The last few weeks have felt all too familiar for a lot of us. It took me a while to understand why.
Growing up surrounded by trauma, your body lives in a state of chaos. The fight, flight, or freeze response is always present. Adrenaline circulates your body. Startle reflexes at every corner. Second-guessing every thought, and every person. Are they safe? Can you trust them? These same reactions and thoughts have crept back into my reality.
My creativity is gone. My energy has left as well. Big plans for a new book, a clean, organized house are taunting me. I am exhausted, and yet I have not increased any workload. I didn’t understand this and beat myself up over it. The negative self-talk took over my reality.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the feelings were eerily similar. It wasn’t until I read a post online that compared what is happening in the World with trauma. With everything that is happening, our fight and flight responses have been activated. But, there is nothing to fight, and we are forbidden to flee. The only option we have at this moment is to freeze. Our bodies slow down to self-preserve.
This is why you are exhausted. This is why you feel uneasy. If you have lived through trauma (and if we’re being honest, who hasn’t?), then you have felt this before. If this is new to you, you are in good company.
Trauma survivors and people living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) know what you are going through. We know what it’s like not to trust anyone, not know where the threat is coming from, or when it might attack. We know what it’s like to feel anxious and uneasy in our own skin. We are used to being exhausted, even after a full night of sleep. We know how to worry like no one’s business. Depression isn’t just a trendy word to us. We get it.
What you are feeling is real. It is legitimate. It is scary. It can change your life. Things are out of your control. The lack of control increases the fear. The fear increases the anxiety. The anxiety increases the exhaustion. The cycle starts again, and again. Your breathing increases, and panic sets in. Racing thoughts and lack of oxygen. How will you survive?
Oh, but you will. You will find the light in the corner of the darkness. You will push out those negative thoughts, one by one (maybe letter by letter). You will find a way to breathe. You will take it one day, one minute, one second at a time.
Some of the worst trauma still haunts us, but you continue to live. You do only what you can. Be proud of your accomplishments, even if it is only that you were able to open your eyes and get out of bed. Look for the little things, because they will become the big things. It is all in perspective.
When you feel the walls closing in on you, reach for something you are grateful for. I know, sometimes, it is hard even to do that. Don’t give up on yourself. You matter. Someone loves you. Someone can’t wait to hear your voice. Someone thinks you are amazing. Someone is looking up to you.
Be gentle on yourself. Be okay with doing only what you can. Cry if you need to. Feel everything that comes. Don’t give up. Don’t let the panic, or the fear, or the negative thoughts take over. You are not in this alone, no matter how much it may feel like you are.
And think of how much stronger this will have made you. You have what it takes. Don’t forget it.
Since awareness is key to helping end domestic violence, I want to share a story each month with a different focus. There can never be too many stories shared. Sharing replaces hopelessness with hopefulness.
Since this idea did not come to me until late into the month of January, I thought I would start with my story. I did share my story in October 2019, as well as in my memoir, The Monster That Ate My Mommy, but there is always room for more details and more insight. My hope is that sharing my story, even on repeat, it will reach the right people to make a difference. If one person is helped by my suffering, it was for something.
The first three years of my life I did not have contact with my father, and as far as I know, neither did my mom. She brought baby girl Aiken home to her mother’s house from the hospital with the father’s name on the birth certificate blank. From the start she knew she didn’t feel safe around my dad, and maybe for the first time in her life, she listened to her gut feeling. During those three years she kept him away from me, and because he was not named as my father, without a DNA test, he did not have any rights to me.
The plan had been to name my brother’s dad as my father, and I was going to be given his last name. He agreed to this plan, and as far as I knew, he was my dad. He was loving and kind, and fun to be with. Before this plan could be put into motion, he became very sick, and died. I am not sure if it was this alone that changed my mom’s mind about my dad, or her wish to give me a father, or the hope for a family, but he was welcomed into our lives. My birth certificate was changed to list him as my father, and my last name was hyphenated to include his.
Within days we were moving into a new place as a family, and the abuse came creeping back in. Some of the scariest, most traumatic moments of my life came from the three short years we lived together. I witnessed my brother’s beatings, so severe, I was not sure he would live. I watched as my parents had violent sex in the living room, and saw my dad inches away from ending my mom’s life.
