Posts Tagged ‘telling friends about child abuse history’

While it was daunting for me to share my history of child abuse with friends, I have no regrets about doing so. Even the times that did not turn out so great were still worth it. Every time I share my child abuse story, I validate that it happened. I also educate others about child abuse, which is also important. Those who chose to pull away after learning about my child abuse history still had to face that child abuse happens. I hope that they will be more receptive the next time around if/when another child abuse survivor shares her story with them.

Fortunately, I have had many more positive reactions than negative ones to sharing my child abuse story. Those who know at least some of my child abuse history are amazingly loyal. I have been called all sorts of wonderful things, such as a “walking miracle.” I have had multiple people tell me that I am an inspiration. One said that, if I can have a good day and enjoy my life after all that I have been through, then she knows that she can handle her own issues that she is facing in her life today.

Revealing my truths has invited some people into a deeper level of emotional intimacy. I can be myself around them. When I am triggered, I can call and say, “I am triggered,” and they know what to do. I even provided one friend with a “script” so she knows what to say next time. I don’t have to deal with my pain by myself any longer. By opening up about where I have been, I have added resources to my life to help me deal with my pain when it bubbles up.

Each time I tell my story, it gets easier. Many of my emotional wounds are now scars, so they no longer hurt. I can talk about a lot of terrible things without crying or feeling pain. Instead, when I take a walk down memory lane with a friend, I can see what happened to me through my friend’s eyes rather than through the distorted lenses that I always used. This helps me to be more objective about what happened and accept, once and for all, that I was not responsible for the things that other people did to me.

The admiration that friends show for me for surviving all that I did is inspirational. When I inspire them, they, in turn, inspire me. Everybody wins.

A true friend is someone who knows all about you and chooses to love you, whether that love is despite or because of what you went through. Choosing to tell my story and reveal my pain has opened up doors in friendships that I never thought possible.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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One of my biggest challenges in sharing my story is figuring out what to tell or, more precisely, how much to tell. My story is so involved that I could go on for weeks.

I am always concerned about the reaction of the other person. I used to be concerned about being rejected after telling my story. That is not generally my concern these days. Instead, I worry about how the other person will react to my story. I don’t want to hurt anyone else. I don’t want the other person to have nightmares or be afraid to let her child out of her sight.

I generally start out by being very general, such as by saying, “I was abused as a child.” If the person reacts well to this information (or, better yet, asks questions), I might share that my mother was my primary abuser. Or I might share that I was sexually abused. I generally don’t share both pieces of information in one sitting because that is a lot for another person to absorb.

If a friend wants to know more, or if I feel a need to share more, I also begin by stating that my story is very hard to hear and ensuring that the other person really wants to know this information. I reassure the friend that I am comfortable in talking about my history of child abuse, but other people have had strong reactions to my story. That way, if the person does react with nightmares, etc., I have a clear conscience that she chose to invite this information into her life.

It is easier for me if the other person asks questions rather than giving a narrative, but I have done it both ways. I try to stay general and avoid sharing too many details. However, even general information like, “my abusers slaughtered my dog in front of me,” can cause the other person to reel, even when I provide no specific details.

I have had people turn white and say, “I think I am going to be sick,” after I have shared something in a very general way that is just not that big of a deal for me to share. I try to be sensitive to the fact that most people have not lived through the atrocities that I have. However, what I endured was very bad, and I am not going to sugarcoat what I have been through.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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When it comes to sharing my child abuse history with friends, timing is very important. If my friend is going through a difficult time herself, I don’t feel comfortable dumping all of my baggage onto her shoulders at that moment. I generally get strong reactions to my story because it is so intense, so I don’t want to push that intensity onto someone who is already struggling with other issues.

I only share my child abuse story when I feel like there is a need to do so. Early in my healing, I really needed to tell both my therapist and friend about my latest flashbacks. Telling helped validate that what I was remembering really happened.

I needed a friend to hear my story because I was paying the therapist to spend time with me. I needed to know that someone else could hear my story and still choose to be my friend. Fortunately, I had a great friend to help me through this.

Now that I am much farther along in healing, I really don’t need to do that as much. However, I have dealt with a few flashbacks in the last couple of months, and I did feel the need to tell a friend about them. I just need to hear that nothing that anyone ever did to me can change who I am. I am vulnerable after a flashback, so telling the right person is crucial.

These days, I mostly feel the need to share my story to deepen the emotional intimacy of a friendship. If I want another person to know me, then she needs to know how I became the person that I am today. I also need another person to understand what is going on when I am suddenly triggered. It really helps for those who I spend the most time with to get it.

Sometimes I will ask a friend if she wants to hear my story. If she does, we will talk about it when we have some time alone to do it. I will always begin by making sure that she feels ready to deal with my story because it is very intense. Large blocks of time are very helpful because the other person might have lots of questions. You don’t want to be getting interrupted 20 times when you are talking about something this intense.

For me, when to share my story goes back to intuition. I intuitively know when it is a good time to share and when it is not.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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How do you decide who to tell about your history of child abuse? The best advice I have is to listen to your intuition. All of humanity is interconnected, so we have the ability to know intuitively who we can trust and who we can’t. Part of healing is finding that internal “voice” and following its guidance.

