Do you hear the children weeping. O my brothers/ Ere the sorrow comes with years?
─ Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Most child sexual abuse victims have an attic in their mind, a place where they hide all the painful memories, compartments never meant to be opened. This is how we survive. PTSD survivors do the same. Periodically something triggers a memory of child abuse. It rushes at us when we least expect it opening a compartment hiding pictures we don’t want to see. Most of the time we push our bodies against the compartment door telling ourselves “don’t open that, don’t open that.” This doesn’t always work. Sometimes it takes more effort than we want to exert. Didn’t we already go through this? Didn’t we travel across the Bridge of Recovery and arrive on the other side with flying colors. Yes, that’s true, but the main thing we forget is that we now have tools to help us deal with the sharp focus on our childhood.
This happened to me a couple days ago. My husband and I were watching a show called Criminal Minds. It’s a great series but sometimes deals with issues of child abuse or rape. I made it through the first one on trafficking sex abuse with my stomach in knots but I was ok. The next day we watched one dealing with a serial rapist. When that ended I sat in the dark clutching my body tight, holding my body against that door. The door was stronger than I was as it opened and all the memories flooded over me. I burst in to tears. After a good cry I thought, I know how to deal with this. I got in my car to go grocery shopping. All the way in to town I sang every courage song I knew starting with When You Walk Through A Storm. I repeated to myself words of wisdom I had learned in recovery: The only thing that’s the end of the world is the end of the world, Just for today I will be joyful and unafraid, The only antidote for fear is courage, Recovery does not mean freedom from pain; recovery means learning to take care of myself when I’m in pain, and That which I fear grows in proportion to my obsession with it. By the time I arrived at the grocery store I was doing just fine. I had managed to not only close that compartment I had locked it. Needless to say my husband agrees that if, in the future, we see any of the series heading in that direction we shut it off and watch something else.
We all have more than one compartment. Maybe our children were sexually abused and we felt we had failed to protect them. That one is a tough one. It’s in a compartment by itself. Certain holidays provoke another bad memory. My dad died on Mother’s Day. He made a note of when he began raping me. He wrote that date on the back of a photo of me and my brother in our Madrigal outfits in our senior year of high school, something that happened five years after he began his rapes. Some years that day puts knots in my stomach. It’s in a compartment too. My baby sister, who lay in a crib at the age of three next to my bunkbed and witnessed the rape, was unable to talk except in a baby prattle that only I understood until she was ten. She wet her bed till she was ten. She was killed in a car accident on Labor Day when she was twenty-five. She predicted her own death giving me explicit instructions on how she wanted her funeral done. Every Labor Day I grieve for yet one more victim of my father’s abuse. I put a white light around that door hoping it means Jeanne is in a better place.
Then there’s the granddaddy of all compartments. It’s called Father’s Day. I’m used to all of these by now but some years they prove more difficult to handle than others. It’s okay. I have the tools to handle all of them. And I do.
One of the poems I wrote while I was in recovery, in the early years, was the following;
My Attic In Mind
My attic is filled with fragments of time
That make up the essence of me.
Memories of love and friendship and joy
And some I don’t want to see.
Compartments I locked like a security guard
And watched so no entry was made.
Secrets of grief and stress that I chose
And lessons whose dues I have paid.
The contents are rich with scraps of my soul
And chapters I waded on through
With hidden remains of skeletons there
And puzzles without any clue.
Sometimes at night, when I’m tired and lost
And the doors are bursting their seams,
All of the memories start screaming at me
From the depths of bottomless dreams.
Then the assault bursts forth, as the lock gives way
And pictures I’ve lost are reborn,
Drenching my heart and splashing my soul
Leaving me weary and worn.
So I crawl up the stairs and open the doors
And turn all the trunks on their side,
Tear open boxes rotted with age,
Spill everything trying to hide,
Open the windows and look at the sun
And breathe in all I can find,
I remember it all, the essence of me,
And savor my “attic in mind”.
Do you have an attic in your mind?