Sunday, December 18, 2005

Flashback

I remember idolizing my dad. I wanted to eat what he ate, walk with strides as big as his, and read all the time like he did. After my brother was born when I was 6, I became the less important child. I always felt like a problem, no matter how good I was or how quiet. The things that made me special before, being smart and creative, didn't seem to matter anymore.

Our family went to visit my dad's relatives in Clarkston on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and sometimes Easter. They were my dad's aunt and uncle, cousins, and the cousin’s children. The children were all older than I was by 5 to 7 years. They were all boys except for one girl. The boys played with me but teased me a lot. I remember that they made fun of my body when I was 10 because I didn't have curves. I didn't understand what they meant. I also remember playing Monopoly with the one other girl (who was about 13 at the time and I was 8) and 2 of the boys. The girl was drinking something pink and fruity, and she kept handing it to me, and telling me to drink it. It made me feel dizzy and lightheaded. At some point, she kept spilling the glass on the Monopoly board, and as soon as we cleaned it up, she'd do it again. Then she started laughing a lot and falling over, and we had to stop playing. I had no idea what was going on.

My great-uncle initially treated me the way I wished my dad would. As soon as my family walked in the door, he would call me over to sit with him. Everyone would play games together like Uno and Skip-Bo. I did well at those games, and he would praise me and give me the attention that my dad didn't. He was so attentive, in fact, that I had to sneak away from him just to do anything else. He seemed to want me at his side all the time. He would rest his hand on my knee, then my thigh, and then when I was 9, he started placing his hand between my legs.

He wouldn't do that when adults were in the room, but he would in front of the kids, usually just the boys. They would act uncomfortable, and seemed to have a hard time ignoring it. I felt like I would vomit. It felt really bad, and my whole body would freeze. I felt like I couldn't move, as if I had left my body and was floating slightly behind it. I would get angry with myself that I couldn't move. I was so afraid. I wanted to scream and cry and run out of the room and tell everyone, but I knew, I knew in the way that a child understands something, even if a lot of adults don't understand or don't think a child can understand, that I would not be believed, or even if I was, I would not be defended, especially by my parents. I was less important than my great-uncle and I knew it.

I spent a lot of time planning for the next time we would go to their house. I would plan to be around other adults at all time, to stay as far away from him as possible, and I would psyche myself up for overcoming my freezing instinct so I could push him away and get away from him. He overcame all my defenses, though. He knew where I was at all times, and stalked me like an animal. I felt like I was an animal, a small, helpless animal just trying to prolong the time until he molested me. I did manage to push his hand away, but he would always sit on the outside and put his much larger legs up against mine so that I couldn't get out and there was no where to go. The boys would note that I was struggling against him, and put their eyes down.

It was also getting worse. He started putting his hand in my pants or up my dress, and then in my underwear. Since none of my techniques for making it stop had worked, and it was progressing, and it made me feel so disgusting I would do anything if it might make it stop, I decided to tell my parents even though I knew they wouldn't believe me.

I was 13 when I told them. My dad was furious. He kept saying that this was his only family in the area, and I was going to their house, and I was never to say anything about this again, and if I didn't cooperate, he would beat me senseless. My mom just didn't react. She acted as though I hadn't said anything. I still felt relieved that I had told, even though I was not looking forward to an increase in verbal and physical abuse from my dad, and I was angry but not surprised that my mom did nothing.

Telling did seem to embolden me. I still had to go to my relative's house, but with increasing frequency I would push my great-uncle's hand away, and say "stop it" loud enough for everyone in the room to hear (just other children). He continued to follow me around, though, and look for every opportunity to fondle me. I guess it was a game to him, and the more challenging I made it, the more interesting it was. What I do know is that making it clear to him that I wanted him to stop didn't help the least bit.

In high school, I began refusing to go to their house, and when my dad said I would go voluntarily or he would beat me and drag me to the car, I began running away from home on holiday mornings. I would go downstairs and out the back door, or out the front door like I was going to the car, and I would run as fast as I could to someone's house who was out of town, or to a friend's. One time I didn't know where to go, so I wandered around town until I got frostbite on my toes. I would stay away for however many days I thought I needed to until my mom would want me back enough that I would be "forgiven" for running away. From the time I started running away, I never went to my great-uncle's house or saw him again.

