Beth here: with my daughter’s permission, I’m sharing a piece she wrote in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. She reflected on what it was like when I “took off the mask” I wore as a result of being sexually abused as a child and expected to maintain a facade of “everything’s fine.”
When Mom Took Off the Mask
by Mandy Fehlbaum
**Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse Recovery**
I remember when I was a kid that my mom would go to therapy appointments. Then she didn’t.
We moved across the country when I was 4 – from Texas to Oregon – then back again. I didn’t know why at the time, other than that my parents wanted to try something new, then got homesick and we came back. We even came back to the same house. We got 2 of the 3 dogs we gave away back.
My mom made another go at therapy my first year at college. My dad had started to go to therapy, he finished, then my mom started to see the same therapist on her own. That was when everything changed.
When my mom went to therapy, her mask started to crack. And, like Junot writes about, it was very uncomfortable. She feared losing everything. EVERYTHING. I think prying the mask off nearly destroyed her. It very well could have had she not worked with the right therapist. Her previous attempts to take it off when I was a kid were not successful. Her attempt to run away from it was unsuccessful.
For many years – for a little over 18 years of my life – my family lived behind the mask, too. As Junot points out, the mask feels like home. You just get so used to it. My sisters and I were born while my mom wore the mask. We didn’t know about the sexual abuse and how my grandmother excused it. We just saw a very loving grandma and a step-grandfather that was a major asshole sometimes.
I do not at all begrudge my mom for wearing the mask for as long as she did. As Junot writes, “It felt good to be behind the mask. It felt like home.” Who wants to rip off something that is so comforting? Who wants to risk losing everything? My mom thought that my sisters and I would choose my grandparents – especially my grandma – over her. Seriously.
I was going through some things today and I found a project I did back in 2000. In any case, I spoke about family values and how one of the values my parents passed down to me was that of unconditional love. I thought it was a shared family value, but my grandparents’ love had an asterisk. It required that the mask stay on. They’d love us as long as wore the mask and denied its existence. Fuck that.
My family and I – especially my mom – live without the mask. My mom took it off. Threw it away. She had spent years now getting her face accustomed to the feeling of the elements. I am immensely proud of her. She speaks her truth to audiences. She writes books to help others.
Most recently, she has a book coming out with her former therapist: Trauma Recovery – Sessions with Dr. Matt: Narratives of Hope and Resilience for Victims with PTSD.
I didn’t write all this to be a plug for my mom’s book. I wrote it because the part in Junot’s piece about there being comfort in the mask really stood out to me. I get it. But, as Junot points out throughout the piece, the mask is also suffocating.
“Every year, I feel less like the dead, more a part of the living. The intrusions are fewer now, and when they come they don’t throw me completely. I still have those horrible dreams every now and then, and they are still foul as fuck, but at least I have resources to deal with them… I think of all the years and all the life I lost to the hiding and to the fear and to the pain. The mask got more of me than I ever did. But mostly I think about what it felt like to say the words—to my therapist, all those years ago; to tell my partner, my friends, that I’d been raped. And what it feels like to say the words here, where the whole world—and maybe you—might hear.
“Toni Morrison wrote, ‘Anything dead coming back to life hurts.’ In Spanish we say that when a child is born it is given the light. And that’s what it feels like to say the words, X—. Like I’m being given a second chance at the light.”
So, this Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I want to say that if you’re still wearing a mask, that’s okay. You’re not ready yet. But when you are ready, I’ll be here. We’ll be here. And we’re ready to meet you and accept you as you are, in the light.
Trauma Recovery: Sessions with Dr. Matt conveys hope and resilience for trauma victims. Written by a psychologist with 35 years of clinical experience, and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Between compellingly-written scenes of group, individual and family therapy, the cognitive-behavioral science of PTSD and its treatment is explained. The book movingly describes the collaboration between therapist and clients as they strive to get unstuck from trauma-ravaged lives. Reluctant trauma victims who have avoided treatment or who are having trouble processing life’s catastrophes will find in these pages a “fly-on-the-wall” perspective of how therapy can help. Useful information about overcoming obstacles in treatment is provided while fears about facing trauma are allayed, motivating the reluctant victim to finally seek treatment. The book will also greatly inform motivated patients by providing a thorough, scientifically-sound understanding of PTSD’s nature and treatment. This book should be in every trauma therapist’s office and placed in the hand of each of their PTSD patients.
By Beth Fehlbaum, Matt E. Jaremko, and guest contributors
Beth Fehlbaum and Matt E. Jaremko, co-authors of the forthcoming book, Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt, address some of what happens to folks as they go through trauma recovery. In this installment, Matt and Beth discuss what can and does happen to the relationships in a victim’s social network, especially the ones with family and friends who remain in denial about the horror of being traumatized. To assist in illustrating the impact recovery has on social relationships, Beth asked her social media community for contributions about their experiences in this matter.
Beth: For way too long, I stayed stuck in the trauma I experienced because of Childhood Sexual Abuse at the hands of my stepfather. I feared that facing the truth about my life would cause the loss of a relationship with my mother, and quite honestly, sometimes when I expressed to others how much pain I was in because of my past, their responses were not supportive. You may have heard this phrase, or at least something similar to it: “You should just get over it. What’s done is done. You can’t stay stuck in the past. Can’t you think about anything else?”
When I heard that, I felt defective and weak. But I wasn’t defective OR weak: I was traumatized, and I needed help from an experienced mental health professional.
If you’re in a place like I was–knowing that something’s got to change, but fearing the repercussions of pursuing healing—trust me when I say that I know how you feel. Extended family tried to “shush” me when I told them what happened to me as a child, minimized what I’d been through, and even announced to me that they’d forgiven my perpetrator, so why couldn’t I?
I felt a clashing of what I knew to be true with what others wished I would believe is true, or what they wished I would do (i.e. just shut up,) so that they would not have to deal with messy stuff. Their words and lack of support made me doubt the seriousness of what I’d been through. It’s hard to bring up inconvenient truths and walk through fire to come out the other side as a recovered person. The soles of my metaphorical feet are toughened now, but walking through that fire was incredibly challenging.
