I Stand Before You
Not long ago I went to my appointment with a new health care professional. I felt wary and a little defensive because he was new, and I was put into a position of having to trust him. I have trouble with that. He seemed like a nice fellow, with a good sense of humor, and I gradually started to relax. When seeing a health care professional for the first time, I believe it is important for adult survivors to mention that they are child abuse survivors, if they feel that it is important to do so. I attempted to do that, to give him information that I believed was necessary. Survivors often have issues that are reflected in the complaints they take to professionals. Survivors often have issues with touch, with trust, and many have PTSD symptoms that masquerade as physical problems. Survivors often have problems such as depression and panic disorder. Survivors also may have difficulty instituting new habits or regimes, which might affect treatment by a health care professional. Also, because of the non-linear nature of recovery, one time they may be just fine, while another time they may need medication to get through a particularly difficult period, perhaps having panic attacks, severe depression or despair. We can be very different from time to time, although that lessens with the length of recovery.
He smiled and said to me something to the effect that “I tell people that they have to stop thinking about it” (the child abuse). “All they have to do is stop thinking about it”. Without ever having met me before, and without knowing anything about me except from my medical chart, he proceeded to tell me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you might be using the abuse as a crutch.” “Some people use it as a crutch, telling everyone they meet that they were abused”.
I immediately felt exposed and awkward. I had a very hard time wrapping my mind around his uncalled for comments. Unsolicited advice is disrespectful. Interjecting oneself into such a very personal, private area of a person’s life without being invited to do so is extraordinarily tactless and hurtful. It shows a lack of empathy and understanding.
I thought ,”would you say that to a woman who was raped, if she was having difficulty recovering from the PTSD that follows the rape?” I also thought about those who, as adults were hurt in war, and suffer from PTSD and have difficulty recovering from that experience. I knew that it was not ok to say something similar to them. How much more are children hurt than adults! Often the trauma in their young lives happens not just once, but hundreds of times, sometimes more than that. They have neither the skills, nor the understanding, nor the training, nor the stamina that adults might have. The effects are more devastating, and more difficult to recover from, some lasting a lifetime. Often their recovery does not start the next day, but decades later. The fact that survivors are now adults makes no difference, other than the fact that we have more skills and resources. I knew it was not ok to say what he said to me. My anger rose, and kept me from “shrinking” (becoming “less than”).
I handled this experience surprisingly well. Of course I did. I have 22 years of “training” through various therapies, have read as many books as some “experts”, and have practiced what I have learned through my recovery since I was 35. I am 57 this year. I struggled with the fear, shame, and finally the anger I was feeling. I felt exposed and vulnerable. I struggled with the dissociation that threatened to overwhelm me. I took some calming breaths for a few extremely uncomfortable seconds. My response was simple. I said calmly, “I don’t do that. You needed to know because you’re the doctor”. His response was something like, “We’re all the same as everyone else”, as if that was some lesson he was delivering to me. I felt my anger rise again, and felt like I was in a “power struggle”. I breathed again to give me time to react the way I wanted to. I assumed he didn’t mean it in a negative way. We all have equal value in God’s eyes, and we should in each other’s as well. But in a very real sense, some survivors have experiences far beyond what others experience. They have experiences that can teach others about things that can literally change the world we live in. I am more in some areas, and less in others. That has to do with skills, experiences, but not value. I saw that I knew that, and that he didn’t seem to know that. I said, “yes we are”, holding back the rest of what I knew.
I did not “get into it” much further with him. I was surprised and somewhat confused that he didn’t know why that information might be useful, or for that matter necessary. Perhaps he believed that the type of abuse I experienced does not exist, or since I seemed rational, it could not have been severe. He could not have been more wrong.
Many of us have a lack of understanding about the effects that child abuse has on adult survivors. Many of us have a lack of understanding of what “recovery” looks like for an adult survivor. Many of us have no idea of all that a survivor might have to deal with on a daily basis in their recovery, (and inside themselves). Many of us believe that when someone says they are a survivor, that they surely couldn’t be standing intact in front of them if their abuse was severe. Many of us do not understand that recovery is a journey. It is not a destination. Recovery is remarkably personal, and depends on our makeup, gifts and the type and severity of the abuse. Some journey farther than others, some have suffered more than others. There is no abuse that cannot be recovered from. Sometimes survivors “circle” an event or theme of abuse until they are ready to resolve it -sometimes even years. All survivors are looking for resolution, even if it looks like they are not moving forward! Who are we to judge what a survivor’s recovery should look like? Who are we to tell them that we know when it is time for them?
Another misconception is that if only a survivor changed his or her thinking, then they could get past the trauma. Although how we think, and what we think about, does play a large role in our daily attitudes, thinking mostly is not where we were hurt, and might be described as being in an “outer layer” of our being. Our emotional nature, and our acceptance of how we are, who we are, and where we are on our journey, is what are most damaged. Survivors are always looking for resolution. When they are focused on the past, they are doing so because they have not found resolution, and are looking for their own personal resolution, not someone else’s! Often our thinking reflects what we are feeling, even if we do not know that. Many Survivors have “frozen feelings”, meaning that they cannot get in touch with their deepest wounds. It takes sustained focus on the past to get to these feelings. Unless we go through the pain, feel it and share it, we will not get to the other side of it. It will sit in us festering, looking for expression in our daily lives, rather than describing the events of the past. In this way, the past contaminates the present. Although our outer thinking may influence our outer feeling, it does not affect those feelings near the core of us. In fact, much of our thinking is driven by feelings from our center. Some call this “primacy of emotion”. In my experience, no amount of thinking or not thinking will heal the wounds of the past. Discovering the frozen feelings from our pasts, giving voice to them, fully feeling them, having empathy for how vulnerable we were, and how tenacious – these are the things that lead us into the journey of recovery – no matter how long it takes us!
I stand before you in a process of recovery, even though I started that recovery 22 years ago. I stand before you relatively intact, although at one time I was completely crippled. I stand before you imperfectly healed. I stand before you not as victim, but as survivor, there is a difference. I stand before you sometimes with a cauldron of feelings that threaten to overwhelm me, feelings that most would recoil from, yet I do not fall apart, nor do I deny or avoid them. I am a survivor, and I am responsible for my own recovery. No one can do it for me, although I have invited God into the process of my recovery. I am proud that I am a survivor, because it embraces all of my past, not just the “acceptable parts”. I stand before you, and I tell you that I am both more and less, not the same as those who have not been abused. I am less in those areas that still interfere with what I want to do, and I am more, because I have experiences that can teach all of us how to behave with each other, so that no one gets hurt like I was. I stand before you so that you may hear my voice. I use my voice so that others may know it is ok to do so also. I use my voice so that others may start their journey of recovery. I use my voice to bring empathy into areas where we have none. I stand before you as a survivor, and it is a badge of courage and accomplishment, not some sort of excuse or crutch to gain sympathy.
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