When I speak with survivors one topic comes up over and over again. The people in their lives who love them cannot understand why they continue to suffer from trauma and pain from the past. Friends, co-workers, and people they interact with online often seem to want to give them the same advice. They want to offer you a quick fix and often that fix comes with a warning about not forgiving or holding onto negativity for too long. What they don’t realize is that the process for working through trauma can take a lifetime. Forgiving and “moving on” is not going to resolve the trauma responses coming from the survivor’s body. It can seem like someone has moved on but if you’re not inside their head and their body you can’t really understand. Triggers can make it hard to not think about things and can effect the body in some very real ways.
When first leaving an abusive group you’re probably in survivor mode. You’re trying to figure out how to get away and then how to live without the community you may have been in since birth. People who have known you all your life might shun you or feel the need to warn you about hell and the coming end times. You may lose family and will most certainly lose friends in the process. Often you end up feeling much more alone than you could have ever imagined. You may not have the social skills needed to maneuver in the new world you find yourself apart of and you may lack job skills or be poorly educated. Add to this a fear of hell and the rapture and you can see why just getting out and acclimating to the world can be a very tall order. Once you’re out you may find yourself dealing with depression, anxiety, insomnia, and loneliness. I consider this to be phase one of three phases.
When I started phase one I was a teenager. I went from a very insular community out into a big world that I was not ready for. When I left the church no one came looking for me. I struggled through the realization that they didn’t care. I always suspected that but when it became a reality it hit me hard. I went to public school for a year and found I had nothing to talk to my peers about. When I was in the church I felt weird like I did not fit in and then when I went into public school I felt the same way. Everyone was planning for their future. I thought I had good grades and could have gotten into college but I had no one to help me navigate that journey. Neither of my parents attended college. By this time my mother was already pretty sick and preoccupied with raising my bother and dealing with her abusive husband. My father’s attitude was that if I had a husband I did not need an education. He felt the same way about driving which meant I did not learn to drive until I was much older. I discovered that I had missed many of the milestones that my peers had experienced and would continue to miss them because I had no way to know what was normal and how to get those experiences for myself. Over time I came to realize that my Christian school had supplied me with a subpar education. If I had someone to help me navigate the gaps I could have taken classes to fill in what was missing, the issue is I did not know what I did not know. I worked in restaurants for a long time and got a little apartment for myself. I did what I had to to survive and tried to tell myself that I had time and everything would be ok. I was always afraid of a wrathful god. When I cut my hair and pierced my ears there was this moment where I was just waiting for lightening to strike. This new world was both exciting and scary.
The next phase comes when you finally feel free from the group and you try to convince yourself that you can live without them and just get on with things. Many people I speak to can be stuck in this place for decades. They convince themselves they are doing great and have just left it all behind. Reality is usually much different. Sometimes during this period addictions will show up as a coping mechanism. Many survivors try to fill their lives with activities, family and work in an attempt to forget about the trauma, but the unresolved trauma is still there like a ticking time bomb. During this time if you talk about your trauma or pain people will often slap you on the back and say something like, “But you’re away from them now so life must be good!” This is phase two.
I left my abusive group and then jumped right into another one. I hear that is not uncommon. I only stayed in that group for a couple of years before leaving. During this phase, I reveled in my freedom and filled my life with having children and experiencing as much as I could after a life of real restriction. The pain of my past never went away. It was always lurking in the background with it’s best friend fear. I tried to listen to what pop psychology told me. I tried to release the past and I tried to forgive. I tried to get on with my new life. Now I’m not saying those are bad ideas, all I’m saying is that they are a very simple answer for an extremely complex problem. They did nothing to address my C-PTSD and in the end, I just ended up feeling more broken because I couldn’t just get over it. Over time I got more and more sick. I have always had insomnia but as I’ve aged it has become much more constant. The underlying stress and anxiety brewing within me caused me to have severe stomach issues that I am still trying to heal. I also have asthma which I do not think came from the trauma but it is well documented that mental health has a big role to play in how severe asthmatic symptoms are. My body was trying to send me messages and I just kept turning the music up louder and trying to convince myself I was ok.
Phase three is what I like to call the “wake up” phase. Sometimes it happens suddenly and sometimes in little things that add up to a creeping realization. By this time the addictions are at a breaking point or maybe you just don’t sleep anymore. However it displays, you reach a point where you can no longer ignore the toll the unresolved trauma has put on your body. Things will pop into your head that you just can’t shake and you can no longer make excuses for. I feel people often reach this stage when they are in midlife and things slow down a little. They have age and experience which causes them to view the world differently. They are fully adults now and are in a better position to judge where they came from. This is usually a crisis breaking point. Illusions fall away and the past you have been hiding from is waiting there for you.
My phase three went on for a very long time. Over the years the creeping realizations would make it hard for me to ignore what happened in the past. When my oldest child reached the age I was when I was molested I realized how little she was. I could see how sweet and innocent she was and I had a bit of a crisis. These things would happen from time to time over the years. As I matured I could see clearly the past decisions that the adults made around me during my childhood as monsterous and cruel. For a long time I would make excuses for them and try to find ways to not face up to how bad things really were. Once I started writing this blog I started to really wake up. It felt like blindfold after blindfold was ripped from my eyes forcing me to look at the trauma I suffered and get real with myself about the repercussions of it. This can be really hard, when you get to the point where you can’t look away. You can no longer deny the truth in front of you or make excuses for people’s bad choices. It forces you to change the way you think and can really change your life in profound ways. Some people lose what remaining family they have, some people just realize the depth of what was done to them in childhood. With all of that comes fresh waves of grief, anger, anxiety, fear, and so on.
Once you can see the trauma you suffered clearly then you have to get to work on healing yourself and figuring out how to live in your new reality. This is where I am right now. I left the UPC when I was 16, I’m now 49, that’s 33 years to get to this point. I am one of those people who is always working on myself, I’m introspective and I’m always seeking self improvement and it still took me 33 years. This is not a quick process and I suspect I will be healing from it forever. I am ok with that and I hope that you can be too. One of the hardest things is when the people you love or just the people you want to like you seem annoyed that “you’re still dealing with that?” They question why you can’t just forget and be happy. If you love me or even just like me some the best thing you can do for me is accept me where I’m at. Understand that this isn’t something that is just going to go away. It is something I’m working on all the time. Sit with me when I’m sad and don’t try to fix it, just let me know you’re there. Take me out for coffee and listen even if you’ve heard it a million times. Lastly try to remember that I’m doing my best.