Episode 13: Abuse, Trauma, & Me

Welcome to Episode 13 of F*ck Like a Woman. Today I’m opening up to you and sharing parts of my story about trauma and abuse. But don’t worry, because there’s a lot of hope in my story.

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I love my life. I am surrounded every day by two of the universe’s most beautiful souls – my husband and my child. I have an amazingly creative, fun, and inspiring family. But it has been a long journey to get to where I am today. My childhood, like many of you listening, was marked by pain, destruction, and trauma, which unequivocally altered the way my life has unfolded. That trauma, especially the kind of trauma that happens within the first 5 years of life, particularly the 1st year, had such a monumental impact on how my brain reacts to stress and consequently my behavior and choices, that I am a different person today because of it. I didn’t realize it then, but these early years had MAJOR influences in how I dated, how I had sex, and how I chose my life partner. I have spent the majority of my life introspectively trying to figure out why I behave and think the way that I do until I started studying the well-documented effects that trauma and chronic stress have on brain chemistry, behavior, and long-term health outcomes. And ultimately what I learned was that before I can move forward with my life in a holistic, positive way, I must first acknowledge the trauma and, dare I say appreciate the pain, before I can ever achieve self-actualization. By ignoring my trauma, it’s like having a hole in my bucket of sand, thinking I can somehow reach the moment of fullness without addressing the gaping hole at the bottom.

My goal in doing this episode is to take you along with me on this journey of self-actualization to learn from our past mistakes as human beings, to mine for nuggets of universal wisdom, and to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit in all its strength and power. The reason that we need to walk this journey together is that it is imperative that we educate ourselves and rescript our lives to stop the inertia of passing on our damage from one generation to the next. Our children and our youth are all we really have to carry on everything that humankind has worked so assiduously to achieve. My hope is that through this podcast, together we may find the courage to live up to our highest expression of humanity, and in doing so we can find light, love and hope in our own lives.  

All my life I had told my life story in terms of monumental moments of pain, destruction, and sadness… all the way up until just a few months ago when I had a great awakening. This great awakening happened as I prepared to tell my story to you all in preparation for my first podcast episode. As I recounted all of the moments and experiences that had shaped my life, I realized something so monumentally paradigm shifting that inspired me to reshape how I wanted to frame this podcast, and that was this: my entire existence has been sculpted by angels and miracles that drastically altered the very trajectory of my life. The weight of this paradigm shift of illuminating the magnificence of this divine intervention filled my heart with such immense gratitude that I burst into tears.

I quickly grabbed a pencil and paper and started bullet pointing in numerical order the miracles and angels that had changed the trajectory of my life. Interestingly enough, when I finished writing and counted up each angel and each miracle, there was a perfect total of 10 – 5 angels and 5 miracles. I realized that this was the single most important page I had written all year long during a transitional time of documenting aspirations, brainstorming business ideas, trying to manifest my desires, and striving to find my calling. And then I realized that these 10 signs held a profound message to me: I am worth something, I am loved, and my life has meaning. These were my 10 signs from God.

Before I tell you my story, I’d like to preface it by saying that my hope is that you find comfort that you are not alone in your struggles and to remind you that within all of us lies the common thread of humanity at its core: the longing to be seen, to be heard, and to be loved. There are more people than you know who can not only relate to you, but will accept you with all your bag of troubles, just as you are. No one in the history of the universe will ever experience life from your exact vantage point. People all over the world throughout every continent, every historical time period, and of all ethnicities, genders, and classes share parts of this story and of your story. We are more alike than we are different. It is precisely because my story is relatable that I wanted to share it. There is always power in sharing our story because in it, we as fleeting incarnated spiritual beings, get to see one more angle of humanity to expand our minds, our hearts, and our souls. Lastly, in order for you to understand why these angels and miracles have been such blessings to me, I must weave it into the darker context of my life. But take heart, for with that darkness there is light. And in order to fight darkness, we cannot fight it with more darkness, we must become light and then transcend the darkness.

My very first miracle happened long before I was ever born. It happened when I was just half of a being, an egg buried deep inside my mother’s ovary, accompanying her to a doctor’s visit where she was scheduled to get her tubes tied so that her 4th child would be her last. She was about to get called in by the nurse, when she had a voice from within speak to her, telling her to get up and leave. In a moment of attunement to her higher self, she listened. She picked up her purse and walked out the door. Not long after that day, she became pregnant with me, her 5th and last child. Had it not been for my very first angel who gave me life, my mother, I would not be here today.

