(part of Lost Childhood series)
We all carry around parts of our past that no matter how hard we try to hide them they always find a way of coming to the surface. These scars are part of us. They don't go away just because we push the pain deep down inside. For some these emotional scars find ways of physically manifesting as over time we try to deny them any other outlet. And in the end we end up suffering from a cycle of torment we never wanted in the first place.
This is not the story of the abuse we suffered. It is not just accounts of what happened or why we think it happened to us. This is the story of what it is like living after the abuse itself has ended. These are our scars.
In reading this we ask that you, if you don't have the same scars, try only to understand why this subject is covered here at Alder's Ledge.
For nearly a decade now the team at Alder's Ledge has worked with team members that have come from every walk of life imaginable. We have had every profession we could think of represented on our staff at one point in time or another. Most of us aren't of the same religious or cultural background. And most of us wouldn't have ever really become friends if it wasn't for one thing we all tend to have in common...
The team members that have stayed with the team the longest are often the biggest misfits amongst us, myself included. We all come from backgrounds that often make our passion for this work rather strong and fiery. Between our scars and our passions, we really aren't fit for other lines of work anyhow. Yet for all we have in common there are these scars that often makes it difficult at times for us to get along. And at other times it's those same scars that bind us together.
Over the past month this part of our mismatched team has brought every still bleeding wound right back to the surface. Things outside our control ripped open the scabs we so viciously protect and left us once again vulnerable and exposed. And for the first time, for most of us, this was a chance to see what we all try to hide... the shame, the pain, the nightmares, the fear, this sense of being broken.
When I first saw my beloved sister's eyes open for the first time since the attack I saw the same look I had in mine all those years when I was little. A look of pleading for someone to help. A look of pleading for someone to just be there. A look of fear that nobody would stay beside her as she fought for every last breath. It didn't matter that I was halfway around the world or that she wasn't my actual flesh and blood. I knew then that every waking moment would be spent making sure that look in her eyes, that fear, would fade away.
Over the years we had shared so much of our scars that I knew in that moment what was going through her mind. I knew that she had woken up far too many times with that look masking her beautiful eyes. I knew that in that mind were memories of years spent locked in a room after being beat nearly to death. I knew that those sights, those smells, that pain... all of those were flooding her mind as she gasped for air.
Every time I had woke up I knew felt it. I felt that rush of relief that at very least I was still alive. And yet with each breath there was a sense of fear that it wasn't over. A sense of fear that I was still fighting for life and no one could help me.
Offering words, since I could not physically touch her, I looked into the screen and fought back every tear. All I wanted was to take away that fear of being abandoned. All I wanted was to say that everything was going to be okay. But if you have been in that place before then you know that words don't dull the fear. The only thing that fades it to at very least a tolerable level is the fact that somebody is there. So all I could do was be there. There wasn't any fixing this. There wasn't any way of stopping the memories. There wasn't anyway to heal the wounds that time itself couldn't even keep from reopening.
No matter how long it has been since the abuse ended there will always be these lingering senses of fear. For some it is that of being abandoned. That was our shared fear. We had been left alone to lick our own wounds for years. And though we often felt like we had grown strong enough to do just that, we had this fear constantly.
Abandonment breeds in the mind more fears as time goes on. It brings to the surface ideas that we are somehow unlovable and unworthy of affection. It places in our minds this idea that we deserved the punishment of being abandoned by those who once claimed to love us. In time it makes us believe that we were the reason for our own abuse and neglect. Because in the time that it was first planted we weren't able to rationalize why it was happening. We weren't capable of understanding why we were being treated as though we were worthless or undesirable.
For me the sense of being abandoned bred a sense of worthlessness. For my sister it bred more so a sense of being unlovable. For both of us it created a barrier from behind which we hid from everyone else. Like the lepers of the Bible, we used it to tell the world that we were unclean in one way or another... that we couldn't be loved and there was no reason for anyone to try.
