Healing from Childhood Abuse
In the past, I used to be very wary and skeptical of social media. I found the idea of it intimidating, and so I was very late to the game in learning how it all works and what meeting people through social media would be like. Starting this blog has changed all of that. So many fantastic people from all over the world have connected and shared with me and sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming. Recently I told my husband that in my entire life, I don’t think I’ve ever had so many people call me friend. It’s a most pleasant surprise, and I want you all to know how much I appreciate it.
Recently I was chatting with a new friend I’ve made through social media, and they shared with me that they’d had a difficult childhood and past, and asked if I’d consider writing a post about overcoming a personal history that was less than pleasant. This is something that took some consideration. The only person who I’ve really shared the details of my past with, has been my husband. Talking about my childhood is not one of my favorite topics, and I’m not sure how to do it in a way that… well, I’m just not sure how to do it.
I am not a psychologist or counsellor, and so I can’t give professional advice. I can only share my personal story. If you’ve read my about page, then you have a pretty good summary of what my own journey has been. This is a heavy subject, and may not be something that everyone wants to read, but hopefully it can be helpful to some.
I also have to mention that this post is about overcoming a difficult past. If you’re currently in a bad situation then you will require, and should seek out the help you need right now.
Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
There’s a saying that your life is like a piece of paper, and every person that crosses your path, leaves a mark on it. While I don’t disagree, it makes it sound like your life is a story written by other people. I like to think that God and I are writing my story together. It is true however that we are undeniably shaped by our experiences and our reaction to those experiences.
Your yesterday is as much a part of you as the blood running through your veins. It shaped not only the way you think and see things, but it also determines what you do every day. How you handle pain, how you react in a crisis, how you deal with conflict.
When I learned the lesson that I always have a choice, I also learned that I can choose how my yesterday will influence my tomorrow. I could choose whether my life will turn into one big knee-jerk reaction to my past, or whether I would make a conscious effort to control my own behaviour today.
Why did this happen to me?
It’s quite something to live every day with dread and unhappiness. When you’re a child in a bad situation with no control over what happens to you, one of the questions that arises is why? Why is this happening to me? Why doesn’t anyone protect me? Why does my world look like this? A child doesn’t have the wisdom, emotional development or life skills to rationally answer those questions. They certainly don’t have any means to protect themselves on their own. They’re trying to cope while they drown in negative emotions and experiences.
But years later, even after the abuse has ended, that same question can remain. Why?
Why did my parents’ divorce? Their marriage was tumultuous and full of infidelity, but as a child, you still ask why. My father would make angry proclamations to us kids that he wasn’t the biological father of all of us. Was it me? Was I responsible? Was there anything I could’ve done?
Why was my father more abusive to some of his kids than others? My father beat and whipped my oldest brother with the fan belt off a car for the most inconsequential infractions. Why would my dad do that? He abused my sister, but my dad never laid a finger on me. If anything, I often felt ignored, and would try anything to get his attention.
When my father remarried, why would he marry a woman that didn’t like any of us? Why would he allow her to change the locks on the house so that my 16 year old brother would have to find a different place to live? Why did he allow her to treat me the way she did? For years?
I was 4 when my mom remarried. The sexual abuse I went through started from there and went on for years and years. My mother was physically abused throughout that marriage. Why did she marry someone like that? Why didn’t anyone protect me? Why would she allow all of that to continue, for years?
Even when I became an adult, my father was often emotionally manipulative, and expressed his anger and disappointment in his children. At one point, he decided that he would shut me out of his life, and refused to speak to me for several years. There was no reasoning with him or his anger.
I could go on and on and on. The truth is, there is no answer to why? There is no possible justification. As a child, and as an adult survivor, the only thing I can tell anyone who has gone through something similar, is that it is not your fault. None of what happened to you or any of those around you was your fault. There is no possible justification for what happened. I think it’s probably normal to go through that process of asking why, but in the end you have to come to terms with the fact that the very people who were supposed to love, care and protect you failed, and their failure as parents and human beings had nothing to do with you.
This leads to another problem though. I believe that each of us has within us the desire to be loved and cared for, to come from a good and functional family, the desire to have great parents that we can love, respect and look up to. You want that for yourself, for that to be part of your history. Not only for yourself, but to be able to share with others. When you don’t have that, when that’s not your past paradigm, there’s this big hole.
When my husband talks about his fantastic childhood and shares all his wonderful childhood memories, and stories about adventures with his childhood friends, I am thrilled. I love it. But I can’t reciprocate. I have very little to offer in the way of happy childhood memories. Throughout my childhood, I went to great lengths to hide my home life from the world. I only had a friend over to visit at my house a handful of times throughout my entire childhood. My stepmother used to heavily self-medicate, and so I never knew what to expect when I got home from school. I was certainly not going to risk bringing a friend over for any of that.
The first time I visited my husband’s parents’ home, they brought out all these family albums. It was wonderful; a family’s whole happy life kept in picture albums and scrap books. But when my husband asked to see pictures of me as a child, I had little to offer, as there are only a handful of pictures of me from when I was young.
In order to move on with your future though, you must realise that, yes, there will always be that disappointment and pain in the past. There will always be regret. But you have to let go of regret. Let go of that regret and start building new positive structures and experiences into your life and the lives of those around you.
Are you okay now?
I really am, I’m okay now. I have a fantastic life, a fantastic marriage and kids. My life is really, really blessed. At the beginning of our relationship, my husband would gently ask me if I’m okay now. I sometimes think it’s harder for him to talk about my past than it is for me.
But I believe that it’s an important question; Are you okay?
You may hear that question right now and say; ‘No. I am not.’ Or like me, say ‘yes’, and know it’s true.
