My name is Elizabeth Woods, and I am a survivor of CSA and unspeakable trauma. I survived one of the worst childhoods you can ever imagine. My life was dark, filled with trauma and neglectful adults. I had no identity growing up. I barely existed and was ruled by the adults’ every will and command around me. When I was 18 the law said I was old enough to make my own way in the world. It was not easy because everyone around me said I would not be able to stand on my own two feet. I was a nobody without talents. No one would give me a job. I was worthless. Yet, somehow, I had it in me to leave. I had no idea how or where I was going but I knew that if I stayed, I wouldn’t survive. I needed more.

I left everything I knew behind. It was relatively easy to get on a train and airplane. The further away I got, the easier it was to just blend in with the hustle of people. Traveling was my purpose and travel I did. Once I settled far away from where I grew up, I started questioning myself. Who am I?

People often asked me, who I was and where I was from to start a conversation. I didn’t want to talk about my past or where I had grown up. How do you find “who you are” after a life filled with trauma and hurt? What is your identity? What makes you, you? I didn’t really know how to answer these questions. The more I was out in the world meeting new people, the easier it was to give some answers.

Childhood Experiences

A child grows up with constant opportunities in a loving family. S/he has the support to trial and error who they are. That is what normal parents do, helping their children make sense of the world and ease them into it. They give their kids constant opportunities and encouragement to try out new things and find out what they are good or bad at. What they like or don’t like. Those opportunities are plentiful and frequent. You may even be given permission to go on sleepovers, and parties at friends’ houses and clubs. Your parents give their blessing to have your friends come over, welcoming your friends to your home. Your identity is constantly evolving and shaping who you are through your life experiences and being social with others. Your parents encourage you to go out and explore the world.

As a child growing up in an abusive environment, your world is very insular. You are often stuck at home and unable to escape.

You don’t get permission to go out and make friends, go camping, or have fun events and clubs like other kids do. You never experience a sleepover or get to have friends around your house. It is too risky as you might talk. Therefore, you don’t have the same opportunities as other kids. Not only are you behind in development from trauma and lack of communication at home, but you are probably also lacking in friends. Having opportunities to socialize and play is vital for a child to develop their own personality.

Learning From Others

I was lucky, as my “mother” worked long hours and had to put me into childcare before I was old enough to go to school. I remember being mute and not being able to formulate a single sentence back then. I was a non-existent human stuck in my own hurt and pain. The quiet, scared-looking kid that no one wanted to play with. Yeah, I was that kid! I was plunged into an environment rich in language, supportive adults, toys, and most importantly – kids my own age. It was absolutely terrifying!

I had no idea how to behave and so I froze and watched wide-eyed, taking in the room and people in it. Any loud noise made me jump even though they were happy playful noises. I remember a boy playing firefighter loudly in the room tearing up and down and had me almost becoming the wall behind me. I was so scared!  I wet my pants constantly, several times a day. I had no control over my body such is often the case if you are sexually abused as a young child.

For the first time, I had adults and kids all around me who were “nice” to me. They didn’t judge me for wetting my pants. There was no shouting or arguing and I was free to do whatever I wanted. I was encouraged to play like everyone else. So, how do you play if you have never been shown how? When you are young, you learn by copying others around you. Your teachers and other kids become role models and you want to be like them. For me, until this point, playing was acting out the abuse with my teddies in the quiet of my room. I discovered a whole new world of play and fun. I learned to laugh and giggle, and no one would shout at me for being happy and making play noises. I consider myself lucky to have been to preschool. That environment showed me how to be my own person. How to be a kid that is seen and treated well.

Importance of Communication

Kids must go to school during the day when they hit school age. Parents are still in charge of their kids. If I had been “bad” and needed to be punished, the school was taken away. I was sick a lot and no teacher would ever complain. They trusted my parents knew what was best for me. The school became my refuge as is often the case for abused children. I knew that once I was in school, my day was set in a routine, and no one would hurt me. I knew what was coming next and I felt safe in that knowledge.

I made a few friends, and they became my “role models”. I went where they went and copied what they did until I started realizing that I could do certain things in a different way. I learned to talk my way through situations. That felt odd to me because until now, I had no identity. I just followed my friends. School also gave me opportunities to learn about the world and explore ideas and concepts. Like my pre-school years, the school gave me the next step in discovering who I was and my place in the world. A world that was a lot bigger than my home and the city I lived in.

