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/

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cathleen's Story

A therapist once asked me, “Why don’t you feel any anger or resentment toward your parents?” I didn’t have an answer for her except to say, “I remember so little.” What I do remember is shrouded in dreams and impressions. I do recall the self-destructive behavior I had during adolescence. I used drugs and alcohol recklessly from age 17 until I married at age 21. Sometimes I mixed very dangerous combinations. Apparently I never worried about overdosing. I don’t think I really cared. I must have been hurting, and using drugs to escape and numb my pain.

As a teenager I had always been afraid of boys and men, not really understanding why. I was very lonely and dated only occasionally, until I met Matt at age 19. I thought I was in love. Matt was also a drug abuser. When he insisted our relationship become sexual or he would leave, I gave in. I did not enjoy sex, but it was something I endured in order that my starving heart could be fed through relationship. Within weeks Matt left me and I never saw him again. I had opened my heart only to have it crushed.

I had been raised with two younger brothers in rural Michigan. One was 8 years younger, the other, Rusty, was two years apart from me. Within weeks after Matt left, Rusty, the only male person in my life I had ever been close to, died suddenly in an auto accident. I fell into a deep depression. But God knew the desperate state my heart was in, for a time of refreshing was just around the corner…Exactly six months after my brother’s death I met my future husband, Chuck. He knew how to make me laugh and he was a wonderful companion. He treated me with respect and seemed to really care. The depression lifted as our friendship grew. Most puzzling to me early in our relationship was that he never made any advances. Could it be he was really interested in me as person? I began to trust. We married shortly after my 21st birthday. I stopped abusing drugs, determined to leave the past behind.
The first seven years if our marriage we tried to conceive. I loved children and desperately wanted to have a baby. Chuck and I never saw a doctor about this because during the exam I had for the marriage license the physician told me that he didn’t think I’d be able to have children because my uterus was immature. For some reason this didn’t upset me too much. I just had a feeling that children would be a part of my life.

We moved to Florida, and two years later I found that I was in fact pregnant with our first child. We were overjoyed with the news, and immediately made plans to return to Michigan. Because of the crime and drug problem where we had been living, we did not want to raise a family there. Neither of us had jobs, and unfortunately Michigan was one of the hardest hit states in terms of the countrywide recession that was taking place. As hard as we tried neither of us could find work.

Our baby was due the first week in July. As time approached I became more and more fearful. I just couldn’t understand why.

On July 4th, as we were preparing our holiday celebration, I realized I was bleeding slightly. I knew I was having contractions that day, but I didn’t think much of it because I had been having false contractions for two months. About nine pm I realized that I was experiencing real labor. Instead of leaving to view the fireworks, Chuck and I went to the hospital. Shaun Benjamin was born at 1:25 am on July 5th.

The nurse brought me my breakfast. I ate and began a conversation with the new mom in the bed beside me. At noon I still had not asked to see my baby. Truthfully, I was frightened. I didn’t understand at the time that I was emotionally a child myself. The responsibility seemed overwhelming; I had no confidence in my ability to be a good mother. Finally a nurse brought Shaun in. She was very helpful in getting me started on breastfeeding. After getting through the first few days when I was sore, I began to really enjoy the bonding that formed between Shaun and I and the extra closeness I felt while breastfeeding my baby.

Chuck finally found a part-time job, and we moved again to be closer to his place of employment. This time we rented the lower level of an old Victorian house. I began a licensed day care to try to help out. Chuck’s unemployment had run out. We got some food stamps to help with the groceries. I loved being a mother. I believe now that my self-worth became wrapped up in being a good mom.

The economy got worse and worse. When Shaun was 18 months old, our landlord discovered we were operating a day care and shut us down. That same month Chuck lost his job. We suddenly had no income at all. Our hearts sank. This is when I really began searching spiritually. I had always believed there was a God, but I didn’t KNOW Him and I wanted to. What was the truth about God? There were so many opinions and religions. I started by praying and asking God to reveal Himself to me. Then I picked up a bible translation that I could understand and read a chapter every night in the New Testament. After I had gotten thought it I had the opportunity to go to a bible-based church service, and afterwards asked to pray with the pastor. I told him I wanted to follow Jesus, and through Him know God, and he led me in prayer. I surrendered my heart and life that night in prayer. Immediately I felt a warm spiritual presence fill me up from head to toe. God knew that I needed this tangible touch to know that He heard.