But even if a lot of time has passed, you may be just as likely to say ‘yes’ when in reality you really aren’t even sure.
I think that if you’ve lived through some very difficult circumstances, your whole being is changed somewhat from the emotional trauma that occurs in those experiences. I believe that it’s only once you’re in a safe environment, and you’ve had the protection, time, and tools to work through your past, that you can accurately answer that question. You may need professional counselling.
Even now, there are sometimes things that can open old wounds. But since the foundation that my life is built around now is strong and stable, it’s much easier to stay in a happy productive place. To know that I am okay.
I’ve seen people cope with difficult life circumstances in a few different ways. There may be more, but I will talk about the ones that I’ve seen and that I think are the most common, and give you an example of some of the negative behaviour I was guilty of myself.
There’s the self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour: cutting, drug and alcohol abuse, living a reckless lifestyle, choosing abusive partners and relationships, sexual promiscuity, and on and on. If this is you, then there’s pain to mask, questions that have no answers, the feeling that no one normal would want or understand you, the lack of emotional skill and maturity to properly handle stress and conflict. You’ve never seen ‘functional’ modelled, so you repeat what you’ve seen and experienced. You’ve been hurt and damaged by the world and so your first defensive mechanism is to hurt and damage before the world can hurt you more. You say things like; ‘What you see is what you get, if you don’t like it, then stay away.’
I’ve seen this type of behaviour, and this may be you or you may know someone that’s doing something similar. Fortunately for me, my oldest brother, among others, had modelled some good behaviour for me from a young age, so I knew there was a different life out there, and I never embraced the depths of the self-destructive cycle. That didn’t stop me from making some self-destructive mistakes when I was in my early twenties though.
Then there is the victim. Using the past as a crutch to excuse yourself from responsibility and growth. ‘If you knew what I’ve been through…’ ‘Bad things have always happened to me’ ‘God hates me.’ ‘I’m not worthy…’ so you let people take advantage of you.
My dad married my stepmother when I was 6 years old. Truth be told, she was a bully and as a 6 year old, my only defence was to cry and hide. I got conditioned into dealing with conflict in this way and so it made perfect sense that as an adult I would do the same. When faced with confrontation or anything difficult, I would hide and cry.
So here we are back at choices. I could choose to be a victim, even as an adult. I could be passive and continue that behaviour till I die one day. The alternative – I could choose to learn the lesson that running away from conflict leaves you powerless, leaves problems unsolved, and that conflict rather had to be dealt with in a rational, proactive way.
Now when I was 6, I didn’t have a choice. Crying was a survival mechanism. The power was in the hands of the adult. When I became an adult I had the choice, but I was already preprogrammed.
Rom 8:28 says “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” I looked at this and asked myself how this could possibly make sense? How can all that bad and painful stuff that happened in my life, in your life, work together for our good? The only way it makes sense is if you allow what you experience (the good and the bad) to shape you in a positive way. Learn the lessons that are hidden in your past. Learn those lessons that are hiding in your pain and failures whether it was the result of something you had no control over, or the result of bad choices that you’ve made.
For me to prevent my past from destroying my future, I had to sit down and take a long hard look at myself. I had to evaluate which of my behaviours were intentional and which were reactionary. I had to also look at the pain that I was holding onto. I had to be brutally honest and admit that growing up, most of the adults in my life had failed me and that it hurt in so many different ways.
But now what?
What was I going to do with this? Was I going to keep holding on to the past and run away from life? Or, was I going to face the past, the pain and the ghosts, get up, dust my knees off and move on?
When I was about 14, my older sister and I went and got my mother. We snuck her away from her husband while he wasn’t at home because if she’d stayed there, in all likelihood eventually he probably would’ve killed her. My sister kept her hidden away and protected until my mom could get divorced. So what’s my point in sharing that? My point is that some people don’t know how to move on in life despite their past.
So here’s the metaphor. After my mother left her abusive husband, he didn’t vanish into thin air. She knew exactly where he was, and could’ve returned to that abusive life any time she wanted to. But she didn’t. She chose to finally move in a positive direction. If your past is haunting you and you hope to somehow erase the memory of it into thin air, then you’ll never be happy. Just as my mother knew that her past abusive life was easily within reach, so too are the memories of your past. But instead of being imprisoned and controlled by that past, you must move in a positive direction. Sure, those memories are there, some of the baggage from that part of your life may remain. And you have some things to work through, some areas where you need to grow. But you’re moving forward, in spite of that past.
The past is never gone, but instead of focusing on the details, I decided to focus on the lessons. I decided that I would do better. I would be deliberate in my choices and my actions and learn from the past. I would use those lessons to the benefit of my family and everyone else in my life, including myself.
Sometimes the past sneaks up on me in unexpected ways and I find myself confronted with details as if I really only experienced them yesterday. I have learned to allow myself the time to hurt all over again if necessary, be angry if necessary, but only for a little while and then it’s time to dust those knees off once again and get back up again. If I make a mistake, same thing, acknowledge it, then do what’s necessary to move forward.
And yes, sometimes life deals you more than skinned knees. Sometimes life throws its worst at you and you walk away with gaping wounds and severed limbs, but what doesn’t kill you, could make you stronger if you’re willing.
Is your past destroying your future? Let go of as much as you can. Focus on the lessons and not the details. Commit to doing better, for your family and yourself. Choose to let go so that you and God can be the authors of your story together and not the ghosts from the past.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I am not a counsellor or psychologist. If you need it, I strongly urge you to seek out competent help.
In the USA, Focus on the Family has a counselling department, the phone number is 855-771-HELP (4357), and if you call there they say they will refer you to a qualified counsellor. There are sure to be similar counselling resources in your area, seek them out if you need them.