In high school, I also started staying away from home more and more because of my dad. When I was home, he was constantly screaming at me, threatening me, throwing things at me, and hitting me. The more I tried to get away from him, the more abuse I got, and the more I resented the way he treated me and how he was perfectly okay with me being sexually abused. When I started hanging out with a group of kids in Moscow, Idaho when I was 17, I went home even less. One Sunday evening I came home from being in Moscow all weekend, and my mom was crying and my dad was screaming, as usual. For the first time, I told him to get away from me and leave me alone, instead of standing there, taking his abuse. He flew into a rage, punching me in the face over and over. I went limp, so he grabbed my right arm to hold me up and kept punching me. I started trying to kick him between the legs, and I guess I connected, because he started swearing, and picked me up and threw me against the wall. I tried to get away but he grabbed me and threw me against the wall again. He punched me a few more times, and then walked away. My mom sounded hysterical.

I swore to myself at that moment that I would never live with my parents again. I was dizzy, more than dizzy. I didn't fall asleep so much as pass out. My mom woke me up for school the next morning, and I had to laugh that she wanted me to go to school when I looked in the mirror. I had a black eye, my cheekbone and the side of my face was bruised, my braces had punched through my lip and my upper lip was black and blue and my mouth was full of blood, I had a bruise on my arm the shape of a hand, and lumps on the back of my head and back. I called Child Protective Services myself that morning. The police took me in, and I told them about my great-uncle as well as my dad.

Feliz Navidad

My Mom and me ran away to Mexico for Christmas. I hate Christmas because of the abuse, and my Mom dislikes it because of my brother's death. Yeah I know, they have Christmas in Mexico, but at least it was in another language that we only barely understood. We flew back on the 25th, with a layover at the Houston George Bush airport. Every time someone at the airport said “Merry Christmas”, my Mom replied "happy holidays!" If you get that joke, you are a news junkie too.

While I was there, I finished reading Invisible Girls by Dr. Patti Feuereisen. About half the book is Dr. Patti sharing her expertise on dealing with the affects of sexual abuse and rape, and the other half is girls and young women telling the story of what happened to them. This book was the inspiration for me to tell the story last week of my sexual abuse experience. I've never actually given a detailed account of what happened to me, and one of the premises of the book is that's how you start healing. I did notice that for me, writing down what happened made me realize how hard I tried to make it stop, and that it wasn't my fault.

This book had a strong emotional impact on me. In the stories that the young women told, I struck by how sadistic, cruel, and dehumanizing the perpetrators were, how long-lasting and difficult the emotional scars were, and how much I related to their stories and their feelings. I felt a lot of sadness and anger over what they went through, and maybe for the first time, what I went through.

I asked my mom if she believed me when I told her and my dad about what was happening. She said they did, but she didn't realize it was serious and thought that I just didn't like being touched. It's true that I don't like being touched, but that came from the sexual and physical abuse. Up until high school, I would flinch if anyone touched me at all. It started to get socially weird because I wouldn't even let my friends hug me. One of my friends took it upon her to drag me over to her whenever she saw me, put her arms around me, and stroke my hair, I guess as some sort of therapy. It was kind of like when I was in junior high and I couldn't say the word “cinnamon”, so my friends made me say it over and over every day until I could say it right.

I went along with my friend's efforts and even forced myself to let people touch me because I certainly didn't want to have to explain every time why I felt physically ill whenever someone tried to touch me. I also was completely committed to the idea that I could just repress the affects of the abuse and it would go away, and I would be "normal". My desire to be something close to normal is in part a rebellion against my abusers, as a refusal to let them get to me and ruin my life. The other part is deep-seeded feelings of humiliation and shame over what had happened to me and how I was treated.

I talked to my mom about how I felt like everything bad had happened to me because I was a girl, that dad hated me and I was treated differently because I was a girl. She said, you're right, that is why.

