I am also reminded of Claudia Black's classic description of what children learn in addictive families: "Don't Talk, Don't Trust, Don't Feel". Since first writing "It Will Never Happen To Me", discussing alcoholic addiction within families, she has expanded her newest edition to include other addictive disorders within the family (including sexual), and further developed upon the various family rules and roles. While nature versus nurture can certainly be argued until the cows come home, there is a general consensus that addictive behaviours run in families. I was somewhat (but not totally) surprised to learn in my research a few weeks ago that childhood sexual abuse has also been shown to run in families. It appears the "don't talk, don't trust, don't feel" of the alcoholic family literature certainly has its place in the world of childhood sexual abuse, as well. As an adult survivor of an alcoholic and incestuous family, I would agree I was brought up with AT LEAST a double-whammy of Don't Talk, Don't Trust, Don't Feel.
So, what's with all this reminding?
Well, the frying pan of life, as my therapist would say, has just brought these two concepts back together with a resounding clash.
You see, dear friends, the inevitable has occurred: a family member discovered one of my blog posts. Not one of the (mostly same-generation, but not exclusively) family members who have already been supportive of and sympathetic to my journey. Nosireee. I mean one of the Gate-Keepers of Family Secrets.
And, as could also be easily predicted, this particular Gate-Keeper of Family Secrets is none too thrilled I left the gate open.
It began with an unexpected phone call. Jumped quickly into a monologue about how upset this person was, how unfair I was, and how I shouldn't be saying such things where other people can read them. And just as I was taking a breath to respond, the receiver on the other end was shut down and all I got was dead air.
It was the hanging up on me, hearing the click of the line going dead, that clicked everything back into place for me.
Because until I heard that click, I was fighting my way through that old "Brain Fog" that this call had triggered. The initial panic of "oh my god, I let the truth slip" that could have, several decades ago, actually brought the world crashing down around me.
There was always the face that had to go out to the public. The perfect, shining, we're-all-one-big-happy-freakin'-family face. Any crack in that would have severe consequences, many of which were in the I-don't-really-know-what-the-consequences-would-be-but-everyone-else-is-terrified-of-telling-the-truth-so-I-will-be-too variety, but many of which were also pretty concrete and real. And if you have to keep looking and acting like everything is fine-just-fine when it's really nightmarishly horrid, the cognitive dissonance is overwhelming -- hence the brain fog.
I'm still far too easily triggered in that department. Especially when in the presence (or phone line) of the Gate-Keepers.
If I have warning, I can rehearse. I can remind myself that the truth only hurts those who try to suppress it. I can remind myself that telling the truth will no longer make someone die (if it even would have then, who knows). I can remind myself that telling my story is a necessary part of the healing process, and that if the Gate-Keepers owe me ANYTHING it's a fighting chance at healing myself. I can remind myself that the Gate-Keepers will use every tool in their arsenal to fight me, but that doesn't mean I have to use their tools against myself.
Part of the brain fog is, in fact, me giving myself these reminders -- only to have the old dissociated bits of me swoop in and try their old tricks to get me to grab onto those tools; followed by more mantras and reminders about how I can now embrace all those bits of me and integrate them in, because they're a part of the truth too, yadda yadda yadda... It can be like trying to unravel an endless spiderweb, while being covered in a million spiders who are all still weaving... and then noticing you have eight legs. :-)
Part of the brain fog is also the internalization of all the Gate-Keepers' voices (probably closely related with the other dissociative tendencies, although more like super-associated field-dependent tendencies), i.e.: maybe I was remembering things wrong, maybe I was making a mountain out of a mole-hill, maybe I was just mis-interpreting... Giving everyone the benefit of the doubt except me, my own senses, memories, symptoms and aforementioned decades of therapy.
Other than the general dynamics of the brain fog, I was giving myself additional brain fog by trying to decide the best way to respond. The little-girl Me-s were all ready to tap-dance up a storm, saying "Oh I'm so sorry for letting that slip out, it must have been a crazy moment, it's not real, it's not true, I didn't really do it, that's not what I really think happened, I'll take it all back and say a thousand different wonderful things about everybody if you'll just forget this all happened and love me love me love me!" Grown up me was mad as hell that anyone would still be trying to prevent me from telling the truth, and was ready to grab a sword and go into battle. (Little me-s were kind of terrified with that concept.) The still rather neurotic side of grown-up me thought that if I could find several different ways of presenting and explaining the truth, or maybe just presenting and explaining it LOUDER, everyone would learn to accept it. Not-so-neurotic grown-up me said that was probably one of the stupidest ideas we'd ever come up with... Of course, grown up me also realized it would be a futile battle, since the Gate-Keepers of Family Secrets also tend to be Deniers-of-the-Secrets-they're-fighting-to-keep (nothing to see here, move along...), and it would probably just be yet another crazy-making activity.
So, as I was inhaling and about to offer my first "I'm sorry", still not knowing which version of me was about to win control over the remainder of the upcoming Response...
The phone line clicked.
And we all collapsed in a puddle of understanding and clarity: The Response didn't matter.
