The Question I Dread Being Asked (As Seen in The Mighty)

I dread that moment when someone unexpectedly asks, “…and how is your mother?” I never have an easy answer at the ready. “Oh, umm she’s fine, thank you,” I usually say, with a quick change of the subject. If the asker is extended family and the subject will surely come up again, I might say “We aren’t in touch very much.” And if my intuition tells me that the person will not judge, I tell the truth: “We are estranged.”

There is no easy way to explain you don’t speak to your parent. Or parents. Or entire family. The inquiry comes up casually and often enough. It’s a normal question after all, under most circumstances. But we are not most families.

After a lifetime of trying to maintain ties with the people who formed my world for so many years, while also addressing the sexual and emotional abuse in our family, it became clear I would finally have to choose. My family or my emotional health. Their love or the truth. Them or me.

I chose me.

Every time I get the question, I hope the asker will not judge me. In fact if they know me at all, if they see me for who I am, they often give me at least some benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to see I am a loving, forgiving, family-oriented person. Given the choice, I would keep my family members in my life. But their rejection of my truth and my refusal to participate in old family dynamics leaves me with no healthy choice but to walk away.

Sometimes the person looks at me with disapproval when it becomes clear that I am estranged from my mother. It may be an old friend or relative of hers or one of the many who’ve enjoyed her fun-loving personality and interest in the plights of those around her. They don’t know my experience is different. They don’t understand I feel like I have two mothers: one who loves me deeply and one who can’t seem to tolerate my presence. They don’t realize her concern for other people’s feelings only underscores her rejection of mine. They can’t grasp the crescendo of betrayal I felt to my core before I finally chose to walk away. 

It’s not seen as “normal” to be estranged from your parents. For those of us who are, we know that separation is a monumental and painful step, taken only when there is no other safe choice. Others may not get it, they may question our morals and judge us outright. But we know the truth. And since we have made the break from our families, we will always choose truth, sanity and freedom from abuse over the approval of those who don’t understand.

See this piece on The Mighty.com

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Estranged from My Family, but not My Truth

I dread that moment when someone unexpectedly asks “…and how’s your mother?” I never have an easy answer at the ready. “Oh, um she’s fine thank you” I usually say, with a quick change of the subject. If the asker is extended family and the subject will surely come up again, I might say “we aren’t in touch very much.” And if my intuition tells me that the person will not judge, I tell the truth. “We are estranged.”

There is no easy way to explain that you don’t speak to your parent. Or parents. Or entire family. The inquiry comes up casually and often enough. It’s a normal question after all, under most circumstances. But we are not most families.

After a lifetime of trying to maintain ties with the people who formed my world for so many years, while also addressing the sexual and emotional abuse in our family, it became clear that I would finally have to choose. My family or my emotional health. Their love or the truth. Them or me.

I chose me.

Every time I get the question, I hope the asker will not judge me. In fact if they know me at all, if they see me for who I am, they often give me at least some benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to see that I am a loving, forgiving, family-oriented person. Given the choice, I would keep my family members in my life. But their rejection of my truth, and my refusal to participate in old  family dynamics leaves me with no healthy choice but to walk away.

Sometimes the person looks at me askance when it becomes clear that I am estranged from my mother. It may be an old friend or relative of her’s, or one of the many who’ve enjoyed her fun-loving personality and interest in the plights of those around her. They don’t know that my experience is different. They don’t understand that I feel like I have two mothers: one who loves me deeply and one who can’t seem to tolerate my presence. They don’t realize that her concern for other people’s feelings only underscores her rejection of mine. They can’t grasp the crescendo of betrayal I felt to my core before I finally chose to walk away.

It’s not normal to be estranged from your parents. For those of us who are, we know that separation is a monumental and painful step, taken only when there is no other safe choice. Others may not get it, they may question our morals and judge us outright. But we know the truth. And since we have made the break from our families, we will always choose truth, sanity and freedom from abuse over the approval of those who don’t understand.

 

 

Holding My Head High

If you are a survivor of abuse, an injustice was perpetrated on you. You did not deserve it, you did not contribute to it, and someone should have protected you. Not only are you justified in addressing your abuse, it’s the right thing to do for yourself – and the world.

But…for many, girl in fieldyour family members tell you, in words and actions, the opposite of these truths. People in your family don’t believe you, blame you, still fail to protect you, and/or want you to be quiet about the traumatic past that you’re working so hard to overcome. This dilemma is the reason I have begun to write my story: I have been living with hurtful family responses for over two decades.

Recently at a family memorial service, I had to see my mother for the first time since I ended most of our contact a few years ago. I was anxious. But something happened inside of me that day that told me I am growing stronger.

Walking down the street toward the church, I reminded myself that I held the moral high ground. My mother has ostracized me while openly supporting the brother who sexually abused me. She is now hurt and angry that I will not see her anymore. She has reportedly told our mutual friends and extended family that she doesn’t understand what I am upset about – despite all the times I explained myself to her. She apparently sees herself as the victim.

