By Anne Lauren
I was born on 7/11 and given the initials AMPM. I often joke that my purpose was to run a Kwik-E-Mart. My mother’s Gynecologist caught me and at first glance expressed a state of awe by saying, “She is the most beautiful baby girl that I have ever seen.” His name was Abraham.
I can’t imagine that what he actually saw in me was all that pleasant, at least not on the outside. Covered in blood and screaming at the top of my lungs, I entered the world as most babies do: miserable. It was so warm and safe inside my mother’s womb, why would I want to be anywhere else? My thighs were thin and my labia fused- just as my parents had been praying for: that I would be beautiful so that I would be of value, but be protected from them actually ever entering me- beautiful and virginal: the perfect Catholic woman.
It’s interesting that the man who awaited my arrival and touched me first at birth was named Abraham- the same name of the Father of a few religious traditions, including the one that I was baptized into before my first year of life. I was beautiful, I was female, I was a daughter, and I was Catholic. My identity was clearly defined from the beginning.
At 6 months old, I was diagnosed with an inability to let go: of stool mostly; but the diagnosis has applied to emotions later in life as well. Only half of my large colon worked. The other half needed to be cut out lest it burst and poison my little body, so I had pull through surgery at 6 months old. Much to my father’s dismay, they also separated my labia during this surgery. I have scars across my torso, ankles, and inner arms. Feeding tubes inserted into veins and scissors and stitches into my bowel kept me alive those early and delicate years. After the surgery, my system was sensitive, but healed. My belly would be forever bloated from the trauma of those years and my diet always restricted to help it relax.
Then the seizures started, grand maul- meaning the really big, long ones. I lost control of my body numerous times for hours on end. I shook and shook and shook, my eyes rolled into the back of my head, I foamed at the mouth, until my brain figured out how to calm down and reawaken. Sometimes it didn’t figure it out. Sometimes I would lose my pulse, be mistaken for dead, and then surprise the physicians when their repeated shocks brought me back to life. I was treated with shots of valium to help my brain slow down faster, a controversial method at the time, but eventually it worked. When I was old enough to use words, I would communicate that I was about to have a seizure, my mother would do her best to insert a needle into my bottom, the medicine would quickly rush to my head, and luckily after time, the seizure would stop. But before I could speak, I would have seizures while strapped into car seats, before bedtime, during meals, or at anytime of day really. I was sick, and a survivor, and told that I was destined by God to fulfill a great purpose. My identity was developing. These are some of the stories that I have been told about the messy beginning of my life.
When I was 24 years old, other memories surfaced of the stories that I hadn’t been told, that I was in fact threatened not to tell. Secrets of the sexual abuse that haunted my family for generations. I had repressed the many instances when I was abused in order to survive. But they all came rushing out as soon as I was ready to receive them. My father, my grandfather, and my uncle all raped me. People often want to know specifics- so I’ll clarify (not that it matters- it’s all terrible regardless of severity)- it was vaginal, it was anal, it was oral, it was penetrative and fondling and that was just the physical stuff. It doesn’t even include the emotional, verbal, and spiritual violence that kept me quiet, made me internalize the abuse as my fault, and shamed me into a life that I had been convinced I was worthy of. God must’ve hated me, I was made to believe. My first memory of rape was at 2 years old. My body had already been sliced and diced and sewn back together by this point, and the rape further fragmented me. My identity continued to be defined: I was a victim of violence.
I was clearly the baby in some very murky bath water. Through spirituality, forgetfulness, shame, and repression, I did my best to keep myself from drowning. And I did, survive that is, until I couldn’t keep myself afloat anymore.
As soon as I moved out of my parent’s home at 18 to go to college, my body started shutting down. I couldn’t remember the illness or the incest, but my bones remembered, my muscles remembered, my mouth remembered, and it wanted to drain itself of all that dirty water. I literally began shaking again. I couldn’t go to the bathroom again. I had night terrors of being raped all the time again. Eventually, I couldn’t move again. The unprocessed pain paralyzed me.
So I started to treat myself in all the ways that I knew how, all the ways that I been taught by my family system and the society I was raised in. First, I tried to meet violence with violence. I picked and scratched at my skin to relieve the emotional tension. It helped, but hurt. My skin is often red and scarred because of this bad habit. To this day, I still haven’t found control over it. I’m trying, but it still helps. And it still hurts.
Then I tried to live up to the image of perfection projected onto me by my parents at birth- beautiful and pure. I adopted a strict religious observance, committed to preserving my virginity until marriage, and “killed people with kindness” just as I was taught to do. I focused an immense amount of energy on my appearance: sculpting my hair, layering my face with makeup, shopping every weekend to ensure that I had the latest fashion trends. I worked diligently to be a stellar student and an achieved athlete, a loyal friend, and an even better girlfriend.