Whatever explaining, presenting or tap-dancing we did, it would never get through a dead phone line. And whether or not the Gate-Keepers have the phone to their ear or in its cradle, it's always a dead phone line.
Although, in this case, at least the person bothered to make it that obvious: It's only her thoughts and feelings that are of any importance. Mine are, apparently, not even worth sticking on the phone line to pretend to listen to.
No "hello" or "did I catch you at a bad time?" Just instantly into the Gate-Keeper's thoughts and feelings and all the reasons why I should keep my own thoughts and feelings quiet, followed by shutting down the conversation before anyone else's thoughts or feelings might enter the picture.
Had the scenario been more along the lines of "I was hurt and upset by this, what can we do to work through this?" or even "I was hurt and upset by this, what the hell do you have to say for yourself?" I would not have been left with a weekend full of triggers and nightmares and nausea and uncontrollable sobbing.
But the frying pan of life -- or the frying pan of the Gate Keepers -- has just crashed it home that I am not supposed to have thoughts or feelings of my own. I'm certainly not supposed to have thoughts or feelings that might paint the super-cheery-one-big-happy-family (or any of its members--other than myself) as even slightly dysfunctional. And put on my helmet and watch out for the frying pan if I dare think I'm going to talk about it.
I'm not supposed to have thoughts or feelings. I am the receptacle of others' thoughts and feelings. That's the rule and the role.
I don't have a story, I'm supposed to go with the official story.
Although, even in this particular Gate-Keeper's version of my story, it's a twisted-up funhouse-mirror version of my story. Remember Bush's "you're with us or you're against us"? Well, that's always held true in this family too. If you notice, let alone point out, a flaw, you're against us and hate us and are deliberately out to cause us harm. Period. Shades of grey? Uh... what's grey?
Never mind that when I *do* present something or someone in my history that has caused me harm, it's NOT a shopping list of what horrible people did to me -- I'm forever trying to make sense of it all, to see where they're coming from, to find reason, explanations. I've spent so much time bending over backwards, trying to make my abusers and their enablers into three-dimensional people instead of caricatures, searching out the paths that took them to where they were (and many still are), eschewing blame in favour of understanding and compassion.
A process they apparently can neither see, nor return to me.
As my therapist says, though, if their programming is THAT strong, some people can't make it past the filters. I could shout "I forgive you, I don't blame you, I forgive you, I don't blame you" until I'm blue in the face, and all they'd hear is I thought there was something they should be blamed for. And my throat would be sore...
How do you tell a story of survival, if you aren't allowed to mention what you survived?
I suppose I might be able to tell my story, provided it didn't involve any other characters: Once upon a time, a little girl grew up and had two abusive marriages, a string of emotional problems and spent a couple of decades in therapy because she didn't appreciate all that her shiny-happy-perfect family had given her and just wanted to make them miserable for no apparent reason. The end.
Actually, there are a number of times when that has been presented as part of the official story...
In fact, I remember another of the Gate-Keepers phoning me up to tell me what a horrible person I was when I was divorcing abusive ex-husband #2 -- he kept shouting "It's your bed, you made it, now go lie in it." (This is, apparently, supportive behaviour when someone is divorcing a man you never liked to begin with, and I was later chastised for not accepting said Gate-Keeper's loving assistance... but that's another blog altogether.) In what I still think was a pretty ballsy move, especially considering the head-space I was in at the time, I actually replied to that one -- saying something about how the bed-frame had been put together years before I was born, from the branches of a diseased family tree, and all I'd done wrong was allowed myself to be tied to the bedposts for too long, so now I wasn't going to lie in anyone's bed, I was going to invite all my friends over to my own bed to eat crackers and have bouncing pillow-fights. (It didn't go over so well, but I cannot even begin to tell you what a whoosh of relief it gave me to actually dare to talk back like that -- yes, it took me until my mid-30s, but I'd finally hit adolescence...)
Perhaps that's why this latest Gate-Keeper didn't give me a chance to reply? She knew I would?
There is a reason why sexual abuse runs in families -- and I don't think it's because there's a pedophile gene lurking somewhere in people's chromosomes. It's because of the culture within those families. A culture of secrecy, of out-of-control hierarchy, of playing whack-a-mole with anyone who pops their head up for a breath of truth, of finding new and devilishly ingenious ways of silencing those brazen enough to think they can exhale the truth. As I've said many times, I've dealt quite well with my father's sexual abuse. It's the culture of the family as a whole I'm still digging myself out from. This culture is what allowed the abuse to happen. Not just to me. This culture is what allowed the abuse to continue. This culture is what preserves itself, keeping everything ticking along safely for itself... like a bomb.
Don't Talk. Don't Trust. Don't Feel.
Don't Talk kind of feeds the others, though. Don't talk -- because you'll blow everyone's cover, because people won't be able to act out on their addictions if people are watching. Don't trust -- don't trust outsiders, only your shiny-happy-perfect family knows what's best for you, and if you let outsiders know the truth, you'll be in the wilds; don't talk within the family, because you don't really know who's on whose side, and if the victims talk to each other they might realize something's wrong and talk elsewhere too. Don't feel -- because as soon as you feel, you'll know something's wrong, and then you'll talk!
