THE BLOG
01/29/2014 12:35 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2014

Leaving My Abusive World

Valeria Schettino via Getty Images

The content of this post may be sensitive to some readers.

Growing up in an abusive home, as a girl I questioned my feelings, my perceptions, and my worth -- but never the realm in which I was raised.

While my peers were learning about unconditional love, safety, and autonomy, I was learning how to compartmentalize my emotions, to mentally escape my life by blocking out as much of the psychological and sexual abuse I was enduring as I could.

When I finally sought professional help for debilitating anxiety and depression in my late 20s, my therapist, who diagnosed me with "complex post-traumatic stress disorder," explained how a person can "go somewhere else" in his or her mind to escape a reality that is threatening or otherwise unbearable -- this is called dissociation. All my life, to varying degrees, dissociation was my coping mechanism. Although it no longer served me, that was how I managed to get through each day, year after year, behaving as if I were okay, as if my life were perfectly fine, until I was in a time and place in my adulthood in which I was able to face the facts, and begin to surmount them.

I grew up as an overachieving student and became a young adult whom clinicians in the trauma field labeled "high functioning": I was a woman with an advanced degree, a full-time job, a decent apartment, a relatively stable though socially isolated life. On the outside, I appeared "normal."

Other survivors coped by developing severe dissociative identity disorder or addictions, or by prostituting themselves. Some were homeless. Many were frequently hospitalized. When I participated in a trauma education and skills group for adults, out of 10 sexual abuse survivors present, I was one of only two who engaged in conversation. The others sat around the table coloring with crayons for self-soothing. Sure, I had some phobic anxieties, disturbed sleeping, body image issues, and, as my therapist termed it, "anorectic tendencies," but otherwise I seemed relatively unscathed. I was lucky.

But I didn't feel fortunate -- I felt damaged.

In my 30s, as I unpeeled the layers of my past, I saw how I'd navigated my young adult life around beliefs based in the abusive world in which I'd grown up. I'd replicated the dynamics of my family within my relationships -- I'd made friends and took jobs with abusive people.

As I healed, I noticed for the first time the basic ways and thoughts of ordinary people who were generally not out to hurt others. As I commingled with them, I felt disoriented by their inherent sense of stability in everyday life, a feeling that was foreign to me. I saw myself as a stranger in a strange land, unfamiliar with the terrain, unaccustomed to the rules of this non-abusive world. I didn't know if I belonged in it.

I'd learned about self-worth as a girl.

When I was in junior high, my mother began to work part-time and my father cut off her access to their checking account. My mother told me I had to ask my father to give her money so that she could buy things I needed, such as school supplies and clothes, because she wasn't earning enough to cover the cost. I sat next to my father on his side of the bed he and my mother shared, beside the mahogany bureau where the checkbooks were located. As I stared at the scratched gold-colored handle of the closed drawer, my father bent forward, leaning his tanned arms across his thighs and folding his hands between his knees. He said he'd dispense the funds, but I had to give him something in exchange.

I agreed.

In the world I came from, people didn't mean what they said: "I love you" had an
alternate definition.

Ordinarily, the phrase "making nice" means to behave pleasantly or politely, typically in a hypocritical manner. But during my childhood, "making nice" was what my father called kissing and petting each other.

If I wanted or needed something, I had to "make nice" first.

What I knew about trust was that there was none to be had. My mother always said the one thing a person could count on was another person's inconsistency.

My father promised he wouldn't drive like a madman on Old Montauk Highway, a stretch of hilly road that took us to and from our family vacations on the east end of Long Island, as he did the summer I was six. The next summer, and the next, I asked him to drive slowly so that my stomach wouldn't drop. He agreed. But he drove fast anyway, as if we were at the beach surfing the waves, only we were on the road, and I felt sick and mad and sad and scared. When he looked at me in the rear view mirror, he laughed. When I asked him to stop he said, "Beg me."

My mother, sitting in the front passenger seat, was too afraid to intervene. She turned her head to gaze out her side window -- until she was gone.

