Jamie just shared a story she wrote about her abuse. I can't breathe and the tears are right at my eyes but wont come out. Why did we have to be hurt at such a young age? I feel like throwing up. I always feel that way when I think about this. I need to get this grossness out of me. I feel my hand clenching up and my fingers feel bruised because I'm grabbing my ankle towards me. My stomach is cramped and I don't know what to do. Breathe in breathe out but it cramps and hurts so much. I can't move, I've resorted to this spot I was in so long ago when I'd tense up after just mentioning it. Even burping is hurting my stomach. I hate this. I hate whoever has done this to me and the fact that I can hardly remember it, and the fact that sometimes I start to question that it's even happened. Things that I remember completely are the abuses with Mandy and the thing with Mandy's brother. Something that I keep remembering about the babysitters son is sitting on the floor and him having one of the little girls on his lap. For a while I thought it was my sister, but now I'm not sure. I don't know what this means, but I know it means something. Danielle says that in her flashbacks I'm not there, but I so strongly feel like I saw it happen at least once. I don't know what makes me feel like this but I just do. Sometimes I don't know if I really did have a flashback before I tried to kill myself the first time, or if I just convinced myself I did. Everything is just so confusing. I wish I could remember maybe it won’t make things easier, but at least I could deal with it fully.
When I was six years old my parents sent my sister and I to a woman who ran a daycare center out of her house. There were a bunch of us, boys and girls, running around in her giant backyard having the time of our lives while our parents were at work. When summer came, her son arrived home from college and would often come out and play with us. During this time I started to get really bad headaches. In response, my temporary caretaker did what any good Italian mother would do and fed me as many iced ginger cookies as I could eat while I laid on the couch and watched the Disney channel. Not long after, my parents walked in on my sister Danielle acting out inappropriate scenes with her Barbies. She was three years old. The next year or so was filled with therapists, healers, and "Good touch/ Bad touch" videos.
Other than a foggy visual of sitting on the floor below a man sitting on a couch with a child in his lap, all I can remember from this point in my life is what I wrote above. While my sister’s abuse was more obvious because of the way it appeared, I numbed and blocked everything out and it wasn’t until years later that I realized something had to have happened to me. It’s no coincidence that I started getting headaches when her son came home. Or that I started gaining weight and sneaking food, kept getting UTI’s, and couldn’t stop peeing the bed. To this day I don’t know what happened to me. Was I molested? Was I a witness to someone else being molested? Was that person my three year old sister? I don’t know.
Around the same time, my best friend was a girl who lived down the street from me. Her mother’s boyfriend was an insane person and I’m pretty sure was both sexually and physically abusing everyone in their household. One day, a bunch of my friends from the block were hanging out in my room when my best friend came up with the idea to play a game called “tickle”. I was chosen as the first victim and I can remember feeling really uneasy about the whole thing. We collected all of my jump ropes and then they proceeded to tie each of my limbs to a bedpost. Everything that happened next is another blur. What I can remember is a feeling of terror. I must have been screaming because my mom ran into the room. Horrified at what she was seeing, she urgently sent everyone home. For a long time I thought of this incident as being a traumatic episode in my life, and you know what, for me I think it was. But the more I talk to people the more I find out similar childhood stories. Is this just how kids play? Confused and intrigued by sexuality? Maybe. But for the next ten years this event would be locked somewhere in my brain, while I remained perplexed by my overwhelming fear of having my wrists or neck exposed when I slept. I’m fairly certain that this wasn’t an isolated incident, yet I have never harbored any anger against my old friend. In fact I have always felt nothing but compassion and sympathy for her. After all, her situation was clearly much worse than mine.
The abuses of my childhood, remembered or not, manifested themselves in my body. My babysitter had shown me the comfort in food by appeasing me with cookies, hopefully clueless to why I needed them in the first place. I’m not necessarily blaming her for my descent into food addiction. I come from a family filled with people who have food issues and one half of me is full blown Italian, but the timing of it just seems to make sense. I searched over and over again for whatever solace those cookies gave me and didn’t stop even when my body couldn’t take it anymore. Food became my drug and the more weight I gained the more I was able to hide behind it. I learned quickly that society looked down on people who were overweight and subconsciously made myself that way. I convinced myself that if I was obese I’d never have to deal with love, sex, or intimacy. So I covered myself in fat and baggy clothing to make myself as unappealing as possible.
