Between my twelfth and thirteenth birthdays, I became a different person. At 12, I was still skipping down the corridors at school, shouting jokes to friends. I was the kid who helped new students adjust. Who tutored classmates when they fell behind in spelling. I was generous, boisterous, and fun-loving. I was also boastful, cocksure. I was always on the lookout for a chance to show off.
Less than a year later, I was silent and sullen at school. Classmates teased me about whether I could talk at all. Boys cornered me on the breezeway and taunted me. And where the old me would have shoved them off or stomped on their toes, I shrank. I sat in the back of classrooms.
I wanted, above all else, to become invisible. And for the most part, I succeeded.
I had experienced a series of traumas in quick succession. They were not my first exposure to trauma, but they were my first direct encounters with misogyny. Looking back, I wonder if the widely observed nosedive in girls’ confidence around the age of 13 is in fact the result of sexual harassment and violence—not “hormones.” The ways children are treated shape their self-worth more than hormones ever could.
When I was 12, my father was playing out a typical scene with mother. She was on her knees, weeping. My father was telling her how useless and ungrateful she was, what a drain on his resources, what a sad excuse for an adult.
This scene was part of the weekly broadcast ever since my parents had converted to Mormonism. Bowing to the Mormon church’s pressure to stay at home with children, my mother had quit her hard-won position as a software engineer in the early 1980s. Since then, both of them had simmered with rage. My mother’s resentment sometimes boiled over into violence aimed at me, the unplanned child who’d come along and taken her life from her. She could never bring herself to blame the Mormon church or my father, or—above all—herself.
Still, my father’s abuse was so constant that I couldn’t help feeling some sympathy for her. Her resignation was pathetic, and these scenes were melodramatic and excessive. I wanted to end them. And I believed I finally could.
At church that Sunday, a man had stood up and talked about the importance of the father’s role, that he must lead by example, extending care to all those under his roof.
This gave me the language I needed to express why my father’s behavior struck me as wrong. My brother and I had always stood mute, watching helplessly as our father brought our mother to tears, flinging only words—but words balled tight as fists.
But that day I had my own words. That day I stepped between them and used words meant to unfurl like leaves, like roses cupped in the palm. Words like set an example. Words like hurt and sad. Words like we need you. A child’s words for love.
I knew my father could be cruel, but I believed he could also be good. I believed he wanted to do better. He only needed someone to remind him.
You know what happens next.
Nothing inside him opens.
There are no leaves within him to unfurl.
His inner landscape is a wasteland. Parched. Dead.
He likes control. He likes the illusion that he is right. And I have shattered that.
You know what happens to girls who tell men no.
You know that once I speak, he lets the words fall away. This time he does what I hadn’t believed him capable of.
He uses his fists.
He silences me.
He also plants in my heart a seed of hate.
Six months after I scream and scream, and no one comes, things change. Six months after my father throws me onto my bed and beats me, we move.
In the new house, he does not beat me again.
Instead, he shuts me into a windowless bathroom. He grips the knob from the hallway, so I cannot turn it. So I cannot get out. Terrified of the dark, feeling always that the monster is inside that room with me and not on the other side of the door, I scream for help. I panic. I hyperventilate. I cry.
It happens again and again. Eventually, I learn to flip the light switch.
Eventually, he learns to flip the circuit breaker.
Again and again, he shuts me into the dark and listens to me scream.
Six months after my father first locks me into the pitch-black room, a neighborhood boy begins to beat me up.
He finds me as I am walking down the sidewalk. As I am talking with my best friend, who is his sister. As I am shooting hoops at the curb.
He finds me, and he jumps on top of me. I am built like a pogo stick, and he is built like a bull, and so he takes me down. Always, I crumple under his heft. My knees go, and then I am down, sprawled over the street. He never chooses a soft surface, like the grass. It is always the pavement. I always try to catch myself, and it scrapes a layer of skin from my palms. Like potato peel under the knife. I never forget the cold sting of the asphalt, the way it is furrowed like the crust on baked brownies, my cheek pressed into it as he holds me down. Black crumbs of it wedge into the sticky-red of my raw palms. I will have to pick them out of the pus later, in the same bathroom where my father locks me for pleasure.
This boy, Joel, he crawls on top of me and beats me.
As if he knew what my father had done.
And I laugh. I always laugh with relief because it never hurts as much as it did when my father beat me this way.
Still, I try to get away. I try to shove him off. I try to kick him. When all of that fails, I even crawl under parked cars, where he is too bulky to follow. I think the steel chassis will save me. The stench of spent gasoline smells like reprieve. But he finds an ankle and pulls me out, tearing holes in my shirt. My palms stinging and bloody.