It’s my hope that by reading stories of people bravely confronting the hard truths so that healing can happen, you will find hope and the knowledge that you are not alone in being scared, and you–yes, YOU–have what it takes to survive the essential step of embracing the truth about your trauma, no matter how others react to it.
Here, Matt and I share a collection of contributed stories of relationships that changed when a traumatized person chose to face the truth about their life, no matter how ugly or scary it was to confront it. Brave survivors graciously tell, in their own words, how some relationships changed when they, too, stopped playing “Let’s Pretend Nothing Ever Happened.” With the exception of my own name in the last entry in this series, the names of all those who contributed their stories have been changed to protect their privacy. These stories are examined from the viewpoint of what behavioral science has to say about the necessary ingredients in successful recovery from traumatic events.
Please note: Having a solid support system in place, including a partnership with a mental health practitioner, can be very helpful to get through rocky periods. I’d go so far as to say it’s essential. Help is available, no matter what your financial situation. Check out the following sites for referrals to therapists in your area: https://cptforptsd.com/cpt-provider-roster http://rainn.org (Click on “Get Help” link).
Joanna: Setting Boundaries with an Abusive Parent
I grew with a psychologically abusive narcissistic father and an enabling mother, in a conservative Catholic homeschooling home, so I had little chance to see how other families interacted. I thought our family life was normal. Crappy, but normal.
Then two things happened: I stumbled across some books at the library that perfectly explained that my dad has a personality disorder—and it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I wasn’t a terrible person after all! And when I made friends at college, including my now-husband, their reactions when I talked about how things were at home were…interesting. I had no idea it was shocking or strange or abusive.
I knew that I couldn’t ever get my dad or mom to acknowledge the truth, so I mainly created boundaries for starters, especially after I moved out. Maybe it would be easier to weather his abuse if I minimized contact?
When I stopped giving my parents so much access to me, the shit hit the fan. Dad disowned me. My mom and one of my brothers reached out to me, trying to get us to reconcile, and by reconcile, I mean they wanted me to apologize to dad and pretend nothing happened. I just couldn’t do that anymore. I didn’t directly tell my mom that dad was abusive–I just told her that I did nothing wrong and will not apologize. I told her I wanted HIM to apologize for hurting me, and she said, “He won’t do it, because that’s just the way he is.”
I really hoped my brother would understand; after all, Dad was really hard on him, and he suffered more abuse than me while we grew up. I tried to tell him that dad was abusive, and that I was done with that. He tried to minimize it: “Dad’s not perfect; no parent is perfect, so you should apologize to him.” My brother even brought religion into it–about how we should honor our parents and how I should forgive him. He told me that I was being incredibly disrespectful to dad, and he could no longer consider me a sister.
I was afraid my relatives would not believe me, but one by one, they reached out, and I treaded carefully, slowly telling them that dad was abusive and that I refused to experience that anymore. Surprisingly, most of them knew something was wrong and believed me, so thank God I still have relatives I can stay in touch with. I didn’t lose my whole family! Some of them didn’t want to talk about it much, which was okay. I am still able to talk with some others, piece together some parts of my childhood, and I can confide in them when I learn more about my family.
And perhaps most hopefully, one of my younger siblings reached out recently. They were quite small when I was disowned, and Dad told them all sorts of things about me, but one contacted me, and we’re slowly rebuilding our relationship. This sibling absolutely acknowledges that Dad is abusive.
Michael: Recognizing the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing When I was in college, I lived with my aunt. She was a textbook abuser; outgoing, life-of-the-party to those who knew only her only on the surface, but an abuser behind closed doors. She was demeaning, degrading, and her demands were unpredictable. She was a master in gas-lighting and manipulation, which made me stay silent about the ongoing abuse. If I did something she didn’t like, she would call my mom to tell her random lies about me. Petty, right? These things ranged from telling Mom that I was horribly disrespectful to her, to truly bizarre stories such as hearing from a neighbor that I was engaging in sexual intercourse on the hood of a car in front of her house.
I didn’t tell anyone what was really going on until I started dating my now-wife, Cindy, and that was a huge step for me. My aunt threatened me that if I told anyone about the abuse, I would absolutely regret it. As I grew closer to Cindy, I finally regained some of my lost dignity and self-value and I started to fight back. My aunt eventually threw me out of the house, and it was unexpected when she did it. Even though I told her a week in advance that I’d be going somewhere, I came back to her house that day to find my stuff on her front porch. I was shocked, yet thrilled.
Because I had been so gas-lit by my aunt, I thought my parents were going to be enraged with me. I could only begin to imagine the ridiculous lies my aunt had likely told them. I was pleasantly shocked when my father called me and said that I indeed needed to get away from her for good. He knew very, very few details about what happened, but he knew something was truly wrong.
My sudden eviction immediately created a giant rift between my mom and her family. I’m incredibly close to my mom, and although we’ve never spoken of the rift, I feel that she thought she had to distance herself from her family because they would possibly reject her for seemingly taking my side. I sense that she knew my aunt had likely manipulated her siblings and my grandmother by demonizing me. In my heart, I felt bad. I’m incredibly defensive of my mom and I hated thinking that anyone was saying anything negative about her. Even more, I hated thinking that this rift was caused by me and the lies that an abuser told. My siblings were fiercely loyal to me, even when my mom regained her comfort level to visit her family again.
Whenever my family came down to visit me, my siblings were adamant about not joining my parents to visit the extended family if my aunt was going to be present. I knew that deep-down, this wasn’t the easiest thing—for my mom to show up without us in tow. Even though Mom is incredibly strong and confident, I still felt horrible about the excuses she had to make about us not being there with her and my dad for the visit.
As time went on and I was empowered by therapy and treatment for my PTSD and anxiety disorder, my meek declines to join for visits to my aunt turned into a confident easy “No.” I recently ran into her in public after not seeing her for about 8 years. It was strange, because she approached me, and she looked…humbled. I can never recall a time in my life when she ever looked humbled.
