Survivors Empowering Survivors

Is Personal Advocacy Worth Risking Professional Backlash?

“Don’t you worry an employer will see the personal stuff you have shared online?”

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When I began writing publicly about my life and experiences with depression, and as a parenting survivor of sexual abuse, my career in the mental health field was already on hold. At the time, I was a stay at home mom who needed an outlet. Now being back in the field, I sometimes get asked the question above. Truth is, yes, I do worry. But not for the reasons you may think. It has more to do with my feet, than a fear of compromising relationships and employment.

I “came out” as a sexual abuse survivor online a year before I resumed my career as a mental health care manager. I wrote about my experiences on a personal blog and for popular sites like Scary Mommy and Huffington Post. I talked to other survivors and supporters online, and face to face with people in my personal life that never knew.

I went back to work about six months before publishing a book on the topic of parenting as a survivor of abuse. I didn’t tell anyone at my new job about my blog or the book, and had no idea if anyone had Googled me before I started. I felt like I was walking around with this hidden identity tucked away. Which wasn’t much different than the way I’d always felt.

Survivors are professionals at covering up the scars that society uses to brand them broken.

The difference now was I had exposed myself online, leaving a part of my identity and reputation in a new place of employment vulnerable to judgment. I leaked a “secret” safely from the comfort of my own home, and it was only a matter of time before I had to come face to face with it in public.

There came a point when I mentioned in casual conversation at work that I enjoyed writing. I could feel my feet turn to stone, and start spinning like the roadrunner at the same time. Before the last word fell from my mouth, I was formulating a plot to run. I knew I had just opened the door for someone to ask, “What do you write about?” Inevitably, the question came up and I directed a few people towards essays I wrote about the trials and tribulations of motherhood, with only a dash of my “crazy” sprinkled in.

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Slowly but surely the word started to trickle out that I was co-publishing a book, in and outside of work. I started to talk about what the book was about – parenting as a survivor of childhood abuse – and had to answer “Yes” when asked, “Are you doing this because it happened to you?”

And again, frozen but fidgety feet.

I felt empowered by being in control of the conversation, but it stung my insides a little, as if the word sexual abuse sent a message to every nerve in my body to go electric for a split second. Before then, I had only written about my experiences. Being exposed like that, on purpose, looking someone in the eye as pieces of my story willingly poured out is something I had never experienced. It set my heart free, but imprisoned my feet in a constant state of “Freeze” and “Run!”

Even though every single person around me was supportive and championed my goal to speak about and for parenting survivors, I worried. I worried that I was breaking the unspoken code that people in the mental health field aren’t suppose to open up their own baggage and allow others to see what’s inside. We are suppose to draw firm lines in the sand, because exposing ourselves could make others uncomfortable, damaging the chance for advances in your career, and/or jeopardize relationships with clients. I kept waiting for the backlash.

Two years later, it hasn’t happened yet.

Trauma, more often than not, is at the root of the psychological and medical illnesses mental health workers help people manage. I have become someone who is recognized as having the ability to understand what that means in regards to a person’s recovery work. I am at times sought out to work with clients who have extensive trauma histories, because I am capable of acknowledging pieces of their stories that aren’t commonly recognized as important, while helping them to navigate recovery through medical, mental health and community services.

I’m able and willing to share so much about myself and my story because I recognize the reality of how prevalent my story is. I know this not only from the hundreds of charts I’ve read and the countless mental health patients I have worked with throughout the past ten years. The confirmation that my experiences are far from rare show in the lingering eye contact among those I’m speaking to – the unspoken coming out among survivors.

I’ve been contacted by college professors, stay at home moms, a neurophysicist, administrative professionals, those living in houses surrounded by a white picket fence and those that are constantly chasing a rent they can actually afford – all with stories about how being a survivor of childhood abuse has affected their ability to be a parent. I have experienced and witnessed the abuse a person experiences bleed out as mental health symptoms, ranging from full on delusional thinking, to unexpected panic attacks, to not a fuck given about living or dying.

