We didn’t do this on purpose. We never intended to talk so much about the subject but we also have no intention of hiding from it and preventing young people who are suffering in the wake of abuse from finding support and courage in the example left by the experiences of other survivors.
Healing comes from connection.
So this brings us to our next Selfling Story, brought to us by Renée. Renée wished to keep most of her life private but really was moved to tell her story by reading and viewing the past stories she found at selfling.com.
As usual, there is a trigger warning. This story discusses issues surrounding sexual abuse, childhood sexual abuse, depression, suicide, and substance abuse. As usual, we hope that you can find your own strength in Renée’s vulnerability and courage but, if you find that reading this is too much, please stop and take a break. If you feel that you need to talk to anyone and you don’t know who to reach out to, get a hold of us on the contact page!
Without further ado, here is Renée’s Selfling Story.
JH: Tell us who Renée is. Who is she and what is she about?
R: I am a single mom, 3 kids, two boys and a girl I work in healthcare and I love my job. I love hockey, music, movies… I like to laugh. That’s the side people see. The side people don’t see is the sadness and the hurt. The struggle.
JH: Would you say that sadness is a really heavy part of your day to day life?
R: Yes. There are triggers everywhere. I was abused by my grandfather. My earliest memory was when I was three-years-old. I work in healthcare with seniors. With elderly men. Many who wear the same cologne… that’s a huge trigger for me; if I smell that anywhere, it’s an automatic trigger and I immediately go back to the bad stuff.
Sometimes these old men are perverted and they grope and that’s a trigger.
JH: Okay, so I won’t ask you for a play-by-play, but can you take us back a little and explain the experience as you lived it?
R: Well, as I said, I was three-years-old. It’s my earliest memory. It happened at my grandparents’ house. I remember wearing a dress with a white top and a plaid bottom with black shoes because my uncle and his wife had just gotten married. Being so young when something like this happens completely changes your brain’s chemistry. So as I grew up, every way I viewed things was skewed. I had my trust and innocence taken away from me. I didn’t get to have a real childhood. I had abuse trailing me everywhere and even now, nothing is going to make that okay.
He was charged. We went to court where he was found not guilty and I was left feeling betrayed and let down. I just had to wait to see what would happen.
So it was, I guess, about a week before he died – or three or four days – I was living at my aunt’s house. I remember one day sitting there and telling him how much I hated him. How much he destroyed my life and my trust for everybody… because if my grandfather is going to hurt me – at three – well so will everyone else, right? I went off for like forty-five minutes.
A little later I found out that he’d suffered four mini-strokes and I thought “That’s just great.” I was proud of that. I didn’t say anything to my father, but I was happy. This man destroyed me. I was asked if I would visit him in the hospital. I said, “Why?” I knew he was suffering. I didn’t need to see it. I wasn’t going to go and gloat. I wasn’t going to go and rub it in because I know that is not the place or the time.
I was asked if I was going to go to the funeral. Again, “Why?” Everyone’s going to be there mourning.
JH: Don’t speak ill of the dead, right?
R: Exactly. I mean, I do speak ill of him but I wasn’t going to ruin it for everyone else. They didn’t know. My dad even asked me if I was okay with him going and of course I was. My dad had a life with him before this happened. That was his dad that died.
When we were in court, my parents weren’t in the courtroom. They didn’t need to hear the details. They knew what happened, they didn’t need to know everything.
JH: So, I don’t want to sound morbid but I want to get a full picture of how badly this has affected you. You got to tell your grandfather, your abuser, how his treatment of you affected you and then he suffered these strokes. Do you ever feel like maybe – in a way – justice was served?
R: Maybe a little bit. I mean, I have never been a big believer in Jesus or God but there are some quotes that fit. I remember my dad used to say “God hits with a stick,” and I… I think my grandfather deserved to suffer for what he did and he did suffer.
JH: Do you find confronting him give you any kind of closure?
