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The Aftermath of Childhood Abuse

 

In order to have a successful life, it’s not enough to be smart and talented, you have to be able to function, every day, without having three panic attacks before lunch. I was certain that, twenty-five years into therapy, I would be married, with children, and published multiple times. I wouldn’t have made it through the first ten years of therapy if I’d known that I’d still be struggling with forward motion in year twenty five. But this is where I’m at, and this is the best I’ve been able to do, despite all of that promise, because of childhood sexual abuse.

I was the kid that teachers loved and never worried about. Rachel will do fine at whatever she chooses to do. Rachel is smart and responsible and hardworking and never needs help. They didn’t consider my social anxiety, or crippling depression, or the endless fragmentation of my mind as a problem, because even with all of that I still did well at school. But I didn’t want to, and that was the killer. I did not want to wake up each morning. I did not want to meet new people, or go to parties, or get a job, or choose a major, or whatever each next step was supposed to be.

grumpy cricket

“This is a difficult topic, Mommy.”

 

I am tired of hearing about how resilient everyone else is, and how well they’re doing, despite this and that and the other thing. It implies that we all had the same obstacles and everyone else is just better than me at overcoming them. But the fact is, if I had the same life experiences as I’ve had, without the great good fortune of intelligence and talent, and a Mom who loves me, and a therapist who has been there for me since I was nineteen, I would not be here. I would have walked in front of a bus, or swallowed a bottle of pills, a hundred times by now. It’s important to know that, and not to be smug about my successes, and not to be so quick to judge others for their lack of success.

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“I’m here for you, Cricket.”

The percentage of substance abusers with child abuse histories is very high, same with prison inmates, and patients in mental hospitals, but I feel like we choose, as a society, not to know these things. We choose to ignore our good fortune when we have it, and we choose to take credit for all of our successes, despite the help we’ve received along the way. We imagine that people are successful because of their intelligence and hard work alone, and therefore those who are unsuccessful must be lazy and stupid.

Lately we’ve been talking more about privilege – white privilege, male privilege – but we forget the less obvious forms of privilege; being safe in your own home, and being loved and nurtured by your family, and having the support you need when you have to face big and small challenges along the way, are huge privileges that many children never experience.

I remember watching episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show, years ago, when she would celebrate kids who had survived war and starvation and abuse and got into Harvard anyway, or started a successful business, or saved the world in some way. And it made me angry, one, because I could never do any of that, and two, because most of the kids who went through those same circumstances wouldn’t be able to impress anyone and win the attention and rewards they would need in order to survive. They would have the same residue of pain and trauma, without any help to get them through, or anyone to celebrate their small achievements along the way.

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“I love to celebrate!”

Everyone wants to know the secrets of the resilient child, but resilience has more to do with how we take care of and support these children than with their own inherent qualities. Their strength, or weakness, comes mostly from us. If they fail, it’s because we didn’t hold them up. We keep forgetting this. We want to celebrate, and vilify, the individual, if only so that we don’t have to take responsibility for each other. But it’s an illusion. We are intertwined whether we acknowledge it or not, and we pay the price for the suffering of others, whether we caused it ourselves or simply chose to ignore it.

Cricket and her special friend 001

Platypus knows that we all need help.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

155 responses »

  1. Thank you for sharing. I know that this was not easy to do.

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  2. Thank you for the personal and thoughtful post.

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  3. words elude me, Rachel. Simply, thank you for this.

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  4. Thanks for much for this, Rachel. When I read “Yeshiva Girl,” I knew it had to be at least partly autobiographical, but I did wonder about the sexual abuse. I’m sorry to have that confirmed, but I hope that writing about it did at least help to exorcise your feelings about it.

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  5. Thank you for this and all of your stories and those yet to come. As a group therapist I engage in a lot of self disclosure to connect and normalize in some small way. I often read this quote to clients/patients.
    “Wounding and healing are not opposites. They’re part of the same thing. It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be ashamed of. ” Rachel Naomi Remen

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  6. No one can possibly know the pain of anyone else which is what makes it so impossible to share. But to overcome what you have and do as well as you are takes a special kind of genius strength.

