Leaving Home - For the Survivors By Ness Mountain
This is for people who have survived abuse.
Abuse is a touchy subject. People who have been abused as children suffer a great deal in later life, and often it’s unclear what’s really wrong. They may not know themselves. There’s a lot of controversy. But I want to talk about what I have learned about surviving, and I want to speak to the bravery of the survivors.
When people come to talk to me about extremely abusive experiences, I often have powerful reactions in my body. Sometimes the stories are literally hair-raising—my hair stands up on my head. I feel as if I am standing in a cold stream, keeping my balance, clinging to the rock below me, connecting to the earth. I must breathe deeply or be swept under. There are no second chances; all my listening skills are needed. Often the person is telling a story which has been rarely told in the past, or perhaps never to a person who was listening fully.
My compassion and groundedness come forth. I focus on the story, listening more deeply than usual. Sometimes I shudder as the stories pass over and through me.
I always find myself asking: How has this person survived? I’ve seen how abuse in childhood can twist and thwart the growing individual, grinding the young personality down, as day in and day out, trust is broken, and love is not found. Often siblings have not survived, or seem not to have much life left in them—they are users or abusers themselves, that is, or lost in some other experience of little growth. The ones who make it to counseling from families like these are the exceptions. They are miracles: breathtaking examples of human courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
But often they don’t know it. They ask why they can’t be normal, why peace is so hard to find. They should be able to just get over it, they say. They should be able to relax and focus on making money, or being a good lover, or sleeping through the night—the usual problems of daily life.
But for the survivors of extremity, life isn’t like that. Getting through the day is a struggle. It must be. Our personalities, our ways of coping, are founded in childhood. When we’re small, we need love and safety, the chance to develop trust. When these are missing, the child grows up bent, sometimes broken. These problems go to the very core, and although they can heal, they can never heal quickly.
I have observed two aspects of abuse in the stories told to me.
First, there is violence. When parents (or whoever is taking care of the child) have totally inappropriate or vile ways of acting around children, the child never has the opportunity to develop trust. The parents depend on the child, they lean on the child in ways they should not. These children often have to solve their parents’ problems for them, and if they fail, they bear the worst possible consequences, things even adults should not have to deal with.
Incest is an example: when an adult uses a child as a lover and a victim, needing someone to violate, while expecting the child to satisfy or comfort them. Physical abuse is another; the child absorbs the parent’s rage for them.
Second, and perhaps even worse, is lack of caring. Even abusive, incestuous parents may care for their children, in their own tortured way. These parents were abused themselves, and most of them are, miserably, trying.
But not all. Some parents just don’t really care about their children. It seems unthinkable, but it’s true. In these cases, the violence may not be present, but still, life could hardly be any worse for the growing child. Every loving impulse is turned inwards, becoming a torture—one more thing to blame themselves for. Life is empty, dreams are a horror, and survival is a true accomplishment, something to sing about. Most suicides, I suspect, fall in this category. The upside of violence is that you know it’s happening to you.
Let us sing of survival, then! Let us celebrate! When life goes on, and a survivor finds the courage to grow and learn—what a triumph! Survivors may forget it if luckier people fail to remind them.
Abuse survivors, you are extraordinary people.
Ness Mountain is a counselor and urban shaman living in Portland. Comments on Leaving Home are welcome.