It is now 2 a.m., and I have been fighting so hard with no success to get myself to sleep at a normal hour for a change. It all started when I finished my writing at 11 p.m. My computer and Internet froze for a whole hour, making it impossible for me to post my writings without great difficulty. Then I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and tried to go to sleep. Well, an hour later I’m awake and full of energy and totally unable to sleep. My PTSD has returned again as evidenced by the fact that I threw up again. And so I’m going to do some healing writing now and then try to go back to sleep.
So I was reading a wonderful book called Resilient Adults: Overcoming a Cruel Past by Gina O’Connell Higgins. I highly recommend this book to all adult survivors of severe child abuse who are still in the healing and recovery process like me and their counselors. It’s a book about people like me who suffered horrifically abusive childhoods but who managed to completely overcome their pasts. Nearly all the people featured in the book faced severe physical and /or sexual abuse as a child and many of them also grew up in poverty as well. Yet these people were all able to get married to healthy spouses and to raise loving, healthy children of their own. And in addition they all managed to be successful in their professions, and half of them work as psychologists or other helping professions.
And like me, they are virtually all passionate advocates for social change and social justice, and they have found that they enhance their own healing through their social change advocacy. I know that I have greatly healed by participating in political protests in support of political prisoners like Dr. Maikel Nabil Sanad and supporting the Syrian freedom uprising and by helping my Iranian friend Dr. Roya Araghi, a political refugee, to gain political asylum.
I want to reflect on some of the specific stories in the book. I am greatly inspired by the courage of Dan, a man from a wealthy but brutal family where he was severely physically abused by his father, beaten every day from around age 3 to age 16, and sexually assaulted by his mother almost every week from age 5 to age 15. I try to imagine the horror that Dan experienced every day of his life in his home as a small boy – and I am amazed that he not only survived physically but also recovered emotionally.
He started counseling with a psychiatrist at age 18 in college where he would come 3 times a week and cry for 45 minutes for each session. He found a woman from a loving, secure home, and married her right out of college at age 23. He is a husband and father of at least four children –and also a grandfather as well. When his daughter married and gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Dan reflected with satisfaction that he had stopped the curse of child abuse in his family. He was proud that his daughter had been the first mother in many generations who was raised with enough emotional security to easily and comfortably become a mother in her own right. Dan also runs an agency in Harlem that helps poor and abused families in every area of their lives.
I am so moved by Dan because by reading his example all the time night after night even while I was still in captivity, I could imagine a better future for myself. I knew as well that I would not be able to gain the full benefit of the book until I finally left my abusers for good. And so when I finally made arrangements to become a free person, then I went to my parents’ house and grabbed this book along with my Shabbos candlesticks so that I could take it with me to the free world. I really like what Dan had to say in terms of reflecting the role or identity of victim on page 59:
I don’t see myself as a victim. I see myself as a survivor, as someone who’s done more than just make the best of a difficult situation – someone who’s really thrived. I see myself as a successful person, not a victim. I think of a victim as someone who’s experienced great difficulty and has never been able to rise above it but has remained locked in the pain and suffering. To me, that’s a victim, and I’m not a victim at all. That’s not what’s happened to me in my life.
I compare myself with this statement and see that I have made huge progress forward and yet I still have a long way to go. Throughout my many years of captivity in the hands of first my parents and then my maternal grandmother, I perceived myself as a victim. I felt myself to be powerless and trapped in a situation beyond my control. I didn’t recognize myself as an empowered, emotionally healthy person who is capable of determining her own destiny.
It is only in the last two months after I finally liberated myself from my abusers that my own internal thinking process has begun to shift. Since I finally put an end to the abuse, I now know that I am a survivor and I am not a victim anymore. I know that I finally have control over my own life. I can decide when I want to work and how much I want to work and what kind of work I want to do. I can decide how to spend my own money and which food to buy and which food to cook. I can choose my own doctor and my own synagogue. I can work when I have energy and sleep when I’m tired. I can even lie down in the middle of the day to take a nap if I need to. I decide what time to wake up and what time to go to sleep and I chose to sign up for STS and to go to the doctor when I was sick.
I can also freely express my opinions on both my own history as an abuse survivor and on any political topic I want to without anyone else trying to suppress me or silence me. I can write whatever I like about Egypt or Syria or Iran or Iraq without being told I am not allowed to do this. I can freely decide whom I want to be friends with, and my grandma can no longer threaten to throw me out of the house for supporting Maikel of Egypt on his hunger strike or talking to my friend Dr. Roya Araghi of Iran about her political asylum application or speaking to Ahmed of Egypt on face book about Maikel. So my field of personal and political vision is vastly expanded by my personal freedom.