I impressed myself with the amount of cordiality and composure I had when interacting with her. Seeing her humbled and really digesting my own reaction to her finally made me realize that after nearly 10 years, I was finally at peace with what happened. Seeing her was so surreal. She looked so much physically smaller to me, and it blew my mind. I discussed it with my therapist, and she mentioned that it had a lot to do with my aunt not being a threat to me anymore.
Since then, I shared with my mom and siblings that I had an amicable run-in with my aunt. Nevertheless, I stressed to my siblings that I would not be magically bringing my aunt into the fold. It is a relationship I have done without for nearly a decade, and I don’t want or need it. It’s not beneficial to my well-being, and I feel no obligation to revisit that relationship. My confidence in my recovery has fortunately resulted in my parents truly respecting my choice.
Christy: Working Hard and Letting Go
My father started sexually abusing me when I was 7. I was not his first victim, nor his last. I told my mother, my minister, and a family friend whose husband was a police officer.
My mother’s response was, “I thought something like this was happening. I’ll talk to him.”
Talking did no good. The family friend never told her husband because she was afraid of my father. The minister finally called the police after three years of counseling my parents didn’t work. My father eventually went to prison, but not for what he did to me.
My mother knew. She now talks about the bad thing that happened. She says she didn’t know. She says she did the best she could, but I have learned that she knew much more about my father’s past than she ever let on, and she had her own insidious part in it. It is not my story to tell, so I will not give details, but she participated in the abuse of another girl.
I have tried to understand my mother, and her pain, and her past. It is inconceivable to me, and as much as I have tried, I have finally stopped trying.
A few years ago, when my mother and I were sort of at a truce point in our relationship, she had a terrible car accident. She was in really bad shape, and my husband and I went to see her. During our visit, she told me that as her financial power of attorney, I would need to call her insurance agent and tell her about the accident. She said the agent would probably take it hard, because she and mother were also friends.
The next day I called and told the agent my name and whose daughter I was. She got really quiet, then she asked if I had a sister.
I said, “Yes,” because I assumed she was asking for security purposes to verify I was who I said I was. I told her my sister’s name, and she said my mother had never mentioned having two daughters.
My sister later told me that she took mother to see her insurance agent after she had recovered a little bit from the accident, and the agent asked why she had never mentioned having two daughters. Mother said she couldn’t imagine when I would have come up in conversation. It has taken me several years, but I am at the point of ending my relationship with my mother. I am tired of the drama and the scapegoating.
My life is good now. I have worked hard to work through my trauma. It still hits me sometimes, but I don’t need my mother’s drama and negativity any more.
Sophie:Reclaiming Herself from an Abusive Past
Victim. Survivor. Hot Mess.
I trembled in the lobby of the therapists’ office, shaking but too stubborn to fall from my last hope that things would ever get better for me. Because they hadn’t and they wouldn’t and someone sitting across a couch from me might prevent me from erupting in a road rage homicide or having more breakdowns in front of total strangers.
Everything I had never said sat like a ball of lead inside of me and even just threatening to expose it to the air caused it to strike out, hissing smoke until I was an eruption of the shakes and leaks. And I don’t just mean the embarrassing mom leaks. It was a moment of absolute terror that the hemorrhage of my life blood was the devil that I already knew and this was… something I could never have imagined for me.
I’m not that person- this person. I’m not that weak; I’m not that strong; I am not a Lifetime movie. Did the lonely lady die at the end? That was a projection, I recognized.
The questions of isolation and death loomed in my mind ever since I looked into my ex-husband’s eyes and saw a desire to kill me. Every hostile look or act or sound or jumpy twitch under my skin evoked a muscle memory like his hands still wound about my neck, and I froze my life to not spook him into squeezing the rest.
I stood against the fear of this moment, bringing me right back to the catalyst moment, a time of forcible transformation. I looked the moment in the eye and stood the way I had against him, looking him in the eyes and refusing to budge in a way that I never could against the abuses of my childhood. I was that woman.
I stopped flinching at myself—at the tired droop of my shoulders and the deflecting self-deprecation and the silent shouting that seemed to exist in my head. I knew I belonged there; it scared the shit out of me.
You can’t see yourself the same way after that- for better or for worse. The slow, draining flow of secrets and lies and denials that weren’t even my fault had finally drained and left the hole open. I was empty and exposed and suddenly aware of the desperate need to never need anyone.
The person that I became when I finally told a therapist what happened to me—years later—is a stranger. It was so intense that I thought it might drown me. Nearly a lifetime of abuses and walls hollowed me, and the gales of another day threatened to flatten me for good. When I owned up to that kind of past in a long succession, I realized that it is all I’ve ever known.The victim’s much less optimistic counterpart has been dragging their ass up an endless steep hill for years and wishes for a plateau just to experience calm for the first time. And even that is disorienting.
After I finished yelping out my entire history to a therapist for the first time, I called my boyfriend, elated and half-sick, still so swollen and puffy that I felt a little dizzy from crying, fearful and hopeful and too many emotions to describe without being trite. I had notecards, outlining carefully why I could only focus on myself, explaining how it felt, expressing my fear that it might mean choosing me over us. I loved that he said he understood and was happy for me…at first. Why didn’t he fight for me? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Is it possible to really, truly love someone and do it quietly, underthe radar? Why is something so normal a bundle of questions for me?
I texted my mother so she wouldn’t hear it from someone else first. My immediate family had met my boyfriend, liked him, and watched him like a murder of crows ready to harp and pluck at him. They had tiptoed around me for the years since I had called in tears and told my mom about my then-husband’s death threat and hands around my neck, when I was too much in shock to hold in the truth any longer. It was always something with him. They alternated between saying how strong and amazing I have been and protecting me from hearing the dark and stressful things because I “have enough to deal with.”
