I’ve been thinking about how to mend my relationship with you. I thought I’d start by sending letters.
What I thought is that, in 14 years where we had almost no contact, you really hadn’t gotten much chance to know who I’ve become. I was 19, then I was 35 and now 40, with hardly any contact during that time. I think some of the tension we have with one another is that you might be expecting me to behave toward you in the ways I did back when you saw me more. Part of this is my fault, because often it has been easier and more familiar for me to just be fake with you than to be honest with you about how things really stand between us. I grew up needing desperately for you to love me and protect me, so I’ve gotten into some bad habits of protecting you from the truth when I know you won’t like it.
I have changed an awful lot in those 14+ years and I know that when people close to you change, it’s hard. Perhaps learning more about what has changed might help you understand some things about me.
I have an anxiety disorder called complex post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Complex post traumatic stress disorder is not a mental illness, but an injury that happens when a person is exposed to chronic, repeated trauma, in a situation that goes on for months or years where they are under total control by another. Anyone who survives that type of situation will have these symptoms, regardless of how healthy they were beforehand. I’ve printed off a fact sheet about complex post traumatic stress disorder for you to read.
From my perspective, you were there and are a part of the system that harmed me for almost a decade. It’s as if I was a prisoner in a concentration camp and you were one of the guards, maybe not a very powerful one, but still with more power than me.
A person who gets raped once, or a soldier who sees or participates in horrible things, might get post traumatic stress disorder. It turns into ‘complex’ post traumatic stress disorder if you are abused for a long time over a period of months or years, and can’t get away. This is what happened to me.
I need you to accept that I’ve been changed forever by what happened. I need you to accept that I hold you responsible for not saving me, and most particularly for staying with [abusers name] after you got my letter about what happened. The crown council also told me you refused to speak to the police when they were investigating after I reported him. I can’t prove you knew he was abusing me, but I really think you should have known something was terribly wrong. You’re right, I can’t hold you responsible for what [abusers name] did, but I do hold you responsible for what you did, and in these things alone you’ve got a lot to answer for.
I have spent nearly as much time and money on therapy to recover from your betrayal in staying with [abusers name] , as I spent on recovering from the abuse.
Complex post traumatic stress disorder gets better with effort, and mine is a lot better than it was, but the effects, while lessening, are permanent and affect my life daily. Little things that remind me of those horrible times still produce strong fear reactions and have profoundly changed how I view the world.
Who am I now? I have fought hard to feel at home in my body. For many years, I had a spacey, unreal feeling in my body, and wasn’t aware of how it felt. I have fought hard to reclaim my voice. When I was 19, I had a soft, almost inaudible voice when speaking at school or in groups and didn’t know how to speak up for myself. I dressed in long sleeves and pants, even in hot weather, so that none of my body would be exposed. I didn’t want men to be interested in me, because I thought that meant that they would rape me. I averted my eyes from men so they didn’t think I was encouraging them. When I saw films with anything that reminded me of the abuse, I would get so terrified I’d have to walk out of the theatre right away. Afterward I would have weeks of nightmares and fear about what I’d seen and what it reminded me of. Now, I choose not to see movies I think might have suspense, captivity or sadistic violence, but if something comes on the TV I can usually tolerate it for a short while without having terrible nightmares. I went from hating myself for what happened and avoiding thinking of anything to do with it, to keep my fear under control, to being able to face my past, grieve it and make sense of it. I went from being so terrified of the dark that I couldn’t get up in the night to go to the bathroom to pee, to being able to feel safe in my home with my wife and dogs. I am grateful that I never used drugs and rarely used alcohol, which I knew instinctively would make things worse.
Where were you when I was learning to do all that? You were living with my abuser. He’s a sadistic, controlling, evil rapist. You chose him over me. Were you held captive? Were you threatened with death if you left? Did you have no relatives, friends or places to go to? You never once asked me for help leaving, or asked if you could come stay with me. You seemed to be able to travel freely and not be captive in your home. If you were forced to stay, then I need to hear details about that.
