The Danger of Getting Stuck in the Identity and Drama of Childhood Trauma
Living with a severe mental health challenge, such as dissociative identity disorder (DID), is a heavy load to carry. I experienced extreme and repeated trauma, in the form of sexual, physical and mental abuse, from shortly after my birth until I was fifteen years old. I knew that something was wrong or different about me, but I dismissed that notion. I convinced myself that everyone experienced losing time and the other symptoms of DID like I did. It wasn’t until I was twenty-nine that I began having memories of the abuse flood my consciousness. The flashbacks I experienced would come unbidden and unwanted, and at any time. I thought I was going insane. I finally sought professional help and, in February of 1990, I began therapy. I did not know or anticipate the hardships that lay before me on the road to recovery.
During my first year in therapy, I found myself stuck in what I now refer to as “a trauma identity.” All I could see that identified me was the pain, and the grief of my past and what I felt the world owed me. In my new identity, I spent many hours pondering the ways my abusers and society should pay me back. I was stuck in a victim mentality, and that became the biggest barrier to my achieving success in overcoming my diagnosis. Being a victim had become a prison of my own making.
I remember well the beginning of my travels to self-discovery. All the horrible things that had happened to me in childhood were always right before my face, twenty-four hours a day. I breathed and ate trauma. Remembering what had happened to me wasn’t like reminiscing about something that happened long ago. When a memory would intrude, it carried with it all the original emotions of terror and betrayal. Many times, I found myself curled into a ball on my bed, or hiding in my closet like I did when I was small. In therapy, we were working hard on trying to control the rate I was remembering these things, and I was going in and out of denial. Every day I awoke feeling like I wanted to die because of the accompanying depression and anxiety. The feelings of hopeless and helplessness were debilitating and life-threatening. I almost lost my life three times to suicide.
I found myself in a pit of fear and anxiety. I worked full-time for an insurance company as a claims examiner, but I found myself increasingly having trouble concentrating on my job as the flashbacks increased. I told my brother that I didn’t think I wanted to live anymore, and he told me to seek professional help immediately.
On a cold day in February 1990, I entered my first therapist’s office. I wish I could say that I did very well, and resolved my problems quickly, but that wouldn’t be the truth. The issues I had to resolve were so monumental that I was in and out of the local psychiatric ward over thirty times, voluntarily, for suicidal ideation and attempts. I also spent a few months at Illinois’ state psychiatric hospital, and eventually had to live inpatient in a psychiatric facility for over seven years.
No, the road to wellness is not easy, nor is it quick. In some ways, the work I’ve had to endure in therapy was much more traumatic than the original trauma I experienced. However, I wouldn’t trade all the tears and arduous hours in the client’s chair for anything. I am whole, I love myself, and best of all, I am alive.
The traumatic memories were emerging very quickly back then. I had begun to remember unimaginable things long before I saw my first therapist, but after our work together began things grew more intense. To make matters worse, my family and friends abandoned me, and I was alone with all the loneliness and chaos. This isolation from those who I loved made my identity as a victim even more prominent in my mind. I felt desperate and deflated. During this part of my life, I began to wear the abuse I had endured in childhood as a badge of honor. Being a victim became my comfort zone, and I entrapped myself in my own pain. Even though I craved to get past my diagnosis and to move on with my life, I was terrified to leave what I knew. I couldn’t see myself as anything but a victim.
The associated drama that came with the identity of the victim was debilitating. I couldn’t face anyone or any situation without feeling melodramatic. I would go to work and feel like I was wearing a sign on my forehead that read ‘incest’ or ‘raped’. I saw child abuse everywhere, even in situations that were obviously innocent encounters between adults and children. I overreacted constantly to any hint that someone found my words or appearance as less than perfect, harboring feelings of anger and frustration towards everyone. I was so into the role of victim, that I would do things to reinforce my identity. I refused to hear my therapist saying that there was life outside this persona I had created. I sought out friendships with others who were also victims of childhood trauma, and sit with them for hours trading war stories. I became a prisoner of my own thoughts.
My therapist kindly but firmly led me to examine my mindset. She asked me, in therapeutic terms, some very important questions that planted the seeds for my seeking out a different identification.
– Was I anything else besides a helpless victim?
– Who had the power over me today?
– Was I going to allow the people who hurt me so long ago remain in control over who I am today?
– Would it be so bad to be a regular person like everyone else?
– Would it be bad to not be special?
– Isn’t living in the past harming your today and your future?
– Where and who do you want to be?
– Because I had a wonderful therapist who wouldn’t allow me to remain in the victim mindset, I was able, after much hard work over many years, to finally break free.
I resisted this change of who I was very hard. I had become comfortable being a victim, and I fought tooth-and-nail not to become anything else. However, those questions she had prodded me with implanted in me a deep desire to at least peek at who I could be other than a victim. I saw many things around the corner where I peeked. I saw a life where I wasn’t weeping at night, and where peace reigned in my heart. I glimpsed what it would be like to leave my victim friends and to join the stream of life outside of victimization.
