I find myself reflecting on the life of Nelson Mandela as I hear one story after another flash across my television screen. Mandela was one of the great leaders of our time; someone we should try to emulate. But as hard as I try, I am only a gnat in the forest. I write compassionate and compelling stories, hoping to give a voice to those unable to speak. I throw pebbles across the still water and watch ripples scoot across its surface. Maybe one ripple will reach another, another, and so on. How many my message reaches, I’ll never know. You see, I’m only a nat in the forest trying to do the right thing.
“You can’t know what you don’t know.” That’s what my therapist said as she sat in her chair, waiting for my response. I scanned my mind looking for clues to explain my past behavior. When I was a boy growing up in the baptist church I was taught that we have free will — we know the difference between right and wrong, and it is up to us to make the right decision. It sounded so simple. Now I have a different view. Our behavior is based on a combination of our biological makeup and life’s experiences — nature and nuture.
Nature tattoos us with a genetic makeup, DNA, that determines who we are in many fundamental ways. Nuture is a product of what we see, hear, smell, and touch, and the countless life experiences that mold our core. Developmental biology tells us that we are a combination of the two. From the beginning, we are organisms with a genetic blueprint that continually interacts with our environment, causing change to occur as we move from conception, to childhood, to adulthood, and finally to death. In her book, “The Biology of Violence,” Debra Niehoff says, “Even the most unrepentant assailants, the most cold-blooded murderers, the most sadistic of serial killers, were once infants. There was a time when they could barely hold a rattle, much less a gun; when they smiled for Christmas portraits and giggled at peek-a-boo; when they were afraid of fireworks, needed help to feed themselves, and wore shoes no bigger than ring boxes. What happened? What inner or outer factor — parents, schools, genes, morals, abuse, television, neglect, stress, attention deficits, self-esteem, temperament — has the power to transform innocence into violence? The answer provided by modern neuroscience is ‘all of the above'”
“It was the childhood abuse that caused me to act in a certain way. I’m certain that I knew the difference between right and wrong. All of the abuse programmed me to think and act in negative ways. It’s my DNA.” That’s what I told my therapist. We agreed that it explains my past behavior.
I think about this therapy session when I examine my life, and when I wrote my two books about two female prison inmates. Both inmates participated in violent acts. And in each case, each person has a history of physical and sexual abuse. There are so many inmates who committed acts of violence that were “programmed” to behave in a certain way. I’m certain that a lot of them knew the difference between right and wrong, but their “programmed” ways overpowered and concept of “right and wrong.” It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it certainly explains it. You can’t know what you don’t know.”
I want to thank the Longbranch Coffeehouse for inviting me to participate in their author series. The book reading/discussion was held before a lively audience who offered up several interesting questions. My book, “Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory,” has served as a vehicle for discussing one of society’s biggest sins — childhood sexual abuse.
I also want to thank the Daily Egyptian, the Southern Illinois University student newspaper, for writing a story about my book reading/discussion at the Longbranch Coffeehouse. The story can be found in the Daily Egyptian newspaper.
I was three, maybe fourth months into therapy. Horrific memories of childhood sexual abuse came in different ways — sometimes a complete memory, other times in bits and pieces while meditating. I was very proficient in meditation, and would sit for thirty to forty-five minutes, and even an hour. The really bad memories erupted during nightmares in the form of metaphors which had to be analyzed in order to grasp their meaning. On this particular night the meditation flowed nice and easy, allowing me to experience the sensation of floating throughout the darkened room. Only the street light slide under the window shade. Otherwise, it was a dark black night. This was when I began hearing words that jumped in my mind. The structure and rhymes seemed like poetry — crude, unrefined, but powerful nonetheless. Maybe my surprise came from the fact that I had no interest in writing or reading the written word. I moved to my computer to see if I could recall what I had heard. My fingers flew across the keyboard as lines of poetry appeared on my computer screen. It was easy and without effort. I was writing poetry about the sexual abuse I had experienced during my childhood. It felt like I was in the middle of some alien experience, or perhaps a miracle.
The next day I was sitting at my desk where I maintained a financial planning office. I couldn’t help but think about the previous night’s experience when I actually wrote some poetry. I couldn’t wait until I went home and sat at my computer. Evening came. Okay, I thought, let’s see what I can write. My mind was in lock down. No words came forward. Finally I gave up and assumed that last night’s experience was unexplainable and would never happen again. So, I returned to my meditation and settled into my soft chair. Thirty minutes into meditation the same thing happened again — more poetry about childhood sexual abuse.
In the days that followed it became clear that the key was to meditate and wait for something to happen. The meditation somehow eliminated the wall that had previously blocked my creativity. In time I could enter the place where poets dare to tread. My therapist suggested that I contact a writing teacher and see where my writing might lead. I took her suggestion and talked with a client of mine who happen to teach in the English Department at the local university. She worked with me for about 6 months and then suggested that I work with a teacher of creative nonfiction writing at the university who worked with me for three years. Upon her suggestion I completed my MFA in creative nonfiction at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.
Here I am three books later, thinking about the wonderful journey that I have taken. My therapist and writing teachers changed my life. I can now enter that well of creativity, floating through a liquid-like gel which must be love. Not only does it happen when I write, the love comes forward anytime I open the door. What a life changer it has been, and is there for the taking. One only needs to trust, to feel, and ultimately to love.
