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/

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.

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