I share my story not because it’s easier for me, but because I choose to use empathy and validation to establish connection. Experience has convinced me that connection permits scars to evolve into re-birth marks.

Setting appropriate boundaries is a priority in my line of work. I recognize that disclosing personal information to clients can be counterproductive in their recovery, but that doesn’t prevent me from allowing my own experiences to join me quietly in interactions with clients. Allowing all of me to be present enables authentic eye contact, compassionate body language and an empathetic attention span. That can speak volumes to a person sitting across from you.

I don’t worry that I am going to be fired from my job, or that I won’t be considered for a different one in the future, because my personal advocacy work exposes pieces of my life most in my position would keep hidden away. I worry about those damn feet of mine.

quote_2I worry that with even the slightest indulgence of vulnerability, I’ll feel the hangover that always follows. I’m worried that my feet will never be still and calm.

That my volume button is defective and I can’t or won’t talk loud enough or often enough to actually make a difference. I worry that my feet will give out.

I worry that the chatter in my head will convince my feet to give up on carry the weight that comes with advocacy.

You see, my brain gets it. My body doesn’t yet. I still have work to do. It’s daunting to stand at the top of one mountain you just conquered and realize there is an even bigger one in the way of where you’re going. My feet are tired. Some days, I don’t think they will ever get the message that it’s ok to stand still, tall even, when the sting of vulnerability hits.

So back to the original question – Do I get nervous about the amount of personal information I share? Yes! There is a risk involved when exposing personal aspects of my life while professionally working with the public. However, to me, it is more of a risk to not acknowledge where my empathy and knowledge comes from – especially in today’s cultural and political atmosphere.

And as far as those damn feet go, I can only hope that in time, as they carry me further and further into the public view, they will keep me grounded in spirit, and not fear.

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The Voices Of & For Parenting Surivors

Get A FREE Signed Copy of the Trigger Points Anthology!!

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Even with Joyelle living on the west coast of Canada and Dawn living on the east coast of the US, the authors of the Trigger Points Anthology have arranged to offer you a FREE SIGNED copy of their book!

It’s easy to enter. Just click the ‘enter giveaway’ link at the bottom of this post. Easy Peesy.

Already have a copy? Enter to win a copy to give to someone in your life that could use the support and knowledge OR donate it to a local human services agency.

Much love to you all and GOOD LUCK!!

~♥Joyelle and Dawn

*Enter Giveaway*

Faces of PTSD · The Voices Of & For Parenting Surivors

Why Aren’t Trauma Survivors Warned That Parenthood May Be a PTSD Trigger?

For many survivors of childhood abuse, symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may re-occur, or never arise, until they become a parent. A significant number of parenting survivors do not recognize the increased depression, anxiety, or onset of flashbacks as symptoms of PTSD, weaving in and out their journey to raise a family. Instead, many will internalize debilitating shame and question  their ability, and even their right to parent.

According to the National Center for Victims of Crimes, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be a victim of sexual abuse. The abused children all have one thing in common – they eventually become adults. Naturally, most of these adults become parents, many whom have never spoke about what happened to them, leaving trauma symptoms to lie dormant, festering, until acts of Parenting 101 expose them to triggers which send them spiraling. Most suffer silently, alone, and confused. It doesn’t have to be that way. And in fact, it shouldn’t be.

One night, as a new mom, I walked into my daughter’s bedroom to kiss her goodnight before heading to bed myself. As I went to my daughter’s bed, I was halted by a physical reaction to what I was doing. I had this sudden, unexplainable sickness in my stomach and felt panicked. I had this thought that I was violating her personal space by being in her room while she slept. I felt repulsed by the idea of kissing her on her cheek. In that moment, I was able to recognize my thoughts and physical symptoms as irrational and was able to kiss my baby girl goodnight; however, I had yet to understand where this was all coming from.