Renée: No. I confronted him, yes, but I never got answers. I wrote him a letter– fifteen pages front to back – telling him again how he destroyed me. My grandmother intercepted it, though, so he never got to read it. I deserved answers. I needed to know he knew why he did what he did to me. So I wrote him another letter and I had a family member place it in his coffin when he died. I don’t have any answers still but my words are with him for eternity.
JH: But nothing will make this okay.
I suffer hardcore from PTSD. My brain needs to be rewired. It just doesn’t turn off. I was told in a meeting, that I need to let it go and “park it”. If it was that easy, I would have done so a long time ago.
JH: Have you had anyone else tell you to let it go? Anyone else who might know what happened, have they told you to let it go?
Renée: Well… there are friends of mine who know but, sadly, they have experienced similar traumas. I know everyone deals with things differently but there is still that level of understanding and that’s comforting.
That’s it, though.
I have been through years of counseling. It’s like beating a dead horse. No amount of talking is going to change it. My grandfather died in 2004, my grandmother in 2008, and sometimes I feel like all the chance of closure died with him.
There are little things, though. My dad said to me, after my grandfather died, he said: “You’re no longer a victim, you’re now a survivor.” He’s right. I am. It doesn’t change the damage that’s been done, though…
In high school, I started cutting myself. It was something I could control. I controlled how deep the blade cut and I controlled how much I bled. I controlled the pain I wanted to feel.
That was one outlet.
Then there was the drugs and alcohol. I was a borderline drug addict and alcoholic because of this. I didn’t know how else to cope. I was promiscuous. I didn’t have relationships. I grew up believing that life was about sex. The more guys that wanted to have sex with me, the more value I had. If there was a guy who didn’t want to have sex with me, I would think there was something wrong with me.
Fortunately, I have been able to let that go. I know that sexuality doesn’t place value on me as a human being. That was just one shitty side effect of my trauma.
JH: Were there any other consequences of the childhood sexual abuse you suffered?
Renée: Yes. Having turned to drugs, alcohol, and sex as ways to cope with the trauma, my first son was born with FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome). I almost lost him while I was pregnant with him because of the alcohol and the cocaine use. I was bed-ridden for four months.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I received his diagnosis. That’s when I found out that the placental abruption I’d suffered was because of the cocaine use.
The guilt is huge. I am really struggling with the guilt of what happened to him. I was 21 when I got pregnant. Just turned 21. I wanted to party. I didn’t care about anything. It was only me.
When I found out I was pregnant at 6 weeks I quit everything. Drinking, drugs, all of it. Cold turkey. I did it and I succeeded because I knew I now had something far better coming into my life… but it was too late. The damage had already been done.
JH: I want to make it clear for anyone reading: having turning to drugs, drinking, and sex – as well as the self-injury – this was all a coping mechanism from your trauma.
Renée: Yes. I didn’t know how else to cope. I mean… I remember counseling when I was younger. I remember this woman that my parents got me to see and I thought things were going well. That is approx 2 yrs of my life that I have blocked out. My dad said I wanted to keep going, my mom said I was done with it. My mom says she bought me a book on dealing with sexual abuse which I don’t remember, she said I threw I at her and said I didn’t need it. It’s something I will never know and I’m ok with that. It doesn’t matter at this point.
I even tried EMDR therapy. What’s important about EMDR is that the provider – if they know what they’re doing – should tell you to think of a safe place. My provider told me to think about my safe place which is the bird sanctuary… but I couldn’t do it. I could not do the EMDR. I could not bring myself to walk through that door because don’t know what I am going to find. I don’t know what else I will end up remembering.
So that has also become a barrier to getting through this. I would rather forget that it ever happened. It’s just too hard to confront it. To really confront it.
Yet, on the other hand, I am a big believer in the butterfly effect. I have to believe that if I had not been abused, had I not been taken on the path that I was, I might not have these three beautiful kids. If I could choose between having been abused and not having my kids, I would rather have been abused. I love my kids and they are the best thing to come out of this.
