Surviving Trauma: learning from Elizabeth Smart

When Elizabeth Smart was 14 years old, an evil man who called himself the prophet Emmanuel found an open window in her home, sliced open the screen, climbed inside her bedroom, and took her away from her family whispering threats in her ears. He marched her up to a high hilltop in the mountains above Salt Lake City where he raped her, as his wife watched. Over the next nine months, he systematically raped her, abused her, starved her, forced her to drink alcohol, kept her in isolation, and threatened her and her family again and again and again. At times, he and his wife paraded her in public in a white veil, threatening her if she spoke up or ran away. After months on the mountain in Utah, he took her to southern California, and on their journey back months later she was finally rescued by the police and returned to her family, the man and his wife going to jail (I simply refuse to use the kidnappers names in this entry).

elizabeth1elizabeth2

Before her kidnapping, Elizabeth was an innocent and spiritual Mormon teenager, who played the harp and loved her family. And after her rescue, Elizabeth took a bath, hugged her family, slept in her own bed, and woke the next morning ready to live. Using horseback riding as her therapy, as well as her belief in God and family, she has gone on to be an advocate for girls and women rescued from captivity, and she is speaking out against the “rape culture”, where systems are set in place that increase sexual assaults against women by doing things like teaching abstinence only in schools or teaching children to follow spiritual leaders at all costs. Now a wife and a mother, Elizabeth has written a about her kidnapping, and she details how she never gave up hope, how she healed, and how she has moved forward.

Toward the end of her book, Elizabeth discusses how she has much to be grateful for. She survived and returned to her family after only months; her kidnapper was a stranger and not someone in her family, someone whose photo hangs on the wall of her home to be looked at every day; her kidnapper was apprehended and locked away; her family surrounded her with love and hope and support and optimism.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited children, roughly 800,000 American children are reported every year; that is about 2000 per day. The majority of these are runaways or family abductions, with nonfamily or stranger abductions happening far less frequently. While I can’t personally verify these statistics, it is safe to estimate that hundreds of thousands of people go missing every year, and most of them we never hear about. That means there are hundreds of thousands of families every year who sit there in pain, wondering, hoping, going on with their lives feeling broken and empty with no answers. It is hard to sit back and realize the vast extent of things like child pornography, kidnapping, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, but all of these are alive and well in our country and the numbers are much more vast than we can simply comprehend.

Many of my clients come in to therapy because they have undergone a trauma. Trauma is a difficult thing to describe or quantify. Three women may get into a minor car accident: one may walk away completely fine and never think of it again, one may walk away and have nightmares for a few weeks, and the last may walk away feeling fine only to realize later she has panic attacks when she tries to get into the car again. We can understand each of these reactions, and we recognize that trauma impacts each person differently at different times in their lives.

In my therapy office, I see so many examples of trauma, all of them sad and devastating. A woman who saw her mother murdered by her father, a man who had a gun put in his mouth in a bank robbery, a teenager disowned by her parents for being transgender and kicked out into the streets, a woman who was hit in the eye by her husband when she found out he had been cheating on her, a woman whose husband and only child were killed by a drunk driver while they walked to the park, a young child whose parents were both killed in a car accident, a college girl who was sexually assaulted by her best friend. On and on and on.

We all have some traumas in our lives. Sometimes we rebound quickly, and sometimes it takes a much longer time. And at times, traumas change us forever, alter us into a different person. Yet traumas don’t have to ruin us or break us, even when they change us. A man who loses both his legs in combat can have a happy healthy life with full relationships, but he is altered and changed from who he was before. A woman whose 16 year old son takes his own life can heal and embrace life even as she forever aches for her lost son. A woman who experiences a double mastectomy in order to survive breast cancer can go on to be healthy and happy with healthy relationships and confidence and sex appeal though she is forever different.

Some traumas completely heal in a brief time. When I was 20, I was pretty violently mugged and knocked unconscious (I’ll have to tell that story here sometime). For a few months, I was scared and in pain. But in time, I was completely healed, both physically and emotionally. Growing up in a religion that promised a cure for my homosexuality has taken me much longer to overcome; it tainted my self-esteem for decades and impacted all of my relationships through childhood, adolescence, and college, and through my early adult life. That trauma changed me, yet I still have a happy, healthy, and well-adjusted life.