It wasn’t just physical interactions that my weight pushed away. As an obese person I felt entitled to lay in bed all day alone if I wanted to. I also felt entitled to drown myself in sorrow because of laying in bed all day alone, and felt that everyone else should feel bad for me as well. I couldn’t understand why my friends weren’t there for me the way I wanted them to be, I couldn’t understand why all of a sudden it felt like the friends who did stick by me were dwindling. I wanted to be hidden, I wanted that free pass to misery and yet at the same time begged for attention, validation, and love. But no amount of any of those things ever seemed to be enough. Nothing filled me like my food or depression did.
The first time I ever talked about my belief that something had happened to me was the first time I was hospitalized. I was sixteen, the youngest person on an all adult psych ward and was feeling horribly guilty while sitting in group therapy listening to the horror stories of the other patients. My issues were small potatoes compared to the problems these people had. And since I didn’t want to be left behind or looked down upon, I casually (dramatically) mentioned that I had also been abused. My roommate who had been admitted for slitting her throat in attempt to kill herself shared her rape stories. My self-proclaimed adopted mother on the ward shared the first flashbacks she had at forty years old of her father molesting her. And I shared that I had attempted to take my own life because I had my first flashback the night before I OD’d, which I wasn’t even sure was true.
I can’t remember much from the night before my overdose. But I do remember having something strange happen. I was sitting on the futon in my mom’s den after a brutal instant message war (“AIM” the shit starter of the early 2000’s) with my best friend’s boyfriend. I was riled up and hurt and in a blind depression/rage when all of a sudden a feeling I had never felt before blanketed over me. It was as if someone had dropped a sheet from the sky that landed softly on my head and then draped over my whole body. My head fell backwards and I stared up into the ceiling light above me. I remember getting lost in that light, looking at the dead bugs and then boom, blank. I have no recollection of what happened next. I know I didn’t sleep. In fact I may have even sat like that until the morning.
When my mom found me still awake on her way to work she knew there was reason to be scared. I had been battling with what my doctors had diagnosed as Bipolar Two for almost a year at this point. And the diagnosis came after multiple long bouts of insomnia. My mom knew that if I wasn’t sleeping there was cause to worry. She hesitantly got ready for work not wanting to leave me alone in the house. I remember her fear. Somehow she knew that I was about to do something drastic. Somehow she knew that this time was different from the rest. She gave me my medicine, a cocktail of what felt like 100 pills treating every different diagnoses I had been given, brought me upstairs to my bedroom and made sure I was asleep before she left. If I slept, I would be okay.
I didn’t sleep.
When the front door closed I went straight to the cabinet where my pills were kept and pulled out a bottle of Ambien and a bottle of Adderall. Before dumping most of the contents down my throat I wrote a letter saying good-bye and I’m sorry. I hugged my dog Roxy through heavy sobs, took the pills, and then sat in a chair in the living room adjacent to the front door. I woke up hours later to Roxy licking my face while I lay in a pool of my own vomit. Everything was hazy and I just wanted to go back to sleep, but Roxy kept licking me and licking me and nudging my head off the floor. Moments passed before I heard the front door creak. My mom threw open the glass door and ran to my side. She had come home to the nightmare she had imagined before leaving. I realized later that day -- while drinking cups of charcoal in the ER -- that Roxy had saved my life. Her incessant licking and nudging kept me from choking on my own vomit. Somehow she knew I was in trouble. Somehow she knew she needed to keep me awake.
I couldn’t really answer the question of why I did it except for the obvious. I had lost my best friend who I considered family to her psychotic boyfriend, I weighed over 200 pounds, I was a sixteen year old girl, and I had been suffering from years of depression, anxiety, self-hatred, ‘bipolar’, and a crippling eating disorder. All of that seemed stupid compared to the stories my new friends and housemates shared. So when I remembered the feeling that came over me that night (the light and the blackout that followed), I made the decision that it had to have been a flashback of my 'abuse'. A flashback that my body couldn’t deal with and so blocked it out again.
