I waited a very long time to get help. This was partially because it took me forever to get to a point in life where I could afford professional therapy. It was certainly delayed by the pressure my (then) husband used to avoid involvement, unpleasantness or difficulty. He told I needed to act “normal” and “keep it to yourself” because he didn’t want to be bothered with the darkness and brokenness inside of me. It was also somewhat attributable to the heavy sense of shame I carried within me. Shame for being defective and dirty. For being repulsive and unsightly by simply being. Because I wasn’t like everyone else. And since I was working 10 or 11 hours a day as I tried to prove my worth to various employers, it was also partially due to exhaustion and an inability to make time for myself.
I learned early I was undeserving of space, care and acceptance. Abuse, particularly when you’re a child, drives that point deep.
In truth, I didn’t make a serious, “all in” attempt at healing until a few months after my father died. Suddenly, it felt as though the time had come to deal with the festering wounds I continually attempted to hide beneath layers and layers of makeup and masks.
At the time, I didn’t realize there was any need to rush. I didn’t understand healing might not be attainable if the wounds were left unattended for a long period. I didn’t know coping mechanisms, shattered perceptions of worth and self were being cemented more permanently into place as I aged. I thought healing would happen “someday” when the stars aligned and someone finally valued me. I certainly didn’t know my brain might actually be working against me as I slogged through all the ruin.
Did you know that child sexual abuse actually causes brain damage?
I didn’t hear about the results of this body of research or its implications until I was years into the healing journey. I was in weekly “talk therapy” sessions with a gifted psychologist, giving the process everything I had to give. I journaled, prayed, attended workshops, went through a few abuse and sex abuse recovery groups, completed 2 different yearlong Celebrate Recovery groups and allowed a couple of different psychiatrists to experiment on me by prescribing every different antidepressant on the market in various combinations and in ever higher dosages. Nothing worked.
The most frustrating part for me was expending so much effort when I had little energy to spare, yet it changed nothing, in spite of all I put into it. In spite of the time and money spent. I became dejected and deeply dismayed, occasionally shedding a few tears because of the lack of progress or results. I knew I wasn’t a stupid person, so why couldn’t I grasp the information I was being given and bring it to life in my soul? Why wasn’t I being transformed?
I’ve always felt damaged. Like I’m faking it, hoping to someday make it. But it never occurred to me my brain was the part of me that had probably sustained the most damage because of my abusive childhood.
I was told by my counselor that I needed to reprogram my thought processes. I tried. For years. But I slowly began to realize, what I needed was more encompassing than this. In actuality, the sexual abuse, in particular, overwhelmed and fried the circuitry in my brain. What I need is not to be reprogramed. I can load new thoughts all day long and run them through my head again and again, but it’s never going to make a difference if the program can’t run properly. And it can’t. Because the problem isn’t so much the program as it is the wiring. It’s been incinerated. Nothing is going to process and transmit the way it should with smoldering, shattered and scorched wiring.
It was a small relief to learn I wasn’t a failure for failing to reprogram my thinking. Though hard to believe and comprehend, I started to glimpse the real problem. It was deeper than poorly written and executed programming. I had experienced a circuitry overload that burned my brain, creating a philological barrier, changing how I process data and interpret experiences. The two hemispheres of my brain aren’t as integrated as the brains of people who haven’t gone through the trauma I survived as a child. Perhaps this is due to an engulfing need to compartmentalize and isolate. Or maybe it’s simply the way brain development is affected by continual trauma, abuse and intense stress during childhood. Regardless, I have begun to realize I’m not merely fighting old, wrong programming. I’m fighting a brain that has been singed, seared and annihilated by severe, horrific child abuse. It’s no longer capable of making the connections I’ve long tried to make as I’ve sought to be healed.
Trauma is biologically encoded in the brain in a variety of ways. Considerable and often negative changes in structures like the hippocampus, and the coordination and integration of neural network functioning have been identified. The nervous systems of children who are abused runs on a constant high because of the continual anticipation of further danger. There are documented alterations in cortisol production in children with histories of abuse and neglect. And this state of chronic ‘hyper-arousal’ persists throughout adulthood, so even when the abuse and violence has ceased and the environment is “safe,” adults who experienced childhood abuse perceive the threat to be present; their fear is maintained and becomes pathological.
The brain is so damaged, it begins to dismantle us.
The experiences of childhood abuse cause changes that are reflected in physiological, psychological and interpersonal experiences. Adaptation to trauma, especially early in life, becomes a “state of mind, brain, and body” around which subsequent experience organizes. Research has even documented significant changes on a genetic level. Every function of mind, body, heart, soul, emotions, logic and even cell structure is altered by the abuse experienced in childhood.
The brain governs everything. And when the brain is damaged, certain functions become impossible.
When I say I was forever changed by the abuse I survived during childhood, or explain that my path was eternally altered, I’m not speaking metaphorically. The damage is comprehensive, large-scale and wide-ranging.
Who I was and who I was meant to be was obliterated before I entered grade school. That destruction changed every fiber of my being and shaped me into someone far different than the person I was created to be and become. My life and an ability to truly live and enjoy life was massacred by abuse. My brain has been extensively damaged on a physical, as well as mental and emotional level, just as surely as if I had experienced a horrendous car crash that fractured my skull, leaving me barely alive and unbearably traumatized.
Brains don’t bounce back. Once damaged, the consequences will be noted in various aspects, both minor and momentous. The entire personality is altered. Health, both emotional and physical, is compromised as various bodily and cognitive functions are short-circuited. This is the gift my parents gave to me. This is what I have been fighting against and attempting to overcome.
No wonder I am weary. No wonder the results have been limited and the path too difficult to traverse. No wonder I feel as if I’m damaged goods. A failure. My heart knows, even if my brain can no longer comprehend the extend of the mutilation.
My wiring has been short-circuited. I’m trying to change what has already been radically, fatally altered. I’m attempting to transform myself into a normal, healthy person, but I am not normal and my health has been broadly compromised. My brain has been unspeakably damaged. And it’s quite likely healing isn’t a reasonable expectation or probable outcome.