The first thing you need to do to heal from trauma is to establish safety in the present by creating good, healthy boundaries. Throughout my childhood I felt extremely confused about boundaries because of my history of sexual abuse. Hugs with male relatives made me uncomfortable, but it was clear that they were mandatory. Sometimes my paternal grandpa or creepy uncle (both abused my Dad) would hug me for a bit too long and I felt like I did when my brother abused me: I simply had no choice. Good girls don’t make waves or offend their elders. I didn’t understand the difference between a kiss you would give your parents and a romantic kiss. It was all incredibly confusing and alienating.
The adults around me set the tone and I had no power. If I reacted in a way that displayed how I really felt, then I would be the one causing trouble and that wasn’t my role. I had no idea who I was if I was not that person. Properly playing that role felt like a life or death situation in my chaotic, pain-filled home. If I couldn’t keep it up, I pictured my whole world exploding and everyone I loved dying because of me.
I’m almost 38 years old. Over the previous year and a half I’ve gradually opened up the past. It’s been extremely hard and it got a lot worse before it started to get better. My memories have become more detailed as I have worked through my trauma using the various types of therapy in my regimen (medication, EMDR, DBT, talk therapy, mindful self-compassion, yoga, meditation, mindfulness-based stress reduction, acupuncture, writing, etc.)
I remember the day, almost a year ago, that I finally admitted to myself that my brother (someone who I was convinced loved me and was supposed to protect me) hurt me on purpose, for his own gain and need to feel powerful. Up until then, it was like my brain couldn’t accept that my brother could do that.
The delusional image of a normal family that my brain had created to get me through my childhood finally shattered and everything in me rebelled. I ran to the toilet, threw up, and started to sob and shake. It was violent and felt bloody, like something was ripping me open and pulling out that box I’d stashed everything in when I was a kid. I felt like I wouldn’t survive this new place where denial could no longer protect me. I couldn’t be around my brother at all, and because he lives next to my parent’s home, I couldn’t go there, either. Eventually, I realized I needed a break from my Dad also; he is still so damaged and has done almost nothing to heal, drinking away the pain day after day.
As I continued therapy, the picture of my true family emerged. I’ve never felt as sad and lonely as when I could finally see how broken and dysfunctional we are. I knew I couldn’t be around them if I was going to heal myself.
That year I worked for a retail company steeped in holiday madness and my friendly and well-meaning coworkers were constantly asking about my family. The holidays feel like a time when everyone gets to ask intrusive questions about your personal life that they’d otherwise avoid at any other time of the year. I felt lost, confused and lonely. Each time I evaded answering I felt worse because it made me feel so alone. I did not have a happy family and was not going to have a happy holiday.
It was the first time I felt the courage to withdraw from holiday functions with relatives. Because obligation and guilt are extremely strong in my family, everyone asked my parents where I was. My Mom was sad that the family she’d tried to create to replace her own troubled childhood home was now also broken. It wasn’t until early Spring the following year that I realized I’d been mourning the loss of the family I’d created in my head to survive childhood. I felt like everyone I loved had all died at the same time.
During that time I would go to work and experience flashbacks and near-constant panic attacks while I reprocessed the trauma. I loved my job, tried my best to power through, but I was so exhausted that once I came home I could barely get off the recliner. Despite how tired I was, I couldn’t sleep and remained trapped in a cycle of almost constant fear (hyperarousal/hypervigilance). More often than not I would stay up so late I couldn’t keep my eyes open, only to fall asleep and experience nightmares and panic attacks.
I felt nauseous every morning—chest so tight I could barely breathe. I experienced IBS, stomachaches, neck pain and headaches most days, as well as regular migraines (all very common somatic symptoms for childhood trauma survivors and other folks with PTSD). My iron levels were low because my stomach was raw and bleeding from taking too much ibuprofen for the chronic pain. I was not really living.
Now, five months later and still mourning the loss of the family I’d created in my head, I’ve also accepted there’s nothing I can do to change what happened. I still experience flashbacks and difficulty sleeping, but not as often. I’ve reached a point where I may have a small handful of panic attacks most days and I’m starting to make progress on my other physical symptoms. I’m not ready to go back to work yet, but know I have made huge strides.
A few weeks ago my Mom explained, ”your brother is really a good person now. He’s changed.” She probably believes she’s helping me by saying this, but in reality it’s her way of clinging to the hope that our family will all be together and happy at some point in the future. I don’t see that happening. One day I may forgive my brother for what he did to me, but I may never feel comfortable spending time with him. I don’t know if I will ever feel emotionally safe around my Dad if he remains in denial.
Last week, I told my therapist that I felt I might need some time away from my Mom, and it made me feel terrible. My Mom and I have been extremely close for most of my life and she has visited me every Saturday for the past several years. She’s really stepped up to be there for me as I slog through this mess. Sometimes out of the blue, though, she says things that just devastate me. I don’t feel like we can resolve this right now because neither of us knows when it’s going to happen. Even though I know she wants me to heal and doesn’t mean to hurt me, I don’t feel emotionally safe around her because she hasn’t yet healed from her own childhood trauma and negative patterns. When stressed, her old patterns tend to re-emerge (as do my own).
My therapist has explained that my brother did these things for years to establish power and control. “This is not a good guy,” She said. While neither of us blame my mom, her words were still manipulative and guilt-inducing. I realized she was not trying to help me feel better. Instead, whether consciously or not, she was trying to remove the discomfort that she was feeling because I have put up boundaries to protect myself from more damage.
My boundaries are threatening to my Mom’s sense of well-being because she wants her family to be whole. I understand and empathize with that need—everyone wants that. But if I spend time with any of them, I always place my needs far down on the list, capitulating to make others feel better.
Recently, two of my uncles succumbed to completely different illnesses within three days of each other. I did not go visit when one was in hospice and I did not attend either funeral. Mom told everyone I was sick. It felt to me like if I didn’t assume my usual roles as mediator, comforter and buffer then my parents might not make it through this very painful time. My brain goes from zero to EVERYBODY WILL DIE! in a split-second. The first time I wrote this out I reread it and burst out laughing at the absurdity of it: my parents are adults. They will not shrivel and eventually commit suicide because I did not go to a funeral and even if they did, it certainly would not be MY fault because I was taking care of myself. Somebody please tell that to my amygdala.
When my therapist said these things to me it was like a switch was flipped. Suddenly, I felt like I was allowed to feel my anger without also feeling sorry for my brother and my parents and their terrible lots in life. I no longer believe that any terrible things that could happen to them if I tell my story would be my fault. I don’t buy it anymore. I am not responsible for any of this. I was FIVE when my brother raped me. I am allowed to tell my story, regardless of the consequences. Protecting them has nearly killed me and I’m over it. They are all grown-ass people who can now, finally, accept the consequences for their own actions. For far too long, I have helped hold those consequences at bay.