Yesterday I read an article titled ‘10 Things the Adult Child of an Addict Wants You to Know‘. It was a good article and pretty interesting for me to gain insight into this area; I have absolutely no personal experience of living with an addict, but I have several friends who are adult children of addicts. The list was somewhat heartbreaking, but also an extremely helpful tool for me to understand certain behaviours exhibited by people who’ve been affected by parental addiction. As a chronic ‘internalizer’, it helps to be aware that even when someone you care about is being ‘off’ (read: an asshole) in your presence, it is more often than not absolutely nothing to do with you or anything you may or may not have done. Instead, it is a byproduct of programming and experiences lived by them decades ago that rears its ugly head every time they’re triggered.
I think the same can be true for adult ‘survivors’ (I still haven’t come up with a less horrific phrase than that, but I fucking hate it, just for the record) of childhood sexual abuse. Oftentimes I’m guilty of projecting some of my deeper shit onto other people and becoming disgustingly irrational about the most trivial of things. At the time I’m convinced it’s because someone has moved my favourite mug, or because somebody has let me down and the only logical explanation is that they are, in fact, the real life Satan and can never be trusted again. In reality – and sadly always in retrospect – it becomes clear that I’m actually projecting some internal demon that was planted inside of me the day someone first betrayed my trust or took away my control.
Unfortunately, I’m still a novice in this realm and it usually takes an army of patient people to break down, identify, and make me understand where my weird-ass triggers are coming from. I’m relentlessly stubborn, denial is my default, and avoidance is my biggest talent when it comes to delving into the triggers of “The Underworld”. I hate it and it often fills me with shame and frustration that I’m still being affected daily by things that happened over twenty years ago. That said, there are a lot of ‘abuse-isms’ that I’m [un-]blissfully aware of that I’m not convinced other people would pick up on. I’m sure this has likely been done, and no doubt more eloquently and with more candour, but whatever. Everyone experiences things differently so I’m just adding my two cents to the mix in the hopes that it might help those around me. To keep with the theme of the article I mentioned earlier, I think it would be helpful for friends and lovers of those who have been abused as children to understand some of our “quirks” (that’s my diplomatic way of saying “reasons that we act like fucking irrational mentalists”). So, here are ten things a survivor of childhood (and adult) abuse would like you to know:
1) Being noticed and receiving affirmation is terrifying.
Abuse of any kind, but particularly chronic child abuse seriously fucks up your perception of what is good or bad. Being praised for taking part in sexual activities as a child, even though you knew they were very bad, creates an insurmountable level of confusion and conflict in your brain. The shame associated with sexual abuse runs deep, and to receive attention and encouragement for ‘allowing’ a grown adult to have intercourse with you when you’re eight years old (or ten, or fifteen, or whatever age it might be) simply multiplies that shame and blurs the lines about what praise actually means. As adults, we think that praise and being noticed is simply dangerous; it can never be safe. There must be ulterior motives attached. Our bodies react in ways that we can’t control which triggers memories and further elicits the shame spiral. Our response is to deflect the compliments, to actively act like an asshole and throw praise back in your face, or to hide away and hope to never be seen again.
A few weeks ago a coworker openly praised me in an email with half of the Exec team copied in. I was absolutely mortified. I then spent the next two days on sick leave and didn’t get out of bed. Yesterday a friend sent me a quote about knowing someone who is an amazing, talented, beautiful person but they don’t realize it and all you want to do it shake them and scream how wonderful they are. She said I am that person. I spent the entire journey to work fighting back tears and spent the rest of the day procrastinating, dissociating and sabotaging myself.
2) Physical contact is a mind-fuck.
Although many victims of abuse desire ‘normal’ things and are able to be in a loving relationship and enjoy an active sex life, for obvious reasons, sex and intimacy are sometimes difficult. Memories are often stored in the body, under the surface, laying dormant for much of the time. We can go for long periods time without being triggered by anything, but for many people, physical touch is the fastest way to throw us right back into those memories and to cause us to react in extreme ways. Even though we may be fully aware that the situation is safe at the conscious level, our bodies will go through a “trauma response” in order to keep us safe from a perceived threat. We may startle and look like we’re overreacting. We may push you away if you come in for a hug. We may punch you if you grab our neck. We may shut down and become distant and unable to tell you what is happening. Sometimes we may have a full-blown PTSD reaction and either dissociate and freeze, or have a flashback and re-experience the original trauma as though it is happening here and now. This isn’t uncommon and it isn’t your fault, and we know that. Don’t feel the need to apologize profusely as that will often add to the shame and guilt that we already feel. Instead, help to ground us and calm our system down (sometimes hugs can make this worse), offer to be there if we decide to talk about it later but don’t force us to discuss what happened. It’s normal for us but it can be extremely disorienting and exhausting. Be patient.
