Conquering the Pain: Therapy and Childhood Trauma Survival

Opening curtains to a garden view to let light inEditor’s Note: This article contains description of childhood abuse, which may be triggering for some readers.

I was careful as I opened the back door and peeked into the house. I didn’t see him in the kitchen—good. I just had to lay down my school books and grab an umbrella. The books slapped on the counter as I turned and opened the closet door. A large hand shot out and dragged me into darkened confinement. Another hand over my mouth stifled a scream. I had lost again. He hugged me to him as he said, “You’re John’s, yes, John’s pretty girl.” His hands began to rub over my 9-year-old body. I thought of the beach and the waves between my toes….

Unchecked, John (not his real name) hunted me for six years in my own home. During that time, he worked once or twice a week for my parents doing repairs and cleaning our large house. Every day he showed up for work was another day in terror for me. I developed sophisticated methods to sneak about my own home. As he joked with and charmed my brothers at the lunch table, John’s pride allowed me to experience pure unbridled hate at an early age.

My father was a functional alcoholic, which I didn’t realize at the time. I thought he loved me, but he worked a lot of hours and then drank once he was home, so he wasn’t really there. My mother emotionally, verbally, and physically abused me from the earliest time that I can remember. I was a twin, and she proclaimed me the evil twin. As she told me later in life, there were two, so there had to be one good and one bad. I seemed to be the stronger of the two; hence, I was the bad one. She couldn’t stand the limited relationship I had with my father. “I don’t know why he likes you,” she said, more than once. Love was conditional, available in a limited amount that she controlled. If you did something she wanted, she might bestow love on you for a brief time. She called me names, she hit, and she made the family aware of my alleged diabolical character. She thwarted nearly any success I attempted to have.

My six siblings argued all the time. Sometimes the arguments turned violent. I tried to gauge how severe a disagreement was as I entered the house to the daily shouting. A truly bad disagreement would cause me to flee or once again creep about the house while praying for invisibility. They didn’t see our life as any different from any others. My mother and John did much to me behind closed doors, so they never acknowledged my painful reality. I knew I was alone and that home was not safe.

I vowed to leave home so I would not become what my mother needed me to become: a monster. I earned good grades and then made it through college, even after being asked to leave after the first year due to poor grades (which were due to partying). I was somewhat surprised that when this occurred neither of my parents cared. I talked my way back into college with the administration and cleaned up my act.

Those first years away from home brought their own drama, which included date rape, looking into the eyes of a burglar, peeping toms, a stalker, and a person threatening me with a knife. All of this I experienced by the age of 23.

Each incident was pushed far away, so that I could move on and try to live my life. I worked very hard on moving forward, as I desperately wanted a normal life. I developed goals for my personal, professional, and spiritual life and tried to map life’s challenges against those goals. I moved far away from my parents, as did most of my siblings. I managed to have a career, marry, and have children. Eventually, I made the choice not to live my life as a victim, for it bound me to my past and prohibited me from moving forward. My father passed away, and I was able to forgive my mother so my children could have a grandmother. I was bright, which helped me at work, because sometimes my temper and harsh way of dealing with people held me back. I continued to work on self-improvement by reading books, occasionally talking with trusted people, and finally searching for help on the internet decades into my struggle.

Eventually, I made the choice not to live my life as a victim, for it bound me to my past and prohibited me from moving forward.

I was OK. I hid from my past quite well. I had a good relationship with my spouse and children. My siblings, for the most part, chose to ignore my successes and career. My mother told me more than once that it was lucky I married my husband, as no one else could ever stand to live with me. This observation was echoed by several siblings. My career was largely ignored by them, though I earned a good salary. As far as they were concerned, I was obviously living off my husband. I didn’t care. I visited with them only when necessary. Eventually, my fraternal twin and I grew apart. We didn’t see things the same way, and she was verbally abusive a few times with my children. Life continued, as it always does….

The hum became a roar as I let my cell phone slip from my fingers. The words from my older sister thundered in my mind. My baby sister was dead. Suicide. The room spun. I had to run; I had to go. The next day I began my cross state journey, driving so that I could process her death. As I drove, music calmed me, while at other times it brought forth a tearful torrent of regret and guilt.

We kept it a secret, Sue’s cause of death. The family embraced a familiar formula of pretend for the outside world. My rage at both myself and my family roared inside me. I felt as if I must be in a constant state of trembling. Sue had absorbed our mother’s wrath after I left home and the two lived together until Sue died. It was only after fleeing my childhood home and voicing to all the family about what John had done, that I realized John had hunted her as well. John was another dirty little secret. He was fired only after going after my older sister, once. I had been discounted and hit when I had tried several times to speak to my mother, father, and siblings until I had given up. Dad’s drinking, a brother’s psychosis, and our violent culture were additional hidden truths.

