This article specifically discusses childhood sexual trauma.
Survivors of childhood abuse and trauma are often conflicted about family life. It is after all difficult to understand what a real family is like if you have never experienced it from within. It is also a huge commitment to become intimately involved with another human being and an even bigger responsibility to have children. You must be very sure about who you are as a person and have a solid relationship to build a foundation for a family. Intimacy and trust can be just too much for someone who has been deeply hurt by abuse. Some survivors decide that in no way, shape or form are they ever going to trust another human being again. Others may be more open to having a family someday but don’t know how to get there. There is no right or wrong answer to this. Some people want to have a family, and some don’t or can’t for whatever reason. Whatever you choose, is the right path for you.
What were your thoughts on family life when you were growing up? Did you change that view of having a family as you grew into adulthood? Perhaps you changed your mind multiple times? What are your thoughts now?
Perception of adults
I survived sexual abuse throughout my childhood by my so-called father and his friends. My view of the opposite sex was that they were all abusers and dangerous which was mostly true in my world. I had never known anything else. I just assumed all men abused kids. I also thought all grownups were “bad” and so my view of women was also tarnished by abuse. In my youngest years, I had seen women do “weird things” with men in the sex factory I was forced into. I had to do the same “weird things” as them and they never said no. In fact, they seemed to want to be there. My view of the world was that I was the one who was “sick” because I didn’t want to do “those same things” as the other adults did. I was difficult and resisted “the snakes” and I screamed when they attacked me which made the men have to restrain and gag me. My view of adults was “rock bottom”. I had no confidence in any of them to get me away from my “nightmare” and I was right at that time. No one helped me, not even my mother, my teachers, my doctors, or the school nurses. Yet they all knew and let the nightmare carry on. I had acted out the abuse in front of them all repeatedly. I had bruises from fingertips all over my body from being restrained. Adults in my world had failed me in the most fundamental way by ignoring my pleas for help and noticing me.
What was your perception of the adults around you when you were a kid? Were you exposed to constant abusive behavior as I endured, or did you have good experiences too? Most kids have at least one person they can talk to that they trust. Who was your person growing up? I didn’t have anyone and so I talked to my teddy bear.
The importance of experiencing good role models
In a normal household, adults provide love and support for their kids throughout their childhood. They are the first role models giving their kids every opportunity to succeed and model normal behavior. Kids most often want to be like their parents when they are growing up. Then it all changes when puberty hits and you discover that you are who you are and not your parents. You want to be yourself and have your own identity.
As an abused kid, I was growing up scared and hurt most of the time. My parents did not keep me safe and gave me what I needed to grow strong and healthy. They did not provide me with a “good” role model that I wanted to copy when I grew up. I was malnourished and fighting to survive each day by avoiding the adults around me. I was planning my escape for years before I could leave home. I dreamed about a world without hurt and pain. A world far away. I daydreamed about it as I overheard my friends talk lovingly about their parents. How could they talk like that about adults? I couldn’t understand it.
My view of the world got more comprehensive as I started school and I realized that my family was not normal. It made me feel even more confused as everything I had ever known was now not true. The outside world appeared to be better and I found that very difficult to comprehend. I started to try and believe that not all adults were abusers after listening to my friends. I gathered “snippets”, and small “fractions” of normal adult behavior from my friends’ stories about their parents. When I went to my friend’s houses to play, their parents were in the house. At first, it made me nervous and scared to have them around when I was trying to play. I couldn’t relax and I was acutely aware of their presence but my friends never thought it odd. They liked having their parents nearby. The parents were just busy doing adult stuff like the laundry, cooking, and cleaning.
One of the moms always baked freshly made cookies when I was there, and she made us cookies and milk. It was heaven! I had never tasted anything like that. A mom who could bake! That same mom always cooked homemade dinners, not reheated food from a can. Homemade food tasted so much better. I tasted homemade pot roast. It was nothing like canned food. Another mom took me and my best friend to gymnastics and she always made sure we both had our seatbelts securely fastened before she started the car. She hugged both of us before she let us go through the doors locking eyes with our gym teacher. It was those little things that made all the difference to me. Not all moms were indifferent. My friend’s moms’ actually cared and most importantly, they talked to us. They wanted to hear about what we played and about school. Mother didn’t want to talk to me.
I also got a similar fraction of dad role models in a loving family. One of my friends had a baby brother. Her mom carried him in a sling and when her dad came home after work, he took his son out of the sling and swung him around the kitchen. The boy was giggling like mad and his dad was laughing a deep belly laugh making the whole room burst out in happiness. It was infectious and I laughed too. He then wrapped his arms around his wife and gave her a big sloppy kiss in front of us! He made her giggle and she shooed him away with laughter. The dad then came for my friend and swung her around the room and then he swung me – me! He made me giggle so much I almost peed my pants! That was a nice family home. It was so warm and full of love and I was showered with that same love as well when I was there. It felt weird… but nice. It surprised me and it felt good.
