Just Average…

Just the other day, I had someone ask me if I had a Bucket List.  I laughed and replied, “No.  Great movie though.”  They said, there’s really nothing you want to do?  I said, “No.”  They said, “and no where that you really want to travel.”  I replied, “Not really.”

After thinking for a few moments, I replied that I am pretty happy with my life.  Beyond helping others, and making people happy, I really don’t have any major long-term goals.  I talked about how when I was a teen, I had a plan.  However, the days are long since the last check on that list expired, and not one of the items on it were accomplished – and that’s ok.

I also mused about the fact that I am a bit of a worrier.  I stated that if I am not careful, thinking about tomorrow, or next month, next year, turns into worrying about, make that obsessing over, obstacles and what if’s.  It’s a lot healthier for me to take things one day at a time, and enjoy life as it comes.

Yet, this morning I realized that it’s a bit more.  Growing up, I spent a lot of time trying to be exceptional so that I could live up to the standards of others.  I worried about not being good enough.  No goal was ever attainable, and no matter how hard I tried, the bar just kept moving just out of reach.  I would get so wrapped up in my hopes and dreams, that when they did not come true, my heart would be so broken that sometimes I didn’t want to go on.  By the time I was in middle school, I was so tired of trying that I gave up.  I stopped having goals, I stopped trying to be more.  I just wanted to be normal.  I wanted to be average, and I wanted things to just be simple.

It took quite a bit of time for me to stop worrying about hitting the mark, but I finally did.  While I still had hopes and dreams, I was a bit more of a realist about them.  I learned that it’s ok to just achieve…

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I’m ok…

There was a time when it took everything I had just to get through the day.  When I would wake in the morning and hope to get through just one day without having flashbacks on continuous loop in my brain. When I would simply just blank out and shut down because I couldn’t take the overwhelming feelings of disgust, hatred, and betrayal.

Before I learned about grounding and redirection, I learned to tell myself, I’m ok.  At first it was a way to remind myself that, while for that moment I was in a state of panic, I was really not losing my mind.  It helped to quell the attacks by grounding me more in the reality that there was not anything wrong with me, but that I was momentarily experiencing something that was hard to deal with.  There were times when I could be heard repeating to myself over and over, “I’m ok.  I’m ok.  I’m ok.”  I’m sure I sounded a bit crazy, but it was all I could do to regain some control over my run away mind.

Over time, however, “I’m ok.” became a personal mantra.  It became my way of saying to myself, and to the rest of the world, that there was really nothing wrong with me as a person.  By saying these words to myself, I learned that  I wasn’t crazy.  I wasn’t wrong for feeling the way I did.  My inner being wasn’t misshapen, disformed, or unlovable. I was really ok.

Sometimes it is important for us as survivors to remind ourselves the fundamental things like this.  Even though we may not really believe it at first, in time, if we say it enough, we start to open up to the possibility.  For me, “I’m ok.” was just the start.  Over the years, I have learned to tell myself quite a few things – such as I am a beautiful person, I am worthy of love, I am not unlovable, I AM good enough.

Some people may think that a bit silly, but abuse teaches us that we are not any of these things, including ok.  Sometimes it is our abusers who say these words.  At other times, it is the perception about ourselves that their actions leave behind.  Whatever the case, the lessons we learn from abuse are hard wired into our brains.  We believe them because it is what we have been shown.  We, in many ways, have been brain washed, and in order for us to break the never ending stream of negative thoughts we have learned to repeat to ourselves, we must train our brains to question everything we have ever learned…even if that means we have to start with saying, “I’m ok.”

Don’t Judge Me…

After sending my last message, this is what I received in return:

oh me….i do NOT know what to say in response to that. So SAD!!!!!!!!!!! 😦 I know you dont know me that well…but let me say this…..I had a HORRIBLE childhood…my parents were awful but nothing could ever make me stop loving them!!!!!!!

I wrote a long response, but at the advice of people who love me, I cut it down to this:

The beauty of it is this, you don’t have to think of a response. I’m not looking for people to make things better. Honestly, for me they are. I don’t feel I need or have to explain myself to anyone.

She wrote this back in return:

Then so be it. I hope you don t regret it all once he is dead and gone. My heart breaks for you & all involved.