And he beats me.
Again and again. He beats me.
My parents only tell me, when I come home bleeding and with torn clothes, You need to be more careful.
When it is time to write my impact statements for these traumas, Cognitive Processing Therapy asks me only two questions:
- Why do you think this traumatic event happened to you?
- In general, how do you think this traumatic event changed the way you think about or see yourself, other people, and the world?
For three weeks, I write and write and write. I write pages. I spend hours writing.
I write Looking at it now, almost 30 years later, I think this is the moment when I learned to hide my strength.
Because I really believed that my father intended to kill me, I started to believe that challenging people was a choice with life-or-death stakes.
I learned that any attempt to assert boundaries can provoke further violations. In fact, if I prove stronger or more opinionated or more confident than someone wants me to be, they may respond with violence.
I think he locked me up because my dad got off on terrorizing me, and it was easier for him to believe he was a good person if he could do that without hitting me.
Locking me up allowed my father to desensitize my family to my screams, proving to them that I “always overreacted,” which helped him feel better about beating me. Because, after all, if I screamed while he beat me and screamed while he locked me in a darkened room, maybe the two experiences were equivalent. Maybe the beating hadn’t been that bad. Besides, he could frame it as “helping” me “face my fears.”
My father locking me into the bathroom taught me to freeze instead of fight. I’d always been a fighter, but once he discovered how much fight I had in me, he started training me. The sooner I fell silent and still, the sooner it ended. This meant that later, in my teens and twenties, as men assaulted me, I responded the same way: frozen, silent, and dissociated. Waiting for it to end.
By the time Joel started beating me up, I’d learned that violence and torture were normal. I’d accepted it. My family had accepted it. And the other children who passively stood by watching also accepted it. Not only that, but everyone standing by watching and listening, wanted me to behave differently. They wanted me, the most powerless person in the situation, to fix it for them. They didn’t want to have to do anything, so they got angry at me for “making him mad” or “not fighting back” or “overreacting.” I was always on my own, even as I stared down the children watching and shouted for help.
And I write:
I learned to resort to magical thinking, to tell myself that I was a Christ-like figure who simply had to tolerate violence and hate in order to do the important work that God had put me on Earth to do. I began to see the violence as proof of my specialness, and that God had designed these challenges to mold me into the person He needed me to be. This not only rendered God complicit in the abuse but left me further resigned to, even welcoming of, it.
When I look back over what I’ve written, I am horrified. Of course I stopped talking. Of course I became “weird.” Of course the more observant teachers looked at me and felt concern twist their gut.
If we truly do have life lines cut through the flesh of our palms, the traumas had carved a very different future from the one I was born with.
I know you want a tidy resolution to this. I know you want me to say And it all turned out beautifully, and the cruel ones were punished and the kind ones were rewarded, and everyone lived happily ever after.
But that isn’t how trauma ends.
According to research, for 7% of us trauma ends with PTSD. Trauma ends with stuck points.
For me, those stuck points are the beliefs of a child because that’s what I was when trauma began.
My stuck points are simple. Earthbound. Practical.
It isn’t safe to say what I really think.
Disagreeing with people puts me in danger.
It’s my job to take care of myself. Other people will never answer for their cruelty.
People are eager to avoid responsibility for whatever violence they witness. They prefer to blame victims so that they can avoid facing their own complicity.
If I just keep quiet, the threat will go away.
I can’t ever keep myself safe.
Stuck points are a problem for so many trauma survivors because they snare us in a web. They create a Catch-22. I have to keep myself safe by being quiet, but I can’t keep myself safe. I can’t say anything, but I have to do whatever it takes to protect myself. People will blame me for others’ misconduct, but telling them the truth puts me in danger.
These can’t all be true.
And with that sentence, the web begins to unravel.
Only abusers require silence in exchange for safety.
I can keep myself safe from such people, but only by walking away.
Telling the truth can still make me a target, but only by those who themselves are guilty of hatred, of misogyny, of violence against women.
And people may still blame me for what others have done. But this is only because, in their hearts, they know they too have committed the same violence, or wished to. Blaming me for another person’s violence, just as my mother did, just as the neighborhood children did, serves only one purpose. To set at ease a pricked conscience.
It is not my job to make anyone comfortable with the demons that sit inside all of us. I am here to tell the truth. And I will keep on telling it, until I am gone.
This is not a cure. Writing these impact statements was only one step on my journey. But it is a step that has given me enough distance to see. My prison was only built of other people’s delusions.
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*I am not a therapist or treatment provider and am only recounting my personal experience of PTSD and its treatment. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician, licensed therapist, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding PTSD or any other mental health disorder.