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My Survivor Story

Sometimes the best revenge is to live well, respect our healing and enjoy our triumphs. My story is meant to be one of hope and encouragement, but it may also serve as a warning.

My deafness contributed to my vulnerability as a child, even though I was only mildly deaf back then. As my deafness increased, it became more and more difficult to get help. I am a survivor of multiple abuses by multiple perpetrators, compounded by psychiatric abuse. I have been plowing through the healing process for 27 years and have come a long way though I still deal with the after effects.

I've experienced so much anger because when I was 17, after about 10 unwanted sexual "encounters", including molestation when I was 4, 12, 13 and 14 by strangers, inappropriate touching by my uncle who terrorized me when I was 8, sexual shaming by a babysitter when I was 10, sexual assault when I was 11 by a gang of older neighborhood boys and a classmate, rape when I was 15 by my good friend's housemate...

After having been neglected, emotionally abused and occasionally physically abused at home where I lived in silent torment... (There were also a few years of not so silent torment) My parents were too consumed by their own personal problems to protect me or help me cope. They argued constantly. Both had painful childhoods with alcoholic parents, and my mom had a tendency to fly into rages. My friends couldn't understand, but even if there had been people around to listen, my shame kept me silent.

After all this and more, I stopped being able to sleep, flew into rages, destroyed property, dissociated and had weekly visits with a therapist who didn't have a clue. I went into therapy voluntarily when I was 13, but it didn't help much. Then came the secondary wounding...

At age 17 after a 2 year period of alcohol abuse, I was committed to a hospital and labeled psychotic. Control of my life was taken out of my hands and put into the hands of psychiatrists. There was much forced treatment and forced drugging that so much resembled being raped. It seemed to have nothing to do with getting healthy again. I was branded with a lot of colorful psychiatric labels followed by six years of some forced and some voluntary treatment and more therapists who didn't have a clue. This happened more than 20 years ago when there were very few choices for sexual abuse survivors regarding where to turn for help. It is incredibly heartening that there are more choices now.

By the time I was 20, I had been sexually abused 13 times and had been abusing drugs for 5 years. There were three rapes; one was in a mental health setting, one was in a friend's home and one was in my own apartment. By age 22, I had been hospitalized about 20 times for suicide attempts, self-mutilation, paralyzing anxiety and substance abuse problems. Most of the mental health professionals that were assigned to my case, seemed ignorant about my history of childhood trauma and sexual abuse. First they didn't believe me, then I was blamed for being sexually immature. Training in issues of child sexual abuse is not currently a requirement for mental health degrees and licensing in all states, but maybe it should be.

In mental hospitals, I was forced to take medications that were harmful to me, forced to tone down my personality, to modify my behavior, my self expression, I was stigmatized into thinking of myself as a mental patient; fragile and dangerous, subhuman, not worthy of simple compassion and understanding. I learned to view myself as childlike, weak and needy, incompetent, in need of supervision and direction, irresponsible and undesirable.

They tried to forcefully drug away my problems rather than help me face them. The side effects were intolerable. Medications may temporarily help a handful of survivors feel better in spite of the abuse, but they don't solve the problem and can complicate our lives with debilitating side effects. (Just my opinion.)

I was treated with disbelief and was discouraged from expressing my emotions. I was encouraged to ignore my past and my pain and function "normally" even when I was overwhelmed and exhausted by the effects of my abuse. I was encouraged to push through situations that felt completely unsafe. My spirit was broken.

Finding help took many years of searching and a lot of disappointment. Eventually, I got help from several political and self-help organizations, a few counselors in halfway houses, two psychiatrists who didn't understand my issues but believed in me, and two non-medical model, alternative style therapists experienced in child abuse issues, who believed in me, encouraged my determination to heal, and helped me develop some survival skills. Large doses of human compassion have been primary to my healing. My art and my political work have also been a vital part of my healing. I am now an artist and I have my own animal care business, which I love, though it doesn't support me. I occasionally teach art classes and work when I am able. Otherwise I have been living on a small amount of disability compensation which has also been a great help.

Nineteen years have passed since my last period of substance abuse. Eighteen years have passed since the last time I was hospitalized. Fourteen years have passed since the last time I was in residential treatment. And for 6 years I managed to get along without a therapist. I have recently gone back into therapy because support outside of therapy is so hard to find. My sexual and emotional abuse has had a profound effect on my life. I am so happy to find that there are now more than a few helping professionals who know something about it. Maybe now, sexual abuse survivors can get help sooner than I did and recover more quickly.

I am not by any means free of pain. I am still healing and can never forget what happened to me, but hopefully at some point I will be able to release the pain. I am still bothered by memories of the abuse that I endured as a child and the secondary wounding that I was subjected to as a patient trying to find help. I go back and forth, living in the present, dissociating and reexperiencing the past. I have flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks and urges to harm myself. I eat too much junk. My sexual feelings make me feel suicidal. (Sex equals death.) I often feel detached or numb or swallowed by tears and outrage. Everyday I have to work at not freezing up, withdrawing completely or getting hopelessly consumed by my past.

On the brighter side, I am no longer the victim I used to be. I am older, stronger, more skilled at living and happy to be alive (most of the time). I am more than just a product of my abuse. I can work and learn and laugh at life's absurdities. I can fantasize about how I'd like it to be. I can be an artist, an activist and a healer. I can continue to work on healing myself while experiencing the excitement of every new revelation in my life. I recently completed my second women's self-defense class! I feel lucky that my life was not wasted, and lucky that I can look forward to better years to come. Having lived through such threatening experiences is a deep triumph of the wild spirit inside of me.

Sometimes the best revenge is to live well, respect our healing and enjoy our triumphs however small they may seem. Together we do not have to be powerless. The healing process is often slow and painful, but hopeful and happens in many stages. We can learn to take back our power and discover our choices. We can learn as adults the most basic things that we didn't have an opportunity to learn as children: how to nurture and protect ourselves, how to find nurturance, protection and validation in the community and how to form safe, meaningful bonds with the people we care about. We can uncover healthy ways to comfort ourselves. We can learn who to trust, work on developing a better life than the ones we grew up with, get more out of life than has ever seemed possible, and change areas of our lives where we thought we were powerless.

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By Deb
1998
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