I’d be better at parenting boys, since I didn’t feel very feminine and could not connect with girls.

Once I was pregnant, I only wanted a healthy baby. Perhaps God has a sense of humor. We have five girls and one boy. Maybe he wanted me to learn that girls are all innately different, some more “feminine” than others, yet all normal. We had a home birth with a midwife to help. I’d never felt so close to another human being. I was a natural at birthing and nursing. I was able to do what my mother had been unable to do for me. Mothering has been a nurturing experience for me and, therefore, a healing experience. I finally felt more connected, not only to my babies but also to a group of women called mothers.

Sexual abuse affected me as a mother. A side effect has been a desire to be in control or at least know what to expect of situations and people. So when I wanted children, I did a lot of reading and chose to give birth in my own home with my husband and a midwife. I like to raise my children following my own instincts. I nursed with baby-led weaning and natural family planning. I avoided the need for routine doctor visits by obtaining exemptions from immunization, which I also researched. I learned about natural remedies, nutrition, homeopathy, and herbs. I also did some home schooling. I really enjoyed the children as infants and toddlers, and missed being as close as they grew older.

Mothering adolescent girls was especially hard for me. I read some books to them about the physical and emotional changes of puberty. I did not add personal comments. I’d often think of things to share about love and sex and how wonderful it could be, but could never say them. I knew the right words but I feared my feelings would betray my ambivalence. I relied on church youth group leaders to cover it for me. I very briefly told them of my abuse after I wrote this account.

In general, I was a good mother, but I know I lacked some emotional dimensions and spontaneity. I also suffered from migraines, so the older girls learned to help care for the younger ones as needed. After my fifth child, the only boy, I was really run down and began the slow descent into a major depression (three years later). I could not relax, and he was fussy for a year. Initially, he lost weight, but slowly regained it. I was home-schooling two children, we were under financial strain, the oldest girl reached puberty, and I could tolerate sex less than ever. I was just doing what I had to do, but I was dying inside.

I met a loving couple, and she shared about her childhood sexual abuse. I obsessed and agonized about whether to tell my story for months. When I told it, they assured me that I needed to get help. With their love and support and that of my husband, and with no more babies needing me, I let myself get help from a Christian psychotherapist. This actually made life harder, as I had to deal with emerging emotions. I didn’t have much patience with my kids, or time. I was gone biking, walking, and to therapy. As therapy progressed, a lot of anger and pain came up, but I didn’t know how to express it. It was very hard to pull myself together and return to my responsibilities at home. I’d often cut myself to shut down the bad emotions and anxiety. There was too much to handle all at once.

I signed myself into a Christian mental hospital for 22 days. This was very hard for me to do. I had rarely left my children, and it was especially hard for some of them. Although they came to see me a few times, when they left it was “out of sight, out of mind.” I couldn’t bear to think of the pain of separation. I was still very depressed, in therapy, and on medication for the next year.

All of my children were neglected, at least emotionally, during this time. My last child was born in the midst of it all, but was probably not neglected as much, because I was good at and enjoyed meeting a baby’s needs. She was a ray of sunshine in the storm. At first she had considerable weight loss, probably due to my depression and stress. Mother’s Milk Herbal Tea solved the problem. I took about a six-month break from therapy after the birth, and then resumed it for about two years.

I’m not sure why therapy took so long for me. I was distracted with so many responsibilities. I had such a block in my emotions. I took so long to trust, to accept love and acceptance. I thought too much, intellectualizing myself out of feeling emotions. It’s hard for a nice, good girl to feel such bad emotions.

I also have a biochemical imbalance of the brain. I still take a low dose of medication. Now I feel pretty stable. My family sees a fuller range of emotions and hears more laughter. Laughter is the easiest way to gauge how I’m doing. When I get down about my failures as a mother, especially when they imitate my own childhood, I remind myself that I have improved on it. I do the best I can with what was given me, my motive is love, and I’m human. I hope my children will improve on what I’ve given them.

I have shared my story with two women who were also abused, and have formed the closest friendships I’ve ever had. The more I talk or journal, getting it out of my head, the more healing and proper perspective takes place. God’s word and scripture songs help replace my own negative thoughts. I hope to pass on God’s love and truth by co-leading a support group at my church and sharing one-on-one. Only by sharing the story with a loving and accepting person can the shame be lifted and love be felt. God can bring good out of evil, as we accept His healing love and extend it to other hurting people.

When I was two and one-half, my mother noticed vaginal bleeding and took me to our doctor. He wrote on my chart, “vaginal bleeding secondary to trauma.” I found this on my chart when my mom gave it to me as part of my health records. I asked her if she knew what had happened. She has a bad memory, and could offer no plausible explanation. I was in therapy at this time, and I shared this with my therapist, whose immediate gut reaction was that this was probably sexual trauma and explained what he had seen as “developmental problems originating at age 2-3, especially the issue of trust.”

I also asked my medical doctor what these words would mean to a doctor. He said quite definitely something was pushed with some force against the vagina, and today would have been reported as possible abuse.

This incident is frustrating to me. If it were sexual abuse, it certainly would explain my difficulty in therapy, especially with trust and sexual issues. I could say, “See, this is why I have such a hard time.” It would explain why I froze with my brother and spaced out with the date in college. I wasn’t weak and stupid, but previously traumatized, and “split off” for safety. Thankfully, I don’t have to know. I can still deal with symptoms, poor ways of relating, negative thoughts, and automatic reactions to certain stimuli.

Abuse effects how I relate to others with trust and vulnerability, and how I see myself. I can always look to Christ and loving friends, and risk relating in a new way. Healing comes through relationships, not new intellectual knowledge alone.

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

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