When it was my turn to share, what came out was that story. I had been abused, which at this point I only vaguely knew, I had had a flashback that I proceeded to lose right after having it, and then I attempted to kill myself. Whether it was true or not I realize now made no difference. Because the important thing that came out of it was for the first time in my life, I was talking about the fact that something had happened to me. I wasn’t just chemically imbalanced. I didn’t just have an eating disorder. Something tangible had happened. Something had caused this. And that was the truth.
When I left that hospital I very rarely dealt with my abuse. I told some friends, and talked to my therapist briefly, but that was really it. It wouldn’t be until I was admitted into Warner, after my second suicide attempt that I’d begin to delve deep into not only the abuse itself but the fears and issues I had developed as a result of it.
An amazing aspect of Warner, that is unfortunately very rare in most other treatment centers, is that therapy, of all different kinds and modalities, is at the forefront of their treatment plan. We saw our therapist five days a week (which is unheard of), did family therapy once a week, had group after every meal, went to movement therapy, art therapy, experiential therapy, and were placed onto what they called “Tracks”. Tracks are individualized groups honed to deal with specific core issues like drug addiction or being a survivor of abuse. My therapist placed me on the “Survivor Track” soon after I told her about my lost memories and the gross feelings that came along with them. My hope was that maybe being in these groups would ignite something in my brain. Maybe this was the key to remembering. I wanted to know what had happened so badly and I honestly believed that I couldn’t truly heal until I did.
I walked into my first group, a Safety and Containment class, uneasy and maybe not quite ready but at the very least willing. I was shocked at how many people were in the group. It blew my mind that so many other residents had also been sexually, physically, or emotionally abused. A blonde woman stood at the front of the room and called all of us to attention. “If you could all please find a seat we can get started.” It was fairly obvious that most of us were new to this, and considering what the topic was, none of us looked thrilled to be there. But regardless of how we felt, whether out of fear or just a rush to get this over with, we all followed her instructions without hesitation.
After giving us the standard confidentiality talk, she began leading us through a guided meditation. As a kid my mom would lead my sister and I through guided meditations whenever we were sick or having trouble sleeping. I always felt like I was forcing images, never really getting to the source of anything. Every time it was over I would either be asleep or left feeling frustrated instead of calm. I expected too much out of it, even as a kid. I attached an importance to getting a result and it kept me from being able to let go and let things come naturally. I felt the same thing happening in that room so many years later being guided by a stranger.
We were instructed to close our eyes, focus on our breath, and imagine a locked box or safe. I closed my eyes. My breathing turned into a chore, now that I was conscious of it, but somehow I managed to strain an underground vault to pop into my head. Then she asked us to imagine a colored light shooting out of all the areas in our bodies that made us feel uncomfortable and unsafe, and shoot it into the box. Once it was in the box we were told to close it and lock it. I tried but I just couldn't get the light to go into the box. I kept praying and repeating "Please I'm in so much pain, let me get rid of this, help me get better" but nothing would happen. I just couldn’t get there and I was beginning to get a headache from trying. I wanted this group to be over and be able to open my eyes again but she kept going. This time asking us to envision our safe place. Again the vision wouldn’t come. At the end of the exercise, when it was finally time to open our eyes, I was left feeling frustrated and angry.
After the meditation, she had all of us move our chairs to the side and stand in a large circle facing each other. There was a stillness in the room. No one spoke, and no one dared to make eye contact. Then something strange happened. The woman looked at all of us and with the most serious tone said, “This next exercise may be hard for some people, just know that we are all here to support each other. What I want you to do is stay right where you are, turn around and stand with your backs to each other.” This overwhelming fear ran through my spine. No! No! I don’t want to turn around! I screamed to myself unsure why I was all of a sudden freaking out. My body tightened as I unhappily turned and I immediately found myself submerged in terror and hysterically crying. Then I realized, so was everyone else. This simple act, of having our backs to each other had sent us all into a tailspin of emotion and I couldn’t comprehend why. What was I scared of? Why did my back hold so much fear? The energy of the room pulsated with terror and sadness and for the first time in my life I knew that even if I didn’t remember my abuse, I belonged amongst these women. Something had happened to me, to us, to elicit this response, and no amount of blocking things out could change that.