It is a scar that opens and closes without warning. When someone who has this wound lets another person come close to them they are risking having that scar ripped back open. This risk is never far from the mind of us who have it. Letting people close means living with this fear every moment that we are with that person. The fear that they will discover just how unworthy of their affection we truly are is always in the backs of our mind. And time doesn't heal this scar, it only magnifies it.
To live with it, both her and I alike, have had to accept that we are worthy of love. Though that fear will always linger, we had to accept that it wasn't rational. We had to finally understand that we didn't deserve what had happened to us in the past. That at some point those sins committed against us were not our fault. And that the people who hurt us may not deserve our forgiveness but they needed it so that their memory couldn't continue to kill us.
Once the reality of what had happened began to set in it was inevitable that she began to place the blame for her own attack not on her assailants but on herself. My sister had been viciously assaulted to the point of barely surviving it. Yet the scars that were left from a lifetime of abuse didn't register the events the same way the rest of the world would had. Instead of seeing the attack as unprovoked barbarism, her past assigned blame the same way she had been trained to through years of abuse. This was the scar that guilt leaves behind upon the victim.
There is no rational reason for why we do this. We find in the end that we need to blame someone for what has happened. And when there isn't a real reason for it, we find the first person we can to blame... ourselves.
Just as with the fear of abandonment, this sense of guilt comes from believing that somehow we deserved what happened. For me it was an easy conclusion to come to since the abuse I suffered was often given the prefix of punishment. I could easily assume that I had done something to provoke such a violent response. Yet for my sister the abuse she had suffered was inflicted by men who had purchased the "right" to inflict these scars. And yet she had come to the same conclusion that somehow, in some way, she was responsible for the abuse she was made to suffer.
Living with guilt is impossible over time. Once the abuse ends the guilt still remains. It is a corrosive emotion that slowly etches away every relationship we develop along the way. The only way to end it's destructive nature in our lives is to deal with the events that had led to the inflicting of this scar in the first place.
For me this was something I had long felt was impossible. Instead of dealing with those memories I had pushed them down till they finally exploded. And when they came to the surface they came back with a vengeance. Memories that could be fought back while I was awake manifested into nightmares. And nightmares became the embodiment of that room where I had felt like a caged animal. Trapped inside my head, I had to face those memories over and over again.
For my sister those memories came rushing back when anyone would dare to touch her in anyway that resembled intimacy. Every touch was like playing a game of dice between the responses of fight, flight, or freeze. Memories of what had happened to her replaced the responses of love or compassion that would had fit those moments. The reaction of fear, fear of being hurt again, pushed back against even the most sincere of gestures. It was a fear that isolated her over the years and left her trapped in much the same way she had been during the abuse itself.
It was through talking to each other over the years that we both realized that we had to face what was done to us. We had to turn and fight our own past. All this running was only making us relive the abuse as we pushed away those who cared about us. And though we still are battling our own demons, in facing those memories we have at the very least learned from each other what trust feels like again.
Yet the only way we have gotten to the point where we can even start to deal with these scars was with the admission that none of this was our fault. Guilt was like a chain that kept us bound to these memories. And it created even more scars the longer we lived with it.
Shame And Silence
Tears don't wash away the shame you feel when you bare these scars. The more you cry the more it feels like these scars grow deeper. This only continues till you reach a point where there aren't any more tears to shed and there isn't a cry left to be heard. Silence becomes your only friend as you try to hide your scars from everyone around you.
Isolation becomes normal as guilt leaves you afraid that others will see what happened to you. Your mind warps that guilt into a state where you honestly start to believe that everyone else will blame you too. So the only real option you see at that point is to either withdraw and hide or become so outgoing that the obnoxiousness of it all drives others away. There really isn't much of a middle ground here.
When we did finally start talking, after so many years of isolating that part of our lives from others, the first question people ask is damning to us.
"Why didn't you say something..."
It doesn't matter what the intentions behind that question really are... if there is actual concern or not doesn't make it past our defenses. That question makes every bit of shame we have felt for all that time come rushing over us like a tidal wave. The spirit that we have been working at mending, repairing, and holding together is broken with just one question. The strength it took to speak up is suddenly drained. It won't matter what follows next. That one question knocks the breath right out of us.
