“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.”
As children, we need something stable and solid to hold onto in order to have a sense of security. I clung to my family as if they were my lifeline. They were the tether that anchored me to my world.
But what happens when the very thing you cling to for your security is what actually endangers you? What happens when your lifeline turns out to be a worn and wispy thread that breaks, plunging you into a vast darkness?
That’s what I did anyway. Dissociation is a defense mechanism that spares you from having to feel the pain and terror of a traumatic experience. It’s not a conscious process, it happens automatically. Dissociation allowed me to leave my body and my mind, as if through a portal, into a quiet dark place of nothingness – devoid of feeling. Dissociation allowed me to hide the darkness in my life and only see the good so that I could maintain the belief that I had a loving family, despite the fact that I was being sexually abused in my parent’s and grandparent’s home. Dissociation allowed me to go about my life as if nothing was wrong, cordoning off the painful memories from the rest of my consciousness, securing them in a locked vault somewhere in my body-mind.
I lived within the confines of what was tolerable and acceptable, where I interacted with my “good” family. We were all good at playing our roles to uphold a wholesome family image, especially my Dad. He wore his sheep’s clothing well. By all outward appearances, we were a normal, happy and close-knit family. We were seven across in the pew at our Catholic church every Sunday. My brothers were altar boys, my Dad was a lector. We lived in a beautiful three-story Tudor in the suburbs. My father held a steady job as a salesman and my Mom kept a tidy and well-stocked house, serving homemade dinners at 6 PM sharp. Every night we gathered around the table in our dinette with its cheery yellow-checkered wallpaper. I was enveloped by the noise of all of our voices mingling – rising and falling – muting the unspeakable and pushing it back further into my secret vault.
I split my world in two, separating night and day, good and bad, happy and sad. This split enabled me to enjoy a surprisingly “normal” life, one in which I had friendships, did well in school, went to college, dated, started a career, and eventually married – all of this while a part of me held the memories of terrifying and shameful events at the hands of family members.
Dissociation is a powerful and merciful defense mechanism.
But it has its limits. Looking back now I can see where signs of the sexual abuse broke through into my awareness, disguised as nightmares or moments of unexplained panic. I behaved in ways that hinted at my past trauma – drinking and smoking by age 13, skipping school, shoplifting, being promiscuous and spending many a night in an alcohol induced trance, sweating on crowded dance floors to pounding music. Despite all the ways I tried to numb myself, my hidden trauma kept trying to surface.
When I was in college I became very agitated and disturbed after my boyfriend confided in me that he had been sexually abused as a child. His story stirred something in me – the part of me that needed help and that wanted to tell her story. But I had no idea what was wrong with me and so I went to see the campus psychologist. His name was Dennis. When Dennis asked me to tell him about my family, I told him about the “good” family, because that’s all that I could see. I went on and on about my mother and my four brothers. And when I was finished he asked, “Is there anything else?”
“No, that’s pretty much it,” I said.
“What about your father?” Dennis asked.
“Oh, didn’t I mention him?”
Dennis shook his head.
“Well,” I said, “my Dad doesn’t really play an important role in the family.”
In painting my family portrait, I had left a big blank space where Dad was, relegating him, along with my other secrets, to the vault.
During my counseling sessions with Dennis, I did not get close to uncovering what was really bothering me. I suppose the timing wasn’t right. I was still living at home with my parents, after all. Fifteen years would pass before the vault would be opened and the secrets would be revealed. By then, my grandfather and father had been dead for years. Maybe it was finally safe for me to remember – and maybe my life depended on it.
I had just finished my treatments for breast cancer when I began to uncover my buried trauma. My world was turned upside down and I became untethered. Remembering the abuse was like being hit by wave after wave of terrifying emotions, unpleasant body sensations and disturbing images. Traumatic memory is processed differently than normal memory in that the memories are fragmented, often with no context or words or meaning attached to them. It was as if a thousand piece puzzle was dumped on me, each piece containing a little bit of trauma – a sensation, an image, a body memory, a flash of panic, an overwhelming feeling of grief, rage or terror.
But the more I dug through the rubble, the more I discovered hidden gems, like shimmering lights, that had been buried along with the trauma. I discovered that not only had I blocked out the painful memories, but that I had forgotten even the happy ones. It was as if I had numbed myself from everything that was associated with my trauma. As I healed, I began to remember happy times and moments of great peace and comfort. I began to remember that even in my darkest moments, I was aware a loving and peaceful presence – that there was something there with me.
– I remembered it in my grandmother’s hugs, when she pressed me into her softness.
– I remembered seeing it when I was a frightened little girl in the dark bedroom at grandfather’s house. An angel? I don’t know. All that mattered to me was that I could feel comfort and love emanating from it.
– I remembered it in the whisper of the ocean breeze and in the scent of the salt air.
– I remembered it in the glimmer of the moon reflected in the ocean, when as a teenager I walked alone on the beach searching.
– And I saw it in my therapist, when the terrified child in me saw a reflection of love and comfort in her eyes – something I had longed to see in my parent’s.
Eventually I would experience this love and peace within myself, but not until I sifted through the dirt and shame, and worked through the grief and fear and anger. I learned that things are never all good or all bad. I picked up the beautiful and the ugly puzzle pieces and fit them into the bigger picture of who I really was. Over time, I accepted the dark and the light, the good and the bad within me and within my family. I learned that having feelings of rage, revenge fantasies, and resentment did not make me a bad person – only human.
And perhaps most importantly I discovered that nothing could ever untether me from my own source of life, and that the love and comfort that I desperately needed as a child, that I longed for as a teenager and young adult, and that I caught glimpses of in the eyes of others, had always been there within my own heart – that I was never really alone and that the light within me could never, ever be diminished or destroyed.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”