Nine months later, another phone call. Why did I even answer the phone? Mother had passed away in her sleep. I flew to the funeral with my husband. The eulogy delivered by my older brother spoke of someone I barely knew. Mother’s eulogy celebrated her external activities, such as visiting sick friends and regular church attendance, for she believed that what the outside world thought of her was everything. I couldn’t listen. I let my mind wander as I studied the familiar walls of the church where I was baptized and married. I don’t remember the trip home.

Within weeks, I relinquished myself to total despair. Flashbacks and triggers ravaged my previous state of functioning. I sat on the couch watching TV. I slipped into a deep, dark hole in which I would never escape. I couldn’t discern the way out, nor did I have the strength. I told my husband and adult children that the previous person I had been died with Sue. I cried and lashed out most of the time. I was once again the frightened and damaged child, waiting for others to betray me. I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t move. I slept and then slept some more. I turned down the thermostat and burrowed into a big sweater as I lay on the couch. I drank wine, but couldn’t stomach more than two or three glasses a day.

For the third time, I found the courage to ask for help. This time I fought for the right to get help for my pain.

For the third time, I found the courage to ask for help in the year after my mother’s death. The other two attempts had not yielded what I needed. This time I fought for the right to get help for my pain. I had a brief moment of clarity that afternoon. I reasoned that I had picked myself up in the past, so I could do it again. But I needed help. I was stuck as I’d never been stuck before. I couldn’t let mother win now, after she was gone. I researched psychotherapists in my area who accepted my insurance and called three.

After a terrifying and awkward first meeting, one week later, I thought I might have found the person to help me. I told him I didn’t trust him. That was OK. He let me be in control, which initially gave me mixed feelings, but proved to be freeing. He said feelings were OK—all feelings. That was the strangest idea ever! I believed feelings were to be feared—especially anger, which often unleashed violence. There were a couple of times early in therapy when I wondered if I was doing it right, or even once if he liked me as a person. I think I believed if he liked me, he might not betray me. It was a trust thing. But most of the time, I didn’t care. After all, I wasn’t there for more drama. So, I went for it—it was my time and my dime. I think my stalwart husband was a bit relieved he was somewhat off the hook on dealing with my moods or “episodes,” as he called them. I tried to look at my highs and lows during the week to discuss with my therapist.

I admired a picture in my therapist’s office during an early visit and asked if it was for clients to escape into. He seemed surprised. It was there because he liked it. Well, I didn’t particularly like it, but I didn’t tell him. It could still serve a purpose if I needed it. Didn’t everyone sometimes escape mentally? Gradually, I came to understand I disassociated as a means to survive. Sue’s death released the trauma which I had diligently packed away and refused to acknowledge. Oh, I had spoken of pieces of it, including John. But my intellect shielded me for decades, numbing my emotions. Finally, all the incidents and the associated emotions had returned in a torrential tsunami flood of forgotten terror. That was what had thrown me into the bowels of a deep depression.

Several times, I considered the idea of not returning to therapy, but I knew it was finally time to heal rather than hide.

During therapy, I fought to stay present and review my past. I was finally ready to consider all of it and to speak of it, for I came to trust that I would be heard. It was deeply disturbing at times, and so much more than uncomfortable. In some cases, I relived the event—the sights, the smells, and the sounds. Several times, I considered the idea of not returning to therapy, but I knew it was finally time to heal rather than hide. On some particularly uncomfortable days, unbridled feelings seemed to fly in uncontrolled bursts around me.

In the meantime, I sought to return to the outer world. I gave myself assignments of attending limited social events, which yielded gradual success. Initially, it was just one event per week. I walked more. I read about my condition on the internet. My spouse and adult children were proud of me, though I knew they would likely never truly appreciate the entire difficulty of what I was doing. That was OK, because I didn’t want them to ever experience that level of pain.

During one somewhat early meeting, my therapist told me I was a child of trauma. That was a shock. Trauma, what a word! I assumed that only people in car accidents, war, or terrorist attacks were trauma victims. Then in a later session, he inadvertently used the word “beaten.” Oh no, I had been hit, not beaten! The word “rage” came up in still another session. No, now that was a four-letter word that was not to be spoken. Anger, yes. Rage? No. Then I stopped myself and thought, why do I fear those terms? Who came up with these rules? I did. OK, so why have I not allowed them into my story? I remembered long ago how I struggled to admit to myself that I had been abused. It was the same internal conflict. It became obvious to me I needed to dilute my experience by carefully choosing those words which characterized it.