Shame has a way of creating a defense that words can't penetrate. As long as we have not dealt with the guilt we have felt, we inevitably end up building those defenses. And once those go up; the longer they stay up, the harder it is to take them down.
I've never met anyone who suffered abuse that felt truly comfortable talking about it. Even those who suffered the same way I did don't always feel they can relate to my story. And I honestly don't always feel I can relate to theirs. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that much of this comes from the damage we suffered when it comes to trust. Even if the other person's story matches our own, we still feel that they will judge us. This is where guilt was left to turn to a lingering sense of shame.
This scar is also why our stories in their entirety will not be shared. Speaking about these things takes time and trust for those who suffered abuse. For those who love and care about them there isn't much you can do to get those details out of them. If you truly care for them then all you can do is wait and offer them every reassurance that you won't judge them. But most importantly, you must always remember that just because they are holding back doesn't mean that they don't trust you.... it means those scars go deeper than you ever will really understand.
Silence in the end can be far more dangerous to those of you have suffered any form of abuse. The longer you have to deal with those emotions, those memories, that indescribable pain... the longer you remain isolated then the longer you run the risk of depression and all that goes with it. We as a species aren't solitary animals. We need to speak, we need to share, with others that which is hurting us. We need the comfort of others. And even when the pain has taught us to withdraw... that is when we need it most.
A Broken Spirit
Putting It Back Together
It would be nice if I could give a list of things to do to heal those scars and take away this broken feeling we try to hide. It would be nice to say that there was a quick way to end the pain that didn't only cause you more problems. But the fact is that there isn't anyway you can just bottle up those emotions and walk away from the feelings that will forever linger in the back of your mind. However, there are ways to live with them. There are ways to deal with this brokenness so that you can feel whole again.
For my sister and I it began with talking to those who love us. We started with each other and those closest to us. Through the tears, the fear, and the reliving of those parts of our lives we found our way forward. The feeling that part of our soul was still broken didn't go away. There is always a part of us that doesn't feel normal... doesn't feel like we are all better and everything is sunshine and rainbows. But we started to heal the scars and put back what was taken from us.
My sister's sense of insecurity was restored through our little family here at Alder's Ledge. Relationships that will last longer than this blog will helped her feel that there was at least someone that could love her for who she was... that could love her no matter what she had been through. The vulnerability that came with this wasn't easy to adjust to. Those scars had provided her with a sense of false security and now the healing of them left her exposed. It was only through out persistent reassurances that she felt like this healing process was worth the pain that came with it.
As for me... my healing came through faith, family, and therapy. As much as I have always said that I would never turn to that last one, I did. The pain of what I had been through, the pain I was living with, was driving me crazy whether I wanted to admit it or not. Thoughts of life beyond that pain were terrifying because for so much of my life it was what I knew. Yet those first two led me to the later choice. I couldn't live with the torment that was hidden in my soul... my broken spirit was bleeding me out.
We can't tell anyone that there is a set path forward. We have watched over this past year as a close friend lost his battle with the scars he had lived with. As a group we buried a friend who fell to the same fight we all have struggled with. We knew that day that we all might be fighting different battles but the scars are the same. And the result of surrender in this fight could just as easily be the same if we didn't call out for help.
Life after abuse isn't easy. Some people will and can bare the pain till the day they die. And it might very well be a "natural death", but the soul was broken long ago. As long as the pain isn't dealt with you will always feel that pain creeping around in the back of your mind and lingering in your heart.
The only thing we can say to finish this post is that if you are struggling with issues related to abuse you have suffered... please seek out help.
Counseling and therapy may be the first step. Perhaps a religious organization would work for you better than a therapist. But whatever the case, please talk to someone. Those thoughts and feelings that come with the scars that abuse leaves behind don't heal themselves. They fester deep inside till something triggers them and brings them back to the surface. And when they do there is often the immediate response of fight, flight, or freeze... none of which will be pleasant.
Don't bury those scars.
If you have suffered abuse....