TRIGGER WARNING: This blog discusses sexual abuse
~In any bereavement, it is seldom clear what exactly is lost
~The things we have stored away deep in our hearts grapple with reality
In any type of loss, there is a period of time when the loss does not seem real. When dealing with the pervasive and multi-layered losses caused by long-term childhood abuse, the devastation is so profound, a word has been invented to describe it. CPTSD or complex post-traumatic stress disorder also known as Complex trauma. Complex trauma is caused by a series of repeated abusive experiences in childhood. They can include but are not limited to maltreatment, verbal, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse, and neglect. The child finds themselves living in a situation in which they have little or no control nor is there any hope of escape.
Complex trauma is invisible affecting our neurological, psychological and emotional development. It is exactly like growing up in an abusive cult. The mind-control and emotional damage are the same.
As children, we are forced to live in these abusive family systems for decades. How do we survive? We form something called middle knowledge—both knowing and not knowing at the same time. It is the place in between what is real and what we long to be real. Children must live there in order to avoid the threat of abandonment or death. Our inner life splits from reality and we exist. We get through it. When we are grown, we continue to stay in the family system responding to the innate lie that we are powerless and must continue our childhood role.
I sat in the psychologist’s office along with my father. He had hired this nice lady to “fix” my mother. Still enmeshed in my family system, I continued to play the role of sidekick and scapegoat, nodding right along as he described my mother’s outrageous behavior and the depression that threatened to take her life. My hands twisted in despair as I listened to the conversation. I looked around the room. It was a typical therapist’s office with comfy chairs and artsy paintings. Outside the window, a dark storm cloud threatened while the knot of fear in my stomach did a flip-flop. How had we gotten here?
My father always laughed at people who went to counseling. Many times I had heard him pronounce what a worthless bunch of morons therapists were. Silly people were too weak and stupid to handle their own problems. The fact that he and I were sitting in one of these morons’ offices was a testament to how desperate things had become. No amount of pronouncements or demands my father placed on my mother made any difference. And I was terrified.
Careening out of control, my family’s problems threatened my own existence. Why? Because my existence was tied to theirs. Everything was slipping through my fingers.
I stumbled desperately in the dark seeking some kind of anchor, but there was nothing to grab. I was watching a house of cards burn to the ground. Everything I had ever been taught or believed was in question. And that is when a quiet, sneaking suspicion began to float into my conscious mind. Something was wrong with my family.
Pushing it aside, I turned to another thought. My family was perfect. We were church-going, youth group-attending members of a larger extended family of successful businessmen. I led Sunday School, graduated from the college my father told me to attend, and by this time had married. My childhood was perfect. My parents were perfect. In fact, we were actually better than other people. If everyone had access to my Father’s great wisdom, they would all be doing a lot better. Then why weren’t we?
I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. Why was my mother so depressed? She lived in a mansion, had more money than she could spend, and had the time to pursue anything she wanted. She didn’t even have to work! Yet, all she did all day was sit in the dark talking about wanting to die. Occasionally she would wake from her stupor and spew hatred and anger toward my father. He had told me he was sleeping in the bedroom downstairs with the door locked and had removed all the guns and knives from the house. What? What the hell was going on?
Nothing in my wildest dreams had prepared me for this and nothing I said or did made any difference. My father was becoming more annoyed by the day, and the rage that was always boiling beneath the surface threatened to blow. Desperate to fix things, even I could see there was no way the situation could continue.
I had not lived at home since age eighteen. Now nearly thirty, I could not understand why my family had deteriorated. In the last couple of years, my mother could barely function. Why couldn’t my mother just cooperate, I thought. Then my father would be happy and everything would go back to normal.
My father ruled with an iron fist. No one had an emotion or an opinion or even a thought that he did not approve of. But everyone’s father was like that. It was normal. Besides, I had been a very bad and unruly child. My mother had to beat me. When my father came home from work, he had to beat me again for upsetting my mother. What a shame my parents had not been given a good child. I was a failure then, but now that I was grown, I was finally going to be able to fix everything.
And if sitting in a therapist’s office was part of that, I was willing. I was willing to do whatever it took. It did not seem the least bit odd that my mother had been left out of the conversation. It was up to me. I needed to fix her mental illness. I needed to assuage my father’s anger, and if I could do that, I bet I could even fix their marriage. I might even be able to change their opinion of me!
Concentrating on the scratch of the therapist’s pencil, I watched her brows draw together in a frown. She must think we were a serious case. The fact that we were sitting in her office attested to that. I had no more doubts about it—something was wrong with my family, but I had no idea what it was.
I lived in middle knowledge for a long time. The warped brainwashing, physical and sexual abuse of my childhood would take time to unravel.
As I look back over my life, I can see there were tasks that had to be completed before my own terrible emotional and psychological wounds could heal. The very first task was acceptance. Acceptance and understanding of the truth.
It did not occur in one moment but in multiple ways, steps, and times as the family system revealed itself. You have to look for it. It begins with seeing what is going on. Acceptance takes a while. I knew that something was wrong with my family. Later, I would come to understand it had nothing to do with me.
Defy trauma, embrace joy.
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Rebekah Brown, a native of the south, now resides in the Great American West. Surviving a complicated and abusive family system makes her unique writing style insightful as well as uplifting. Rebekah is the proud mother of two and grandmother of four.