A few days ago I was checking out some other blogs. I typed in PTSD and discovered numerous blogs about people diagnosed as having PTSD brought on by sexual and physical abuse. My initial reaction was shock. These people, I thought, are in bad shape and need help. Then I realized that their stories sounded very much like my story written years ago. I wanted to reach out to the people and tell them that there is hope. They can move to a place where the horror becomes like distant memories. They become manageable. This is a story that I wrote when I was in a very bad place.
Maybe it would have been easier if I had cancer or another more socially acceptable disease. The physician would have shown my family an x-ray of my tumor and prescribed a course of treatment, giving them hope that they could openly share with their friends. Or maybe it would have been better if my wife had taken me to a hospital and said, “Something is wrong with my husband. He is depressed, having nightmares. He’s downright miserable.” After performing a CT scan, the doctor might have said, “We’ve determined your husband’s problem. As you can see from the x-ray, his soul is being strangled by massive adhesions. The different-colored adhesions represent a specific type of abuse, with the number of strains revealing the frequency. Look here and you can see how the CT scan tells a story. The blue adhesions tell us your husband was sexually molested by his older brother. Based on the massive number of strains, we estimate his brother’s penis was rammed up his anus more than one thousand times.”
Being visually shaken, my wife might have said, “Can anything be done to help him?”
“Oh yes,” the doctor might have said. “However, it’s a long process and not without problems. He can be treated with medications and work with a psychologist who will help loosen the grip of the adhesions and terminate their growth. They can never be removed but he can recover. He might become a different person from the one you know. He’s been living without the use of his soul and will begin to feel things that will cause him to behave in a different way. There is a school of thought that says abuse victims can become so in touch with their soul that they experience depths of love we can only imagine.”
Wondering what to do, she might have said, “What if we don’t do anything?”
“Well, that’s an option,” he answered. “However, if you choose that option, I would suggest having him put to sleep. It’s more humane. You see, if nothing is done, his soul will disintegrate, causing his interior to become devoid of all meaningful parts. He will become like a hollowed-out gourd. If that happens, you might as well cut a hole in his side, tie a rope around his neck, and hang him from a tree. Abuse victims come in different colors, shapes, and sizes. They make great birdhouses.”
You can find my story in “Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory.”
Researchers at MIT suggest that we’ve moved closer to creating a pill that would remove bad memories. Researches say they have identified a gene that plays a critical role in “memory extinction.” Old “bad” memories would be replaced with new ones, which would, in turn, provide a pill for addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This information troubles me. So much so that I want to vomit.
I can not speak for soldiers who suffer from PTSD, but I can tell you how victims of childhood sexual abuse deal with PTSD, and “bad memories.” Here’s a bit of my story. My memories of childhood sexual abuse were buried for decades. Although I was not aware that my bad memories even existed, I was filled with misery. Try being miserable and exhibiting bad behavior, and not having a clue as to what was going on. Not being aware of the “bad memories” made no difference.
When I was approximately 50 years of age my mother revealed past events that triggered tons of bad memories. So bad that I had nightmares of being raped that caused me to vomit and slide into panic attacks. For fear of losing my sanity I turned to a psychologist for help. We began long term therapy, and with the help of medication I became more receptive to the demands of therapy. This led to a review of my past behavior, conversations with family members, visits to the sites of the past abuse, journaling, self exploration, etc… I can provide only a snap shot of my experiences on a blog, but I can say that I would not want to replace the bad memories with good ones.
We are a product of our biological makeup and our life experiences — nature and nurture. My memories are my history, and partially determine who I am. Because of the abuse, I did not know how to trust, to feel, and ultimately how to love. But through long term therapy I learned all of the above, and even became a writer. I went through hell but my therapist brought me into the light, and life is better than I could have imagined. Please don’t take away my bad memories. I’ll just manage them as I do now, and taste the sweetness of life.
You can read more about my experiences in my latest book, “Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory.”
Yes, even writers can have PTSD. Although Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is commonly associated with soldiers who experience the traumas of war, it can happen to anyone. PTSD is a severe condition that may develop after a person is exposed to one or more traumatic events, such as sexual assault, serious injury or the threat of death. The diagnosis may be given when a group of symptoms such as disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and hyper-arousal (high levels of anxiety) continue for more than a month after the traumatic event.
Now that we know what it is, what does it feel like? In a single word, hell. Dreams and flashbacks can trigger vomiting, the onset of a panic attack, tremors, depression, anxiety, and an overall feeling of misery. Without proper treatment misery becomes your shadow.
I have PTSD brought on by childhood sexual abuse. When the misery became over-whelming, I sought treatment: longterm psychotherapy accompanied by medication. The medication made me more receptive to the challenges of therapy. Now for the good part. Through the guidance of my therapist, self exploration, and some really dark times, I learned to trust, to love, and to gain an openness where I now see the previously unseen. New experiences evolved, too numerous to mention in a blog. Without PTSD and the ensuring long term therapy, I would never have become a writer and have three books to my credit. The experience has given me an insight that maybe others with a less challenged life do not experience.
Do the symptoms of PTSD disappear and never return? No, but they are manageable. Sometimes a slight depression sneaks in like a distant fog, troubling dreams may appear. I still have moments when my body jerks at night, and I literally throw my body out of bed to escape an attacker. The other night I hit my head on the corner of my nightstand when I fell out of bed. A week or so earlier I shoved everything — lamp, keys, iphone — off of the nightstand onto the floor when I fought off and overpowered an intruder. Sometimes my wife and I have discussions as to whether I should move to another bed. (That’s during the bad episodes.) But life is good, and I can draw upon these experiences to assist me with the type of writing that I pursue. Yes, life is pretty damn good. I’m a lucky man.