I soon discovered that I wasn’t the same as my friends at school. I was different and my family was definitely not the same as my friends’ families. I got to know some of my friends very well and the way they talked about their parents was lightyears from the way I would describe mine. My parents didn’t like me talking about them and so I didn’t. I felt like my life was this big secret way of living and no one wanted to know the real me. My parents told me many times that I was lucky to have friends at all. I believed them and stayed silent. I also had painful bruises on my arms and wrists from being restrained and bruises down my inner thighs.

No one else seemed to have them; believe me, I checked. Why was only I covered in bruises? My friends didn’t seem at all worried when they changed for gym class. I. on the other hand, waited until last and changed in a hurry so no one could see my bruises. I had to make excuses for being shy and jumpy. My friends occasionally saw my bruises when I couldn’t hide them or when they were bad. The big marks stood out almost glaring “Hey, here I am, come and see!”. I was confused and scared, and I still had no idea who I was.

High school is a time when everyone hits puberty. Those infuriating hormones take charge and we all seem to have some kind of identity crisis for a while. We test everyone and everything around us with adverse and challenging behavior. Testing limits to the brink. Some kids go off the rails and some kids are just plain mean. As an abused kid, I was shy and introverted. I just wanted to be left alone and of course it had the opposite effect. I was the honeypot everyone wanted to attack like bees constantly irritating me. Not only was I suffering relentless abuse at home, now I had to add being bullied to my day. Some of the kids in my class smoked and had lighters on them. I was burned daily and always in the genital area. Why do kids go for the most sensitive areas of the body? I was already in pain and so I did everything to become invisible both at home and at school. My family did nothing to stop the bullies and the teachers just watched me suffer turning a blind eye. I learned that life was not worth it. I didn’t want to be alive so how could I even start to think about who I was supposed to be? Those were dark years for me and at that time being tortured was my reality. There was no light at the end of my tunnel. I was in perpetual darkness.

What kind of kid were you in high school and how did you get through those most impressionable years? Did you act out and assert yourself to the world or were you more like me trying to shy away and be invisible?

Once you finish high school you think you have it all figured out. You feel confident that you know everything there is to know and go off to college. Then you are plunged into another new reality. You are suddenly out of your depth, a blank canvas waiting to be filled with knowledge on how to cope with this new reality. Everybody around you suddenly appears grown up and confident. How did you feel when you started college? Who did you rely on for help during those first days and weeks?  As a survivor, asking for help did not come easily for me. I struggled in those first weeks of college, and I didn’t know who to trust to ask my burning questions. I got up extra early every day to allow time to get to where I needed to be. I was hyper-alert of my surroundings and scared of all people. It was exhausting!

I began a new routine of class schedules and studying. I discovered the best places to work in peace and quiet and I learned to start trusting strangers, some even became my friends. I learned that most of the people around me came from different places, even different states. We were all in a new reality and knowing that made me feel a lot better. I was not the only kid who had moved away from home and had a “funny” accent. Most of us had just moved away from home to go to college. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged.

I copied the behavior of my peers and learned quickly that if I was like everyone else, rather than shy away from people, I would fit in much better. I learned to talk about myself but give little personal details. No one really cared that much when I said my parents were dead. It just seemed easier for me to lie than explain why they never came to visit and why I didn’t go “home” during the holidays. College was a tool of self-discovery for me. I signed up for everything my friends did and more because I was there during the holidays. There was always something going on, parties, events, clubs, study groups, and all kinds of sports and activities. I got to try it all and it was a revelation to have that freedom to discover who I was what I liked to do and what I didn’t. I learned a lot about myself during college and most of it had nothing to do with academics.

After college, you get launched straight into work. As a graduate, you are keen to go out and impress your bosses to get ahead. I was no different, but I discovered that I was never going to get where I wanted to be by being mean to others. I decided that pain and trauma would never again be a part of my life. I had no time for people like that and I was not one of them. I may not have had the childhood I should have had but I did learn along the way how to be a decent human being. I wanted to be everything my family was not. Life is precious and short. A smile can go a very long way for someone. It can make someone’s day. I am proud to have been able to discover who I am despite not having my parents as role models. I managed despite them, and I think it has made me a much stronger person today. I am proud of who I am. The abuse never defined me. It is part of me but I am exactly who I chose to be. I am a survivor.


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