My Story of Overcoming Childhood Trauma

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There are a lot of misconceptions that exist about childhood trauma.

The first is that only certain types of children experience trauma. Children who come from poor families, or families who live in certain areas. Children whose parents smoke and drink and struggle with relationships. Children whose parents, as other judgmental adults may think, should never have become parents in the first place.

A second misconception is that you can always tell, just by looking at a child or teenager, that they have experienced trauma. The belief is that these children will act out. They will be rebellious, they will be the ones doing drugs, having sex, and causing problems in the classroom and at home.

And while both of these ideas could be true in some cases, the reality is that they will not be true in all cases.

Neither of these ideas comes close to capturing the reality of my story.

I was born to parents and a family who loved me more than anything else in the world. As the oldest grandchild on both sides of the family, I was doted upon and spoiled by everyone. I was a confident and creative child, who loved to dress up, sing, and perform for an audience.

When I gradually became more shy, withdrawn and quiet, it did not raise any alarm bells. Everyone simply thought that I was growing up and losing some of the excessive silliness of early childhood.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the true cause of the changes in me.

What makes childhood trauma so complex is that it is multifaceted and layered. There are often different layers of trauma and distress happening all at the same time, making it that much more difficult for survivors to unravel and understand what caused their trauma in the first place.

My story is no different.

When I was around four years old, I was molested. The abuse was committed by someone both I and my parents loved and trusted, and I never spoke a word about it to anyone until late into my teens.

The abuse fundamentally altered how I viewed myself, my body, and the world around me. And because I didn’t have the ability to speak out about what had happened, I wasn’t able to receive the support and protection I so desperately needed.

Trauma that takes place during the formative years of childhood is often referred to as Developmental Trauma. Because trauma has such profound impacts on a child’s brain, body, and relationships with others, when it takes place during their formative years this trauma can change the way a child will develop going forward. In other words, the trauma changed me on an almost cellular level. And it continued to change me long after the abuse had stopped.

When talking about trauma, people often talk in terms of “Big T” and “Little t” trauma. “Big T” traumas are big, obvious, and life-changing, such as physical or sexual abuse or the death of a loved one. “Little t” traumas are smaller, less dramatic, and often harder to pinpoint.

The molestation was a “Big T” trauma. But many “Small t” traumas also played a role in shaping my young being.

Before my birth, my father had spent several years deployed as an officer in the medical corps during the South African Border War. The experiences of the war left him deeply traumatised, and he returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder. However, at the time the men who had taken part in the war were expected to carry on with their lives, and speaking about any psychological damage caused by the war was frowned upon. He did not have the vocabulary or knowledge about mental health to explain what he was going through, and his struggles translated into anger and emotional volatility.

I always knew that he loved us deeply, and he was never psychically violent or abusive. However, his unresolved trauma led to mood swings and angry outbursts that created an environment in which I often felt emotionally unsafe and unsure as a young child.

This brings us to another misconception about trauma, namely that only children whose parents purposely and maliciously hurt them can be traumatised. This is not true. Even the most loving parents who try everything they can to raise their children well can sometimes hurt their children unintentionally.

And so, without him meaning to, my dad’s trauma impacted his family.

There are many more “Small t” traumas I could mention. My parents experienced financial difficulties at various times due to starting more than one business, which placed extreme pressure on their relationship and our family as a whole. When I was 13 our family moved from Johannesburg to a tiny town in the Free State. Leaving behind my friends and everything I knew at that age was extremely difficult for me, and it took several years for me to fully adapt to our new situation.

At the age of 15, I was diagnosed with PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome, a chronic metabolic hormone disorder that affected everything from my menstrual health to my weight, skin, and mental health. At the age of 15, a diagnosis like this feels like a death sentence. Managing this condition has been an ongoing struggle for the last 20 years of my life.

