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The 10 Atypical Red Flags That Were Signs of My Trauma

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When I was being sexually abused as a child, there was nothing I wanted more than to have an adult figure out what was happening to me and put a stop to it. But at the same time, discordantly, I was also determined to make sure no one ever found out. I was intensely ashamed and was also being threatened that my family would be hurt if I told anyone. So, I stuffed everything down (so far that I didn’t even remember much of the abuse until I was in my early 20s.) I threw myself into having what I thought was a “normal” life. I excelled in school, made good friends, never got into any kind of trouble — on the outside, I looked like the perfect kid. But now, looking back, I can see that there were all kinds of red flags that were signs of the trauma I had suffered.

Each child who has been abused displays different behaviors, but because I wasn’t acting out, getting bad grades, showing anger, drinking or doing drugs, etc. I think I was able to slip through the cracks. I would love parents to take note if their child exhibits any kind of red flags. There might be no abuse happening at all, but beginning to look for even the possibility of trauma could save a lot of years of suffering (and might have been enough to help me). Here are some of the atypical signs I was exhibiting during my childhood that were signs of trauma:

1. Intense anxiety — My anxiety was so bad that I was often afraid to go to school, to interact with new people, to go to any kinds of social activities. I would feel sick to my stomach and my heart would race anytime anything out of my daily routine was happening. The adults in my life were aware of this but often chalked it up to me just being a worrier or a “nervous” kid. Now I know that my anxiety was never in proportion to what I was worrying about — the world just felt like too much all of the time.

2. Mystery illnesses — Since the time I was very small, I’ve always had weird illnesses that were hard for doctors to explain. Ranging from uncontrollable vomiting to stomachaches to bladder issues — I spent a good chunk of my childhood feeling sick (and in doctor’s offices). I realize now that my body was simply trying to express the trauma in the only way it knew how.

3. Perfectionist outlook — The word overachiever doesn’t even begin to cover it. I had to make virtually no mistakes in my schoolwork in order for me to feel OK. If I did make mistakes (no matter how small), I felt devastated — so sure everyone would find out I wasn’t really perfect or smart or good enough.

4. Obsession with getting good grades — My drive to get good grades was intense. I didn’t have much of a social life because most of my time was spent studying. Anything less than all A’s was unacceptable in my mind.

5. Inability to date — During my high school years, I didn’t form relationships with boys like my friends did. I felt too anxious to talk to anyone, and when I made friends with boys, I was terrified it would lead to something else. So, I just kept dating off the table.

6. People-pleasing attitude — I was so worried that people would find out I was a bad person that I felt like I needed to go above and beyond to make sure the people in my life were happy with me. This left virtually no room for expressing my own wishes or thoughts — everyone else’s needs were way more important than my own.

7. Reluctance to try new things — From a very young age, I would avoid trying new activities, meeting new people, venturing out into the world. If I couldn’t completely control a situation it felt too terrifying to attempt. My world stayed really small because I wasn’t capable of expanding it.

8. Inability to picture a long-term future for myself — While I always had dreams for myself, as I got older, it became harder and harder for me to picture what I would want my future to look like. I simply couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine myself as an older person. It has always just felt like I’ll never reach later adulthood.

9. Self-harm — I started self-harming when I was young and had no way of understanding that this was a coping mechanism to help me deal with the abuse. It’s unfortunate how it can be mislabeled as just something rebellious teens do, when it can really be a sign of immense pain someone’s experiencing. I kept my self-harm as hidden as possible (it was another thing I felt ashamed of), which made it one more cry for help that I purposely kept silenced.

10. Recurring thoughts of death and suicide — I’m only now beginning to realize how deep-set these themes were in my brain (probably starting at a really young age). I thought for so long that other kids’ brains worked the same way, but I now get that it’s another sign of trauma I exhibited (but didn’t talk about) for decades.

For myself, I know that I couldn’t have done anything differently. I was coping the best way I knew how in an impossible situation. But I guess there will always be a part of me that wishes someone had seen the red flags and put a stop to the events that have shaped my life so much. I just want people to know that signs of abuse can be insidious, hiding in plain sight too — they don’t have to be obvious, outward displays of bad behavior. Sometimes trauma can manifest as obsessing about grades or feeling like there’s no future for yourself. Whatever the signs are, if they’re not dealt with, they’ll just keep eating away at you until you get help.

Photo by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash

Originally published: December 21, 2020
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