The most difficult part of recovering from trauma is trying to unlearn the warped rules of your childhood home.
In a healthy home, the adults nurture their children, keep them safe, and give them the emotional support they need to thrive. Growing up in our home, with parents who were in active addiction and were abusive, the adults fostered denial, fear, isolation, and trauma.
Trying To Play By The Rules
Unrealistic expectations for children are common in families with addiction and abuse. This was the case in our home. Our parents expected us to behave like adults from a very young age — not making too much noise, not making a mess, and otherwise not inconveniencing them. We were expected to meet their emotional and physical needs, rather than the other way around.
Our parents off-loaded the household chores to us as soon as they could, and turned us into emotional confidants — making us outlets for their emotional pain. They required ongoing demonstrations of loyalty, and their rules kept changing so that we could never successfully meet them. But when we fell short of their expectations, there was physical or emotional punishment.
This meant that we spent most of our childhood living in fear, and what was most frightening was never knowing what would get us into trouble.
All these dynamics were covered in a thick cloak of denial, with our parents gaslighting us, saying what a “close, warm, loving” family we were, rather than acknowledging that they were harsh, unreasonable, or had caused us any pain.
Putting On A Good Front
Looking back on their childhoods, survivors of trauma are often amazed that no one outside the family seemed to know what was going on in their home. This is extremely common. Anyone who met our parents would see them as highly intelligent, even charismatic. Many abusive people are. They are very good at putting on a front for someone else and then doing whatever they want behind closed doors.
Our parents didn’t berate or beat us in public, or in front of friends or extended family members. When we disclosed details of our childhood later in life, people typically responded, “I never knew.”
Trying To Be “Normal”
In our late 20s, we managed to break through the denial about the abuse we’d endured. We were both married and each had a young daughter. Our children were the driving force behind our desire to examine our upbringing, understand what had happened to us, and chart a healthier path forward. This was easier said than done.
Living with fear all our lives left us unable to trust ourselves to know how to be in the world. We’d spent most of our childhood trying to figure out how to avoid pain and being whoever or whatever we thought would keep us most safe. Now, we wanted to be “normal,” but realized that we didn’t know what that looked like.
How To Turn Your World Right-Side Up
We are now nearly 30 years into our healing journey and have come a long way from just hoping to be “normal.” We offer these tips for turning your own world right-side up after surviving childhood trauma:
- Read up on childhood trauma – Read everything that calls to you so that you can gain an intellectual understanding of what happened to you, and that it wasn’t your fault.
- Process your emotions – As you learn more, you’ll move through a range of emotions. Anger is likely to be one of the first. Fear that you’re irreparably damaged and will never be “okay” is also common. We recommend individual counseling and support groups, such as Al-Anon or ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics). These can help you process your emotions — to see that what you’re experiencing is normal, that you’re not crazy, and that many others before you have successfully healed from childhood trauma. And don’t be afraid to have a good cry, which can offer a quick release of pent-up fear, anger, and grief.
- Follow your intuition – Learning to trust yourself again is an important part of the healing process. The gaslighting that occurs in abusive homes leaves children second-guessing themselves continually. Listen to your inner voice and follow it. It will lead you to other avenues of healing, whether those are pursuits that will nurture you, or simply the sense that it’s time to rest for a while before pressing on.
- Be patient with yourself – As they told us in Al-Anon, “If it took you 30 years to get to this point, it will take you 30 years to unwind yourself.” But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself along the way.
- Attend to your spirit – Individuals recovering from trauma are often focused on the mental, emotional, and physical fallout of their childhoods. They may be less mindful of the spiritual wound that they’ve endured, as living in survival mode kept them from developing to their fullest potential. Remember, there’s no limit to how much you can learn and grow.
At its heart, the recovery process is about discovering and reclaiming all of who you were meant to be.
Ronni Tichenor has a PhD in sociology, specializing in family studies, from the University of Michigan. Jennie Weaver received her degree from the Vanderbilt School of Nursing and is a board-certified family nurse practitioner with over 25 years of experience in family practice and mental health. Their new book, Healing Begins with Us: Breaking the Cycle of Trauma and Abuse and Rebuilding the Sibling Bond (HeartWisdom LLC, April 5, 2022), shares their inspiring and hopeful story of healing from their painful upbringing. Learn more at ronnieandjennie.com.