Why Dig Into The Past?
An abuse survivor's perspective by Terry "GhostWolf" Davidson
Many times, abuse survivors are told by well-meaning, but ill-informed people, "Why dig into the past? It's over, get on with your life."
"Some kinds of abuse are like scratches; a simple cleansing and a bandaid are all that's needed. Other kinds of abuse are like a compound fracture; the damage can be healed only if immediate treatment is afforded. If not, bones, tendons, and muscles do not set properly - and even if the injury looks healed from the outside, the damage is still there, causing discomfort and even crippling pain years later. One does not apply a "bandaid" to that kind of injury; instead, the damaged leg (metaphorically speaking) must be rebroken and reset so that it may heal properly.
In many cases, the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical injuries resulting from abuse are untreated compound fractures that never healed properly. To illustrate my point, here's an example of an "injury" that I'm still working on healing:
--Guilt. Guilt that did not and could not be resolved until I dug into the past. Yes, it IS good that the child and adult in you talk. Some of the best breakthroughs and recovery I've had are the result of really looking at who I was as a child, of looking at what I really felt then, and how that has shaped my life. The two are inextricably linked.
Could you please explain to me more about how the two, child and adult, are linked? How did you experience this?
This part got my special attention because it's what I am working on right now. I have confusing feelings towards my parents. My biological mom told me not to dig into the past. I believe she feared that what I would discover would cause me to despise and hate her. I wanted to know what happened. But I didn't know why I want to know it. It almost started to become an obsession.
I believe that in many, if not most cases, those who vehemently demand that we not dig into the past, fear what we may find. Like my own genetic mother, their self-esteem is already low due to the shame and guilt they bear for past misdeeds and abuse, and they are not in a place where they can face it again or deal with it.
My mother's hold on reality is shaky at best and it wouldn't take much to push her over the edge. She was very aware of what she had done and feared what I would remember and what I might uncover. I had no desire to push her over that edge and spent much of my time when talking to her reassuring her that I do not hate her, that all I seek is information, answers to gaps in information I have. As time went on, it became easier each time to talk to her about the past. She learned that I wouldn't attack or condemn her and because I listened to her, she found out that sharing her own horrors and feelings with her son - one of her victims - me, was healing for her. She had kept it locked inside herself all these years.
It took my "digging into the past" to give her the key to unlocking her own experiences - to give her an outlet and some measure of peace, and give me answers to the horrors I experienced as a child. It took that "digging into the past" to give me peace, to decrease the guilt I've carried for so many years over my genetic father's death, a guilt that contributed directly to my becoming a "caretaker".
First, I'll describe what happened to create that guilt and how that guilt was compounded - using the metaphor, how the original compound fracture happened. Following that, I'll describe what "digging in the past" revealed about what happened - metaphorically, this is the resetting of the injury so that it may heal properly.
The Origin of the Guilt
Note: This section is written from the "pre-digging" perspective.
In late 1956, I asked my Dad to show me where he worked. I was six-and-a-half years old at the time. It was a very early Saturday morning when he took me to his workplace in the Mojave desert.
That part of the desert is well-known for very dense fog and we left just as it was starting to get light outside, driving through the fog. Halfway there, my father pulled off the road completely so he could smoke his pipe. He never drove while smoking it.
He was leaning against the left front fender of the car when a drunk driver came out of the fog from the other direction, slowed down a little bit, and then crossed over the line to hit us head on -- with my father sandwiched between the cars.
The drunk then backed up and stopped. I got out and ran to the front of the car - blood was everywhere. My father had been torn open from chest to crotch by the impact but he was still alive. I pulled him into my lap as he touched my face. I saw his heart beat twice. Then he was dead.
All during my childhood and teen years, I blamed myself for his death. After all, if I had not wanted to see where he worked, what he did, we would never have been on that road that morning, right? True, he could have been killed in a different accident, or died some other way, but he was there that morning because I wanted to see where he worked, and I had thrown a fit until he acceded to taking me.
Then in 1971, I got the first clue to what had really happened, but I didn't know it at the time. Art's mother had died and I inherited her journals. Art is my mother's biological father. Both Art and his mother were active - very active - in the cult that abused me and my siblings. In those journals was an account of how the members of the cult cast a "spell" to cause my fathers' death - one week before he died. Yeah, right? Being the skeptic that I am, I brushed that off as so much hocus-pocus and admittedly, one hell of a coincidence.
Then, in 1973, the guilt over my Dad's death was compounded dramatically. Like myself, my sister never forgot what was done to us and like me, she took the (unsuccessful) approach, "It's over, done with, get on with your life."
That approach doesn't stop the nightmares, dissociation, flashbacks or abreactions. It became so bad for her that she tried to drown the pain with alcohol and drugs. One evening in early 1973, she called me, pleading with me to come over to talk with her, be with her as she went through one particularly bad flashback. I brushed her off because I just did not want to take the time. I had no commitments that night, I could have gone, but didn't. She wrote a suicide note, then overdosed on drugs and alcohol.
