The Reasons A Sexual Abuse Survivor Asks: Am I Permanently Damaged? (Guest Post by Rachel Thompson)
I am so excited to have the one-and-only Rachel Thompson on my blog this week to discuss one of the most challenging questions survivors of trauma face. You can read my post on the same topic over at Rachel’s blog here. Find out more about her at the end of the post, but without further ado, welcome Rachel!
The Reasons A Sexual Abuse Survivor Asks: Am I Permanently Damaged?
By Rachel Thompson
This is just one of the many questions a survivor of childhood sexual abuse asks ourselves every day of our lives. People who have not been traumatized in this way will likely scoff at this question, thinking, “Of course you’re not! Why would you think such a silly thing!” and when you’ve thankfully never experienced abuse, this kind of question does seem silly.
To those of us who have survived early childhood sexual trauma (or any kind of sexual trauma), as I did at the age of eleven, we do wonder, because this is our normal. Not knowing what normal is? That’s our normal.
Living inside the knowledge that we are damaged (or question whether we are) is a given, a burden we carry inside our souls, and accept with stoic grace because we are different now.
Whatever you do, don’t give away the secret. It’s ours to keep. Whatever you do, hide behind the shadows of the sun.
I used to wear my soft flannel Raggedy Ann jammies as I held my baby sister, rocking her close to my heart, giving her a bottle for my exhausted mother, crying at her silky pale skin, dark fringe of lovely lashes looking at me with wide-eyed wonder. Holding her tiny fingers, I grieved for that ballerina innocence I no longer carried.
Little did I know that those thoughts had a name: PTSD, aka Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not only those thoughts, but also an entire host of other fun stuff like nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety attacks, social anxiety, depression, physical manifestations, perfectionism, headaches, hyper-vigilance, body dysmorphic disorder, and more.
No More Secrets
I kept the secret until I couldn’t anymore (all that is well-documented in my books Broken Pieces and Broken Places, available on Amazon; I’m writing Broken People now)…sheriffs, courts, and trials. But more than that, the secret was making me sick. I was swallowing stomach acid, jumping at whispers, terrified to walk alone. The abuser, the next-door neighbor, a father himself, did his two-year sentence and returned. My family stayed.
I saw him in the morning. I saw his kids throughout my school day. They pointed and laughed. I saw him after school. His wife lost her mind. She rarely came out, but when I saw her, she threw me eye daggers. I checked the doors every night. I rechecked my windows all night. I never slept throughout the night. I barely slept.
I hardly slept.
Continuing to live next door to the family, to him, for another six years (eight years total after the abuse) created an unbelievable amount of anxiety and stress on me; likely in ways I still can’t comprehend. My parents were adamant we stay – they did nothing wrong. Why should they leave? It’s kind of insane to think about the fact that we stayed all those years, but we did. As soon as I could afford to move out, I was gone.
I don’t blame my folks for not supporting me by moving away; it’s not that they intentionally minimized the abuse or went out of their way to act as if it didn’t happen – they were not educated or mentally equipped to handle it. We’ve talked about it and have a good, supportive relationship. That’s just how it was – they were busy raising three girls on one salary and to them, their reality was: we cannot afford to move. Deal with it.
I moved to college apartments, where I ended up in a date rape situation with a classmate. I moved to the bad boy who broke my heart in way that hurt so painfully it felt good, because I felt something. To recreational drugs, parties, taking eighteen units each semester, working thirty-two hours a week just to graduate in four years to get through it all. Zooming through it all.
Numbing the shadows away.
As I find my way through my thirties and forties, the PTSD, the shame, it’s all there lurking in the background, but not stopping me from pushing forward. Marriage, children, career – having it ‘all’ – for a while anyway.
Perhaps it’s my resilience, or the way my parents unintentionally taught me to just get on with life, or maybe it’s my own ambition and determination, but I compartmentalize it. Migraines, really my only obvious symptom; at times, my only escape. Or so I think…
Having children – life-changing, of course. And it all comes crashing down. Post-partum depression, anxiety, even thyroid and lingering hormonal changes smack me right in face. For the first time ever, I find myself on a therapist’s couch, in a state of utter panic and deep depression. The first time any doctor of any kind asks if I’ve ever been sexually abused. I cry like a little girl lost.
Time to do the work. I’m forty years old and I recognize that I’d never started to recover from the trauma that happened thirty years ago.
How damaged am I?
As I look back, now that I’m fifty-two, the author of two bestselling, award-winning memoirs where I share my experiences living as a survivor, as a woman, a mother, and how being a survivor has affected my own life and relationships, I realize I can’t change what happened, yet sharing my story is powerful, as is community with other survivors.
Are we permanently damaged? I’m not a shrink, so I can’t answer that professionally. I can only say that the flashbacks, triggers, and nightmares do lessen with time but never completely go away. The reminders are always there for me, like a film that never stops running, though I have learned how to redirect my thoughts which is quite helpful. I don’t feel the need to numb myself (save the occasional glass of wine or martini). Sometimes, I find myself in wonder that I’m not addicted to anything more than Nutella and writing!
Ultimately, I’ve decided the amount of damage doesn’t really matter that much. How do you measure it anyway? Is there a damage scale? (Probably, but as I say, I’m not a shrink.) I read a lot about recovery, I research, I write, and I actively and passionately advocate for survivors. This brings me a huge amount of healing as well. Only you can decide if the amount of damage matters to your recovery.
There’s a beauty in recovery, recovery is healing, and healing is grace.
Rachel Thompson is the author of newly released Broken Places (one of IndieReader’s “Best of 2015” top books and 2015 Honorable Mention Winner in the San Francisco Book Festival), and the multi award-winning Broken Pieces, as well as two additional humor books, A Walk In The Snark and Mancode: Exposed. She owns BadRedhead Media, creating effective social media and book marketing campaigns for authors. Her articles appear regularly in The Huffington Post, The San Francisco Book Review (BadRedhead Says…), 12Most.com, bitrebels.com, BookPromotion.com, and Self-Publishers Monthly.
Not just an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Rachel is the creator and founder of the hashtag phenomenon #MondayBlogs and the live Twitter chat, #SexAbuseChat, co-hosted with certified therapist/survivor, Bobbi Parish. She hates walks in the rain, running out of coffee, and coconut. She lives in California with her family. Rachel Thompson is represented by literary agent Lisa Hagan, and is published by ShadowTeamsNYC.