Following that episode, I started to recognize that same mental and physical pattern while performing basic acts of care with my children. The sickness and panic was there when I changed diapers, bathed them, gave affection, when affection was requested, when I breastfed, when I disciplined either of them – it became the norm for me to feel “off” anytime I was in the role of Mom. But who do you turn to with this kind of revelation? How does one ask for help because her children are making her physically and mentally sick? I often asked myself, “What the hell is wrong with me that I feel like this?”

This is the PTSD I have had to learn to cope with as I raise my children, because I was sexually abused as a child. I’m now able to recognize that panicked physical reaction I experience stems from the eight years my abuser walked into my room at night, and the lack of protection I had from others in my life. I was told “I love you” by my abuser, every time he abused me. I believe that is the reason that I felt ill when I went to kiss my daughter goodnight and tell her that I love her.

Becoming a mother added a whole new, difficult layer to my recovery. I became triggered by things that I did with, around, and for my children. I was triggered by certain people around my children. I was triggered by their sheer existence, in that I now could see how innocent of a child I was, at the time my abuse began.

I have worked in the field of mental health for the past 10 years and invested a significant amount of time working through my trauma before becoming a mother. Even with professional and personal experiences in recovery work, I was unable to recognize what I was experiencing as PTSD, nor was I ever forewarned this may happen.

With research such as the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACEs) beginning to come to the surface, we are learning that there is science behind how survivors of childhood abuse experience adulthood and parenting. Prolonged abuse and the toxic stress that follows distorts connections in the brain that associate things correctly, like love and fear. Also, a survivor’s nervous system develops in an abnormal manner, leaving the survivor with a faulty fight/flight/freeze response.

It wasn’t until I connected with other parenting survivors of childhood abuse online that I shed the belief that I was broken and not worthy of being a parent. Through sharing my experiences, I learned how common this is for parenting survivors. Once I was able to break through the shame, I was able to re-enter therapy and talk truthfully about what I was experiencing. At that point, I began learning about PTSD and triggers. Even though the process of acknowledging my reality as a mom was brutal, it finally started to make sense.

It isn’t always a choice for an abuse survivor to associate “normal” feelings with “normal” things. For example, a parenting survivor may experience a desire to push her child away when the child asks to snuggle and watch a movie, despite wanting to participate in the loving act. Intellectually, she may understand that this is a normal way of showing affection; however, her body recognizes that kind of touching as stressful, unpleasant, or even harmful.

Bessel A. van der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, teaches us that “Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies.” He further states, “The mind needs to be reeducated to feel physical sensations, and the body needs to be helped to tolerate and enjoy the comforts of touch. Individuals who lack emotional awareness are able, with practice, to connect their physical sensations to psychological events. Then they can slowly reconnect with themselves.”

That’s what makes being a parenting survivor so difficult. Survivors do not often experience parenthood as their peers do and often feel alone because of this. This can add one more layer of fear, frustration and shame to their day to day experiences, especially when they have never heard anyone speak about parenting as they are experiencing it.

It takes an incredible amount of energy and conviction to weave through PTSD while raising children. For many, the child is the trigger, meaning you can’t avoid it.

One has to be willing and able to work through the incongruent feelings she experiences while parenting, and choose to analyze and process her reactions at a later time in order to continue healing. That is incredibly difficult to do when already experiencing sleep deprivation and other exhausting demands of parenthood.

I think most parents feel like they are winging it, but growing up in dysfunctional families often leave a person without a visual of what a “good” parent looks like. Add trying to understand PTSD symptoms to that process when no one ever talks about this and it is a recipe for the cycle of dysfunction to continue.

A parenting survivor has to commit to raising her children, while at the same time re-raising herself. Often times, this is done with little to no support.

There are so many missed opportunities for providers to prepare new parents for what may occur. First and foremost, Ask! Looking back, I was never asked by my primary care physician if my childhood abuse was affecting me as an adult or parent. The lactation specialist never asked if I had experience with childhood sexual abuse when I struggled to breastfeed my child. My previous therapist never warned me that this may be one more thing I may need to learn to navigate when we discussed my plan to start a family.