I told my mom why I broke up with my boyfriend. To this very day my mom replaces the word ‘abuse’ with ‘discipline’ or ‘drinking’ or some other deflecting rationalization for the way my father treated us in childhood. We never talk about it, and we are otherwise a very close family now.
When I told my mom about starting therapy and texted that my boyfriend and I broke up “because I realized what the past has done to my relationships of all kinds,” my mom did the unbelievable: she said she was sorry.
“I’m so sorry for my part in your personal shit.”
I was breathless. Did she finally see? Could we finally say it? PTSD makes people overly cautious sometimes, so I waited, afraid to provoke her breaking the magic of receiving any kind of apology for a childhood of being kicked and slapped down and told in great detail how worthless I was until all I wanted to do is die.
She acknowledged that she wasn’t a good example and that she had made us too independent and turned course again to say that if I hadn’t been so strong then I wouldn’t have been able to pull through for my boys, especially my child with Aspergers.
The moment left bittersweet morning breath on the rest of the day. She came so close, but it hurt her too much. How did she think I felt? The strength of my childhood abuse and watching my parents emotionally and verbally abuse each other was not a blessing; it was a set of bedrock behaviors to be unlearned. I realized in some ways I had outgrown my mother and somehow moved closer to her at the same time, this S & M combo pack that by now formed the trademark of my relationships.
She offered me a crumb of an apology and of recognition, and I was so grateful. I still am. Yet it sickens and saddens me at times. A childhood that didn’t need to be apologized for any more than the average parental mishaps– that should have been the standard. I don’t know where the standard is, I’m just learning about self-esteem, and I don’t know myself or what a single other person is capable of. Abuse and beginning to acknowledge and confront that abuse have taught me that. You would think that the verbal, emotional, and sexual brainwashing over many years would have been a red flag, but it’s hard to know up from down when no one ever explains from which direction you read a compass. Worse yet– my idea of love swung violently, like the hands of the two most important men in the first 28 years of my life. Because these two men were Prince Fucking Charming to everyone outside of the castle’s dungeon.
When I meet new people, I smile openly while being aware of the exits and watching my drinks, expecting that you will say something horrible about me or abandon me, praying that I don’t jump if people come up behind me. I’ll try too hard to be ‘normal’ with my social anxiety. I will calculate how much I think others will hurt me emotionally or physically and decide in short order whether or not to cut my losses. I will look this new person straight in the eyes, knowing that he could turn around and kick or choke me. Each person is a calculated risk, a life-or-death decision, a window to a deep exposure to more fear than one would expect from the dark alley boogie man, although I fear him, too. I make the brave decision to take the chance because I’d rather be alive before I die then continue in the living death of the first 28 years.
And if I tell you, you will have pity in your eyes. I hate that. Or call me a liar, which is even worse. Yet, as I tell more people, the funny thing is that I give less and less fucks about anything other than the price to be paid.
Beth: Steadying On I was sexually abused by my stepfather from the age of 8. I made an outcry to my mom when I was 14, and she did not act on it except to say, “We’re just going to move on.” I was shattered, but within a year, I was pretending that nothing happened, because that made life easier to live in my family of origin’s home. When I was 21, my husband, children, and I were in a near-fatal car accident. Nearly dying caused me to begin to have overwhelming anxiety, because I feared what could happen to my children if I was not alive to protect them. At that time, I had grown so adept at playing “Let’s Pretend” that my husband and I had designated my parents as our chosen guardians if we died at the same time, so the car accident we could have died in caused me to be plagued by the reality of what happened, and I didn’t know what to do with it since if I faced it, I’d be responsible for destroying this sort of screenplay I’d created for my kids about who their grandparents were.
I tried therapy many times beginning a short time after the accident, but I never had the support system in place to withstand what I had to do in order to get well: face the truth about my stepfather sexually abusing me and my mother not protecting me. I avoided it until I couldn’t any more. When I was 38, I had a mental breakdown. I entered therapy (with Matt) and a short time later, set the first boundary I’d ever done with my perpetrator–my stepfather. My request was simple: “In light of our history of you abusing me, I am requesting that you stop commenting on my body”—but that was enough of a shock wave of truth-telling—and truth-confronting—to cause a seismic shift in my relationship with my mom, and, in turn, my husband and children’s relationships with my parents, too.
This led to completely breaking with my family of origin —basically, when I insisted on no more playing “Let’s Pretend,” it was made clear to me in a variety of ways that I had done something so wrong (in their eyes) that they wanted nothing to do with me anymore. It was excruciating, because my mother was an amazing grandmother to my kids, and they lost her in the process.
Recovery from childhood sexual abuse is very, very difficult–but it can be done. Matt compared it to a barefoot walk from Texas to Alaska and back, with all the weather along the way. I would agree with that assessment; in fact, I used that comparison in my Patience books, Courage in Patience, Hope in Patience, and Truth in Patience. I strongly believe that people who have been sexually abused and are seeking to heal from it and reclaim their lives need the guidance of an experienced mental health professional. If the first therapist (or second, or third) does not seem to be helping, keep going until you find one you click with. Don’t give up, because you are worth the fight to reclaim your life.
Necessary Ingredients in Successful Recovery
Matt:Outside of the therapist’s office, you need a strong support system of people who are aware of what you are going through, who will be safe for you to be vulnerable, and who will give you emotional shelter when you need it.
The stories shared here show how recovery from trauma, especially the kind that has been done by a close family member, will most probably change those relationships. In fact, it is often the case that continuing trauma is happening in relationships which have previously been traumatic. This is especially the case if the perpetrator has not undergone extensive (and successful) treatment for the factors that led him/her to traumatize others.
It is also the case that victims remain engaged in these toxic relationships because they feel they have no other support or that they would cause too much pain if the unhealthy relationship is changed in any way. Such thinking that leads a victim to stay in hurtful, further traumatizing relationships comes about because of unchallenged errors in attributions and social assessments. Learning healthy cognitive styles will lead to life activities that build a new and trauma-free life. The sad fact is that, most of the time, these traumatic interactions must be confronted in clear and enforceable terms. It does a trauma victim little benefit to be traumatized “less.” The trauma must stop and the perpetrator must apologize AND make amends. If that can’t happen, the victim must move on.