She is wrong. I am the person who has been victimized: first by my brother and then by my family’s response. Though I have often doubted myself over the years in the face of my family’s attitudes and treatment toward me, I get this now.

And so, confident in my right to be proud of myself, I walked into that church flanked by my supportive husband and daughter. I gave my mother a polite hug.I attended to my daughter’s needs, offered love and support to the family of the deceased, and stayed true to myself. Through it all, I held my head high. No matter how my family members treat me or what they think, I know the truth. My truth matters, and yours does too.

Second Chances

“If it weren’t for second chances, we’d all be alone.” -Gregory Alan Isikov
Listening to the song Second Chances in my earbuds today as I shoveled out from storm Stella, I noticed this line for the first time. I thought yeah, how true. We all mess up sometimes, especially with the people who mean the most to us.
In fact, it’s one of the ways we learn, evolve, and also develop understanding for those times when OTHER people make mistakes that hurt or upset us. (Excepting of course, domestic violence or other forms of abuse from which we need to protect ourselves.)
With the people we love and care about, we generally give each other second chances. And sometimes third and fourth chances, on up. Hopefully, we communicate in healthy ways about what bothers us and work on these concerns together. At the same time, we learn to live with certain traits or behaviors that irk us; because on balance, it’s worth all the good stuff. If we’re being honest, our loved ones do the same for us. If they didn’t, if we didn’t…well, like Gregory says: we’d all be alone.
I wish it were just this simple, and there was a time when I really thought it was. Once I admitted to myself that what my brother had done to me as a child was sexual abuse, I was ready, even eager to work through my trauma: to examine why it had happened and how I could take care of the deep wounds I was carrying. My objectives were to feel better, to understand more, and to grow wiser and stronger as a result.  I assumed that my family would want to walk this path with me. It didn’t work out that way.
At first, my mother and I stumbled along together. Clumsy with emotions, we both tried to live with this newly acknowledged truth, and we both made mistakes. It was messy, and real, at least it seemed that way. But over time, my frustration grew as my mom and others in the family seemed to brush the abuse under the rug, to silence the expression of my needs and feelings, and – as I stuck to my stances – to ostracize me from family events. There were periods of time when it seemed impossible and so I stayed away.
Then I’d try again with my mother. Therapists were seen, apologies were made and promises extracted. I poured out my feelings and challenged her to embrace the whole messy truth with me; the reward being a truer, closer love for each other – warts and all. I focused on her positive traits, and recalled the purity of the love I had received from her as a child. When her promises fell through, I made my hurt and frustrations clear. But I also made a conscious choice to love and keep her, despite her limitations.
I’m all for second chances. But they weren’t enough for me and my family. There was only so much I could live with. The acceptance of my brother’s hurtful treatment toward me, the refusal to protect minors from adults in the family with abusive histories, the secrets and invitations that were kept from me, and the eventual, low grade hostility I perceived were more than I was willing to bear.
Finally, I walked away – with crushing sadness, but also relief.
Afterwards, I felt deep grief: for the family I once thought I had, for the trust I lost, and for the unconditional love that I hoped to discover in my mother: the one person I thought should have loved me most. This wound, too is healing more each day. My heart is a bit battered, sure – but I’m okay. Better off, even. I have many other loved ones who support me and give me strength through life’s ups and downs. We give each other second chances – because we deserve it.

She Asked Me Why

There is a survivor I know. Just a little, but enough to understand that she is sensitive, courageous and outspoken about what she has been through – and what she is still going through. Her candor is rare and powerful, and so is she. I’ll call this person Audrey – a name that means “noble strength.” Audrey was sexually abused as a child. Like so many of us, her innocence was stolen and her sense of self was shaken by the twisted actions of a person she should have been able to trust.

I knew Audrey was hurting and I reached out to her privately. She explained to me that she had discovered a disturbing fact about her family. There were extended family members who were friendly with her abuser because, Audrey had assumed, they didn’t know this history. But she had just learned that they were fully aware this man had abused her as a child. As they explained to Audrey, they had chosen “to forgive him” for what he had done to her. She was wounded and outraged.

She asked me why. “Why are people like this?”

“Because they are weak,” I told her. It felt like the right answer at that moment, and I meant it. But I woke up that night and thought about how much more I could have said in answer to Audrey’s question. I thought about why people excuse or “forgive” sexual abusers, why they often shut victims down, and why they frequently side with sexual abuse perpetrators instead of their victims. In my own life, I have watched family members go from acknowledgment of my abuser’s crimes to avoidance of the subject and finally an obvious allegiance and preference for him over me. These types of family reactions are backwards, they create a secondary injustice, and the hurt continues because, unlike the actual abuse, it has no end. Audrey’s question was a good one.

Here are some of the answers I came up with:

They avoid the truth about the abuse because it’s uncomfortable.

They need to believe a different version of reality: a neater, nicer story.

They were culpable in some way.

They were abused themselves.

They are also abusers.

They choose to align themselves with power.

They get something from the abuser that they don’t want to lose.

They are afraid of the perpetrator.

It’s easier to blame the victim than address the truth.