Another one of my friends had a summer house out of the city in the countryside near a beautiful lake. My friend had a disease that made her legs weak and one day she would end up in a wheelchair. Her parents doted on her so much and wanted her to have the best memories of her childhood. Her dad often took time off work to be with his family and as I was a close friend, I was always invited to trips out and to their summer house. Her mom and dad both joined us when we went swimming and I started to relax in their company. One year we went to pick corn in the biggest field of towering yellow “trees” that I had ever seen. Her dad showed us how to pick them. He talked to us in such a normal gentle way and never raised his voice. We then got to eat the corn together at the same table. Her mom and dad and the two of us. I felt as if I was a part of their family. Her dad had a black beard. He was showing us how to spread the butter over the corn and how to hold onto it between our hands, as we ate it. He took a first mouthful of corn, moaning to himself exclaiming” mmm, so good” as the butter dripped into his beard. Her mom burst out laughing with my friend over the beard. It looked funny with the yellow butter dripping as he chewed. He realized and then the whole family erupted in laughter over it. It was such a simple gesture and he never got angry. My so-called dad would never have done that. He would have lost his temper and hit me if I ever laughed at him.
Having good role models growing up is vital for a kid. I was lucky to have such a lot of friends and to have those experiences at their houses. Without those “snippets” of normal family life, I would have been lost in a dark and evil world. If you never get to experience love and laughter over silly things then how can you know what it feels like? How can you become a loving parent yourself if you never had that in your life? The more I saw my friends’ worlds, the more I wanted that for myself. I was determined to choose that life. It became my refuge and I sought my friends’ help to hide away as much as I possibly could. Mother was happy for me to go out so she could have her “peace” from me. My so-called dad couldn’t hurt me if I was not home so it became my escape to make friends that I could go to and hide out.
It takes a village…
There is an old saying that “it takes a village to raise a child”. In my case this was definitely true. Without my “village” of friends and their families, I would have been insular and even more hurt. I feel very lucky to have had as many friends that I did. In the 80’s, it was common for kids to go to each other’s houses. All kids did and so I was just the same as everyone else, except not many kids, came to my house. I had to make excuses as to why it was never a good time for my friends to see my room. At my so-called dad’s place, I did not have a room. I had to sleep with him every night in his bed and I had no toys to play with. I had my own little corner in my mother’s house but not my own bedroom. It was awkward to have friends over.
I slowly built a picture of a world without pain and abusive adults. A safe world full of love and support and laughter. I wanted that world really bad. I drew and wrote comics and stories about it. As I grew older, one of my favourite past times was to sit and watch people in the park or on the beach, armed with a pen and a pad to write on. I was like a detective trying to decipher what a happy life was like. My detective skills paid off because the more I studied people, the more I got convinced that my family was not normal.
At college, everyone tests boundaries. What can you get away with and how bad can you get before someone stops you? Which bar would look the other way on fake ID’s? How drunk can I get before I pass out? We have all tested the boundaries in some way. I was no angel but because of my background, I had a lot more to lose if I got into trouble. Going back to my parents was simply not an option. So I stayed out of the things I didn’t like and I was happier for it. I preferred to watch people from the side-lines instead of joining in. I made sure I was never alone but with a group of friends. That way, no one could single me out or make up fake stories about me. I had learned that the best way to get along with people is by joining in but not doing anything I was not comfortable with. I learned a lot from watching people at college and there was a lot of heartache around me.
Intimacy – letting people in
College is also a time when people experiment not just with behavior but with relationships and in particular, intimacy. It takes a lot for a person to trust another with intimate conversations, but it is a whole different ball game to trust someone with their body. Some survivors of abuse will never let anyone near and flinch when someone touches them even by accident. Even the lightest touch can be difficult to bear for this survivor. Other survivors learn to tolerate touch but take a long time to build up into an intimate relationship. These are the survivors that have the deepest hurt from abuse and those who have suffered from sexual abuse. Touch is very emotive and certain touches that lead to intimacy and pleasure can also just as easily lead a survivor into being triggered back to the abuse from their childhood. Intimacy can be very difficult for a survivor. There is also the survivor who is so hurt from the trauma that all feelings have been switched off. These individuals have no problems with intimacy. Instead they seek it, they crave it all the time and carrying on the abuse on themselves without even knowing what they are doing to their own bodies.
When a survivor of sexual abuse has had enough distance from the past and is ready for intimacy, it is still really tough. You have to find the right person to want to have a relationship with and there has to be trust and love for it to work. Their chosen partner will have to have patience and understanding letting the survivor choose the pace. If you love someone enough, it is worth it.