Our legal guardians found her before she died and got her to the hospital in time to save her life. She was in a coma for several months and emerged from the coma blind, quadriplegic and brain-fried. That was in 1973. She's 43 years old now, still blind, still quadriplegic, with an IQ of less than 60.
In 1982, my ex-brother-in-law, who worked at the same company I did, wanted to talk to me about a very tumultuous relationship he was in with a married woman who was separated from her husband. I brushed him off too. Two hours later he was dead, murdered by the woman's estranged husband. More guilt. And this time, there was a flood of feelings and sensations going all the way back to that roadside in 1956. Two deaths, and one that might as well have been a death, all on my hands. Those three incidents (among other things) shaped what became my "caretaking" mode; an intense determination, in all honesty, an obsession, to make sure that no one who asked me for help got turned away.
Sounds noble, but it isn't. Caretaking is a very good way to avoid looking at one's own pains; to avoid dealing with and working through issues. (See Repercussions - Caretaking for more on caretaking.) I was in a closed loop with no way out.
Until I started reading asar...
As I read asar, I related to what others had experienced; the sense of "yeah, I know that feeling" and "yeah, I've been there, done that"; and with those feelings came memories. You know what that's like: you see a freshly-baked lemon-meringue pie, and all of a sudden, there's the memory of Grandma in the kitchen, beaming as she brings her blue-ribbon pie to the table. Things like that.
It took 2 years worth of asar to blow my denial right out of the water, to start healing those untreated injuries. And it started with me digging into the past to find out what really happened.
The Beginning of Healing
I started digging by talking to my genetic mother. I was taken away from her in 1960, and did not see her again until 1995. Even though I had regained voice contact with her in 1986 via the phone, she and I only acknowledged that she had abused me and that she was remorseful.
It wasn't until 1995 when I finally met her again face-to-face - that I started really digging and then asking other family members to confirm or disprove what my mother shared. My mother shared much (and validated much in the process) about my childhood. In particular, she provided information I did not have and did not know.
The cult had indeed performed a "black magic" blood ceremony that was supposed to result in my Dad's death; my mother provided some of my Dad's hair for that ceremony. That ritual was performed for the "benefit" of the cult's rank and file. They did not reveal to the rank and file what actually was done.
The high priestess, "Lilith", and one other cult member came down to the town where my sister, Peggy and I lived with my Dad and stepmother and spent several days tracking my Dad's activities. My mother supplied them with some information on his activities and information on the "town drunk" - which they used along with money and booze - to pay the drunk to "do them a favor."
So it was no accident and as more details were revealed, other things began to make sense to me.
After the drunk backed up, he got out of his car and walked up to us. I was trying to put my Dad back together. I can still feel the warmth and wetness of my Dad's blood and intestines and his heart as I tried so very damned hard to fix him, to save him. I looked up at the drunk, hoping he could help, but he was shaking his head, crying over and over again "I shouldn't have taken the money". I didn't know then what he was talking about and didn't find out until 1995.
The town drunk was the same man who approached me after school earlier that week of the accident, asking me if I liked "show and tell" in class, asking me what I shared. When I told him I had nothing neat to share, he mentioned that my Dad worked with explosives in the oil fields (my Dad was a part-time seismologist among other odd jobs), and wouldn't that be neat if my Dad would take me to show me where he worked and what he did.
The drunk was set up, I was set up, used by my genetic mother, grandfather, and great-grandmother. Lilith was at the funeral. My Dad was murdered. Those bastards used a child, used me to get to my Dad. I no longer feel guilty about my Dad's death. But I lived with that guilt for nearly 40 years. I still struggle with the guilt over my sister's suicide attempt and my ex-brother-in-law's murder. That guilt, however, has been greatly lessened by what I've learned by digging in the past.
So why dig into the past?
To heal. To recover. To uncover the truths that can eliminate the guilt and pain and shame that does not belong to us.
It's obvious now why my mother didn't want me digging into the past. She knew I would discover the truth, that she is to blame for so much of the hell I, and my siblings, had to endure. She knows that I know she is far more responsible for what happened to my sister than I am and she fears what I'll do with that knowledge. How is the "child" of then linked with the "adult" of now.
What the child experienced gave birth to the guilt and pain the adult carries - crippling guilt and pain that resulted in dysfunctional actions as an adult.
Digging into the past resulted in the here-and-now adult comprehending the truth, resulted in the awakening of compassion, belief, and love for the child-then - and for the adult self - now. It allowed me to finally grieve for the child I once was - for the child I was never allowed to be...
Staff, H. (2009, March 21). Why Dig Into The Past?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, November 29 from https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/articles/why-dig-into-the-past