Thus, relationships almost always must change if recovery from trauma is to take place. And because breaking away from toxic relationships is so difficult and building new but healthy relationships is so complicated (and slow), a large part of trauma recovery is devoted to these “new beginnings.” It takes guidance and patience to make the move from trauma-filled social interaction to a trauma-free social network, but the bulk of the narrative of a new life for a traumatized person involves re-imagining healthy social support and gradually building that improved social order. Typically, this requires an authentic facing of truths about the unhealthy relationships and careful but complete confrontation of harmful social interaction. Such “leaps to the truth” usually are difficult, requiring lots of support from the victim’s new community. In essence, it’s out with the old (and abusive) and in with the new (and supportive). If your current relationships suffer because there’s too much “Let’s Pretend,” what do you really have to lose when you begin to develop new ones? You have a entire new life to gain.
Our forthcoming book, Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt, tells the stories of seven people who each confront the traumas of their past and build healthy social networks that have purpose, meaning and connection. In addition, the book presents in detail what must be done to make the changes that result in a cessation of trauma happening and a new life being built. Perhaps a new narrative of a trauma-free life might be stimulated by consideration of the stories shared in our book. When the truth comes out, and positive relationships are found and nurtured, folks can write a difficult narrative of their changed life.
Beth:And—be prepared to be completely honest with yourself and others in your life. It’s the only way to heal and find out how strong you are. That’s what the brave survivors who shared their stories here did or are in the process of doing.
All of us had to start somewhere: with one step, and then another, and another. You’re not alone. You can do it.
Our title might sound somewhat nonsensical. Of course, if you have experienced a trauma, you will know it. However, admitting that you have experienced trauma may not be as straightforward as you might think.
Folks can tend to underplay the extent to which they deserve care and attention. It’s almost as if these reluctant victims think, “Oh, I’ll be all right. Let someone else use the help and support.” Additionally, some victims might underplay the extent of trauma experienced because it could keep them from having to face ugly stuff. Sadly, there are those among us who have been trained well to follow rules that delay or avoid self-care. Under defining or failing to admit traumatic experience(s) could hold one back from getting needed help.
It was not uncommon in Matt’s years as a clinical psychologist to hear a client conclude that he/she had never really figured such and such event in the past had been traumatic. But after examining such under-defined life experiences in juxtaposition with the symptoms they had been having for years, these folks came to realize: “Yeah, that event was truly traumatic, and I wish I had started working at recovering from it much sooner.”
The criteria mental health professionals use to diagnose disorders (DSM V) states that a traumatic event is any occurrence that involves actual or threatened death, serious injury or other threat to one’s personal integrity. In our forthcoming book, Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt, we present fictional accounts of the lives of seven victims with the following traumatic histories: childhood sexual abuse, attempted rape, being in an explosion in combat, being in a mobile home destroyed by a tornado, driving while in a motor vehicle accident in which the passenger is killed, and being a first responder to a multi-fatality terrorist shooting in a church.
Rates of Trauma in Modern Life
Most folks would agree that the experiences depicted in our book are life-changing traumas. A recent scientific research article described a survey that asked a carefully selected representative sample of over 3000 respondents if they had experienced trauma in their lives, (Kilpatrick, et a., 2013). 87% said they had!
In order of most-to-least common, the study listed the actual traumatic event and the percent of respondents who reported it: Physical or sexual assault (53.1%), Death of family/close friend due to violence/accident/disaster (51.8%), Disaster (50.5%), Accident/Fire (48.3%), Witnessed physical/sexual assault (33.2%), Threat or injury to family or close friend due to violence/accident/disaster (32.4%), Witnessed dead bodies/parts unexpectedly (22.6%), Exposure to hazardous chemicals (16.7%), Work exposure (11.5%), Combat or warzone exposure (7.8%).
These are startling numbers because they conclude that almost everyone is exposed to traumatic events. But if that is the case, why are we all not walking around like thunder-struck basket cases? The answer may lie in a concept known as “objective” trauma versus “subjective” trauma.
Objective Versus Subjective Trauma
If we asked a 100 people whether they thought being raped at gunpoint was traumatic, all would say, “Yes!” But if we asked the same 100 people whether experiencing the divorce of their parents at age 12 was traumatic, we might get an affirmative answer less than 100 times. Be that as it may, it could well be that at least some of the children of divorced parents consider the family disruption to be traumatic. In one case (brutal rape), the definition of trauma is based on the set of objective facts that surround the event, but in the other (divorce), the definition of trauma is subjective to the person experiencing it.
Trauma must be defined by the experience of the survivor. Two people could undergo the same event and one person might be traumatized while the other person remained relatively unscathed. It is not wise, for example, to determine an event as not traumatic because no one was physically injured. Perceptions of an event can vary greatly from one individual to the next. It is impossible to assume that the meaning of an event that is distressing for one person will be same for another person.
The same goes for “objectively lesser” traumatic events, such as the divorce mentioned above or psychological abuse from a spouse. Using a subjective definition, many events perhaps people consider not to be traumatic should, in fact, be considered traumatic to some people.
Divorce has been mentioned: how about financial ruin and bankruptcy? After the market crash in the 1930’s, suicides were all too common among those who lost their fortunes. Speaking of the 1930’s Great Depression, prolonged unemployment and poverty probably caused trauma to many families. In a similar vein, countless individuals and their families facing major medical issues such as cancer are being exposed to traumatic events.
In a recently published book entitled Supernormal, Meg Jay brilliantly proposes that most people experience serious adversity in their lives, both as children and as adults. One might think of these life adversities as “traumas inside the home.” They include alcohol/drug abuse by parents or siblings, neglect by parents, overbearing parental expectations, suicide of a family member, even major arguments and disagreements over political issues. These days, there is even serious mention of such a thing as President Trump Stress Disorder! I guess that would be ptsd (without caps!)