I was a watcher. I watched and observed everything. I wanted to be prepared for what might happen. Every sound awoke my adrenaline as I waited for it to escalate, and spiral out of control. Even at four years old, I knew I had to think fast, and be ready for what might come. I knew I had to be strong and step in for my mom or brother when their beatings became too much. I’d cause some sort of distraction to take the focus off them, hoping the belt across my bare bottom would be enough for him. If they could have a break, maybe they would be strong enough for the next time.
I knew there would always be a next time. I knew that even when we were laughing and having fun, it would end as quickly as it started. My guard was never down, and it wasn’t until recently that I understood the impact this has had on me.
Some things are easy to see what they were caused by, while others take time to fully understand. My newest development came in a counseling session where EMDR therapy was used.
The goal of the session was to understand the reason I don’t feel at home anywhere. The last place that felt like home was my gram’s house, the same house I was brought home from the hospital. Even though I moved out of this home when I was three, every time I went back, I knew I was home. It wasn’t a big surprise to me. It made sense that my gram made it feel like home; she was home.
My problem was I have not been able to recreate that feeling since. It was not due to feeling unsafe or unloved. I didn’t understand what was the route of this lack of connection came from. In the past abuse and neglect made it was easy to see why I didn’t feel like I was home. My life is no longer filled with either and I wanted answers. I wanted to fix it. I wanted to find that feeling.
Some of the factors that lead to this decision were the boxes I have not unpacked for over ten years. They follow me, all the things I have carried with me throughout different moves, and do not find a permanent place inside the building I reside. I do not decorate or make an effort to make it feel like “home.” I thought it was because I was lazy…or busy…but lately, I knew there was more to it.
During my session I had to go back in time to a memory that may have caused this. Going down memory lane I counted 20 moves in my lifetime. Most all of them had a negative connotation. There were two that stuck out. One was when I was 14 and first in foster care, and the second, the one that I worked on, was when I was six and going with my dad for visitations.
Tears began to roll down my cheek as I thought back to thirty-two years ago, to my six-year old self with my rolled up brown paper bag full of my clothes gazing out the window, waiting for my dad’s car to arrive so I could slip out the door before my parents had a chance to interact. In those moments I dreaded these weekend visits. I wanted to go to my gram’s, but on his weekends, I couldn’t.
As I worked through these emotions and memories I realized what had been keeping me from feeling at home. It was the lack of fitting in, the lack of having a safe place, the lack of belonging, the lack of having a solid foundation.
How does this all relate to being a child witness to domestic violence?
All that fear, and waiting I experienced followed me. I’m ready at a moments notice to throw my belongings into paper bags, or garbage bags and throw them into my car to get to safety. I’m ready to make my escape, because to me, home was not safe. To me, home was where I went to be hurt and watch others be hurt. It was a place that held all the secrets and horrors that no one else was allowed to know. It was filled with loud voices, swears, insults, and bruises. It was the space between going to school, and my gram’s house, where safety wasn’t questioned.
Watching my dad hurt and threaten to kill my mom changed me. It instilled a fear in me I thought was part of my existence. It gave me an altered view of what home and love were supposed to look like. It ate away at my self-esteem. It robbed me of self-love.
It changed me.
As an adult, who found my way to my own house of horrors, it took me a while to realize it was not normal. I didn’t believe I deserved anything other than what I had always known. I recreated a “home” that mimicked the one I had grown up in. On guard for the next incident to happen, I never had time to get comfortable. I didn’t know what comfortable was.
Recently, I thought something was wrong with me because I can sleep through my husband’s alarm clock. I know now that there is nothing wrong with me. For the first time in my life I feel safe. Safe enough to sleep soundly. Safe enough to let my guard down. Safe enough to figure out what home is.
It’s time to start living. Existing is exhausting.
If you have exposed your children to domestic violence, please don’t feel guilty. We all do the best we can with the information we have at the time. Each day is a new day to make a change. Tomorrow is a clean slate. Don’t let the past keep you somewhere you never belonged.
I don’t share my story for pity, I share it for awareness. Awareness is the key to ending domestic violence.
“When I was 15, I started dating a man that was 24. After six months in the relationship, I didn’t want to be with him anymore. I wanted to be able to do things with friends, and be a normal high school girl. When I tried to breakup with him, he got angry and wanted to know who the other guy was. I assured him there was no other guy, and told him I would stay with him. I stayed with him for another five years. We did not go on dates, or do anything fun. I missed out on all of my high school years, and spent every night at home watching TV and movies with him.
