Taming The Ghosts: How My Childhood Trauma May Have Impacted My Auto-Immune Diseases
Tame the ghosts in my head, that run wild and wish me dead. – Mumford and Sons
Trigger warning - This contains memories of child abuse and may be difficult for some to read.
I recently read this article that reported on the strong link between one of my autoimmune diseases, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I actually had to read it multiple times to fully process the information. See, I was genetically fully loaded to get my array of autoimmune diseases, but as I read, I began realizing that my early childhood may have pulled the trigger.
Then my mind began to drift back.
As a very small girl, at age two, my parents divorced, and somehow, my father was able to obtain custody of me in Alabama in 1981. Believe me when I say this was a blessing, despite the rest of the tale I have to tell. My mother had standard visitation and availed herself of it only when there was a new man to impress. By the time I was five or so, she was totally out of the picture.
The past two Mother’s Days, I have blogged about her, and, then again, briefly, a couple of weeks ago. That makes three times in my life that I have been able to write about her – and I am almost forty. I always shake and cry and think I might have a nervous breakdown as I do so. It isn’t pretty.
In her absence, my father raised me, with my loving Grandmother and my hardass grandfather next door. My father and I are close now and he loves me dearly. I don’t doubt that. He has also apologized for some of the events of my childhood. However, apologies cannot undo physiological and psychological damage. So here I am.
My grandfather was a harsh man with an explosive temper. He was extremely kind at a church – a deacon who volunteered with children’s Sunday School – and then beyond nasty at home. When my father was small, he would beat my father and uncle with a belt almost daily, in what he called “whippings”, for perceived misbehaving. This was his “spare the rod, spoil the child” child rearing philosophy. He also shouted at my Grandmother and had outbursts for any slight irritation. It was a “walking on eggshells” situation for me with him.
In my heart, I believe my father truly hates him, even now that both of my grandparents have passed away, and I don’t blame him.
That said, we all do the best we can with what we have and what we know, and, raising me alone, my father subscribed to the “whippings” school of thought as well. Unlike his upbringing, they weren’t daily.
However, my father is 6’3” and about 250 pounds. His belt was one of those thick leather cowboy-type belts. These “whippings” would last 3 or 4 minutes and involved multiple lashes with all his strength, starting when I was three. I remember this because I was moved to the “big” class in preschool when I got a “whipping” for getting in trouble for talking in class.
I can remember the “whippings” also coming for things like having eaten a personal pizza at my Grandmother’s house during a time when my father was on diet kick and so we were only eating salads for dinner. I got a “B” on my report card when I was capable of “A” Honor Roll. These whippings came fairly often - and for reasons that were definitely not major offenses.
Another episode came the day after a trip to the emergency room – and the ER trip was the offense.
I had returned from a rare weekend trip to my mother’s house with bizarre severe vaginal itching. I was five and it was around midnight. My sweet Grandmother was terribly concerned – as she should have been. She finally insisted on taking me to the emergency room. They examined me and determined I had been exposed to an allergen – maybe detergent or something – which makes sense as I am still a totally allergic person.
The next afternoon, as soon as we got home, there was a “whipping,” for the ER visit with a warning that “we better NEVER have to do that again.” Apparently, it was embarrassing or inconvenient to have to be in the ER with me the night before? I never knew what set him off about it - but, as I started developing bladder issues and severe menstrual problems as I got older (around age eleven), I didn’t dare say a word.
I both loved my dad – and was terrified of him.
The “whippings” finally stopped when I was twelve and we were leaving for church. He noticed a bruise that covered the entire calf of my left leg and realized it was his fault.
He told me that day that he would never touch me again as punishment – and he didn’t. But I never believed it. I was afraid of him the entire time I lived with him. Always.
And the long-term consequences of all of this for me?
When I developed the symptoms of severe interstitial cystitis as a teenager while living with my dad, including bladder pain and spasms, pelvic pain, and blood in my urine, I just lived with it. I actually just lived with it until I was diagnosed in my late twenties. I wasn’t going to explain my problems to him. We were “NEVER going to have to” deal with feminine issues again in my father’s house. That was the lesson I took from the ER episode.
The same goes for my endometriosis, which wreaked absolute havoc on my body once I began menstruating and all through my teen years. Due to my illness, from the time I was eleven, with my periods, which occurred every two weeks, I had severe cramping that would radiate down my legs and heavy bleeding that led to anemia. My periods would also last for 8 to 10 days each. I absolutely wasn’t going to report that pain - or any of the other symptoms - to him, no matter how severe. I had a hysterectomy at 34.
As for the psychological symptoms, I’ve had severe anxiety since I was about 13, as well as sleep disturbances, and I don’t do well with angry men. I’ve even had episodes in the past, when faced with angry men, where I literally could not make words. It was so frightening.
So, yes, this is definitely PTSD – and I am not surprised that it is linked to my physical illnesses.
And no amount of apologies and forgiveness will fix it – though all is apologized for and all is forgiven. Unfortunately, we are talking about neurological damage, not hard feelings.
And, yes, it is way past time for therapy. I keep trying to make myself go for my initial appointment. I have a fabulous therapist I really believe can help me.
So, what is the hold up?
I am honestly afraid that, when I start talking about these things, really saying the words aloud, I am going to just fucking BREAK. I mean really really break.
Some things have been so unspeakable for so long that they are terrifying. The ghosts haunt me everywhere.
However, I have never written these words to anyone before now. Here I still sit, in one piece, still breathing.
So, today, I’m going to call and make an appointment.
And, if I do shatter, I’ll pray that the reassembled me will be even stronger and that the ghosts will at least be a little friendlier.
And, now that I have outed them, I will tell my story more often in the hopes that it will make a difference for even one family to prevent such damage to a child, because there really are no take backs or do-overs.
There is a snowball effect sometimes to a lifetime of physical and psychological effects.
Children are simultaneously more resilient and more delicate than we realize sometimes. Life is just crazy that way, and, when the ghosts come, they are here to stay.
by: Miranda Herring