Something else interests me about grief though and that is the grief that child abuse survivors have because it’s complicated. We aren’t grieving a person we’ve lost, we’re grieving something we never had. A safe, happy childhood or a loving parental relationship that didn’t exist. The lack of any kind of family bonds as an adult, or the inability to trust anyone. Those are things we can, and should, grieve. Often we aren’t given the chance to do that. Other people expect us to “put it behind us” because it was a long time ago. We may even convince ourselves that the best option is to suck it up and forget it, no reason to think about any of that. But, I think there’s a reason to grieve the things we didn’t have as children. They are very real losses. They have very real impacts on our brains and our emotional well-being. We can’t change it now, but we can allow ourselves the freedom to feel grief over it. It’s part of the process.
No, the easiest way to break up those circles, as any kid who threw rocks into the water can tell you, is to throw another rock and create new concentric circles starting from a different location.
Gee, in my metaphor about the trauma I wonder what those other rocks could be? Mental health treatment? Care and support from family and friends? The elimination of stigma attached to trauma?
How about instead of ignoring the circles we started throwing some more useful rocks and disrupting the cycles of trauma that we see repeated over and over again in those circles?
These all ring so true to either my own experience or the experiences of other survivors I have known through the years. One of the biggest hurdles we have to clear before we can really even begin to have a semi-normal adult life is believing that the way we grew up is the way all relationships work. Even all these years later, I still have to remind myself that what I do is good enough, at home and at work. Or that it’s OK to emotionally connect with new people. It’s really difficult to unlearn those lessons from childhood, and yet it’s so freeing to realize that what happened to us, wasn’t because any of these were true. What happened to us was the result of someone else’s actions that are completely unrelated to who we are, or what we deserved.
So, when I look at a highly successful program like US gymnastics, like Penn State football, like USA Swimming, like English Youth Football, etc. I think we can clearly see this. Why be such a downer, don’t you see how much good this program, and the people in it, are doing? It’s probably nothing, just some misunderstanding by over-imaginative kids. Nothing to worry about, look at the success we are having in the field, gym, or water. That’s what this is all about. That’s the important thing. The rest of this will pass.
Except in the case of US Gymnastics, these ladies, and dozens of others, have not simply let it pass. They have remained steadfast in talking about it, making sure they can do everything they can to make sure it doesn’t happen to the next generation and reminding all of us that winning at all costs, is not worth the damage that is done to children who are sexually abused.
They are truly resilient, like many of us who have survived sexual abuse, and gone on to talk about it, share our own stories, and live our adult lives. But never confuse that resiliency with how hard it really is to do. Never look at a survivor who has appeared to overcome their abuse, and assume that it’s ok to diminish what happened to them. It’s never easy, and for each one who might appear to have overcome, I’ll show you 5 who are still struggling every single day. You’ll find many of them in prison, or mental health care centers. Still dealing with the aftermath of their childhood trauma without access to the same support and resources that we lucky few have had the privilege to have. Yet they are all human beings, and they were all children once, children who had to suffer at the hands of adults who were more interested in their own pleasures, comfort, and place in their society than they were to consider the damage being done to these children.
Don’t be one of those adults. There are many ways to abuse a child. Larry Nassar did and is paying for his crimes, finally. But there were a whole lot of other adults who abused these girls, by not taking it seriously, not investigating, and not caring enough about them as human beings to protect them. Make no mistake about that.
So, the thing I want us to talk about this year is not just encouragement to call a hotline or to reach out to a friend for help, or even to tell our stories and erase the stigma around mental health issues. I want us to consider doing more than that. I want us, as a society, to figure out how to provide hope. As much value as there is in all of those other things if I can’t provide some hope that things will get better, that we are working and advocating for things to get better across all areas of our culture, then I can’t honestly say that there is a reason for someone to hope, and at the end of the day, the thing that truly prevented me from taking my own life when I was at my worst, was the hope that life wouldn’t always be that painful.
As it turned out, my life wasn’t always that painful, and even in times of pain, I can look back and remember that.
How do we provide that hope for others who have been beaten down and worn out with life right now? Where does their hope come from?
Of course, one of the tell-tale signs of depression, and unhealthy responses to trauma, like abuse, is overly black and white thinking. Going to extremes, if you will. So, it’s easy for many of us to fall into these toxic traps. It’s easy to think that we should feel shame about what happened to us, or that we can somehow rid ourselves of that shame, and anger, by simply refusing to do anything but be positive. But neither one of these is real healing. Real healing, like real emotions, and real people, are messier than that.
It’s still worth it though, as are a lot of those messy emotions and people too. If you let yourself get out of the black and white thinking, you just might see that too.