The Key Word is Redemption: A Conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Garrison

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Every so often I read a book that sticks with me, makes me remember where I came from and reminds me of the resiliency of the human spirit. Wounds of the Father: A True Story of Child Abuse, Betrayal, and Redemption by Elizabeth Garrison is such a book. Elizabeth suffered unspeakable childhood abuse but what she focuses on in her book is her descent into drug and alcohol addiction and how she managed to save her own life against all odds. Her story is harrowing and was a tough read for me because it brought back memories of the way I treated myself as a consequence of the abuse I suffered. But like me and so many other survivors, Elizabeth found the courage to believe she was worth more than she had been led to believe and she fought for her recovery.

Dr. Elizabeth Garrison earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is now a researcher for the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.  Her story touched me so deeply that I had to know more and she was kind enough to answer some of my questions.

MM: One of the hardest areas for me to heal was the consequences of my behavior that rooted from the sexual abuse I suffered. Alcohol and drug use wasn’t a big issue for me as a teenager but promiscuity was. I was continually putting myself in dangerous situations with boys/men and I had no understanding of why I was doing it. It took a long time to see the connection to the sexual abuse. What advice do you have for people who are trying to make a connection between what happened to them as children and the choices they made as teens and continue to make as adults?

EG: I have to agree with you in that the most difficult area for me to heal was also in my relationships with men. For many years into my adulthood, I continued to choose men who were abusive in some form or fashion. I didn’t have any boundaries and I repeatedly engaged in sexual behavior that I wasn’t comfortable with.  For the longest time, I refused to look at this behavior and tried to pretend as if it didn’t bother me. I felt like if I admitted to struggling in my relationships with men and in my sexual behavior that I would be admitting that what had happened to me in my childhood had affected me. One of the only pieces of power that I had as a child was vowing that no matter what was done to my body, I would never let it hurt me. By acknowledging that I was making very poor choices in my sexual behavior as an adult, it felt like I was letting myself down and admitting that I had been affected by the sexual abuse in my childhood. It wasn’t until I could let go of the “wanting to beat” sexual abuse that I was really able to begin recovering from it and to start making better choices.

I think many women struggle with this same battle. We don’t want to look at our behavior as adults because it will lead us to having to look back into our childhood which is excruciatingly painful. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet another woman who struggles with promiscuity and poor sexual choices that doesn’t have some history of sexual abuse in their background. The only way to heal is to look at it head on. Even though we think we are functioning as autonomous adults, most times we are simply perpetuating the cycle of sexual abuse by continuing to abuse ourselves.

MM: In the book you talk about being in treatment and how hard it was for you to open up to others. You talked about your fear of what would happen if you let down your armor and not seeing how sharing your demons would make anything better. I think that’s a big roadblock for a lot of people struggling to find lasting recovery. Can you elaborate on the importance of being able to share our stories and what it does for healing?

EG: It was incredibly difficult for me to allow others to help me. However, I have found it so incredibly powerful to share my story because it has brought me out of isolation. I, like so many others, thought that my story was unique. I didn’t think anyone had ever felt like I had felt or done what I had done. I was so surprised and relieved to discover that I wasn’t alone. I think that’s where the power of sharing our truth lies. There’s something incredibly moving about connecting with someone else who has been where you’ve been. If I hadn’t opened up and began talking I would have spent my life thinking that I was crazy and believing so many of the lies that were told to me. Also, I’d never received any sort of validation from anyone close to me about how insane and painful my experiences as a child were. When I began talking about them, I received the validation that I hadn’t even been aware that I was looking for until I was given it. It brought me such peace.

MM: People in early recovery are often surprised when they discover that recovery is a lifelong process, not a specific destination. What can you tell me about what your process in terms of where you were then and where you are now?

