Indomitable Spirit

September 24, 2009 at 12:05 pm 25 comments

I am a survivor of childhood sexual assault.

But that’s not all that I am. I am a straight-A student. I am a wife, happily married. I am a good friend, a writer, a karaoke diva, and an activist. I think sometimes that I love life more than a lot of people I know. I say all this to emphasize that I am not defined solely by something traumatic that happened to me when I was a little girl.

It certainly shaped who I am, forever changed my life, and continues to affect my relationships with people and my perspective. I grew up fast, but it was the sort of growing that occurs when bones are broken and not properly set. I made bad decisions. I nearly failed out of high school. My senior year, I slept through every class before lunch because I could not sleep at night. While I got a perfect 5 on my AP English exam, I had the lowest grade in the class, and to this day I believe my D- was given out of pity. I did drugs. I did a lot of things I’m not proud of and would rather not elaborate upon. I was awful and thankless toward people who helped me along the way, because I felt the world owed me everything and more. I floundered through life feeling pretty sorry for myself for a long time.

But I did not break.

Yesterday an email conversation about Mackenzie Phillips made me think a lot about this. One dear friend suggested that, due to what happened to Mackenzie, she is irreparably broken. And you know, though I completely get where my friend was coming from, it still really struck a nerve with me, because I can’t write people off as permanently damaged, no matter what happens to them. I’ve been written off that way by a lot of people in my life, and so often I think, “if only they saw me now.”

Awful things happen to people, but I have to believe they can survive them and be whole again, because I feel like, from where I sit, I am a whole person. That said, I’m certainly not the person I might have been had I not gone through the multiple betrayals and violations I endured. But from where I sit, I’m not entirely sure I’d ever undo that past, as much as I would never want anything resembling it to be visited upon a single human being on Earth. It’s either in spite of or because of that past that the woman I am now is strong, independent, compassionate and loved. So loved. And I’ll never know which it is. I’ll never who I would be if I lived in some parallel universe where, at 11 years old, my life hadn’t changed forever.

I realize I can’t compare my experience to Phillips’s—how can any two people compare their experiences, however similar? Yet, while it does no good to quantify trauma or qualify its severity because trauma is trauma, part of me feels I can say with something resembling objectivity, “Thankfully what happened to me isn’t even in the same ballpark as what happened to Mackenzie Phillips.” For one thing, my stepfather did not shoot me up with drugs; he gave me martinis. And the dissimilarities only begin there. But that doesn’t make me feel better. It’s not a salve or a consolation,  nor is it really productive in any way that I can see. It certainly doesn’t diminish the impact of the betrayal by people whose sole purpose should have been to protect me from harm, the years of depression and post-traumatic stress, the substance abuse, or the bridges I burned with people who cared about me. So while it could be easy to give in to the notion that I didn’t break because I didn’t have it as bad as this person or that person, I do know that one can survive all manner of trauma and be whole again. I may have doubted it many times, but I always knew I was not irreparably broken. When I got that close to the point of breaking and then didn’t actually break, I think I started, over the years, to doubt whether there even are limits for what we can survive emotionally. I don’t believe people must be irreparably broken because of something like this (though certainly people can and do break), and it’s probably the only thing resembling “faith” that I have. My faith is in people, and I don’t believe people are so fragile as all that.

Because I neither believe in god nor “souls” in the religious sense, it feels weird to use the phrase “human spirit,” but I’m at a loss for a better way to refer to what I see as a strong instinct within us all to survive, to be whole people, to heal and come out stronger on the other side of even the most horrific experiences. I must believe in it. For Mackenzie. For Jaycee Lee Duggard. For Elisabeth Fritzl. And for women like me, who have suffered abuse far less severe—there I go qualifying trauma again—than the years of unspeakable violence and damage done to those women I mentioned. I believe that the “human spirit,” or whatever you want to call it, is more resilient than most of us will ever have cause to discover.

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25 Comments Add your own

  • 1. jodifur  |  September 24, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    I’m sorry for what happened to you, and I’m sorry for my part in making you uncomfortable.

    And good for you for all the work you did to get to place you are now.

    Reply
  • 2. Karina in T.O  |  September 24, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Jesus! I’m so sorry you had to go through the horrible experience. And I think it’s fabulous that today you are the woman you are. Much love, and keep the snark coming, too.

    Reply
  • 3. Melissa Multitasking Mama  |  September 24, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    I admire your courage in posting this. I was molested repeatedly as a child and wouldn’t want to air my subsequent dirty laundry on Oprah for any amount of money- unless it would help others that have gone through the same thing. That is what I applaud Mackenzie for (and you for writing this post).

    I do believe in God and am praying for you, if that is okay.

    Reply
  • 4. baltimoregal  |  September 24, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Well-written and with incredibly brave spirit.
    I wish you didn’t have the experience but I sure do like who you are.

    Reply
  • 5. Michael  |  September 24, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    You said “broken” a number of times through this post, and I considered what you could mean by it. I just don’t really know. If my sink is “broken”, it doesn’t do the job a sink is supposed to.

    So, applying that to people, when a person is broken, does that mean they don’t do what a person is supposed to? We could apply all sorts of answers to the question “what is a person supposed to do?” and have that discussion, but that would diverge from my point more than I already have. People are like skin…they don’t “break” so much as they become injured. The nice thing about that is that very rarely, or never, are injuries so extreme that the person must be disposed of.

    The bad thing? When a device breaks, you can fix it…good as new. When an animal suffers injury, we obtain scars. We carry the road map of our betrayals and injuries on ourselves. I think the questions you pose are important, but for me, there is one answer…I don’t know this woman who is you, but you without your experiences; I know and like you…I don’t want to trade and I doubt anyone else does.

