Not everyone that appeared on my original list has been open to appearing in my blog. One person overcame tremendous odds. She was willing to share her story with me under the condition of anonymity – she didn’t want to bring any shame upon her family. Many who read this have amazing powers of deduction and could likely back into her identity. If you do, please don’t announce publicly. Let’s respect her wishes and journey. She isn’t in the picture above – I’ve included it to mean that she was one of us and many of us. Below is a carefully redacted speech she made after being named a Shero, an award for heroic women. I am so proud to call this woman a classmate!
I want to thank all involved in creating this program, for the opportunity to be here today to share my story with you, as well as for the honor of being nominated as a Shero. I must admit that it is a bit intimidating to address a room filled with teachers. I’ve agonized over the many possible grammatical errors that could be noted!
Did you know that in 2001, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported 1,802,000 substantiated cases of child abuse? This abuse includes an increase of 2.3% in physical abuse, 7.1% in neglect, 1.2% in child sexual abuse, and 4.1% in psychological abuse over the rates of abuse in 2000.
During 2001, 31,051 children were removed from their homes nationwide, as a result of substantiated cases of abuse, only to be returned to the very homes they were removed from and re-victimized within that same year. Even more alarming is that 1,300 child fatalities were reported in 2001 as a result of child abuse.
It never ceases to amaze me that a country with the ability to develop the technology to drop an atomic bomb on the country of Japan to end the war in the pacific in 1945….the same country that was able to develop the technology to allow Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon in 1969…didn’t have the forethought to enact laws to protect children until the late 1970s. It wasn’t until the mid to late 1980’s and, even until the 1990s in some states, that the legislation was actually enforced!! And, even in 2005, we fall overwhelming short of the mark when it comes to actively enforcing the child protection laws and funding the appropriate programs to protect our most valuable resource…our children. It’s ironic that we now have a government agency called “Homeland Security” when we can’t even protect the children in our homeland. Abuse rates are rising, not falling.
A researcher named Wilkes published a paper in 2002 in which she said “Child abuse, not school violence, is the true epidemic of violence in American Society.” Even in the wake of the terrible tragedy in Minnesota this week, I believe she is correct.
I am here today because I am one of those children for whom there were no laws to protect. Along with my siblings, I endured a considerable amount of abuse. Unreasonable perfection was expected of each of us. This perfection included perfectly made beds, perfectly kept rooms, and absolute perfection on any academic measures. A score of 97 on a spelling test was enough to seriously put one or all of our lives in danger or to result in being tortured with our worst fear, which for me was being zipped up in a sleeping bag filled with garden snakes.
I have been asked if there was someone along the way who helped me.
I wish I could say that I had a teacher, like a dear friend of mine, who has taught early childhood education in a local school district for the last 8 years. A teacher who is acutely aware of, and concerned about the total well-being of the students in her class. A teacher who would have been willing to stand up to any authority to be sure that I was safe. But, I didn’t…I was a weird and unattractive child who sat quietly and never interacted. I did all of my work well and never caused trouble. None of my teachers ever indicated to me that they noticed the marks I came to school with, although I don’t see how they could have missed them…never noticed that I was so frightened of the thought of having to bring homework home to do, which would suggest to my dad that I was goofing off, that I would beg to skip lunch or recess just to finish all of my class work. They certainly never took any measure to intervene on my behalf. I felt pretty much invisible to them.
I wish I could say that I had an aunt, like another friend of mine, who would have called the police to immediately come to my house had she heard the screaming in the background when she called to talk. An aunt who would have risked her relationship with her own sister in order to do what she knew was right. But….I didn’t….all of my extended relatives pretended they didn’t notice. Even if they had called the police, since there were no laws to protect children, and we lived out of the country, there is probably little that could have been done. But knowing that they tried would have made a huge difference in my life.
I wish I could say that there was someone in my church, like a woman I know well from my current church, who alerted appropriate authorities when she noticed inappropriate activity pertaining to children in a family in a church in which she was just a visitor! But….I didn’t…instead, I watched every Saturday evening as my dad went to confession and was absolved of all of his sins for the week. The parish priest used the sanctity of the confessional to justify his refusal to act to protect my siblings and me. I sat in church every Sunday, and just like at school, I was again invisible.
