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When death and grief trigger the trauma of childhood sexual abuse

How can we explain that we were okay until we weren’t?
Content Warning

This story discusses abuse but does NOT describe the abuse, also contains descriptions of PTSD symptoms as well as a discussion of death and grief.

The first time I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was when my chosen father died. I’ve wanted to write about it for awhile, but I think I’ve been afraid that other people couldn’t relate. But if I’ve learned anything these past four years writing with all of you is that the things I think no one else will connect with end up being what resonates most for you wonderful readers. This may sound surprising after all the intimate things I’ve shared about myself with you all, but this story here is, for me, by far the most personal that I’ve written.

Two childhoods at once: one safe and one abusive

For 11 years, I have struggled with my relationships to grief and trauma. I haven’t been able to see where one ended and the other began. The only way I know how to talk about this is by explaining what happened. While I’ve shared in tidbits over the years, I’ve never laid things out like this before. There are relationships and stories I’ve kept private for myself. And those haven’t been wrong decisions; they were the right choices at the time. But now I’m ready to tell you all about what happened when I was 20-years-old and grief and trauma met inside me for the first time.

I had a very privileged upbringing. I am a white cis heterosexual girl from a wealthy white family in a beautiful idyllic suburb of DC known for the intellectualism and ambition of its residents. I’m Jewish, but I was never “other-ed” as I went to a public school that was 40% Jewish.

Baby Alisa with her sister and mom all sitting in each other's laps.

I’m the one with the cheeks

More complicated to discuss amongst us survivors here is the privilege I had to not live with my abuser or to be with him more than every other weekend until I was 18. I know some of you reading might be like fuck, that’s still a lot. I mean, yeah; but listen, it’s a very different situation when the home you go to at the end of the day includes someone that harms you, and that was not my case.

I had two concurrent childhoods. One was full of terror and pain I couldn’t understand at the time with my biological father every other weekend.

My other childhood was the 80% of the time I spent with my mother, sister, and chosen father who I’ll call “Q” because even typing his name feels too personal (which is also why you won’t see photos of him on my site). Life with the four of us was simple, supportive, and full of love. I had a safe haven that showed me a life possible without my biological father, and others have not had that same privilege. If that is you, I see you, and I want you to know your pain matters to me.

Alisa three years old with a mullet.

 This mullet happened to me.

How I was able to find resilience in my abusive childhood

I have no memories of being a kid and knowing that my dad was sexually abusing me. I’ve written about this at length, but I’ve had body memories and never recovered narrative memories. As a child, I knew that being with my father was the worst feeling in the world. I  would cry and beg that I didn’t have to go be with him. I knew that I would feel “weird” for a couple days coming back from being with him, but that I always recovered emotionally because I came home to my mom and Q and the beautiful family we had.

As an adult, knowing what I know about my sexual abuse, I look back on my childhood and wonder how that little girl kept going, how she kept surviving. But recently, when I created space for myself to reflect deeply, it dawned on me that I know precisely how I survived. I survived because of my mom and Q. Specifically, Q modeled to me what a real father was and what love was supposed to be like. Q and I weren’t biologically related, and my mom made it clear that neither of us was under any obligation to love one another, just to have mutual respect.

Love became a decision that both of us made everyday. Q loved me as his own and I loved him as my father and protector. His existence was the only way I could make sense of my young life. I had my biological father, yes, but 80% of the time I had Q who cared about me and kept me safe. I saw the time with my birth dad as something I had to “get through” to get to the real love in my life.

Gif that is a door opening that says

When grief and trauma met within me for the first time

When I was 20, Q died. He had been sick on and off for years, and I grew up always knowing that his existence in my life was something I could never take for granted and I loved him with an urgency. I helped care for him at the end of his life, which, 11 years later to the day, remains the most important and challenging decision I’ve ever made.

I won’t describe what him dying was like for me. Any of you who’ve watched one of the people you needed the most die know what it was like.

A few weeks after, I was diagnosed with PTSD for the first time. The doctors said it was brought on by the trauma of watching Q.

Gif of a brain tumbling down a flight of stairs and each stair describes a difficult feeling like grief, anxiety, and hopelessness.

I was having flashbacks of Q dying, but something else started happening too.

I began to not be able to stomach being close my birth dad. Whatever had made it possible for me to endure the nearness of him had instantly disappeared. He began calling me six weeks after Q died saying, “Alisa, you need to care about the living, not just the dead.”  I had nothing left inside me. I had no smiles to fake, no adoration to muster, no capacity to prioritize his needs over my own, as I had done for 20 years.

I started having nightmares of him sexually abusing me and they were unrelenting. It would be another year until I could talk about the nightmares, two years until I told my therapist, and another year or two until I could cut him out of my life. For all of you who’ve emailed me about how long its taken for you to confide in another person, you can see it took me many years too.

I had two fathers: one who terrorized me and had a parasitic hold on me, and the other who felt like a gift from the universe to make up for the horror of the first. But when Q died, I couldn’t make sense of anything anymore.