3) We hold others to extremely high standards.
Being let down, betrayed and hurt is something that was ingrained into us from a young age. We are wary of people and do not trust easily. We require completely transparent relationships so that we can be sure that we know what to expect the entire time. Our ability to trust our instincts was taken away from us as children and we still struggle to ascertain who and what is safe. If you let us down, cancel plans often, or don’t do what you’re say you’re going to do, we will likely add you to the list of unsafe or untrustworthy people. Loyalty and reliability are paramount in building a foundation of trust and we don’t have time for people who don’t follow through with their actions. Not only is it frustrating, it’s actually just generally not cool, bro. But with us, if you happen to fuck up, our reaction will likely be extreme and the situation will be blown out of proportion from your perspective. This isn’t because we’re dramatic and immature, it’s because it triggers an alarm that tells us we’re missing a warning sign or we’re going to be hurt even more down the line. Understand that our reaction isn’t always a direct reflection of something you’ve done. We aren’t stupid and we know that things pop up and plans change. This is normal, but our tolerance for this is probably less forgiving then most. Yep you’ve pissed us off, but on top of the ‘normal’ reaction, we’re also projecting a way deeper hurt that was ingrained into us when people we thought we could trust abused that power and hurt us. Help us to recognize this pattern, find the over-reaction and work through it with us. But also, if you actually keep letting people down, please stop being a dick and just do what you say you’re going to do. Thanks.
4) Our memory and attention span SUCKS.
A classic symptom of PTSD is poor concentration and memory. While we try our best to be attentive and to remember the important things about those we love, our brains are often flooded with thousands of things, racing at a hundred miles an hour. This means we struggle to pay attention, to retain information or to remember things that are important to you and us. This isn’t a sign of us not caring, and it’s actually infuriating and embarrassing for us. Remind us to jot things down in our calendars, send us reminders about events and help to ground us if we look like we’re drifting mid-conversation. If you work with someone who has experienced abuse, don’t make fun of them for writing everything down, and try to be patient if they have to refer to emails or notes when you bring up old projects or meetings. We’re not incompetent, we have ‘trauma brain’.
5) Planning ahead is a major challenge.
People hate disorganized or non-committal people, as do I. But, as with most mental health struggles, PTSD is extremely unpredictable. Committing to plans ahead of time can actually provoke a lot of anxiety. While an invitation to dinner or a party or social gathering sounds amazing, we don’t know how well we’ll be doing in two weeks. We may be fine and will be dancing on tables until 3am, loving everything and everyone. Or, we may be laying in the dark, fighting off body memories and trying not to dissociate all night. For us, the guilt of cancelling plans at the last minute is far worse than being a ‘Maybe’ on an attendance list. We’re not trying to be a pain in your ass and we aren’t fickle, we just struggle to plan ahead and hate letting people down.
6) We are stubborn as fuck.
While we sometimes find it difficult to get through a day without some kind of trauma reaction/thought, we are actually fiercely independent and disgustingly strong-willed. We learned to cope by ourselves in silence and to deal with everything that came with abuse alone. As a result, we are stubborn, self-sufficient and proud. While we have our limitations from time to time, we want to be treated like everyone else. Asking for help is the last thing on our to-do list and it usually only happens in times of panic or when we’re feeling out of control. Offering help and advice when we don’t ask for it might not go down well; it will likely make us feel like a freak and we’ll react irrationally and will probably seem ungrateful. We’re okay. We just want to get through it in our own [often inefficient] way!
7) We have very little self-worth.
Anyone who’s suffered abuse of any kind will at some point tell you that they deserved it. All of it. I think one of the most devastating effects of abuse that I’ve seen in others (and that others have highlighted in me) is the pure lack of self-worth and the insatiable self-hate. Compliments are batted away, self-deprecation is a daily ritual, we have no confidence in our ability to do anything (despite aforementioned independence) and everything we do comes with a side of shame and blame. The mere act of child abuse sends a message that you are not worthy of anything good. You deserve to be hurt and tortured and to have your innocence taken away. You are a piece of shit and that is the only reason adults are doing what they’re doing. You are only good for one thing and everything is your fault. An non-traumatized adult brain can process and understand all of the above as total bullshit. A brain that has been traumatized cannot. We hear over and over again that we are not to blame and that we deserve good things and that the hate and shame belongs to the abusers but it is hard to shift the programming. We do not self-deprecate to receive attention and praise; we do it because we believe that it’s true and it’s what we deserve. These ingrained messages are hard to change. They’re also beyond terrifying to challenge. We don’t know any different, and to fathom or accept that we are good people and worthy of love and belonging is so alien that it feels almost unsafe. Be patient as we work through these beliefs. Remind us over and over again and don’t judge our intense reactions that come with the territory. It takes a long time to change
8) We fear irrational things.
