How does childhood and adolescent trauma shape our outlooks, our life choices, and our personalities? Do we ever get away from it? Through therapy… time… self-medicating…? Or do we evolve with it, living life and folding in new experiences, thinking we’ve moved on until we catch sight of an old trauma from another angle and realize it’s been here all along?
I’ve changed so much in the decades since I was a teenager. And I haven’t changed at all. Maybe that’s true for everyone. Maybe it’s more true with trauma. I’m not a mental health professional, and I can’t know what life is life for anyone but myself.
What I do know–and most people may not know–is that I barely survived my teenage years. I was abused for years, mentally and physically. By one person in particular and by several in lesser ways. I hid it from my family, nearly all of my friends, and everyone who knew me.
The details are unimportant now (to anyone but me), and they’re private, despite the bits I choose to share. They’re also clichéd to a large extent. Older boy(s), vulnerable girl. Violence and threats and shame.
It was living experiences of #MeToo before it was a movement. It was a mishmash of Lifetime movies that seem melodramatic until you face those moments in real-life… as a teenager who can’t see a path to safety.
I had a trauma shield to hide my abuse. My mom had died suddenly when I was 13… though that’s another story. It’s enough to say that I blamed myself for her death. For not being able to save her life. And that was a pretty big crack in my defense. You might even say it broke me, in a way. Though not as much as the abuse that followed. It also gave me a public trauma to point to when I wanted to hide the horrors that I was navigating alone.
Why share this today… 30+ years since the abuse began and nearly 30 years since I’ve seen the person who damaged me the most?
I’m dealing with some new heath issues. Another invisible illness that has been debilitating yet easy to hide. I don’t look sick, but I am. I didn’t look like a victim of intimate partner abuse, but I was. In addition to all the doctors I’ve been seeing, I’m also working with my therapist on the emotional side of things.
Today, we talked about some of the non-health things that are bothering me. Things that seemed unrelated. My discomfort with praise. My difficulties in seeing myself the way others seem to see me. And it all came together.
As I talked about not feeling “seen” as the way I see myself, I realized how dangerous that felt. When I was a teenager in that secret, twisted relationship, my abuser had an image of me that never felt like me. He’d tell me things about myself that weren’t true and say that he knew me better. He knew what I “really” felt and “really” wanted, no matter what I said or did.
He never knew the real me, only an image of me that he created. I was an object of his obsession (not love, as he often told me in the beginning). Gradually, I became what he wanted, to some degree. It was safer that way.
I learned to hide the trauma in my life. To separate myself from it and survive through detachment. I couldn’t stop it, but I could shift it in my mind… pretend it wasn’t abuse. It was something else… or it was happening to someone else. Eventually he said it was love and that felt like a better story.
Back to the Present
I still survive through detachment to some extent, separating myself into manageable pieces. My health issues are problems to be handled, as if they’re happening to someone else. I struggle to feel and accept my own emotions.
Yet, I’m also afraid of not being seen for who I really am. Illnesses, flaws, and all. I don’t want to be seen as an object to admire… And it all comes back to trauma.
In the decades since escaping an abusive relationship, I’ve learned that all the bumpy roads of emotional work lead back to the trauma I survived during my “formative years.” That’s deeply upsetting if I keep thinking about trauma as something that a “healthy person” can leave in the past. Maybe it works that way for some people, especially for isolated traumatic events, but it doesn’t work that way for years of sustained trauma. Especially when we’re young.
My chronic health issues are not something I can cure, but they can be accepted and managed. Maybe it’s the same with traumatic experiences. They can’t be left in the past, but they can be accepted as part of what has made me the person I am today.
I don’t have the answers, but I know it’s nice to be seen as the whole person I am. Illnesses, trauma, flaws, and all.
Part of why I stay quiet about my abuse is out of fear of stirring up the past, but I don’t like living in fear. The person I’ve referenced as my abuser might read this. If he does, he may think I’m talking about someone else. I don’t think he ever saw himself as an abuser. Even when he was crying and apologizing for what he did when he was drunk or when he felt “backed into a corner like an animal” by my rejection.
There are others who could also read this and wonder if they inflicted some of the “lesser” trauma I mentioned. If you’re one of them, don’t bother contacting me to ask or apologize. It’s not my responsibility to help you with whatever guilt, confusion, doubt, indignation or other emotions you may be feeling now. I suggest you try therapy.