I had done everything right, said all the “I love you”s to my birth dad that I was supposed to and endured all of the pain because I could come home to Q. But Q died, not my birth dad. And with that, the fairness I had made up in my head was dead.

Gif of woman in robe shouting

An adult trauma can trigger childhood trauma

It would be many more years until I’d understand what I had been through, and specifically another 7 years until a clinician explained to me that a second adult trauma can often trigger a dormant childhood trauma. A common example of this is survivors experiencing violence or a death as adults and it triggering their dormant childhood sexual abuse. For many of us, we live for years without having our childhood traumas triggered only to have it come flooding back when we experience something traumatic as adults. It can feel so difficult to explain how our trauma didn’t affect us for years, until, all of sudden, it consumed us.

Q dying was the adult trauma and it triggered the repressed childhood trauma of my dad’s sexual abuse. While it took many years to free myself of my birth dad, and things got worse before they got better, what I understand now is that Q was how I had endured so much pain and was still “okay.” Q had shielded me from my trauma, and when he died I was flooded with severe PTSD symptoms of flashbacks, nightmares and body memories.

The death of my chosen father has meant so many things to me. His love meant so much more to me than how it helped me survive my dad. Q remains the most difficult thing for me to talk about. Our relationship felt holy and his death inexplicable.

I was left with a question that silenced me for many years: How could I explain to everyone that I was okay until I wasn’t?

Piglette from Winne the Poo shaking his head with the words

Grief and trauma: What happens when we can’t feel one without the other?

How could I explain that I wasn’t just grieving Q?  I was, for the first time in my life, overwhelmed with the realization that my dad had done something really awful to me, and I had no faith in the world that things just “worked out” anymore. I wasn’t just missing the person I needed the most; I was struggling with what it meant to be alive and why it felt so unbearable for so many years after his death.

For the first 10 years after he died, I couldn’t feel grief without trauma. I worked tirelessly to try to remember moments that didn’t involve him dying, but all my thoughts led me to remembering the most traumatic moments of his death and the weeks that followed it.

I couldn’t feel trauma without grief. All of the terrible things I’ve been through with my dad in the past years have always led me to crying over the loss of Q and my deep wish for him to still be here protecting me. I haven’t known how to feel one without the other.

Moira from Schitt's Creek saying

Time-traveling with PTSD to feel closer to the ones who died

PTSD gives us this unique capacity to time-travel. Don’t get me wrong, I do not particularly care for this “skill,” but because of my PTSD, I often am not “remembering” something, but rather reliving it. For so long, I’ve held onto my capacity to time-travel back to the trauma of Q dying just to feel close to him again, even though the way that I’m connecting back to him isn’t through my grief as much as it is my trauma. I’ve wanted to feel close to him, and, for so long, the only way I could accomplish that was through the trauma of his death.

Gif of a man asking a woman,

Discovering how to feel grief without trauma

Then something truly surprising happened to me. In June of 2018, in honor of the 10th anniversary of his death, my mom and I decided to return to the beach we’d all go to as a family before Q died. Knowing how my PTSD works, I was afraid all these childhood memories would trigger me into the throws of my grief and trauma.

But the complete opposite happened.

We went to the beach, a place that was never tainted by my dad’s presence, and healthy memories of my childhood came rushing back to me for the first time ever.

Alisa 6 years old buried in the sand

It was shocking to both me and my mom and our two puppies who accompanied us. I couldn’t shut up, recalling what it was like to swim here, and get ice cream there, and go see the Parent Trap at that theater, and eat crabs on this table. I remembered things that were deeply uninteresting, “Oh, we went to that lampstore once when I was 7!” and I remembered things that meant the world to me. “Remember how we’d play in the water and Q loved to boogie board like he was a teenager?” I could not stop running my mouth.

I didn’t recognize myself and I was overwhelmed by the gift of only remembering healthy memories. No longer was I thinking of Q and his death, no longer was I feeling my trauma; instead, I was remembering what it felt like for us to live. I had no idea something like this could exist for me, and I wish it for each and every one of you.

This past June we went back and did it again, and it felt even better.

Alisa sitting on beach 8 years old with front tooth missing.

This is what a moment of healing felt like for me

I went into the ocean and submerged myself into the same water we swam in when I was a child. With the rush of the cold over my head, I knew in that moment that Q was with me. Healing has always felt non-linear and nebulous to me. Being under the waves may have been the only time in my life where I thought, “Wow, in this single moment, I know I am healing.”

I practiced floating on my back and asked myself not look out for the waves, instead trusting that if a wave did crash on me that I’m a good swimmer and I’d be fine, even if my sunglasses didn’t make it. I was curious to see what it’d be like to connect with the part of me that existed before my hypervigilance, before I was constantly bracing for the worst.

It was hard to let go; I kept wanting to peak to see if there was a wave coming. But for 10 breaths I honored the feeling deep within, that, after 11 years of grief and trauma, said it was time to trust that maybe, just maybe, this time things could be okay.

Sandy wet dog on the beach in a series of three photos showing him sticking his tongue out and licking his own nose.