A FEW MONTHS ago, I received an email from a stranger, a 55-year-old Irishman and father of four who has been living in the US for half his life. “I’d like to tell you my story,” he said.
In the past year I published Little Witness, my debut poetry collection drawn from my experiences growing up in an industrial school in the Irish midlands. Since then many people have approached me online or in person, asking me for advice on writing their own truths. Many others just wanted to share their childhood traumas.
“It might help me,” the man said.
"On Facebook it looks like I’ve handled my past well, but I’m not doing as good as it may look."
He knew I wasn’t a psychiatrist or a psychologist, he said—he’d been to many of them over the years. He merely wanted someone who, he thought, had walked a mile or two in his shoes to listen to his story.
Stories of abuse
The man, like me, had come from an abusive home and had spent years in an industrial school. In three tightly wrought emails, spaced out over a day, the man recounted horrific tales of abuse, much of it at the hands of his parents.
I wept as I read how he’d been stripped naked as a young boy for wetting the bed, and beaten with sticks a sibling had fetched from the ditches, peeled, “for a better sting effect”.
How he’d been frequently locked (again, naked) for hours in a dark turf shed. How he spent his first birthday in the hospital, “recovering from a fractured scull [sic], from falling off a gate, cough cough”. And there was worse.
The man was right—I could relate to much of his story. I had lived in a dysfunctional home with a violent alcoholic father and a woebegone mother for five years before I was admitted to the industrial school, and later, for 10 months when I was reunited with my parents at the age of seven. My 14 siblings were all reared in orphanages.
I’d seen my father take the white-handled breadknife to my mother’s throat before he raped her. I’d seen him plunge her head up and down in the teal water under the canal bridge as he threatened to drown her. I’d heard her screams on the far side of the bedroom door. I’d heard the crockery crashing to the flagstone floor. I’d been temporarily blinded from a head injury I’d suffered at the hands of my father.
Like many children, the man and I had been to hell and back in our own homes before we entered the gates of the industrial school.
The body keeps the score
In his third email to me, the man talked about his struggles with the psychological and physiological impacts of his childhood trauma. The latter in particular continues to cause him tremendous pain.
For years, his body has been turning on him, and doctors can’t figure out why. As trauma specialist and psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk states, “the body keeps the score”.
This was driven home to me this past year. After a run-of-the-mill stressful week, my whole body suddenly went numb. And I don’t mean metaphorically. I mean literally numb. Anaesthetised.
I couldn’t feel a thing in my arms, legs, feet, neck, face, etc. I prodded myself with a needle several times, even drawing blood. Nothing.
Dr Google had me up the wall, thinking I was having a stroke or was in the early stages of MS.
I found out later it was just my body keeping score.
One way of healing yourself from childhood trauma is to own your own story. I started owning my own story when I started writing poetry in the mid-1990s.
I found my voice in an introductory poetry course after hearing the professor recite Molly Peacock’s poem Say You Love Me, about an alcoholic father pinning his daughter into a chair and forcing her to say she loves him.
In the years that followed, I wrote poems about my own alcoholic father, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and life in the industrial school. Of course, there was the odd happy poem thrown in for good measure.
There’s an impulse in the trauma survivor to exorcise their demons first – you never have to wrack your brain for your childhood wounds – but for your own sanity, it’s best to create the space in your writing life to explore your positive experiences too. Believe me, they are there, even in the worst of childhoods. And never underestimate the power of humour.
Through my writing, I’ve gained a better understanding of who I am, where I came from and indeed how far I’ve come. Poetry helped me to stop running from myself. I also gained a better understanding of others. I became more empathetic, compassionate, and forgiving.
In sifting through the ashes of my past, I’ve grown stronger. There’s power in doing. It takes courage to shine a spotlight in the rat-infested recesses of your childhood.
Oprah Winfrey remarked in an interview a few years ago that:
"Every human being… is looking for one thing and that is to be validated, to be seen and to be heard."
She said that almost every interview she did on her show ended with someone asking, “is that OK?”
We are all looking to know, “Did you see me, did you hear me, and did what I say mean anything to you?”
This reminds me of something an Irish diplomat’s wife told me she overheard several years ago. Seamus Heaney was giving his first reading in the U.S. after his stroke. After he finished and was sitting down next to his wife, Marie, he leaned in and whispered to her, “Did they like me?” Even Nobel laureates need a little reassurance now and again.
After I read the man’s story, I told him: Yes, I see you, I hear you, and what you said means everything to me.
Connie Roberts has been selected for Exceptional Offaly Person of the Year Award at the Tullamore Show, which takes place on 14 August. She is the recipient of the Patrick Kavanagh Award and the Listowel Writers’ Week Poetry Collection Award.