That is really one of the most difficult things for me. The fact that I was terrorized throughout my childhood, demeaned and humiliated, prevented from making decisions about and expressing myself, not because of what I did or who I was, but because of my gender, is so hard for me to accept. It's wrong, and unfair. My abusers taught me that all I'm good for is to take anger out on, as a scapegoat, and a sexual plaything. My intelligence, my creativity, my humanity doesn’t matter. I may not think that about myself, I may think that's wrong, but I still feel that way. I also feel afraid and distrustful of other people; I'm uncomfortable about my body, and I still tense up when people touch me.

I try to end on a vaguely positive note, but I guess all I can say is that it does help to write about this. I cry while I write, but for someone who’s been holding this in for so long, it feels good to let it out and stop keeping up this fa├žade that nothing is wrong. Obviously, a lot is wrong and it hurts to feel this way about myself.

The book refers to the story of Pandora, and how after all the misfortunes escape from her box, hope flies out. I know, I know, it’s cheesy, but if you don’t open the box, there’s no hope.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Nile

Denial has been my primary coping mechanism. I have so much experience with it; it’s become a talent. I think that I hide my bipolar disorder so well, most people would never know. I know exactly why I've been in denial about it; in fact, I’ve rationalized my approach to myself many times. Manic depression is serious stuff. Mania can turn into psychosis. Psychosis can mean losing touch with reality, losing control over yourself, losing your independence (being hospitalized or committed), or even losing your life. I have been in terror of the prospect of losing my life to suicide since my brother took his life. We were so much alike, and the disease has felt like a death warrant since then.

I am also afraid of being the type of person who can’t take care of herself, who is in and out of institutions, who can't hold down a job, and who can't function normally in society. In short, someone who does not have control over their life, someone who is controlled by mental illness. I am also afraid of the stereotypes about manic depression, and that if people knew that about me their perceptions would be yet another impediment to my functioning. I thought that if I ignored that part of me, I could ignore the difficulty it caused, thereby making my life a little easier. Besides, it’s easier to conceal something from other people when you’re also concealing it from yourself. On top of all that, why is it even fair that I have this disease? Haven’t I suffered enough? How fair is it that this disease, which I inherited from my sadistic father, stole my brother from me and could take my life as well? So I rejected the very idea that I was bipolar, not because it made any sense, but because it was unfair.

I started to realize the folly of that sort of thinking the first time I saw my current psychiatrist. He reminded me that bipolar disorder is progressive disease, and that the likelihood and severity of a relapse increased the longer I was not on medication. He stressed the importance of getting on medication and staying on it as a preventative measure, because treating a manic or depressive attack is much harder than preventing one. I finally had to admit to myself that his approach made more sense than mine did. His plan was to reinforce a building in an earthquake prone area, while mine was to pretend the danger didn't exist. Now that I'm on medication, the chances are actually greater that I won't become psychotic or severely depressed and lose my life.

I'm sure that I learned to be in denial as a kid. Growing up, I was under attack all the time, so the best I could do was survive. I couldn't process my feelings while I was in such a dangerous, unsupportive environment. Denial is a psychological defense to reduce anxiety while under threat. Denial is also the first stage of the grief process (or loss, whether minor or huge). The five stages are: 1. denial, 2. anger, 3. bargaining, 4. depression, and 5. acceptance.

When I was able to escape my abusive situation, I just wanted it to be over and done. I never processed my feelings; I stayed in denial. I had spent my entire childhood that way, and I had no idea how to deal with my feelings. I remembered the terror, and pain, and rage that tore me apart. I felt like my negative feelings were so intense they would destroy me. Again, I thought it was unfair for me to have to go through any more grief and pain since I wasn’t the one who caused it. I thought if I let myself have any feelings about it I would continue to be a victim.

Now I realize, I have suffered quite a bit of loss, and the fact that it wasn’t my fault doesn’t make it go away. I lost a normal, supportive childhood, free from violence and abuse. I lost the ability to trust and feel good about my body and my gender from the sexual abuse. I lost my mental health. I lost my brother, who meant the most to me in this world. I thought that acknowledging and dealing with my feelings just added to my burden. Now I'm realizing that the only way I can lessen my burden is to work through the feelings I have. My feelings are not the enemy, and having feelings doesn’t make me weak, or a victim.

