Shirley J. Davis
Note from author: There are two sets of people to which this article is targeted; mental health professionals, and adult survivors of childhood trauma.
There is an area of childhood trauma that few will write about, the emotions that young children feel when confronted with repeated and severe trauma. The trauma I am speaking of can take many forms, such as living in a war zone or being held captive as a sex slave. My experience with trauma has been in the form of sexual and physical abuse and neglect, so this is the point of view I will be writing from.
As I have written in other articles, I live with a condition known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, and as a result have many aspects of myself who are children. One of my alters is named Katie and she is seven years old. I have been working with this part of myself recently and doing so has made my aware of how a young child would feel when confronted with overwhelming emotions.
***To explain, I will need to tell some material that may be triggering. I will be very cautious in how I relate the following information, but please be aware that some of the following statements can be upsetting. ***
When I was seven I was subjected to a neurological test known as a pneumoencephalogram. This is where they insert a needle into your spine to shoot a bubble of air up into your brain so that images can be obtained of brain matter. The year was 1967, well before the days of MRI’s, and this procedure was in its infancy. Many children who had it done were left with permanent brain damage or even dead. I was fortunate to survive the test, but afterward when I awakened, I had to be taught how to walk again. I had just been allowed to exit my bed on my own, and was in this weakened condition, when one of my abusers visited me in the hospital. I do not remember the specifics of what he did, but within half an hour of his leaving I was found standing on the ledge of the window threatening to jump. We were many stories up, and I would most certainly have died.
What emotions would have driven a seven-year old girl to do such a desperate thing? I have been thinking on this lately and in relating to Katie, I think I have begun to understand.
A child has very limited resources to draw from when they are experiencing severe neglect and abuse. The very people they should be able to count on to protect and nurture them have betrayed that responsibility, leaving them alone and trying desperately to find ways to cope. In this situation, I was confronted with a circumstance in which I could find no way out. The adults in my life, including the doctors who had begun treating me with Phenobarbital for depression since the age of five, and the teachers at my school, would not or could not hear my silent cries for help. I had behavior problems in school and was dissociating, but the Neurologists and teachers didn’t know what to think of these symptoms. The doctors assumed it was an organic brain disorder, and thus the pneumoencephalogram. I could not just come out and tell my doctors and teachers about the abuse and neglect I was experiencing due to threats and coercions given by the perpetrators.
Also, and it is important to state, I loved my abusers, as counter-intuitive as that seems.
So, that hot summer day in Tennessee, I found myself trapped. My body was too weak to even fantasize about escape and so I decided I wanted to die.
The emotions I have tapped into with Katie, what she was feeling at that moment, are intense.
Trapped. I have used this word before in this article, but the ramifications of what this feels like are horrendous. The only comparison I can give is what it must have felt like to be imprisoned in Auschwitz (in fact, my therapist once used this analogy). The people who survived relate stories of fighting any way they could to remain alive. They would steal, hide, lie, anything to keep going. Some relate feelings of being totally trapped because of the guns and other instruments of torture used by the Nazis. They talk of how they watched others give up and allow themselves to be killed or die. I had been fighting very hard for the seven years of my life, stealing, lying, hiding, but I suddenly found myself in a position where I was out of options. I was totally unable to escape.
Helplessness. There is no one more helpless than a child. Children are totally reliant on the adults in their lives for everything, especially their safety. In this situation, I was unable to run away because I was too ill. The knowledge that even if I had there would have been retaliation later, only amplified my feelings of helplessness. I could not refuse the pneumoencephalogram, I could not refuse the medications, I could not leave the hospital, and I could not get away from the abuse and neglect at home.
Loneliness. Perhaps the most horrendous emotion one can inflict on anyone, especially a child, is loneliness. I could tell no one what was happening to me. I had been warned over and over again by my abusers that to do so would bring about retribution in one or many forms, including their harming someone or something I loved. Perhaps the worse threat of all was that the people I told would not believe me and that I would be in trouble later with my abusers and gain nothing from it. It would be a total waste of time.
Grief. One thing I have been appalled to understand is that I didn’t feel grief over jumping from that window ledge. The grief I experienced was because I felt unloved, used, and unwanted. Can you imagine being seven and feeling those emotions? My god.
Why am I writing this article? I feel it is important for Mental Health Professionals to hear about these experiences with these childhood emotions. Whether you believe in Dissociative Identity Disorder or not does not matter. The realities of the emotional turmoil of a child who is being abused and/or neglected must not be ignored. Medications are not the total answer when it comes to treating children and adult survivors of these situations.
What is needed from you?
Kindness. Never look at a person who is reporting childhood trauma as someone just looking for attention. Perhaps they do need support, but that isn’t all that is going on in their minds. Survivors, like myself, have been told enough they would not be believed. Please don’t reinforce those statements.
Empathy. When a survivor begins to relate to you the horrendous emotions they lived through, it is important to show how it makes you feel. One of the best things my therapist did for me was to weep. She would sit and allow her emotions to show, and in this way, I was able to see that what I had experienced was something to weep over, and that someone else in the world cared. I can’t begin to relate just how moved I was by her tears, and how healing they were for me.
Validation. Telling a child or an adult survivor that you believe them is the most empowering thing a mental health professional can do. Just knowing that someone believed and urged me on toward healthy resolution of my past, gave me the power to help myself. It is a long and hard road for both professional and client, but dedication by both is essential. Validation helps cement the bond that makes dedication to getting well happen.
Parenting. Although my therapist was not nor could ever be my parent, in many ways she became one. She did not encourage me to cling to her or to develop an unhealthy attachment to her, yet she did allow me to bond with her in a strong way. With this type of relationship, she could teach me the skills I needed to pull myself out of the prison that had been built for me by my abusers. One must be careful with this though, as it is obvious that too much parenting can lead a client to never want to leave therapy, and conversely for the therapist not to want to allow their client to mature. I thank my lucky stars every day that my therapist was not afraid to parent me. She gently and quietly allowed me to make my own mistakes, and never intruded on my private decisions. Yet, she was always there to give her thoughts on a matter when I asked for them.
The second reason I am writing this article is to say to other survivors and their Katie’s that you are not alone. Many people have faced what you faced and are in recovery. There is hope. It takes a lot of hard work, time and patience but there will be an end to the turmoil you are feeling.
Last night I took Katie into my arms and told her I loved and believed her. I also promised that she would never have to make the horrible decision to destroy herself again. In doing so, I have come to terms with this part of my life. I am now at peace with that event.
You will heal too.