And yet, it's the talking, the telling your story, that opens you up to the world of healing -- that allows your story to help others heal along with you. THAT PUTS AN END TO THE ABUSE CYCLE. (No wonder talking is so feared...)
If I kept my mouth shut, and learned of someone in the younger generation going through what I and others of my generation have had to go through, I would never be able to forgive myself for staying silent.
If I kept my mouth shut, and went back to keeping this all inside, I would go insane. I would implode.
From "The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse":
Why Telling is Transformative
- You move through the guilt and secrecy that keeps you isolated
- You move through denial and acknowledge the truth of your abuse.
- You make it possible to get understanding and help.
- You get more in touch with your feelings.
- You get a chance to see your experience (and yourself) through the compassionate eyes of a supporter.
- You make space in relationships for the kind of intimacy that comes from honesty.
- You establish yourself as a person in the present who is dealing with the abuse in her past.
- You join a courageous community of women [and men: my addition] who are no longer willing to suffer in silence.
- You help end child sexual abuse by breaking the silence in which it thrives.
- You reclaim your voice.
- You become a model for other survivors.
- You (eventually) feel proud and strong.
Did you catch that 9th one? YOU HELP END CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE BY BREAKING THE SILENCE IN WHICH IT THRIVES. The very culture the Gate Keepers are trying to preserve.
Telling my story isn't just to make me feel better -- in fact, on weeks like this, it does anything BUT make me feel better, and even on good weeks, it can be a terrifying and humiliating process. But because I'm now in a safe place where I CAN speak my truth, I firmly believe it's my RESPONSIBILITY to speak my truth. Because it's not just mine. It's the truth of one in four girls or one in six boys (frankly, I think it's closer to 1 in 4 boys as well, but that, again, is another blog entry). And if this runs in families, then I DEFINITELY need to break the silence, and break the cycle, so my beloved niece and nephew and everyone else in the younger generation and generations to come DON'T HAVE TO. Enough is enough.
Today was therapy day (thank you, oh great spirit of therapy day timing!). When I described this past week's occurrences, my therapist did a quick double-check: You do know that you can't change your story just because she doesn't like it, right?
Yes, I know.
Yes, I needed the reminder from a professional. :-)
And yes, I had already received SO MANY reminders from my close friends and supporters and co-survivors. Thank you all, they were and are greatly appreciated, and kept me grounded and centred in the swirl of brain clouds and triggers. AM's immediate "Well the truth hurts but honesty and integrity is the only THE ONLY way to be!" helped slow the swirling. The other A's "She thinks this is about HER, doesn't she? She's wrong" gave me a good chuckle, and some sane grounding. And all the other reminders from so many men and women to be true and stay strong... well, they helped me to be true and stay strong. I have such a wonderful community, I am so grateful.
But now, my lovelies, I am at a loss. What the heck does staying strong look like in this instance? I feel like I'm missing an important tool in my tool box, and could use some suggestions on how to go forward.
Conversation doesn't seem possible with someone who hangs up on you before you can speak. And while SF's "She needs to hear it to heal herself" is a valid point, I don't think she's particularly interested in healing, considering how much she's fighting the idea that there's even something to heal FROM (from which to heal... yeah, I know, but the capitalization looks better that way and I'm a visual person, so tthhhphphww). Attempting to explain myself seems to be yet another exercise in futility and talking to a dead phone line. I feel, in many ways, that I should just leave it alone and not say anything, because it's just going to make things worse.
Of course, I resist the "not saying anything" part, since that's kind of like giving in to the Gate-Keepers all over again. Which is how this whole mess got started.
It's a different kind of silence, though... I guess. I'm not allowing them to shut down my truth. I'm just not expecting them to listen.
Hmmm... maybe I already answered my own question in the first paragraph, and should simply click my ruby slippers together, because I just took a long and winding journey to find the answers I had all along? :-)
OK, I'm laughing at myself now. Laughter is good.
So... I'll save myself the energy of the fight, and leave my sword and shield in the cabinet. I won't change my story just because the Gate-Keepers don't like it. I won't expect them to listen or believe or even give a crap (wouldn't THAT be the day!). I'll just keep it safe and warm and alive. And keep Me safe and warm and alive.
And the war will carry on
Between the Sword and the Wand
For riches already gained
All advance, no retreat
Peel away the conceit
Until only the Truth remains
Ah yes, Alyssa, stop blethering on and just listen to your songs. You'd save yourself a whole lot of trouble if you just listened to yourself instead of waiting for others to do so... :-)
But thank you, as always, to you who do listen, and share your own stories. (Yes, I do realize that MY programming has just had me focusing on the minority who insist on silence, rather than sinking myself into the majority with beautiful stories to share. I'm working on it, promise!) I couldn't do it without you.
In love and gratitude and hopefully a lot less vomiting,