EG: I have not done recovery perfectly. Like much of my life, it’s been a bumpy road. My book ends shortly before I was 19. I stayed sober for eight years, however, while in graduate school, I tricked myself into believing that I could successfully drink since my life had become so different. I believed that because I was a completely different person and had gone from a homeless teenager to a successful therapist earning her Ph.D. that I had entirely too much to live for to destroy myself again. I drank again and it didn’t take long before I started using drugs again. Thankfully, my relapse was short lived and my consequences were relatively small in comparison to those I’d had in the past. I knew where to go for help and I jumped headfirst back into the program. I’ve been there ever since and I plan to stay. I know that I can never successfully use chemicals of any sort. For me, success has been the biggest threat to my sobriety as odd as that may sound.

MM: At the end of your book, I found myself cheering and crying for you. I wanted to know what happened in between finding sobriety and the epilogue. Are you planning on writing more of your story?

EG: This is the most common question I get asked from people who have read my book. The journey between finding sobriety and the epilogue would necessitate another book. I couldn’t write it all in or the book would have been over 800 pages. I am writing more of my story. This time it is much more difficult because it gets at the emotional roots of why I set out to destroy myself in the first place and also some of the horrible choices I made as a sober person. It’s one thing to make destructive choices when you’re high, but it becomes much more shameful to admit that you’ve made really poor decisions from a sober vantage point as well. But stay tuned, there is more to come.


Purchase Wounds of the Father: A True Story of Child Abuse, Betrayal, and Redemption by Elizabeth Garrison

ElizabethGarrison.info

27 Comments on “The Key Word is Redemption: A Conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Garrison

  1. Elizabeth,

    I have a situation that I need your input on. I have raised my grandson, 13 yrs., almost since birth. His mother took him at 2-1/2 to 3 yrs. out of state. When I got him back, at 3 yrs., he began to say hateful things that his mother repeated to him, bite his nails, etc. As he got older (5 1/2 yrs.), I started taking him to a therapist and psychiatrist. He has been on and off meds, as they don’t seem to curb his anger.

    I know where this anger comes from. I have never told him the mean things his mother said and did. He needs a trauma therapist. I have had having a difficult, stressful time with my grandson…..his anger is directed towards me (72 yrs.) as he makes cuts and scratches on my car, furniture, and other household items. He also is disrespectful and abusive to me only.

    Please, can you direct me to a center that can help him? He has gained little from years of therapy.

    Thank you,
    Desperate, Littleton, CO

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    • My heart breaks for what you and your grandson are going through. I don’t think that Elizabeth is following this post any longer (the post was written back in April) so she won’t be able to reply to you directly here. You can try to contact her through her author website http://www.elizabethgarrison.info/.

      One thing she said in reply to another comment might be helpful – “My one piece of advice when it comes to therapists is to remember that you can shop around. Therapy is the most effective when there is a good match and sometimes it can take awhile to find that match.”

      I applaud everything you’re doing to help your grandson. God bless you!

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  2. Pingback: Interview at Mended Musings | The Project: Me by Judy

  3. I keep thinking how brave you are, Karen — to have read a book that moved you and then run with it, taking it to the next step by reaching out to Elizabeth. What a gift and such a rich experience to read this post.

    I’ve sat with it since you first posted. I’ve even struggled with it because my own coping strategies confused me.

    My response to ten years of abuse was different in that the torture I inflicted upon myself was to be “perfect.” I thought that if I was perfect then I would be okay despite everything that happened to me. I think I was running from the truth.

    A spent years telling my mother that I loved her in hopes that she’d stop the abuse. To do this meant to absorb all blame and responsibility for my abuse and her abandonment.

    My whole life my mother repeatedly told me I was crazy — in her words and behavior — and that my truth was untrue. I cannot fathom a mother doing this to their child. Choosing sickness over wellness. Sitting in it. Welcoming it.

    For whatever reasons, I resolved to never be like her. Weak. Complicent. Emotionally abusive.

    Unknowingly, I set out to be perfect. I exhausted myself trying. If I was perfect then I wouldn’t be my wretched mother.

