by Deborah Schiefer
When my Mom was first diagnosed with early-onset dementia and I became a part-time caregiver for her, I thought I was alone. During my late childhood years, she became increasingly abusive toward me, peaking in my adolescence. The abuse became so severe, I ended up moving in with another family for my own safety and healing.
These were the first people who ever spoke the words, “you were abused” to me and validated my experience in my home and with my family.
Things between she and I did improve. She eventually sought counseling and healed to a point where she could understand the gravity of what she had done. She apologized and never laid a hand (fist or foot) on me again. But the emotional and verbal abuse never fully ended until after dementia took over her mind. It came in cycles between rage and depression with lulls of peace scattered throughout. If it’s not clear that my Mom suffered with mental illness, I’ll say it now.
When I stepped up to fill a gap in her care, I didn’t know there were others like me. No one talks about it. We choose a life that society uses to invalidate our trauma so most of us stay quiet and try to cope alone. But when faced with one of life’s curveballs, we’ve chosen to lay aside the bitterness, hurt, and anger that we rightfully feel for the wrong done to us. Instead, we pick up love, healing, grief… Which is not to say we don’t also feel the bitterness, hurt, and anger. We do. We’ve chosen to give our abuser the life, dignity, and respect they did not give us when we needed someone to care for us.
What I’ve learned? I’m far from alone. In the last year of this caregiver journey, I’ve met so many others like me.
“I know it seems backward, but she’s still my Mom.”
“I know everyone expects me to send him off to a home, but he’s the father of my children.”
“I have to give him what he never gave me. I can’t live with myself if I didn’t.”
For me, personally, caring for her is almost redeeming what she didn’t give me as a child. It’s knowing the abuse didn’t win. It’s embracing that there can be so much evil and hate in the world, but only I get to choose if that will change who I am.
Trauma and the reactions to it are not one size fits all.
There are those who could never step into this role for their abuser. They deserve only love, respect, and support. There are those who freeze and those who run. In different areas of my life, I might be any of those personalities, too. Because trauma is conflicting and confusing. Because each human is as unique as their fingerprint. Experiences shape each of us and we shape them. Our minds are designed with a unique capacity. What breaks me may not break you and vice versa. Where I might fight back, you might retreat. Where I freeze, you might brawl.
The sooner we come to recognize that there is no right or wrong way to respond to trauma – whether it be a terminal diagnosis, witnessing a fatal crime, experiencing assault, living in a domestic violence situation – the sooner we’ll be able to become a safe place for all trauma survivors.
Your trauma response does not need to match mine or my expectations for your experience to be valid, for you to be believed, and for others to give you respect and treat you with dignity.
You do not get to invalidate another’s trauma because their reaction did not meet your expectation.
Survivors will survive by whatever means their unique mind and body need to use.
That, my friends, is a beautiful thing.
Find your fight.