To be honest, I wasn’t going to respond any more.  I was going to wait and see how she responded, and then block her if it was snide…but I’m so tired of being and feeling judged for the things that I think and feel about my own life.  So I put all my thoughts together, and sent one final response:

Does your heart break because my heart is no longer broken and I no longer feel unloved, unworthy, and damaged?

Do you really hope that I don’t regret it, or are you just saying that to make me feel shame?

Wash your hands of me if you will. Talk to me as though I don’t understand the consequences of my actions if it comforts you to do so. Speak ill of me to others if you must. However, know that I have found peace with my decisions, and with that peace has come freedom.

God knows my struggles. He knows the tears I have cried, and the hurt that I have endured. He knows what is in my heart, and that is all that truly counts.

I do not wish L ill will. I sincerely hope that he will be ok. I will keep you all in my thoughts through this difficult time.

As I think over these things a few hours later, I realize that some things, and some people will never change.  There are some individuals in this world who simply do not have the ability to step outside themselves and see the world through different eyes.

Even still, I beg of you…please do not let my words fall on deaf ears.  When a survivor sets limits and boundaries within his or her life, he or she does so for a reason.  Please respect that.  You may not agree with them.  You may have your own perspective as a survivor, and feel that you have great knowledge to share.  However, if a survivor does not ask you to tell them what you think of their decisions, please, please, please refrain from doing so.  It takes a lot to heal, and sometimes we have to make choices that seem backwards to the rest of the world.  Yet, if we are ever to learn to speak for ourselves and trust that we can learn to heal our broken hearts, others must give us the chance to do so.

Please don’t judge me.  I’ve had enough of that in my life…

Not My Family…

Over the past week, I have been hearing stories about health problems my step-mother is experiencing.  Today, I received the following message from a family member in my fb inbox:

Information
Your dad asked that I let you know he is in the hospital (they are doing a full work up on his heart).

At first, I wanted to simply respond:

I don’t care.

However, I thought about the fact that she was really trying to help.  I know people don’t always understand the extent of what has happened between my father and I, and that they really want help us make peace.  However hurtful it might be that people don’t respect my wishes to be left alone when it comes to my father, I do understand that they don’t mean to hurt me.

As I waited for something nice and friendly to pop into my head, I worked on some therapeutic activities…On my fb status I posted:

for those that wonder why…they aren’t my family. we don’t share a bond….

I followed this activity up by going to my groups and adding one called, Extended “Family”  In this group I added those that I consider my brothers and sisters, people who love and accept me as I am, and with whom I share a bond.

While I was contemplating what message I would send back, my mother called.  She said my step-mother had let her know that my father wanted to know if anyone had told me.  I shared with her that I had received a message already, and that I was trying to figure out how to respond.  I told her how I really feel about it, and we talked about how she shares many of the same feelings about her own father.  She talked about how people still try to get her to contact him, and how she doesn’t feel she has a reason to do so.  Although I hate what my mother has been through, I appreciate that she understands how I feel.  She even told my step-mom that she would tell me, but that was all she could do.

After talking to my mom, I took a little more time to contemplate things.  I finally responded to my family member with the following:

It’s really nice of you to do this for him. I’m sorry to hear that he’s not doing well. Of course, you understand, I can’t be there. He hasn’t been my dad since March 26, 1989…the day he “disinherited” me for going to live with my mom…for wanting to stop living in fear.

You are his only chance at having a daughter now. I hope he treats you better than he did his own.

The more I think on this, the more I come to understand that my father did disinherit me.  If I had known then what I know now, it wouldn’t have bothered me as much that he was using empty promises to try to manipulate me into staying in his home.  He would never pay for my wedding, much less even begin to be able to help pay for a college education.

Even without considering that, I never had a bond with him.  As I think back, after the age of 4, I can’t remember loving him.  I remember being afraid.  I remember obeying because I wanted to be a good girl.  I didn’t want to hurt, and I didn’t want him to keep me from seeing my mother.   But I never loved him.

The walls he caused me to put up also kept me from creating a true bond with my step-mother.  In all of this, she is the one I feel he has really hurt.  I was not able to develop a relationship with her because of the way he tried to use her to replace my own mother, someone who was still very much a part of my heart and my life.  She is a very patient, loving, and kind woman, but in the end, she is like my father…she’s just someone I know.