During the next month Chuck also made a commitment to the Lord in prayer. We began to feel directed to sell everything except what could fit in the back of our Ford and go back to Florida. As we were preparing to do this I discovered I was pregnant with our second child. We reached Orlando and stayed with friends. Within two weeks Chuck had three job offers to choose from. Moving back was a big step of faith for me, because I didn’t want to live there. I was learning to trust God.

Chuck and I moved into an apartment shortly after he received his first check. It was difficult for me to find an obstetrician because we were not covered by health insurance. Finally I did. I went into labor November 1st at 3:00 am. By 10:00 am I decided it was time to phone my doctor. After examining me, he sent me straight to the hospital. I was already more than halfway dilated.

Leia Lorraine was born at ten minutes past noon. Unfortunately her birth was an unpleasant experience. My doctor seemed to be in a very big hurry. Even though I had only been pushing for about 15 minutes, he impatiently “helped” by pushing on the baby’s head through my rectum to speed the process. Then he pulled the placenta out by the cord instead of waiting for it to be birthed naturally. I felt violated at the time. Now I understand much more than I did why the experience traumatized me.

Within a few weeks of giving birth to Leia I began experiencing postpartum depression. This was much more severe than the normal blues moms get. I became physically weak with it to the point that I slept almost constantly and couldn’t function well enough to properly care for my children. By the time Leia was four months old someone from our church was coming over every day to care for the kids and me. My doctor could find nothing physically wrong. Our HMO would not refer me to any specialists. I had been having a loose green stool for almost two months. I was so weak I could barely stand for more than 15 minutes at a time. In addition I felt like I was losing my mind. I was frequently gripped by panic attacks. One morning I was determined to get up and dress the kids before the helper got to the house. I succeeded in doing that, and just as I finished the helper knocked on the door. I let her in with my last bit of strength and collapsed on the couch. Suddenly I felt very strange, like every ounce of energy in my body was leaving my limbs and rushing to my vital organs. I asked the lady who had come to help to call the paramedics. When they reached me I was unable to move from the neck down. After some time in the emergency room on an IV, I was able to move again. I was admitted to the hospital and spent a whole month there.

Leia had to be weaned immediately. I was crushed by this, and the necessary separation from Shaun and Leia. I was also very frightened because no one seemed to understand what was causing my symptoms. I saw many different specialists and had many tests. The neurologist thought I was suffering from a severe postpartum episode. My HMO doctor told me that if that was the problem then I’d “get over it” by myself. I was also diagnosed with an intestinal parasite and placed on medication for that. A whole year passed before I felt like myself again. I can’t really say how much of my ordeal was due to the effects of my sexual abuse, but I wonder… I was so frightened by what happened to both my mental and physical health after Leia was born that I chose not to have any more children, even though I wanted more.

When Leia was fifteen months old we made a move back to my beloved hometown in Michigan, and both found jobs shortly thereafter. Life went on, and seemed pretty normal to me. By late summer of 1988, I had been happily married (or so I thought) for 14 years. I was raising two children, whom I dearly loved. My son, Shaun, was age seven. He was a compliant child with (for the most part) an I-want-to-please-Mommy attitude and a brightness to his countenance so much of the time that his babysitters called him “Smiley.” Shaun did lack self-confidence in his ability to learn anything new and became frustrated very easily. His favorite words in his early years were “I can’t do it!” My number one family goal was keeping the peace. So more often than not, I would do it for him, rather than listen to his arguments or complaints. Little did I understand then, that my way of coping with the situation was adding to Shaun’s low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence. We were soon to discover that part of Shaun’s problem was due to Attention Deficit Disorder, without hyperactivity, which made the problem less obvious.

My daughter Leia, age four, was definitely more of a challenge, with her strong-willed, take-charge personality. She was a beautiful child with an innocent melt-your-heart expression. She had plenty of kisses and “bear-hugs” for me to make up for the times of trial. There were many times I just could not let her have her way and the peaceful atmosphere I tried to build in our home was temporarily disrupted. Whenever possible, though, I would let her have her way, and at a very young age she learned that she could manipulate and control. Her dad reinforced this behavior, because he modeled it every day.

I had been operating a day care in our home for two years. It was a group daycare home, which allowed me to have up to twelve children, and required me to have at least one employee to help me when seven or more children were present. I was working from 5:30 am to 6:00 pm Monday through Friday, and much of my weekends were spent doing bookkeeping, cleaning, menu planning and grocery shopping for the daycare.