When I was 20, I met another guy, and soon realized I wanted to be with him. When I told my boyfriend at the time that I didn’t love him anymore, he told me he would kill himself if I left him. The next day we went for a ride in his truck and we parked in a parking lot to talk. As soon as he turned off the truck, he opened up the console and pulled out a new pistol. He said he bought the gun to kill me, and then himself if I left him. He told me that if he couldn’t have me, no one could.
I stayed with him awhile longer, until the thought of being killed was better than the thought of living the rest of my life with him. I worked the courage up to tell him I was leaving, got in my car and drove away. I went to my best friend’s house to tell her what I had done, and she told me I needed to hide.
I found another friend’s house to hide at, and heard that he had gone to my best friend’s house looking for me. He banged on the door, yelling and screaming, until they called the police on him. I stayed with my other friend that night, and then went to the police station. They sent me to Umbrella, where they helped me fill out paperwork to get a restraining order. After waiting all day for the judge to look at the order, it was denied. The court said since he hadn’t done anything yet, they couldn’t grant the order.
I went back to the state police barracks, where a state trooper met me. When I told him my story, he said he would issue my ex boyfriend a no trespass order for my place of work, college, and my house. He said he would do his best to scare him off.
That worked for awhile. Then I started getting flowers sent to my work, with love notes. I threw them away as soon as I saw them. He would call my work to try to harass me. Then I noticed he started following me. I would have to find a different route almost everyday to keep him from following me. I was on guard all the time. Then, it would die down, and I would stop looking over my shoulder. That was when I was at the car wash, cleaning out my car, and when I looked up, he blocked my car in, so I couldn’t leave. He came running at me, calling me a whore, and told me I ruined his life. He kept yelling and calling me names, when I finally got in my car and drove out of his trap.
I was so scared after that, knowing that I never knew where he would be, and I never felt safe. I covered all of my windows in my house, and checked my locks several times a day to make sure I hadn’t forgot to lock them. After awhile, the stalking stopped, and I was able to live my life without the fear, although, at times, I still scan parking lots and have the feeling that someone is going to kill me.
It has been 20 years, and I am still alive. His threat to kill me, and himself was just a tactic to keep me from leaving. I am now happily married, and I feel safe with my husband.
“For 9.5 years all I heard was that I wasn’t good enough, or everything that went wrong was my fault, I was too fat. I was choked and grabbed forcibly by the arm and pushed. I was always made fun of, made to feel like I didn’t matter.
Wasn’t able to see friends, because they influenced my decisions. Seeing my parents was just as bad. Always cheating on me, when confronted with proof, he would say it wasn’t him. I was never his wife (we were married for 7 years), I was always his friend, the mother of his Godchildren.
I worked all the time, trying to earn money for our family, while he sat at home talking to other women and playing video games. He’d always spend out/my money on other women. Because we stopped being intimate with each other, I was cheating on him, I was hanging out with other guys.
The non-stop fighting, yelling , and the physical fights just kept going. Getting worse by the day. It had gotten to the point of severe violence where I felt my life was over. He choked me so hard, that my neck had hurt for 3 days. That’s when I knew it was time to go. Sneaking out didn’t work, so I was arrested for domestic violence. Spent 6 months on probation. It was worth it.”
We met when I was 14 I was alone and shy, he was kind and soon I was in love. He spent the first few weeks testing, then he slowly started doing mean things to make me sad, once I was so sad I didn’t see what was happening he stared explaining because of my weight other people would not find me attractive, and how I could never live on my own because I wasn’t smart enough to handle money. By the time I was 21 I would wake up with him on me. I told him I did not like that. He keep doing it. I started staying up all night so I could wrap myself up in the blankets to protect myself. He still tells me it was not rape. If I missed up anything he would yell at me and ask me how could I be so stupid. One day I made friends who started to ask what I thought and I realized I had thoughts. I got away and I could feel the pain lift of from me. Almost 10 years later I am still doing well without him and I am loved.
Thank you, Kim, for sharing your story. Kim is my sister, and was on The Dr. Phil show with me last year. As with many survivors, this is just a small piece of the domestic violence that has touched Kim’s life. Often, we repeat what was see at home, and do not know there is another way. Sometimes it takes years to notice that there is something a little different in our homes than in other homes. Sometimes the people we have in our lives also have the same kind of home we live in, and no one notices.
