Many people who experience a trauma in their life measure everything as either before or after that trauma. Some people experience multiple, life defining traumas and for us, our timelines are stacked and diverge in multiple directions when considering different experiences and time periods.
I was 12 years old when I experienced my first life defining moment, the first “this bad thing” has shaped who I am, for the good and for the bad. Without reaching too far into that bag, I can share that I was sexually abused by someone I knew and trusted and that person is no longer a part of my life. I don’t like to talk too much about it because I’ve stopped letting that define who I am and instead understand that it shaped who I am. I do also understand however that one of the most painful and scaring parts of that kind of trauma is the shame that you carry with you. Secrecy and keeping “that sort of thing” out of polite conversation helps perpetuate that shame – it makes victims feel to blame for what happened. Just like with the unfortunate location of my cancer, the embarrassment and silence involved with sexual abuse causes so many devastating consequences. I feel strongly about speaking out, speaking up and supporting others going through the same shame.
My childhood is measured in a “before and after”. Before the abuse and after.
Before I was 12, I had an amazing childhood. I was happy and free and confident. I was brave. My parents tease me that I was constantly in trouble because I was headstrong, consequences be damned. I was adventurous and curious. All of those attributes were especially prominent one week every year when our family took a vacation to Table Rock Lake with my grandparents, uncle and his children. We stayed at a resort on the lake, living next door to my grandparents, uncle and cousins in two “cabins” which were really like apartments.
Some of my very best memories as a child are from those weeks. When I think back to those days I can feel the warmth of the sun on my skin. I smell Coppertone sunscreen and chlorine. I hear the water lapping against the shore and the side of my dad’s boat. I see the sunlight pouring into my grandparent’s windows with the hum of a window unit air conditioner in my ears. I taste red licorice and strawberry soda. I learned to swim at that resort’s pool. I can feel how the cement step in the shallow end felt like a safety net until we were ready to “fly the coup” and push away splashing and kicking our feet. I felt loved.
We stayed at that same resort every year until I was 15. The following summer we changed resorts and so the original location was retired in my mind and memory as a place reserved only for childhood. It was very similar to moving out of your childhood home – all of your memories are packed away into that specific box. Even though my life changed at 12, I see that location as the “before” in my life. I was little there. I was different there.
My family has continued the “Douglass Family Lake Vacation” every year, but I haven’t. Working in the wedding industry, it was difficult to break away during my busiest time of year but more than anything I sometimes find going to the lake to be emotionally exhausting. While the “before” years were wonderful, the “after” years from the time I was 13 until even after I was married were very hard on that trip. Many times my abuser was with us as he was a family member and being a teenager and young adult in a bathing suit was excruciatingly uncomfortable. Because so many of you who read this blog are close family and friends, it’s hard to keep the person I’m speaking about anonymous, the process of elimination has probably already lead you to conclude who it was. I don’t keep him anonymous to protect him, believe me. I don’t name him for several reasons, one of the primary reasons being that he is not a part of my life. I had a very complicated relationship with him prior to my grandparent’s passing especially since he and I were the only two people who knew what happened. This person is still living, he has his life and we have ours.
Last summer my family returned to the original resort after 25 years and decided to start staying there again. I was still in the middle of learning how to be a cancer patient and didn’t go but they took Emily and Andrew with them. This year we were invited along again and all three of the kids were going and begged me to join them. I gave in and spent 3 days there before I had to return last night to have chemo today. To say it was overwhelming is an understatement.
The best way to describe the experience is that it was like moving back into your childhood home – not one your parents still live in but one that your family left when you were small. Everything around you is mostly the same with the exception of a little bit of paint, updated (sort of) furniture and flat screen TVs. I joked with my parents that I couldn’t get over how much the place had shrunk. As a child it truly was the “shining city upon a hill”. All of the magic of summer and childhood happened there. Fireflies and night fishing happened there. Returning, I felt my grandparents there. I felt the old me there. I laid on my back and floated in that pool and felt and smelled and heard and saw everything I had sensed when I was 5. I crashed in the same bedrooms at the end of a long, hot day trying to sleep – this time instead of being surrounded by my siblings, I was bunking with the very children I had dreamed of in those rooms when I was a child, my own children.
Immersing myself back into my childhood brought “before” me back in a way I hadn’t felt in so long. “After” me has taken up so much space, the former had no room to breath. As I drove out of town last night with the mountains in the rear-view mirror and my children’s sweet faces on my mind I cried. I cried because saying good-bye to them in any capacity is the hardest thing I do. I cried because I’ve never truly resolved what I lost when I was 12. No amount of therapy “fixed” that for me. I cried because “before” me has slept for so long I forgot a lot about her, stepping back into her world opened a door for reintroductions.
I need the “before” me so much. I need her fearlessness. I need her confidence and headstrong attitude. So many times circumstances have tried to break her.. abuse, the loss of two babies, cancer… but she is still in there. She plays amongst those fireflies and swims in that pool. She stares up at the Ozark mountains and imagines what the world must look like from the top. She’s in there, behind a veil. She’s there tiny and quick. She is innocent and loved and warmed by the sun and cooled by the lake. Her body and soul carry no scars, yet. She is optimism. She is hope.