As soon as I left for college, my focus shifted from meeting my parent’s expectations to meeting God’s expectations. What was my calling? Would I, in fact, manage a Kwik-E-Mart? Or maybe I was called to something more? I had survived so much after all. In college, I met a God who had different expectations than my parents. This version of God wanted me to fight for justice. So, I did. I quickly learned of the suffering that plagues most of the world- social, economic, physical and sexual violence were the reality of many and I felt that it was my job it stop it. I studied economics, history, politics, and spiritualities that sought to end their plight and make the world a more harmonious place. I volunteered in homeless shelters, immigration houses, food pantries, hospitals, and prisons. Unknowingly, I was being driven by my subconscious- maybe if I could help them, then I could make up for all of the years that I couldn’t help myself. Eventually though, the plight of others and my inability to do anything about it depressed me into a psychological paralysis that I couldn’t escape from. Pain was everywhere, how am I supposed to live with that?
When responsibility didn’t work, I tried isolation and personal care. I studied theology for 6 years just to learn that God, if he existed, didn’t hate me after all and maybe wasn’t a he to begin with. I studied Feminist Spirituality to better understand a God who wanted me to have agency over my life. Once I felt this freedom, I abandoned all efforts to be the perfect Catholic woman and left the church. I began to see a therapist, experimented with psychological medications, and spent most of graduate school years sleeping. I was exhausted all the time, so rested when I needed to rest, sought counsel when I needed help, began to learn basic boundaries, and separated myself from things that caused me stress- primarily my family. This helped in many ways, but I was deeply lonely and wanted to figure out how to participate, where I belonged, and with whom.
By this time, I was convinced that there was something wrong with me and my mission became to fix and to find myself and a life that would take the pain away. I explored various healing modalities: talk and physical therapies, EMDR, CBT, medications, Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs, Acupuncture, Reiki, the list goes on. All of them helped, but none of them made me feel better about myself.
While the fixing and the finding myself occurred in my private life, my public life was full of efforts to assimilate. I did my best to fit into whatever culture I was surrounded by. I dressed up and showed up, I built the lovely apartment, and the full closet. I thought that professional prestige and materialism would define me and make me feel better about myself. Until I had it all- the Longchamp bag, the Marina San Francisco apartment, the Tiffany’s jewelry, and the leadership title- did I realize that this wouldn’t work either.
Eventually, I gave up. I left my leadership role, I surrendered my lovely apartment, I sold all my nice stuff, tossed the make-up, and I stopped trying so hard to fix and to find myself and some ideal life just out of reach. I let go of the concepts of beauty, femininity, family, spirituality, and purpose forced upon me from birth. I stopped identifying as a victim and as a survivor. I opened the drain and let all that murky water whirl down and down and down until the tub was empty. I didn’t know what would be left over after the depletion and I was depressed and terrified. Who am I if I’m not all of those things? Is there a baby in the bathwater? Is there anything worth saving from a life of illness and incest and the desperate effort to recover from both? Is recovery even possible? If not, is life even worth living at all for me?
As the water subsided, I did begin to see her: myself apart from other’s projected values and the paralyzing pain of my past, as well as that baby- born on 7/11, initialed AMPM, still potentially destined to run a convenience store, and wailing from the interruption of her peace. I wanted so desperately to get out of that tub: the bounds of abuse and recovery that had held me captive for over 30 years, but she needed me to sit with her for a just little while longer there. She needed me to nourish her, to let her feel all the feels that she didn’t get to feel, to put words to all the experiences that she didn’t yet have words for, to acknowledge the poking and prodding of surgery, the shaking of the seizing, and the recovery from the rape. She saw her future as dark, and as tiresome, and as lonely as she learned daily to hide and to protect herself with a shell of whatever her violent caretakers needed of her that day. She needed me to see our life through her eyes.
She showed me how she developed within that confined space, like all children do. She grew in that home that asked too much of her, with that man who required rape in exchange for food and shelter and that woman whose codependency on that man kept her blind from his abusive nature. She matured in that church that required obedience to this father and mother in exchange for eternal salvation, that society that restricted femininity to mere appearances, and that body that couldn’t seem to find balance no matter how hard it tried.
She internalized the necessary subjugation, the need to have things, and wear things, and hold things in in order to be approved of. She learned to keep her words a certain way, and her body a nice shape, and her mind limited by the thoughts that others would approve of. Her identity was fragmented by the needs and desires of everyone who surrounded her, while her own identity hid under all that murky water. She came up to breathe when no one else was around by developing a vivid imagination. She built a world in her head safe from her present threats. Dissociation from herself became her survival.
