Lately I was able to speak to a friend who was telling me about her parenting journey. A victim of years of sexual abuse, she had felt lucky all her life that she wasn’t scarred from it. It hadn’t really affected her, she said. She indicated that although she had felt some guilt and shame, she seemed to come through it all relatively unscathed.
Then she had a daughter.
It didn’t show up right away. It crept in about 15 months into her daughters life. One day she is showering her child in a downstairs bath and she forgot her washcloth. She was about to use her hand to soap down her child and she froze, almost in terror. Was this okay to do? What in the world was going on? Why am I panicking at the thought of washing my child without the barrier of a cloth? Suddenly, she was queasy and lightheaded. The shower was getting smaller, closing in on her. Her baby is standing there waiting, starting to fuss with impatience as her mother scrambles to gather her thoughts. She takes a deep breath, “Nothing bad has happened,” she assures herself, mentally. She finds a loofah and haphazardly washes the baby down and vows to remember the cloth next time.
This mother is not an abuser. She has no inclination or attraction towards children. This mother is in the beginning stages of PTSD. Delayed PTSD is common in abuse victims. I am not speaking about abuse that has just recently been uncovered. My friend always knew she had been abused. She had disclosed it to her parents at an early age. The family dealt with it the best that they could and life moved on. It was kind of stuffed away as something that happened and something she survived with no real ill effects. The hard facts are that abuse always leaves a mark on its victims. Each person deals is affected differently and copes in different ways.
One day, she is in a relative’s home. She sees a photo of her abuser. It has always been there. It has never entered her mind to be bothered by this photo. Until now. Her daughter is present. She can NOT see this photo. How will I ever explain who this is? What if she finds out? How will I protect her from knowing what happened to her mother before she is old enough to understand? She sat quietly as the room began to spin a little. She counted her breaths as the walls closed in; breath in, one-two-three. Hold it, one-two-three. Breath out, one-two-three-four-five-six-seven. She wanted to rip the photo off the wall and tear it into shreds before her daughter’s eyes fell on it.
As time went on and her daughter grew, she became more fearful. Wanting so much to be a loving and attentive mom, she was affectionate and fun with her daughter but there was always fear. She knew, logically, she would never hurt her child but PTSD doesn’t always leave us with rational thoughts. She was terrified that she could not protect her daughter. It started with fear that her child would be molested by someone in the family or at pre-school. But then, the fears spiraled. She started having irrational fears of people harming her child in all different ways. She was afraid that babysitters would leave her in a hot car, the preschool would leave her, asleep, to roast on a school bus after a field trip. She was scared her baby would get bone cancer; that she would choke on something she found in her crib (there was NOTHING in her crib to choke on.), that she would get hung on the cord to the blinds that were completely across the room from the baby’s bed. Every single thing a mother would ever worry about was stacking up in her mind and causing serious emotional angst. In the midst of all of this, she is remaining desperately calm in front her child as to not place any anxiety on her child’s shoulders. The mother spoke to herself logically every day. “The preschool is well-reviewed, the other parents have confidence. I can show up, unannounced, at any time. My daughter seems happy there, showing no signs of fear or despair,” or, “The babysitter is well educated in child care. She has rave reviews and many families trust her. She knows CPR. She has been a nanny for 8 years with no negative incidents, she is kind and patient.” She would repeat positive mantras to herself over and over when it came to any situation which raised red flags, which was almost daily. Her red flag meter was on overdrive.
Wanting to avoid passing on this anxiety to her daughter was a top priority. The mother knew she had to heal. With dread, she sought therapy and support groups. She learned she had PTSD. She had been told this before but again, didn’t connect it to childhood abuse because, at the time, she was in an unhealthy relationship and attributed it to that. She had suffered with anxiety all her life. She had been oppressed by panic attacks in her 20’s and 30’s, never connecting her trials with anxiety to years of childhood sexual abuse. It just hadn’t seemed to fit at the time. She had been able to forgive her abusers, it hadn’t bothered her to be around them before in family settings. So how could all of her depression and anxiety be related to the things they had done? It didn’t make logical sense. But trauma isn’t often logical until it is. It made perfect sense now that she was terrified someone would hurt her daughter. Her own loving and attentive parents had not been able to protect her. What made her think that she was better than they are? That she was more equipped, more diligent? So her brain went into overdrive, making she she was hyper-vigilant, which led to more anxiety and fear.
Not one sliver of what happened to my friend was her fault. She was a victim, by all accounts. There is no other part to that story, but she is still responsible for the safety and well-being of her daughter. She had to learn how to manage her trauma, for her child’s sake. Just because something isn’t our fault, doesn’t mean we don’t hold accountability in how our “stuff” affects our children. Everyone has a past. There is no perfect parent, just ones who try really hard to face their demons and those who do not. I cannot judge them, as reliving the pain of the trauma she endured during the healing process was excruciating. Trying to connectedly parent a toddler during times of high emotional stress and fear was almost more than she could bear but she stayed the course. It’s not finished. It will never be truly finished because trauma makes an imprint on the soul. But for many, it can be managed. It can be overcome. This isn’t always the case but one must try.
If you are an adult suffering from residuals of an abusive childhood, there is help. You don’t have to suffer alone nor create an unhealthy environment for your children to grow up in because you are plagued with anxiety, depression due to childhood abuse, whether it was sexual, physical, mental or emotional. Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself the gift of healing support. Your past has taken so much from you already. Don’t let it steal a healthy relationship and strong bond with your child, too.