Yet, as I read this, something else comes to me.  I have never allowed responsibility to rest on my step-mother for not protecting me.  I’ve always tried to protect her feelings, yet she never protected mine… 

Name that Feeling…

Just a few minutes ago, I was reflecting on the moment when I first told someone that something in my life scared me.  It was my best friend J.  We were sitting in band class in 7th grade, and I had just told him I was scared to go home.  I was scared…

As I thought about this, I realized that it was the first time I was ever truly aware enough of my feelings to verbalize them to someone else.  Sure, in the past I had felt sadness, been lonely, felt disgusted, been embarrassed, but I don’t remember ever having a conversation about how I felt with anyone.  I remember telling my parents when I was in physical pain, but other than that, we didn’t talk about feelings.

Another momentary flash and I understand it all…I never thought, or talked, about how I felt because no one ever gave me the words!  No adult ever gave me the tools I needed as a child to be able to reflect on my feelings and identify them.  I didn’t know that happy and sad had names.  It certainly never dawned on me that I could talk about how I felt to an adult or anyone else.

I don’t remember talking to the counselor that day.  I remember going to her office, her asking me what was wrong, and me responding that I didn’t want to go home.  The next thing I remember is being at my locker, which was in a different building.  It was in between classes, and I was gathering my belongings – hoping that no one would “catch” me.  I knew my mother was coming to get me, but I was still afraid my step-mother or father would show up any time and stop me from going with her…

As I discuss all of this with a friend, I finally understand why for the first time in my life (that I am aware of), I blanked out part of an experience – I was terrified.  It was the first time in my life that I was ever truly afraid for my safety, and I feared the consequences of telling so much that I blanked out the entire event…

Today, I spend a lot of time talking to youth about expressing how they feel to others.  I also talk to adults about how to listen to, hear, and value what young people have to say.  It is very important that our young people know that they have a voice, and that they learn how to use it – not only this, but that adults learn to value the feelings and opinions of young people.

If you are a parent, be sure to talk to your child about feelings.  Help them learn to express them verbally.  Listen to your child.  Hear what they have to say, and read between the lines.  Help them express difficult concepts in simple, concrete terms that they, and everyone around them, can understand.  Validate their words by repeating them, as well as letting them know you understood.  Make sure they realize that you hear what they have to say.  Always be supportive.

I know that feelings aren’t always comfortable, but giving your child the ability to talk openly about how he or she feels will open so many doors for them. You will empower them to make choices based on their feelings and instincts instead of blindly following others.  You will give them the tools they need to talk about the difficult issues in life, and hopefully, these tools will be help keep the dialogue between you open once they become teens and young adults.

Most importantly, giving your children the ability to name and talk about their feelings also gives them the ability to recognize unsafe situations and have the courage to voice their concerns.

What Could Have Been Done?

Over the years, I have often felt like analyzing what could have been done to protect me from sexual abuse was a pretty silly waste of my time.  My thinking has always been that it happened and it couldn’t be changed, so there was really no reason to rehash it trying to figure out what this person or that person should have done.

Yet today, as I think over the Stewards of Children training from Darkness to Light, I realize how vital it is for me to identify things that adults could have done to protect me.  If I am ever to speak to others about how to protect their children, I need to first understand how the adults in my life missed the clues.  It is crucial that I be able to identify signs in my own life so that maybe somewhere along the way other parents might be able to see these warning flags and take action.

I think one of the biggest things that my parents could have done was talk to me openly about sexuality and sexual abuse.  The one and only conversation that I ever had with a parent about this topic was when my step-mother came to me one afternoon.  She was holding in her hand a copy of the World Book Encyclopedia.  I loved those books.  For years and years I had poured over them soaking up knowledge and learning all about the world around me.  As she sat down, she began to tell me that one of my cousins had become pregnant.  She told me that the father was a boy my cousin had been seeing.  There were a few additional details that I remember her mentioning, details which now make me think there was much more to the story.  After she explained this situation to me, she asked if I understood what all this meant.  I think I said I wasn’t sure.  She began to tell me about women’s bodies and how married people who love each other have babies together. I remember her showing me some anatomy pictures from the encyclopedia as she spoke.  She asked if I had any questions.  I didn’t.  That was it.  That was all there was to the one conversation I ever had with a parental figure about sex.

