Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Survivor Stories: Andrew

Andrew (not his real name) approached me after I told my story publicly. He desperately wanted someone to listen to him, to understand, but had so many times been too embarrassed to even try to tell his story. I offered him the opportunity to tell it here, publicly but anonymously, allowing him to vocalize and heal while encouraging other victims at the same time. I asked him to approve every word prior to posting. He had to read this more than one time, and as is the case with so many of us, he was triggered, and experienced everything all over again. But he also found that with each retelling, each time he re-read his own horror, the power his past had over him lessened. He learned how to handle the trigger. He came to understand that he is indeed a victor, the hero of his own story.

I ask you to take a moment and offer some encouragement to Andrew after you read his story. Let him know that his courage is visible, and how speaking out is important.

I look at Andrew, and I don't see a victim. He is more like the quintessential big brother. To find out that he comes from a large Italian family is no surprise. He's bold and he's confident. He's gregarious and jovial. He is an attentive listener, an encourager, and he loves his wife of 34 years more than anything in the world.

And he tells me that for many years, too many, he held the shame of being sexually assaulted.

Andrew is not the only man I know who has been assaulted, and I doubt he will be the last I will meet. As we talk, as we peel the layers of guilt and shame away I know Andrew has coped with this trauma the way most of us, male and female, have. I hear him use the same words and phrases  that I've heard from so many victims over the years; "I didn't know." "I didn't understand." "I didn't know who I could talk to." I see the same looks of fear and shame. I feel the tension of his anger; anger he's not quite sure where to place. Trauma is trauma is trauma, I assure him. And slowly,  his history unfolds.

Here is his story.

I have to take you back to an era now gone. It's the 1970's. Andrew is a teenager, a paper boy, which is not a menial task. At 15, Andrew bore not only the responsibility of delivering newspapers, he also had to collect payment from customers. This would mean showing up at customers' homes and asking them directly for money. No cell phone. No 911. Just a 15 year old and an adult in the neighborhood.

It was on one of these trips that Andrew was assaulted by a male customer in his 30's. Andrew never tells me his name, but I'll call him Mike.

It started innocently enough. Mike invited Andrew into the house while he collected payment, and conversation ensued. Andrew felt comfortable, told me that Mike struck him as "a cool dude." Mike talked about things that interest a teen boy, specifically sex, and invited Andrew to come back again to have some fun.

Now let me pause here for just a second to tell you a little bit of Andrew's history. Andrew is the only child of proud, first generation Italian-Americans. While his nuclear family is small, his extended family is huge. His father, a WW2 vet, worked hard to provide for the family. His mother, overbearing in her own right, took care of her mentally-ill mother in the family home. In fact, Andrew shared his bedroom with his grandmother, a woman he loved and now recognizes had serious mental health issues, but at the time simply described as psycho. Her presence strained everyone's relationships, and Andrew became less and less of a priority. Andrew's parents fought more. Andrew fought with his dad more. The entire family was engulfed in chaos.

And then Andrew's grandmother died. Six weeks later, Andrew's father died suddenly as well. Andrew's last memory of his father is of the fight they had the morning he died.

It was in between these two tragedies that Andrew is befriended by Mike. It is here, in that turmoil, that Mike grooms Andrew to be compliant, to set the stage for abuse. There is no doubt in my mind that Mike saw Andrew as a potential victim long before Andrew set foot in his house the first time. Predators are that way, they can read a hurting, lonely person before any words are ever exchanged.

Andrew does return to Mike's house. He returns and has his senses overwhelmed immediately. He is given booze. He is shown gay-porn (magazines, this is the 1970's). Andrew is confused, asking himself where the girls are, but finding his body reacting anyway. Mike takes advantage of this and assaults Andrew, only deepening Andrew's confusion. Mike now has complete control over the teen, having caused Andrew to experience a new sensation against his will. Mike assaults Andrew on two more occasions.

Andrew buried this experience for decades. He tried to pretend it didn't happen, he tried to just live life and move on, but as most of us know, it doesn't go away. Despite his best efforts, the pain, the shame, manifested itself in his life. He battled depression, admitting himself for inpatient treatment on a couple of occasions. His marriage suffered.

But Andrew is also a great example of how one can overcome the trauma. With the love and support of his wife, Andrew went back there and dealt with the trauma. He allowed it all to come back to the surface, decades later, and he replaced all the lies with truths. It wasn't easy to do, admitting to his wife, to himself, all that had happened so long ago. But the truth is that the abuse did to Andrew what abuse does to everyone, it lied to him. Andrew, through no fault of his own, grew to loath himself because he held onto the shame of 1)being abused and 2) experiencing a normal physical response.

Like me, Andrew wrote a letter to his younger self. He released his teenage self from the shame, and put that shame directly where it belonged, on the shoulders of the one who abused him. Andrew the adult took the time to explain to Andrew the child how he was not at fault, he did nothing wrong, and that he simply didn't have anyone looking out for him then. He came face to face with the angry young man who tormented his past, and he hugged him. Together the two Andrews honestly mourned the losses that left gaping holes in their soul. In that letter, Andrew held the young man and allowed the him to weep.

In addition to this, Andrew received great validation from his wife. It was difficult for both of them. They had to be completely honest with each other about their feelings, needs, and desires. They had to explore intimacy on new levels. But the love between them is evident today. The abuse could have torn them apart, but instead they chose to forge through the pain and allow the healing to strengthen their relationship.

