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/

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Joanna's Story

When I was two, my first abuser came into my life. He was soon to become my stepfather, and by all accounts, it was to be the worst thing that could have happened to us. He was physically abusive to my mother, beating her nearly every day. He beat us as often as he could find excuses for, which meant that if we left our shoes in the living room, even out of sight under the couch, we’d get a beating. The abuse wasn’t just physical, though.

He started molesting me very quickly, inserting his fingers in my vagina while I was in the tub, and then washing my privates with soap – leaving me burning and stinging for hours afterwards. He would lie on top of me at night, although I can’t say for sure what he did; those memories are still blocked, waiting for a day when I can cope with what was done.

My older brother began raping me when I was about 6, attempting penetration even while I was crying that it hurt, and telling him to stop. My brother also “loaned me out” to his friends when he told them what he was doing. I remember one time, when I was 12 – my brother had finally succeeded in actually penetrating me long before. He was in the act of raping me out in the tent we had set up in the yard. My stepfather stuck his head in, and watched, telling my brother, “Just don’t let your mother find out.” Clearly, there was no respite in sight.

I also had 3 uncles who molested me to a lesser extent; making me sit on their laps while they had erections, groping me whenever they got a clear shot at me…things like that. Between my stepfather, my brother and my uncles, I would be molested until I was 21 years old, although the memories were blocked as rapidly as they could form. It would be a while before I remembered what had happened to me while I was growing up.

When I was 19, I got married to an abusive man. At 23, I found out I was pregnant, which was all I ever wanted. I had dreams of being a mother to lots of children, breastfeeding and nurturing them closely while they grew into adults. My husband was not kind or helpful, although he took great pride in having “knocked me up.” He berated me and made me feel very uncomfortable, and hit me as well.

When I went into labor, things moved along very well, right up until my son passed my cervix. The doctor felt that I had overdone it on the Kegel exercises, because my muscles locked up and would not release, regardless of the effort on my doctor’s part - massage, coaching…. Nothing worked. He finally had to give up and give me an episiotomy. My belief is that my body was afraid to allow my son into the world, fighting to keep him inside, where it was safe. My body knew the world as a very painful and unsafe place. I think that as much as I wanted to hold him, I wanted to keep him away from the things I knew were out here.

After the birth, I remember being completely filled with joy that I had this beautiful son. I looked forward to the days, months and years of breastfeeding him. That dream never came true, though. I only managed to nurse him for 3 months, finally giving up because he wasn’t gaining weight even though he ate constantly. I couldn’t make enough milk to sustain him, and was forced to feed him formula. That was a blow I thought I’d never survive. My body was failing me yet again…. I couldn’t even feed my son.

It was when my son was 3 weeks old that the memories started coming back. They began slowly, but cascaded faster and faster into my life. My wonderful doctor handed me a card at one of our numerous visits, telling me that he thought these people could help me. Apparently, he realized that something was going on that I couldn't talk about with him… He saw the symptoms, yet I’d never told him a thing about my history, or what I was going through. I had no idea what he meant, but decided he might be right. It turned out that “these people” ran an organization for survivors of abuse. With their help, I joined a support group, and used the book, The Courage To Heal (Bass & Davis.)

I tried therapy, but chose the wrong person. I had always believed in God, and I wanted a therapist who would include those beliefs in my “treatment.” I found a counselor who was also a minister. I remember the day I tried to tell him what had happened to me. He asked me, “Is it in the past?” I answered that it was, and he told me, “Then it’s over. You have to move on.” That was it… the entire amount of help I would receive from him. I don’t blame God for this man’s refusal to help me –I think it’s just that some people can’t believe that our past affects us in such strong ways. I wrote to him a few years ago, telling him how hard it was for me to tell him my secret, and what damage his response did to me. He denied saying what he did.

I stayed with my friends in my support group, muddling through as best I could. It was difficult, at best, but I worked hard at becoming what should have been the most natural thing in the world: a mother to my child.

When my son was 1 year old, my husband and I divorced. I was raped about 3 months later. The man I met around the same time was wonderful, supportive, and loving. He stood by me through the entire ordeal, and helped me throughout my pregnancy. When I went into labor this time, I knew it would be easier, and that I would succeed in a drug- and intervention-free delivery, and I would be able to finally win out over the problems that kept me from breastfeeding my son.

