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Besides the sexual abuse that went on in my childhood home, the physical, emotional and mental abuse was also an everyday occurrence. Thinking about how I survived and the coping mechanisms I used, has been triggered by the questions arising while creating our podcasts. Although somewhere inside, it is clear to me how I survived, I still struggle to understand or explain it.
Was I Blind to the Truth?
How could I be so blind to all that was happening around me? How can I say with any degree of honesty or certainty that I really didn’t know what was happening to others in my home? In order to understand and explain this, I have found myself for some time now really looking back and reliving memories from my childhood.
Now I can see, not only did I know my father was abusing my sisters and beating my brothers, I had actually witnessed it. That’s not easy to understand or explain, even for me. So, here’s the contradiction, although I witnessed a lot, I also genuinely believed that I knew nothing about the abuse taking place in my home. I had to really examine my ability to disassociate and compartmentalise what was happening in my home. Only now, at this stage in my healing, can I see why and how I was able to remove myself from any situation that I read as unsafe and convince myself it never happened. I will attempt to explain how I did that in the hope it will help other victims of childhood sexual abuse understand themselves.
Escaping the Fear
Imagine your home as just one very large room and all of your family are in that room. When I close my eyes and go back in time, I can clearly see my brothers sitting at the table eating their dinner, my mother is cleaning the kitchen, my younger sisters and brother are playing a card game on the floor and my dad is shouting at the TV as he watches a football match. Everything seems fine on the surface as I sit and try do some homework on my lap.
My father suddenly stands up and click’s his fingers. I freeze. It feels like I’ve momentarily lost my sight, as everything goes blank and very quiet. I can hear nothing. When I realise, he is not directing his attention towards me, I focus on getting out of that room. I can see the door and I know exactly how many steps I have to take to reach it. Everything else around me disappears, except for a few sounds in the room that somehow, I can still hear. I focus on getting to the door, nothing else matters. I am still aware of my father’s movements and hear the sound of him smacking one of my brothers as he passes him. I can hear him shouting obscenities at one of my other brothers. I am aware of his movements as he nods for my sister to go upstairs where he will rape her.
My attention goes to my heart, it’s beating so fast. My throat feels dry, and I’m aware I’m shaking. I’m terrified and I know I have to get out. It’s not safe here and I cannot allow myself to see what’s happening around me.
I have to get out, but everything feels like it’s moving in slow motion. It takes forever to reach the door. I can’t breathe and all I can think is, I have to get out.
What was the cost?
Based on my present understanding of how I survived on a daily basis, this is a fair description of how I handled the trauma. Once outside, I managed to completely block out what was happening inside my home. I usually joined some friends that were playing on the road and immersed myself in whatever they were doing. Slowly, my heart would calm. The dissociation allowed me to leave my fear behind and carry on playing like I was normal, the compartmentalisation allowed me to hold onto the belief that I saw, heard and knew nothing as by now what I witnessed was already stored somewhere in the back of my head. The weight of what was happening was far too heavy for me as a child to comprehend or deal with and both of these coping mechanisms allowed me to live in a bubble where I was the only one that my father was abusing. I also believed I deserved his abuse and it happened because of who I was or something I had done or said.
It is obvious to me now that the guilt and shame remained with me even though I dissociated and compartmentalised memories, which was even more confusing because I had no known reason to explain these feelings. I could only conclude I was inherently bad.
I understand the power of the body to protect us from what is perceived as imminent danger and our minds ability to deny and hide away traumatic events that it feels will harm us. That was what I did, but never consciously. I also believe what I did to survive is exactly what happens to most victims of childhood abuse.
As a child all I ever wanted was to be loved. Sadly, for me, regardless of how badly my father abused me, I still was able to convince myself that he did love me. I was so innocent and naive and believed every word he said. I didn’t know till much later in my life that he deliberately isolated me from my family so we would never sit and have conversations or confide in each other.
I feel such a deep sadness at times because the tools I used to protect myself became the biggest obstacles in getting to know myself and heal from my past. Even now I have to consciously check in with myself in order to know if I am hungry, tired or feeling anything at all.
While sex no longer brings back painful memories and is something that I can feel good about, the effort involved in staying connected to my body often leads me to believe it’s simply not worth the hassle. Now while I do not wish to sound negative, nor do I want others to think my daily existence is consumed with this stuff, as although the fight for me continues and is part of my everyday life I am blessed to have support from those around me who understand and love me and I have now developed mechanisms to help me connect. The main point is that knowing myself does not come naturally to me due to my background and the learning never ends.