Elizabeth Smart is a hero of mine. It takes a special person to tell her trauma to others, to stand up and fight back, to raise awareness, to save lives. I can think of other heroes, Judy Shephard and Dave Pelzer come to mind. But Elizabeth tops that list for me. She is a courageous and powerful force for good in this world.

People sometimes tell me that they believe things happen for a reason, that God allowed a trauma to happen to them so that they might learn. Personally, I can’t line myself up with this premise, that a God allows rape, kidnappings, murders, wars, and suicides in order to teach small personal lessons. I think sometimes things just happen, sometimes as a result of our life choices and sometimes as a result of the choices of others, but they happen nonetheless. I do believe in resilience, however. I believe that no matter what a person goes through, they can rebound and learn and grow and come out stronger.

Elizabeth Smart assuredly has.

elizabeth3.jpg

We are Miracles, All

brain-waves-password

One of the great lessons I have learned as a therapist, hearing human stories from every age and perspective, is simple:

In any given moment, we are as authentic as we know how to be. And the only moment we have is this one.

Picture a piece of string, fixed to one wall and stretched to the other.

This is your life. One small strand, whether you live to be 2 or 102.

We have a certain amount of control over that life span, with healthy living choices and self-preservation. Yet we are very fragile creatures, subject to injury and disease and depression, and sometimes to the poor or violent decisions of others.

And that timeline string follows rules. You can only move chronologically along it, from left to right, like flowing water. Each moment you exist feels real and vibrant and full with whatever you are feeling and experiencing. And then another moment goes by and the one you were living becomes memory, for now you are living another.

Along this timeline, we can look back at what has passed, viewing it from our present. And we can look forward with wonder or dread, also from our present. But even those moments of reflection and wonder are quickly replaced by another.

And so we face each moment with the amount of authenticity we are equipped with at that exact moment.

When I was five, and I sat in the driveway at my house feeling like my world was going to end because my mom went to the store without me… well, that’s easy to smile about now, but at that time, the pain was intense and real.

And when I was thirteen and my face broke out in terrible acne, and I looked at myself in the mirror with horror and anguish, that was real.

And when I was twenty-two and felt overwhelmed by college finals mixed with a full-time job and mounting bills and religious obligations, and I felt I would crack, that was real.

And when I was thirty and held my oldest child, newly born, in my arms for the first time, and my heart expanded to twelve times the size, and I felt elation and fear and responsibility and love beyond anything I had ever known, that was real.

And when I was thirty-four and I dropped off the divorce papers to the courts, and I grieved my marriage and my faith deeply while looking forward with steadfastness and strength and resolve and hope, that was real.

And now I’m thirty-seven, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop, and it’s cold and dark outside, and a policewoman sits next to me looking weary, and my coffee is luke warm, and my soul feels inspired, and… well, this moment is real as well.

I have been through some terrible things in my lifetime. We all have. It’s part of the human condition. I have ached and cried and hurt and struggled. And I have been through some wonderful things in my lifetime. We all have. It’s part of the human condition. I have rejoiced and basked and thrilled and sang.

And each and every one of those moments are moments that I have lived, authentically. And each of them has passed, as they will continue to do so until my timeline is complete, and I know not when that will be.

And the end of life, people say the same things, lessons learned with full perspective: that we should live for the now, that we should live without regrets, that we should be ourselves and be true to ourselves, that we should embrace our loved ones and spend time with our friends, that we should travel and love and dance and climb.

No one, with perspective, wishes they had spent more time in pain, more time grieving losses, more time surrounding themselves with those that do not love them, more time in debt or disease or obesity or anguish or abuse.

We must, simply put, lean ourselves toward love.

I have had times in my life where I felt I wasn’t worthy of love, happiness, or peace. I felt burdened down by financial expectations or weight or religious requirements or relationship responsibilities or physical constraints. And there will always be things to hold us back. It takes a very careful balance to find love and peace for the beings we are, and to work on changing and amending our beings toward happier realities over time.

For if it took me four years to put on eighty pounds, it will certainly take me more than four days to lose it. I can’t erase tens of thousands of debts overnight. If I have suffered from heavy depression for years, it may take several months to get used to feeling hope and joy again. If I have hurt others with my choices, it will take time to reestablish trust. And if I have lost a loved one, a period of grief is necessary for healing.

The quest to find ourselves in a happy present is a noble, difficult journey. And once the present is found, we have to continue finding it, for it is always new.

