Survivor’s Guilt

I’m very pleased that this has been accepted as an article for the Mighty and to be published on the Medium.

TRIGGER WARNING, GRAPHIC DETAILS OF SEXUAL ABUSE. DO NOT READ IF YOU’LL BE TRIGGERED.

I’m one of the many people who watched Leaving Neverland. The first part, I had to stop a few times because I was so overwhelmed. The second part, I cried through. I assumed there would be backlash, there always is when it comes to stories of sexual abuse. The shock, the demanding questions, the disbelief. In the age of #metoo, I knew that despite what the news reported, people still asked the same time worn questions. Why didn’t you tell? Why didn’t you say anything? Why did you keep going back to this person if they were abusing you? Why did you deny it happened? I’m not like the two men on that documentary. I am completely average and there is nothing special about me. My abuser was average too, there was nothing special about him. He sexually abused me for 4 years when I was a child and I understand why the survivors of Leaving Neverland said what they said and did what they did.

I was born into a middle-class family in the outskirts of a suburban area. We had a nice house, lots of property and it was a good school district on paper. I am the second of 4 children. My parents were available to us. There was no drinking, drug use, domestic violence or abuse in my house. My parents worked and carted us around to every extracurricular activity. My father was the coach most of the time because no other parent would step up. My mother worked evening and nights so she could be home during the day. From the outside, it was perfect. Except it wasn’t. My parents fought frequently about my dad’s family. My grandparents were dysfunctional and felt love could only be metered out in a specific amount. My dad didn’t fit in and they treated him and my mother badly. Being the second grandchild shouldn’t have been a problem except I was a girl and there was already a girl. From the beginning I was a disappointment, not a boy, better luck next time. My older sister was the favorite and my grandmother adored her. She decided since I looked so much like my mother, I was just like her and treated me just as badly. Before the age of 10, I was told I was fat, unlovable, and a burden. Not great things for a kid to hear.

I liked school and I was a good student but I was shy and quiet and wanted to do a good job because in my family it didn’t really matter what else was going on as long as you achieved well in academics, work, or whatever you were pursuing. When I was older, we had to say what color we thought we were in my religion class. I said beige and everyone laughed but no one disagreed. I was a good, invisible kid. The first time I interacted with my abuser, he brought a bunch of us to his classroom because it was rainy and we were going crazy with indoor recess. I liked the room, we banged on instruments and listened to music and it was a bigger room to mess around in. We all got ice cream after from the cafeteria cooler and he said ‘shhh it’s a secret’. And how delicious to have such a secret. To be part of something great that connected me to others. He kept bringing us but the group got smaller until it was just 3 of us. Each time we got a treat. Gum, candy, ice cream, chocolate milk. To have gum in school! It was forbidden. I would chew it on the bus on the way home and spit it on my front lawn. I was 7.

He started to touch me but it was subtle at first, just a brush on the backside, a hand on my back or in my hair. Nothing scary at all. He would brush my hair and tell me how beautiful I was, how special, and how much he loved me. Those words filled a hole in me I didn’t know was there. I wanted to hear more. I was selfish and did everything I could to be with him. He would have me lay on blue mats and I would stare at the wall. He touched me over my clothes, then under them, and then had me touch him. It felt uneasy. I wish I would describe it more but I can’t. What I can tell you is after all of that, he would hold me in his arms and tell me the same things about being beautiful and special. They were perfect moments of peace. There were also treats, trinkets of rings and bracelets, flowers and tiny dolls, lollipops and candy. Each one was like it was made of gold because it was for me, just me. Of course, it didn’t last.

Soon it moved onto oral sex and that was very unpleasant but I did it because I loved him, it made him happy, and knew he wouldn’t hurt me. Right? There were no second thoughts because kids don’t have them. They just have now and that’s it. I was praised a lot after this started but there were also the start of threats and coaching, we’ll get into trouble, we won’t be able to see each other, your parents will hate you and send you away, no one will believe you. Hammered over and over into my head alternating with I love you, you’re special, you’re the only one. I was panicked that I wouldn’t be able to see him and that I would be separated from my family. I wanted to be the only one. Not one of 4, not the loser of the grandkids, but the one. There were rules to follow and if I broke them or made a mistake, I was punished. Slapped on the side of the head, hair pulled, thighs pinched, legs punched. Nothing that left any marks. I made more mistakes as time went on and he would be distant, push me away and not say the lovely things he had. I would beg for forgiveness, I’ll do better, I’m sorry, please. I started to have stomach aches and couldn’t concentrate in school. I was 8 by this time and went to the nurse every day with a stomach ache. Her office was a safe place. She called my mother to ask if everything was ok at home and I was told not to go to the nurse unless I was bleeding. I never went to the nurse again.

