(Warning: This post may not be appropriate for little kids! This is a no-apologies, spill-my-guts post.)
I have lived almost all of my life with twin monsters in my closet: shame and grief.
Welcome to the wonderful world of my post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. The monsters showed up when I was six, and have lingered, stubbornly, often undercover, in the depths of my brain, my heart, my very being.
I was molested, technically gang-raped, by a couple (?) of older girls when I was about six, in the school bathroom during lunch recess. At the nice Catholic school my parents scraped and saved to send me to. I don’t remember much. What I do remember is in a form like snapshots in time: me crying, them laughing, it hurting, the tiles of the bathroom floor, the smell of disinfectant. And the harder I cried, and called for my mommy, the more they laughed.
I don’t blame them anymore, not really, although my anger at what they stole from me…And what this did to my parents, there is not just anger, there is fury beyond words..
Yet I know that second and third grade girls do not make this stuff up on their own. And I know that a small percentage of abused children go on to become victimizers themselves. Why this happens, though, I don’t know.
I never told anybody, of course; this was the mid-1970s, and no one talked about things like that much then. Ironically, my mom had warned me about men–including uncles, neighbors, etc. But what mom in 1974 would have thought she needed to warn her innocent little first grader about older kids at school? I think it happened more than once, but I’m not sure. As I said, I don’t remember much. But I do remember, vividly, the sense of shame that covered me like an invisible shroud for the rest of my childhood. My young adulthood. And now, my middle age. (45 is middle-aged, right?)
I love the picture above because I’m happy, you can tell because my smile reaches my eyes. I’ve destroyed a number of pictures from the rest of my life because even in the pictures where I’m smiling, it’s an empty smile. My smile doesn’t reach my eyes, doesn’t come anywhere close.
The shame. I’d say that it follows me everywhere, but it’s a part of me. I wonder, if the shame disappeared, would I still exist? Peel away my skin, muscle, bone, it’s everywhere, festering. Especially in my mind and my heart.
I realized this today when someone I care about and respect became angry at me. Of course, I immediately began to cry, I always do. the harder I try to stop, the harder I cry. And I had one of those Aha moments: I understood, in the flash of a moment, that it was my shame taking over. Taking over me, my thoughts, my body, even, so that I felt ashamed and guilty for taking up space on this earth. And I went right into flashback mode.
My flashbacks are located purely in my body; I thought I was going crazy when I had my first one at age 19 until a therapist explained to me that our bodies do actually store memories, and that is exactly what I was having. Body memories. They last anywhere from a few minutes to hours to days, and during them, I feel as though I am being raped. I have the physical sensation that someone is violating me. I have never been afraid of going to hell. Not only because I believe in God’s overwhelming love and mercy, I also know I have paid my dues, and more.
And the grief. It is, as psychologist and PTSD expert Bellruth Naparsteck writes in her book (which I highly recommend) Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal:
The emotional pain of post-traumatic stress is the archetypal, beyond-reason. It’s the anguish of Oedipus tearing out his own eyes, the howling fury of Medea murdering her children, the outraged betrayal of Antigone digging up her brother with her bare hands. It is outsize, abnormal, crazy suffering.
My twin pals, shame and grief. And then there is the impotent rage and terror that are so “outside the range of ordinary emotional experience, and they overwhelm the ordinary capacity to bear feelings,” according to Judith Herman in her groundbreaking book, Trauma and Recovery. I’m quoting experts now because I’m afraid no one will believe how agonizing PTSD is.
I am going to try a treatment called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization something-or-other) that is intense but has had excellent results. I am afraid, though, to face my monsters head on. What if they win?