A Success Story in Healing From Abuse
One night I woke to the bright ceiling light of the bedroom. It shun into my eyes creating a white fog that hampered my vision. I smelled alcohol. Was I dreaming? I wanted to scream…Then I remembered that this was not the first time this had happened to me…I was seven years old and my attacker was my father.
Parenting While Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse
I am an incest survivor who has suffered from chronic delayed PTSD. But I am also a mother and a wife and I refuse to be defined by a past that I did not choose and and cannot change. I have decided to take control of my future and accept the charge answering to my life instead of granting permission to my past continue ruling it. It wasn’t until the birth of my daughters that my past reared its head again and forced me to make that choice. Suddenly, I had to confront issues that I had successfully avoided for more than twenty years.
I have responded well to talk therapy but still occasionally suffer from nightmares, irritability, hyper-vigilance and other PTSD symptoms. I never suffered from any drug addiction but I was obsessed with “being perfect” – to do everything better than anybody else. Perfectionism was my coping mechanism. Somewhere along the way that little girl inside of me must have thought, if I do a really good job and don’t draw any negative attention, maybe he will leave me alone. I was wrong but I tried anyway. I relentlessly pushed myself to work harder at everything I did, anything but flawless was just not an option. That became my addiction. So when I became a wife and mother, I had to be the best there is.
Before I had children I had seen two therapists and thought I really had my past under control. Besides perfection, control was the other key ingredient of my life. In order to feel safe I had to micro-manage everything. As long as I had control over my day, I was at ease and felt safe. Then I had children that with innocent self-centeredness tested my patience and power far beyond my limits. When I was a child I had no control over what happened to me. When you become a mother, your body and time is not your own most of the time. I got triggered. I lost ground.
Mommy is a Control Freak
What my abuse has taught me is that if I am not in control of any situation, I am leaving myself vulnerable to getting hurt. Therapists have a term for this: hyper-vigilance. As a child I remained acutely aware of what happened around me, my father’s moods for example, always keeping an eye on a possible “escape” route, just in case. It became my survival mode. Unfortunately, as an adult and parent I maintained that hyper-vigilance to feel in control and safe in my environment or relationships. Once I became a mother, that need for control was constantly challenged. Sleep problems, illnesses, tantrums, acting out…the list goes on there is not much in way of absolute control. My symptoms ranged from anger and frustration to panic attacks.
For the first year of my eldest daughter’s life I could not leave her out of my sight and if I absolutely needed someone to watch her it was for no more than an hour and only if it coincided with her sleep schedule. I could barely let her go out with her own father. He had to adhere to the strictest schedule and instruction manual. For example, he took our eldest to the Ferry Building every Saturday morning and I insisted he should be back by a certain time but really expected him to be back earlier than the quoted time. When he didn’t intuitively sense that, I lost it. With anxiety pulsating through my veins I let my frustration be known.
I sacrificed my own wellbeing and the harmony of our family because I did not trust anybody. Giving my little girl to anyone to babysit meant I needed to give up some of that control and that translated into unsafe conditions. I marveled at other moms that after just a few months resumed somewhat of a normal schedule, taking time for themselves and leaving their babies with a sitter. I was jealous. I badly needed alone time but couldn’t let go. The thought that “something bad could happen” to my children was almost unbearable to me and I know my husband suffered from my obsession more than he would admit today.
Worrying and attempting to control every little aspect of our family life was a security blanket that kept my world from crashing down. Yet, it was a false sense of security because at the same time I drove everyone around me insane and accomplished the exact opposite. In 2011 I finally sought out help from a therapist, driven by sleep deprivation and taking care of a two year old and a newborn. Like any mother with two small children, I was mentally and physically exhausted. But there was more: my father had again taken control. He had already taken away my innocence and childhood and now threatened to steal my joy of motherhood. I could not let that happen. I had to make a change. The emphasis was not on “I need to” or “I should” it finally had become a must. And with a new therapy method, Lifespan Integration, that little girl inside me finally got the much needed attention and led me to truly start the healing process.
Blurred Vision: My Parental Misconceptions
Every parent aspires to see their children grow up to be healthy and happy adults. What I have found from my own experience and by speaking with other survivors of abuse, we are often more anxious about our children’s well being because we know firsthand about the fallout of growing up without the nurturing relationship of one or both parents and the also the heavy baggage of violation of that close bond. I have held myself up to a ridiculous high parenting standard that I, as my husband frequently reminded me, could not possibly live up to. So, I frequently failed but I was used to repeating negative communications to myself. What made it worse is that I held my husband to an even higher standard. Why? Because he needed to make up for where I screwed up. This meant, if I failed by yelling at them, he was not allowed to yell at them either. If I lost patience over spilled milk, he had to make up for it by showing an extra dose of compassion.
