Survivors Empowering Survivors

I Spoke About Parenting as a Survivor, Because I Was Asked.

cissy whiteEven 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.

Photo Credit: Margaret Bellafiore
Photo Credit: Margaret Bellafiore

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.

 

 

 

 

The Voices Of & For Parenting Surivors

The Body Remembers

the_body_remembersThe Body Remembers

 

Just get over it.

Why can’t you just get let it go?

Because it has not gone anywhere. It is still here.

 

The first time I did yoga I cried.

And every time after that for six months.

At the mat, I came face to face

with my self hatred.

At the mat, I discovered the way

I hold my trauma in the space between my pelvic bones.

 

Some people brought towels to class

to wipe away their sweat.

My towel wiped away my snot and tears,

as a lifetime of holding trauma was released,

in sudden waves that washed over me,

salty memories licking my skin.

 

The body remembers.

 

I have a safe home now.

I have a gentle, loving husband who adores me

and would do anything to protect me from harm.

 

But I still have to ask him not to stand in doorways

that block my exit from a room,

because blind panic crawls up my spine

like a thousand tiny spiders.

 

The body remembers.                                   (Even if the mind does not.)

 

Because the truth is,

I really don’t remember much of what happened.

I do remember the aftermath.

The fall out.

The shame and blame.

 

But of the initial acts, I recall a game of pretend,

played out under covers.

Memory has kindly laid a fog around the specifics

of how my vulva became rubbed so raw as to require

antibiotic ointment.

I guess it must have hurt at some point.

I don’t recall the pain.

At least, not the physical pain.

 

But the body remembers.

 

Yesterday a toddler

full of joy and cheerful abandon

ran full tilt into my back

and shockwaves echoed my trauma.

 

No. Please stop that.

 

The body remembers.

 

And no, I do not want to hear about your magic therapy

or 12-step program that will “cure” me so I can be “normal like you.

And no, I do not want your pity either.

 

What I want is for you to see me.

To see my scars like you would see the scars of a burn victim.

As proof of my will to live and love

through un-imaginable pain.

 

Because my body remembers.

 

And these scars show the world that I survived.

 

© Joyelle Brandt 2016

This poem is part of a series of works Joyelle is creating called Written on the Body that explore how our bodies contain and reflect our lived experiences, and the map that trauma leaves on the body.

Survivors Empowering Survivors

Do You Carry This Guilt Inside of You?

Many parenting survivors struggle with guilt, as they simultaneously work on raising their children and re-raising themselves. The decision to add journal prompts at the end of each essay in the Trigger Points Anthology was to encourage readers to use the connection and shared experiences as prompts in investigating their own personal parenting struggles. We are honored to share a response to one of those prompts with you today. Frieda bravely allows us to witness her own battles, and I can assure you by the end, you will be celebrating her insightful triumph. Frieda speaks open and honestly and that takes courage. We thank you, Frieda. This is what the #SurvivorsEmpoweringSurvivors series is all about.


Frieda

I do carry a massive amount of guilt for the effect my struggles with my mental health have upon my kids. The thing I feel most guilty for is the ‘overspill’ they have witnessed whilst I’ve been in the midst of a crisis (triggered by doctors, dentists or just a bad day). My curious eldest has asked me questions at such times and I’ve answered him honestly, but I wish he didn’t know all that stuff because of the weight and darkness of it. I worry about them having a bleak view of the world because mine is so distorted and inevitably affects theirs. I do talk about this with them though, and try and point out the presence of helpers and good people – in the Paris attacks recently, for example.

I regret that I am not a better model of emotional regulation, as I can find it hard to contain myself and come out with all sorts of inappropriate and bizarre comments/observations (which the kids find hilarious) when stressed. “Do your silly thing again mummy,” they often request, but it’s not something I have much control over and I worry about the affect of this on them.

I struggle with self harm and this is something I do lie to them about. I keep it as hidden as possible, which is mostly possible, but I make up weak and off the cuff stories about fresh scars in the swimming pool and they’re clearly not convinced. There has developed a definite taboo around them asking, and I know they feel that and must be confused, but I worry that if I told the truth they would see self harm as a valid coping mechanism and I really don’t want to pass that on to them.

I try to own my emotional states by saying to them things like “I’m having a hard day today. If I’m grumpy, it’s not because of anything you’ve done”, or “Sorry, I’m knackered/in a bad mood, it’s not you.” I try my hardest, and manage well to not take my struggles out on them; that’s part of breaking the cycle. I try and limit my negative self-talk around them, but at times it’s really hard to keep that running commentary inside. Because of them knowing a lot of stuff that other kids their age haven’t generally come across yet, we talk openly about all sorts of things. They know they can ask me anything and I will do my best to be honest with what I know.

It took me a while to fully grasp the SD bit of PTSD, but that has been very useful to get my head around. I find stress very difficult to manage and understanding the physiological basis of that has helped me to take it more seriously. It’s not all ‘in my head’, well it is, but deep in the physiology of my brain. Fully grasping that has helped me prioritize keeping my stress levels as low as possible because that’s when I function at my best, which is what I want to be for my kids.

