When I was just a little girl, I was molested by several individuals who knew it was wrong. Judging from my own experience, I believe that the brain of a child is simply not wired to process sexual abuse perpetrated by people who SHOULD BE trustworthy. It has a profound and damaging effect on the mind of the child. It affected me deeply, and it a has taken a very long time to put the puzzle pieces together.
As an adolescent, I was afraid of everything, but thought it was normal. I was especially terrified of the dark but thought that everybody was. On one occasion at Church Camp in Debert, I had to stay in a cabin alone for the whole night. I begged every person I knew to stay with me, but no one was available. Of course, they had no understanding of how desperate I really felt. All night long I expected a stranger to burst through the door at any time and assault me.
Camp had a strict “lights out” rule. I couldn’t cope with the dark, so I plugged in a makeup mirror that had a light and hid it under the blankets. I stayed awake and cried all night long pleading with God to protect me. Once daylight came, I fell into a beautiful sleep. The terrors of the dark had ended. No one had harmed me in any way.
In addition to being afraid, I was hypersensitive to criticism and obsessed with perfectionism. This, too, was fallout from abuse. I simply had to be the best at everything I attempted. That, of course, is irrational. Nobody can be the best at everything all the time.
For example, I had completed the Drivers’ Ed. Program and it was time to take my road test. I made many mistakes and failed the test. I wasn’t accustomed to failing at anything. I reacted as if my whole family had been savagely murdered. Distraught, I couldn’t bear to return to school for the rest of the day, so I decided to go to the church where I fell to my knees and begged God to intervene and to miraculously change the examiner’s fail to a pass. That didn’t happen. After a couple of hours, I had to go back to school to catch the school bus home. I’m sure my swollen eyes and tear-stained face from several were noticeable. Did everyone who failed the test respond as I did? Absolutely not. Had anyone been paying attention, they would have questioned my extreme reaction to failure. Instead, I was admired by family, friends, and teachers for my commitment to education. Fear of failure and perfectionism were pieces of my future mental health puzzle.
Researchers have found a strong link exists between sexual trauma, eating disorders, and control issues. This was certainly true in my life. During my Grade 12 year, I decided to lose a few pounds. The desire to lose ten pounds got out of control very quickly. Soon I was aiming for twenty pounds and then thirty pounds.
I kept eating less and less, limiting myself to six hundred calories per day. A typical school lunch consisted of one small tea biscuit and a small amount of cottage cheese sprinkled with cinnamon. I lost a large amount of weight in a short period of time. Much to my surprise, I gained celebrity status. Both students and teachers praised my success.
Then something triggered a switch in my thinking. I really missed eating, but I didn’t want to gain any weight. My broken mind suggested that I chew the food to savour the taste and simply spit it out. This evolved into a crazy cycle of eating, swallowing and throwing up. I managed to keep this hidden from my family and friends.
By the end of the school year, I was very thin. At my graduation, I stood on the stage and gave my valedictorian address. I had so many academic successes to celebrate including the top marks in most subjects. On top of that, I was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Medal and the Birks’ Gold Medal for academic excellence. My classmates clapped and cheered loudly as I walked across the stage with a phony smile pasted on my face. I felt utterly dead on the inside.
The abuse ended decades ago, but it left a permanent scar on my brain. As a young adult, I totally forgot about it, which is not at all unusual. However, it left the monster depression and its evil sister anxiety in its wake. It took years to connect the two. I limped along trying to live a productive life, not realizing its full impact.
Many years later, my life fell completely apart. I had a total collapse. I felt as if I were sitting on the floor of a very deep swimming pool and there was nothing but dark water above me. I had no way to get back to the surface. I have always been married to an extremely supportive man and the mother of two beautiful, intelligent children. I was teaching grade four, my absolute favourite. We lived in a beautiful home. By the world’s standards, I should have been a very happy woman, but happiness was always beyond my grasp. Putting one foot ahead of the other seemed a gargantuan task. When I left my classroom for the last time, I was so broken that I nearly had to crawl out on my hands and knees. That permanently ended my teaching career.
I asked to be admitted to the psychiatric unit of Peterborough Regional Health Centre. All the painful, repressed memories of my childhood tumbled out and I cried for days on end. Eventually, I found a psychiatrist who listened and understood. He had worked with dozens of women in my situation. I told him my sad story over and over and over. In fact, we talked about it for at least three years.
Now here is where the insidiousness of childhood sexual abuse comes into play. Insidious means “proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects.” Intellectually, I knew what happened was NOT my fault. I knew I did NOTHING to deserve it. I knew I was totally INNOCENT. But even with that knowledge, it had broken my brain. I was mentally ill and, in my situation, talk therapy alone was not enough.
Drug therapy was the next step. For those of you who have suffered from any mental illness requiring medication, you know it can be a long process. Anti-depressants do not work like antibiotics. After a couple of days of Amoxicillin, a sore throat begins to heal rapidly and it works every time.
Not so, with anti-depressants. It can take up to eight weeks to determine if the drug is working or if the side effects of the drug make you feel even worse. Eventually, through the collaborative efforts of all the doctors who worked with me, a successful drug combination was found. Thankfully I have lived with peace of mind for the past fifteen years.
What about the people who stole my innocence and messed up my life? Most of them are dead and I am still here and quite happy, thank you very much. I still feel sad that my husband and children had to live through this turbulence with me. I tried to stress that it was not their fault. I encourage them to talk about that very confusing time.
I am a woman of faith and have been for more than forty years. I have found that organized religion tends to be very skeptical of psychiatry. Words like brainwashing, false memories, propaganda and evil get tossed around. I was once told that in order to have complete emotional healing, it was as simple as telling God and one other person. It certainly did not work for me. You can tell every person on the planet but I don’t feel it will help unless the “other person” is a highly skilled mental health professional.
Where was God when all of this pain and suffering was taking place? Why didn’t he send ten thousand angels to rescue me? I choose to believe that giant, salty tears splashed down his cheeks. That was not the way it was supposed to be. He had not created robots. Each of us makes our own choices, whether good or bad, and must live with the consequences. I am not grateful that this happened to me, but I do believe that God gave me a beautiful gift in spite of it.
My daughter was excited to be in my class the year I had to leave teaching. Both of us were heartbroken and lay on the floor of our family room crying together. I couldn’t be her Grade 4 teacher, but little did we know that was not the end. You see, I got to be her teacher in a better time and place.
About eight years ago, she came to work in the office of the funeral home with me. I got to teach her the skills necessary to run an office successfully. I promised I would never leave her alone until she felt confident to handle all the tasks on her own. She was a fast learner (a chip off the old block as they say.) It wasn’t long until she could outperform me at many tasks. She got to be in my CLASS/office for several years, but even that wasn’t the best part. The best part was that SHE WAS THE ONLY STUDENT IN MY CLASS and to this day, I openly and genuinely thank God for this immeasurable gift.
And now it is 2015. I am retired and both of my children and their families live nearby. I can enjoy them every day. They are the parents of my supercalifragilisticexpialidocious grandchildren. For me, there is nothing like the smiles and belly laughter of babies. Nothing comes close to the bear hug of a three and a half-year-old saying, “Nanny, I love you so much!” Can it get any better than that? I love my life and wouldn’t trade it for the world.