Every track was broken up into three levels, each level more intense than the last. When you and your therapist started to feel you were ready, you moved on to the next tier and began to dig deeper and deeper. Being that Warner was not really a long term facility, people either never rose to another level or did so maybe a little too quickly. I, a therapy junky, did the latter. I convinced my therapist I was ready to move forward even though my brain was now not only infused with the frustration of my still blocked memories, but the trauma of the other patients horrific and graphic stories. There were moments of healing but in my eagerness to push myself I managed to traumatize myself even more so than I already was.
Part of being on a higher level of your track meant you were allowed to participate in other forms of therapy. One of them being experiential therapy. Which from my understanding at the time, was where you sat in a room full of people and emotionally put yourself back into a specific moment of trauma and re-lived it in order to change the intensity of how it affected you. There was no part of me that felt ready to go through that, but when a friend of mine decided she was, I agreed to be a participant.
Five of us walked into one of the group rooms and sat down in chairs that were formed in a circle. In the middle was my friend, a box of tissues, and a foam bat. The therapist stood in front of her, asked if she was ready, and then rattled off the rules. We were only allowed to participate if he directed us to. There would be no consoling, no tissue giving, no hugging, no speaking, no interfering. We were here because my friend trusted us and loved us enough to be actors in her trauma. We were a circle of love and support, a reminder that she was safe, a reminder of reality. He gave us the option of leaving if we didn’t think we could handle it, but we all sat still, pale and terrified at what we were about to witness. To go into detail about what happened next would not only be a confidentiality breach, but impossible. What I can say, is that for one hour we watched as a girl we had come to love writhed with an indescribable emotional pain. We felt her unearthly screams vibrate through us and cried for her as buckets of tears poured down her red face. No one in that room was left unscathed by what we witnessed. We had just participated in the emotional birth of a person and it was painful, gritty, ugly, and beautiful all at once. We watched as a piece of her was freed and it was the most intense, amazing thing I have ever experienced.
I left there still in tears, still trying to process what had happened. I wanted so badly to be brave enough to volunteer to be in the center of that room, foam bat in hand. I knew that maybe if I did, my memories would come flooding back, and I too would be freed. But I was too unsure of whether I was ready to go there. In the end I decided it wasn’t a good idea. I had a lot more work to do before I could put myself in that chair. Honestly, I was scared shitless by the idea of it.
I was only at Warner for about two more weeks after the experiential and during that time everyone who I was on the track with was discharged, so they canceled my groups. Maybe it was the Universe’s way of telling me to slow down. Steamrolling issues tends to do the opposite of healing and that was exactly what I was in the process of doing. This wasn’t something I could fix in a month or even a year. It was going to take time and a lot of effort and I needed to be willing to accept that.
It would be awhile before I started to deal with my abuse again. I’m twenty eight as I sit and write this and I only just realized this past year, through the help of my meditation teacher, that I don’t need to remember what happened in order to heal. I just need to heal. If the memories of my six year old self decide to resurface I know that it will be at a time when I’m ready and supposed to receive them. But for now all I can do is learn how to forgive, love myself for the destruction that my body and esteem endured as a result, and continue to remind myself that I am not that abused child anymore.
Shame and Guilt
EARLY CHILDHOOD- being molested, being tied up to a bed and "tickled", being forced to do things with Mandy's brother
SCHOOL AGE- Guilt about lying to my parents and Nanny about not doing homework. Ashamed because Liz told me that fat people couldn't play on the playground. Guilt about my parents divorce. Ashamed that I began to gain weight, was always hungry and binged. Guilty about being suicidal.
PUBERTY- Ashamed about being the only girl who was developing so early. Ashamed of my body and my size. Ashamed because I started to like boys but no one liked me due to my weight. Ashamed because I believed my mom hated me because my Grandma told me she did.
MY ADULT CONSCIENCE- Guilty about not liking Stephanie. Ashamed that I stayed friends with both Stephanie and Bill despite how they treated me. Guilty about how I made everyone especially my parents feel with my suicide attempts. Ashamed of my body and my binging. Ashamed of me as a person.
SECRETS- I've never been kissed and I've never been in a relationship.