A Peek Into My Past

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post called “Are You Bailey?” In it, I stated an intension to start speaking more openly about my own history of child abuse. It’s my hope to start creating a safe space for all of us to discuss things like trauma and mental health openly. 

However, shortly after publishing that post, the work required to finish Mailboat V on schedule completely devoured my time and attention. And now, here I am a year later, finally returning to that original intention.

But something I’ve learned in the meantime is just how hard it actually is for me to talk about my own traumas—a fact that took me by surprise.

I don’t remember it being this hard.

“There’s Something You Should Know About Me…”

When I first emerged from my life of abuse, I was so messed up, that concealing my past wasn’t an option. I would do and say things that were so bizarre, my best option was simply to be honest.

“Oh, my God!” a friend once exclaimed as she scrolled her phone. “I just found a playlist of hits from the nineties.” She grinned at me, eyes twinkling. “Wanna take a stroll down memory lane?”

“Sure,” I said. “I’d love to know what was on the radio when I was a kid.”

My friend stared at me, slack-jawed. The longer she stared, the more she realized I was serious.

I shrugged. “I basically grew up under a rock. Things like radio and TV and movies were pretty heavily monitored. So, I literally don’t know what was popular when I was a kid.”

Her expression went from incomprehension to sympathy. “You poor thing!”

She and our other friends then rattled off a list of generation-defining movies, and I confirmed I’d never seen them.

She gripped the arms of her chair, a horrific thought crossing her mind. “Did you ever see The Lion King?”

I shook my head. “Nope.”

Turns out, them’s were fightin’ words.

That entire friend group immediately took it upon themselves to show me as many movies as possible, and the more likely they were to have been banned during my childhood, the higher they went on the list. From Jurassic Park to Gladiator to Fight Club to The Godfather, my friends gave me a proper cinematic education.

Rounding out that education, we also played a lot of Cards Against Humanity so I could finally quit embarrassing myself with unintended innuendos—a problem that had haunted me for years. When I say I grew up under a rock, I really mean it.

For some reason, being bluntly honest about my past never used to be that hard. But when I moved to Montana six years ago, I took it as an opportunity to start fresh. I didn’t want to be defined by my abuse. I wanted to know who I was aside from the abuse, if I was anything at all.

By then, I’d assimilated into modern American culture well enough that I no longer needed to explain a bunch of non-stop social oddities. And so, I only began to bring up my past when it felt particularly relevant. I now made friends who sometimes knew me for years before they ever heard my backstory—and that felt normal and nice.

Moving on was a good choice. I’d probably be content for that to remain the status quo, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m also an author, and I now have an ever-growing audience.

The topics of abuse, trauma, and mental health will always be central to me as a person, whether or not I choose to talk about them, and whether I choose to do so openly or through the lens of fiction.

But as my following grows, I find myself asking what I should be doing with the opportunity given to me. And I think about all the people still suffering from abuse and trauma, and the work we still need to do to normalize taking care of our mental health. And then the road before me is clear.

That doesn’t make it easy.

“It Didn’t Use to Be This Hard”

Last year in the winter, my brother Robert and I decided to bring a few members of the family together specifically to discuss our child abuse and get answers to some questions that were still unresolved. The family gathering consisted of me and my boyfriend Charles, my brother and his wife, and our aunt and uncle, who had worked hard to advocate for my brother and me when we were kids.

We each told our stories and compared notes. Our aunt and uncle learned more about what went on behind closed doors. They, in turn, explained things Robert and I were too little to know about, and things that had happened before we were even born. Our significant others, meanwhile, got a deeper understanding of why Robert and I sometimes have inexplicable reactions to odd things.

And my brother and I kept triggering forward repressed memories for each other—information our own brains had sequestered from us in a desperate bid to forget things that would have destroyed us even worse than we already were.

In fairness, we’ve been doing that for each other for a long time.

“Do you remember the time I tried to explain unconditional love to our mom and step-dad?” Robert asked me once in a phone call.

“Yes,” I said. “I remember their response, too.”

Robert got quiet. “You do?” Clearly, he didn’t. “What did they say?”

I could remember it like it was yesterday. As often happens with traumatic memories, I could remember bizarre little details, too, like the antique green chair my mother sat in, and the herringbone pattern in the brick hearth, where I liked to sit. I could remember the desperation on my teenage brother’s face as he begged his parents to simply love him.

Well, he’d asked for the memory. So I gave it to him. “They said they believed in tough love—that if someone in the family wasn’t living up to the standards, that person should be ostracized until they conformed.”

The other end of the line went silent for several moments. “No wonder I don’t remember that,” my brother finally said.

I wasn’t surprised. I couldn’t think of any clearer way for our parents to tell their son that his best efforts to please them were never good enough.

At my aunt and uncle’s house, I was shocked how freaking hard it was to talk about the things that had happened. When it was my turn to speak, I was trying to do so normally—and outwardly, I was probably pulling it off.

