Not Safe Enough to Feel It All

Olivia is physically abused by her father as a young girl and begins to dissociate when she remembers it. She recognizes what she's doing and takes steps to stay present.

by Olivia A.

When I was very little, my father, Troy, beat me, but not my older sister or my mother. He chose me because he didn’t think I was his child. He’d scream, “You’re not mine; you’re too light-skinned!” He did abuse my mother in other ways, though: He would push her and yell degrading things at her, and keep her from protecting me when he went off on me. These are some of my earliest memories.

Though the beatings hurt a lot, I learned not to show emotion. In my head, I would stray from the reality of my father pounding on my back while I clung to his leg, by thinking of happy thoughts and fairytale places. These imaginations were my “temporary relief.”

When I was 4, my mother took me and my sister to a shelter in Spanish Harlem in New York. We never went back. It was great to be away from Troy; I felt safe for the first time in my life.

The shelter had free therapy. In therapy, when I talked about the abuse, I would start to relive it and feel it. To stop myself from crying, my mind would take me somewhere else. In the therapist’s office, I daydreamed of my sister, my mother, and me secluded in an all-white room. That’s when I first realized that memories could be so powerful and that I sometimes needed to get away from them.

Until therapy in the shelter, I had never talked about my father’s abuse with anyone, not even my mother or sister or grandmother. When we sneaked away, my mother only said, “We are going to have to leave your father for a while.” She never mentioned Troy or what had happened again.

I never second-guessed my family’s “avoid-it” system; I would just go with the flow, because I didn’t know what was going on. I trusted my mother and her judgment. My family never talked about feelings.

To finally talk about the abuse in therapy felt like facing the things my family never discussed. Even though I didn’t want to feel anything, I did anyway; I felt overwhelmed and alone with my heartbreak. When it got too bad, I’d go to my daydreams.

In therapy I asked myself, “Olivia, why did this happen to you? What did you do to deserve this? What could you have done differently?” My therapist always reassured me that the abuse wasn’t my fault, but I didn’t believe her. I worried that we left home only for my benefit because Troy focused his abuse on me.

A Habit of Escape

We got away from Troy, but then my mother started drinking, a lot. I would come home from school and find her dizzy-eyed and slurring her speech. I didn’t know what was wrong with her. I thought she was sick. I began dissociating to escape her drunken rages.

Now I’m 15, and I’m a little worried about the fact that I still travel out of reality in my head. I looked in the book that psychologists use to diagnose people, the DSM-IV, and found the term “dissociation.” The book calls dissociation “a persistent or recurrent feeling of being detached from one’s mental processes or body.” That means that the physical and mental parts of you are separated, and you feel like you’re looking at yourself from the outside. Reading that definition, I recognized what my mind did, and still does, when I’m in stressful situations or when I’m pushed into remembering traumatic events.

Even though I was safe at the shelter as a little kid, my mind also would put me right back in Troy’s abuse sometimes. Troy’s abuse would start playing in my head like a tape, and it kept doing this even after we were safe. A picture, memory, or anything that reminds me of the past is enough to start the tape.

My dissociating from bad memories or from bad things happening now makes me feel safe. When I’m going through stress, it’s like a fort protecting me from harmful things. Like when my mom is drunk and yelling at me, I’ll “go away.”

I create happy scenarios in my head, like imagining that I’m a fashion designer. It normally lasts just a few minutes, but when the stress is really bad I’ve “gone somewhere else” for about an hour.

During the dissociation process, I can see and hear what’s going on. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at being able to have a conversation while I’m “gone.” It’s like having two minds: While one mind is off somewhere happy, the other talks to someone. A huge part of my dissociating is having non-emotional responses to everything: The part of me that’s still in reality can answer questions, but I don’t have to feel scared or angry or sad.

My dissociating is like the Internet game “Sims,” where you control a family of imaginary people. It’s like a virtual life, where you do everything we do in human society but in video game form. So not only is everything in my daydream happy, I also control it all.

Talking to God

When I was younger, Troy used to take us to church. He claimed he was a Christian. I only went to church with my father because I had to.

But in the 6th grade, I started to believe in the Lord on my own. Nobody was reliable in my life, but the Lord was always there.

I learned to pray by speaking out loud in my room. I’d say, “Dear Lord, I need your blessings and guidance.” I started to incorporate Him into my talks to myself about my life, my past, Troy, and my mother.

That’s how I learned to speak my feelings. Because with Him there was no judgment. I began to tell the Lord things that I had been scared to admit to myself. I could tell Him about sins I had committed and sins that I wanted to commit. I tell Him everything.

During prayer, I learn things that I didn’t even know about myself, like my creativity and my likes and dislikes. It all starts pouring out of my heart; I don’t stop myself from saying anything (if I curse, I apologize).

Feelings I’ve pushed away come out when I pray—sort of like the tape, but good. It’s another mind compartment, but in this compartment I can feel and discover things about myself.

And that is how I began to know myself. Doing that was extremely difficult, because I kept it in for so many years. It was also difficult to pray because I had to learn not to lie to myself and to admit the truth.

Whenever I pray, I start to understand what’s bothering me. Often I cry. I feel overwhelmed by sadness about the things that have happened to me.

The Uses of Dissociation

There’s still a lot of pain to avoid. I still live at home with my mother who continues to drink. She tells me that I’m the reason she drinks. When she says this, I just walk away, because I don’t want to feel it. I don’t think it’s true, but it hurts. If I could feel more now, that might make me cry.

My best friend is in foster care, and her situation scares me. As bad as it is with my mother, I’m not ready to risk making my life worse by calling ACS and going into care. Plus, I don’t want to get my 3-year-old brother taken away from his mother. So I am stuck.

If I had complete control of my life, I would let myself feel emotions. The only way you can gain experience in life is by going through the pain, even though emotions can feel like they are getting “out of control.”

But I’m not safe enough to do that yet. My life has been controlled by people who have hurt me since the day I was born. Most 15-year-olds have parents who have their best interests at heart, but I don’t. I’m on my own except for God.

I want to be able to take my life back. Praying is giving me back some of my feelings. I like having my feelings because I want to be honest with myself and others. I will never learn to deal with problems if I’m not mentally present for them. I don’t want to keep dissociating because it’s a safety blanket, a fantasy, and I’d rather live the truth.

I don't want to keep dissociating because it's a safety blanket, a fantasy, and I'd rather live the truth.
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