I was taught not to talk to strangers, but I was never taught that people shouldn’t touch me in certain places.  I was also never taught about my body and boundaries.  This lack of knowledge left me very confused after my grandfather molested me.  The only words I had to express what had just happened to me were, “He held me, and he wouldn’t let me go.”  An extremely astute adult might have read between the lines, but most, as my grandmother did, would have missed the importance of my statement and read it as harmless play between a grandfather and his grandchild.

I was never given the understanding that I had power and choice over what happened to my body.  I was never told that adults (or anyone else) should listen when you say, “Stop.” or, “No.”  My grandmother’s words to me were, “If you don’t like it, then don’t go over there.”  This told me that, 1) It was my fault. 2) Others had the right to do bad things to me if I “asked for it.”

No one ever told me that I had the right to tell older people, “No.”  As a matter of fact, I was taught to obey them without question.  No matter what an older person (including my teen cousin who molested me) told me to do, I was instructed to always do what they asked.  They were older, and therefore wiser, so I should always listen and never talk back.

After I was abused, several things occurred in my life, the first of which was that my grades began to suffer.  I was a child who did very well in school.  Yet suddenly, I was daydreaming in class, failing to complete assignments, and not turning in homework.  My father assumed I was just being lazy.  He told me I should try harder, he punished me for not doing my best.  At no time did anyone ever stop to ask me what was wrong.  No one ever said, “I can see you are having trouble with your classes, is there anything I can do to help?”

I think that brings up another thing that caused me to not speak out – the fact that I was always told that children should be seen and not heard.  My feelings, my opinions, and my thoughts…I was taught that these things did not matter to adults.  I was told that I should just suck it up and get on with it when I was hurt.  I was informed that my wants wouldn’t hurt me, and that I had nothing to cry about.  I was made invisible, and so in my mind, I made the things I endured invisible too.  I hid them from myself so that I could be the child that I was told to be and conform to the idea that I wasn’t supposed to feel.

As I became a teen, there were other signs that adults missed.  The most obvious were the anger, screaming, and yelling.  Because my brother had been an angry teen and I had gone through a rough time with my father and brother, my mom thought I was just getting it all out.  I wish that had been the case.  There really wasn’t a lot she could do other than just be there, but it was one sign that something else was definitely going on in my mind.

Another clue was my constant isolation.  When I was not at school, I rarely appeared from my room.  The only time I ever spent outside my room was at dinner time or when no one else was home.  I was extremely private.  I did not want anyone in my personal space.  I wouldn’t talk, and while most parents feel this is a regular part of the teen experience, it’s not. There are lots of teens out there who have healthy discussions with their parents.  Maybe not every day, but at least on a fairly regular basis.

Something else that no one seemed to fit together with the other puzzle pieces? An extreme hatred of family.  People around me assumed that it had to do with my father.  However, this hatred extended to other family members, such as my grandmother.  I refused to go to family dinners, including Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Because there was a blanket refusal to attend any dinners, people thought I was just being a teen.  However, the truth of the matter was, I was avoiding abusers and those who enabled my abusers on both sides of the family.

My teachers noticed things too.  Once I wrote a poem about suicide. My teacher asked if the poem was about me.  I told her no.  While I was not suicidal at the time, the poem came from a very, very dark place inside.  Another teacher noted depression in one of my poems, and when I received the assignment back, he had written at the top, “Don’t give up hope. Things will get better.”  It was in these moments that adults had a great opportunity break down barriers with me. To my knowledge, neither of these adults expressed their concerns to my parents or to a professional.  I had already started having flashbacks on a daily basis by this time, and it is quite possible that speaking with my mother or a professional about my situation could have raised additional flags and forever changed the course of my path.

When I finally broke my silence, I learned one more vital thing that all adults around me missed.  When it was found that another child in our family was abused by my grandfather, they did not talk to me.  No one ever told me about what happened, and no one ever asked, “Did he ever do anything that made you uncomfortable?”

Does this mean that if every adult had done what I have suggested that I would have spoken out sooner or been tormented less?  I have no idea.  I do know that if just one of these things had occurred, it would have changed the way that I saw the world.  It might have made me feel safer or feel like I had some control….