They don’t get it.

They are not as strong as we are.

There are many answers, I suppose, but every one is simply inadequate. Victims deserve protection, empathy and love. Their voices should be heard and respected. Survivors’ needs and perspective should be honored over their abusers’. Today and always.

Audrey’s question still haunts me, and I think that’s appropriate. The tragic aftermath of sexual abuse should haunt all of us until we speak up or do something to support survivors – instead of enabling abusers and ignoring their crimes.

Audrey knows that she deserves better. She gets it. But sometimes getting it just hurts too much, especially when certain people in our lives never will.

 

 

The Second Wound: Healing from Sexual Abuse was Just the Beginning

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I will always have deep and lasting scars. But underneath, my wounds are healing. After decades of hard work in psychotherapy, a solid support system, and the unconditional love of my husband and children, I feel whole. I am okay. Better than that, I have created a life that fulfills and sustains me and brings many joys.

There is more to my story though, and this part does not have a happy ending. It’s about my family of origin. For two decades, I tried to maintain relationships with family members while still remaining loyal to myself and honoring the truth about the abuse. Sadly, I have found this to be an impossible goal. Throughout this long struggle, I have felt ignored, shamed, blamed, ostracized and – ultimately, utterly betrayed.

Like the sexual abuse itself, my family’s behavior has left me wounded and scarred.  Unlike the abuse, it has never ended.

When I first came to terms with the fact that I had been sexually abused as a child, I was actually eager to tell my mother and siblings (my father was already suffering from Alzheimer’s and died a few years later). I assumed they would sympathize with my pain and offer their support as I faced my traumatic past. Although I had always struggled to be heard, I was confident that this news would change everything and they would finally realize that I deserved more empathy and respect.

I was in my early twenties and a couple of years into therapy when I revealed that my older brother had raped and sodomized me for a period of years during my childhood starting when I was about seven years old. I had begun to understand how my brother’s violations had instilled a deep shame inside me and how my sense of self had been damaged. While I had never forgotten these events, it was a relief to pry open this previously locked door from my past, shine a light on my trauma and discover the origins of my sadness and insecurity. I was confident that my family would join me on the difficult journey toward healing, change and forgiveness.

They said all the right things at first. My brother even admitted to the abuse and wrote to say he was sorry. But in an old, familiar way his apology felt empty. I was disturbed by his seeming lack of interest in my feelings and I pushed for more. I wanted my brother to explore the reasons that he perpetrated these acts as a child, including the possibility that he had been abused himself.

I believed that we had to examine the symptoms in order to cure this ill that had infected our family. Then we might be able to change destructive patterns and perhaps prevent abuse from being perpetuated on successive generations. That did not happen.

I grew frustrated with their silence and apparent disinterest. As my anger toward my brother grew, I wrote and told him about the lifetime of resentment I felt for what I saw as his dominating, selfish behavior toward me. He replied that he pitied me, suggested that I get a refund on my therapy, and instructed me to stay away from him until I changed back to the way I used to be. That was almost two decades ago and I have not seen him since.

My other family members didn’t have my back either. When I urged my mother to pursue the subject further with my brother, she said he had told her to back off and she wouldn’t risk losing him. My older sister said: “He apologized. What more do you want?” My family began inviting my brother to important family events and leaving me out. When I challenged my mother for not inviting me to her 70th birthday party, she replied curtly that she assumed I wouldn’t attend if my brother were there. She was right about that. I was devastated that she had chosen him over me.

Through the years, my family continued to enthusiastically embrace my brother. My mother insisted that he was “a good person” and seemed impatient with me for not joining their way of thinking. She didn’t understand that I am the only person who could determine whether or not he had earned my forgiveness.

My relationship with my mom remained rocky. I stayed away from her when things became unbearable. But she was a loving mother in other ways, and cared deeply for my children. Over time, I decided that I could keep her in our lives without compromising myself: by understanding her limitations and continuing to advocate for myself when necessary. That worked for a long time. Then, when my other turned 80, I learned that she had celebrated with a large party thrown by my brother and attended by all of our family and many friends. Not only was I excluded, my existence was apparently never acknowledged as they reminisced about our family. When I confronted her about keeping the party a secret from me, she responded that I was just as much at fault because I was “always angry” at her.

Despite the price I’ve had to pay, I will never walk away from dealing with my past. I know the difference between moving forward and ignoring the truth. Now that I am grown and have a choice, I will never allow anyone in my family to overpower me, keep me quiet or force me to stand in the background and play the part of obedient child or passive, adoring sister.

I miss my family. But I will never trade my hard-won emotional health and peace of mind for their acceptance and approval.  I have learned the hard way that while facing the truth hurts, it helps so much more.

Healing the damage of the abuse was largely in my control – but I have no such control over my family members’ behavior or attitudes. I created the Second Wound Facebook and Twitter pages for sexual abuse survivors like myself who know the pain of hurtful family reactions. We deserve to be heard, respected and supported in our healing. Maybe we’ll never get this from our families of origin, but we can offer it to each other and ourselves.