Thus, trauma takes many forms, and there are vast differences among people who experience the same trauma. So, in order to define trauma, it is best to examine the similarities and patterns of responses across the variety of stressors and victims who experience them.
Dimensions of Trauma’s Strength
There are several dimensions that have been shown to make traumatic events more or less intense. These dimensions might be considered when attempting to determine whether one’s life has been disrupted by trauma.
The effects of trauma are more likely to be worse if any of these factors are true: the trauma was caused by a human; it was experienced repeatedly; it has the quality of any of the following: unpredictable, multifaceted, sadistic, undergone in childhood, perpetrated by a caregiver, and a lack of support or negative consequences from disclosure.
When it is another human that caused events leading to trauma, rather than a natural disaster, for example; the average reaction across victims will be worse. The recent mass shooting at a Texas church will no doubt lead to worse trauma reactions than the floods caused by the hurricane in the same state a few months before. But, once again, any one individual in either catastrophe could have a larger or smaller reaction to either of these tragedies.
The sexual assault victim who has been raped more than once will no doubt have more trauma to process than would someone who has been victimized one time. Incest victims who have been violated many times are typically more devastated than a child who had a single episode of being molested.
Repeated exposure to trauma clearly makes things worse. The effects of repeated trauma will be especially ‘hidden’ if what is repeated has been generally accepted to be ‘mild’ by the social group(s) in which it takes place. A youngster verbally abused (e.g. being called ‘stupid’) repeatedly might have an unrecognized trauma, until effects accumulate to form the symptoms of PTSD discussed below.
Being unable to predict when extreme stress is going to happen is often a predictor of whether PTSD will be severe. Consider refugees who must leave home due to war. Such folks might be in camps for unknown lengths of time with no control over even the most basic human factors. PTSD is more likely to be severe in such individuals.
In a similar vein, if events are so devastating as to consist of several distinct traumas, the stress reaction following them will be more intense. An individual in a motor vehicle accident is no doubt traumatized, but even worse so when a family member dies in the same accident. It should also be noted the age at which the trauma happens is important, with children more vulnerable to the development of post-traumatic reactions. Thus, a kidnapped child whose parent is killed trying to save him or her will be in for a long and difficult recovery process. Related to age is adversity or trauma caused by being raised by abusive or neglectful parents, and being around an abusive sibling all one’s life can cause enough cumulative stress that the effects are traumatic.
Finally, it should be noted that the reactions of people in the victim’s support system can add to the intensity of post-trauma reactions. Let’s say someone who was supposed to be trustworthy, for example, a stepparent, sexually abused a child, but when the abuse was disclosed, the biological parent was unsupportive or even dismissive. Such events predict intense PTSD symptoms with a very difficult course of recovery.
In summary, any event that combines the actual or perceived existence of two or more of the above dimensions will most likely lead to more intense PTSD and should be recognized as such so that appropriate treatment planning can begin.
The Symptoms of PTSD
Following an analysis of the nature of the stressful events, it is important to list and examine the symptoms being displayed by the victim. For PTSD, such a symptom list will contain 5 categories: re-experiencing the event, excessive effort to avoid anything to do with the event, negative emotions (anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, shame), social and occupational self-defeating activity, missing purpose and/or enthusiasm or meaning in life.
If these symptoms are observable, then a PTSD reaction is taking place, even if an “objective” assessment indicates otherwise. Becoming stuck in PTSD is so destructive to life, it should be identified and remediated as soon as possible. “Over-diagnosing” this condition harms little, but much is gained by catching it in a timely manner.
To illustrate the idea of a “subjective” instance of PTSD, let’s consider a fictional case. Paula is a 20-year-old junior in college. While attending a college fraternity party, Paula and her dorm mate got mixed up in an unpleasant exchange with some males at the party. These males ‘cornered’ the women in an upstairs bedroom for more ‘private interplay’. The males started coming on very strongly, making suggestive overtures, and actually groping Paula’s dorm mate. Two of the males disrobed and began to expose themselves. Paula reacted by freezing up, quite unable to respond. Her roommate, however, kicked one of the boys in the exposed genitals and started screaming loudly. Another young woman came into the bedroom, and the episode was broken up before the situation got worse. (As if it wasn’t already bad enough).
After the event, some of the girls in Paula’s dorm had occasion to talk about the event and similar events. Much to Paula’s surprise, a number of the other women in her dorm had had experiences like hers, a number of times. They seemed almost “immune” to it. Paula’s roommate appeared to have no visible reactions after the event.
For Paula, however, things were different. She stopped going out with her friends on weekends. Occasionally, she would wake from bad dreams in the middle of the night about being locked in a frat house with a half dozen naked drunk college males. She was anxious all the time but ashamed that she could not ‘shake it off’ like her roommate did. She even considered quitting school, since she found little meaning in a place where such evil things took place, but everyone acted like they were no big deal.
As we observe this situation, we see two young women at the same event with two highly different reactions. Paula needs help, and she needs it quickly. Unless she gets it, she runs a great risk of becoming stuck in a pattern of internal dialogue in which she thinks it’s not okay, or that it’s even silly or weak for her to react in the way her mind and body have done. The subjective aspects of her life before this trauma and her reactions after it have created a PTSD reaction just as real as any more ‘objectively’ horrible trauma. The victim, not anyone else, best defines trauma.
Paula’s story is a common example of how and why folks who have been traumatized do not seek treatment or avoid seeking more information about trauma recovery. In our forthcoming book, Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt, one of the characters, Felicia, has experienced a sexual assault much like described here with Paula. Felicia goes for years suffering PTSD symptoms, in part due to an ongoing internal dialogue with herself in which she told herself that she was weak and unworthy of having a normal life.
Let’s examine another example of “childhood adversity” that might not be considered as an objective trauma but results in all the PTSD symptoms. Growing up with a parent who is an active alcoholic is highly stressful. Adult Children of Alcoholics is a self-help recovery movement for such folks. People with this history have life experiences that include all of the dimensions of trauma’s strength discussed above, and many individuals who are adult children of alcoholics have all five of the symptoms of PTSD. However, many such folks would never equate themselves to a rape victim or an incest victim. Nonetheless, their subjective reactions amount to a life full of trauma.