He was always changing, I never knew what he’d be like but I wanted the old way back and every time I went, I would hope I would be good enough to have him love me again. Then for a while he was sweet and kind. The first time we had sex I was 8. He took me to an apartment building, I have no idea where. He had a special gown and had me take a bath. When it was happening I looked at the painting of fruit on the wall and heard the tree branches scratching at the window. I was in the painting, away from what was happening. After, I remember being in a bath again and it was full of blood. The bathroom was a 70’s blue and it turned the water purple. I cried with my hands over my mouth because I didn’t want to upset him. I remember after him brushing my hair and humming to me. He taught me how to use toilet paper to cover my underwear so it wouldn’t get ruined and what to do if it did. He said, you’re my beautiful special girl and gave me a bracelet. I still hear the scratching at the window in my nightmares.

Once it started, there was no going back and this is the second part of why kids don’t tell. We get too far into a hole and don’t have the skills to get out. We haven’t said anything up until this point so who would believe us? Plus, the same stuff is getting pounded into our heads love, special, only one, don’t tell, you’ll be alone and no one will love you. The sex continued in school, both during and after when I was supposed to go to afterschool activities, and in his car. It was painful. I never complained. If I bled, he punished me and called me a pig or a bad girl. He would push me away and tell me he didn’t want to be near me. I was devastated. I was ashamed of my body and my face. I thought I was ugly and wouldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I punched my legs. I had a dollhouse and my dolls acted out the sex I was having. There was a ‘bad room’ and a ‘bad bed’. I had a swing set and used to swing for hours. It lulled me out of my body. A body that no longer felt like it was my own. I know now I was dissociating because the stress was too much but back then, I just knew I could curl into myself and escape for a while. I swung so much over the next few years, I wore through 2 swings seats. I started to see a dark shape that followed me everywhere and gave me nightmares. I called him my darkman and at night I’d see his fingers creep across my rug to my bed. I had nightmares and wanted to sleep with my parents. The darkman still follows me today.

I’m 9. I never felt well and my stomach still hurt. I would get this thumping in the back of my head. I was always alert, waiting to hear him come down the hall. I would hear the clock tick tock in the classroom and it would be so loud, I thought my head would explode. The darkman would wrap around the clock and I could hear him laughing at me. Near the end of 4th grade, the sex slowed down and I thought things would go back to the way they were before. Why? Because kids aren’t smart and don’t have life experience. One day he came for me and brought me to a different place. It was a room in a basement. There was another man there and I was expected to have sex with him. I did not know this but figured it out when he started to take my clothes off. The teacher stayed and masturbated while this happened to me. I was confused and felt like I had betrayed him. I kept expecting him to jump up and help me. I didn’t want to do anything with anyone else. I remember a total of 12 men I was brought to meet and sometimes he stayed and masturbated and sometimes he left. All in the same room. Some wanted to have sex, some wanted to masturbate, some wanted me to dress up in things they brought, some wanted to take pictures. I was drugged on 2 occasions. There was one man who I encountered the most, a total of 6 times and he was without a doubt a psychopath and a sadist. He hurt me in ways that you could not comprehend.

The abuse stopped when I was 10. 4 years had gone by and I was a different person.

By this time, I was numb. I was so good at pretending and having a fake face, you could have asked me a 100 times and I would deny being abused and you would believe me. I had fits at school where I would cry, I never wanted to sit Criss cross apple sauce because I thought everyone would know I had had sex. I would need to go to the hallway until I calmed down. My 5th grade teacher said she needed to call my mom and I was terrified that they knew and she would send me away. Sometimes I would stare at my schoolwork and not be able to see what was on the paper. The kids started to stay away from me, I was weird and felt very alone. I had UTI’s and bad stomach pain. I still couldn’t sleep and the darkman was breathing down my neck. I still hit my legs. My dollhouse playing got more violent and I set one of the windows on fire. I cut the hair off my barbies and blacked out their eyes. I hated them and their bodies. I hid them at the back of my closet. I swung and listened to music for as long as I can. From the outside I was a normal, if not anxious kid. I did well in school. I was quiet. I was invisible.

