Even though I’m a socially awkward introvert with post-traumatic stress, I gave a talk on parenting after trauma last month. Why? Because I was asked.
Someone read the Trigger Points Anthology and wanted a keynote speaker who is a trauma survivor and a parent. Let me say it again. I spoke because I was asked. That never happens.
My experiences were treated as though they are useful, valuable and important. As though they matter. As though survivors matter. As though I matter. I didn’t have to scream or beg or fight to be heard. I was asked.
I joked with one friend, “The only time I ever get to talk about my childhood is in therapy, and I have to pay someone to listen. This time, I’m being paid.”
As a teenager, when I told my mother I was abused, she didn’t believe me. Not being believed almost ended me. And I can’t speak articulately about that yet or recovering from that. I can say that being asked to talk about my childhood and how it has impacted my parenting was medicinal. It was also liberating, terrifying and healing.
The opportunity for us to have conversations about life and trauma and parenting as peers, sharing the experiences we had as children and the way we live with them as adults and parents now, is very rare. It’s very different than our conversations as patients or clients. So often our lived experiences, opinions, insights and expertise are rarely heard, valued or sought. That silence and shame stuff is still pervasive.
So I said yes when invited to speak because it’s so radical to be asked. Just like I said, “yes, please” when asked to write about my experiences for the Trigger Points Anthology.
Because we need to hear each other to feel less alone. Being asked is powerful and life-changing.
I made very conscious decisions about which parts of my life and experiences I would speak about. I talked mostly about the present and how the past impacts the present all of the time. I did not speak in detail about the abuse I survived.
Sexual abuse isn’t my story. Sexual abuse is the story of those who abuse. Being an adult child of an alcoholic isn’t my story. That’s the story of the person who drank. Having a homeless father doesn’t tell you a bit about who I am or how I parent.
These things all shaped me. They did and do impact me and how I parent, and sometimes explain why parenting is challenging. They contribute to my post-traumatic stress and contribute to my high ACE score. They are some of the reasons I do advocacy work, but they aren’t my story.
Nope. No way.
My story is about me and the choices I make. My story is about how I use, express, make sense of and recover from all of my experiences. My story is about how I learn to parent, to love, to trust and care about myself and my daughter. My story is about how I learn to inhabit my body and attempt to show up and be present without shame or apology or numbness.
The only story I sign, autograph and own is my own. I reject the notion that what was done to me, by others, is my story.
When I joined the Trigger Points community a few years ago it was the first and only one I’d ever heard of with, for and by survivors. I was jumping up and down, elated to find others craving, creating and needing community and conversations. Not clinical talk, therapy or processing, but just sharing life and stories about day to day.
So I said yes and spoke at the Partnering for Excellence conference, even though I was afraid. I said yes because I was asked by people creating trauma-informed and collaborative approaches to the mental health system, to children and families in the foster care system and to the wider community as well.
At this conference, the Trigger Points Anthology was shared with staff in order to help professionals working to improve the lives of children better understand the challenges parenting survivors face. Professionals referenced our words, our experiences and the stories we chose to share. Our experiences mattered to others.
It's not trauma informed if it's not informed by trauma survivors is what I say.
I chose to focus on how trauma in childhood was less an event and more an environment. How it was less a crack in the foundation and more the way the foundation was never poured. I was trying to explain how it feels as a child to live with trauma; as a child who has no adult concepts, words and language; as a child who might grow up to become a parent.
I spoke about how kids don’t realize, “This is trauma I’m living.” Especially young kids.
We don’t think:
I’m being flooded with toxic stress. My ACE score is rising by the second. I will probably need a lot of evidence based therapy.
Those are adult thoughts.
Kids think things like this:
I like animals. People suck. Get me the hell out of here. Here being the body, family or world.
Kid’s don’t have language or context or perspective. We don’t know what we are living would be easier without trauma. We don’t know that there’s an opposite of trauma to be had. As kids, it’s just life we’re living.
It's not so much that trauma and adversity are being minimized by us or our family members, it's that trauma is normalized.
It’s the norm for us, and maybe for our parents too. It’s maybe been “traumatic” for months and years and decades. For generations. Day in. Day out. For many families, trauma and childhood might be synonyms. But I didn’t grow up thinking I was living with trauma. I thought I was just too sensitive or lousy at life. How we learn to live in a traumatic environment as a child is hard to unlearn as an adult when it’s your baseline.
Everyone brings the experience of being parented as a child to the forefront when becoming a parent yourself. And it’s hard to learn to parent differently when we didn’t experience a healthier and safe home and childhood. And when, as adults, it’s easier to find books on gluten free recipes than break-the-cycle parenting.
For so long, I’ve been in a fight, warring with shame and silence and what can seem like an indifferent world. Sometimes it can be futile and exhausting to volunteer or work hard to make social change, not knowing if we are making any difference.
Sometimes having not been believed as a child still stings my soul, leaving me feeling invisible and afraid to speak.
But here we are. We are here and we are hearing and seeing and supporting each other.
I know I'm not alone and feel it in my bones.
We are supporting ourselves too and making the way easier for others who become parents after surviving childhood trauma.
And that’s my story, the one I author, autograph, share and tell again and again. For myself. For the kid I once was who had no words or language or support. And with the strength of this entire community I’m grateful to be a part of.
Bio: Christine Cissy White is a writer who believes it’s possible to live, love and parent well after being raised in hell. Possible, but not easy. She founded www.healwritenow.com and writes, speaks and consults about trauma-informed care from a survivor’s perspective. She develops Writing for Wellness programs and educates about the need for portable and affordable ways to heal traumatic stress at the Heal Write Now Center: Creating Hope, Health and Happiness in Massachusetts. She’s been published in Ms. Magazine online, Spirituality & Health, The Boston Globe and is a columnist at Elephant Journal. She’s writing a book with Nancy Slonim Aronie entitled: Your Childhood is Making You Fat, Sick & Dead: Write to Heal.