Dr. Patricia Resick, a noted expert in treatment for assault-related trauma, has pointed out the role of becoming “stuck” in unhealthy emotions and beliefs that nothing came be done after victimization. Dr. Resick contends that much can be done to reclaim/rebuild life, and that such work can be basically quite effective once begun, but—to accomplish recovery, one must overcome the stuck points such as those illustrated in this article. Perhaps the first step in that process is being more ‘liberal’ in defining life events as traumatic.
Life Events Sometimes Not Considered as Traumatic
So, here are some examples of life events that tend to not be defined as trauma because folks have, for the reasons cited above, under-defined them or avoided examining these life events with the criteria of trauma in mind. If you have any of the five symptoms discussed above, maybe you should look more closely at this list to see if these events happened to you and might be the cause of your hard-to-account-for symptoms:
1. Repeated verbal abuse by a parent/caregiver
2. Date rape or otherwise unwanted sexual physical contact
3. Experiencing or witnessing domestic violence
4. Victimized by a crime, even a ‘white-collar’ crime where much was lost
5. Living with chemically dependent family members
6. Severe and sustained economic downturn
7. Divorce and separation from your children
You should especially consider the above as traumas if any of the dimensions that add to the strength of a trauma are involved: repeated, happened in childhood, caused by a human—especially a caregiver or trusted person, were intentional, and the reporting of them was discouraged or punished.
Therapy is not necessarily a lengthy, expensive venture. Once you commit to one of several efficient and time-limited cognitive-behavioral treatments, you have a good chance of turning your life around. More information about types of treatment—including names of therapists—may be found at Dr. Resick’s website for understanding and treating trauma: cptforptsd.com
Our book, Trauma Recovery: Sessions with Dr. Matt, points out that 40% or more of people who have experienced trauma end up being stronger and better adjusted after the trauma is ‘processed.” This is called “post-traumatic growth.” In easy to understand language, we present the “the how and why” trauma victims get better, even stronger.
The First Step
If you’re ready to move toward post-trauma growth, we propose that you can begin by taking the initial step toward recognizing your under defined trauma.
Something I’m thankful for: my writing partner and the book we wrote together. I’m sharing the cover with you. It’s the first time it’s been posted publicly.
My co-author, Matt, and I really like this cover because of the light coming into the group therapy circle: providing the light of hope in the face of the indescribable darkness that is being “stuck” in mental illness and desperation.
I think it was spring of 2016 that Matt Jaremko and I discussed writing a book to help trauma survivors. It took us a bit to find our writing groove in terms of both how we could best communicate what we wanted to say that would extend hope and model the power of resilience for traumatized people, AND for us to find the most efficient way for us to write together without becoming frustrated…we initially tried using Google Docs, and, never having co-written with anyone else, I didn’t realize we couldn’t be in the document at the same time. So I was working and Matt was, too, and the page was jumping all over the place…it was not fun. So we dispensed with that pretty quickly and moved to Word and Track Changes, which is the industry standard for working with editors.
Once we found our way to work together by exchanging the manuscript (“The book is now in your hands. I will not touch it until you send the manuscript back to me”), our book began to take shape in a meaningful, rewarding way. Matt and I have such a strong respect for each others’ strengths and abilities. He is, without a doubt, one of the two smartest, most compassionate and caring men I know, with the other being my husband, Daniel. Not coincidentally, these 2 men also comprised my primary support system when I was broken.
When Matt and I decided to take 2 of my characters–Ashley and Dr. Matt– and place them in a group setting in order to facilitate the combination of fiction and teaching about resilience, we took Ashley, aged her from 15/16 to 19, and made her a member of Dr. Matt’s Thursday evening Therapy Group for Victims, Survivors, and Righteously Indignant Angry Folks. Then we imagined the other members:
Hunter, age 32, who woke on the ground in the dark after a rain-wrapped tornado destroyed his mobile home, critically injuring his toddler daughter;
Felicia, age 34, who, at age 14, was nearly raped by her brother’s friend; 20 years later, she is still haunted by it, but needs to come to realize an even darker truth about her youth;
Ben, age 20, who saw combat horrors in the Middle East and returned home a fundamentally different person;
Patty, age 47, who lost control of her car, with her husband being killed when they hit a semi-truck;
Jake, age 30, an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) who responded to a hate crime-shooting at a local church’s Wednesday night prayer service. The son of a preacher, Jake lost his faith as a result of what he saw.
Darrell, age 35, who served time in prison for armed robbery. When he was released, he entered therapy to seek solutions for the frequent rages that overtook his decision-making abilities. Through his work with Dr. Matt, Darrell learned new ways of interacting with others. He joined the Black Lives Matter movement and discovered his passion for making a difference through teaching young African-Americans about non-violent protest.
Betty, age 40. Her family-of-origin abandoned her when she began coming to terms with the sexual abuse perpetrated on her from a young age. Betty worked with Dr. Matt and gradually found the strength to rebuild her life. She entered college as a non-traditional student and became a bilingual education teacher, where she puts her native Spanish to work.
We wrapped our manuscript in July, began seeking a publisher in late summer, and by October–and this is remarkably fast to find a publishing “home”–we were offered a publishing contract with a “Mind-Body-Soul” imprint, Ayni Books, and our book will come out in late spring/early summer 2018. The book will have international distribution and be available in both print and e-book.
I wrote this Prologue from the memory of where I was when I entered treatment to recover from Childhood Sexual Abuse. At that time, I was 38 years old, the mother of 3 teen girls, and I broke. I could no longer pretend that the stuff I’d gone through as a child and young adult, and in many ways continued to endure as an adult, were not killing me. The pretending was killing me. I was slowly killing myself through binge eating. Efforts to deal with the never-ending anxiety I lived with night and day were futile. Prior to working with Matt, I never stuck with therapy once I was nudged toward being authentic and honest with myself and others about how broken I was. I “clicked” with him and, after Daniel, Matt is the first man I ever truly trusted. Until that time, my understanding of men was that they would abuse me once I began to let my guard down.
