I spent much of my childhood believing that I was damaged, full of shame because of trauma suffered at the hands of my stepfather. Selectively mute for a period of time, I coped as best I could in a shroud of silence, until the world felt a little bit safer. I often repeated the powerful mantra "I am a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars," which became a tiny speck of light in the abyss.
I spoke of my desperation only once and then locked it all away until young adulthood, when the thunder of the secrets could no longer be contained. It took a long time and many helpers to unravel the feelings of despair that were so deeply ingrained. Many held me tenderly as I grieved, the universe handing me to the next teacher as I was ready to receive. It is not work one can do alone.
I am sometimes reminded of the familiar echo of the Desiderata, from which my mantra was derived, as I pass through our building.
"You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should."
Children enter the doors of our Children's Advocacy Center each day who do not believe they are children of the universe. We see children who are broken, who believe they are worthless, who are full of shame. Most children we see are harmed by those who should adore them, not by strangers. We see children who have been traumatized in ways that often shake us to the core. Our average client is a 9- to 10-year-old little girl sexually abused by someone she knows and trusts, and there are more of them than I ever imagined.
Despite the reality that most children who are sexually abused do not reveal their darkest secrets, some even into their adulthood, we know from practice and research that intervening soon after trauma can be extremely beneficial. Over time, traumatic stress affects our brains because traumatic memories become more and more reinforced, creating strong barriers to seeing ourselves as something beyond damaged victims.
Our world is chock full of suffering adults with unprocessed trauma, doing the best they can. In addition to the loss of human potential, there is a practical aspect to this insidious issue, a tremendous economic burden in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Child maltreatment is now considered a public health epidemic.
Those who are unable to process their pain, to grieve their losses, can become entangled in destructive patterns that are all too familiar outcomes in our society: teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, further victimization, homelessness, incarceration or suicide. Large health plan population studies now point to linkages between adverse childhood experiences and future risk for leading causes of illness and death.
Those who manage to escape these more extreme traps may nevertheless carry a deep, abiding sense that they are unlovable or unworthy. They may never see themselves for who they are and may miss joy and purpose in their lives. When I was in my 20s, I entered an intense period of healing from my childhood wounds, part of which included a group experience. I vividly remember a sweet gentleman in his late 60s who held me and said, "I have wasted so much of my life believing lies about myself, and you are so young. Imagine who you can become now that you know you are not alone, that you know you are not worthless, that you know you have survived. Imagine who you can become."
We heal from trauma when we know we are not alone, when we can come to understand the difference between what happens to us and who we are. My colleagues and I are privileged to witness this transformation from despair to hope every day; thousands of children annually honor us with their stories and allow us to bear witness to their courage. At the least, we hope to point these children to a healthier path. At the most, we hope to plant the tiny seeds of future post-traumatic growth. This is beyond turning lemons into lemonade. It is transforming our trauma for a greater purpose, perhaps using our experiences to shine a light for others, or opening our arms wide to Love, Spirit, Source, One-ness to listen to the many possibilities of who we can become when we are quiet enough to hear with innocence and receptivity.
We have much work to do to get severely abused children into care sooner, before the lies they believe about themselves are entrenched, before they develop destructive life patterns and lose who they truly are. We must all become more aware of how to better protect our children and how to recognize and report abuse. We cannot save them all, but maybe we can open our eyes just a little more today to the realities and suffering of children in our midst.
In many communities, law enforcement or child protective services will lead severely abused children to places like Children's Advocacy Centers that can help tend to their delicate wounds. For this possibility we are grateful and wait willingly to serve. For we know, as the 13th Century Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi, noted, "The wound is the place where the Light enters."
Ellen Magnis is chief of External Affairs at the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center in Dallas, Tex. This piece was written in association with The OpEd Project Public Voices Fellowship at Texas Woman's University.