I have mentioned that I lived for seven years in a psychiatric ward. For six of those years, I remained trapped in the hopelessness that comes with being a victim. I had closed my mind to the idea that I could get well enough to have any kind of a good life outside of the facility. However, the last year I was there, I was given a new therapist. This woman refused to allow me to stay in my self-imposed prison but challenged me to think otherwise. She reiterated the things my first therapist had said, asking me to reexamine who I was, where I was, and where I wanted to go in the future. One early morning in the spring of 2011, I had an epiphany. I awoke that day feeling somehow different. I remember sitting up on the side of my bed and saying to myself out loud, “I don’t want to stay here anymore! I want a life! I want to return to college and to move on!” In July of 2011, I emerged from the long-term facility where I had languished for so long, and back into the real world. The world has been a different place for me since.
There was much work to be done if I was to maintain the healing I had achieved. I needed to find a therapist who could and would help me to gather more strength and to find my way. I was extremely fortunate to find my first therapist was accepting patients, and I began to slowly dismantle the prison of victim mentality I had built for myself. Working to shed this identity very was traumatic. I spent many hours in self-reflection until I had a clearer idea of who I was and what I wanted to do with the life I had been given. I began to mother myself, and treat myself with the dignity, love, and respect I had been cheated out of in childhood. I was growing up.
I needed desperately to understand the emotions I was denied when I was a child, and there is nothing wrong with this need. However, once I had wallowed in my past, I began to question who was in control of my life. In the past, my caregivers were in charge, but now I needed to remember that I own my life. The buck stops here.
I began, slowly, to understand that I have the power to let go of the identity of the hapless and hopeless victim. By looking honestly at myself, I found a strong, capable human being who was totally able to overcome obstacles and to live free. After this, I was able to begin to get a firm hold on myself in the present and to explore all my abilities and talents. I suddenly found I no longer wanted to be trapped in a victim mindset, and I no longer needed to seek revenge on those who had harmed me.
There were many thoughts in my early recovery of harming others, and perhaps I might have found some satisfaction in doing so. There were many who should have been my protectors, and who should have treated me with love, dignity, and respect. My therapist helped me to realize that the best revenge is to live and to live well. Revenge also means destroying the old “tapes” that had played in my head telling me I wasn’t valuable or worthy of life. To live well is to laugh in the faces of my abusers, and to in this way laugh in the faces of those who didn’t care about me and only wanted me for their hideous desires.
I found this kind of revenge to be sweet because it means I could rise above the limits set for me by people who used and disrespect me in childhood.
The impacts of letting go of being a victim have been enormous. It has freed me to explore two of my dreams and to act on them. For one, I have always wanted to return to college and earn a Ph.D. in Psychology. I had attended college off and on for almost thirty-five years, but my mental health issues had always caused me to withdrawal. In the winter of 2013, I returned to college once more, only this time I was much more stable. I thrived in college and, after two years, I graduated with my associate degree. I now am enrolled in a four-year university and am getting wonderful grades. Becoming proactive about my present, and letting go of the defeatist feeling of being out of control of my life, has given me a lot of confidence and a future.
My second dream has been to become an accomplished writer. I’ve been writing poetry and short stories since I was eight-years-old. Even while very ill, I continued to express myself in poems and writing of plays and other pieces. However, after I began to achieve a stable life, I began to investigate how to become a published writer. I found that I could self-publish for free, and so I wrote three books about my disorder and put them out there for others to see. After this, I founded a website where I could begin to blog about all that I have learned from my travels down the treacherous road I had traveled. The site started small, but after a few years, my blog has become internationally known and noticed.
No one should ever, ever give up on their dreams. Somehow, through all the fire I walked through, I hung onto mine, and now they are becoming realities. It’s taken some damn hard work to get this far, but I’m finally finding myself on the cusp of the life I always dreamed of myself.
The most important thing I have learned from my trip from victim to being in charge is to love myself. On the new pages of my life, I am writing respect-filled words of who I have become. I love and cherish myself as an imperfect creature. I am a human being, and I will make some nasty mistakes. I will let myself and others down. If I were to write a letter to myself to fill a page of the book of my life, it would read as follows.
I know you have struggled hard to get this far, and I am in awe of who you have become. Being able to let go of the drama and trauma of the past, and letting go of being a victim was hard. You have been so brave, and I honor you. I love the person you have become, and I look forward to the person you will become in the future. Thank you for your dedication and your fearless search of yourself.
The reason I write about the trap of the drama and identity of childhood trauma is to plant a seed in the minds of those who read my work. I know that in some of you, perhaps many, these seeds may germinate and grow and a new you will emerge to fill your pages with life-giving affirmation.
It is happening to me, and I hope it happens to you.