I heard from one survivor that it was reading books, and later watching television that helped her understand what a safe, loving home should look like. It was then that she noticed the differences, and then that she understood she did not deserve to live the life she had been living.
Sharing our stories helps us expose the secrets that happen behind our closed doors. It helps other people see that the life they are living might not be the life that they have to live anymore. It helps them understand they are not alone, and there is hope for brighter, safer days.
We don’t share our secrets to get pity, or sympathy, or to make the abuser look like a monster (they can do that all on their own). We share to spread awareness. We share to bring solidarity. We share to bring hope. We share to light up the darkness.
Keep on sharing. You are not alone. I hear you. We hear you.
I met with my therapist again this week, and we talked about how I handled Good Friday and Easter. Days that for the last ten years have brought pain and suffering for me. This year, sandwiched in between the days was the third anniversary of my mom’s death.
I didn’t flinch. I didn’t shed a tear. The pain was gone. I didn’t reminisce over what could have, should have or would have been. I didn’t put my thoughts into the dark hole of grief. The days came and went without the heaviness they usually carry.
I told her I was amazed at how effective the EMDR therapy had been in such a short amount of time. Two sessions took ten years of pain, possibly more. She said we hold memories in networks, and related thoughts can be healed, even without focusing on them. So, being able to work through my mom’s anniversary was an added bonus of the work we did on the loss of my gram. As she told me that, I thought about the possibilities that are in front of me. There is so much work to be done, but where to start?
We talked about where to go next, about the top issues that cause me distress. My mind went in circles. How could I pick the top issues? What was really causing me distress now? My healing journey has been pretty complete. Most days are OK, with days of OK with a side of sadness. Knowing that memories are stored in networks, and connected in a web, woven together by similarities, I thought about the root of my suffering. My mom.
I always feel a little guilty or cliche about blaming my mom. That’s the joke of all counseling sessions. “What did your mom do to screw you up?” For the longest time, I wouldn’t let my thoughts take me there. I didn’t want to be one of them that blamed all of my problems on my mom. I was so adamant that she was not my problem that I brushed off the first notion of it. It was only after acknowledging it, and working through it that I was able to start the true healing.
When I told her I wanted to work on some memories of my mom, she asked me which one? I didn’t really know. There were so many. She suggested I close my eyes and see what image comes to me. It was fitting, that the title of my book was the image projected on my mental movie screen.
I pictured my three-year-old self, pleading with the monster to give me back my mommy. The terror from that moment flooded me. When I was asked what thoughts this image brought to mind, I responded, “that I am annoying, an inconvenience, not worth people’s time, not good enough.”
And there we have it. The root of my self-sabotaging behavior and thoughts, the feeling that my presence is not worth any one’s time, the feeling of being inadequate, of never being enough was programmed into my tiny, little, 3-year-old brain. All of the healing in the world would not work if this block was not removed. For close to thirty-five years I have held this block in my mind, stopping short of true healing. Each and every time I get close to tackling these thoughts my brakes instantly go one, and I am stuck in tar, unable to move forward, or to shake these thoughts out of my mind. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what. All I knew was the same terror that came as that 3-year-old filled me when I came close to working on these thoughts. Frozen.
Through the process of the EMDR therapy so much happened, in such a short amount of time. As we worked through the memories, a vision of my gram came in. Her smiling face, and a bright, yellow light surrounding her. The anxiety and terror I had been feeling was lifted, and in it’s place warmth and love filled me. I saw my gram take the hand of my child-self and take her out of that bedroom with the monster. We walked away, and slowly my mom disappeared. The bed was empty, the blankets pulled up and straightened.
When I was asked what I saw, I said that my gram was going to protect the little girl, and keep her safe. Visions of my child-self and my gram playing together came, and my whole body shifted. In the past I had been told to take care of my child-self. The idea of it sounded far fetched, and honestly, a little crazy. I was told to give that little girl the love and support she was longing for. Let her be little. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t wrap my brain around it.
A burden was lifted when I saw my child-self was in my gram’s hands now. I wouldn’t have to care for her, but I knew she would be safe, and happy. When I was asked to do a scan of my body from head to toe after the session, I felt something I had never felt before. A clear flow of energy. No blocks. No tension. Nothing in the way of the energy circulating throughout my body.