At the same time, I have not yet fully understood in my mind and body that I am really a free person. I liberated myself from my abusers so recently, just over two months ago, that in many respects I still have the internal mentality of a captive. This reality is most clearly reflected in my severe emotional overreaction to Maikel’s hunger strike. I think the problem was and is two fold:
1. I could not separate between my status as a free person and Maikel’s status as a political captive because I only liberated myself so recently and so my body has not yet fully processed the fact of my physical and emotional freedom.
2. I am so severely distraught by Maikel’s continued captivity because the abuse he is still suffering at the hands of the Egyptian military reminds me of the emotional abuse I endured at the hands of my family of origin for so many years.
I decided that the solution to this problem is for me to focus on my own internal recovery process first of all. I am no good to myself and to Maikel or anyone else if I have ceased to function. And I need to learn to treat myself with the same kindness and compassion that I routinely extend to others, both those in my immediate surroundings and those with whom I interact on phone, email, and Face Book.
Rather than obsessing about Maikel’s hunger strike, I will try to honor his vision by beginning a new research project on the human rights abuses of the Egyptian military. I used to admire the Egyptian military before I saw how brutally they treated and abused Maikel. Why? Because in my research on the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty of 1978, I found that the Egyptian generals were much more fair, logical, and rational in the way they treated their Jewish counterparts than were most of the Egyptian politicians. The Israeli and Egyptian generals sat side by side in the negotiations in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and from one soldier to the other they worked together to solve problems and overcome misunderstandings. In contrast, most Egyptian politicians and diplomats responded to Sadat’s announcement of the negotiations and peace treaty by publicly resigning their posts and grand-standing against any dealings which were based on recognizing the humanity of the Jews.
After seeing how brutally they abused Maikel, I lost all respect for the Egyptian military as an institution. I began to see it as an institutional bully who reminded me of my own emotionally abusive father. And I began to deeply despise the Egyptian military. I find their contempt for the rule of law as evidenced by the fact that they subjected Maikel, who is a civilian, to a military tribunal with no pretense of fairness to be particularly upsetting. And I can’t help noticing that Maikel’s prison sentence of three years matches the three year term of conscripted military service for Egyptian males that Maikel so publicly refused to complete. Since Maikel was imprisoned for researching and criticizing the Egyptian army’s human rights abuses, I will demonstrate my solidarity with him by continuing where he left off in his research.
I have some serious disadvantages in this research in that I don’t speak or read Arabic and I don’t have the contacts in the Egyptian military that Maikel has. But I also have the freedom of knowing that since I am an American citizen living in America, the Egyptian military has exactly zero jurisdiction over me. Therefore I can freely publish my research without worrying about being imprisoned, tortured, or killed. And if this means I’m denied a visa to Egypt, that’s fine with me because actually I wouldn’t want to go to Egypt as long as Maikel is imprisoned. And similarly I couldn’t stand the thought of going to Egypt under the Mubarak regime either because my now friend the blogger Kareem Amer was illegally imprisoned from 2006 to 2010 for four years for expressing his atheist beliefs and criticizing Islam.
I want to close with an inspiring quote and some thoughts from the book Resilient Adults. I know that I may never fully recover from my abuse as the people in this book have done in the sense of being able to marry and raise their own families. I feel I am way too damaged inside to want to become a wife and mother. But these role models in this book help me to strive toward greater healing and wholeness and emotional stability and career success in my life. And thus they are an inspiration to me.
Shibvon, who was severely physically assaulted by her mother and abandoned by her father said on page 41,”I knew from the start that even though my mother kept trying, she wasn’t going to defeat me.” I can say that I felt this sense of inner self-confidence about myself from the age of 12. I just need to substitute in the word “father” for “mother” and then the sentence fits me perfectly. I read the book while still living in my parents’ house in late 2008 and recovering from the near-fatal car crash in August 2008. I see that I have a note from the date of 12/28/08 in the book where I underlined this sentence and crossed out “mother” and wrote down “dad” instead. So I always had the inner sense of determination to escape the abuse even if I didn’t yet have the emotional and financial tools to do so. And now I have done what I had always planned and I have made sure that my dad has no more power over me and no more ability to defeat or control me in any respect.