When the Protector Needs Protecting: The Trauma of Protecting Others

Plant in palm of handEditor’s note: This story contains sensitive material and descriptions of childhood abuse and trauma that may be triggering to some readers.

My story focuses on two areas of trauma: childhood sexual abuse and the lasting effects of working in the field of law enforcement and rescue work. I am, for all intents and purposes, a normal adult—a college educated mother and grandmother. You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I am a survivor of trauma for many decades.

In my family, I was known as the “spooky smart” child. As soon as I could talk, it became apparent that I had an intellect unlike other children my age. I seemed much older than my chronology would attest. It’s true that I did understand a lot; the saying about little pitchers having big ears was spot on. I could listen to those around me and because I was a little person; no one thought too much about what they said around me.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that my father was emotionally distant—trying, but often failing not to repeat the abuse he received as a child. He never hit like his father before him, but the words were weapon enough against us. My mother was a black-out alcoholic who, for all of the good in her, spent her life slowly committing suicide by drinking herself to death. She would rather drink than face her demons and get help.

It began when I was about four years old. A family “relative,” the boyfriend of my great-grandmother, began sexually assaulting me and my sister, who was two years younger than I. When I learned he had touched my sister, I decided I needed to stop him.

I could not tell anyone about the abuse, as my dad was in the process of divorcing my mother. Any reports of any type could threaten his ability to maintain custody of us; something I understood, even at such a tender age. So instead of telling another adult, I made a deal.

I told him that he could do whatever he wanted to do, but only to me; he had to leave my sister alone from now on. I told him I would never tell, never yell—nothing. He could do anything to me as long as my sister was free of him. He accepted.

Over the course of the next 10 years he raped me repeatedly; always just outside my sister’s door so she could hear everything. I tried to stay as quiet as possible; even when he made me get on my knees and beg him to rape me. I cannot forget his greasy hair or the alcoholic sweat stink of his body and his breath on me while he used his adult-sized body against me.

As I grew up, around the age of 7 or so, I became involved in rescue work. My father was a cop on a specialized team sent to major accident scenes where someone must be extricated from the vehicle. He also assisted in other areas including search and rescue, looking for the lost, working in the local jail, and ordinary day-to-day beat cop duties.

Because he was a single parent, called out at all hours of the day or night, he sometimes had to scoop up my sister and me, taking us with him to the crime scenes. We stayed in his truck and I would try to occupy my sister so she didn’t look out the windshield at the crash. No child should see the death, grief, anger, and confusion we witnessed. Even though I thought of my dad as a hero for saving others, these are still scenes to which no child should be privy.

I too began learning these fields, taking an interest first in ambulance rescue work and later on to law enforcement. Since then, I have been involved in these areas. I worked with an ambulance crew at 11, becoming one of the youngest people ever to complete the EMT certification at 13. I would later become a police dispatcher, marry a man who became an officer, and have a son who decided to become Military Police officer in the Army.

My life has been spent helping others—being their protector, their advocate, a voice on the phone to help, to instruct them how to breathe life back into the lifeless body of their infant grandchild, trying to talk someone out of committing suicide or homicide. Sometimes I succeeded, but sometimes I failed. Needless to say, I have a somewhat overinflated sense of protecting others, often to my own detriment.

As an adult, I can now say I typically fell for men who would treat me abusively. I know now that I was searching for what I knew was familiar. Even if it’s wrong, familiar is comfortable. It wasn’t until just last year that I realized I needed help. In 2012, I began a relationship with a man I had known for a number of years before; we were friends and co-workers.

He is the first person to be in a relationship with me who was not abusive to me. I didn’t know how to handle it. The whole idea of a life with this man was at once both terrifying and desirable. I knew that while I’m okay overall, when I get angry about something I really overreact. I have thrown things in anger—never toward anyone, though; I have given up on relationships way too quickly, been too ready to believe I don’t deserve to be treated reasonably, all of the things which go hand in hand with abuse.

I couldn’t see any of that until I lived in a nonabusive household. Not being abused freaked me out. He and I discussed it many times and it was then that I decided to find a therapist and a therapy style which would work for me.

I contacted our employee assistance program. They gave a preliminary diagnosis of posttraumatic stress (PTSD) due to sexual and other abuse. They recommended eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy for me and gave me the name of a therapist. She did not work out at all. She was truly only worried about the money, not the people she treated. Her half-hearted attempts at helping me did worse than nothing —I was full of uncertainty, emotions, and questions to which she had no real answers.

So I decided to look around on my own. I did some searching and found a therapist who was specifically trained in first responder trauma, a type of trauma that affects those personnel who first respond to crime scenes. He also treated sexual abuse trauma.

