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