I have been healing long enough to feel comfortable with making comments in passing about having a difficult, or even abusive, childhood in pretty much any setting. If hearing something that basic about me turns another person off, then I am glad to learn that early on. I don’t want to invest one minute of my time with a person who cannot handle being around someone who had a difficult childhood.

Sometimes people intuitively know that I am safe to talk with about childhood trauma. If someone first confides in me that she was abused as a child, I will immediately say, “Me, too,” to reassure her that I get it. However, in most cases, I am the one “making the first move” when it comes to sharing my story.

I will not share my story with another person who has not confided something in me first. I have a list of personal things that sound like I am confiding that I really don’t care if other people know. That is usually enough to get the ball rolling. I am a good listener, so people with friend-potential generally wind up confiding in me about something. Once they do, I know that they are invested in our friendship. That is a prerequisite for me to getting into the details of my childhood.

If I am ready to dive into a more emotionally intimate level of friendship, I will mention little tidbits here and there. I then gauge the other person’s reaction. If she pulls away, then I know that person is not a friend. If she can handle it, then I might share a little here and there.

Eventually, I will tell the other person that I am comfortable with sharing my story if she wants to hear it. I always warn that my story is very difficult for others to hear. I only proceed if the other person really wants to hear it. If she does, then I dive it.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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In my last blog entry entitled Telling Friends about Your Child Abuse History, I shared about the first few times that I shared my child abuse history with friends. The first three tellings went pretty well. The first friend I told was extremely supportive throughout my years of therapy. The second and third friends were supportive and helpful. Unfortunately, not every incidence of sharing my child abuse history went so smoothly.

I confided in one friend about the mother-daughter sexual abuse. In the moment, her reaction was just what I needed. She got very angry at my mother (whom she had never met). She then stopped herself and said, “First of all, you need to know that this was not your fault.”

I sooo needed to hear those words. It also felt very good to see her get angry at my mother/abuser because, at the time, I was not capable of doing that myself.

I thought that conversation would bring us closer, but it didn’t. We used to go walking together in the park on a regular basis and stroll our children. That stopped. It wasn’t an instant pulling away … it was gradual. I didn’t hear from her as often. She was pleasant when we ran into each other, with a “…we should get together soon…” kind of tone, but “soon” never happened. I rarely see her any more. When I do, she is pleasant, but there is no acknowledgement whatsoever of what I shared with her.

I had a similar encounter with another friend who, ironically (or maybe not ironically), is very close friends with the first one. Same story – Very supportive in the moment, and then she dropped off the planet. I occasionally run into both of them … maybe once every few months. They are always pleasant, but they never bring up that conversation, and they make it clear that they are perfectly okay with the distance.

I had another friend who did not pull away, but she was much more honest with me about her reaction. She admitted that it was very hard to hear about the things that happened to me (referring to the ritual abuse) because to hear them and believe me meant that she had to accept that this level of evil exists in the world. She did not want to believe that it did. I assured her that I did not want to believe it, either, but I did not have a choice in the matter. My truth is my truth. I no longer have the luxury of denial.

I have found that sharing my story (or parts of it – few offline friends know all) is the great divider. It tells me who my friends are versus who my pals are. Friends can handle hearing about it and love me through it. Pals don’t want to hear about it.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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One of the biggest hurdles that child abuse survivors face is whether or not to tell their friends about their history of child abuse. On the one hand, it is hard to feel close to another person when your friend does not know anything about your history, which has influenced every aspect of your life. On the other hand, it is a huge risk to trust another person with your story.

How do you decide who to tell, when to tell, and what to tell? This will be the focus of my next few blog entries.

Let me start by sharing my own story … I had repressed all of my memories of the child abuse until I started having flashbacks when I was in my mid-thirties.

The first person I told was a “Stephen Minister” from my church, which is a layperson who receives training in providing basic counseling to members of the congregation who seek it out. Their role is to listen and pray with you. My Stephen Minister knew that my issues ran well beyond the scope of what she had been trained to handle, so she referred me to a therapist. Good call.

After that, the first person I told was a friend named E. I knew that she was extremely guarded herself, and she did not laugh at me when I had a panic attack over telling her that she was becoming a good friend. So, I figured that she would be a good risk.

The only reason I told her anything was that I needed her help. I needed her to babysit my then-two-year-old son while I went to therapy sessions. If I had not needed this assistance, I doubt I would have told her a thing at the time. Sometimes, telling your story arises out of necessity.

I next told a friend who I had known since high school. I knew that she had been sexually abused herself, so she was a safe risk. She is the one who told me about the book The Courage to Heal, and I am so grateful to her for that.

The next person I told was a much bigger risk because we had not known each other long. My intuition drove me to share much more than I was consciously ready to share, but she was great about it all. I strongly suspect that she has been through similar stuff because she understood me far better than she should have, all things considered.

Not every “telling” went as well as these first few. I will get into that in my next blog entry.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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