Learn from the past…

Parents, aunts, uncles, adults,

If your child, or a child you know, seems to be experiencing more troubles than other youth (emotional, academic, or behavioral), please dig a little deeper.  If you cannot seem to find a way to help the child yourself, seek professional help.

A few days ago, my mother and I were talking about my book.  She, like the proud mother she is, was one of the first to purchase a copy – hoping I would not know.  While I was not apprehensive about what she would read, I was worried about the concern it might cause her.  The content of the book is by no means happy, for the most part, and I feared she would turn my sadness inside, blaming herself.

While discussing this concern, she told me, “I tried to talk to you.  I wanted to know what was going on, but you wouldn’t talk.”  I told her that I wouldn’t talk to anyone back then because I didn’t know what to say, and I was trying to protect her.  She then told me, “But if I had known, I could protected you.  I could have done more to take care of things.”  I knew what she was alluding to, that she would have pressed charges against my grandfather. I told her once again that it was not her fault, that honestly, by the time I was with her, only a trained counselor could have gotten through to me.

The past cannot be changed, and the struggles I endured were by no means her fault.  If anything, I was able to begin healing at a much earlier age because she and my dad provided a safe place for me to “vent” the anger I held inside.  While living with that “demon child” was no picnic for them, I am sure my life would have taken a much uglier path otherwise.

Yet, there are lessons to be learned, even when we make the best of bad circumstances. My guess is, if she were not too shy to say it, she would tell adults this: If you don’t know how to help your child, find someone who does. Looking back, I would also have something to say to youth: If you cannot talk to your parents, find a safe, trusted adult.  Tell your story.  Do not remain silent. If you need help telling your parents, ask that adult to help you find the words.


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….

Who Am I?

One of the most wonderful affirmations I have seen is the one that reads:

“I am a mother, daughter, sister, wife, niece, aunt, friend….survivor.”

It is a wonderful feeling to truly know who you are, and I am thankful, that through all that I have endured, I have had the opportunity to learn who I am.  Yet though it all, I often wonder, how many people, other than myself, know the truth about who I really am?

If you are reading this, I would like for you to take a moment and ask yourself, “Do I know her?”

What if I am your daughter?  Would it break your heart to read the words I have written here?  If I were your sister, would it anger you that someone had tried to destroy someone so precious to you?  If I were your niece, would you wonder what you could have done to protect me?  If I were your friend, would you want to know what you could do to help me cope with the mental anguish that these secrets have caused?

Who knows, maybe you do know me.  If you do, I would hope that you would do everything in your power to learn how to keep this from happening from someone else.  If you don’t know me, I would hope that you would take a moment to think about how you would feel if I were the person that you love with all your heart.  How would you feel to know that I had been hiding this secret all these years because I was afraid you would not love me anymore?  What would you do to show me that I am not broken, and that I have no reason to be ashamed?  Would you be willing to speak out on my behalf?

Sometimes we do not like to talk about things that are not pleasant, but remember that I (or your mother, sister, daughter, friend….) may have been, or may currently be a victim of abuse.  As unpleasant as it may be to face that fact, remember that it is even harder for her to speak out, bearing her soul and hoping that she will find love, comfort, and respect in a world that had done her so much harm.  Help her by learning the signs, gathering resources, and learning how to help her cope.  Should the day ever come that she needs you, you will be there, and the love and comfort you share with her will give her the courage she needs to not only be your loved one, but to say that she has survived.

Taking a Step Out…

Recently, I had a conversation with someone that has been the fuel for my recent revelings and ponderances.  During our discourse, the one thing that really caught my attention was that they mentioned how adult survivors do not speak about the things they have faced.  They said that they wished that there was a way to get survivors to open up, but then, the public is often not prepared.

As a survivor, I know the reasons that we hide.  I also know the reasons we should not.  Yet, there is such a wide gap between what we need and what we receive that we quickly learn that it is much easier to live with the mess inside, rather than to open up – adding the extra burden of the mess outside as well.

For this reason, I have been deeply conflicted.  I want survivors to feel safe and at home in their own environments.  I want the rest of the world to know that the walking wounded are among them, and if they do not take notice and attempt to help, our wounds will only worsen, until there is nothing left but to bleed out all over the place.

It is time for us to speak.  It is time to leave behind fear.  If the world will not come to us, then we must go to them….

“The system…”

People say “the system” is flawed when they talk about social services.  They say that social workers ignore abuse because they are sloppy, and lazy and don’t want to make an effort to do something about it.  They ask the question, why report child abuse when nothing is going to be done about it anyway?

In recent days, I have come to understand that, yes the system is flawed.  No, abuse is usually not found in initial investigations.  Yes, it is frustrating when you know abuse is occuring, and nothing is done about it.  But I have also learned that “the system” is only as good as the citizens of its community, and without solid reports of abuse that can be substantiated, social workers are often “working blind.”

Survivors of abuse know that abusive parents are very good at hiding abuse.  We also know that abusers can stop abusive behaviors for 10 days (which is the length of an investigation),  if they know they are being watched.  Abuse is often not witnessed by social services for this very reason.  People often turn their backs on social services when their initial referral does not result in the immediate removal of children from abusive homes.  They do not take into consideration that the family may have been very compliant with the demands of social services, or very good at hiding the abuse.

One thing most people do not realize is that abusers will get sloppy ~ they will do something that cannot be hidden at some point.  Yet, if there is no one to report it, social services cannot make an attempt to document it.  The more reports that are made, and the more contact social services makes with a family, the more likely they are to catch abuse and the parents will be held responsible for their actions.

I am sick of hearing, “they won’t do anything.”  Failure to report abuse is neglect.  It is willfully turning your back on a child in need and creating an environment where abuse is tolerated.  I think that we can either sit back and complain about “the system” and leave them to do the best they can with the small amount of information they can collect through family observation ~ or we can be their eyes and ears and watch for visible signs of abuse and neglect, make reports, and help them out by ensuring that they have enough information to make a case and protect the children who are being hurt.