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, May 29, 2009

Ann's Story

When I was nineteen years old, I was raped by the man I had been dating for the previous ten months. He thought that I had been unfaithful to him (he was wrong) and deliberately planned the whole thing as a punishment to me. (I found that out later.) The first time it happened was a Saturday afternoon and we were alone in his house. At first I tried to get him to stop, pounding on his chest and yelling no at him, but it had no effect. I think that his total ignorance of my pleas, my reduction to an object instead of a person, was one of the most horrifying parts of the whole thing. It was as though I, as a person, had vanished, and in my place was left simply a void to be filled. When I realized that he was not going to stop, I separated myself mentally and emotionally from the whole experience. At first I was simply in a state of shock and could not believe what he had done.

I left his house and hit my car against the garage door jam on the way out, still so overwhelmed that I could hardly function. I drove to a nearby Catholic church, (I am Roman Catholic and have been so from birth) and asked to speak to the priest. The only one available was hearing Confessions, so into the confessional I went. I told the priest what had happened. He replied that in the Catholic Church there was no such thing as date rape (those were his exact words!) and that there must be something seriously wrong with me to try to harm this young man. In short, he said I needed to have my head examined. I still cringe at the memory. I should state here that I was probably remiss in not going to a priest that I knew and trusted. I did not know this man from Adam, and obviously there was something seriously wrong with him to say such outrageous things. He is the only priest I have ever told of my rape who responded in that manner and I have told the story to each one in much the same way, if not in the exact same words.

So... I left the church and went home. I tried to put it out of my head. I took the longest, hottest shower I ever remember taking, and then lay down on my bed and stared at the ceiling, wondering what in the world was happening to me. I was disturbed from my reverie by my housemate, who came into tell me that Mark (my boyfriend) was on the phone. I answered it and he asked if I wanted to go to the mall with him in a tone that said that absolutely nothing had happened. In a daze, and beginning to feel convinced of my own psychosis, questioning whether it had happened at all, I agreed. He picked me up a short while later. We went to the Gap and a department store, and he spent a few hundred dollars on clothing for me. He even bought panties, the memory of which still repulses me. I think he was trying to make it up to me, in the same sort of way that an drunkard beats his wife and buys her flowers, but a bit worse than that.

I had been in therapy for sexual abuse as a child by a neighbor, but I discontinued my therapy sessions after the rape. I could not face seeing the therapist, feeling that I had in some way let her down. Also, I began to think that I had never been molested at all, and that, too, was a figment of my imagination.

We were together for roughly two more weeks, until Thanksgiving break. During that time he raped me one more time. I think he enjoyed it - the domination, the power, the absolute absence of me (in his mind) as a person. In my own mind, as well, I had taken a sort of leave of absence, separating myself from all that was around me and everything that happened to me. Those two weeks were utterly horrible - I was convinced that I was, indeed, insane, and was too afraid to talk to anyone else about it, for fear of what would happen to me. While I was home for Thanksgiving, my best friend took me aside and told me that she did not know what was wrong with me, but that it was obviously something quite serious, and advised me to talk to a priest, or someone else, someone whom I could trust. I had told no one what had happened up until the point, and I did not break my silence with her.

Her suggestion planted a seed within me, though, a seed of hope that perhaps I was not insane. When I drove home that Sunday night, I went immediately to his house to question him. He raped me again. It was horrible - I did not move, save for my first efforts at objection, and did not struggle much to get away. The idea that I was powerless had been planted in my head, I cannot tell you exactly when. I believed that idea, and my belief made me powerless. This is very important - even then, the power to change and overcome him lay within me, and as such was utterly out of his grasp. Even at that low and horrible moment, the ability to win, to beat him, was inside me. I was, but only because I believed it, completely powerless against him and his abuse, and this threw me into a sort of despair. Unfortunately, my despair had made me blind to the fact that I could escape him, and very easily, too. I left his room in tears, overcome by sorrow. On my way out, I ran into his housemate, who expressed concern at my tears. I do not remember the response I made to him, nor do I remember leaving the house and driving away. I do recall the conviction that something was very wrong, and it was not wrong with me, it was wrong with him. I was not crazy, he was.

