What Happened When I Couldn’t Find Anywhere to Be Transparent as a Child After My Abuse
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
When I was in college, I was a head cantor for my church choir. One day, the music director approached me and said, “Anne, you’re so transparent when you sing. I don’t see or hear you, I see and hear God flowing through you.” At the time, this was an incredible compliment. As a Catholic woman I was taught it was my duty to be a channel of God, a vessel to live not for myself but for others and for my life to reflect God’s will not my own. I was to be invisible and silent, and God was to be seen and heard.
This message of transparency was also deeply rooted in the culture of my hometown. I was raised in Newport Beach, California, where a number of reality TV shows are filmed. I was taught being seen as I am was not good enough. I needed layers of makeup and lots of pretty clothes to compensate for my appearance. As a woman, beauty was the only thing I was supposed to reflect. My intellect, my voice, my passions and my power were all to remain invisible.
Unfortunately, my family system reinforced these values. My father, the alpha-male, always had the stage while my mother constantly lived in his shadow. I was one of four, the second-born and the only girl. I was extremely shy, so I became transparent, a bit invisible in my family system. Except for when I was sick.
I was born with a digestive disease called Hirschsprung’s, where a part of the intestine doesn’t pass stool through and can burst. I had half my large colon removed at 6 months old. Not long after, I suffered a number of grand mal seizures and was diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy: I had seizures, but the doctors didn’t know why.
To manage the epilepsy, I had to learn body awareness and communication from a very young age. It was then I learned a different way to be transparent: I needed to be honest, to be open, to be clear and to be vulnerable. I had to share my feelings, my shifts in energy and details about my environment to help my providers understand my symptoms and anticipate my next episode. When I was sick, I got lots of attention: from Mom and Dad and doctors and nurses. When I was sick, I was safe.
When I wasn’t sick, I wasn’t safe. Because another terrible layer to my story is that I was sexually abused by my father, my grandfather and my uncle. They couldn’t hurt me when I was at the hospital, but when I was at home, anything they wanted happened behind closed doors. My body was their channel. I was their vessel, not to live from my own will but to be a victim of theirs.
I was receiving so many mixed messages: be beautiful from Newport, be virginal from the Catholics; be a vessel of God the Father, be a vessel of God my father; be transparent by being invisible, see-through, silent, sick; be transparent by being honest, authentic, open and clear.
To survive, my identity and world began to fragment itself. At home, this was who I am and these were the rules. Behind closed doors with my perpetrators, this was who I am and these were the rules. At the hospital, this was who I am and these were the rules. At church, this who I am and these were the rules. There was no space for me to just be me in any of these places.
The stress on my body and brain from my tumultuous childhood caused me to forget nearly everything about my home life during those years. All of my memories about my illness were relayed to me by my mother. All the memories of incest were forgotten.
As soon as I left my house at 18 to go to college, my brain, my body and my being slowly started to remember. It began with physical symptoms: I started shaking, I couldn’t go to the bathroom, I started to feel fatigued. The psychological symptoms followed: I had repetitive dreams about rape, I was scared to walk across campus alone at night, I avoided the party scene to stay away from people who might not have control, I started to feel depressed and anxious. My emotions were all over the place — I would wake up in a state of rage and have no idea why. I picked and scratched at my skin to relieve emotional build-up. My spirit began to confuse the difference between God the Father and God my father.
My junior year, I decided to study abroad in El Salvador. El Salvador is one of the most dangerous peace time countries in the world. The effects of a 12-year civil war from 1980-1992 and the continued gang violence has caused immeasurable amounts of trauma in the community. As they were transparent about their trauma, as they cried out about injustice, poverty, violence, rape and war in their lives, my own internalized and forgotten trauma began to rattle within me.
When I returned home, I was basically catatonic. I saw numerous doctors. They said all of the symptoms were psychosomatic. I was confused as to why my brain was making my body so sick. Why was I suffering so much? So I began to see a therapist.
Therapy was the first time I could be totally transparent — not in the invisible way but in the honest, open and clear-about-everything way. I was finally able to share all the ways I felt invisible and all the ways I wanted to be seen. All the ways I felt silenced and all the ways I wanted to be heard. There were no rules here and I was received.