But the muscles in my shoulders and limbs were shaking and locking stiff. My heart was pounding. I was, in fact, hyperventilating—but I’ve done so much public speaking by now, I know how to hide that.

Charles was aware I wasn’t okay. (Because he’s awesome.) At the end of our family conversations, he’d hold me close and rub my stiff shoulders, trying to chase away the fight-or-flight response, trying to remind me that that was then, this is now, and the abuse is over.

“Talking about it didn’t use to be this hard,” I’d whisper into his shoulder.

I’m not sure what’s changed. All I know is that overcoming trauma is not a battle; it’s a war. Some days you gain ground. Other days, you lose it. Every day, you keep fighting—knowing that if you don’t, you will succumb to the darkness that has been trying all along to claim you.

My Safe Space

After our family weekend, it became apparent to me that talking about my traumas in a public format was going to be harder than I’d thought, and doing so was going to take practice.

Fortunately, the right opportunity presented itself. Through no intentional design, my Patreon page somehow organically evolved into my safe space to practice talking about trauma.

As I posted chapters from Mailboat V, the fans and I started having deep conversations about the story, and I began revealing the bits that came out of my own personal experiences—things that eventually evolved into Bailey’s experiences and Tommy’s experiences, etc.

It helped that my following on that platform was so small. We could have some really personal conversations, and I felt safe telling my story.

The fear, the triggers, and the involuntary trauma responses haven’t gone away. In one post, I explained how my do-or-die motivation to meet my deadline for Mailboat V was actually trauma-based. For the first time, I got specific with my fans about one of the most common, recurring abuses I endured at my mother’s hands: If I did something that displeased her, she would devote hours to enumerating a laundry list of things I’d done wrong, of ways I’d disappointed her.

Yes, hours. I know, because the only way I survived those one-sided conversations was by detaching from the current reality and watching the clock over her head.

While I described that experience to my Patrons, my vision narrowed. My body shook. My muscles tried to lock up. My heart pounded. My breath turned shallow and rapid.

My body was convinced the memories were the present reality.

But I pushed through.

Why?

Because trauma flourishes in the dark. The more I talk about it, the more I rob it of its power over me, through intentional desensitization; the more I rob it of its power over other people, through providing access to information.

If I Can Help One Person…

Yes, it’s my intention to speak more frequently and openly about abuse, trauma, and mental health.

But it’s going to be hard. I’m gradually working myself up to it. I know that Patreon is my safe space right now. The wider world probably isn’t. Sooner or later, someone somewhere will say something that will shake me down to my foundations again. Or someone might twist my words to use against me.

But I want to do it anyway. Because if I can help one person who’s experienced abuse or trauma, then everything I’ve ever been through will have been worth it.

I’ve already heard from many people who were helped by my books or by my few baby steps into speaking about abuse and trauma.

So, it’s already been worth it.

And so, I’m going to keep going.

You’re always welcome to ask me about my experiences, online or in-person at my events. You’re welcome to tell me about yours, as well. These are conversations I want to have.

In a future post, I’m hopeful to write some kind of summary of what exactly went on during my childhood.

But I’ve been trying for a year, and I’m still not sure how to do it.

“Well,” Robert said once, “if the author in the family doesn’t know how to put words around our experiences, I don’t feel so bad anymore.”

Accurate. So far, it’s been far easier to re-interpret my experiences as fiction.

But I’m going to keep trying. Thanks to all of you who are trying to listen. I appreciate you.

~ Danielle


Blue Pinwheels and Child Abuse

This week, my local county courthouse lawn was glittering with hundreds of small blue pinwheels. I assumed it was symbolic of something, but I wasn’t sure what.
I later found a story by one of our local news outlets explaining that the pinwheels are there to bring awareness to the fact that April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
My attention was caught. As you know, child abuse is a primary theme in my books, the Mailboat Suspense Series. And as I recently shared, I was myself emotionally abused as a child, into my adult years.
I love that it’s “Prevention” month and not “Awareness” month. The more I research broken families, foster care, etc., the more I ask what we can do to prevent children from ever being removed from their families in the first place.
In other words, what can we do to stop child abuse and neglect at home? What can we do to get help for the parents so that the children don’t have to suffer?
I know not every broken family situation can be saved. But speaking from my own experiences of childhood emotional abuse, I can’t help but believe that my life could have been markedly different if my mother had accepted the mental health options that were available to her. Instead, it somehow became more acceptable to ignore the problems than to address them.
That’s why, for me, the problem of child abuse begins with normalizing mental health care for adults. An unhappy parent cannot raise a happy child. An unbalanced parent cannot raise a well-balanced child.
But with proper mental health care, the future could be far brighter for both the adults and the children.
So… take care of your mental health, yo. If not for you, then for the kids in your life.
P.S., for more information on National Child Abuse Prevention Month, check out the resources at the Children’s Bureau, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And see if there are any events in your town where you can listen, learn, and/or volunteer.