The birth went faster and easier than my first, with no episiotomy, though I couldn’t relax and enjoy the birth of my second son, either. And as it turned out, once again I couldn’t breastfeed. I had the same struggles, the same heartache, and the same result: a son who was actually losing weight, and a painful decision to feed him formula at 6 weeks.

The man who stood by me throughout this time soon became my husband. I made another go at therapy, and this time, made some progress. My therapist worked with me for almost a year, and I dealt with my memories as best I could. I started having flashbacks regularly, and that was the worst part. At one of my support group meetings, however, I was told that my therapist had moved out of state. She hadn’t told me goodbye; she hadn’t even told me that there were plans to move. She just left without a word. I was devastated, and didn’t think I could trust anyone again.

When my kids were 5 and 7, I found another therapist. I believe God brings people into our lives who will make a huge impact. The first question I asked her after we sat down on her comfy cushions was, “You aren’t planning to move out of town, are you?” She got a funny look on her face, and said, “No, we won’t ever move. We love it here. Why?” I explained what the last therapist had done. Cathy promised that wouldn’t happen with her, and we began to forge a relationship that lasted professionally for 2 years. We’re still friends all these years later. God was wonderful, bringing her into my life. She has been a gift to me.

One of Cathy’s methods of therapy included EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. At first, I was nervous about trying it. I didn’t want to give up control of what I experienced, and it sounded to me like I might have to. As it turned out, it was the best decision I’ve ever made. This technique was so effective for me; I really was dealing with things for the first time. EMDR was the trick, for me, in bringing those memories out and letting me take the emphasis off of them.

Simply put, I was asked to concentrate on the worst part of a memory while moving my eyes rapidly from side to side. Cathy had a “stick” with a light on the end for my eyes to follow, to make the movement easier. After each 30 second set of eye movements, I would be asked, “What came up?” Usually, an image, thought, emotion, or physical sensation, all of which are common, would have come to me. If I said, "I'm really angry," Cathy suggested concentrating on the anger in the next set. We’d do this as many times as it took to “bring me down,” and leave me feeling no more anger, or whatever it was I had to deal with. It was a little scary, at times, but it was the single, most effective thing I tried. I would recommend it highly for anyone.

After 8 years of trying to have another baby, my husband and I gave up. We’d never used birth control; in fact, in all my life, I’ve never used it. I didn’t get pregnant easily, it was obvious. I went back to school, got a job, and seemed to be settling in with my new life. My sons were 8 and 10, and things were leveling out. And then I got pregnant.

This time, I decided that I wanted a midwife. My first doctor had joined the Peace Corps, and while I was thrilled he was helping so many people, I wasn’t happy he was gone. My second doctor was a jerk, and I knew I didn’t want to go back to him. Kim, however, was just what I needed. She listened to me; she made me feel like I knew what I was doing and talking about. She never once left me feeling like I had no clue what was happening. She would even let my husband deliver our baby. We were thrilled.

I had 2 hours and twenty minutes of labor this time, and although it was the worst pain of my entire life, I was so much more relaxed and in control than the last two times. I actually was able to enjoy this birth, and the videotape shows me smiling and happy throughout. My husband did, in fact, deliver our son, and it was a joyous day for both of us. This son was not, however, destined to be entirely breastfed, either. I had to give up and use formula, once again, at 3 weeks.

I went back for more EMDR, this time focusing on my feeling of failure. The end result is that I don’t feel as though I’m a complete loss as a mother simply because I couldn’t breastfeed my children. It helped a great deal in relieving the stress surrounding that part of my life.

Each of the births was easier than the one before it, but I still couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t making milk. With lots of soul searching and effort at getting to the bottom of the problem, I am reasonably sure it is related to the abuse I suffered as a child and young adult. I don’t know why I’m so sure of that, but my heart tells me that it’s true. I think that, because my breasts were seen as sexual items, my body couldn’t stand to let my sons use them, even if it was for the original, God-intended purpose. So they shut down, refusing to let me be hurt again. I can only hope that, if I were to have another baby, I could finally overcome whatever block is left in there, and be able to truly nurture my child the way I always wanted to…. freely, completely, and with no painful decision to make. Our bonding suffered, our lives together suffered… because of the things I experienced as a child.

Having God in my life, effective therapy, and the love of a kind and gentle man has helped me come to a place where I can at least feel free to love my children, and give them what they need: safety and a place where they’re free to be themselves.
Healing is possible – there is hope.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It was good to know that you're okay now.

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