    Perfection isn’t redemption. Perfection is just another form of pain and suffering and self-hell. So I cut the chord. Stopped repeating the lies. I don’t love my mother. She was a terrible mother for inviting that into our lives and allowing my stepfather to sexually abuse me. She chose to turn away and blame me with no accountability or apologies.

    I will never be perfect but I don’t have to be perfect to love myself. I don’t habe to be perfect to be free. I need to tell my story. To join other survivors and live a full, rich, whole life. With my whole story.

    Much love to you fabulous brave ladies. Thank you!

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    • Jessica, I’m a recovering perfectionist too. I was raised in an unhealthy environment and since open discussion was discouraged, I had to figure out the family rules for myself. That meant learning to keep secrets, burying my feelings and not drawing too much attention to myself. It became my goal to fly under the radar and not cause waves. But since I was a child reasoning with a child’s mind, I struggled to balance the family rules with social rules and school rules. On one hand, I hated taking risks and couldn’t bear to make mistakes. I got good grades, never had to ask for help and made friends. On the other hand, I was barely holding onto control. I used promiscuity as a way to get validation, obsessed over what people thought of me and I secretly thought a lot about dying.

      What ended up happening with me as an adult is that I became very fearful of taking risks that would show the “real” me. I thought that if anyone knew how I felt inside, they’d reject me. I was terrified of people thinking I was crazy. My perfectionism was all about controlling how I was perceived. It wasn’t until I started recovering from the abuse (and the aftermath) that I could see the lies and therefore begin to see myself differently. It sounds like you have found that place of personal truth and self-compassion too. Thank you so much for sharing yourself and your strong voice. I’m grateful for you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m grateful for you too. I’m always left with more to think about and process as I read other’s experiences.

        I’m fascinated with how we all found ways to survive and cope. Self-loathing was ever present for me and the governing voice to my striving to be perfect. It also kept me from being close to people. That felt incredibly risky. Being seen. I wanted to be invisible. Always overwhelmed with this inner story of, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to do this.” Whenever life felt like too much.

        Thanks again!

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        • One other thing I forgot to say – Elizabeth actually reached out to me and other bloggers to see if we’d be willing to support her memoir. I didn’t initiate it. After I read her book, I wanted to know more and she was generous enough to let me interview her. Thanks again, Jessica. I always feel like I learn so much from you.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much for the love, resource, Encouragement, empathy, support and just the feeling of “I am not alone.” I was sexually abused by my father, 1 cousin, 2 uncles, 1 grandfather, 1 aunt (all from age 5 to 12) and then raped by a “friend” at age 13. There is so much more that has happened since then like the diagnoses of my 2 sons with a terminal disease and 2 divorces. I am only 36 and finally stopped drinking 6 months ago. Alcohol was my primary way to cope. But I am still struggling with occasionally smoking pot.

    I have been seeing an amazing therapist and trying to process the traumas of my past, present and future. I also started college with the hopes to become a psychologist.

    Again…just thank you for your story. ♥

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing a piece of your truth. I’m glad that you’re seeing a therapist. My one piece of advice when it comes to therapists is to remember that you can shop around:) Therapy is the most effective when there is a good match and sometimes it can take awhile to find that match. Congratulations on going back to college!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As soon as I saw this post yesterday, I purchased Elizabeth’s book on kindle. I just finished reading it (in under 24 hours), and I am astounded at how many parallels exist in our lives. My addiction of choice was anorexia, and my anger was turned violently inward. After also defying the odds and coming out on the other side, I see God’s hand of protection at every turn. My struggle remains, however, reconciling myself with the memories of the faceless phantom-like demon who would come into my room at night to rape me (I was shocked that even your wording was so similar to my own). You stated toward the end of the book that you, at that point in recovery, couldn’t acknowledge what your father had done. At what point in your process have you been able to face it? Or have you? How have you dealt with the memories?

