Archive for How the Body Carries Trauma

How People Like Linda Stewardson Can Change a Whole Community

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On one of my regular walks with Sammy the poodle along the Kingston lakefront, I came across the plaque pictured above. It stopped me in my tracks. A flood of sadness, then excitement rushed through me. Sadness from being reminded of our nation’s denial of the crimes perpetrated on our young who cannot defend themselves. Excitement because here, marking a recently planted young tree, was a plaque reminding us not of a loved one’s death, but of our children who carry shame and grief in their hearts because of child sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Child abuse is our nation’s best-kept secret. My profound thanks go to whoever chose this way of reminding us of the fate of our children.

Every time someone finds a new way of breaking into our society’s denial of child abuse, I cheer. How else can we protect our children? If our collective head is in the sand, their cries go unheard. We have to educate ourselves about child abuse if we’re going to help. Remember, as Judith Herman tells us: we are either on the side of the victim or the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that you mind your own business, turn the other way. The victim, on the other hand, needs your active involvement. You need to get involved in something that’s not very pretty.

Another recent breakthrough was Linda Stewardson’s recent publication of The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die. Linda’s book launch and support from her Thunder Bay community is outstanding. Her church provided a venue for further discussion.

Imagine how many citizens in that community and in the communities where Linda speaks about her experiences are now educated about child abuse. What a huge difference that must make in that community. Nobody there can claim to be unaware of the intolerable suffering of some children. Her story will change that whole community.

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die

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The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die is Linda Stewardson’s story of the unimaginable horror she suffered as a child. Her mother chose alcoholic men, the worst of whom stabbed Linda in the chest multiple times and left her for dead in a garbage bag on a remote beach. Fortunately she was found and taken to hospital. Strangely, once in the hospital, nobody questioned how she’d ended up with six knife wounds in her chest, inside a green plastic garbage bag. Instead the adults around, including the doctor and the nurses, asked her asked her why she’d tried to kill herself! Indeed, until she met Dr. Harvey Armstrong, none of the professionals she worked with asked her about child sexual abuse.

As a teenager, Linda lived on the streets, rather than face physical, emotional and sexual abuse at home. This is when she met my husband, Dr. Harvey Armstrong, psychiatrist at Youthdale Treatment Centre in Toronto. Harvey recognized the goodness and the strength in this young person. If only she had stability and safety in her life, he thought, she’d have a chance at living a decent life. This was the start of taking Linda into our own home and fostering her for periods of time.

Not only did Linda recover from trauma and addiction, she went on to marry a good man and, with her husband, adopted two little boys. In her own community, she reaches out to troubled youth assuring them that they, too, can seek help and recover. And now, with the success of her book, Linda is educating a wider circle about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, our society’s best-kept secret.

This is a heart-rending story. The book will enthrall you with Linda’s hopeless attempts to save herself in those years when adults were not to be trusted: and your heart will fill with relief and joy as she finally learns to trust and change the course of her life – from dark and scary to light and love.

Children Who Remember Sexual Abuse

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Many children who have been sexually abused don’t remember the events that traumatized them. Their brains have the capacity to “forget” trauma. (Trauma describes events that are both inescapable and intolerable.) As a race, we humans survived famines, wars and other terrible events, thanks to the brain’s ability to “forget.” Without this adaptation, maybe we’d have died out as a species.

The brains of modern babies, like of the brains of the caveman’s babies, are shaped by the circumstances into which they’re born. A baby who is welcomed by love, soft sounds and warm, caring arms develops a brain that knows when to trust. This baby will likely be open to life’s relationships and adventures. On the other hand the brain of the infant experiencing neglect or a lack of safety and love, will be toughened to be suspicious of humans, won’t expect good things from life and will be subject to all our society’s common illnesses and psychiatric diagnoses (Refer to the ACE Studies) Above all, this brain will protect its owner from remembering what is intolerable and inescapable. It’s common for children to simply forget that the adults on whom they depended traumatized them.

In my own history, I didn’t remember being sexually abused by family members until I was in my late 40’s. That turns out to be a common age. It’s as if our pain and shame remain hidden until we’re mature enough to deal with it. Many of us who had delayed memories managed to live relatively normal lives, before being shaken by the surfacing of traumatic memories. We probably knew something was wrong, but we were spared from dealing with it until we were older. The worst was finally realizing the terrible toll child sexual abuse had taken on our lives.

As a child who believed she came from a perfect family, this is how I describe myself in my book, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation.

“Looking at me during my childhood years you would have seem a spoiled rich kid always smiling and never causing any trouble. On the inside, life was different. Under the placid exterior I existed in a wet, grey fog, never quite sure of what was happening around me.” (p. 3.)

Sweet, fat and smiling: this is a common appearance of children who are being sexually abused, but can never clear their brains enough to know what is happening to them.

I’m grateful I was able to dissociate. As an adult I managed to get an education in spite of my daydreaming and spacing-out. I married, had my son, and immersed myself in yoga, social work and 30 years of fulfilling work as a trauma therapist. If I’d realized what was going on in my home, how would I have found the energy or the will to live my life?

Nancy Brown, author of Facing Life: A Memoir of Addiction never forgot. Her child’s brain didn’t dissociate the knowledge that the neighbor across the street held her and his little daughter, Ruthie, hostage as sexual rewards for his card-playing buddies. The pain was intolerable and she believed her situation was inescapable. She believed there was something about her that caused Ruthie’s father and later other men prey on her. Her perpetrator assured her silence by threatening Rusty, her beloved dog, and Peter her little brother, that they’d wish they’d never been born if she didn’t shut up and stop wriggling.

