Afraid of relationships after childhood trauma
My name is Liza, and I'm an American college student. For as long as I can remember, both of my parents have been verbally and slightly physically abusive towards me and allowed my younger sister to behave likewise. I have totally severed contact with my family and have not seen them for about two years. I am extremely quiet and can't stand to have anyone in my personal space (which extends far further than most people's). This caused me great problems all through school, my quirks causing me to be picked on and alienated all the way to my senior year in high school. By that time, I wanted nothing to do with my classmates. I attempted suicide three times. I brought that attitude with me to college, but managed to make some friends. A few days ago one of my friends confessed to me that he likes me. I kind of freaked out because he tried to touch me. I want to tell him that I like him too (which I do, very much) but I need to make him understand about my childhood. I've never told anyone about my home life.
I am so sorry you have suffered so greatly as a child. No one should suffer verbal and physical abuse from his or her parents. I think you are coping well and you should know that many people start to suffer anxieties, depression, and suicide ideation later in life because of childhood abuse. I think it would help you greatly to talk about these things in a counseling environment. Is there a free counseling service at your college? There often is. As long as you do not externalize your grief and repressed anger, you will have the sorts of problems you describe. So do please try to find a counselor who is used to helping abuse victims to first explore the pain of their childhood and then when that is achieved to leave their victimhood behind and become free, the hero survivor. It does happen. Read some books about other victims and how they survived. But essentially it is for each victim to relive their story to another person, often writing many pages about it until the hurt begins to lessen. It never goes away, but it does become manageable through understanding and acceptance.
As for your friend who reached out to you, talk to him. Break through that barrier of shame, and if you trust him (and it sounds as if you do), you can tell him just a little to begin with. Then if he demonstrates understanding and love, you can, over time, tell him more. Explain why it is difficult for you to be touched and that it will take time for you to learn to trust again. Explain that if he really cares, he must be patient, and that it is not his fault (nor yours actually because you did nothing wrong) but the circumstances of your past that is putting barriers up. However, even as others caused those barriers to be there, you must one day find the courage to knock them down, to let others in, and to move beyond the restricting barriers to new horizons.
You have shown that you can make friends. That is a good beginning. Now you are onto a new phase of an even closer relationship. Relationships or friendships are just about different levels of caring. With a partner it is the closest caring and it is precious. Allow yourself time to explore this new relationship. Take it slowly, step at a time. But talk with him. Tell him how you feel about being touched, about not being touched, about being close and about being loved. Tell him if it is frightening. Ask him how he feels. In other words, talk about your feelings. Tell each other if you feel afraid, and what is going on to the best of your knowledge. If you don't understand how you feel, say that too.
One of the feelings that are damaged through child abuse is intimacy, and also trust. Not just intellectually, but emotionally you must learn to trust again. The people in your life who were meant to care for you and nurture you broke that trust and let you down. It is a new learning experience to trust all over again, knowing that you could be hurt again, but having the courage to try anyway.
To be really safe, you could lock yourself up in a little box and no one would touch you. You would be safe. But you would never learn about real love where the person who really loves you does not want to hurt you and where you learn that real love is about caring. You may not find it immediately but each new partner will teach you a little. Learn as you go along. Have courage. And start to think highly of yourself.
The problem with child abuse is that the child, instead of thinking that mum and dad have a problem when they become abusive, thinks wrongly that it is he or she who has the problem. They think that they must be bad or worthless, or their parents would love them. This is certainly not true, but children do not develop reasoning ability early on and so they wrongly assume they are bad people. In fact, they did nothing wrong.
So the problem is with your parents not you. You have to accept that and move on, saying to yourself daily that you are a good and worthwhile person and deserve a good and worthwhile partner in life. That is your new affirmation to be said aloud on a daily basis until you start to believe these unfamiliar words. Then you are more likely to meet a good partner than if you keep on saying you are a worthless person. Why would you say that to yourself? Because you were abused. But if you do say such negative thoughts to yourself, you are likely to find yourself somehow, and strangely, with an abusive partner because you never learned to say NO because you couldn't say NO to the "love object" which is also the abusive parent. Abusive behavior is familiar to you. But you must learn to expect nothing less than goodness and never accept even once abuse of any kind.
Life is very cruel sometimes but we can rise above it if we try. And sharing and caring for others is one way to rise above cruelty. I am sure you can and wish you well in your new relationship. I hope you find some good counseling so that you too can become a hero survivor and a stronger person because of all that you have endured---and risen above
Pat Ryan (Ms) B.Sc (Hons) Psych
This question was answered by Pat Ryan. Pat is a registered psychologist and has a private practice in Wollongong, Australia, having worked in several esteemed drug & alcohol therapeutic communities. Her aim is to empower: to safely explore relationships, emotions, unresolved conflicts, patterns of behavior and symptoms of disease--a structured cognitive behavioral approach as the predominant theoretical context with psychodynamic contribution.