I had started my business so that I could be home with my own children. The irony was that I was there physically, but I had very little time or emotional energy fro them. My husband worked fulltime. Our finances were tight, but we were making ends meet.

No, I couldn’t complain about my life. We had moved three years prior back to my beloved hometown in rural Michigan from Florida. So why did I feel so fearful, depressed and exhausted? These feelings seemed to overtake me quite suddenly. I could find no obvious reason for the emotions I was experiencing.

Toward the end of that summer, I felt so stressed, I could no longer handle disciplining the children and left that up to my employee, while I did jobs like cleaning, diapers, outdoor supervision, and answering the phone.

I had always struggled with making friends. It seemed that no one outside my immediate family took an interest in getting to know me and my perception was I was not pleasant to be around or likeable. Consequently, it was very difficult to reach out to others, because I expected rejection. Deep inside I had always struggled with feelings of inferiority, shame, guilt, worthlessness, and fear. I remember feeling very lonely. I had no close friends, only acquaintances from the church we had been attending the last three years.

I did have a very strong faith. I prayed about an hour every day, just talking to God and reading scripture. In various ways He always seemed to answer my prayers. I knew God was there for me—He was, in fact, my best friend. If it weren’t for my relationship with Him I know without a doubt I would never have made it through the next six years, nor would I be here to tell my story today.

As autumn approached Shaun began first grade and Leia was starting a pre-K class three days a week. I still had plenty of daycare children to keep me busy.

Toward the end of September a lot of grief and deep emotional pain began surfacing. It felt like I had fallen off an emotional cliff. I would weep for hours at a time. This went on daily for three weeks. Then suddenly I felt numbness. Although there was an overall depression and heaviness, I couldn’t cry. I wasn’t sleeping much, either. It would take me at least an hour to fall asleep, then I would awaken about two or three hours later, unable to go back to sleep, though I would try. I’d lay awake until dawn. I was unable to nap during the day because of the daycare. My stomach began to hurt constantly. I couldn’t eat even small amounts of food without pain. My appetite became nearly non-existent.

I fasted, I prayed, and I hired more help for my daycare. But my symptoms persisted. I became withdrawn, making it only to church and back twice a week. I lost weight rapidly, returning to the weight I had been as a young teen, a mere waif. Every day I cried out to God, not understanding why I was in such pain.

I began having difficulty with my short-term memory and it became very difficult to concentrate on anything. Even comprehending what I read was hard. I would have to read a sentence several times before I understood. The things I usually enjoyed doing, such as gardening and spending special time with the kids, became joyless. The fatigue continued to the point that it was difficult to get through an ordinary day. I craved rest…and yet, I couldn’t sleep.

During all this Chuck, my husband, had never expressed concern over my depression or prayed for me. I felt hurt and rejected. One day I approached Chuck to talk. This was after many previous attempts to communicate my concerns about my emotional well-being and the poor health of our relationship. I told him I needed some time to share my thoughts and feelings. His response was one of irritation and putting me off as usual. I lost control, feeling suddenly in a rage. I picked up the phone and threw it across the room, and then stomped in the bedroom yelling, “I hate you!” I pounded my fist on the door until it hurt, and then fell into a heap on the floor, sobbing, “God, what am I going to do? There’s a monster inside of me!” I was shocked at the rage that surfaced. How could I not have known it was there? I felt fearful, and unworthy of my own husband’s time, care, and attention. I was completely unlovable and hopeless, I thought. I hated myself and I hated Chuck for not being there for me. At that moment I felt utterly alone. My mental and physical health, along with my marriage, was shattering all around me.

One morning after spending time in prayer I laid my head back down on the pillow. In less than a minute I felt totally paralyzed, unable to move or speak. Suddenly I heard voices, a lot of them talking to me all at once. I could not understand what they were saying, but one of them seemed to be shouting. During this time, I was struggling desperately to move, but could not. Then the voices stopped, and I was immediately able to sit up.

It was at this point that I realized it was critical that I get help. What ensued for the next seven years was very difficult. I was diagnosed with a bio-chemical depression and hospitalized for it for three weeks in the fall of 1989. I began regular therapy and was put on anti-depressant medication to help correct the neuro-chemical imbalance.

Chuck and I went into long-term marriage counseling to work on our relationship, which we came to realize was often emotionally abusive and controlling on his part, and co-dependant and enabling on my part.