Andrew has accepted that he can't change his childhood. He realizes now that his parents weren't perfect, but they were doing the best they could. He is sure things would be handled differently today, and I agree with him. Andrew believes that no pain is wasted, and he has vowed to make the future better for his children, and all those around him. He is actively involved in the lives of his children, as well as children he has fostered, helping them to overcome the abuse they endured. He is now starting to share his story in order to help other men (and/or women) find hope in the healing process. He, like me, has learned that only the abuser benefits from silence. The victim seldom does.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Learning to Feel Emotions

It's been five years since I started this journey. As suspected, a lot has changed about me. I have learned a ton about the legal system. I have found out that I am surrounded by friends, all survivors of sexual assault, in various stages of healing. I have learned that I am stronger than I thought. I have learned a great deal about my parents. But there is one thing that I learned, one element of this healing process that I wasn't expecting;

I've learned how to feel emotions.

Growing up as a child of a narcissist, I had to fit into a mold. I was required to behave and achieve on certain levels, and when I did achieve on those levels, being told I wasn't good enough. My worth, my value as a human, corresponded directly with what I produced. I never produced enough.

And emotions were non-productive.

Sadness was for the weak. Grief was for the weak. Empathy was for the weak. Only weak-minded individuals felt hurt in relationships. Friendship isn't important, friends only weigh you down and take from you. You simply keep working and producing, because working and producing are signs of strength. And being strong is the only thing that is important. Therefore, the only reason I had friends or felt any sort of emotion was because I was weak minded.

So it comes as no surprise that my mother's reaction to me being raped at 6 years old was all about her. And while most mothers react with sorrow at the news her 14 year-old daughter had been date-raped, mine announced it was time to put me on birth control. And while my friends would go to their moms for advice on marriage issues, my mother would tell me I needed to stop being depressed, get myself together, and to use sex to get what I wanted in the marriage.

There's something you need to understand here. That was my normal. As shocking and as repulsive as my mother's reactions sound, it's how I grew up. I thought that's how all mothers acted. Even though it was all my mother's lie, it was presented to me as truth, and I believed it because children are supposed to be able to trust their parents.

As is usually the case with me, I came to realize my inability to feel and discern emotions during a conversation when something unintentionally profound falls out of my mouth. I was having a discussion with some distant cousins, and I stated that I understood how a particular incident must have made them angry. My cousin corrected me, saying it wasn't anger really, more hurt or disappointed, to which I replied;

"They all look the same to me."

It's true. Everything negative looked like anger. It was the only emotion allowed in my house, and I think that is because anger comes with a degree of control. You can justify your actions in anger. You can motivate yourself with anger. And as long as you are angry, you are right, and you win.

One of the things I had to do with the rape case was go back and feel everything all over again. I had to put into words the sensations I felt, physically, so that I could paint a perfectly clear picture for court. With those physical sensations came emotions, though. Fear mostly, but also isolation. Hurt. Shame. Confusion. I was a scared six year old all over again, except this time I am able to articulate what is going on, and someone is believing me. This time, when I hear his footsteps approaching my playhouse, and when I feel the fear and panic, I have somewhere safe to run. I don't have to act simply out of anger and pretend that everything is alright. I can ask for someone to protect me.

And then the dominoes started to fall. That scared little girl grew into memories of a vocal teen. A whole new set of emotions began to emerge. Rejection. Abandonment. Humiliation. Failure. More shame. Anger. It all becomes anger, and the only place I knew to direct that anger is inward. I have come to realize that I lived many years in conflict; in between the lie I was taught and the inherent truth I knew, but didn't really know. I tried for a long time to just be strong, to simply work and produce, but really I was just angry.

And the only way to not be angry is to learn how to feel other emotions. 

About a week before the sentencing, I looked through a box of pictures for a copy of my first grade photo. I knew I had a wallet size in that box, and I wanted to enlarge it for court. I sat in the floor with the box, my husband on the couch watching as we talked, and I was surprised to find an 8x10 of the very portrait I wanted. I sobbed. I mean, I broke down into an ugly cry. If you know me, you know that is not at all typical behavior, I'm simply not a crier by nature (or perhaps nurture?). But in that moment, I was overwhelmed by emotion, unlocked by the image of the very child whose voice I was trying to carry. Everything hit me in that moment, and all my husband could do was watch.

But that moment was the beginning for me. I have since looked at how I misidentified and suppressed emotions throughout my life. I have begun to allow myself to feel sadness, or hurt. Rather than hide behind anger, I will talk about how something or someone has negatively affected me. Process it. And then put it where it belongs.

Trauma is trauma is trauma. Every trauma is going to leave scars, baggage that one will have to manage. Some people deal with the trauma on the front end, at the time of the trauma, some on the back end, years or even decades later. I was asked which way I think is better. I can't answer that, as I have no idea what it is like to deal with it on the front end. I can only assume it's healthier in the long run. But either way, it's not going away.

I've never liked the phrase "put it behind you." I don't think that is entirely accurate, because whatever scars you bear don't really go away. Instead, I think of dealing with trauma scars more like moving a house. Everything you accumulate goes into a box. Everything looks the same from the outside of the box. Everything in the box is mute, and it neither pleases nor displeases you. But it is still there, in the box in your attic. When you are ready, you go through that box and look at each item. You hold it in your hand. You see, feel, totally sense that emotional baggage you carefully wrapped and put out of sight. Then, once you have decided what it is, you assign it a value, and put it where it goes. Some items get displayed, some are given away, others get tossed. But one way or another, each and every one of us, in order to heal, will have to go through, handle, sort, and put each memory up where it belongs in order to free ourselves of them. It's not a lot of fun. Unfortunately, healing comes with a degree of pain. But on this side of it, I can say that feeling genuine, true emotions is a lot better than the way I was taught. It may have taken 47 years to learn what emotions feel like, but that's ok. I'm a better person as a result. That's redemption.

What about you? Have you had to deal with trauma on the back end as I have? What have you learned about yourself?