It was this conviction that led me to go and talk to a priest on campus the next day. I explained to him what had happened. He was shocked and appalled by what I told him, and said that he did not know who that priest was or what he had been thinking, but the Catholic Church did acknowledge the existence of date rape, and acknowledged it as a very grave evil.

Feeling vindicated, I left the church. The seed of hope my best friend had first planted was watered and warmed by the truth that Father Brian spoke to me. I completed the last three weeks of the semester at a grueling pace, as my coursework had fallen miserably behind since the first rape. It was something of a comfort to me to have something in which to so fully immerse myself, as that meant that I could not think of what I was not ready to deal with. I refused to see or speak to Mark.

The last day Thursday I was in town he took my car (he had a spare key) to have the oil changed. After my morning's final exam was over, I went over to his house to demand the key back and finally have it out with him. He did not deny what he had done; in fact he admitted it and explained to me why he had planned it in the first place. He said that, as I had not left him after the first time, that he saw nothing wrong with doing it again. I told him that I wanted nothing more to do with him, ever. He then opened a drawer in his desk, which was full of receipts from things that he had bought me or dates that we had gone on, and demanded that I repay him in full. Trembling with rage and disgust, I refused. From the same drawer, he withdrew letters from an ex-girlfriend. From the excerpts he read me, it became obvious that he had been two-timing me at least since the summer. I was stunned. He told me that he thought I had copped onto him, that I knew he had been cheating on me. That was why he was so convinced that I had actually cheated on him; he thought I had done it to get back at him for being unfaithful. I pointed out to him that although, in fact, I never done what he accused me of, he would not have been justified in avenging it, as he had done the same thing in greater degree to me. This did not perturb him, I do not think what I said even penetrated his brain.

After I left him, I went to the local crisis pregnancy center to ask their advice. I explained it to the woman there, who was very kind. She said that there would be no physical evidence left, but suggested that I take a pregnancy test, as my period was late. I had had a little bit of brown spotting around the time I expected my period, and had put that odd occurrence down to stress. I did as she suggested and the test was positive. In the moment that she told me I felt absolutely showered with grace and mercy. It was though Heaven had opened above my head and God's love for me came flooding down. I did not what I would do, but I did know that I could never hurt the little baby who grew inside me.

That night, I went to a friend's house and told her what had happened. She was sympathetic and kind. We, as well as about eighty other students from our university (including Mark), were enrolled to take the spring semester overseas in a branch of the university there. We were to be roommates, but she urged me to reconsider. I very much wanted to go, thinking that it would by my last opportunity of that sort. I gave her no definite reply. I left for Christmas break the next day, and was sorely tempted to discuss the whole affair with the young man who rode home with me. He was the brother of a good friend, amiable and easy to talk to. I resisted, because I was determined to talk to no one until I knew what I wanted to do.

It was at this point that I decided not to try to prosecute Mark. I had no evidence other than my word against his, and knew that I was not likely to win. Plus, the average sentence for rape was only a year and a half, which hardly seemed worth it. On top of this, I was aware that by prosecuting him I would make him very angry, and I was afraid that he would retaliate by trying to take my baby from me.

Over Christmas break, I went and was tested for AIDS and other STDs, as well as pregnancy, at my doctor's office. Everything was negative except for the pregnancy test. I then went to see two midwives who were in practice together. I told them the entire story, including the rape. They were the first real adults I had talked to who knew of the pregnancy and the rape. They were very helpful and extremely kind. They were supportive of me and my desire to go overseas, and even found a midwife there whom I could go to for pre-natals. The Thursday before I was to leave I told my parents, who were horrified, shocked and convinced I should not go. I ignored them (as, unfortunately was my custom at the time) and left on Sunday.

Europe was good. I loved it and have never regretted going. I told one of the chaplains my story, and he insisted I tell the man who was in charge of the program. I did it because of the chaplain’s insistence. This man (who was in charge of the program) was very kind. He told me that he thought that any woman, who carried a problem pregnancy to term in this day and age, when abortion is so readily available, was a hero in his eyes. He and his wife went out of their way to be kind to me while I was there and even drove me to my prenatal appointments.