Since I am only in stage one, I have plenty of good times with my uncomfortable feelings to come.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Now I am post

When I was a kid, I wanted to escape my family more than I wanted anything in the world. I was away from home as much as possible, even before I started kindergarten. I escaped into fantasies, from books and from my own head. My favorite books were The Wizard of Oz series and Nancy Drew, because I could pretend to be the female protagonists.

The scenarios in my head involved running away from home and living in the forest with the animals (the Native American fantasy), and the ever popular "I'm adopted and my real parents come to take me away" fantasy, only in my fantasy my real parents weren't rich, they just weren't abusive. I even fantasized that my dad was a criminal, and the police would come take him away. Unfortunately for me, the police did not come until I was 17, and they took me away to a foster home. That was actually a huge relief, although I wish it had happened a lot sooner.

When I did leave home, I thought that since I had finally escaped the situation, it was over. I kept thinking that until recently. A year after my brother Jeff killed himself, I moved to San Francisco. I thought that if I got away from Seattle, where I lived when Jeff died, where I had so many memories of spending time with him, I would stop thinking about him all the time. Guess what, that did not work either. All this time I have wondered why I have continued to struggle emotionally with situations that are over.

I feel like I am constantly "pulling myself up by my bootstraps"; yet, I still feel the same. I was a high school dropout living on the streets of Seattle. I went back to high school at an alternative school, graduated, and got into UW. I graduated UW even though my last year was right after Jeff died and I spent my time between classes crying in the bathroom. I got into business school and got my MBA, yet I still feel the same. I got a professional job. I have tried to have as normal a life as possible, but my life is not normal.

I feel different from everyone around me. I feel like a fraud, because I try to pretend that I am just like everyone else. I still feel like the kid who was abandoned by everyone- my parents, my family, the neighbors and teachers who knew what was going on but did not do anything. I was abandoned by the police who talked about how they were going to help me, ooo'ed and ahhh'ed over my bruises and my black eye, and then dropped the charges against my dad and my great-uncle and tried to send me back to my parents. Even my brother abandoned me, who I thought would always be there. I still feel hurt, and raw, and alone, and trapped.

This week I started reading Growing beyond Survival by Elizabeth Vermilyea. It is a workbook for recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I never realized before that the most common cause of PTSD is child abuse. I am surprised that I would have never heard that considering that I have a psych degree. I guess I did not take that class.

Someone suggested I might have PTSD from my brother's suicide. I think that I do because I have symptoms related to that event such as sudden intense emotion, panic attacks, difficulty sleeping, conversion (of emotion to physical symptoms such as migraines and stomach problems), and poor concentration. I also have those symptoms and more related to the abuse, such as hypervigilance, exaggerated startle reflex (jumpy), dissociation (reduced awareness of myself and my environment, which comes from trying to get away from stress by escaping in the mind), numbing, and denial (refusing to acknowledge what happened or minimizing it. I do that a lot by telling myself it wasn't a big deal and I should just get over it.)

Certain factors tend to intensify the likelihood and severity of PTSD, which are repeated trauma rather than a single incident, the younger the age, human-caused trauma (as opposed to mother nature), and purposefully caused trauma vs. accidental. Trauma caused by a caregiver is especially bad. This does not mean that a single traumatic event caused by nature could not trigger PTSD, only that it is more likely if those factors above are present. PTSD happens when trauma overwhelms a person's natural ability to deal with stress, and the person develops coping mechanisms that end up being dysfunction or causes problems for the person once the traumatic situation is over.

Light goes on in my head, now I get it. Child abuse and PTSD go hand in hand not only because child abuse has all the factors that make PTSD more likely and severe. Your parents teach you how to deal with your emotions as you grow up and develop, and abusive homes are not loving, not supportive of healthy expressions of emotion and the self, don't model good behavior, and are inconsistent and unpredictable. Growing up terrified, treated with hatred, screamed at and hit does not make you feel good. Gee, now I finally understand why I feel this way.

I actually felt some fear after reading the beginning of the trauma book because I realize how bad of shape I am in and how much work I will need to do to overcome these problems. The book says I should expect to feel worse before I feel better. It does say that I will feel better, though. I know I will have to work through a ton of bad feelings, but I think I will have to do that one way or another, because I cannot repress these feelings any longer. So, I am going to do this so I can feel better someday.