    Liked by 2 people

    • This is such a great question. Answering it completely and thoroughly would require another book:) Yes, I have been able to face it. I’ve spent just as much time in therapy as I have providing therapy:) There was a period of time in my life when I was obsessed with trying to fill in all of the gaps in my memory- almost as if I had to substantiate it in a way that would hold up in a court of law. But trauma as children just doesn’t work that way. Yes, I do know and accept that it was my father who came into my room at night. I’m also accepted that I probably won’t ever know everything that happened and that’s okay. Today, I believe it was God’s way of protecting me and sheltering me. One last point- the biggest way I have dealt with my past is in my relationship with God.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for your response. I think that I have been unwilling to accept it because I can’t fill in all the gaps, but we aren’t trying to substantiate our story for the law. I just want to heal. I pray that I can get to that place of acceptance as well.

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  6. My friend gave me this link because my best friend’s daughter was molested by a “family friend” 8 years ago. This is really helpful because I finally feel like I understand what she’s been going through (the daughter) as she struggles through her teenage years. It’s been hard to watch her get in and out of bad relatiionships and she’s barely old enough to have one. I just want to help her and guide her but I don’t know how. I don’t want to remind her of what happened but I know it’s the reason why she’s having such a hard time. Do you have any ideas of where to start?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Katharine,
      I’m glad you found this helpful. As far as your best friend’s daughter, the best thing you can do is love her no matter what poor choices she might be making. Let her know that you’re there for her. Even though you know why she is making the choices she’s making in regards to “men”, she isn’t aware of it and most likely will only push you away if you point it out to her. One thing you can do is to simply ask her how she thinks you could help her and be open to what she says. It might open up the conversation if she is the one to lead it there.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. What a tender read, Karen. Thank you to you both.

    “I think that’s where the power of sharing our truth lies. There’s something incredibly moving about connecting with someone else who has been where you’ve been.”

    The two sentences above resonated deeply with me. There is such isolation that comes in and through trauma, but connectedness breaks down those walls and allows us to heal with and through others. It is a scary thing to look at and into scars (it almost seems they’re Medusa-like and we’ll turn to stone), but it is walking over the coals of past hurts and violations that allow us to step forward toward Fullness.

    With heart,
    Dani

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I think I’m having an AHA moment about things I’ve always been ashamed about from when I was a teenager. It’s hard for me to even think about sometimes that the trouble I got into and the crap I did to myself feels worse than what my uncle did to me. It makes what he did seem like no big deal now I see how I never would’ve done those things to myself if he didn’t do what he did. Maybe it should be obvious but it wasn’t. Thank you for writing this book and I definitely need to read it.

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    • I very much relate to what you’re saying and the shame you’re describing. It’s not always obvious why we get in a cycle of hurting ourselves so it’s awesome that you made that connection! That’s a big “aha” moment and can lead to much healing and self-compassion. My best to you on your journey!

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    • You are not alone. I have yet to meet a single woman who engages in promiscuity and makes poor choices sexually who doesn’t have a hand print of abuse somewhere in her past. Not one.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Karen and Elizabeth,
    What a wonderful and valuable post this morning. Of all the beautiful lines and vulnerable sharing, this is the line that struck me: “The only way to heal is to look at it head on.”
    *Raises hand sheepishly. I’m terrible at that whole “head on” thing. In fact, when I read the title, a huge wave of guilt came over me. Elizabeth: You may remember that you reached out to me a few months ago. I still have your e-mail in my inbox waiting for me to reply – so many reasons that I haven’t yet. Thank you for your patience as I figure out how to challenge my own head-on issues.
    Karen: once again, you strike a chord that’s so important to way too many people. You helped me make some internal connections I hadn’t thought of – more to ruminate. In your gentle way, you feed me like a timid bird…I get closer to ‘something’ every day.
    Thanks to you both for painting such a poignant and authentic picture. I’m adding your book immediately to my reading list. xooxoxo

    Liked by 3 people

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