A woman from the church I was attending reached out to me to befriend me and support me. With the help of my new friends and my pastor I made meaningful steps toward healing relationally and spiritually. For a time I began feeling better, but in 1992a torrent of emotions, hopelessness, despair, fear, worthlessness and self-hatred began surfacing. It so took over my mind, that my thinking was no longer rational. It was as if there were two wills/personalities inside of me. One was the Cathy I knew. The other was pushing for self-destruction. I was so weary from the internal battle that ensued, that three separate times a sense of giving up took hold of me. At these times I was suicidal, even going so far as making plans. However, each time God intervened to prevent me from carrying out those plans. This all led to my second hospitalization in 1992.

Through therapy, prayer, and a series of dreams, which I believe to be inspired by God, I came to an understanding of my history as a survivor of sexual abuse. The emotions and self-destructive thinking that was surfacing were the feelings I had locked up and repressed as an abused child.

My healing was strengthened and furthered by two very meaningful trips to Mexico and one to the Ukraine, all of which were made possible by God even though difficult financial times made it seem impossible.

Sexual abuse has affected every area of my life: physically through stress factors, emotionally, mentally (wrong-thinking), relationally (inability to trust or feel worthy of being loved), and spiritually. Healing had to be pursued in each area. It has been a long, painful journey. Frequently I was overwhelmed, and close to giving up. But my faith in the Lord, along with extensive counseling, has gotten me through.

I realized after piecing together my fragmented memories of my childhood that I had had several perpetrators, beginning with a babysitter in my preschool years. It seemed I was unable to protect myself throughout my life. When I was in my mid-twenties I was molested (touched inappropriately) during a job interview. I was absolutely frozen with fear. I could not move. Afterwards I couldn’t understand why I had been so completely unable to protect myself.

A very important insight discovered during counseling was that a picture I had chosen of myself to best represent my “inner child” was of me at age four and ten months old – the exact age (I was to discover later) that my daughter was when all of my symptoms of depression first surfaced in the fall of 1988. Somehow Leia reaching the age I had been when the abuse began was triggering for me.

I began to understand that the inner child, the part of me that was hurting so, was in fact my deepest inner being; the part of me that feels deeply, needs, and loves. It is not only my feelings, but in fact the creative part of me, the part where self-expression flows. As a child I had been hurting so much that I effectively cut off that part of my soul; numbing, repressing, and burying everything there. As a developing teen, I must have been so terrified of discovering memories that would have confirmed my degradation and vulnerability, that I subconsciously tried to put to death “Little Cathy,” numbing and silencing every part of my wounded heart in a desperate attempt to escape fear, to be “okay”, and to fit in. It was at this time of my life that denial and the locking-up and burying of my emotions/creative nature had been set in stone in order for me to survive the teen years and beyond. I remember reading a scripture that spoke to my heart like a command when I had been suicidal in 1992: “Guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life.” (Proverbs 4:23) Instead of guarding my heart I had been trying to destroy it.

As I healed, my creative expression emerged as a fine artist. I have always loved fine art, but never developed my talent, because of the creative block that was there. I was inspired to draw upon seeing a picture of a toddler from one of the mission trips to the Ukraine, and subsequently drew many images of the children I personally encountered while there. I was able to identify emotionally with them; the pain and need reflected in their expressions. My talent and love for fine art became unlocked through these drawings. Expressing myself in this way became an important part of my healing process.

Toward the end of therapy I had a very significant dream. I felt God was giving me a word picture of the inner-workings and influence of evil both in the world and in the hearts of men:

There was a war going on. I did not see anyone fighting or any weapons around, but I knew there were two sides battling, and one was very evil. It was not clear to me if this battle was taking place in the physical or spiritual realm – I think both. Anyway, the two sides lived among each other.

In the center of the town there was a lake. I found myself at the bottom of the lake and saw there the beautiful, innocent faces of very young children and babies. The “evil side” had anchored them there, and I realized these were the children of the side that was not evil. The children were alive, peering at me with big eyes and helpless-looking faces. I realized they would soon drown. (I could not help them – it was as if I was looking on the scene, but not actually there.) Then I saw one of them suddenly break loose from his anchor and shoot up to the surface. He gasped for air at the top, but I knew he was too young to swim and that he would soon drown.

After that I found myself on shore, gazing at a man who was in a small booth with an open window. He was the gatekeeper for the lake. Anyone wanting to use the lake or have access to it for any reason had to pay a fee. He was not evil. I approached him, perplexed, and asked, “Why are you allowing the evil ones to use this lake? Don’t you know they are using it to destroy the children of your own people?”

He responded, “If they pay the fee like everyone else, what can I do?” But I could tell he was distressed at my question.