This story is not unique or even interesting but it brings up the same question: why didn’t I tell. The reason is that when you ask why we don’t tell, we can’t. We been love bombed or threatened or are frightened. There are times when I did want to tell but didn’t know where to go or who to tell. It was too complicated for my little brain. Then, I was too far into it and felt like I was part of it. That I’d get blamed and get into trouble. Then there’s hope and hope is probably one of the most powerful things to a kids. I hoped again and again that we would go back to the way it was at the beginning. That if I was good enough and made him happy he would love me again. There’s another part, I didn’t want him to get into trouble. I loved him 100%, with all of my heart. He saw me when no one else did. He thought I was special and picked me over everyone else. I would never betray him. He always came and got me from the room. He always saved me and brought me closer to home. How can you not love someone who saves you? That love is more powerful than anything else.

So, people have questions and they have doubts about our stories. It true that I have no proof, just my word. Also, is my memory perfect? Nope, there are some things I remember pieces of, like slices of glass or just smells or lights. Survivors are just as hard on ourselves as others are. We ask ourselves: am I making it worse than it was? Why can’t I just be normal and get over this? Why did this happen? How long do I have to suffer? How much am I to blame? How long do I have to be punished? These questions haunt me when I’m trying to unsuccessfully sleep. There is no answer. There is no upside to us sharing our stories. No one gives you a metal for having survived trauma. Most of the time you’re shunned, told to be quiet, or not believed at all. I have terrible symptoms of PTSD, nightmares, insomnia, crippling panic attacks, severe depression, suicidal thoughts, flashbacks, stomach pains, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, avoiding the public, fear of strange men, irritability. Who would want to live this way? I still have to work and take care of my family. No one lives your life for you and no one wants to talk about my trauma except my amazing husband, a patient therapist and a best friend who understands when I flake out of her. These are my people and I’m lucky to have them. Trauma is a life sentence. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, people have done amazing things because of adversity in childhood but it’s still a lifelong thing. It flares up when you least expect it and smacks you in the side. Why we don’t tell and why we stay with our abusers is complicated and not everyone will understand. That’s ok. Thank whatever higher power you believe in that you never had to go through it. We’re not all that lucky or have the luxury of being doubtful.

Float On!

Recently, I read an article about a veteran who suffers from PTSD. He wrote how he had trouble managing his symptoms and eventually tried an sensory deprivation tank. He found it so helpful that he built one in his house.  Naturally, I was intrigued. Anything that can help I am willing to try. Here’s an article about what an isolation tank is an how it can help PTSD:

View at Medium.com

Weirdly enough, there was a place near me that offered sessions in a sensory deprivation tank. You could chose anywhere from 30 minutes to 90 minutes. I eventually decided on 60 minute session because I figured I would need time to get over my anxiety and panic and actually get into the tank. The day of, I was really nervous. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what to wear. When I got there, I was shown around the place and was surprised at what I saw. The room was private and you started out with a shower then you could enter the actual tank itself. But in my mind, I had pictured an actual tank, something made out of steel, almost like a vampires coffin but it was no like that at all. past the shower area, there was a heavy door and the ‘tank’ was actually a room that was walled in black, had a black floor and had several inches of water on the bottom. I did choose a tank that had an optional light and this was on when I peeked in.

They had given me earplugs and suggested I not wear anything so that I could fully experience the sensory deprivation benefits. They did have a small round foam flotation piece in case my neck needed support but that was it. There was  a chair to out your belongings on and I sat for a bit biting my lip. I watched the door like something magical would happen. I could feel my anxiety spiking through the roof and was so afraid to enter that black room. Then I said to myself ‘screw this, I paid money, I’m going to give it a try’. I showered off, got naked and went into the room. The door was heavy and closed behind me with a thud. I panicked and splashed around a bit and then realized, there was no other noise besides my breathing and splashing. Of course, I splashed my face and it stung my eyes so I laid down on my back with my eye closed, put in my ear plugs and started to float. I said I would give it a few minutes and I could leave anytime. I was not trapped like I was as a child. I could leave at any time.