I wish I could say that I had a mother, like my current mom mentor, who would have read to me and played games with me…a mother who would have gone to every possible effort to structure my world in such a way as to give me every opportunity for success and happiness…a mother who would have taught me about Jesus. But, I didn’t…. I had a mother who stood by silently and watched the abuse happen. She didn’t participate, but she didn’t stop it either…a mother who became angry at me when I was the target of abuse, as if it were my fault for being so bad, instead of directing her anger at the abuser. Instead of teaching me about Jesus, I had a mother who taught me about shame and guilt and fear.
You know, in my very early adult years, I came to view my mom as a victim herself. A part of me found it easier to accept her failure to protect us if I saw her also as a victim. I felt like I had made some sense of peace with that. Then, a funny thing happened. On Mother’s Day in early 2000, my son was born. The very minute I saw him, I knew that I would give my life to protect his. Suddenly, I was a mother, and I no longer understood how my mother could not have protected her children.
Although there were no people in my life that actively helped, I did have three very important things: God, imagination, and soccer.
Let me start with God…. When my mother died, I discovered, in one of her drawers, an old letter from my grandfather addressed to me. It was a very sweet letter. The final message in the letter was “I pray for your safety and your spirit daily. I have many masses said specifically for you. Hold tight to your faith and you will always go the right direction.” It was at that moment that I realized that it was my grandfather’s prayers that intervened in 1994 when I was crying uncontrollably believing that God could never accept me and led me to look across the room to where my college roommate’s Bible sat on her nightstand. It was his voice that said “if that is true, your name will be in the book…read it and see what you find.” I fully expected to find my name on a list somewhere in that book. From a Thursday night to late Monday morning, I read cover to cover nonstop. It was his prayers that led me to John 3:16 “for God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It was his prayers that led me to the conclusion that since I am a “whosoever,” then I count too!! And, just in case you are wondering, my name is not included in the Bible.
I believe it was my grandfather’s prayers that put the next two things in my life…two things that were vital to my surviving my childhood to become one of the 22.1% of abused children who can be called “resilient.” It was my grandfather’s prayers that led me to a life grounded in my faith in God. A life that includes my incredible husband and my two beautiful children, my adoptive parents and adoptive younger brothers, extended family and friends, and all of the amazing opportunities for fun and for service that have been placed in my life.
The second thing I had was imagination. Even before I could read, I would stare at the pictures in the few storybooks I had. My siblings would bring them to me, and I would guard them carefully. I spent many, many hours in various hiding places throughout the house just staring at the pictures. I began to imagine that I was a princess from a far away country that had been destroyed by bad guys. I pretended that I was hidden with this bad family and that one day I would rejoin my real family who loved me. I had one prize possession, which was a crystal necklace that belonged to my grandmother. This is that necklace. I pretended it was my princess necklace. Little did I know that I would one day realize that I am in fact a princess…I am God’s princess, and I belong to His royal family.
Once I could read, I spent countless recess and lunch periods in the library lost in stories about other places and other people. It was in those books that I realized that my family was not the norm. It was also because of my love for reading that I believed I could escape and create a life of my own free from all of the ugliness in which I grew up. I also firmly believe that my love for reading helped my brain rewire itself when I sustained an injury to my left temporal lobe at age 7, resulting in damage to my expressive speech. The verbal part of my brain was so strong, that it has allowed me to compensate for constructional injuries that I have to my right anterior parietal lobe. I tell my left from my right by which hand has my wedding ring.
And, just ask my husband, I have absolutely no ability to accurately navigate directions using a map. Please, please, just print the written driving directions for me from yahoo!!!!!
Last but not least, I had soccer. I began playing soccer as a 4 year- old child. Soccer served a number of valuable purposes in my life. The first was that it helped my body to be physically strong, which I believe helped me sustain the extreme stress I endured. Secondly, it was the first place where I learned to channel all of my anger and negative energy into something positive. It was a release for me, and it taught me that I could do something good with all of the pain I held within. Finally, unlike the chaos in my family, on the soccer field there were rules that were always followed and the same consequences for violating those rules were always applied equally across players and teams. As a soccer player I learned to work with other people toward a single goal. I learned to trust that my teammates would be in their correct position to receive a pass from me, and I learned to be dependably in my position should the ball come my direction. The soccer field was the only “safe” place in my life. School was not safe. Church was not safe. Home was the least safe place of all. The soccer field was the only place I was able to let down my guard. It was the only place I did not feel threatened or frightened. Everyone’s hair was in a ponytail, everyone wore the same clothes, and bruises were a badge of honor rather than something that made you look weird and ugly.