Mark cornered me once again while we were there. I had avoided him as much as possible, but he made such a racket in the hall one Sunday that I agreed to talk with him in the privacy of one of the common rooms. He had purchased my plane ticket to Europe on his credit card, and he wanted me to pay him back. I thought he was crazy to ask for the money in light of what he had done to me, and told him that. (My parents paid him back when I told them about owing him the money, as they couldn't stand my owing him anything.) Everyone else was at Sunday afternoon mass or travelling, and there was no one around. At the end of the argument he advanced on me again, and I knew in the pit of my stomach what he was about to do. He was angry and I was terrified. Without seeming to think of it, I went into what I think of as my survival mode. I did not cry out, just wept and whimpered, "No, no, please stop" over and over. This of course had no effect on him. I think that my response of freezing in a feeling of powerlessness stemmed from my abuse as a child, but I will never know that for certain. The memories of being molested are very hazy, and concentration on them does nothing to enlarge or clarify them. I remain unconvinced of whether or not that (the childhood molestation) ever happened at all. Because of this, I have tried to put that part of my experience out of my mind or at least on the back burner.

So...being raped that fourth and final time was the last time I ever spoke to him, and that is where I mark the real beginning of my recovery. At one point while I was overseas, the midwives and doctors found what they believed to be a severe chromosomal abnormality with my baby. The doctors (whom I had been referred to by my midwife) advised me to have an abortion, as death for the baby was certain. I went back to her. She was busy with a woman who was in labor, but I talked to her husband, who was an O.B. He said that if I felt either way that this was my baby and "don't no one hurt it" (he spoke in English, not his native language) then to leave the city and never go back to that hospital or those doctors. I did that. After praying about it, I began to believe that if my unborn baby and I were to receive the Pope's blessing, she (I knew her to be a girl) would be healed. I traveled to Rome for Easter Sunday mass. A sonogram ten days later showed that the defect was beginning to go away. Another after my return to the States showed it to be completely gone. Was baby really healed or had the doctors made a mistake? I have no medical proof, as I had refused the diagnostic tests as they carried with them a risk of miscarriage. This whole thing made me bond with my baby even more. I was as determined to protect this baby from harm as I had been unable to protect myself.

The baby was born that summer, after thirty-six hours of labor including five hours of pushing, in my parent's house. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever done. My mother is handicapped, so my father was one of my primary labor coaches. His presence at the birth was very healing to me. He was as conscious of my identity as a person and as respectful of my every wish as Mark had been ignorant of them. I had always felt that this baby was a sort of gift of consolation to me from God, and could not give her up for adoption. In my mind, God is and always has been her biological father. Rape is an act of man, but the creation of new life is an act of God.

It was very difficult for me to birth that baby, to let go to the power of the life giving forces within me. I think that is related to being raped. I was certainly afraid to ever lose control of my body again. The comfort and assistance provided by every person at that birth was much needed by, and deeply healing to me. Everyone there was there to be a help to me; everything I needed or wished was done. No one was there who was not conscious of his or her role in assisting me. Even my sister's boyfriend made hot compresses for the five hours I was pushing. At one point, I was very low and exhausted and thought of going to the hospital to have a C-section. My midwife came in and said "Ann, if you went to the hospital now, you could not have an epidural because you're too far gone. They would not want to give you a section because the baby's head is engaged. The only way out of this pain is through it." My baby was born a half-hour later, and those words "The only way out of this pain is through it" have stayed with me on my long road to recovery.

Being totally in control of that birth situation and the two, which have followed it, has been essential to my well-being. I do not think I could have a baby in the hospital unless the baby's life was in danger. Being treated with respect and compassion during the births of the first baby and the next two was very important to me. I had to be acknowledged as a person and not merely as a body. I bonded with my baby immediately. It was she and I against everyone else, the two of us victims of that evil man. She was (and still is) exactly like me. We even have the same palm prints! I breast-fed her without considering any other option even viable, and was very content with my decision. I would like to add here that breast-feeding has been difficult for me at times, due to feeling that my body is not my own. I have had to completely control all nursing situations, and immediately put a stop to any uncomfortable sensations. For example, it is important to me that the baby not touch or twiddle with the other nipple while nursing. I need to be in control of giving of myself to my baby in that way.