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  7. Beautifully written Rachel … I had composed this lengthy reply, then lost it as I was posting it … no matter, the important thing it to let you know that your words and your experiences matter, and they touch so many people’s hearts. I am so thankful you are still here – and willing – to share your wisdom with the world. Keep on writing from your heart 💕

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  8. the senior weaver

    Dear Rachel, Thank you so much for sharing such a deeply personal post. It’s truly written from your heart. I’ve also experienced sexual abuse as a child. So, thank you for also being a voice and speaking the truth about this evil. Especially for those who are unable to speak for themselves. Mary ❤❤❤

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  9. Beautiful words! I have had some struggles too and can relate.

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  10. I have finally ordered it. Thanks for speaking up.

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  11. Thank you for sharing ❤ such amazing and powerful words

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  12. i find this piece
    very supportive!
    bows for encouraging
    well-being for all children 🙂

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  13. Our own pain helps us deal with the pain of others, unfair as that may sound. You never know who will find the courage to take another step forward because you were willing to share. Healing can’t be forced, but God can heal all things—or help us bear it for the sake of others. One day at a time…

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  14. Wow. Thank you for being open about your situation, Rachel. I always love, too, how your dogs have just the right comment. Dogs are the best.

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  15. A powerful, important, courageous post, Rachel. I think that “success” is part of what we need to redefine. To have grown up, been a loving and caring doggy momma, a blogger, and the author of a novel…..that’s success no matter who you are. To have overcome a past filled with sexual abuse….you’re a warrior woman. Truly. I have your book, but haven’t started yet (oh, book club demands……) Please keep writing, keep sharing your powerful strength. Wishing you peace!

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  16. “I feel like we choose, as a society, not to know these things.”

    Yes, you are right. Thank you for sharing joy and lighting our lives–and also sharing truths that we need to hear.

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  17. Thank you for such an insightful post!

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  18. Thank you! I feel like we’re cut from the same cloth. I know we are not…I was able to elude most of my would be abusers much of the time, but I still fell victim to abuse and worse, betrayal after I told, like I was supposed to… Alas, Matthew Olzmann has inspired me to write about the things that won’t let go. I’ve begun to do that, I’m going to keep doing that. Thank you for sharing your story to lift up the rest of us. Now we need to do the same. And my poetry will begin to reflect that…I’m coming up with ideas often. Thank you for making me realize that I’m lucky enough without receiving national recognition, sometimes just for getting out of bed because the sun came up. A dear friend once asked me how I did it. My reply should have been, “I never knew I had a choice.”

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  19. Please keep telling your truth, Rachel, it is so important for everyone to hear. And I will most certainly check out your book!

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  20. I’m not trying to belittle your story but there are more than you know who have had this problem growing up.

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    • The conservative estimates are that one out of four girls and one out of six boys will be sexually abused before age eighteen, and that doesn’t even begin to count the numbers of physically and emotionally abused and neglected children. That’s why it’s so strange that we don’t talk about the impacts more. If we could acknowledge the reality of abuse, and the aftermath, we’d have a much better chance to help people in the ways they really need it.

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  21. Wonderful and frank post. It must have been so tough to do but we do need to open the whole thing up. Thank you

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  22. Ah, so very proud of you Rachel. Sending lots of love and respect to you.

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  23. Thank you for your transparency. You have a wonderful gift as a communicator.

    I am 73 and was emotionally abused by a difficult father as I spelled out in my two memoirs, Look Backward Angel and How Did I Get Through This? Both are available on Amazon. I reread them myself for comfort.

    I see my shrink twice a month and it helps. I write blogs as well as memoirs and that seems therapeutic. Thank you for following my blog. As a Messianic Jew I participate in a number of fellowship groups and the participation feeds my soul. Helping others helps. Finally I find the gym where I stretch, lift and bike very peaceful..

    Many of us try to find the answers deep down. I believe that when I try the grace of God is essential in my journey. May God bless you in your efforts.

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  24. Powerful – food for thought about how we should never ignore our community, no matter how young or old.
    Love the way you intertwine the photos of the girls and the little quotes to lift the mood as you write, very clever.

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  25. I am not sure what to say. How brave of you to write this. You are so articulate in your writing, and lighten a heavy message beautifully. Just keep doing what you’re doing. I am full of admiration.

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  26. Your post speaks of a very strong woman. I admire you for that Rachel.