It was obvious that for me, the more powerful the word, the more powerful credence was granted to my past experience which threatened my avoidance and previous functioning. After all, it seemed a lot harder to get over trauma, beating, and abuse. In fact, it was nearly overwhelming. I must admit I still have issues with the word “shame.” I supposedly am deeply troubled by it because of the internet and a therapist I did not choose, who said over the phone prior to meeting me that I was teeming with it. But I know John and my mother were the wrong ones, not me.

Finally, I made the conscious decision to define a new me. I deserve peace and happiness, no matter how unfamiliar that may be.

Finally, I made the conscious decision to define a new me. I permitted the more functional person I had been before Sue’s death to join the traumatized and emotional child I had become. This former intellectually based personality was the me I thought was dead and lost forever. I had been under the mistaken belief that only one (intellect) or the other (emotions) could define me. At first the merger felt a little like an ill-fitting suit. After some weeks, I realized in therapy I preferred this new, more relaxed me. I allowed myself to truly experience feelings, which was both confusing and exciting. I actually felt more alive than I had in a long time. With the help of my therapist, I moved on to reviewing how I handle surprises, conflict, and anger.

My early life was an unpredictable, chaotic road of drama, emotion, and violence. I accepted that John and my mother would never be accountable for the torment they inflicted. I have learned through therapy that if I could survive that, then I owed myself healing now. I could be tough enough, once more, to see therapy through and I didn’t need to fear the resulting better, unknown version of me. I accepted that I had to be fully vested in my own therapy success. I had to do the work, feel the feelings. My therapist was a guiding hand in my final redemptive journey, which is nearly complete. Yes, it has been worth it—for I deserve peace and happiness, no matter how unfamiliar that may be.

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  • 7 comments
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  • Charlotte

    Charlotte

    September 6th, 2016 at 10:36 AM

    A harrowing yet accurate ordeal of what so many of us who have endured abuse as a child have gone through. I am so happy that you were able to once and for all seek out help and come to understand that they may not have to answer for their actions but that this is shouldn’t keep you from being whole and healed again.

  • Lisa M

    Lisa M

    September 6th, 2016 at 12:03 PM

    Thank you. I handled much on my own until my sister’s death brought everything back all at once. Coupled with my guilt, I knew I needed help to be the person I deserved to be. I am grateful for the help I received. I don’t know that it was there when I was a child unfortunately and we most remain vigilant to protect our children the world over.

  • Charlotte

    Charlotte

    September 7th, 2016 at 10:19 AM

    peace and love coming your way

  • Catherine

    Catherine

    September 9th, 2016 at 10:36 AM

    You had so many things working against you as a child, so many things that could have held you back and yet you still stand.
    Anyone would be proud to have you as a member of their family or as a friend and i am sure that there will be many people who read this, who have gone through some of the very same things that you have but who have not yet been strong enough to seek out help.
    My hope is that this is the encouragement that they will need to finally do something.

  • mikey

    mikey

    September 10th, 2016 at 8:06 AM

    I feel bad for those who had things like this happen to them as kids, it ruins the rest of their lives and they never really know how to get past it or even that there are issues that have conspired against them all this time. To them this could be their version of normal and that is really quite depressing to think like that. Think about the lives of happiness that they could have been privy to if they had known that there could be availability of services for them to work through much of this. It is this lack of conversation and accessibility that is the most disturbing at times.

  • Lisa M

    Lisa M

    September 10th, 2016 at 11:41 AM

    Yes, there is much that is regretful about a life such as mine. It can create a deep hole that is difficult to climb out of. Others are uncomfortable (for whatever reasons) with the idea that people struggle with the after affects of trauma. Yet there is a hope for a new normal. The trick is to ask for help from family and friends who are accepting. Finally, it takes courage to go to a therapist for help. Medication is a viable short term complement to talk therapy. However, as only a victim of chronic traumatic childhood abuse versus my being a trained therapist, I recommend embracing the sometimes difficult but eventually freeing option of talk therapy. Your comments, while supportive, focus on regret and the past. While it is very normal to feel these, at some point the past needs to be processed so that you (or me or anyone :) ) can turn their energies towards creating the person they were meant to be. I try to remember one thing, if I spend too much time looking backward, I can’t move forward. I deserve to move forward.

  • Ani

    Ani

    September 17th, 2018 at 4:02 AM

    Please can someone tell me how to handle the immense fatigue when you have your trauma reactivated, you are dissociated, not in your body, somewhere in the past ect.?

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