Knowing when to let go…
Relationships don’t always work out and survivors are not immune to breakups. It can be hard for a survivor to accept that a relationship is not working out for whatever reason. They may blame themselves for not being able to make it work. Often a survivor clings to the familiar and try to hang on to a person even when it is clear that person is not feeling the same way. Breakups are never easy and emotions run high. A survivor who has already suffered so much emotional turmoil can find breakups devastating. Any setback in life is so much more intense for someone who has already lived through abuse because all emotions feel magnified. A simple breakup after a bad relationship can leave a survivor feeling emotionally drained and take a long time to come back from.
When a relationship is right and feels right for both partners, it can be life-changing for a survivor. Knowing what real love feels like is such an amazing feeling. This may be the first time a survivor has felt true love and it can be overwhelming and scary. All these strange emotions running through your body can feel all-encompassing at first. It can be a confusing time for a survivor of sexual abuse because sex until this relationship has been a source of great pain. Now suddenly sex is not painful but pleasurable. With the right partner guiding the relationship forwards, it’s a great feeling. You can start to relax, perhaps for the first time. You found “the one” person to share your life with. You feel safe.
Building a new family
No matter how prepared and ready you are to have a family, you never know how you will feel to be a parent. Throughout a pregnancy you have months to get ready and you go through all emotions in those months. From the moment I found out that I was pregnant, I was absolutely terrified. Don’t get me wrong, I had longed to be a mom and our baby was wanted wholeheartedly. I still felt absolutely terrified and my emotions were all over the place. Fear was my worst enemy as I started thinking about what kind of mom I would be to a child. Then once I had come to terms with the pregnancy itself, I started feeling extremely protective over the baby. I was looking after myself in a way I didn’t before, and my husband doted on me as my stomach grew. It was a special time for our relationship, and we grew even closer as a couple.
When my son was born, I could almost not believe it. I had given birth to a new life and it was my flesh and blood who needed me unconditionally. A real baby with perfectly formed limbs, fingers, and toes. This little helpless miracle came from me. I couldn’t stop looking at him as I was holding him in my arms feeling my love pour out of me. In that moment, I knew I would be the best mom I could be. This baby deserved everything that I did not have as a child and I would make absolutely certain that he got it. I became a loving parent at that moment and that is still who I am today. A child is a blessing, a true gift, and one to treasure and nurture as they grow into adults. My kids will never know what it feels like to be hungry as I did. It is not difficult to cook from fresh ingredients and give your kids the best nutrition. It is not difficult to buy clothes that fit them and is right for the season. It is also never wrong to hug your child when they need love. In my opinion, a child can never have enough love!
My husband and I give our children as much love and positive experiences as we can. We spend time with our little family, celebrating each little milestone. We play with our kids and give them our full attention. Our life is happy and it is rewarding to live in a supportive environment. I feel very grateful to have the life I longed for as a kid. I think it has made me a better parent and human being.
How did you feel when you found out you were going to become a parent? What kind of parent are you? Do you make time for your family? Are you happy?
It takes a huge number of obstacles to go through to build a new family. I feel very lucky that I chose not to believe the world my “so-called parents” gave me. I chose to go out and find the real world away from abuse and trauma. I was extremely fortunate to have children after so many years of abuse. If you are a parent like me, you will have faced the same obstacles. When you have a bad day, think about this and how far you have come. Go easy on yourself and enjoy life through our new generation. Our strength and resilience have created a better world away from trauma and hurt. Every milestone and every success in our kids is worth celebrating because you got them there. Change always begins with you. Take care of yourself.
Elizabeth Woods grew up unwanted, in a world of brutal sex offenders, murderers, and inconceivably neglectful adults. She got caught up in a secret sex ring where her so-called father was in charge and loaned her out to vicious sexual predators for their enjoyment. She suffered sexual abuse throughout her entire childhood and desperately tried to seek help from the adults around her, who chose to sit by and watch her suffer. She was let down by doctors and psychiatrists who knew she was being abused but was sent back repeatedly to be harmed again. She was forced to witness several brutal murders right in front of her eyes. Memories that will forever be ingrained in her mind.
Elizabeth survived in an environment where most people would not and she is now able to help other survivors heal from trauma. Elizabeth now lives in a happy home with her husband and children. She has friends all around her and is working a job she loves. She lives far away from where she grew up and although she will never completely heal from her past, she at least has a bright future surrounded by love and support.
Elizabeth has written a book, telling her childhood story: The Sex-Offender’s Daughter: A True Story of Survival Against All Odds, available on Amazon Kindle. https://www.amazon.com/Sex-Offenders-Daughter-Story-Survival-Against-ebook/dp/B0BBSV97VF/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1W93IR8PLCYOH&keywords=the+sexoffenders+daughter&qid=1668277897&sprefix=the+sexoffenders+daughter%2Caps%2C151&sr=8-1