At work today a trio of us, all women, were working to sort some large stacks of files. And as women often do, we started to chat while we worked. I do not know how the conversation took this turn, but somehow we started talking about bad childhoods and the traumas we survived. Admittedly, it was a little bit of an intense conversation for work.
I was struck by how similar the stories were among three women who did not come from much of a shared background, aside from all of us being Americans. In our huddle was a black woman in her late-20s raised in suburban California; a half-Asian, half-Italian-American woman in her early 30s raised in Las Vegas and a white woman in her early 30s raised in Alaska/Illinois (me). And yet, we could have woven a seamless tapestry with our stories.
This has me thinking about the legacy of surviving childhood abuse. What kind of person does it make you? What choices do you make? How do you find your own two feet? How do you unlock your heart? Because how you stand up, walk out of it and eventually (hopefully) love yourself is just as important as surviving. The fact is, when I look back it feels like surviving, merely surviving was the easier part. Healing, feeling, processing and working through it all and figuring out how to walk out the other side of that a whole, happy person took a hell of a lot more work and a lot longer.
My head and heart have been circling around these issues a lot lately. I’m sure part of it is my pregnancy — thinking about what kind of mother I will be and the ways I will protect my child. And being a parent-to-be sort of naturally makes you think about your own childhood. As many regular readers know, I survived poverty, neglect and abandonment, alcoholics, verbal abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse. Not necessarily in that order. At this point in my life, I want to keep and cherish the good parts of my childhood and put the bad stuff in permanent (well-processed) storage.
I think one of the hard parts of dealing with traumas like that is that it can start to own you. It can make you angry, defensive, untrusting, afraid, a bully, irresponsible (because the world owes you or maybe because you just don’t know any better), controlling, a doormat … you get the idea. But worst of all — and this happened to me — you can start to feel like it is who you are. I am the girl who was molested for 9 years. I’m the girl whose father took off. I am the girl whose parent told her she was worth nothing. If I’m not that girl, then who am I? If I’m not raging because those things happened to me, then it wins! If I don’t guard my heart … If I don’t watch out … If I trust that when my partner tells me he loves me, it’s the truth … If I let go of it … What then?
It’s an act of courage to face the fears, anger, hurt, pain, rage, confusion … whatever you’re feeling. It’s an even bigger act of courage to decide that you don’t have to stop at just feeling it. You can feel it and then let it go. And you know what comes in its place, if you let it? LOVE! HAPPINESS! JOY, JOY, J-O-Y! Don’t you deserve that? Let me rephrase that: YOU TOTALLY DESERVE THAT!
It took me a really, really long time to get to that place in myself. Years! Tears! Thrashing around a bit in there, too. When I came out the other side I had trouble recognizing the new woman I saw in the mirror (she runs, too!). But I like her a hell of a lot. And yes, I wrote my book about that journey. Indeed, the experience is something like realizing you are the Grinch and feeling what it’s like to have your heart grow out of your chest. And that is how I came to “finally” want to be a mother.
And something about the conversation I had at work today, with women I’ve only known for barely six months, makes me think there are a hell of a lot of us out there. Now that I’m getting comfortable in my new, happy skin I realize that the next step for me is to pay it forward. I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet. Certainly, I will keep donating to and volunteering for organizations that work on these issues. I just know that as good as I feel now, I want every one of the survivors out there to feel this way and more! And I want there to be hope, so much hope, for the people trapped in hell behind closed doors.