Being the youngest of 5 children, I had to overcompensate for my size in order to really make my presence and my wishes known. I didn’t know it then, but my drive to be heard coupled with my temper magnified my defiant spirit and my tenacity to speak my own reality. My father was absent, distant, and scary. My mother knew without a doubt she wanted lots of children, perhaps it was her calling. The first part of my life was shaped greatly by two things: poverty and abuse. I witnessed terrifying physical abuse toward my mother and bathed in the volatility and explosive atmosphere it created every day of those early years. One of my first memories was my mother shuffling us into the hallway to protect us from my dad’s escalating anger that quickly turned physically violent while he screamed at her for hiding a credit card that her great aunt gave her to pay for necessities. I remember being absolutely terrified hiding there in the hallway. My dad also threw things when he got mad. One time it was a glass jar of tomato sauce that he hurled right at my mother; luckily, she dodged the jar and it hit the front door, spewing red sauce everywhere, an image of red so perfectly matching his rage. Growing up experiencing and witnessing that kind of volatility on a regular basis dramatically changed my very biology, specifically my brain’s ability to regulate my stress response, leading to a very short fuse.

Neuroscientists who have studied the brain over the last 20 years, have learned how fear and trauma influence the developing brain, specifically its the organization and structure. It’s become increasingly clear that experience in childhood has more impact on the developing child than experiences later in life. In fact, by the age of 3, the brain has reached 90% of adult size, while the body is still only about 18% of adult size. Learning this helped me to understand why I’ve experienced problems with memory and absorbing new information at school, which are hallmark signs of trauma. Chronic trauma also elevates a child’s resting heart rate over time, which increases the risk of heart disease and the probability of cancer. It also leads to an increased probability of both perpetrating sexual assault and being the victim of it. If there was emotional neglect in your childhood, it can severely affect your ability to bond and attach to a partner in the future, leading to some major relationship problems. Many of you might know about the well documented “cycle of abuse”. The cycle perpetuates itself by being passed down from generation to generation. As the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people”. Well, that’s true for all types of abuse – physical, sexual, and emotional – unless someone within the cycle makes a conscious and deliberate effort to stop the cycle from repeating itself. And regardless of however far back my family’s history of trauma goes, I’ll be damned if gets passed on through me.

As children of abuse do in some fashion or another, I picked up some very destructive habits from these formative years. I’ve always thought that the one thing my father left me before he moved away was his temper. Moreover, I came to believe that I was worthless, that I was dumb and insignificant after repeatedly being called a “stupid thing”, internalizing that I was less than human. Because of the unsafe and chaotic nature of an abusive childhood environment, I grew up with a heightened fear of danger, constantly scanning people’s body language, tone, and word choice as a survival mechanism to perceive danger while I still had an opportunity to escape it, even if it was just psychological.

In the years leading up to my parents’ divorce, my dad worked odd jobs mostly in television and radio while my mother took care of the 5 of us kids. With 7 people living in a very tiny house, we had to get creative about our living spaces, oftentimes shuffling my sleeping quarters between a coat closet and the living room. My father’s scattered earnings were unreliable as he sometimes squandered them on frivolous things like a television while we went to sleep at night on the bare floor, sometimes with an empty growling stomach. Thankfully my mother was smart and hid small bits of cash her relative sent her in the mail so that she could make payment plans in order to afford doctor visits and medication for us. Not realizing at the time how blessed we were to have angels watching over us, we survived off food stamps, hand-me-down clothes from the church, and a couple caring relatives who helped my mother prepare for the divorce. My mother knew that when the divorce request came, she’d have to be prepared for my father’s explosive temper. So she made arrangements with my step grandmother Maggie, my second angel, to come stay with us during that time so that there was at least a witness to deter him from acting on any violent impulses. She was kind and gentle, trying to make that time as smooth as she could. When the cork finally popped, my dad threatened to kill my mother if she tried to take full custody of us, which in hindsight is ironic, given that he was pretty much a vapor in the wind shortly after their divorce. In fact, I haven’t seen him in over 15 years, which only goes to show that the real proof in believing someone is in the doing. Without Maggie there, who knows what might have happened to us all.

To give you some context as to why this matters, the American Journal of Public Health states that “femicide, the murdering of women, is the leading cause of death in the US among young African American women aged 15 to 45 years, and the 7th leading cause of premature death among women overall. American women are killed by intimate partners (that is husbands, lovers, ex-husbands, or ex-lovers) more often than by any other type of perpetrator. The murder of intimate partners accounts for approximately 40% to 50% of US femicides but a relatively small proportion of male homicides (5.9%).”