    Reply
  • 6. schmutzie  |  September 25, 2009 at 8:25 am

    This weblog is being featured on Five Star Friday – http://www.fivestarfriday.com/2009/09/five-star-fridays-edition-72.html

    Reply
  • 7. Ali  |  September 25, 2009 at 8:47 am

    beautiful, brave post.

    Reply
  • 8. sweetney  |  September 25, 2009 at 9:42 am

    So proud you’re my friend.

    Reply
  • 9. TwoBusy  |  September 25, 2009 at 9:56 am

    One of the most powerful things I’ve read in a looooong time.

    Reply
  • 10. Nancy  |  September 25, 2009 at 10:02 am

    Amazing post. So many elements of our experiences are shared. I am stronger from my survivorship, although, given the chance to choose, I would have preferred to keep my innocence.

    Reply
  • 11. Erin  |  September 25, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Wow. Amazing post! My life has also taken a path quite like yours. I’m not as understanding as you though. I feel broken, irrevocably damaged. Of course, I’ve made it through and I have “triumphed” so to speak over that and maintain a fairly normal life but…some things never go away. I still feel like something was taken away from me that I can’t ever get back.

    Reply
  • 12. pineapplebabble  |  September 25, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Beautiful post. You clearly personify the title. And it was an honor to read about your perspective on both your personal tale and others’ with similar stories. Thank you.

    Reply
  • 13. nakedjen  |  September 25, 2009 at 10:25 am

    thank you. for your beautiful words and for reminding me that i, too, am a whole person. that is all.

    Reply
  • 14. Gray Matter  |  September 25, 2009 at 10:48 am

    You raise so many good points. This post is going to resonnate with a lot of people. You’re terrific!

    Reply
  • 15. Redd  |  September 25, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Thank you for being brave enough to share.

    Reply
  • 16. sashalyn  |  September 25, 2009 at 10:48 am

    There is so much in this post that I feel I can identify with… not the least of which is the fact that Mackinzie’s story has caused a lot of self reflection. I am like you, in that I feel that I would not be who I am without experiencing sexual violence- and although I would never wish it upon anyone, ever, I love the woman I’ve become! I was a rape crisis counselor for eight years, turning my trauma into a passion for helping others through one of the darkest experiences a person can live through. Although I will always wonder who I might’ve been without being raped at age 13, it hasn’t broken me- it has, as they say, only made me stronger.

    Thank you so much for posting this- your courage to share your truth is truly inspiring- and it has helped me come to a greater experience of mine. Resilience is an amazing thing, isn’t it?

    Reply
  • 17. cagey  |  September 25, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Yes, you are correct. A person can experience unimaginable things and still prosper as a person. I absolutely agree with your terms of its shaping of a person – regardless if that person is broken or not, it does shape a person.

    I did not suffer serious abuse, but did experience some serious neglect at the hands of free-loving hippes who felt it was okay to party, smoke pot and drink in front of their impressionable young children. I spent my 20s hating them (in particular, my mother because my father at least got sober when I turned 12 – aptly, after their divorce) and blaming them for all MY own irresponsible choices.

    In my late 20s, I realized that I had to take ownership of my own life and my own choices. I try to not look back on that sad, lonely childhood and I choose to pull only the good from it. It was a difficult process to get to that point, but I am a better person for it now. You are right in that a person can move on and become something. And yes, the human spirit IS resilient.

    I commend you for having the courage to post this. I cannot talk about this on my own blog and rarely talk publicly about my own childhood like this. Even making this comment makes me shaky. However, you had the courage to share. Thank you.

    Reply
  • 18. maggie, dammit  |  September 25, 2009 at 11:51 am

    Oh, wow. Thank you for writing this. THANK YOU.

    When this post moves off your front page a bit I’d love to feature it on Violence UnSilenced, if you’re willing. It’s up to you, email me if you’d like.

    Either way, you have done a service here today and I am grateful.

    Reply
  • 19. amber  |  September 25, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Thank you for this post. You put into words what I haven’t been able to (and I’m currently trying). You’re right. You can choose to let that kind of event break you…or you can scream into the abyss and refuse to let it happen.

    But you can’t stop it from shaping you. You can’t.

    Reply
  • 20. ann  |  September 25, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    It’s so easy to focus on the abuse and the tragedy that defines assault.

    Your post reminds everyone of an essential part–resilience.

    Reply
  • 21. eden  |  September 26, 2009 at 3:04 am

    Awesome post. Thank you.

    Reply
  • 22. Fran  |  September 26, 2009 at 5:53 am

    It hurts my heart to consider the evil that exists, and is inflicted on innocence by those who should be protecting not hurting. I hope you choose to share your story on Violence Unsilenced.You set a brave example for others. It is good to claim victory from our battles with darkness.

    Reply
  • 23. Lorie  |  September 29, 2009 at 9:29 am

    What a brave a beautifully written post about a very ugly truth. I recently met a neighbor who I had written off as rude and judgmental for not letting her daughter come to by house for a play date. She later got up the courage to tell me the reason why. She too was abused and although I am just getting to know her, it is obvious that this event has shaped her.
    Thank you for shedding more light on this subject for me. As someone who doesn’t know what you went through or still struggle with, it is a lesson of strength.

    Reply
  • 24. Deb on the Rocks  |  December 15, 2009 at 10:23 am

    so right, sister. so right.

    Reply
  • 25. türk sikiş  |  March 9, 2011 at 10:34 am

    This weblog is being featured

    Reply

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