“Once I made a noise when it hurt and he said he’d skin Rusty alive if I didn’t stop (p. 16.)”

To dull the intolerable pain, she soon started stealing candy from little corner stores in her neighbourhood. She made sure never to be without her secret hordes of sweets. Even when she went to camp at age eight, she worried she wouldn’t be able to sneak enough candy to last two weeks. She filled the stomach of her stuffed toy with candy and chose a top bunk where she could eat her candy out of sight.

Once in high school, she discovered alcohol. It worked even better than sweets. She figured out how to get a steady supply of booze from the local bootlegger. Prescription pain killers helped dull her terrible pain. Eventually her life was one of isolation, bad hygiene and a routine of swallowing enough pills and alcohol in the morning to face the day.

She never told her worried parents. Why? This is the subject for my next post Why Children Don’t Tell.

References:

The ACE Studies, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adverse Childhood Experiences Study is one of the largest investigations ever to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.

Children Who Numb the Pain with Alcohol

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This is the second in a series about the connection between child sexual abuse and alcohol.  Recently, I’ve been surprised to realize how even young children learn that alcohol is effective in relieving their shame, their fear and their anger over what abusing adults are doing to them. It works – at least in the short term.

In Drinking: the Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, Ann Dowsett Johnston interviews Laura who, as a grade twelve student, is already a recovering alcoholic. Laura started drinking at age nine. She’s quoted as saying, “I felt like I could lift buildings…..I thought; I’ll never love anything the way I love alcohol.” (p. 74.)

The love affair lasted several years. Sexually abused as a child, ‘debilitatingly anxious and bulimic,’ ‘Laura shuffled homes, from her mother’s to her father’s to various aunts and uncles.’ Alcohol was a daily constant, often pilfered from relatives’ liquor cabinets. (p. 75.)

I learned a lot more about children and alcohol dependence by reading Nancy Brown’s memoir of addiction, Facing Life.  The author tells her story of years of sexual enslavement by the father of a family that moved in across the street from her own caring home. Before long, little Nancy was terrified into serving as a sexual prize for the horrible father’s card playing buddies. She felt   trapped and helpless to escape her situation. The only thing that made it bearable was alcohol.

Before she discovered alcohol, she stuffed candy into her mouth, ‘chewing frantically, juice running down my chin.” (p. 16.)

“Soon I started stealing candy from the little corner stores in my neighbourhood…. I’d stuff my pockets and run home to hide it in the back of the closet. … There in the almost dark I made a connection that would last a lifetime. As the sweetness slid down my throat and sleep tugged at my eyelids, I found that I wasn’t afraid any more.” (p. 16 & 17.)

I was startled to relate to this personally. When I was a fat little girl being used sexually by my father and his father, I stuffed my face with spoonfuls of butter and brown sugar. I learned that this dulled the pain. I don’t remember discovering alcohol although, in my adult life, I’ve always been aware of the seductive power of wine and spirits.  It would be so easy to become addicted.

Brown’s description of her first experience with alcohol’s effectiveness is a moving tribute to the power of alcohol as a mood altering substance. She was at a school dance when a male friend offered her his flask of spirits:

“When I swallowed, the liquid burned its way down like a hot, lazy snake, and soon the most wonderful thing happened. It felt as though my fairy godmother had finally noticed my needing her and, in one swift act of pity and kindness, flicked her wand. I forgot that I was the fattest girl in the room. I forgot about the despicable things I’d done in the house across the street. And I forgot the bad-man smell that followed me everywhere. My world hardly pinched at all.” (p.25.)

Nancy Brown was one of those children who never dissociated her trauma. She remembered it all, unlike the daughter of the new neighbours, who was Nancy’s age.

In my next blog post I’ll discuss the experience of children who don’t remember their abuse as well as children whose brains somehow didn’t block them from remembering what was intolerable and inescapable.

How Do You Know You’re Getting Better?

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Guest blogger Cathy has shared with us her struggles to come to terms with a traumatic childhood. She has detailed for us her attempts to find a therapy that would ease her terror and clear her foggy brain. Neurofeedback has proved effective for Cathy. In this letter to her therapists, Cathy describes what it feels like to be healing.

Hi Jessica and Martin,

Today my husband had a day off work and we spent the day fishing together out on our boat on Moreton Bay.

It was a really nice day

I noticed that I was different.

I noticed that was more aware, more alert and more proactive, I was more helpful and more effective in working with my husband on our boat. I was less vague and my attention and focus were more available to me and to my husband.

I noticed that I had more self awareness and more choices.

I felt calmer, more in control and less chaotic than usual.

I felt as though my terror dropped from a 10/10 to an 8/10. I felt as though I could see ‘around’ my internal mass of terror (ie. my terror was present but contained in a way that it felt manageable to me, not overwhelming or completely consuming as it has felt to me so often in the past).

I felt as though I could see the edge of my terror (like the horizon or the mainland or an island off in the distance, rather than a vast blank sea of helplessness).

My experience today was a really exciting step forward for me. I feel as though today, I grasped a glimpse of how different my life could be with less terror, more calm and a healthy level of control and organisation.

Then I had a multitude of entrepreneurial ideas ‘bubble’ up to my surface. This was an exciting, inspiring and encouraging experience.

Today was great! I’m really thrilled!!

 I’m really looking forward to experiencing more steps forward.

Hope that you are both having a good holiday.

Best wishes,

Cathy

Have you had a similar experience? Is there something you wish to tell Cathy and others dealing with trauma? Please comment below.