Another nice addition was that he was familiar with the trauma of chronic pain and disease. I have rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, as well as issues related to the removal of my thyroid gland. I am in pain constantly and will be for the rest of my life. My health is overall sound and I have great doctors, but even that can’t compensate for the physical and emotional trauma these diseases offer. I contacted him about my situation and he agreed to let me interview him and vice versa as a potential patient. This invitation was to become the beginning of the rest of my life.

I have been in therapy for only a few months. In that time, I can say I have never felt better overall about myself, my health, and my place in this world. Yes, I am scared. I am scared of what will happen when I begin to feel things again, about traveling back in time to those places, about the idea of bringing up and reprocessing these memories—all of it.

Some days I feel like I can take over the world; other days I can cry at the drop of a hat. I am nervous about the type of person I will become over time and whether I am strong enough to live with it. I am nervous about trusting anyone with my mind and allowing them to help me change. It is a good struggle; I can feel it is worth it.

To anyone with trauma or involved in the treatment of it, I offer my story. My life was filled with visions of unimaginable horror. I have seen more death, destruction, and hate than anyone ever should. But I know I will survive and thrive in the future. To do that, I must deal with the demons of my past and decide that they will no longer direct that future. I have removed control from them. Now I’m practicing keeping that control.

With the help of my therapist and the support of my mate, I look with a cautious smile toward my future. If you are troubled, I hope you will soon be able to do the same. Your situation is unique, but that doesn’t mean you are alone.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Faye

    Faye

    April 21st, 2014 at 3:33 AM

    Once you finally find that person on whom you can depend and to whom you can talk freely and openly it can feel like such a burden has been lifted off of you.
    You have experienced so much horror in your life and had to see so much that it is wonderful to hear that you have now found a way to expereince that trauma and to move forward from much of that that which you have expereinced. There is so much that one can take and it is obvious in your life that you reached a breaking point.
    But it has to be encouraging for others to know that there is a way back, that there are those who can help you move forward, and I think that so much of being on this website reinforces that every single day.

  • Dillon

    Dillon

    April 21st, 2014 at 10:27 AM

    That terrible person did so many ugly things to you. I am so sorry that you have to have your childhood stolen from you in such a manner that is disturbing and leaves you with so many lasting and terrible memories. I applaud all of your efforts and triumphs at recovery.

  • catherine

    catherine

    April 22nd, 2014 at 3:36 AM

    I can’t imagine growing up in a home where someone was physically harming me and I still didn’t feel like I had anyone who I could trust enough to tell.

    This makes me so sad for your childhood, so happy that you are finding a way to heal and recover, but at the end so thankful for my own wonderful parents and family.

  • DK

    DK

    April 22nd, 2014 at 8:42 AM

    Hello Michele,
    I’ve also shared my story recently (goodtherapy.org/blog/smooth-sea-never-made-skilled-sailor-story-of-childhood-abuse-031614)

    When I read yours, I found so many similarities on so many levels. I’m so glad you’ve also found courage to ask help and keep looking for better ways to connect with other people. I also admire your courage to share your story.

    It’s a good thing to know that there are people who also create their own therapeutic paths with proper guidance and face the challenges that come with it.

    I was not feeling strong enough these days and your story reminded me why I begin this journey once again.
    Thank you so much for that.

  • Louise

    Louise

    April 22nd, 2014 at 5:42 PM

    That was a sad story but also opened my eyes to the world of the abused people. With the courage you showed when you were still a kid, I know that you will be strong enough to overcome your battles now.

  • Jonah

    Jonah

    April 23rd, 2014 at 7:12 AM

    You sound like one of those people who has taken on the burdens of so many others in your lifetime that you are just now beginning to see the importance of sharing and processing your own.
    Good for you!
    There is only so much of others burdens that we can even possibly take care of and there comes a point where to be strong enough to even consider doing that anymore you have to try to keep yourself whole and healthy too.
    Best of luck to you as you continue this journey.

  • MLewis

    MLewis

    April 28th, 2014 at 10:06 AM

    Thank you all so much for your kind words. Yes, I lost most of my childhood; something I don’t think I have effectively grieved enough to feel better. My therapy is certainly helping and will guide me to work through all of this. DK – I am glad to see your words, you’re not alone, there are millions of us; only our personal bits differ. Louise – I am glad you know more about abuse. One of the worst parts is having to hide our abuse. If just one person were able to look at a child and see “something isn’t right here” and take the time to look into it, I believe more abuse would be found and stopped.

    I have taken the burden of others upon myself and in doing so, I have harmed myself. I have plenty of work left on removing this co-dependency of protecting others. But on the plus side, it’s not the worst thing to be co-dependent upon (helping others).

    Thank you all. Your words inspire me to continue healing and remind me that there are others in the world who can understand. – Michelle

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