But oh, what a worthy journey, when we find ourselves on new horizons with the sun on our skins and the air in our lungs, for we are miracles, all.

through-the-clouds

 

The Mormon Church is a bully

963b27f73fec3bd8128f1243bfbb4f45-d3fm0oi

“It doesn’t matter if I told you to bring in wood or not. You should have looked and seen that it needed to be done. So yes, no matter how much whining and crying you do, you’re grounded, Chad.”

My stepfather, Kent, bald and in his late fifties, didn’t even look at me as he punished me for something I hadn’t done. He sat on the living room sofa watching a football game on the television that I wasn’t allowed to use; it was his TV, not to be used by children.

I stood there, feeling helpless. “But–but, dad, I–rehearsals start tonight.” I called him Dad, since mine wasn’t around, although Kent never acted like much of a father. My voice sounded weak, unsure. Talking back had never worked well for me in the past. Usually when he got like this, I knew that my job was to remain silent and quietly accept my punishment. Talking back would only make it worse.

But if he grounded me tonight, I would miss the first rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My parents had allowed me to try out for the show and I had a lead in it, and I had been excited for weeks about the chance to begin rehearsals. If he grounded me now, I would miss rehearsals and then be kicked out of the play.

Kent still didn’t look over, but he raised his voice, exerting his authority. “I said you are grounded!”

“What if I carry in some wood now? I could do it really quick before I have to leave.”

“You’ll be doing that anyway. But you are still grounded. Now go get to work.”

My insides clenched up. I knew if I pushed him much farther he would get violent. “I–can I at least call to let them know I can’t make it?”

And now he turned toward me, still sitting, but his hands balling into fists. He was yelling now. “I said you were god-damned grounded! If you wanted to join your little fairy play, then you should have done your little fairy chores! You don’t get to use the god-damned phone! Now get out there and stack the wood, Chad!”

families-are-forever-free-blogger-button.png

I fled from the room and put on my coat, boots, and gloves. We had a wood stove in the basement that needed to be regularly stocked with wood to keep it burning. Our family had a large wood pile in the back yard, covered in snow. Once a week, it was my job to bring in armfuls of wood, which had to be dug out of the snow pile, and stack them in the garage, where they could dry and be ready for the fire. I checked the garage and found there was a full stack there already; I had just restocked the wood two days before, but I knew it was pointless to bring this up to Kent. When he got in a mood like this, he would find something, anything to rage at until his rage passed.

I spent the next hour chipping ice and snow off of the wood pile using a hammer and a shovel, then I loaded my arms up with one load of wood at a time. I stacked the pile in the garage until there wasn’t anymore room, then went inside, shedding my wet coat and gloves, my skin dry and red from the cold. I put my winter gear away and went silently to my room, not bothering to ask for any dinner or to use the phone again. Rehearsal would be starting in ten minutes and I couldn’t be there, and I couldn’t tell anyone why.

A few minutes later, Kent walked into my room without knocking. He stood over me, his voice stern but a bit kinder. “You worked hard tonight, so I’m going to give you a choice. You can stay here and be grounded. Or you can go to rehearsal tonight. You will still be grounded for the week, but I’ll let you go just to the rehearsals. If you choose this, though, there will be additional consequences.” I had no idea what he meant by that, but I had to go to the rehearsals, I just had to. I told him my choice, and he responded with a “so be it.”

“Thanks, dad,” I said, grateful and relieved. “It starts in five minutes. Can you give me a ride?”

“I most certainly can not.”

“Can I call someone for a ride?”

“Absolutely not. You’ll have to walk.”

The high school was three miles away. I would never make it in time. “But I’ll be late!”

He started me down, eyes furious. “That isn’t my problem.”

Three hours later, I got a ride home from friends. Rehearsal had gone well, even though I’d been late, and we’d read our parts out loud for the first time. A few friends asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t tell anyone. I was invited out for milkshakes, but I said I couldn’t, I had to be home immediately.

When I walked in the front door, the house was deathly quiet. I walked up the stairs, where Kent was still sitting on the couch, but in the dark this time.

“I’m home,” I said softly.

He didn’t look at me. “Go talk to your sister.”

I walked down the hall to Sheri’s room, nervous. I knocked on the door, softly. “Can I come in?” Sheri didn’t answer, but I opened the door. Sheri, age 12, my only younger sibling, sat on her bed, tears streaming down her face. I could tell Kent had been screaming at her. When he got like that, he would call her such terrible names.