Healing from sexual trauma compares to overcoming an addiction. Every day is a battle, some days are easier than others but in the end, just like an alcoholic sitting in a restaurant being handed the wine list, you have to make a conscious choice not to engage and disarm your triggers. Unfortunately, for parents that are healing from abuse, we can’t call our “sponsor” to check in or talk us down. There is no “Abused Parents Anonymous” we can go to every week (not that we would have the time). And while I keep my therapist on speed dial, as a parent, the real battle is to live my daily life with the knowledge and new awareness I gained in therapy. Applying those tools and empathizing with the little girl inside me while still nurturing my own children was and is the real challenge.
Among many parenting books and magazines, I once read an article about the importance of teaching your children to be kind and empathetic. I eagerly absorbed every word and made mental notes of how to improve my parenting yet again as those like other instincts didn’t come naturally. I had all the bullet points stored in a mental drawer, ready to apply my knowledge when I had to pause realizing I didn’t know how to. I recalled recent episodes of my daughter breaking down in tears because she dropped her doll or accidentally destroyed her Lego tower. I had no feelings towards these events, there was no compassion. I was paralyzed. In some instances I couldn’t even comfort her. Because I had learned to cope with painful feelings by blocking them out of my consciousness. This was vital to my survival of the trauma I had experienced as a child.
But as a mother it now caused me to completely detach from empathizing with my daughters feelings. As an adult, I had to re-learn empathy during painful situations and the compassion started with me. It meant to take the little girl inside by the hand, to sit down with her when she was sad and be with her and feel with her. Today, I am able to distinguish between a “normal” parenting frustration and “anxiety triggers” rooted in the abuse I experienced. I have learned to “fail” as a parent and forgive my parenting mistakes while showing compassion for the little girl inside of me. My husband now lets me “sweat some small stuff” while I let him take charge with the girls allowing him to be the Dad he always wanted to be. I still have my challenges but I as I gradually give up control, I learned that nothing bad happens when I do.
Choosing a New Path
In January I took a major step in my healing process and reported my father to the police. Against the advice of one lawyer who cautioned me that “the statute of limitations may be an issue and I probably wouldn’t do myself a favor. Just live you life,” she said in an email to me. I was furious at her response and even more determined to break the silence. Against her advice, I went ahead anyway. The investigation is still pending but I am assured by police that he will go to jail for at least five to ten years. My voice was finally heard because I spoke.
Friends and family have praised my courage to finally come forward. Maybe it is courageous but in the end I did it for my daughters. They may ask me about my childhood one day. When time is ripe, they deserve to know the truth and I never wanted to be asked: “Mama, why didn’t you do something about it.” Should I ever have this conversation with them, I hope they will be proud of me and that it will teach them to stand up for themselves and for what is right and just. Isn’t that one of the many aspects of life we parents are trying to teach our children? I can’t change my past but it is never too late to change my future.
Healing from sexual abuse while parenting doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If it wasn’t for the incredible support, love, and endless patience and understanding I received from my husband, my mother, and closest friends I am not sure where I would be today. And I know it wasn’t easy for them. Not enough can be said of the importance of reaching out for help and knowing that I don’t have to walk this road of healing alone means everything to me. My eldest daughter, who was three in the midst of the toughest times, would come up to me and literally tried to turn my frown upside down by moving my lips or simply hugging me and telling me she loved me, saying “I don’t want you to be sad anymore.”
Sometimes, I am still sad and mourn the moments I may have missed because I didn’t allow myself to start the healing process. But the sadness quickly turns into an unquenchable thirst to make up for lost time. I am more determined than ever to finally live my life, strong and happy. I have learned to be compassionate with myself, to love myself. Having children has also put me back in touch with the girl inside of me and that girl is no longer afraid. Not afraid of him, not afraid of the memories (which are there and visit me often), and not afraid to stand up and acknowledge what happened to her. Because that is all it is, something that happened, not something that I did.
I can’t change what happened but I have full control over how I decide to live now. I decided to report my father to the authorities I had to make my history public. I have chosen a new path filled with obstacles and messy residue, but I can endure, push through and thrive in spite of them. I have survived the worst. The journey has just started, and I am determined to follow the healing path to the end, accepting and bettering myself as a whole human being, with faults and strengths. I am not a flawless mother nor impeccable wife but I’m trying to be the best possible version of me. And that is just perfect enough for me.