Welcome to The Learning Curve! A publication inspired by using my own privilege and allowing others with less of a voice to communicate their stories through me. Each month, readers vote on a theme that they want to be covered and would enjoy learning more about. Then, I set out to find people who are willing to share their personal stories with me and the rest of the Learning Curve community. October's topic is mental health and mental illness.
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**Note: Katherine Wells is a pseudonym used to help protect the woman speaking, whose abuser is still alive. Topics discussed in this article may be triggering for some readers**
The abuse started early. She confronted him when she was in her early 20s and he said nothing. No apology, no “I understand,” just nothing, she said. The post-traumatic stress still haunts her today.
Katherine Wells, 52, suffered sexual abuse from her godfather at the young age of 4-years-old. She was living with her godparents while her biological parents worked to raise money to send her to school.
“Even now, I don’t remember everything because my brain works hard to block those memories out,” she said. “Sometimes all I can do is speculate.”
What she does remember, however, is the authoritarian way her godfather ran the household. A former soldier in the Vietnam war, her godfather expected that she obey strict rules, or face strict punishment, she said.
“You know if you had a plate of food you were expected to eat all of it before taking a drink,” she said. “If you asked for seconds, you better be hungry because you must finish all of that as well.”
Wells’ punishments for disobeying consisted of kneeling on rice grains on the floor for not finishing her food, or getting whipped with a doubled-up belt, she said. Her godfather also made it a rule that if she wanted a snack later in the day, she would have to take a nap with him after lunch.
Even to this day, the sound of leather being hit against something can tear her to pieces, she said.
When her godfather was in a better mood, he would try to be playful with Wells; often chasing her around the home and tickling her. This is now another trigger she deals with.
“I can’t deal with tickling in any sense,” she said. “Now, with my own kids, if someone tries to tickle them, I would freak out because, in my head, tickling is a way for someone to touch them in places they do not want to be touched.”
Wells’ story takes a bit of a turn at age five when she moved back in with her parents and started Kindergarten. She describes her mother as emotionally detached—not expressing love or comfort to her children, leaving Wells with a feeling of further abandonment and nobody to talk to about her abuse, she said.
When Wells started school, she faced even more challenges. With two older, female cousins at the same school as her, she thought of them as role models because they looked out for her when she was getting bullied. The cousins, however, also took advantage of Wells sexually.
“When at home, they would pull me in their room and touch me or make me touch them,” Wells said. “’Oh, it’s not a big deal. We are experimenting,’ they ‘d say, but they always made sure that I did not tell anybody, so, obviously what they were doing was wrong.”
When Wells was in the second grade, she and her parents moved in with her grandparents in a small town in Louisiana. This was her safe space, she said.
“It was here that I learned how to develop a sense of peace, I felt love and I learned so much from my grandmother,” she said. “I don’t know that she was a prophet, but she acted like one. She knew so much, lived so much and saw so much.”
By age 12, however, Wells’ parents’ relationship had started to get toxic—resulting in screaming matches and her mother leaving. Her father refused to let Wells’ mother take their child with them. It was at this time that her godfather came back into her life.
Now with children of their own, her god parents asked her to come live with them to avoid family drama, she said. Her godfather had promised her a car and freedom, and she thought her life would be wonderful this time around, she said.
“My godmother attended church but it was not the kind I was accustomed to,” she said. “My godfather told me I could stay home with him on Sundays, and I did, but that came at a cost.”
Wells described herself as a very developed young woman, she said, looking 18-years-old when she was only 12. This caused her to get more attention from young men and she became curious about sex, having never been given the “birds and the bees” talk from anyone, she said.
She experimented with sex at a friend’s house and later became scared that she might be pregnant. She confided in her god mother who told her not to worry and that they would raise the child if she did become pregnant, she said. Even though Wells had asked her godmother to keep their conversation a secret, she told Wells’ godfather.
“My godfather started to rape me,” she said. “He told me he knew I was curious about sex, but that I could not enjoy it if it wasn’t with someone I loved. He always told me he was doing this because he loved me.”
Wells describes the situation as deceitful, damaging and she often wonders if he “loved” his own daughter as much as he “loved” her, she said, crying. She plans to talk to his daughter about the situation at some point, but probably not until he has passed, she said.
The PTSD caused by the abuse can throw Wells into a panic, even simple items can trigger her.
“He always laid a towel down on the bed,” she said. “That towel, or any towel now laying on a bed makes me sick. I get stiff, anxious and physically sick.”
Wells currently lives in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, and is a mother of four—two sons and two daughters. The abuse she suffered at such a young age has played a role in her romantic relationships, she said, now in her second marriage.
“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that you can’t keep marching along with PTSD,” she said. “It takes more understanding. It takes knowing their triggers and understanding how you may set them off.”
Wells admittedly lived in fear for a long time, never truly facing her trauma and letting it overflow into different aspects of her life. Now, though, she attends therapy regularly where she is practicing different breathing exercises and restoring self-esteem.
“We are really focusing on realizing the difference between imminent danger and danger that stems from a thought,” she said. “Obviously, if I am in true danger, then I need to get away from the situation. But, if I am not actually in danger, then I work on distracting myself from what is trying to enter my mind.”
Some of Wells’ triggers include overly authoritative people, especially men, towels draped on a bed or couch, tickling and being lied to, she said. Her therapist told her that each person expresses their PTSD in their own unique way—noting that hers often compiles and results in fits of rage or panic attacks.
She believes the therapy is helping, and is finally able to find peace in moments of her everyday life, she said. Her children are all very close to her and she credits them for her strength and values each of them as someone in her support system.
Advice from Wells on PTSD:
1. Notice the signs of abuse and make yourself knowledgeable; do your own research.
2. Really dig down deep. It hurts, she said, but you have to face the trauma in order to overcome it.
3. Learn the techniques to truly love yourself, even the damaged pieces.
If you or someone you know is ever in need of someone to talk to about PTSD, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is affiliated with Mental Health America. Trained volunteers are available 24/7 to offer support for people in distress, and to give information and referrals to people with PTSD (source). 800-273-8255