I remain shocked that with all that is written about and for survivors, and about and for parents, no one has recognized and addressed parents who are survivors. As an advocate for parenting survivors, I am continuously amazed at the response I get when I speak on the topic, by both professionals and parents in the communities. The most common responses I get is “I’ve never heard anyone talk about this before” or “I didn’t know this happens to other parents.” It’s a shame.

Understanding what triggers are and why they occur has saved my life, and allowed me to parent in a break-the-cycle fashion. It has allowed me to use the triggers to assist in my recovery, and no longer hinder it.

It is my goal to increase awareness on the topic of parenting as a survivor by educating community medical, mental health and human service providers on the role childhood trauma has in becoming a parent.

The good news, as Bessel A. van der Kolk and other leading trauma and forward thinking experts like Peter Levine (Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma), Judith Herman (Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror) and Brene Brown (Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead) are proving that there is hope, if you are willing to do the work. And believe me, it is work!

With trauma-informed care becoming a buzzword of sorts, and with the ACEs study adding science-based evidence to validate the actions and reactions of abuse survivors, I can only hope that the 1 in 5 girls and the 1 in 20 boys will be more prepared for the role PTSD may have in their lives, as they become new moms and dads.

**photo credit


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Survivors Empowering Survivors

A Second Wound: A Survivor’s Decision to Cut Ties with Family

Many survivors mourn the loss of the life they feel they were born to live, as the ripple effects of abuse lead them in a different direction. Often times, as they heal, survivors have to cut toxic people out of their lives to continue on their path to recovery. Sometimes, that entails another major loss – the loss of his or her family. This is a dilemma many, many survivor’s face and we’re very grateful to share Miranda’s story and powerful point of view on this topic today, as part of the #SurvivorsEmpoweringSurvivors Series.

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I have come a long way. From the fractured child who was silenced when I tried to speak up about my abuse to the whole and healthy woman I am now. I rose from confusion and pain, and faced what I knew to be true. But like many other abuse survivors, I paid a painful price with regard to my family of origin. I tell my story not just because it helps me heal, but to help other survivors who recognize my struggles in their own lives – in the hopes that they will feel less alone.
It was always complicated with my family. When I was twenty-five, I revealed that I had been sexually abused by my older brother as a child. My mother and older sister believed me and even expressed regret that they hadn’t prevented it. The brother who perpetrated the abuse wrote and told me he was sorry, at least at first.

 

The problems with my family started when it became clear that I had a lot more to say. I needed to focus on what had happened to me in order to heal. Living in the truth meant holding my brother responsible, examining the environment that allowed it to happen, and trying to prevent further abuse by pointing out red flags and problematic behavior that still existed within our family.

With hindsight, I was probably naive to think that we could address dysfunctional patterns together, learn from them and go forward. Instead, my family members seemed increasingly aggravated with me as I refused to move on from the subject. My sister suggested that I be grateful for my brother’s apology. “What more do you want?” she asked. What I wanted was more than a closed door and a singular acknowledgment of an event that changed my world forever, instilled me with shame, stole my innocence and shook my sense of trust.

I felt like I had become the family troublemaker. As a child, I had been taught to be quiet, to read the temperature in the house and adapt my behavior to avoid conflict and chaos – if that was even possible. I was an adult now, with my own family and out from under their power. But when I spoke up, I still felt shut down. I had pointed at the Emperor and declared that he had no clothes. It was not a popular move.

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I began to stand up for myself more than ever. I pushed my mother to hold my brother more accountable for his treatment of me since I had revealed the abuse. She defended him, insisting that he was a “good person,” even after he said he pitied me, told me to stay away from him until I changed back to the way I used to be, and suggested I get a refund for my therapy. In certain moments, my mother’s capacity to understand my stance and provide empathy appeared to be just out of reach. She seemed to grasp the truth she’d been denying as she acknowledged her mistakes with words of regret. But these flashes of insight never seemed to last.