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  27. excellent post on a difficult subject Rachel.

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  28. Moving beyond shame is such an important part of the healing process. Thank you for sharing.

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  29. Thank you for sharing, Rachel. I appreciate your insights. I know it’s not easy. I hope you continue to find support and love from the people around you (and from the puppies, too, of course!)

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  30. Rachel, thank you for sharing your story and challenges. I was watching CBS Sunday Morning News and they did a piece of the “Post Secret” website founder, where he publishes secrets that people have shared. The most riveting one in the story is when a woman, who had been abused at age four by her grandfather, found a similar story to hers. It made her feel she was not alone and that someone else knew of her travails. I hope sharing your story helps someone or some people similarly. Best wishes on all fronts, Keith

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  31. This post was an act of bravery, of opening your soul to others. Many so-called “brave” people could not have done this. May I count this as a victory for you? Amy

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  32. Thank you for sharing. I really needed to read something like this today.

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  33. Kudos to you for sharing a deeply personal and painful story. Loving thoughts of comfort as you continue the journey. 💖

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  34. I wrote a post in the past two weeks (don’t remember the date) in which I talked about my own story in regard to childhood abuse. Someone commented that it does no good to ‘wallow’ in that stuff, it happened and one should just deal with it and move on. I know, as do you from this post you wrote today, that it isn’t that simple. Some people can do that, some people embrace being a victim, and some of us just do the best we can. Get the help we need and muddle through the rest. I firmly believe that abuse changes the person it happens to, and we carry the burden of it the rest of our days. Now do we have to wrap ourselves up in it and use it as a crutch, a blanket or a shield? No, but we remember and we are scarred because of it. It makes us who we become because the abused child grows up to be an adult who has issues that ‘normal’ folk (unmolested or abused) don’t, and challenges those ‘normal’ people can’t begin to understand IMHO. Maybe you never made it to Harvard (or Princeton or whatever high tone expensive school you may have thought was mandatory); but you made it through graduate school. You did the best you could. Don’t diminish your strength.

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    • I’m sorry you got that response to your post, because it’s total bullshit. So many people think they have to keep quiet and as a result they shut down completely or the pain comes out sideways and hurts other people who don’t deserve it. We need to tell our stories; it’s what makes us human.

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  35. Where to begin? In my view, this is the most important piece you’ve written. Powerful and valuable. You are taking a step forward in your recovery by doing this, showing strength as well as your usual wisdom. The more I interact with people in any kind of recovery, the same things seem to apply: the importance of connection with other key people, and of the individual holding a clear sense of meaning and purpose. You have those things going for you, Rachel. It’s not a question of internal OR external factors; all these things work together. I hope you feel a community of support because I see it in the responses to your posts. I suspect you’ve touched a nerve in many readers with this particular post. You’ve developed an audience that cares about what you have to say, and about what you are experiencing. You’re doing something good with your talent, your story, and your heart.

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  36. I also want to thank you for sharing your story. My obstacles hare been different but just as difficult to deal with. Thank you for helping me to not feel like a failure just because I haven’t been able to make it to the top in spite of my anchors.

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  37. I’m happy you are strong enough to help others by talking about it. You have Cricket and I’m sure that helps you a lot. I’m here if you ever want to talk about this subject or anything via email. You’re a strong woman and keep getting better daily.

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  38. I think people stress resilience as a way to put the onus on the child to “bounce back” and be self sufficient. Self sufficiency is totally antithetical to the attached humans we are designed to be. When those to whom we are attached are the perpetrators, “resilience” and “self sufficiency” suggest that we are destined to be on our own. We already were on our own. Now we need to learn dependency and connection.(pretty sure I wrote a similar comment months ago, but here it is again.)

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  39. This is so, SO powerful. And so true. We get swept up in the Wow! of success stories without considering how many smaller successes have been overlooked – are possibly invisible because they’re internal. I mean, who applauds the kid who gets up and goes to school and gets great grades even though she doesn’t want to?

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    • Thank you! I still crave the gold and silver star stickers we used to get in kindergarten just for doing our homework. I think we all deserve that kind of acknowledgement each day.