Then a woman walked up. She was heavy-set, maybe about 40-50 years old and well dressed. She looked very harmless, but I knew she represented those who were on the side of evil. She came up to the booth’s window, wanting to pay the fee for access to the lake. The gatekeeper knew whom she was, and that she was intending to anchor more children at the bottom.

The gatekeeper decided to raise the fee to such a ridiculous price that he was sure she would not pay. He wrote the fee on his register – one million, six hundred thousand and some odd dollars. She pulled out a wad of money and began counting it out, as if to say, ‘No problem, money is no object.’

When the gatekeeper saw that she could and would pay the fee, he became very frightened and convicted to take a stand. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I can’t allow you to use the lake!”

“But you agreed to this amount,” the lady replied. “You’ve written it on the register beside my name! This is a legal contract – you can’t change the terms now!” She was very intimidating and persistent. Despite his convictions, the man gave in and allowed her to have her way with the lake and the children of his people.

The children represent the young, innocent, and vulnerable ones. We were all at this place when we first came into this world. There is evil in the world, which seeks destroy and corrupt each of us. Through exposure to evil (including abuse) we are anchored at a place (in our hearts) that will threaten to destroy each of us, if we do not seek help. As children we are helpless, but as adults WE ARE NOT, although we may still feel that way. However, we are still vulnerable, because our boundaries have been shattered by abuse. Boundaries are an individual’s gatekeeper, effectively keeping evil out, but opening up one’s life and heart to let good in, thereby allowing loving, nurturing relationships in one’s life. In this way, we “guard our hearts” without closing our hearts. We learn how to love and persevere through difficult times, but we also learn to discern evil (evil is very deceptive and persuasive, as was the lady in the dream) and protect our hearts from evil’s destruction and treachery. EVIL IS THE ENEMY, and works in the hearts of men and women. If we do not effectively battle it, we become like the gatekeeper in the dream – an enabler to evil.

How then can we help ourselves? First, admit that the damage done in our hearts by whatever abuse or evil that has impacted our lives and understand that we cannot heal without help. We have a choice; remain in the prison we have built around our hearts (which robs us of joy, love, and relationships, and finally our health and our very life), or break out of our denial and seek diligently for help and healing. Go to God, however you understand Him. See your doctor, a counselor, get involved in group therapy, all the while remain teachable (if you are prideful you will not be teachable) and seek God for direction. Above all seek a relationship with God, ask Him to purify your heart and be honest with yourself about the damage done in your heart and how it is currently affecting your life, health, and relationships.

LET YOURSELF FEEL AND GRIEVE. This is very healing. You suffered the loss of your innocence and childhood. The abuse was not your fault. Validating the cries of your heart being expressed through your grief will allow you to release the pain you have carried, in many cases since childhood. Make a choice to forgive yourself and those who’ve sinned against you, but only after you understand the scope of the damage done. Otherwise the forgiveness you offer will be cheap.
The road of healing can be very long, but persevere and you will find one day that you have become a new person, and you are free. Your relationships will change, you will be better able to love and allow yourself to be loved. Life will become an adventure of the heart, rich in growth and meaning. Draw close to God, and He will draw close to you, forever guiding you on your journey.

(Cathleen includes the following poem, written for her by her sister-in-law during a difficult time along her healing journey.)

The Little Girl

The little girl lay deep inside, hidden from all, from view.
The grown up girl that showed her face, that was the one that everyone knew.
For a long time she laid deep inside, too fearful to come out.
But through God’s healing power that change is coming about.
That change is hard – it hurts – it’s terrible.
Sometimes you think you can’t go on.
But God’s Son had given you the power.
Your victory is already won.
I see you in the future, standing straight and tall.
I see you strong and able – No longer weak and small.
I see the smile that once lay hidden, way deep down inside.
I see for you, a new awareness. A brand new sense of pride.
I see a confidence that once wasn’t there, that has banished all the old fears.
A confidence that has been fought long and hard for, at the expense of many tears.
But the victory – OH, SWEET VICTORY – will be there for you to claim.
Because the God of all Gods is reaching down to help you, as you call upon His name.
I see a time in the future when that little girl will find release.
At last she’ll know happiness – be strong – and know true peace.

May God bless you, Cathy, as you come to know and cherish the beautiful little girl that lies within.

NOTE: A limited edition of the print at the start if this post can be found on E-Bay under "Ukanian Baby" limited edition print or "Tribute to the Ukraine"
which is the title of the drawing.