JH: Again, not condoning what happened to you, but it seems that you have found some real positives despite what happened. You said you don’t think that you didn’t get any closure from your grandfather but you don’t seem to have really let his abuse define you. Not really. Would you agree with that?
Renée: I guess I did allow the abuse to define me. It made me very cynical and I don’t trust people easily. It still hurts but I do have some real positives in my life. I live on my own, I can take care of my kids, and I have been in the same career for 14 years. I could have allowed myself to be totally swallowed by the drugs and the alcohol. I could have just continued partying even after I found out I was pregnant. I didn’t, though.
JH: So, you kind of did answer this, but my next question is: Do you feel that you have gotten in front of the abuse you suffered and the destruction it caused?
Renée: I feel like I have in a way. After everything that’s happened, I have learned what I am capable of, that I can look after myself and my kids, but I have come to the realization that there is only one person I can really count on and that is myself.
I had to learn to be my own rock. I dealt with a lot of this on my own. A lot of why it happened that way, though, is because of the huge stigma that was everywhere. It’s not as prevalent as it was which makes it easier to talk about, and we should talk about it because it happens. This happens way more than it should happen.
JH: A lot of people tend to be repulsed when they hear these stories – it is a really repulsive thing to hear – and I suppose some people can’t be blamed for being scared of it but those reactions do not make it easy on the person disclosing. Can you tell us what it was like when you started disclosing this?
Renée: Ok so I was in junior high when I realized I couldn’t handle it anymore and I talked to a guidance counselor. She turned around and told my mom. I asked her not to tell my dad and she didn’t.
Then there was this incident at my cousin’s house about 6 mths later. My grandparents were there. My aunt went downstairs to change over the laundry and found my grandfather there with his pants around his ankles and my cousin standing right there.
He told my aunt “Oh we were just wrestling!”
Of course, my aunt kicked my grandfather out of the house but then she told my dad what happened.
My dad asked me again if anything happened to me and there was just something about how he said it that told me that now was the time to talk about it. So I told him.
My dad asked me why I didn’t tell him before and I said it was fear, that was his dad and I didn’t think he would believe me. I eventually asked him how he knew that something had been going on. He just noticed weird things, like I was putting on extra layers of clothes when we drove across the country, my brother and I and we didn’t fight once….. until he dropped us off at my grandparent’s house because we knew he wouldn’t leave us there alone.
JH: What do you think you really could have used then, when you were younger, that could have helped you get through this?
Renée: I think the one thing that was missing was the feeling of support and awareness. No one seemed to be willing to hear these things because it wasn’t supposed to be talked about. People were ashamed. Too much stigma around it.
There is more support today than there was when I was young. Through the internet and social media, a kid can anonymously ask questions if he or she needs to because there are organizations available and support groups available. It wasn’t like that before.
There are also groups available for adults… I’m just not there yet. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do it. I know that there are people who have also gone through it and while I am empathetic and understanding what they went through, I don’t see how it’s going to help me to undo the years of damage that have already been done. Especially when it comes to my son’s FAS. I won’t go to a support group for parents of children of FAS unless there’s at least one biological parent there. I’ve only ever met parents who’ve adopted children with FAS. You have no idea what that feels like. Talk about shame and stigma.
JH: I can’t imagine how difficult that is.
Renée: I am taking care of my children. I didn’t do this on purpose. I was badly damaged and my abilities to function were dashed, but I am trying very hard to make the best of it that I can today and I think I am doing a pretty good job.
JH: So, in bringing this back around full circle, my last question for you is: what kind of advice could you impart upon a young person who might have dealt with something similar to what you went through?
Renée: Talk about it. Don’t bottle it up. Don’t let it consume you. I know from experience that it will destroy you.
It’s hard for me to trust and have relationships. I don’t know how to have a healthy relationship. The first sign of something that I am not used to, I start to push away.