How does this affect you and I? Why can’t I just be ‘normal’ with you? I need you to understand how insulting it is that you want me to have a ‘normal’ relationship with you at all.
Now maybe you have post traumatic stress too, it’s certainly possible. You sometimes behave like someone who has PTSD. There may well be horrible things that happened to you I don’t know about, but up till now I haven’t seen any evidence that what you went through was even close to what I went through.
I realize that when I was young that you did help keep [abusers name] from hurting me as often as he might otherwise have done. Things like the time you turned him away from going in my bedroom, or just his need to keep it from being too blatant, did help reduce his opportunities to hurt me. Because of this, as a child, I very much wanted you to be as strong as possible so that I would be safer. Now, how that affects our relationship now is that I try to fix you, to make you calmer (so your anxiety doesn’t make me anxious and I am more comfortable) and look after yourself better. Since I’m completely unsuccessful in this (as most people’s attempts to change other people are), it doesn’t help how I feel at all. When I see you relying on [brother] to make your decisions for you and not looking after your physical and financial needs in ways I would think necessary if it were me, I feel an echo of the fear I felt then, that you would fall apart and I would have no protection at all from [abusers name] . I also get angry or irritated at you, since when you do those things, I am reminded about how ineffective you were in helping and protecting me. I realize I am an adult now and can protect myself effectively from [abusers name] , but old habits and reactions die hard.
How I would like to handle this differently in future is for me to mind my own business and not worry about you so much. I need to have faith that you will sort out the rest of your life and your retirement for yourself, and to remind myself that you’re no longer in any immediate danger. When I was in Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) they talked about it being unhealthy for a person to do for someone else what that person can and should do for themselves. I’m going to try and take that more to heart. This might take a few tries to do gracefully!
As a result of being betrayed by my parents, I’m very conscious of people’s integrity and cautious not to be betrayed. I look closely at people’s words and actions to see if they match. If they don’t, I try not to associate myself with the person. This is because the tension/suspense of knowing that they might betray me makes me anxious, and I need to keep my anxiety down. With you, that affects our relationship a lot. You said you believed me about [abusers name] , but didn’t think his actions were worth divorcing him over. That is the second worst thing anyone has ever done to me. I really don’t know if I can forgive you or trust you because of it. I have spent almost as much time in therapy sorting out my feelings and the effects of that betrayal by you as on anything else. I am absolutely, lividly furious with you that you could have the lack of integrity to not stand by your professed feminist beliefs and your professed love for me.
Because you have betrayed me in this important and painful way, I don’t trust that you will do what you say when it really matters, or act in accordance with the values you say you have. Another thing that is confusing for me is that you also don’t seem to remember some things about my childhood that [brother’s name] and I remember clearly, like when we didn’t have enough money to buy groceries and [brother’s name] and I went hungry.
Aside from the betrayal I experienced, what I think most gets in the way for me in being comfortable around you now is your denial about how bad the abuse was, and your suggestion that since things were hard for you too, any mistakes you might have made should be excused by that. I do not accept this. I agree that things were hard for you, and you need to heal that somehow, but that doesn’t excuse you from being responsible for your decisions.
I say these things, not to hurt you, but to correct my misrepresentation of how things are between us. I have been trying to be kind, to be generous, to give you the benefit of the doubt, to give you time to make explanations and amends on your own. I think this was a mistake, as it may have given you the impression that things aren’t as serious as they are. This is what might have given you the impression that I was willing to accept your version of events. I think it has come time to be honest, to make it clear that we have some serious issues between us, and I’m not willing or able to brush them under the rug. I know you birthed me and looked after me, and that most mothers feel entitled (and are entitled) to expect a certain amount of attention and sacrifice from their children because of that fact, but in light of your 14+ years of betrayal and refusal to assist the police in their investigation, I need to tell you that I don’t owe you any of those things.
