With Understanding Comes a Whole New Perspective

“You can’t change the past but, with understanding, you can sometimes draw the poison out of it.”~Carlo Gebler

 It never crossed my mind there could be a difference between knowing and understanding something.  Now that I understand that, the depression is lifting, the light seems brighter, brain fog is clearing; yes, there is a difference between knowing and understanding.

I spent 50 years knowing I had been abused sexually, emotionally, and physically as a child, and then, too, as an adult. I ruminated on the details, the perpetrators, the scenes, and the dialogue–data stored permanently in my mind. That’s what knowledge is.

So, one wonders, or at least I did, if I know all these things, no repressed memories to unearth, then why can’t I move on? I’ve confronted some offenders via letters and phone calls, and I even wrote a memoir. Certainly, those things should empower me, lessen or eliminate the symptoms (i.e., low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, PTSD) that a victim of childhood abuse and sexual assault endure.

So how does understanding differ from knowing? Knowing is processed in the mind–that place where all the data is stored to ruminate on. Understanding takes longer to process, and it occurs in the brain. It not only needs all that “knowing” data gathered from personal experiences and education, but it needs your interest to break down, conceptualize, and analyze what you know.

In writing my memoir, like so many memoirists, I tried to make sense of my experiences and to understand them. I don’t think many of us come out the other side “healed” or feeling dramatically different (other than it’s enormously helpful to find out we aren’t alone in our experiences). I believed that writing what I know would bring understanding. I was wrong. I needed to reach much deeper, beyond the who, what when and where, and focus on what I didn’t care about when I wrote or ruminated: the Why. Why did these people commit a heinous crime against a child?

Understanding doesn’t mean to condone or forgive. It means drawing some of the poison out of the pain. The light just might shine a little brighter.

Each New Year Marks a Time to Start Over

new-year-chapter-one-typewriterNew Year’s Resolutions are like diets–once the reality sets in that it’s not going to last, and that you can’t make it a lifestyle, you QUIT. That’s why I don’t make resolutions anymore. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t look forward with anticipation to significant changes each New Year. For me, one who enters the Fall season with dread as holiday decorations go up in stores way too early, there is an impending sense of doom. I know full well that the ugly monster (depression) will rear its ugly head and nearly suck the life out of me. Like many people, the holidays hold memories of loss, grief, and just downright darkness. You can’t pray it away, exercise it away, meditate it away; and I know first hand, no amount of food will make it go away. Trying to resist depression only makes it worse. So, I sit with it as best I can. I used to believe it would never go away. I would ruminate about all kinds of solutions–which would have been a big mistake. I know now that, with time and patience, it does go away. (Not completely, of course, since loss and grief tend to linger, sometimes infinitely.)

So, January 1 is my time of renewal. Holidays are packed up, memories of loss and grief diminish. I fill my crockpots with healthy home-made soups. And boy do we need them during the freezing temps we’re having in the Pacific Northwest! I got out my yoga videos and meditation tapes. I’m already thinking about Spring.

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December 19-The Day My Brother Died

cliff-and-me-on-steps-1957Five years ago, on December 19, 2011, I had to make a decision: Put a permanent stop to the depression that I’d been fighting for the thirty-two years since my only natural sibling’s suicide, or reach out to others in one final attempt to find someone that might relate. I wasn’t techno-savvy but, feeling desperate, I managed to start a WordPress blog.

I wrote the following piece for my first blog post that day (“Writing Through the Monsters of Our Childhood”) and, terrified, hit Publish. Hundreds of people viewed, commented and shared the post. The response wasn’t just about my brother or me–although there were certainly many wonderful supportive comments–but people wanted to talk about their stories of loss, of feeling something was wrong with them because they couldn’t get over it. They opened up, for the first time, about being sexually abused as a child. That was the first Christmas I didn’t feel my normal want-to-die grief.

For the next four years, I wrote stories about my childhood that had tormented me. I put those stories in a memoir and published it. I thought that would mean wiping my hands of the past, of the memories, but this year, I’ve had to face the fact that writing the book was not a cure-all. I continue to dread the arrival of Fall, and the grief I associate with Christmas. Recently, someone asked me if I’d be doing something special to commemorate the anniversary of Cliff’s death this year? Already deep in grief, that question smacked me right between the eyes. Was I supposed to do something? Wasn’t keeping my head above water enough? Maybe not . . .

Reprinting this post is a reminder that I still have work to do.

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December 19: The Day My Brother Died

They say he put the barrel end of a 30.06 in his mouth and pulled the trigger. There would be no need for an open casket. “But how can we know for sure it’s him?” I pleaded at the funeral. I needed to see something of my brother one more time. “It’s him,” they said. “Now let it go.”

Every year as the holidays approach, the days remain dark even when the sun shines. A crushing ache develops in my chest in early fall, and by Thanksgiving, surface breathing has become my norm. Even now, thirty-two years after that fateful day, an ever-present voice needles me: How can they know for sure it was him?

When the search-and-rescue team spotted Cliff walking off the mountain, naked and hallucinating, they knew instantly he had severe hypothermia. He had gotten separated from his friends on a hunting trip, his feet irreparably damaged. My brother would never again work the land, break horses, or do the things a true Montana cowboy does. This cruel twist of fate propelled him into a descending dark abyss of no return. Only I would understand that what Cliff was really losing was the thing that had kept him alive all along—a means of escape from the memories that haunted both of us.

My brother’s disabling depression ended that day in 1981—and mine began. When he took his life, he took mine, too. He was my only natural sibling. We shared dark secrets of childhood abuse. Now I would be left to carry those secrets, and the shame, alone.

I’ve spent most of a lifetime in hiding, holding tight the secrets of my past: childhood sexual abuse, rapes, a baby stolen at birth. I’ve accepted the shame and grief as if they were crimes I committed, and that I must pay for. Fear of rejection has kept me from living the one and only life I’ll get. But it’s my time to come out of that closet of shame. I can no longer worry that the world will come crashing down on me—it already has. The risk of revealing my hidden truths could be tremendous—but so could my freedom.

John le Carré wrote: “The monsters of our childhood do not fade away. . . .” After Cliff’s life-changing hunting accident, he no longer had the strength to continue fighting the monsters. And for the thirty-plus years after his death, I didn’t think I did, either. But, writing about my childhood over the past two years—my brother’s spirit at my side—I found the strength to keep going. I grew to understand why he had to leave me, and I forgave him. In writing our story, I finally understood why I was the one still here. There would be much work to do—when the time was right. I would share our story and advocate for others abused as children. Cliff’s quiet, gentle demeanor would never have allowed him to talk publicly about his hidden shame. It would be up to me to take on the monsters for both of us. I want my brother to know: I got this.

 

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