Thursday, September 26, 2013

Talking about immunity, or, How to help save a child or teen's life

In March, Madga Pescenye at AskMoxie wrote a lovely, and important, piece about helping our kids navigate the world -- "Let's talk about immunity," 

We talked about this piece a LOT in our house, over meals, during housework, sitting on the sofa talking.  And I realized I had something to write about immunity and my experience.  

Earlier in March, Magda had shared a letter she'd written to her sons (reprinted here with permission) about preventing rape.  In the letter, she wrote:

If it’s not safe... leave the room quietly and calmly and call me. I do not care if you’re someplace you’re not supposed to be, or not the place you told me you were, or in Canada or someplace that would normally get you in a lot of trouble. You get immunity if you’re calling for help. My phone is always on, and it does not matter what time of day or night it is. If I don’t pick up right away, call your dad, and the same immunity rules apply. Call one of us and give us the address of where you are and we will come help.

In "Let's talk about immunity," Madga wrote about an email a reader sent her about that letter:

She knew she could go home. I burst into tears reading that for so many reasons. Thinking about how scared she must have been, how worried her mother must have been, how lucky she was, how sad I am that the classmates tried to rape her and no one intervened, all of it.

But the takeaway for me is that she knew she could go home. That's what I want my boys to know, that they can ALWAYS call home and come home, and they can bring anyone who needs to be safe home here where there's always a hug and someone to listen to your story.

Tell me about a time you needed immunity, or got immunity, or gave immunity, please.

This is a story about a time I needed immunity and didn't have it, and the consequences.

This is surprisingly difficult to write.   In order to explain what happened from the perspective of my teenage self, I have to put myself back into that perspective, where I was as a teenager.  It's not a good place.  I also keep finding it's hard to know where to start. 

In theory, I always had immunity when I was a kid and teenager

My parents, my mother especially, made a really big deal out of how I could come to them with any problem, any trouble, and they'd help me; about how I knew I could call any time, day or night, and they would come get me, or take me for help, no questions asked.

But the reality was different.  In reality, I never, ever, had immunity. 

I was nearly always in trouble with my parents and getting punished.  The rules changed all the time, so there was no effective way to keep from getting punished.  Whenever I did bring my parents a problem, they blamed me for bringing it on myself, for getting myself in trouble.  They both blamed me for being bullied in school.  [Trigger warnings to the end of this paragraph.]  My father blamed me for provoking my mother's violence ("She wouldn't hit you if you didn't talk back").  My mother accused me of sleeping with my father.   

I always knew there would be hell to pay if I ever needed something like one of those unconditional safe rides that were so big when I was in high school.  I was supposed to "know better" than to get into those kinds of situations.  My parents said I could call -- that I had better never get myself into that kind of trouble, but that if I did, of course I could call. 

So I always knew that there were conditions, that there would be questions, and most of all, that I would get in huge amounts of trouble if I ever needed that kind of help.

I also knew that if I called for a safe ride, I couldn't count on whomever came arriving any time soon, or being safe to drive.  

If you can't call your parents, you're supposed to call someone else, right?  I knew I'd get in worse trouble if I called some other adult, because then I would have embarrassed my parents by calling someone else, and by letting someone else know I hadn't felt that I could call my parents. 

I had a lot of experience "being in big trouble" with my parents.  The consequences of a safe ride, or going to them or someone else if I was in trouble, were overwhelming.  "Punishment" in my family was terrifying.

I knew never to call my parents, or another adult.  

One night when I was 14, I got stuck between two impossible options: an unsafe situation I couldn't get out of without help, and an unsafe situation if I got in touch with my parents to get me out of it.

There was no way out.  

The guy I was with raped me, then helped me get back into my parents' house without them knowing.

When I was 17, I survived a series of rapes.  When I was 18, I got myself into a survivors' group at the local Rape Crisis Center.

That group saved my life.


I had been forced to leave college, and was living with my parents again.  I had to come up with a story about where I was going and why I needed the car for a couple of hours the same night every week.

Finally, I told them the truth.

My mother went on, and on, about how horrible it was that I hadn't trusted her, that I had never told her. 

Looking back at this story, from the perspective of an adult, and not that of a child being brainwashed every day, I see so many things.

I see parents who were abusing their child.  I see parents who were keeping their child isolated to decrease the chances anyone would find out, and to make sure she had no other sources of support, keeping her emotionally and physically dependent on them.  

I see that child abuse put my life in danger, first within my family, then outside it.  I nearly died that night.  But that wasn't the first time, or the last time.

I see how, when I was 14, my "choices" were protection from abusers by a rapist, or protection from a rapist by abusers. 

I see a classic example of how child abuse contributes to an increased risk of sexual assault. 

I see elements in the cascade of consequences that child abuse survivors live with for the rest of our lives.

I see how not having immunity put my life in danger.

Effective immunity could have made such a difference that night.  And not just that night, but for years to come, because the aftermath of rape is life-altering.  

For immunity, you need to know the person picking you up is safe to drive, ie, that they haven't been drinking or taking drugs, that they aren't too angry to drive safely.  I couldn't count on that.

You need to know the person you call for a ride will arrive in a reasonable amount of time.  I couldn't count on that.  

You need to know the adults who are responsible for you won't abuse you because you needed immunity or a saferide.  I couldn't count on that.

Even when kids and teens really, truly can trust their parents or guardians, they are often still afraid of disappointing them.  This is one of those places where having another trusted adult to go to can make such a huge difference. 

I've been very privileged to be able to act as that other adult a few times over the last few decades.  I'm really glad.  It's a privilege.  I'm honored by that trust.  And it's nice to help that happen for someone else. 

Why am I telling you all of this?  There are two things I want you, as you're reading this, to take away from what happened to me:

  • How child abuse puts survivors at risk of sexual assault, abuse, and exploitation.  Some of these ways might never have occurred to you, even if you're well-educated in the effects of child abuse and trauma. 
  • How effective immunity can save someone's life.  Again, some of these ways might not have occurred to you.  

I was really struck, in the comments at Magda's original post, by the parents with kids who can still call their parents for a ride if they need it, no questions asked -- for example, if they've had too much to drink to drive safely.  That's fabulous.

May you, and may the young people in your life, always have immunity.  Always have a sanctuary, someplace.


Maggie said...

I wish I knew what to say here. Except: Thanks for posting this. Thanks for getting the word out about the intersections of child abuse and exposure to other abuses as a direct result.

What you're saying here makes me SO grateful for the gift of a ride, on New Year's Day morning, from my mother who was serene and patient and didn't ask me anything except 'what help would you like right now?'


Morgan said...

Yay, Maggie's mom.

Also, {{{Maggie}}}.