The abuse had long ended. The shame and self-doubt that had haunted me through my childhood and adolescence were healing nicely with therapy and time. Yet, my pain was still alive and well. Now it was centered in a desperate desire to gain my family’s understanding and support. I would never accept feeling that my voice was being ignored again, just as it was during my childhood.

I loved my mother and wanted to continue our relationship. But to do so felt like I was betraying myself. Eventually, I found a way to live with this dilemma. I decided that I could love my mother for her many positive qualities (including her love for my children) without accepting that she couldn’t see what I needed, and why it mattered so much. I kept her in my life and we maintained a level of closeness. Of course, I made a point to speak up and stand my ground whenever I felt the need, even if it brought about discomfort or confrontation. For a long time, this arrangement worked for us, more or less.

Throughout this journey with my family, it occurred to me that there must be many more people like me: sexual abuse survivors whose family relationships added to their pain. I wanted to shine a light on this subject and create a community of support. I decided that I should write my story.

Not really knowing where to start, I practiced my writing and learned more about family reactions to sexual abuse survivors. There were doubts and concerns that slowed me down, though. I was hesitant because I knew that going public with our family secrets would likely cause greater conflict with family members. Perhaps they would even retaliate against me.

While my goal has never been to stir up trouble, sometimes it can’t be helped when standing up for what I believe is right and just.

I worried about my kids too. I have always focused on giving them the kind of safe, nurturing home that I never had and I was reluctant to tell them my abuse while they were still young. I wanted to protect them from the darkness that I had left behind. Also, I worried that if I wrote about my story while they were still in school, they would feel embarrassment or shame among their peers. I also feared that they would lose their grandmother.

As it happened, I ended up feeling that I had no choice but to break most of my ties with my mother. She and others in the family had attached themselves more intensely to the brother who abused me, aligning with him in ways that I experienced as deeper levels of betrayal. At the same time, I felt my mother’s opposition toward me increase. Finally, I reached the limit of what I was willing to accept. I was exasperated, infuriated and just plain tired after a lifetime of feeling dishonored by the people who were supposed to love me the most.

I stepped away from my relationship with my mother and decreased the little contact I had left with other siblings. For about a year, I grieved for the loss of my first family and the lifelong hope that they would ever protect or truly support me. Then I took my first steps forward with a lighter heart – and a mission. I am writing now. I hope that through my story, I can offer solace and a sense of recognition to others like me. I recently created a Facebook page and Twitter account to offer support and solidarity to fellow survivors, called The Second Wound: Coping with Family while Healing from Sexual Abuse. I have blogged for other sites, including Trigger Points Anthology.

Now that my kids are older and know the truth, I’m working on larger projects as well.  It still takes courage to put my story out in public, but it also feeds my spirit and gives my pain a purpose. The wound of losing my family never subsides – it just loses its sharp edge in increments, and some days are definitely worse than others. But every message of solidarity or support reminds me that I am raising an important aspect of the effects of abuse, and that survivors like us don’t need to be alone in our struggles. We can join together in the truth and create a different kind of family.


Bio:  Miranda Pacchiana is a mother of three and a social worker who lives and works in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. She has started a Facebook page and Twitter account called Second Wound: Coping with family while healing from sexual abuse.

Twitter: @SecondWound
Survivors Empowering Survivors

Walking Each Other Home.

jodiI belong to a club.

This club is called the trauma club.

Trauma survivors share an unspeakable bond. In their face I recognize the familiar pain that can easily go unnoticed by non-survivors. We are relieved to be given space to talk and be understood without the burden of explanation. We feel at ease to show our pain, rather than hide it for the sake of others who find our suffering unbearable to witness. In short, survivors often times need the kind of understanding that only a fellow survivor can give you.