At first, I was so uncomfortable. I felt like my thoughts were getting louder and my anxiety more severe. I just kept breathing. I settled down and realized that I was safe, it was quiet and dark and I didn’t have to use any of my muscles. I floated. Just floated. My brain started to slow down and my anxiety decreased. I turned off the light and floated. Unafraid for the first time in a long time. I actually felt like I was in my body. I spread my finger and toes in the water and felt the water against them. It was amazing. I felt fully aware of my bodies movements and felt completedly in tune with my body for the first time in months or maybe even years. My dissociation is so severe and my numbness is so pervasive that to experience this almost felt miraculous. My thoughts slowed and then kinds stopped, I’m not sure how else to describe it. There was no stimulation, no noise, nothing. I could relax. I floated. I moved my body in the water, my arms and legs and felt the water against them. I started to get tired. Not the exhausted, overstimulated, I would need to take medication to settle down kind of tire. No. This was a honest feeling of being tired. Of feeling relaxed and safe.

Then some music started to signal my time was done. I was sad to be done to be honest. I got out and prepared to leave. I kept waiting for my thoughts and anxiety to start again but I stayed calm. I checked out and left. That calm feeling stayed with me for 2 days. Then the sh*t hit the fan and my symptoms came back but I treasured those 2 days. I was incredibly grateful to feel like my brain was not on fire and I could think more clearly and actually felt like I was in the present.

I’m definitely going back. I can’t believe how effective it was . I know everyone is different but if you have the chance to try it out, I highly recommend it. The hour was a good amount of time and it’s also recommended for people to have chronic pain which a lot of people with PTSD have as well.

Here’s a link to the history of sensory deprivation tanks:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isolation_tank

Image result for history of sensory deprivation tank

Image result for history of sensory deprivation tank

The natural world

I think one of the worst symptoms I encounter as a trauma survivor and a mom is being easily overstimulated. I love my children, I truly do but they are loud and intrusive. They want to lay all over me and touch my arms and ask me a million questions. That’s what being a kid is all about right? And as a parent it’s our job to listen to every story and let them roll all over you. But. It is so draining and overstimulating. Lately, I’ve been having a hard time with this and have been feeling guilty about feeling like a bad mom. I talked to my therapist about this and she said something I found helpful ‘If you have the flu, you want to talk to anyone or have anyone touching you. You want to rest and feel better’. It did make me feel better to view it that way because so often, I feel like my brain is running a million trains of thoughts at one time. I feel like my brain is on fire.

I think whether or not you’re a parent, people with PTSD experience this. The world is so LOUD. People are constantly talking and moving around and invading our space. Social media has it’s place but it can also be overwhelming and very negative and always present. It’s hard to get away from the news and I feel like it’s always in my face and it’s rarely positive these days. I read an article recently that talked about depression and how we as humans are not adapted for modern life. Our ancestors were programed to fight for survival and their energy was spent on finding food and shelter. That is very different from today’s society where we worry about Facebook and Instagram and the news being reported on the internet. The article also discussed how we as humans are programed to live in nature and in modern society we are rarely in touch with nature.

I thought about this and realized so much of this was true. I always have my phone on. I’m always checking on social media and AP news and everything else that flashes on my phone. I’m doing this in my house as my children are rolling around and trying to get attention. No wonder we’re overstimulated. I’m rarely out of my house. I am determined to get outside more. I think it will be so helpful to be somewhere quiet and connect with something that’s bigger then myself. So here’s to my nature experience. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Here’s a great article about the benefits of reconnecting with nature:

https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/mood-disorders/nature-cognitive-anxiety-depression-mood/article/448018/forest

Safety checks

I’m someone who is suicidal frequently. The pain of what I’ve had to endure is overwhelming and I often think about suicide. I think this is a more common occurrence then is talked about which is why I’m choosing to post about it now. The first time I mentioned wanting to die, I was 7 or 8. I said if unicorns weren’t real I would rather be dead. Most would think this is a harmless statement of a child except children don’t talk about death and wanting to die unless they’re significant stressed. This was passed off as a ‘cute’ story in my family and is mentioned as something funny to this day. But it’s not funny. Not at all. I was being abused, pretty severely, and had no safe place to go. I did want to be dead and those feelings have stayed with me on and off for most of my life.

The first time I tried to kill myself I was 14. The gang rape I had endured was before christmas and I’m not sure I came out of the fog of disassociation until the spring. When I did, all I could think about was death. I finally decided to kill myself. My parents kept their medication in the back cabinet and I searched for the biggest pills thinking they would do the most damage. I took a whole bottle of them and some tylenol and went to bed feeling glad I wouldn’t have to wake up in the morning. Most people see teenage suicide attempts as attention seeking or a call for help. But I was serious. I had not done my homework, I left a note with how I wanted to be buried and the music I wanted played at my funeral. But. I woke  up. I was fine really, just a stomach ache and I went to school. As the day went on I felt worse and worse and was nauseaus and sweaty. I ended up throwing up in gym class and my dad came to get me.