I am very proud of how well I have improved my PTST and how well I manage it. It has been a long, expensive and time-consuming struggle. I think I have done very well. My most important coping strategy is my faith. Part of what kept me going, even as a child, was my spirituality, which has always been more about the Earth and the strength I draw from nature. When I grew up, I found religious beliefs that fit well with what I already believed and found strength in. Something you told me as a child, helped me survive spirituality, and to not lose hope and become suicidal. You told me repeatedly that ‘things always turn out for the best’ even when things looked bad. I took that to heart, and it probably kept me alive. Thank you for giving me that.
If we are to continue seeing one another from time to time, what I would like to do in future is to limit our visits to about 2 hours. Perhaps things will change between us, but since I can’t make you own up to the harm you have done me, I need to keep our visits short so I can maintain my composure around you. Because I have a long history of pretending I’m fine when I’m not, of putting your emotional needs before mine automatically, and numbing out to tolerate bad situations, I can seem fine when in fact I feel horrible. I spent many years learning not to automatically dissociate or ‘space out’ when things became uncomfortable, a process that has a lot of bad memories for me, and can exhaust me for days afterward. I sometimes do that when I am with you for too long, and I don’t want to have to do that any more. If I start to feel like I am doing that, I’m going to choose to just walk away, even if it’s less than two hours, when I feel anxious, frustrated or angry. I would say something like “I think I’m going to go now” and [Spouse] and I will leave. Knowing I can leave with no explanation if it gets too much will also help a lot. This will work better as an ‘escape valve’ if you avoid check ing in with me about whether I am becoming anxious or spacey, because I will then feel pressured to make you feel better by hiding my discomfort, which I’m not willing to do anymore.
Because you live so far away, when you visit I feel obligated to make it a longer visit than I want to make your effort worthwhile. If you lived in my city, we could do something routine and familiar like go grocery shopping together for an hour and then go home, which is about my speed. It’s pretty much impossible for me to think of coming and staying at your place, even with [wife’s name] there as a buffer. At some point, I might be able to visit your town if [wife’s name] and I stay at a hotel, and then drop in and visit with you for a couple of hours in the midst of doing other sight-seeing by ourselves.
I value honesty a lot in myself and in others. I need to have people around me I can be myself with, so my close friends are very important to me, and fill the space of family for me. I need you to respect that they have equal status to yourself and [brothers’ names] in my life. When you thought you had the right to un-invite [friend’s name] for Christmas (at MY house, no less!) so we could be ‘just family’, you were way out of line.
It was great how you and my other relatives came together for the wedding. I will always treasure that, and I know you were a big part in making that happen. Thank you. Thank you also for helping [wife’s name] and I buy our house by co-signing our mortgage. This is something no-one else would do for us and we appreciate it very much. Because of your help, we have some security for ourselves, and it makes both of us very happy and will help keep us safe in our retirement.
I realize I can’t be angry with you forever. I can hate [abuser’s name] forever, because he’s so evil that no sane person would ever forgive him. With you, I think we could have a decent, if not terribly close, relationship, if you can take responsibility for what you’ve done that has harmed me, and we can find ways of relating honestly with one another.
With so much left unsaid about the abuse between us, it really feels false and insincere to talk with you about anything else until we have that resolved. In my opinon resolving it means you fully appreciating the harm you have done me and changing some of your behaviour and expectations toward me. I realize you may not see things the way I do, and you may not want to see me under these conditions. I’ve reached the point where I can be at peace with not seeing you again, if that is your choice.
What would help me in a practical way would be, a signed letter acknowledging formally, in writing, unequivocally, that you believe the abuse happened and that I am telling the truth. This is because one thing I would very much like to do when [abusers name] is dead, is to speak out to help prevent what happened to me from happening to other children. I can’t stop men from abusing children, but I’d like to help stop the silence about it, which provides camouflage for abusers, and prevents kids in the situation I was in from getting help as soon as they need it. It would help me make my lifetime of stuggle to repair what happened have some value to the world. Because [abusers name] wasn’t criminally convicted of his crimes, and can’t be now that the statute of limitations is past, it is difficult from a legal and media perspective to refer to my own experiences in the way that would be most helpful. I would like to be able to refer to myself publicly as an incest survivor as part of helping to stop the silence and inaction around incest.