It’s hard to keep on top of, but at least I recognize what’s happening now and can try and do something about it. Finding out about PTSD was a big “ping” moment leading to a shift in how I perceive myself. I blamed myself for not coping better, for being a middle aged adult who’d had some good experiences, but still couldn’t ‘get over it’, still re-living parts of my childhood daily. I thought it was all my fault for being weak and unable to cope when everyone else was just getting on with it.

I thought I ‘let’ the past rule my present and to not be able to transcend it highlighted my weakness of mind. And anyway, loads of people have had loads more difficult experiences than me and they do ok, so why don’t I just stop fussing about it. It led me on to reading about trauma and discovering the work of Babette Rothschild, Pete Walker, Bessel Van Der Kolk, which again was a revelation to me, and let me off the hook some more for why all these memories were still so raw and unprocessed in my body.

It’s very much work in progress and self hate is my most easily accessible emotion. I wish I could do so much better than I do. I guess that’s a thing I find really hard about parenting – that wish that I could be the mum I imagined I could be before I had them. I wish I was able to be fully present, to share their joy and spontaneity more, to take them out on trips instead of needing to stay within my comfort zone, to have attracted a wider support network including other children to substitute for lack of biological family. I wish I had the resources to get male role models on board. I do my best, but the reality is, it often isn‘t good enough. It’s limited and a bit barren at times when I wanted it to be full of vitality and colour.

Part of me believes I don’t deserve my kids, especially as I actively (as a lesbian) chose to have them. I feel that I wouldn’t have passed the test if there was one, and I certainly don’t live up to my own expectations. I remember the heartbreaking moment of realization that “breaking the cycle” was beyond me, that I was damaging my kids with the sharp edges of my own brokenness.

But then I see parents out and about casually humiliating their kids or being really disrespectful and I think at least mine don’t have to put up with that. My psychologist, who used to work in forensics, said to me last week “It’s not all those other people you should be comparing yourself to, it’s the people locked up on secure wards who’ve had more similar experiences to you. You’re doing fantastically.” And that’s hard to hear, hard to let in, hard to think about those people with no freedom as a result of having messed up childhoods, but part of me feels reassured by that. Maybe I am doing ok; maybe my kids will grow into relatively unscathed, content men.

Self compassion and forgiveness are things I’m still trying to make friends with, but being an introvert, I spend most of the time in my safe cold corner with my back to them. It’s hard to believe I am worthy, it’s hard to get over my deep ambivalence and let go of the self hatred as it feels like my identity is founded on it, and what would I be without foundations?

Part of me thinks that to be compassionate to myself would mean feeling the pain of all that happened instead of the hard faced denial which keeps me at a safer distance from it. But another part of me wants to feel more whole, wants to find life easier and feel less alone and less alien, and I know that can’t happen until I stop nursing this fetid resentment towards myself.

In terms of celebrating the good work I am doing as a parent – I am always open to learning from my children. I tell them many times a day how much I love them. I apologize when I mess up. I so want the best for them and do whatever I can to support them. I try to own my “stuff.”

A recent parenting success took a long time to unfold, but I feel really glad to have got there. My boys, aged 9 and nearly 12, are arguing a lot at the moment, petty bickering which can turn into full on fighting. I find it really stressful, and cannot relax or tune out, I’m vigilant around it and without realizing have assumed they experience it similarly. It has been hard not to react to them from a place of stress “Will you stop arguing, it’s really stressing me out” or, “Ok, it’s bedtime if you two are too tired to get along.”

The other day they were playing a long game of Monopoly whilst I was doing various jobs in the kitchen and I noticed my stress levels rising as they bickered constantly. But then I kept noticing that they were still playing the game quite amicably together, and I fully realized something which has been gradually dawning on me. My associations with conflict are that it will soon turn to violence, which is why I find it so intolerable, but I realized they experience it in a completely different way – that it is part of a normal range of communication for them. When I acknowledged this, it felt like a real breakthrough and I was able to let go of my vigilance and stress around it, and leave them to get on with it. And then of course I realized my vigilance and stress added nothing useful to the situation anyway!

Another time, a few weeks ago, I was feeling very triggered by their arguing, which had got physical and I felt like I would explode with the stress of it; I couldn’t think what to do to help them. I felt like shouting out my frustration and punishing them, but I knew that wouldn’t help, so instead I made hot chocolate and toast and invited them in to my bed for a story and they soon made friends. I feel a lot of compassion for them, and it feels so good when I get it right.

I would say that’s one of my parenting strengths – a willingness to look at myself and see what past things I might be bringing into a situation in order to prevent projecting things onto them or blaming them for things which are more to do with me. Sometimes it takes me a while to get there.


Bio: Frieda Blenkinslop is a single lesbian mum living in the UK with her two energetic boys, 9 and nearly 12. Her dream job is running the Nurture Room in a primary school, working with children who struggle with their behaviour. Frieda is currently working on completing a counseling course and enjoys running a couple of times a week to shake up her mood. You can follow Frieda on her personal blog: notesfromthelooneybin.