Now, one might think that the chapter of abuse would be over at this point in my story once my parents’ divorce was finalized, but survivors know better. The cycle of abuse is like a weed, coming back over and over until you treat it at its roots and stay vigilant in your pursuit of elimination.

It also leaves in its wake a feeling of precariousness not easily remedied. My mother was the closest thing I had to feeling safe, secure, and bonded. Symptomatically I was plagued by nightmares, usually about my mother either getting shot and killed or about her trying to kill us. After meeting a man at a divorce support group, my mother started dating and taking weekend trips with him. Before one of her trips, she gave me a locket that had her picture inside. It was meant to comfort me before leaving me at my dad’s apartment. I remember feeling immense sadness and pain. It felt like I was being abandoned by the one caretaker I had. I’m certain that’s why I have so much empathy for children who are separated from or abandoned by their parental figure, especially in cases like human trafficking, child marriages, foster care, or our country’s dark history of enslavement. I was outraged this summer when all those children at the US/Mexico border were getting separated from their parents due to the ‘zero tolerance’ policy. I could feel their fear, their terror at not knowing what was going to happen to their mothers and fathers, and worse – if they would ever see them again. It was heartbreaking, and it felt unsettlingly like our government had just publicly kidnapped thousands of children without a shred of empathy.

A few years later, my 3rd angel had already made financial arrangements for us. A relative of ours had written us into her will knowing the impact it would have on our lives. She had bequeathed us a small enough endowment that enabled us to move out of our tiny house and into a moderate middle-class neighborhood. It was the beginning of new opportunities, a different lifestyle. We were stepping into a new class status and the evolution of seeing the world differently began in that house. Nevertheless, the reverberations of the abuse in the aftermath of my parent’s divorce were strong enough to carry over into our new home. Without much further detail, I will leave it at this: the emotional and physical abuse, manipulation, silent treatment, arbitrary humiliation in front of others, and suicide threats among other forms of psychological control, were still cycling throughout our home life.

I will keep the rest of my story for another day, but I wanted to leave you on this note with a quote from Dr. Bruce Perry, a leading psychiatrist, speaker, and author on childhood trauma: “The most important property of humankind is the capacity to form and maintain relationships. These relationships are absolutely necessary for any of us to survive, learn, work, love and procreate. Human relationships take many forms but the most intense, most pleasurable and most painful are those relationships with family, friends and loved ones. Within this inner circle of intimate relationships, we are bonded to each other with ‘emotional glue’ – bonded with love.”

I will never discount the validity of my struggles and the beauty in the contrast that came with them. But the equally important piece that was initially missing from my story was the gratitude and the recognition to the angels and miracles that carried me from one life chapter to another. I wholeheartedly believe that those angels and miracles were manifested not by my own hand, but rather by God. And when I say God, I’m not limiting this word to just religion. I’m speaking about the omnipotent energy force that connects all things, the higher intelligence, the Force, Source Energy, the Universe, Life, or God, whatever you wish to call it. I’m talking about the force of all goodness in life. And I’m certain that most people, if not all people, have at one point or another felt its presence in their lives. I believe that at the root of this force, there is pure love. When I finally connected the series of miracles and angels that had touched my life, I saw pure love. And I realized, the universe was looking out for me all along.

To learn more about Dr. Bruce Perry or childhood trauma, go to childtrauma.org.

 
 

2 Comments

  1. This is amazing Devon. It’s so weird to read your story now, when I already knew it long before. Mom and grandma would have conversations about things going on when they thought we weren’t listening. I remember the way y’all grew up. But as children back then we didn’t know all the details until much later in life. Coming to see y’all and spend holidays was the highlight of my younger years. We loved our cousins so much. Funny how we all have that abusing father story to tell. We all experienced poverty and survival only by the help from loved ones and food stamps after our fathers left. It was not a pleasant life at all. Yet we found joy in the little things. I love you cousin, and I love what you are doing with your podcast.

    1. It really is crazy. I’m so glad we all had relationships with our loved ones because that’s the one thing that experts say is what gets people through trauma – is having at least one good, solid relationship where they see the best in you and love you unconditionally. As humans, we are incredibly resilient, but trauma and abuse still leave a hurricane of damage in their path. The curious part of me wonders how far back the damage goes, but another part of me says don’t look back, just keep moving forward and helping others.

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