My friend, who is a newspaper editor, says that since I am telling the truth, if any of [abusers name] ’s heirs sued me for defamation that I would win. It would be horrible, though, if we had to go through all that, and your letter would reassure any media, for example, that referring to me as an incest survivor would not be a legal problem for them. I hope you will support me in this important work by giving me a written statement acknowledging that the abuse happened, and ideally providing all the reasons you know it to be true. This would is something you can do to make amends to me, and surely is in line with your values? By helping stop the silence and denial around child abuse, our experiences would be made meaningful and useful in some small way to others. I may also write to him and ask for a written confession from him as well, but I’m not holding my breath.
What I hunger for from you is truthful information from you about my past. You were an adult during times that I was so young and traumatized and it would be very helpful to compare what I remember with what you and others who were adults during that time remember. I don’t want to hear that you didn’t know, I want to hear what you now realize were signs he was abusing me. What has been hard so far for me when I ask you about the past, is that you don’t seem to remember some of the bad things I remember and [brother’s name] clearly remember, like not having enough to eat. When you do this, it is very frustrating for me and I think you don’t want to remember the truth or think a lie will be more pleasant for me. I know painful or shameful things are hard to remember accurately sometimes, but your courage in being honest with me about how things were would be much more helpful and would help rebuild my trust.
Why would this be of practical use? Part of healing PTSD is putting all the pieces together and grieving them. Once they are known and grieved, the impact lessens. When memories are stored during a time when a person is traumatized they get stored in a different way, similarly to how a person who learns something when they are really tired only remembers it again properly when they are again really tired. Although there are some things I remember clearly and have been able to heal, for other things what I am left with is the feelings that go with some of the memories, with only some of the information. Lttle details can help put things together and the truth is very important. It would be very helpful to me if you could help me remember some more details of what my childhood was like, not just the abuse. I would also like to know more about what [abusers name] was like then, from your perspective, and who else was around the family. I would like to sit down with you and a tape recorder and ask you questions about everything you can remember from that time. I would also appreciate it if you could write down for me everything creepy/abusive [abusers name] did that you observed and can remember, and everything you now realize was a sign that he was abusing me. For example, I know from [brother] that Uncle L—- said that [abusers name] called Aunt R—- a whore (or something similar), and that Uncle L—– and Aunt R— didn’t associate with our family after that. Were you there when he said that? Can you tell me more about that? Were there any other women or children you saw him make inappropriate or offensive remarks to? Did he have affairs? He spoke to me about his conversations with prostitutes and I got the impression he’d hired them – did you suspect that he hired prostitutes? What made you suspect if you did? I remember him fixing bicycles for neighbourhood children on [street]. Given how selfish he seemed to me to be, that doesn’t sound like something he would do without an ulterior motive. I know it’s not likely to be something you want to think about, but I think that he may have abused other children there. If I don’t know the truth, I will always wonder and therefore be afraid I will remember gruesome details unexpectedly, which is quite unpleasant. I’d rather remember on my own terms. Because of all this, it would also be really helpful to me if you could draw me a floor plan of the place we lived on [street] of the main floor and the basement.
These are real, practical ways you can help me, and also prove to me that you can be truthful and follow through about things to do with being accountable for the harm you have done me. I don’t want to go shopping with you, or go to dinner in fancy places or resorts. It’s too easy for me to fall into my habit of making you comfortable insead of being honest with myself. Instead I want to talk about the abuse until I have the answers I need.
It has taken me several weeks to write this letter. I find writing to be a good way for me to be sure I am saying what I really mean, and explaining myself well. If you would like to reply to my letter, you may, but I’m not ready for phone calls or visits yet.
Sword Dance Warrior