I will never fully understand how my history as a survivor has impacted me as a mother, because I was never a mother without being a survivor. At times I think it has been negative, I am more angry and less trusting than I would otherwise be. At other times I think it has been positive - I always trust my gut instinct now, especially where men are concerned. My children are never alone with anyone who has not proved them self worthy of my trust. I am also more careful to respect the individuality and persons of my children than I might otherwise have been. They are always in control of who touches them, who kisses or caresses them, and are never required to submit to unwanted physical affection. As for therapy and recovery techniques, I have tried several. I have been in both individual and group therapy, as well as support groups. I am also now a member of Al-Anon. Some of these were helpful, some were not. The most unhelpful was the therapist who seemed to be pushing a homosexual agenda (She may not have been, but that was my perception.) I guess she thought maybe that I was a lesbian. I didn't agree and wasn't interested in that anyway, just in my own recovery. Needless to say, I did not go back to her. The most helpful therapies were one-on-one and Al-Anon. Finally learning to be in control of the things I should control and to leave alone what I cannot or should not control has been very good for me. I love Al-Anon - it has been a lifesaver for me. Through that group and the exercise of my faith I have forgiven Mark. I hated him for a long time, wished him in Hell or at least dead. I wish these things no longer. What he did to me must ultimately harm him most deeply, for in the end I will be healed and he will have harmed only himself. How can I deny him forgiveness when I have been forgiven so many things? Having said this, I can assure you I have no desire to see, talk to, or be associated with him ever again. I think that if he does not reform he will still be dangerous to himself and others, but that is not my problem.

Other things that have been helpful are prayer, both praying and having people pray over me, and having women friends. Good friends who can listen without saying a word to interrupt are essential to every woman, I think. I have remained Catholic in spite of that initial bad experience. I still believe that the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of truth, and that one priest has not changed my mind. There have been hundreds of things that have happened to convince me of the validity of my faith since I spoke to that first priest, and I choose to believe them instead of the voice of bitterness which at first whispered to me. I did try, at a later date, to find that priest and tell him how harmful his comments were to me, but he was transferred and I couldn’t track him down. Believing this does not make me think that everyone needs to agree with me, but to me what I believe is essential to who I am. I get the support I need now from my faith, my husband, my sisters, brothers and parents and my friends. I still go to Al-Anon, but can no longer afford therapy, as we have no health insurance to cover it.

I think I get along okay with what I have. Knowing that ultimately I am the person who controls me has been a great discovery. I believe it was Victor Frankl who said, "Everything can be taken from a person but one thing, the last of human freedoms, and that is to choose one's response in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." I believe this to be true. No matter what else may happen to me in my life, I can still choose my response to it; I can still choose my own way. My healing is within my reach if I will have the courage to open my heart to my God and allow Him to heal me. "For nothing can separate us from the love of God, no height, nor depth, nor creature that thrives...” (Romans 8:35-39) As for other women who have experienced abuse, I can offer you no advice save to tell you to follow your own heart. In obstetrical and gynecological situations, I think it is essential that the woman be ultimately in control of her body and that nothing be done to her against her wishes. When choosing a doctor or midwife, be certain that you are seen as a person and not simply as a body or medical problem. Other than that, I can say nothing of value. In situations such as this, what is good for one person may not be good for another. I can offer you only the contents of my own heart, my own story.

Being a mother has healed me in more ways than I could ever count. Producing something good from my body, my self, which had been so violated was restorative to me. I am not evil, and nothing I did made me deserve to be treated as I was. At times I have asked myself (as I am sure many women do) if I had fought, if I had only screamed louder, perhaps if I had tried harder, I would not have been raped. These questions will probably remain unanswered until the end of my life. In some ways I regard the rape as a strange mercy - before it (and almost unbelievable to me now) I thought I would marry Mark. Being raped by him was almost worth discovering the truth about him - and the truth about my self. I am not a thing to be used, to be filled up, to be thrown away. I am no object to be admired; my worth is not determined by my appearance. I am my own self, the woman I was created to be, and I will not be changed by someone else's idea of who I should be or how I should conform. I will follow my own path and in the end, I will answer only to my God. Never again will I allow my wishes, my needs, and my self, to be so utterly trampled upon. He tried to break me, but in the end it was I who won. I have healed stronger than I was before; I will never be broken there again. I am my own now, and no one can take that from me. I believe that I have beaten him at his game, for he no longer has any power over me.

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