*

My mother taught me about the power of fear. She let it drive her life. She kept friends and acquaintances at a distance, worrying she'd otherwise be harmed -- vulnerability invited danger. After my parents' divorce, my mother told me she didn't want people to have her address or home phone number because such information could then "get to your father." The truth was, even over a decade after their split, my mother had nightmares in which my father came to her door to hurt her.

My mother's unresolved past haunted her. Although she moved far from the house in which I'd grown up, she never psychologically left the place. And, even though I cut contact with my father soon after I was diagnosed with PTSD, for a long time, like my mother, I lived as if I were still with him. I not only expected poor treatment, I unconsciously solicited it, until I became horrifyingly aware of what I was doing.

Only then did I begin to shift the fulcrum of my focus away from my identity as an abuse victim.

As I changed, I felt anxious and unmoored. I was afraid people wouldn't accept me. I worried the new friends I made or the men I dated would see how my past still affected me. I thought they'd run -- or worse, laugh -- if they caught sight of the way my history could sometimes veil my vision and color my interactions like a movie camera scrim.

I didn't want people to see my wounds.

My therapist told me I needed to accept myself. But for a long time I couldn't. I was embarrassed by the way riding in the backseat of a friend's car could give me a panic attack. I grew frustrated when my brain misfired on a date, when the sight of a potential boyfriend's hands prompted flashbacks of abuse. I was ashamed at how my nervous system was wired to my past.

For years, as I worked to recover, my mother reinforced such wiring, barraging me with her worries, the catastrophic events she believed would occur if I went to a concert or traveled or dated, if I took another step out of our abusive world and into a new life. When she was dying of ovarian cancer, she hid the truth from her neighbors, her boss, even her dentist. She told me she didn't want an obituary in the newspaper, because she didn't want my father to know. She believed he could and would still hurt her, even after death.

Fear was a noose I had to work to remove from around my neck. When I had a trauma-based emotional or visceral reaction to an ordinary experience, my therapist suggested I project the situation within my inner eye: I imagined a nebulous blob in my hands, a sticky mixture of my past and present, which I could pull apart using my mind. In this way, I could unstick the bad from the good, the sinister from the benign. Such a task was difficult at first, but the more I practiced, the better I became.

*

One day, my 15-year-old car, which I'd parked outside my apartment building, was hit. The vehicle that rammed into my front passenger door, and fled, left behind traces of dark blue paint, which spread towards the fender like a deep bruise.

Dismayed, for a moment I looked at the hit-and-run through the lens of my history: I saw the car as myself -- wrecked by violence.

"What's important is that you're okay," the police officer said. "The car is a piece of metal. It can be repaired, unlike a person's life."

I'd be a better person, I thought, if what happened to me hadn't.

But I knew my history was impossible to change. I had to put down my wish to go back and undo what was done. Only then could I know real acceptance. Only then could my inner compassion override my self-critical, at times self-abusive, stance. Only then could I move forward.

"It's far from totaled," said the body shop repairman. Although I wasn't happy about the cost, my car could be fixed.

We don't ask for bad things to happen. But when they do, life's injuries need not defeat us, though they may bruise us or color our days. The abusive world where I once lived doesn't define who I am. What happened to me did nothing to my kindness, my perceptiveness, my humor, my smarts, my tenacity -- I'm whole, intact as anyone.

The police officer was wrong: a person's life can be repaired -- our inner life, that is. We don't choose the misfortunes that befall us, but we can reclaim and harness our power. Our battle scars are marks of strength. Like rungs on a ladder, they lead us upward as we climb through our shock and devastation and confusion and grief, as we step into the world more fully.

Tracy Strauss is seeking a publisher for her memoir, Notes on Proper Usage, about her relationship with her late writer-editor mother, the discovery of her mother's secret collection of documents and journals, the abusive man who marked both their lives, and her journey towards forgiveness and reconciliation. Learn more at www.tracystrauss.com.