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      • Well … something that works for me is to end each day by creating a short “to do” list. (I use Evernote but really you could use anything.) And as I complete a task, I check it off. I also have a daily “to do” list of everyday chores, because sometimes when my brain is foggy or I’m depressed or distracted it helps to have it written down. Again, as I complete a task I check it off. I’m giving myself gold stars, and it feels pretty good… 🙂 Maybe you could create something that you could share with your mom? That way, although you’re the one dishing out the stars, she can applaud. The way you speak of her it sounds as though she’s pretty good at being a cheerleader.

      • Mom is an amazing cheerleader! You’re so right!

  40. Sometimes loving God and keeping His commandments is enough all by itself. The writer of Ecclesiastes came to that conclusion. So did Jesus. No where do I read that “set the world on fire” is an expectation.

    You might enjoy savoring Psalm 37, particularly the verse about the meek inheriting the earth and delighting themselves in the abundance of peace. It’s been a comfort to me for many years. Blessings, Rachel!

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  41. I don’t know how much of it is cultural and how much of it is our wiring as humans, but I believe many of us have a fixation on stories of heroic personal redemption and a strong aversion to the idea that life could “break” someone. I felt broken by my experiences of childhood sexual abuse for many years. What has brought me the most peace is replacing society’s measuring stick of success/failure with “am I fulfilling my purpose for being here” as my key motivator.

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  42. Thank you for speaking out on an important subject. ❤

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  43. I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened, but I’m sorry that no one was there for you, and I wish I could just give you a hug. Know that there are those who didn’t know and who bear great guilt for the not knowing. Someone close to me was abused for years – I should have known and I should have saved her. And I wish I could have saved you, too.

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    • I’m so sorry your loved one was hurt. Its important to understand that not knowing is different than ignoring what you know. I hope that you can release that guilt, or better yet, shift it to the abuser where it belongs.

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      • I’ve spent a lot of years trying to forgive the abuser – and trying to forgive myself. I’m not trying to downplay the pain of the abused in any way, so I hope it doesn’t seem that I am. . I just hope that those who have been hurt can forgive those of us who should have known, and wish every day we had seen the signs.

      • I’ve never understood the need to forgive the abuser, unless the abuser was a child or had otherwise diminished judgement. But learning to forgive yourself for not knowing is worth the effort and deserves your time.

  44. Yes, I agree with every word, Rachel. It is a victory to be up and about at all :). I consider myself lucky that you got yourself this far and I could read your book, and still hope, along with your new job when it begins, that you will write more. I stop and start every day, sometimes the stop is stronger, and sometimes it takes longer for me to stop, up and down, back and forth… it’s very tiring. I think for many people there is just the idea that… what can you say? What can you do? You cannot undo the damage someone has received. I can only tell you, I am glad to be reading you, selfishly, and I hope your new job (you will get at it!) will help you a little more. May you always be surrounded by kind people and if not, may they steer clear of you! Take care xxx

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  45. Anyone who has never experienced such abuse would do well to keep their advice and opinions to themselves. Your article here highlights just how damaging such things can be, and must have been hard for you to share. That in itself shows bravery, Rachel.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  46. What a powerful post. Thank you for writing and for growing my understanding and compassion.

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  47. You are so right. We all need to be loved and to matter. Abused, neglected children are not. I have been writing on my book for the last 35 years but I can’t make myself go forward because it’s too upsetting to write about even though I’m managed to forget much of it thru many years of gaslighting.

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    • I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through, and I hope that you will keep writing your story. The effort to keep us quiet is endless, so our effort to be heard has to be endless too.

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  48. This story really hit home for me and I was never even physically abused. All of my abuse was verbal and emotional with a few other tactics mixed in (subtle sabotage at every turn). Not to minimize the effects of physical abuse, but what I think is more difficult about the verbal and emotional kind is that it can sometimes take decades to realize what actually happened, because it is so much easier for the abuser to cover up and rewrite history. Also, if you do reach out for help, people are less inclined to believe you because the abuser usually has such an elaborate mask that they present to the outer world. I also agree with you about people in mental hospitals and with substance abuse issues. Society keeps wanted to perceive these individuals as the cause of problems in society rather than a larger symptom of a society that continues to accept narcissistic abuse as the norm.

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    • Verbal and emotional abuse is insidious and gets a lot of help from abusive messages in society overall. So much of the work of therapy is learning that you don’t deserve to be abused.

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