There is so little information for abuse survivors who become parents. We slog through these struggles feeling alone and isolated. That needs to change. We need to come together as a community of parent survivors and tell our stories.
Do you feel safe?
This is a question abuse survivors ask themselves daily. Not at a conscious level, not verbalizing the words, but at a physical, visceral level. That fight-or-flight automatic reaction level. Do you feel safe? We ask this at work, in our homes, with our kids, with our partners. In the middle of the most intimate moments with those we love, we still ask this question. Do you feel safe? And a lot of the time, the answer is no.
Recently, I read an article by Maria Popova on the connection between the brain and the vagina and, after reading it, I forwarded it to my husband to read. When he asked why I had sent it to him, I highlighted this passage:
There is growing, if still preliminary, evidence that rape and early sexual trauma can indeed “stay in the body” — even stay in the vagina — and change the body on the most intimate, systemic level. …it can permanently alter the way a woman breathes, the rate of her heart, her blood pressure, and her startle reaction, in a manner that is not under any conscious control.
“See?” I said. “See? This. This is what I have been trying to tell you for years. This is why I freak out when you sneak up quietly behind me, this is why I have a panic attack if you stand in a doorway that blocks my exit out of a room.” Because, as one particularly charming doctor said to me once, I have been “tampered with.” I am broken in a way that never fully heals.
What is even worse than not feeling safe, is not being able to talk about it. Not having the language to explain to your gentle, loving partner why sometimes you freak out, or lash out, or shut down. It can be the smallest trigger that sets you off, a scent memory, the feeling of a fan blowing, a certain piece of music. We are all familiar with these moments when a song on the radio transports us back in time. But for trauma survivors, that can be a horrifying experience. In the middle of the produce section at the grocery store, you suddenly want to cry, or scream, or punch someone, because you have been triggered. Because suddenly you are once again that small, helpless child who wasn’t safe.
And then you have kids of your own. Little, sweet, innocent babies. And all you want to do is keep them safe. And then the question takes on a whole new level of scary. Because you learned very early that there is no safe. And even though you have spent years building a life with a loving partner, creating a safe home, you now feel unsafe all the time. Because now it’s not just you who you have to keep safe, it’s this tiny human who is completely helpless. And you know how broken you are. Who the hell put you in charge of this?
And then your baby grows into a toddler. And in the cruelest twist of all, he enters a hitting phase. And the question “Do you feel safe?” takes on yet another meaning. This tiny human who you have been trying so hard to keep safe now makes you feel unsafe. And no amount of therapy or rationalization helps in that moment when you are being wailed on by an un-relenting toddler.
These are the moments that we live with every day as abuse survivors. But no one talks about them. No one explains when you get pregnant with your child that the very act of growing a baby in your body might make you feel violated once again. Or that a tidal wave of sorrow will grip you at the worst possible moment, when you are trying to keep it together in front of the other moms at your kid’s school. I call them “trigger points.” And I want other survivors to know about them, and I want other survivors to tell me about their trigger points are.
There is so little information for abuse survivors who become parents. We slog through these struggles feeling alone and isolated. That needs to change. We need to come together as a community of parent survivors and tell our stories. We need to ask each other for wisdom. Because we are the experts on this. We know what it is to try so hard to make sure our kids have a better childhood than we did. To make sure that they feel safe, even when we do not.
If you are a parent who is a survivor of childhood abuse, please join our Facebook Community. And if you would like to contribute a piece of writing to our upcoming anthology, that would be even better. Let’s shine a light into the darkness, so that we can all feel safer.
Joyelle Brandt and Dawn Daum are Mama Survivors who are co-editing the upcoming anthology Trigger Points: Abuse Survivors Experiences of Parenting. Visit their Facebook page for more information, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org