She noticed the priority of secrets and lack of boundaries in my family system and encouraged me to distance myself. I was preparing to go to graduate school over 400 miles away from home which would help create space. As soon as I left, I began working with a spiritual director who also noticed the abusive family patterns I had normalized and encouraged me not to return home at all. She helped me reclaim my faith and see God as a God of love, teaching me I didn’t have to be transparent for God — invisible or a vessel of his will, but instead I could be transparent with God. My body and experience were my own and I could live out of my own agency.
With real transparency, came the truth. In a number of imaginative exercises over the past 10 years, I have been able to see, to hear and to believe years of memories of incest and illness. It became very clear to me I needed to make space for that invisible child who was required to hide within me all of those years to heal. But making space to heal was incredibly challenging and took the entire decade of my 20s just to find a baseline.
Transparency around rape and recovery was not something many were ready for on an individual or systematic level, so my life and identity again became deeply fragmented. My family dismissed my memories and thought I was making it up, so I lost them. Patriarchy was so embedded into the Catholic imagination that I no longer felt safe there. Rape and recovery were considered inappropriate topics to talk about at work, so I had to lie to my employers just to meet my daily health needs. When I found the courage to report my story to the police, I was required to return to Newport to tell them.
When I arrived, I was told the statute of limitations had passed and I couldn’t report. I demanded to report anyway and nothing was done. The medical community is not set up to work in an integrated way. So it took over a dozen practitioners and a lot of financial resources to recover my physical and psychological health, most of which weren’t covered by insurance. It was up to me to figure out how all of these symptoms connected to the abuse and how to navigate this process. Healing was isolating, expensive and individualistic.
But even amidst these challenges, my commitment to living a transparent and authentic life did in fact lead to healing. As space was created to recover, lovely things began to fill that space. People who could hold my transparency in love became my family. I found activities that nourished my body, brain and being from swimming with friends, to hiking in the woods, to exploring beauty in various art museums. Eventually, I found employers who were receptive to my recovery process. I learned in all these places I didn’t have to be sick to be safe, and my brain began to tell my body to heal.
And then one day everything changed. In October of 2017, my individualistic commitment to transparency became a communal one. I woke up to see #MeToo splashed across my social media feeds. Instantly, I understood my recovery was so much bigger than me. So many people were just beginning to be transparent about their rape stories and just entering the recovery process. All of a sudden, all I learned from my own healing process could now be gifted to others.
So, I started a blog called Blue&Lavender. Each post was devoted to a theme and a story and how the wisdom from each experience helped me to heal a little bit more. I talked about the beauty of my life, how it is braided together with the horror of it and the realizations, resources, connections and communities that helped me to heal. The more I wrote, the more my community wanted. This wasn’t surprising.
We often are diagnosed with complex PTSD, common also in prisoners of war and survivors of genocides. We often forget the traumatic experiences due to either such a heightened level of stress that our brains can’t process regularly, or we have to forget in order to bond to our perpetrators for survival. Communal identity is so important for those with traumatic experiences because it validates the event: even if individual memories are lost, the communal experience remains. Even with war, or the Holocaust, or the Rwandan genocide, the communal experiences still remain to bond the survivors to their histories.
There is a great need for a communal identity for sexual abuse survivors. So often our traumatic experiences happen behind closed doors. The consequences aren’t seen on the outside. So when we forget, or when we’re intentionally told by our families and our communities it didn’t happen, the visual experience is lost, while the emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual consequences influence the rest of our lives.
So this year, I decided to turn my blog into a women’s trauma recovery collective with a mission to create a communal identity for female trauma survivors. Blue&Lavender seeks to do three things: build a platform for survivors to share their stories of violence and victory, make recovery resources more affordable and accessible and create a community for women to recover together. It is a blog, a podcast, a list of resources and a Facebook group that offers peer-to-peer support, and includes events to build community.
It is proven one of the best modalities for women to heal from trauma is simply being in community with other women. Also, perpetrators are sometimes victims who haven’t healed themselves. It is imperative we recover from our traumas so we break the cycle of violence for the next generation. It is imperative we recover so we get to experience life in the way it was intended to be experienced: joyfully, safely and transparently.
Getty image by jacoblund