When I began to tell my story in bits and pieces years ago, most people were empathetic and encouraging. There were a few who had one maddening question or comment in common and that was:
How come you didn’t get help sooner?
If you have been through trauma and abuse, you know this question. It comes in many forms, and all with the same underlying assumption—the assumption that you had a choice. The questions include, why didn’t you leave?, why did you go back?, why didn’t you tell someone? All of these questions hold an ideal belief that you felt empowered to change your situation.
Problem: Anyone in an abusive, traumatizing situation doesn’t
feel empowered to choose anything different.
Here’s the other interesting factor that comes into play when you are a child, as I was when I experienced most of the abuse and trauma. Children don’t know any different. Children have a limited worldview because they are children. They don’t have enough information to realize what is happening to them is wrong and there are other options. Children know what is happening to them feels bad, but even the capacity to understand concepts like violation or abuse is out of their reach. It is what they know and what they know, they trust to be what is meant to be.
This is why it is so difficult to unravel histories of abuse and trauma. As adults, we are confronted with the idea of choice and it blows our worlds apart. It is also why when we find ourselves in abusive relationships as adults, we feel we have no choice because the history of abuse must mean that is what we deserve.
I went through years of shame because as an adult I believed my little girl self should have been able to leave the situation I was in. That led me to believe I was exactly what I had been told I was: broken, bad, and less than. I couldn’t even save myself.
Through often excruciating, yet very freeing healing work, I began to realize I really didn’t have a choice as a child, but I do now. I can choose how I reflect back upon my story. I can choose where I put my focus, whether on the abuse or on the person I have become in spite of the abuse. I can choose how I will interact with and respond to those who abused me and stood by as I was abused. And, if I do find myself in an abusive relationship, I can choose to leave when I remember no one deserves to be harmed, even if how I was treated as a child tricks my mind into thinking it is what I deserve.
Perhaps most empowering, I can choose to break free of the person
I was told to be. Why is that important?
When you are told over and over again if you would just be or do this or that and then your abuser will be happy and not harm you any more, you become very savvy at trying to be that person. If you can just be her, you will be acceptable and loveable and worthy of safety.
The reality is you can’t be or do enough to stop the flow of another person’s own torment. People manipulate, coerce, and control others in an attempt to soothe their own feelings of inferiority and unworthiness. The only way to feel worthy is to embrace your own worthiness.
We are all worthy of love, purpose, belonging, peace, hope, and, yes, choice. We are worthy because we are human. We wound others when we are wounded. We can choose healing and stop the cycle.
I may not have had a choice growing up, but I sure do now. I can choose to be angry and resentful or I can choose to step out in love. Yes, it is risky, but at the end of the day, I would rather say I was loving and was hurt in the process than I was angry and hurt people.