We survivors have a lifetime membership to an inclusive club we didn’t ask to belong to and there’s no way to leave. We speak a language we never wanted to learn but somehow became fluent in it, replacing our native tongue. We seek out others, whether publicly or silently, who speak the same language.

At first glance, the trauma club may look like a pretty shitty club to belong to, but it is full of the most bravest souls I have ever known; extraordinarily courageous and insightful souls who have risen above the countless judgements of others.

And yet we all wish we could jump ship– that we could have met another way– any other way but this.

Over the past three years, I have had the honour of knowing and working alongside these life-changers, game-changers, relentless survivors and thrivers.

Every member in this club redefines the word brave. They are not victims, they are heroes; heroes of their own story.

The brave souls in this club move mountains every day in honor of their childhood gone too soon, in honour of those that did not get the chance to survive and thrive and in honour of those who have chosen to not break their silence publicly.

With our collective wisdom, us members of the trauma club start movements, lead trauma informed yoga classes, and spearhead crusades of tireless activism.

We create tightly knit support groups of four or ten who meet in one another’s homes during the week or in our local community centres.

We create paper trails of letters to journalists and politicians.

We volunteer our time to conduct abuse prevention workshops, raising awareness in schools, empowering children and youth about their bodies.

We conceptualize and bring to life healing retreats, campaigns, and fundraising events.

We dedicate our time working alongside the government to dismantle a broken justice system by creating institutional changes.

We form alliances with other activists, developing local, national and international networks.

We educate others within the universities we teach, becoming the spark that starts the dialogue.

We push for tougher laws in order to create safer communities for those yet unborn.

This club will stop, listen, and act while the world carries on.

Why?

Why do we do this?

So that LESS people join the club.

I dream of a hypothetical situation where there’s a big sign outside a town hall meeting for the trauma club that reads;

“Not Taking Any New Members”

One member is one too many.

If you’ve ever wondered who some of the greatest world changers are, spend some time with a couple of members of this club and watch how they live, see what they do in a day, a week, a lifetime. Watch how they alchemize their pain into a force to be reckoned with, watch how they transform inconceivable trauma into victory.

We are relentless. In the face of adversity, we are and will continue to be relentless.

Because if it takes a village to raise a child, then it also takes a village to heal an abused one.

Get to know a survivor in your life.

You will see that their healing paths are no doubt filled with false starts, obstacles and messy residue from the past, but they will endure, push through and thrive in spite of them. You will see that they lead extraordinary lives putting others before themselves. You will see that they are beyond “surviving”.

Get to know us.

You will see that we are a welcoming community full of caring, non-judgmental souls who offer support and compassion that extends beyond our own personal experiences. Through the sharing of our trauma, we take those stories and weave it into a strong and supportive safety net, providing each other a fighting chance today — and tomorrow, and the next day.

I am certain we will leave an imprint of our profound sense of courage, our strength, our wisdom and our sincere desire to be of service to others.

You will be profoundly impressed. Our survivor instincts will render you speechless.

And maybe then, through getting to know one survivor, you will finally cease in calling us victims.

The truth is, we need each other, and we are all basically trying to walk each other home.


Bio:

Jodie Ortega is a Hip Hop dancer turned advocate, spoken word artist, and TEDx Speaker (Take that, PTSD!).  She has been able to flip the narrative of victim hood into a unique brand of storytelling, combining the arts with the celebration of surviving, thriving, and everything in between.  Her work has been recognized by Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter and her TEDx talk has caught the attention of UN Women, Greater Los Angeles Chapter.  To date, Jodie has publicly broken her silence in Vancouver, Toronto and San Francisco. Jodie is excitedly preparing for the Love Your Body Summit in Port Moody, Canada on February 6, 2016.  She will be sharing her story and facilitating a slam poetry workshop at a day that is dedicated to empowering girls and women to love their bodies.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/dontrunbabygirl

Instagram: https://twitter.com/dontrunbabygirl