This prologue is thoughts of the person prior to entering a therapist’s building when the choice at that time is either get better or die. These are exactly what it was like to be in my head at that time.
Facing the truth about one’s life is a soul-searing experience. For me, the journey to REAL, and WHOLE, was much like the process of birthing a child. It was exhausting, but without a doubt, learning to be resilient and authentic was the most gratifying experience of my life.
This is what we hope will be the result for those who read our book.
Please help us spread the word about our Facebook page. “Like”/”Follow” us, and you won’t miss out on the journey.
I sometimes say that my middle name is “Perseverence.” It could also be said that Resilience runs through my veins, which is, in part, why writing a book with Matt E. Jaremko–Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt: Narratives of Hope and Resilience for Victims of PTSD–is so gratifying, because it will help SO MANY PEOPLE. I wish a book like this had existed when I was in those shaky first days of recovery from Childhood Sexual Abuse, when I wasn’t sure I even wanted to stick around.
The PTSD symptoms I had were so overwhelming that at times I thought I was losing my mind. I’m not even kidding–and if you ever meet my husband, or my children, who were teens at the time, ask them what Mama was like back then. I’m sure some of their stories would blow your hair back. I’ll never forget when I was in a really bad way and actually got behind my clothes in my closet, like I used to do when I was a child, to hide from my stepfather. My husband, Daniel, stepped in, leaned down, and said softly, “I seeeee youuuuuu…” but didn’t judge me harshly or make fun of me. It’s one of the reasons I love him more than words could ever adequately describe.
Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt helps people like me –like I was at that time–understand what happens when someone experiences trauma, and I love its message that sufferers are NOT crazy or weak: they are incredibly strong for continuing to put one foot in front of the other, even while enduring some very scary shit inside their heads. It’s compassionate, speaks to readers where they are–like Daniel that evening when I was a hot mess, and we let readers know, again and again, that HOPE is possible, and RECOVERY is possible, and we shine that all-important light when it’s so easy for survivors to get lost in the nooks & crannies of their minds. We strongly suggest that readers work with a therapist as they process their trauma, because recovery from PTSD is scary.
Nearly a decade ago, Matt taught me HOW to be resilient and HOW to persevere through those undoubtedly dark days. I wrote poems and essays and short stories and shared them only with Matt: there was no one else I could trust with–saddle with, really– what was coming out of my mind and landing on my keyboard and screen. At his suggestion that I try writing a novel, I imagined the trauma I had endured as having happened to someone else, stepped outside of myself, and began to tell 15 year old Ashley Nicole Asher’s story. With her being “born,” so was my life as a professional writer, although I didn’t know it at the time. All I was doing was following the advice of the man I had learned I could trust with my darkness, and he would be by my side, holding the light. Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt is a unique amalgam of teaching about PTSD and giving insight into the recovery process and the storylines of 7 members of the Thursday Night Therapy Group. Matt E. Jaremko is the inspiration for the Dr. Matt character in my Patience books, and I patterned the experiences of the main character, Ashley, after my own. All these years later, Matt and I teamed up and took those 2 characters, aged Ashley up to 19, and placed Dr. Matt and Ashley in a group therapy setting. Along with Ashley, group members include a survivor of a tornado destroying his mobile home and gravely injuring his toddler daughter; a woman who was behind the wheel, reached for her phone to check a text, and slammed into a semi, killing her husband on impact; a first responder to a mass shooting at a church (timely, sadly); a soldier who was injured when an IED exploded outside his barracks, killing his best friend; an ex-con who is determined to rebuild his life and make a difference; and a survivor of an attempted rape by her brother’s best friend when she was 14–as well as family secrets she has yet to allow herself to process. She attempts to cope with her anguish by numbing herself with food. And, of course, there’s Dr. Matt, an experienced therapist nearing the end of his career and contemplating what’s next.
And-I hope you’ll read the posts Matt has entered on our FB page so far. He has a lot to say, and he is one of the 2 smartest men I know–the other being my husband, Daniel. I owe my life today to Matt and Daniel’s unwavering support, presence, and holding me accountable to not give up. Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt is one special book, and it holds a hallowed place in my , alongside The Patience Trilogy.
I am beyond thrilled to tell you that Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt, a creative non-fiction book written by Dr. Matt E. Jaremko and me, has found a publisher, Ayni Books. Our book should release in early summer, 2018.
The best way to describe it to you is to borrow from our book proposal:
“This book is a starting place for hurting people who are seeking healing, either on their own or in partnership with a therapist or other helping person. Dr. Matt E. Jaremko maximizes readers’ understanding of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by explaining its origins in easy-to-understand language and offering insight into the process of reclaiming a life from trauma. Beth Fehlbaum shares her insight from the perspective of a person who experienced trauma, was once scared to death about going into therapy, and is now recovered.
Most powerfully, Dr. Jaremko and Beth created characters: a psychologist, Scott “Dr. Matt” Matthews, and his ongoing therapy group, to illustrate how recovery can and does happen. The situations these characters survive; their struggles and triumphs of reclaiming their lives, and their potential for thriving are all realistic. We reassure people who are terrified of trying therapy by providing them with a “fly on the wall” perspective of observing the recovery process.”
Read more about Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt, here.
Those of you who have read (and have affection for) The Patience Trilogy (Courage, Hope, and Truth), likely recognize “Dr. Matt”’s name, and you will be pleased to know that Ashley is in Trauma Recovery: Sessions With Dr. Matt! She’s now 19 and about to leave for college. I hope you’re as pleased with Ash’s progress as I am.
Watch this space for the latest and greatest as we move forward in the publication of a book that Matt and I hope will have a far-reaching positive effect for traumatized individuals by providing a light in the darkness. In other words: hope.