I know, most fears are irrational. They are based on the perception of threat as opposed to an actual threat. They are built on a belief that something bad will happen even though we have no evidence to support this. Fears are common and often understandable. People who have been abused, however, may have fears that make seemingly little sense, if any. We have triggers that seem so far from the realms of sexual abuse that they often seem ludicrous and laughable. But, for whatever reason, there is an underlying trigger than can make the most trivial thing absolutely terrifying. Ask me to stand in front of thousands of people and discuss one of my projects and I’ll do so with ease. Ask me to call someone and ask for information about their best-selling pizza and I’ll be paralyzed with fear. Nobody abused me with pizza or telephones. It makes no sense. But perhaps the lack of control, not knowing who will pick up, or whether they will ask me something that I can’t understand or answer may somehow trigger a feeling of being out of control and not knowing what was coming next. This relates to the abuse. So, while we don’t need people to pander to our seemingly bizarre fears, it’s important not to dismiss them as stupid. They are very real. We are aware that they seem strange and they are also something that we need to actively work through and de-compress. This can take time.
9) We are often emotionally stunted.
You have just given your loved one the most thoughtful and sentimental gift ever. You’ve spent months planning the surprise and enlisted the help of their friends to make sure it is the most perfect gesture ever. They open the gift and smile. They calmly say, “Thank you” and barely move. Do they hate the gift? No. Are they being ungrateful? No. They just lack the emotional capacity to react in the way other people may react. As a way to survive sexual abuse, children often dissociate. They numb their feelings because their brain is trying to protect them and in that moment the emotions are too intense to process. This happens over and over again and the child struggles to feel anything other than shame. As a result of numbing the negative emotions, unfortunately they also numb the positive ones. Researcher Brené Brown often points to the fact that we cannot selectively numb; we can’t choose to not feel fear or hurt and expect to still feel joy and happiness. If you numb one feeling, you numb them all. In doing so unconsciously as a child, it is often the case that adult ‘survivors’ struggle to feel a range of emotions. If they are able to feel and identify different emotions, they may feel them at a far less higher intensity than someone who hasn’t been abused. The result is a lack of external reactions. I could not identify joy if it walked past me holding a neon sign saying “I AM JOY” in it. I also don’t cry or feel sad when people pass away or go through some kind of adversity. I rarely feel excitement and I don’t remember ever experiencing grief. Identifying, feeling and exhibiting outward emotion is a learned process for us. When we don’t jump for joy and shriek with excitement over an amazingly kind thing you’ve done, it isn’t because we don’t appreciate it, it’s because we haven’t learned to access that level of emotion yet. Buy me nice things, damn it.
10) We think we will fuck everything and everyone up.
As a child and teen, I thought the only certainty in my life was that I’d find a husband and have lots of babies. It’s the only thing I knew that I wanted. Since PTSD made an appearance in my life as a young adult, that dream and desire quickly dissipated. I questioned my ability to raise a child without fucking them up. I feared not being able to protect my babies or being unable to recognize the signs of abuse should something terrible happen. I feared being so intolerable that nobody would ever love me. Today, many of these fears still exist, though I’m working on them. It takes perseverance and a patient army to go through the trial-and-error processes that serve to prove that I’m not a total fuck-up and that not everything I touch will turn to shit. For those who already have children, there seems to be an overarching fear that they won’t be able to protect their child from the horrors of the world. Or worse, that their struggles and fears will seep through their pores or be projected onto their child and they will raise a human who experiences the same levels of anxiety, worry and self-doubt that they do. It’s a spiral and it’s a very real possibility. We also know that in order to prevent this from happening we have to work through the shit. We have to be okay with taking risks and making mistakes, and we have to overcome all of the points above this one.
Progress takes time. It takes a shitload of effort and we recognize that we are not the easiest people to be around all the time. But we also long for the same things as everyone else. We want to be good and we want to do good. I’m hoping that in writing some of my experiences down, I can help the people that I care about to recognize and understand my struggles. I also hope that it gives people the knowledge and understanding to help survivors of abuse to accept and work through the things that hold them back from being as awesome as they can be.
To those who don’t give up on victims of abuse. To those who persevere and put up with a LOT of bullshit and projected madness: Thank you for being patient and caring.
To my fellow stubborn, defensive and fearful assholes who have been through things that they never should have: You’ve got this. We will make it.