When the incest was over and appropriate boundaries with family were set, the recovery immediately took its place. Recovery was in control now. The external violence ended when she left her family, but the internalized violence still drowned her. She thought that when she left the tub, she would be gone forever, but she quickly learned that PTSD would throw her brain right back into the confines of those porcelain walls and under that murky water whenever any present experience reminded her of the past. She was disappointed to find that the world outside her violent home still carried many of the patterns she experienced as a child: the codependency, the hyper religiosity, the sexism, the lack of emotional intelligence, the economic hardship, the abandonment, the all too common sexual, verbal, and physical violence.
Recovery wasn’t a choice for her, it was the only option if life were to remain a possibility. She had tried everything she knew and a lot of what she didn’t in order to purify herself from all that had been done to her. Through the process, she got to know each fragment of her identity: the sick child who needed nurturing, the aggravated teen trying to meet everyone’s expectations, the college student taking on the world’s problems, the grad student isolated but safe, the professional obsessed with achievement. In the process, finally, we found each other.
The woman I was always supposed to be, slowly surfacing from that murky water, breathing for the first time, getting herself out of that tub, stretching her tired and tight limbs, ready to be warmed by the sun, met this other fragment of herself- this screaming child trying not to drown, attempting to develop in a space much too constricted for her crying curiosity. We are doing our best now to honor each other. I’m angry that I’ve been sitting in this same damn tub for so long: raging about how my family abandoned me when I told them about the abuse, that the justice system would never allow my abusers to be criminalized because of statutes of limitation, that my body and brain may forever suffer from the consequences of someone else’s lack of control, that society doesn’t understand or receive mental illness well, and that my ability to succeed in a capitalist economy will always cost me more than it gives back. And she is still wailing and mourning the loss of a future that could’ve been so different if she never had to suffer from incest and illness.
But in the present moment we are together, learning to accept ourselves, learning to accept our worlds and our wounds, and whatever future is available to us. We are teaching each other to let go of the the expectations of family, the pressure of beauty, the restricted definitions of femininity, the need to fit into society, and the pain of responsibility. We need to simply be ourselves for a little while: simple, curious, creative, confused, and waiting. We are learning to be gentle with each other’s pain, while still awaiting the day when peace will come, for us and for everyone else. Still awaiting the day when #MeToo will be #NoMore. Still awaiting the day when all the fragments of ourselves and our world will find their wholeness.
And in this process, together we are realizing that wholeness isn’t about fixing or finding, but simply about aligning. Aligning with our most harmonious selves while inviting the rest of the world to do the same- to find peace with each fragment of our minds, of our bodies, and of our experiences until the pain is cleared, the purpose freed, and the person fulfilled. And hopefully in alignment we will find a safe place in the world to belong. Hopefully in alignment, the world will find peace. If not, we will continue to work to make it so.
I am 32 years old now and finally feel free to leave that damn tub. Step by step, day by day, I am trying to figure out how to live outside of it, without leaving behind the baby who I found there: all the wisdom and the tools that I gained while living, and working, and growing, and healing in that murky water and in those constrained, porcelain walls. My life can be what I want it to be now for the most part. I don’t yet know what that looks like, but I am breathing it in everyday. I know it has something to do with a lot of what got me out of that tub in the first place: intimate friendships, self-care, living near and swimming in endless bodies of water, being with mountains and movements that bring more harmony into the world. It has something to do with easy work that helps meet my financial needs like retail or maybe running a 7/11 or AMPM.
I understand now that I didn’t survive to accomplish a grand purpose, God’s, or society’s, or my family’s. I survived because that is what we do at the core of our nature. We, like all other living things, survive. There is nothing glorifying about it, or fulfilling, or sustaining, but the opportunity for life is somehow still available to me. And with opportunity comes possibility. Now, as I attempt the privilege of thriving, I recognize my need for nothing more than a sabbatical- a few years to rest from the incest and the illness, the recovery, the C-PTSD, and the physical pain of my life experiences.
And surprisingly, as I rest my brain is figuring out how to slow itself down, and my body is aching less and less, and my energy is increasing, and my stomach is digesting, and I am finding success in simply being myself. Maybe recovery is available after all. Maybe the body is made to heal. Maybe my world and I are meant to aligned. Maybe what Abraham saw when he caught me at birth was the beauty of who I have always been without the constraints of the bath or that murky water. Maybe my identity can be fluid and form around her. Maybe my can pain can empower. Maybe the spirit of the other Abraham, the Father of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, is now catching me as I am reborn into a new and safer way of being. Maybe life can be as warm and as harmonious as it was before the misery. Maybe I am worthy of more. Maybe just maybe I will experience the possibility of being whole. And maybe I’ll work at a Kwik-E-Mart. We’ll see.
About the author
Anne Lauren is the founder of Blue&Lavender, an inclusive Women’s Trauma Recovery Collective. The organization seeks to build a platform for trauma survivors to share their stories, make recovery resources more accessible and affordable, and create community for women to recover together. She shares her own story recovering from childhood incest and illness to encourage others to seek healing. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter @BlueandLavender and on Instagram @Blue_and_Lavender.
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