I still get upset really easily. The chart of symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) has both hypoactive behaviour and hyperactive behaviour. When I was young, I would hide and not speak. I was shy and didn’t have many friends. Now, if I am scared or upset, everyone’s going to know about it.
It’s very difficult to trust people. Even my parents. If my grandfather would do what he did to me, why wouldn’t anyone else? I always strike first. If I can hurt someone else first, then there is nothing they can do to hurt me.
JH: And you’ve been at this for 35 years now, so it’s ingrained behaviour.
Renée: Absolutely. I don’t know life without this.
JH: So you have PTSD?
JH: Okay, and because of that, you are taking some medication. Can you go into your experience with the medications? Are they working? What does the medication do for you?
Renée: I have tried many antidepressants and, for some, they help. They didn’t work for me. They made me numb and I can’t just feel numb. If I’m sad, I want to cry. If I’m mad, you’re gonna know it. Same if I’m happy. Antidepressants turned me into a zombie. I have reasons to be depressed.
So I went to the antianxiety medications. I started with clonazepam. Which was good because I thought I had anxiety. Yet I was actually having panic attacks. Different thing entirely. Panic attacks came with triggers. I wasn’t feeling anxious all the time. I was having panic attacks. So one doctor upped the dose of the clonazepam. Then another dropped it and gave me Ativan. That wasn’t working. Now I am on lorazepam and that works. 1 milligram as needed.
What I am learning is how to bring myself out of the panic attack. To be able to tell myself “You’re safe. Nothing can hurt you.” Self-talk is huge. “Where are you? What do you smell? What do you see?” Sometimes I don’t get there in time and I have to take the medication but I’m getting better.
JH: So what I’m hearing is that the medication is there as a stop gap but for the most part you are gaining instincts that can stop the panic attacks?
Renée: Yup. I don’t want to rely on it. I want to learn how to do this myself but I am okay knowing that, when I need it, the lorazepam is there and I can take it and, in about half an hour, I’m going to start feeling a lot better. Sometimes my panic attacks will get so bad that I can’t walk. My knees will give out. This has happened at work. Thankfully the meds I take don’t impair me so I can take it at work if need be. So, in those really severe moments, I am glad I have the medication because I don’t know what I would do without it.
JH: How do you feel now having told your story?
Renée: I think I am stronger now because I can stop and see that I am still here. I am still moving forward. That part – the abuse – will always be there. That won’t go away, that won’t get better, but I am still here. It hasn’t killed me yet. It’s come close…
JH: Have you ever had thoughts of suicide? Have you ever attempted suicide?
Renée: I have never attempted it but it’s always in the back of my mind. Fairly recently, I was once sitting there with a handful of pills thinking that this is all it would take and it would be over I had just reached my limit and couldn’t take anymore… but I then saw a picture that my daughter drew for me and it said: “I love you, momma”… so I took myself to the hospital.
I have more to live for. I know that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem and this is a temporary problem. I was never brave enough to take that step but I also have my kids on my mind as well and what might happen to them if I wasn’t here and I won’t abandon them like that. Not everyone has that kind of anchor.
JH: Well, I think we’re all happy your daughter drew you that picture.
Renée: So am I.
JH: So thank you Renée for talking to me. This took immense bravery for you to come out and talk about it – and to allow it to be told to the world. It never ceases to amaze me the amount of resolve people have in the face of tragedy and trauma.
Renée: I feel like doing this will be worth it, for me, if it helps just one person know that they can get through it too. It won’t be easy – it’s never easy – but it can be done. You just have to hold onto something good so it can pull you through. Hopefully this can help someone get through it.
Renée has learned to depend on herself. Slowly, step by step, she is putting herself back together. The road of a survivor is a long and hard one and, while she may not feel like she can depend on others, Renée is reaching out to make a positive impact on someone else suffering the way she suffered.
We want to thank Renée, and all our Selfling Storytellers, for their bravery and their vulnerability. Without those of us who have shown our courage, so many more survivors would be unwilling to discover theirs.