A notable thing to mention is that as I was doing the scan of my body, I said that I felt like I was finally inside my body. With the damaged little girl in the way, I was never fully able to experience life as me. I had never thought of it in those terms before, but as I finished up the scan, I noticed that I could actually feel my feet on the floor. As in, I have never noticed that sensation before.
When I shared this with my therapist, she smiled at me, and said how exciting it will be to get to know myself. The thought brought tears to my ears. I never expected to get to a place in my life where the pain and thoughts were not overwhelming. To think that this can happen for all of the areas of trauma in my life is beyond exciting, I don’t even have the words to describe how this all feels.
As we talked at the end of our hour together I told her how interesting it was that we had worked on the loss of my gram first, because without that work being done, seeing her come to take my child-self would have been crushing. It would not have worked, because the emotions tied to that loss were so intense. Also, the timing of this all worked out well. The groundwork for the foundation of my healing had been laid. I was ready. There is nothing left to do now, except heal.
Who am I to question how all this works?
Be kind to yourself. We are all healing from something.
April is almost gone, just twelve days to go. Usually, grief latches on as the calendar page turns from March to April. Depression soon fills all the creases and crevices from my inside out, leaving little room to breathe. The pain of knowing what April stole from me was unbearable, no matter how healed I thought I was. The pain was still there, taunting me from a far off place.
This year, my therapist and I started using EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing ) therapy. EMDR is used to help people who have been through a traumatic event reprogram their thoughts, beliefs, and reactions to the trauma. This process helps remove the block a person created in order to cope with the traumatic event. Once the block is removed, healing can begin.
I had heard about EMDR, and saw it used when I was at Onsite last year. It was just by chance that my therapist asked me if I would be open to trying it. I wasn’t sure it would work, but I decided to give it a try–I had nothing to lose.
The first session was just days before April 1st. It was perfect timing to test the results. If April could sneak past me, without depression following it, I knew it was working. The first part of the session was used to create a safe space, and a feeling that I could pull up if I needed to. Then I was to think about the two most upsetting memories or beliefs about my gram’s death. That was easy, because, even after so many years, the guilt still haunted me. My first belief was that I killed my gram. A nurse at the ER even cast the blame on me. After my gram’s surgery, I had not filled her prescription; mostly as an order by my gram who just wanted to get home. The following day, I forgot to fill them after work, and then she was on her way to the hospital in the back of an ambulance. I was told it was irresponsible to not get the prescriptions filled, and it was my fault that my gram had a heart attack. My next regret was that I did not follow the ambulance to Dartmouth when she was transferred. I wanted to, but my gram insisted that I go home to my children; who were eleven months, three and five years old. I felt guilty that I listened to her. I felt guilty that she arrived at the hospital alone. I felt guilty that I wasted minutes I could have spent with her.
As I explained these thoughts to my therapist, I told her, “Logically, I know I didn’t kill her.” But logic doesn’t always come into play when there is trauma. The doctor at her bedside after she died told me it was not my fault. And, if I had not listened to her, and followed the ambulance, she would have been angry at me. I know these things, but the guilt was overpowering.
During the session I went through that day step, by step, and pulled up memories and feelings that have been swirling inside of me for the last ten years. I cried. I smiled. I felt sensations throughout my body. I was exhausted. It felt like years of pain and memories were lifted out of me, shook around, and re-positioned. I seemed to have responded to EMDR quickly, and effectively.
The following days came and floated by. The dread that usually arrives with April was not there. I was able to think back to those last few moments with my gram without the overwhelming pain, without the longing, without the deep sadness. A few tears fell, quietly, and quickly on the ten year anniversary. But, they stopped as soon as they started. I felt comfort and even smiled at some of the thoughts that came.
She was ready, and she knew I never would be. She picked how and where she wanted to die. She was in charge, and went peacefully. There was nothing more that I could ask for. She deserved to die with dignity. After ten years, I let her go. I let her go, and accepted that she will never leave me. Her love and guidance are with me everyday. And, for the first time, I actually believe this.
Since her death happened on Good Friday, Easter has also haunted me. This year, as we approach Good Friday tomorrow, I am free. I am free, and so is she.