I’m a survivor

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.

5 thoughts on “I’m a survivor

  1. My name is Keith Smith. I was abducted, beaten and raped by a stranger. It wasn’t a neighbor, a coach, a relative, a family friend or teacher. It was a recidivist pedophile predator who spent time in prison for previous sex crimes; an animal hunting for victims in the quiet suburbs of Lincoln, Rhode Island.

    I was able to identify the guy and the car he was driving. He was arrested and indicted but never went to trial. His trial never took place because he was brutally beaten to death in Providence before his court date. 34 years later, no one has ever been charged with the crime.

    In the time between the night of my assault and the night he was murdered, I lived in fear. I was afraid he was still around town. Afraid he was looking for me. Afraid he would track me down and kill me. The fear didn’t go away when he was murdered. Although he was no longer a threat, the simple life and innocence of a 14-year-old boy was gone forever. Carefree childhood thoughts replaced with the unrelenting realization that my world wasn’t a safe place. My peace shattered by a horrific criminal act of sexual violence.

    Over the past 34 years, I’ve been haunted by horrible, recurring memories of what he did to me. He visits me in my sleep. There have been dreams–nightmares actually–dozens of them, sweat inducing, yelling-in-my-sleep nightmares filled with images and emotions as real as they were when it actually happened. It doesn’t get easier over time. Long dead, he still visits me, silently sneaking up from out of nowhere when I least expect it. From the grave, he sits by my side on the couch every time the evening news reports a child abduction or sex crime. I don’t watch America’s Most Wanted or Law and Order SVU, because the stories are a catalyst, triggering long suppressed emotions, feelings, memories, fear and horror. Real life horror stories rip painful suppressed memories out from where they hide, from that recessed place in my brain that stores dark, dangerous, horrible memories. It happened when William Bonin confessed to abducting, raping and murdering 14 boys in California; when Jesse Timmendequas raped and murdered Megan Kanka in New Jersey; when Ben Ownby, missing for four days, and Shawn Hornbeck, missing for four years, were recovered in Missouri.

    Despite what happened that night and the constant reminders that continue to haunt me years later, I wouldn’t change what happened. The animal that attacked me was a serial predator, a violent pedophile trolling my neighborhood in Lincoln, Rhode Island looking for young boys. He beat me, raped me, and I stayed alive. I lived to see him arrested, indicted and murdered. It might not have turned out this way if he had grabbed one of my friends or another kid from my neighborhood. Perhaps he’d still be alive. Perhaps there would be dozens of more victims and perhaps he would have progressed to the point of silencing his victims by murdering them.

    Out of fear, shame and guilt, I’ve been silent for over three decades, sharing my story with very few people. No more. The silence has to end. What happened to me wasn’t my fault. The fear, the shame, the guilt have to go. It’s time to stop keeping this secret from the people closest to me, people I care about, people I love, my long-time friends and my family. It’s time to speak out to raise public awareness of male sexual assault, to let other survivors know that they’re not alone and to help survivors of rape and violent crime understand that the emotion, fear and memories that may still haunt them are not uncommon to those of us who have shared a similar experience.

    My novel, Men in My Town, was inspired by these actual events. Men in My Town is available now at http://www.Amazon.com

    For those who suffer in silence, I hope my story brings some comfort, strength, peace and hope.

    For additional information, please visit the Men in My Town blog at http://www.meninmytown.wordpress.com

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