The Path of Elizabeth Smart and Me
Last week in Utah, a federal jury convicted the kidnapper and sexual abuser of Elizabeth Smart. For those not familiar with the highly publicized case, Elizabeth was kidnapped from her home at the age of 14 in 2002. She was subjected to daily sexual assaults at the hands of an evil man proclaiming himself to be a religious prophet. Nine months later she was rescued, and has appeared as a pillar of strength ever since.
The Elizabeth Smart case has been somewhat unique in that most long-term kidnappings do not have a such a positive outcome. She has done a number of high profile interviews (e.g., Oprah and People) and was the subject of an hour-long television documentary on Sunday. While nobody can truly know her path as a survivor of horrific abuse, from what I have seen and heard, she has put her ordeal behind her with apparent ease (at least to date). In one famously retold account, the night she returned home, the family said their prayers in the parents' bedroom, then Elizabeth said she was going to bed in her own room and slept the whole night without any difficulty.
When I heard about the jury verdict last week and saw some interviews, my reaction was "Why can't I just put it all behind me?" I struggled with this for several hours. My first thought was that I was weak. But, after I regained my composure, I realized a couple of things.
First, I am not Elizabeth Smart. We are made differently and have different experiences and backgrounds. It is not the first time I have compared my experiences (and the aftermath) with others. I did it a few years ago when I heard an NPR story on the horrific serial abuse of girls in Africa. I also heard the accounts of the former altar boys on the first Oprah show on male abuse and promptly downplayed my own history. Many of us get caught in the trap of comparing what we went through to others. For me, stories that show abuse, invariably end up being invalidating on some level before they become validating.
Second, after I thought about it, I realized that like Smart, I did put things away for quite a while, also with apparent ease. As a high school student, when it was discovered that something was not right, my parents tried to put an end to the relationship with the abusive priest and I made a counter move to minimize everything. This allowed our family to continue virtually as if nothing had happened. While we did stop going to that church, we never discussed the matter again. And I was just as happy to move on. If I were in the media spotlight, which I was not, I would have probably given similar interviews as Elizabeth. I would have said, as she has said, "Put the past behind you. Move on."
While this can be seen as a courageous message, it may have a negative impact on many survivors. For one thing, people process trauma differently and there are number of factors involved. What one person can move on from, another person cannot. Plus there are the added problems of the victim's background as well as the context of what the traumas were, when they happened, and how long they lasted. While it sounds nice for Elizabeth to give advice to Jaycee Dugard to "relax," it is a statement that does not consider the different contexts: Dugard was abducted for 18 years. The problem with the "move on" message is that it does not consider the fact that it is not possible for many, thereby leading to a feeling of invalidation.
In my life at the time my abuse became known, I had already had a decade or more of "underground" dysfunctional coping to deal with what had been happening. None of that changed, especially since the abuse did not actually end when my parents intervened. It got worse. My visible life just became even more separated from my non-visible life. I became more reliant on dissociative coping, though I did not think of it as dissociative at the time. It was just my life. My "normal" messed up life.
When things fell apart for me in 1991, they fell apart like a house of cards. I had been successful in college, was beginning graduate school and a career in science, and it all just collapsed in a matter of seconds. Life took a dramatic turn for me. I had always given myself a huge amount of credit for what I thought was "moving on," but really I had not and then suddenly the world came to a standstill.
It is now nearly 20 years later. My path has been long and winding, and one that I never would have envisioned. Much of it has been extraordinarily difficult, but much of it has also been glorious and rewarding. And much of it is informed by living through my 30s and now going into my 40s. A lot changed for me when I moved out of my 20s and got married and had kids. In many ways, life became more serious. It became not just about me. That reality had implications for what my path has been and what I have had to do to heal.
Would I have it any other way? For me, the answer is absolutely no. I know that to be the father and husband I want to be, not to mention the person I want to be, I need to heal the psychological injury. I need to address the dissociation and ways in which I live a fragmented existence. It is certainly not an easy journey, but I am glad for the journey. And I am proud of my progress. My healing path has led me to feel more authentic and functional and alive. Yet I know I am not done.
For decades, I had no concept of what healing meant to me. I could never put it into words. For me, healing is much more than just "moving on." Healing is accepting that the past happened and uniting the past with moving forward and living life to its fullest. Our past certainly shapes who we are now. But our past does not need to define who we are to become. In many ways, healing is the integration, or resolution, of the past and present. Healing is redefining safety, inside and out. Healing is being proud that we survived. Healing is accepting personal responsibility. Healing is learning to be aware of thoughts and emotions. Healing is learning to see the joys in life. And healing is so much more. Healing is a process.
As I asked over a year ago in My Take on What Healing Means, what does healing mean to you?