“Are you okay?” I asked, and Sheri wouldn’t look at me.

“Kent told me I’m grounded for a month because I should have been helping you with the wood. He’s been yelling the whole time you were gone.”

I looked behind me and saw Kent standing over me in the hallway. “I told you there would be additional consequences, Chad. You made your choice.”

handcarts

Kent stayed in my life for five years, from ages 13 to 17. Toward the end I started fighting back, which only made him more violent. At the end, he put my mom in the hospital and we got a restraining order against him. The divorce happened quickly and he was out of our lives. I didn’t see him after that, and got the news of his death years later. But those are stories for another time.

Kent was a bully, in the truest sense of the word. He would rage around in storms. He would be calm and happy for days, even weeks at a time, and then he would be emotionally manipulative, verbally abusive, and sometimes physically violent. We never knew when the storm would hit. He had this ability to make you believe the abuse was your fault, that you should have been able to anticipate his needs and understand the consequences before they had been laid out.

While Kent was in my life, I walked around believing that I was flawed, broken, and incapable of doing anything right. And I truly believed it was my fault and that he was innocent. He was the father figure, there to be obeyed. He was the Priesthood holder, holding God’s authority to make decisions in the household, and our place was to obey.

 

I have lived in Salt Lake City as an out, gay man for just under five years now, and it struck me this morning, with breaking news from the Mormon church, that the leaders of the LDS church treat the gay population the way that Kent treated me growing up. Every few months, for the entire time that I have lived here, there is some new subtle, passive information from the church, delivered in such a way that it indirectly attacks gay people. Painful and direct public statements and initiatives that cause turmoil, emotional pain, relationship stress, and thoughts of suicide in believing gay members. (While I myself am no longer Mormon, my family still is, as are many of my friends and many of my clients).

Yesterday, the Mormon church publicly stated that God, through revelation, has publicly backed church policies that state gay couples are apostates and that children of gay parents may not join their church without disavowing their parents. A few months ago, the church responded to the policy change, saying they were only doing it to protect families not hurt them. A few months before that, they showed their public support of groups in Utah that are vitriolic in their hatred of gay people. A few months before that, they called gay families ‘counterfeit’ in comparison to heterosexual families. A few months before that, they released a public statement of their disappointment over the passage of gay marriage. A few months before that, the church put their public support into initiatives fighting gay marriage. And on and on, going back to Proposition 8 and opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and the support of reparative therapy initiatives and the teaching that homosexuality is curable and to the usage of shock therapy in attempts to cure gayness.

And all the while with the message that “we are the prophets, we are the authority, we speak for God and your place is to agree and support us. If you are gay, you aren’t trying hard enough not to be. And while we continue to wound you, abuse you, and hurt you with our agendas and initiatives, we expect you to love us and know that we are right.” The message remains consistent, every few months a new statement or action to put gay people in their place.

For those that read this post, there will be many reactions. Some, those who are hurting, will nod and agree, perhaps shed a few tears. Some will be angry, and wonder why I have to criticize the church that they love. Some will dig their heels in, believe that the church is good and that eventually it will come around. Some will read in disgust and agree fully that the church is wrong. And some will stay where they are, hurting, not knowing how to reconcile their feelings of pain with their deep belief that the church is true and that its leaders speak truth.

5fa4bcb9aed01df9ea895f19a6ba2d74

I remember well those feelings. And so I close this blog post with one final story. After living with Kent for years, and suffering his abuse, I was pulled in by the school counselor to discuss what was happening in the home. It was the first time I opened up about the abuse.

“My stepfather yells a lot, and he gets violent sometimes, but that’s okay, it just means I need to keep trying harder. It’s not his fault, he is doing the best that he can. It’s not so bad, he’s gonna get better and see what a good family we are someday. I just have to stick with it and be strong.”

And the counselor had looked back at me and compassionately told me, “Chad, your stepfather is abusive. He’s hurting you and your sister and your mother with words and actions. You don’t deserve it, you aren’t causing it, and it isn’t  your fault. There is nothing wrong with you. Never, never allow yourself to be abused.”

And I realized, quickly and with clarity, that my stepfather was an abusive bully.  And I realize now, with quickness and clarity…

So is the Mormon church.