I had two friends who were very concerned about me and figured out what I did. They went to the school counselor and she called my parents. I remember being called from class and wondering what was going on? I saw my parents pacing in the tiny room and thought ‘oh shit’. They had clearly come from work, my mom in her scrubs and my dad in his work clothes. They listened to the counselor who said I needed therapy and my parents agreed. At home, my parents were more concerned about who was more to blame versus getting me help. My mother told me I took old antibiotics which would not kill me (good thing to tell a suicidal teenager, what won’t kill her). They eventually did take me to see a psychologist who assessed me for OCD since it runs rampant in my family, and that was all. It was never mentioned again.

My second attempt was when I was 37. I had just started trauma therapy with a lovely and well meaning but not qualified therapist. She decided to try EMDR and was not certified. It rocketed me into a psychotic break and I heard a voice telling me to kill myself. I was close. the police and EMS were needed and I went for my second hospitalization. I was there for a little over 2 weeks.

Now I have thoughts again and a plan. I try not to make a plan for carrying these thoughts out. I’ve been hospitalized 4 times and I have to say, I always felt safe in the hospital. The staff, the safety checks, the other pts all made me feel more like I’m not alone. I got better after each admission and felt better too. However, I have no desire to go back because there’s a loss of privacy too and loss of freedom too. I miss my family and am often restless during group sessions. I am having a setback for sure but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer. If you’re feeling like you’re in a crisis, please reach out, call the national suicide hotline or text 741741 or go to the emergency room. We’re all a work in progress. We can’t stop.

Blast from the past

Last week I got a letter where I work. It was a normal looking letter, nothing suspicious. Except. It had my maiden name on it which was weird but I still sometimes get junk mail like that. I opened it and read it. I was horrified. It was from a prior abuser who claims he’s dying and wants me to forgive him so he can go to heaven. I’m at work, what do I do? Where can I hide? I want this to go away immediately. I crumple it up and throw it away. It means nothing to me I tell myself, it’s a joke right? Right?

Let me explain.

I was abused by my elementary school music teacher. My first memories are around age 7. Anyway, this man abused me severely and I was terrified of him. He’s dead and I’m still afraid of him. The abuse when on until I was 10 and then it suddenly stopped. I had all sorts of feelings about that but that’s for another post. Anyway, I started to see him again and he would take me from school and bring me to a place. I don’t remember how I got there or where it is but I went there about a dozen times with 12 different men that I remember. I now know I was part of a pedophile ring. There are pictures of me posted on child porn sites that will never come down.

Anyway, one of the men had sex with me and with the music teacher. In the letter sent, that event was mentioned as well as an time when it was just him and I. I don’t remember the second time he mentioned. It really bothers me that I don’t remember. How he could so casually write it down in black and white and my mind is blank. A man who took a 10 year old and did one of the most intimate thing 2 people can do to each other and I can’t remember.

I think it’s an easy thing for these men to do. Just so casually violate me as a child and now as an adult at my workplace which is supposed to be safe. I don’t know what to do with this letter. I eventually took it out of the garbage and made a copy to bring to my therapist. I shoved the letter in the back of my desk hoping it would magically disappear. My therapist said it’s my decision but absolutely thinks I should bring it to the police. My husband thinks we should bring it to the police. His therapist thinks I should bring it to the police.

But it’s not that easy.

I think most people with trauma will understand the terror and confusion I’m feeling. I have no desire to start an investigation at this point in my life. In all honesty, I’m barely surviving. I think about death a lot and am fragile. I don’t think I could handle having to tell my story to the police. If it’s true what this man wrote, that he’s sick and dying, what difference would it make? I don’t think there would be enough justice in this world to make me feel better. And the process just feels like it would be devastating. What if they don’t believe me? What if they think it’s my fault? But I feel the pressure of the people I rely on to be my support to ‘do the right thing’. How can they tell me what the right thing is? I don’t know what it is and I lived through the trauma.

I should think about this but I am tired. My brain hurts. I am tired of having to be strong. I feel like a coward for not wanting to turn in this letter but I don’t. I just don’t. I have no illusions that either choice is easy. No matter which way I go, it’s going to hurt like hell.