One day last Spring, a flyer came in the mail advertising registration for youth soccer in my community. I noticed that children could begin playing soccer at age 3. My son would be 3 before the registration deadline so he could begin playing that summer! I was so excited!!! He was happy to play, but he just isn’t the least bit aggressive.
I soon realized that I had done a very good job of teaching him that sharing and taking turns was very important. I would tell him to go after the ball and his response would be “but mom, it’s not my turn!” Three solid years of consistent parenting just went right out the window!
Whenever another child would fall down, my son would stop, run back, and make sure they were OK. He was particularly interested in spending most of the game holding hands with a pretty little girl! I admit I was a little bit disappointed that it wasn’t looking like he would turn out to be the avid soccer player I was, but I realized that my son didn’t need soccer to learn that the world is a safe place. He has my husband and me and the many other people who love him to teach him about that. Most importantly, my son has Jesus as a model. Besides, my daughter, who was then 15 months old, had no problem slide tackling the other children and snatching the ball!!
I am very pleased to say that I am living proof that contradicts the preponderance of evidence suggesting that children with traumatic childhoods cannot go on to have normal, happy lives. I have been happily married to my husband for five years. He is my best friend. He loves me despite all of my quirks, which admittedly, are many! I have two beautiful children that I absolutely adore. They are both smart, sweet, and absolutely precious. While my daughter failure to learn a healthy sense of her own mortality leaves my husband and I with many new gray hairs daily, I delight in watching her because she really is me without the horrors of childhood abuse.
Contrary to the literature, even without an appropriate mother model as a child, I have become a good mom. I shower my children with love and hugs and kisses every day. I read to my children. I play with my children. I listen to my children, and I respond to their needs. And, no mother grizzly bear could hold a candle to the fierceness with which I protect them!
As for my career, well, I think I’ve done pretty well. It’s taken me a bit longer than some people, but I’m getting there. I’ve found that the pain I’ve endured during my life is a perfect channel to express genuine empathy for women at the end of their lives. I’ve also found that I have the opportunity to offer them hope beyond breathing at the end of the day. I am able to tell them a story that culminates in eternal life with Jesus.
My friends often comment on how they are so amazed that I handle so many responsibilities and activities with relative ease. I work at my clinical placement, sometimes upwards of 40 hours per week, am always prepared for classes, keep up with friends, participate in church and volunteer activities, take care of my house, AND, actually participate in the my marriage and in the lives of my children! I generally just smile and shrug it off because what they don’t understand is that my ability to manage so much comes at a huge price. I lived the first 21 years of my life in a state of absolute fear. My “fight or flight” response was always activated. I have an incredibly high stress and pain tolerance. When you think about it, managing all of the great things in my life, in addition to the bumps in the road from time to time, really isn’t that big of a deal. This level of stress tolerance is an attribute I pray my friends will never have to acquire.
I think that it is important for me to be sure that you understand that even though I have overcome tremendous barriers, I am not without scars. There are physical scars that will always be on my body, and there are psychological scars that will always be with me. I still sometimes have horrible nightmares. I continue to have an incredibly strong autonomic fear response when I do something less than absolutely perfect. From time to time, there are smells, sounds, and specific places that cause me great distress.
I will always have trouble with word finding because of the damage to my left temporal lobe, and I will always have trouble with reading maps and doing math because of the damage to my right anterior parietal lobe.
The road to where I am now has been long, bumpy, and very twisty. It wasn’t easy and there were many road blocks along the way, but I made up my mind, a conscious choice, that I would not allow my past to destroy my future. What I’ve learned over the years is that the bad things in my past have much more power over me if I attempt to avoid them than they do if I face them. For example, I am still quite concerned about sharing my story publicly. This is the first time, outside of church, that I’ve shared it. ☺
Instead of separating my life into two sections- then and now- I have integrated them and by doing so have gained a tremendous amount of insight into the reasons I react the way I do to things and to the emotions I feel in specific situations. All of these things have shaped the person I am today. A person of whom I am quite proud.
My greatest challenge is forgiveness. The very foundation of my faith is challenged on this one. I believe that no sin is greater than any other sin in the eyes of God. It all separates us from Him. If I believe that the death and resurrection we celebrate this Easter weekend was sufficient to wipe my slate clean, then I have to believe that it is sufficient for my father if he chose to seek it. It doesn’t seem at all fair to me. But then, God’s grace and mercy are exactly what we get when we don’t deserve it. However, this, too, is a challenge I can overcome because “I can do all things, through Christ, who strengthens me.”