I don’t know how many of you watched the recent 60 minutes episode Treating Childhood Trauma but, for me, Oprah’s words hooked me and drew me in. For a long time, I have known of Oprah’s past abuse, and the powerful example she has set for those of us that were sexually abused as children. What she did for all those who watched is ask questions that provided understanding to the rest of the world.
What is the difference between a child that has been traumatized and one that hasn’t?
How does trauma impact a child’s development, in what ways does it alter that process?
What keeps some kids from the success other victims go on to have?
Imagine, if you will, using someone else’s brain and finding out that circumstances and environment had molded it into something foreign. The wiring is different, it tells you that things are threats that shouldn’t be, and all the memories that shaped your own brain interrupting the world and others are gone. All that you have now to live and make decisions are the memories of another; experiences so painful and traumatic that it disrupts and distorts everything, and you must do your best with what you have. Oh, you also can’t ask others for help, because of the ingrained fear you have from those closest to you exploiting your vulnerabilities.
Alone, you see the world and all in it through these warped lenses called eyes, that a malformed brain registered threats and potential hurts from all directions. You rage at the unfairness of it all, internally confused and afraid, yet to protect from further hurt must project something to fend off those attacks. People look at you like you are crazy, say that your thinking is wrong, but they haven’t been through what you have. No, you won’t find that in the interview, it is my take on what its like to be a child sexually abused for years and the messages that trauma speaks to you and through you every day in every way.
The episode centers on what is called Trauma Informed Care, and how that is changing the way children and adults are given therapy. Why? As a child one of the messages that screamed at me over and over, almost like a mantra, was “what is wrong with you?” Now, if you had endured severe trauma and blamed yourself or been shamed into believing it was your fault, what would your response be? Would you be offended or defensive? What kind of emotional response would be triggered by someone whose questions are received as, “what is wrong with you?”
What might happen if you are assured and comforted as you are, in a safe place outside of threat and judgment, and encouraged to share for the first time what happened to you? Imagine the hurdles that must be overcome just to reach that moment of trust, for someone hurt so deeply by one once trusted, and without help how difficult it would be to even communicate it. It is the unspoken nightmare that pulls and pushes your every waking moment, how you see and feel about everyone, but how do you put into words actions from others that shaped messages into the very fabric of your being?
I sat there with tears in my eyes, remembering how lost I was and still at times find myself, as I seek to live and cope with a past littered with trauma. How often I have been told over the years that it was my fault no one helped me, because I didn’t tell them what they needed to know to do what would have brought help. If one can’t comprehend what has been done and how it was done, how in the world do you expect that same individual to make you understand?
Twenty years after my abuser was arrested and convicted, I sit in prison watching as our society embraces the truth of abuse and what it has done and is doing to the vulnerable it has consumed. I remember what it was like to be there, see the social proof of what happened to victims and their families who confronted my abuser, and the influence he had over us by conditioning us to see everything as a threat. We had been shaped and wired by this man to think, feel, and act in ways that he willed yet expected to break free of that molding overnight. It makes me pray today that those that investigated my case, those that claimed to have defended me, never have children who are abused. What trauma they will endure over and over, being expected to do what they can’t because they have been wired to do the opposite.
Oprah asked Dr. Perry of the Child Trauma Academy what separates the children that overcome their experiences and those that don’t. He said the simple answer is relationships. It is the relationships around a victim that enable them to become a survivor and the experiences in the healthy confines of those relationships that offer examples that guide their healing.
Tears spilled down my cheeks as I recall the division my abuser caused at home, playing my family and me against one another, and the withdrawal that served to further isolate me from anything or anyone that might offer safety. How he had advised me to do things with girls, knowing it would either push them away or reveal someone he could use to entice others with. The way the abused friends before me or used me to serve as the example so they wouldn’t question what was being done.
Every single relationship he disrupted and undermined because he knew with no safe place to go nor social skills to connect I was alone. All I had were other victims and him, the manipulated and the manipulator, all of us locked in a struggle even our parents pushed on us thinking he capable of doing what they couldn’t.
Arrested, charged, sentenced to prison for life for the deaths of my family, I came to prison more isolated and lost than ever. I had finally told someone, my sister and mother, and that secret had killed them as surely as the gun used to carry out their silence. What was wrong with me, how could I believe that there would ever be an escape and my abuser there with every part of the legal system to ensure it would be I who took the fall. It was my fault, he said. I caused it, he said.
Twenty years later, with a nation coming to grips with the plague of child abuse sweeping our world, they say in my life the abuse doesn’t matter. No matter what was done, for how long, regardless of who was involved in the murders and why, being in prison means the trauma doesn’t matter. Even if the trauma and abuse would offer context that informed all of the why, no one wants to hear it because it means accepting I am not the monster they created through the media.
Everyone wanted the truth, but no matter how I shared or who I shared it with none of them saw what I believed was being said. Does that mean I failed to share, share enough, or that people simply weren’t willing to see or hear what I had to share? Did the fact I was arrested and charged with murder cause all diagnostic testing to be slanted away from a history of abuse? What might have taken place if someone had taken the time to ask me what I had been through instead of asking what is wrong with me?
The CDC has studies on childhood trauma, the effects of sexual abuse on development, sensitivity to trauma, and how children are shaped by trauma. There is evidence that trauma-filled environments cause abnormal development of the child’s brain so that they think, feel, and act differently. If the CDC warns of diseases passed by bugs, do you doubt or take them at their word? If they say trauma abnormally shapes children’s minds, doctors near and far agree and support such findings, then why is it so hard for anyone to hear a prisoner ask for someone to understand?
The only difference among the millions who are free and those in prison is how they experience and express the trauma that has shaped them. What might happen in a prison system where men are asked what has happened to them and then offered the tools and support to learn how to speak of what has driven them their whole lives to destructive acts. We must understand our own trauma, enabling us to re-write our scripts and become the people we were created to be.
It isn’t all that hard to imagine if you take a moment and try living the part of another without all the good things that shaped you into who you are. All I am asking is that you have conversation with those you know, and ask them what they think of abused children and offering therapy that enables them success. Then, ask yourself how much of what is wrong in our society is the product of trauma, the warp it causes to perspective, and what might be accomplished if we promoted trauma-informed therapy. Do you not want people to understand what you do and why you do it? Is that not important to who you are and wish to project to the world? Then, why are we so hesitant to listen to the hurt of the world, see through the acts to the trauma that caused them, and find solutions that work?
We live in a world where all anyone cares about is what is wrong or right with each other, but it is a dated way of thinking that the #metoo movement and #mentoo branch is exposing. Now that we are speaking out about our experiences, what we have been through, we need those that have not to hear, feel, and understand what it has done.
I ask you for just a moment to imagine your own child caught in the grip of abuse or trauma, and how you would want the community and world to see the mistakes they make with faulty wiring. You flip the switch in your home and office every day, expecting the light to come on and go off, as you intend it. What happens when it doesn’t? What happens when you are forced to live in the dark, blind to what is real, and reacting to the unknown in fear? Turn out the light, discover the sense of losing control, and how it changes everything from one thing to another. It is scary to experience, isn’t it?