Pressing Play on Life
This short clip with the conversation between sisters has to be shared. http://storycorps.org/listen/teenage-abuse/
Love filled their voices even more than pain. “We’re going to be able to have this life that is filled with what we need.” I’m so happy I heard this today. Yesterday, on NPR, there was a piece about how childhood abuse scars the brain.
Though it isn’t happy news, I read a comment from one survivor to another saying, “How validating” and I couldn’t stop thinking about it before bed. I found it validating as well but it seems an odd reaction. Childhood abuse damaged my brain. Fantastic. I knew it! WTF?
However, abuse survivors know the damage is real and lasting and often feel we have to “prove” that is true or “convince” others. This stems from abuse being done in secret often, if and when shared, being minimized or not believed. Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk is an expert on trauma and was interviewed by On Being’s Krista Tippett, said
“Well, what I think happens is that people have terrible experiences and we all do and we are a very resilient species. So if we are around people who love us, trust us, take care of us, nurture us when we are down, most people do pretty well with even very horrendous events. But particularly traumas that occur at the hands of people who are supposed to take care of you, if you’re not allowed to feel what you feel, know what you know, your mind cannot integrate what goes on and you can get stuck on the situation. So the social context in which it occurs is fantastically important.”
But what happens when abuse happens IN the social social context that is supposed to counter the damage aspects? That’s the one-two punch that flattens. But maybe this was on my mind, up close and under a microscope before bed, more than usual yesterday because of sad news.
At lunch, I got a letter at lunch from my daughter’s school. One of her teachers has cancer. She has been out for weeks and has just been diagnosed. The school sent home a letter letting us, the parents know, and also telling us when our children are being told so we can talk to them after school.
The kids were told all together in a group. They were given time to make their teacher a card. My daughter is knitting a scarf because this teacher not only teaches science but runs the fiber arts project of which my daughter loves. I am grateful to her school because it cares not only about the kids, offering resources if they need more support, but because it was supportive of the teacher with cancer. Also, it’s pretty nice that they sent a letter home to us.
How this relates is that the delivery doesn’t change the facts. The news is still sad. However, the kids are being taught that not only do bad things happen to good teachers, but when life delivers a blow, it may also reveal love, generosity, care and tenderness. My daughter will witness people’s hearts opening, and how life can be difficult but also good, amidst difficult. Responses can enlarge the human spirit and make pain and difficult less hard.
When trauma and abuse happen in a family setting, there is no soothing response. Both the trauma and the lack of healthy response injure. Pain is kept secret or silenced and no love is extended which might heal it and lessen the severity of trauma’s impact.
It is horrible to be violated or traumatized. But to grow up thinking it is common, not cause for compassion or outrage, justice or concern, can be spirit breaking. It suggests a world in which there is no hope or warmth and where injury to those who are vulnerable is expected, tolerated and accepted. Maybe considered normal…. deserved.
Too many survivors spend far too long trying to “prove” to others and ourselves the damage was damaging, the pain was painful and the injury not imaginary. Instead, we should be helping ourselves and each other embrace hope and resilience.
Survival is crucial and necessary. It’s a huge accomplishment but it is not enough. As one sister said, “We’re going to be able to have this life that is filled with what we need.”
That is where the energy and hope lives. We get to make love with our eyes open feeling our bodies. We are capable of creating relationships and families (of choice if not biology) who give and receive empathy, emotional honesty and nurturing. We need not be lifelong prisoners to fear though we may need to wage war with some symptoms all of our lives. But we can win those battles and enjoy tremendous peace as well.
And in doing both, we create a better world where there is room for not only our sorrow but our gifts. After all, van der Kolk also says what so many of us already know even if it is not yet seen on brain scans:
“But, um, you know, I think trauma really does confront you with the best and the worst, huh? You see the horrendous things that people do to each other, but you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of commitment to oneself, to the knowledge that there are things that are larger than our individual survival.
And some of the most spiritual people I know are exactly traumatized people, because they have seen the dark side. In some ways, I don’t think you can appreciate the glory of life unless you also know the dark side of life.”
*full transcript of On Being show: http://www.onbeing.org/program/restoring-the-body-bessel-van-der-kolk-on-treating-trauma-with-yoga-emdr-and-healing-0