My teenage years were very difficult. I struggled with intense depression and anxiety. I hated my body, and at 16 I developed an obsession with exercise and being thin, which led to me developing bulimia. I battled bulimia and my body image issues well into my 20s.

I also struggled to make friends and feel that I fit in, and these feelings just compounded the belief that there was something wrong or broken about me.

At the age of 30, I was diagnosed with ADHD, and years of struggle and feeling different from those around me for no discernible reason was finally put into perspective. I cannot now imagine the effect that it would have had on my life if I had received this diagnosis at the age of 10. I once heard an analogy that being diagnosed as neurodivergent was the difference between thinking you were a strange horse, and knowing that you were a zebra. I believe that the constant feeling of being “weird”, an “outsider” or “wrong” that I carried around with me for my whole life could have been lessened if I had understood from a younger age why life felt so much more difficult for me.

Despite all of these traumas, I never acted out. Every painful thing that had happened to me was internalised. To the outside world, I was a “good” child. I have always been a natural student, and I excelled at school. I was always polite and respectful to the adults around me, never openly rebellious or defiant. I didn’t experiment with drugs or alcohol, and I had no boyfriends until I had almost finished high school. Unless you knew what to look for, there was nothing in my behaviour to give my family cause for concern. 

I firmly believe that this is another serious symptom of childhood trauma that is often carried into adult life by survivors. The belief that your challenges and pain must be managed in such a way that they never cause any inconvenience or distress to those around you.

Believing this, I silently drowned in depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and self-loathing for years before I was able to receive the support I needed.

None of these events happened in isolation, and many of them overlapped and had knock-on effects on each other. This makes speaking about them and understanding them that much harder. But that is the nature of childhood trauma. Because it affects every aspect of your development it can become difficult to separate who you are from your trauma.

It was only in my mid-twenties that I was able to begin recognising the effect that all of these events had on my mental and physical well-being and begin my healing process. The last 10 years of my life have been dedicated to healing and recovery. Healing has not been a linear process.

There has been a trial-and-error process of finding medication that worked for my depression and anxiety, as well as my ADHD. Finding the right combination of medications has been life-changing, as finding medication that helped to stabilise my moods has enabled me to focus on other parts of healing.

I have been to various therapists, and I have tried more than one type of therapy to teach me coping skills and, very importantly, teach me how to regulate my emotions in a healthy way.

I have learnt to cut out unhealthy and abusive relationships, and only surround myself with people who truly love and protect me. People who enable me to become more of myself rather than making me feel that I need to be less in order to be loved or accepted.

An important step in my healing journey was using my own experiences of trauma and hurt as a basis to create the H.E.L.P. – Four Stages for Supporting Traumatised Children Programme.

Because, if childhood trauma could have such a devastating effect on my mental and physical health, despite coming from a family who loved and cared for me, despite never going to bed hungry or cold, despite having the best opportunities and access to mental and physical health services, what would the effect be on children whose lives looked very different from mine?

Today I am happily married and a mother with two beautiful daughters. I have a Master’s Degree in Human Rights and a job that I am passionate about. Childhood trauma does not have to be a death sentence. It does not have to steal your potential. There is so much hope, no matter how old you are or what turns your life has taken.

Healing from childhood trauma is possible. Even if children do not have access to therapists or social workers, there are tangible steps that their caretakers can take to support and help them heal. Children are resilient and strong, but to heal they first need someone to recognise that they are hurting.

My goal in creating H.E.L.P. is to educate parents, family members, teachers, and community workers about childhood trauma. So that no child is missed, and every child who needs support and help can receive it.

If you are interested in learning more about our H.E.L.P. – Four Stages for Supporting Traumatised Children training programme, please reach out to HealingLeaves.

Marthé Kotze has an honours degree in Journalism as well as a Masters Degree in Multidisciplinary Human Rights. She has experience in broadcast journalism as well as in programme management in the NGO and mental health sector. Marthé has been involved in HealingLeaves projects from a young age, and officially joined the team in 2019.

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