“Dear Survivor”: A letter about the hard truths of healing from child abuse

Dear Survivor,

Credit: Oldangelmidnight from Northampton, MA

Credit: Oldangelmidnight from Northampton, MA

“Because then I knew it was over.”

That’s what most strive to feel about the lingering effects of childhood abuse, although not about the actual events. Those are long gone, and often dissociated from awareness.

Rather, most want to end sleepless nights and startled awakenings; feeling as if they live in a parallel universe, outside the world inhabited by ‘normal’ people who lack histories of abuse; intrusive images, feelings, sounds, and smells; the desire to drink, smoke, toke, shoot up, sex to oblivion; the avoidance of intimacy because of a seemingly endless reserve of anxiety simmering below a brittle surface of civility; or fighting because the rage never seems to dissipate and you just want to push back, because the planet is not big enough to hold all your hurt, let alone the emotional needs of another person.

At the first inkling of the wish to heal, some try to barter with themselves as a way out of this paradoxical life of repetitive chaos. This often starts with a naïvely made promise with oneself to be good. This promise usually starts with the belief that by being good and trying really hard, one day life will finally, if not miraculously, turn out differently. This is not an easy promise to let go of; even when it’s obvious you are failing miserably at keeping it.

Even so, there will still be a part of you that keeps the promise. Why? Often because of the secretly held wish that if you finally get it ‘right’ the love that wasn’t there will materialize, or your savior will come and magically change everything (releasing you from both effort and responsibility), or the opportunity for revenge will become available, and there you have it: the transformative moment you have waited for has arrived.

This I can tell you is a colossal waste of time and the imagination. Even if the perfect love, the ideal savior, or the opportunity for the most humiliating payback becomes available, you will never become who you might have been had the abuse never happened, or get the time back that you have wasted waiting for your personal Godot.

You might think I am giving you that old song and dance about picking your ass up off the curb, brushing off the dust of trauma, stomping its dirt from your shoes, and manning up to life’s inevitable trials and tribulations. Not at all. Rather, I think childhood

abuse is so life-threatening that it might as well be the antimatter to thriving and creativity, and vitality’s dark matter. But because I know what it takes to heal — mainly courage, love, and lots of time — I’d rather not see you waste yours.

I grew up in Texas, in the middle of the Bible belt. My early mind stewed in New Testament ideology. It was impressed upon me, with great fear I might add, to avoid sin at all costs. As children in an Episcopalian Day School, we learned to hold our breath when we did something wrong, to look around and make sure no one was watching, to produce the image of being good for the fear of reprisal, sanctions, and shaming. If your childhood was anything like mine, it’s no wonder that for many of us the effects of childhood abuse linger in our psyches like a bad case of Candida, and only the strictest diet of goodness gives hope of salvation. But the truth is: it wasn’t your fault, and no matter how good you were or become, it still would have happened. Start loving yourself now.

Sometimes it helps to acknowledge there are a few ghosts hovering about that interfere with overcoming the impact that child abuse has had on your life. Who are these ghosts? The person who hurt you. The one who didn’t love you. The savior who didn’t come. The bully you are still afraid of. We all fight battles in our heads that our bodies never could defend against. Some of these battles are our own, others we’ve inherited from our parents and our ancestors. Sometimes simply through the act of belonging to a group we inherit ghosts. Humans are pack animals. Our psyches are permeable and inseparable. Sorting out what is yours and what is theirs is a big part of the process.

You know trauma by what it does to you. And there is an entire story I can tell you (and often do tell) about how the body responds to fear, how the amygdala gets activated, how the frontal lobes shut down, and a lot of other stuff gets tripped off, which is all true and matters if you want to get your life back on track.

But what often lingers long after the traumatic stress dissipates, or becomes manageable, is the confrontation with good and evil that child abuse initiates. What do you do with the reality that people can be so damn mean and thoughtless, selfish and cruel? What do you do with the reality that as a result of being abused you too have acted in ways for which you are not so proud, and sometimes deeply ashamed? For it really isn’t until we can hold our own humanity in its widest sense, and acknowledge the potential for good and evil in all of us, do the effects of child abuse fully relinquish their hold. And when you can fully accept this realization, then you are also able to give yourself the unconditional love that is your birthright and you will know that, whatever happened, you managed to keep your soul.

© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.

Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a mental health scholar and registered marriage & family therapist intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.

19 responses

  1. Thank you Laura. I just reposted this on Facebook and my heart is racing because everyone will know. But this information is too powerful to hide away in my own heart and mind. Keep up the good work, it is severely needed.

  2. Pingback: “Dear Survivor”: A letter about the hard truths of healing from child abuse | FotoJennic

  3. Your paragraph about Texas and the New Testament ideology broke my heart. It is a shame indeed that there were (and still) so many churches that don’t even “get” the message of the New Testament. It is the OLD Testament theology that wags the finger and dumps shame, harps on strict obedience, and is the one you were steeped in. The New Covenant (New Testament) replaces the Old Testament covenant (the Levitical one) with grace, forgiveness, erasure, and restoration. You sound very bitter at God; given your experience I certainly don’t blame you. But I lament that there are so many people that have been poisoned by wrong theology.

    I was raised very secular (actually hostile to God). My father was raised in a crippling environment similar to yours. So I grew up with the same impression of the Bible Belt and Christianity that you voice here. When I moved there in my 30’s, I thought “Oh, nooooo..” But I was introduced to a God that is anything like the God you had foisted on you, and I am forever grateful. Knowing I was forgiven for everything I ever did, thought I was to blame for, or had done to me and was shamed for, was the very thing that kept me from ending my own life.

    “As far as the east is from the west, So far has He (Christ) removed our transgressions from us.”
    (Psalm 103:12) To me, this means that not only was I innocent and not responsible for that which was done to me, but I am also exonerated from the poor choices I made in response to having been traumatized. To the point, the only people Christ ever pointed the finger at in condemnation were those who thought they didn’t need grace; they were good enough in their own right, and they pointed the finger at those they thought were lesser beings. In this case, that would mean the very people that rammed such cripping and demoralizing doctrine on you.

    I encourage you to take a second look at that dogmatic, controlling upbringing, and try to seperate it from the God they claimed to represent. Any theology that breeds fear and self-loathing is a fraud, and a very damaging one. There is nothing more healing than a restored relationship with God based on His goodness and unconditional love rather than my imperfections. The things which I never received from my family of origin are being restored to me by the Father of us all.

    I wish you well,

    • You are so kind. Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

      It’s true, I had a very hard time when I was young. I was a very spiritual child, as children tend to be, and intuitively knew what I was being taught was anathema to my natural sense of wonder and appreciation. But I found a silver lining in these experiences. In an effort to regain that sense of wonder, as an adult I have explored many world religions and spiritual practices, including learning more about Christianity. This has been a very rewarding exploration.

  4. Reblogged this on chrys muirhead and commented:
    A powerful post that cuts right to the heart of the matter and yet brings hope. Thank you. The powerlessness of child abuse is unimaginable except for the child who was there. I hope that their voices keep on speaking out and no silencing allowed.

  5. “antimatter to thriving and creativity, and vitality’s dark matter”. A powerful post that cuts right to the heart of the matter and yet brings hope. Thank you. The powerlessness of child abuse is unimaginable except for the child who was there. I hope that their voices keep on speaking out and no silencing allowed.

    • Thanks so much for your reply, Chrys. I like how you are talking about powerlessness as well as hope. I think they exist as opposites – much like dark matter! It’s so hard to feel hopeful about the future when feeling powerless and overwhelmed with the fear of being hurt again. And I think such fears haunt many survivors and make it difficult to hope to ever really feel safe in ones own mind and in relationships. And on the flip side, if fear can be replaced with healthy skepticism and good boundaries, it’s a lot easier to hope for a life one loves as well as good people to love. But hope itself can be pretty damn scary after early life victimization.

  6. I am the director of a Children’s Advocacy Center and have spent my entire career dealing with child abuse victims. Your essay was profoundly moving and provides such deep insight into the minds of our victims. I intend to share this at our next team meeting. Thank you for sharing.

  7. A lovely account, Laura. Thank you.

    I just finished a book I think you might enjoy: The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein. He looks at Buddha’s journey as a quest to essentially heal from ACE’s (his mother died when he was 7 days old). And all of his painful, disorganized “acting out” along the way, from abandoning his own wife and son, to nearly starving himself to death, supposedly as “spiritual practice.” It all sounds too, too familiar.

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