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/

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.

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