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"Garbage Bag Suitcase: A Memoir" Book Review

          It took me less than 1 day to read this remarkably written memoir, not because it’s what I would consider an “easy read” but because I was captivated to the point of not being able to put the book down.

            Written by Shenandoah Chefalo, Garbage bag Suitcase offers a personal look into the life of one child – one small girl who faced abuse and neglect in her daily life – a life that was worth saving even though no one was there to step in and be a savior. In her memoir, Chefalo describes the intense trauma she suffered at the hands of those ordered to care for her by the people that she was supposed to love and trust most in this world.

            And after living in chaos and instability for 13 years, transferring her few belongings from place to place in a garbage bag that came to be known as her suitcase, she found the immense courage to make a choice – instead of remaining under the parental umbrella of addiction, abuse, and mental illness, Chefalo chose herself.

            Sadly, making life-altering choices usually come with a consequence or two. And in Chefalo’s case, she wound up in the foster care system. Lost and struggling with her identity, she writes of facing each new school, each new home with an underlying drive to make a way through her struggles, to become one of the 3% of foster children to go to college, and one of the 1% to graduate.

            In her memoir, Chefalo relays even more staggering statistics about the foster care system. She shares the mental and physical complexities that are common among children who have aged out of their foster homes with nowhere to go, no one to turn to as support. She reflects on her own struggles with lying , food, and relationship – how they weren’t just behaviors that needed to be “fixed” as our society proclaims, but how they were a way to stay alive and a way to reinvent herself, especially since her family and a broken system left her wondering who she even was.

            The inside glimpses she vulnerably shares in Garbage Bag Suitcase challenged me to look at my own children through a different lens. To understand the helplessness and fear that can still grip a child that has been through such trauma, who has been taken away from all that they’d known, as dysfunctional as it was, and placed with strangers – to see how one can walk away from the wreckage of it all and to make yet another choice, one of forgiveness… well, there aren’t words to describe the miracle of it all.

            In the second section of her book, Chefalo tackles her ideas of how to reform our current foster care system, changing it in ways that promise hope and success for many more children than the current statistics show. Personally, I have always felt that vigorous and constant early intervention services would be the best preventative measure for keeping children out of foster care, helping parents learn to parent in their own homes, bridging that gap and averting the formative years from being overlooked in our young children. Because, once a child gets to school, even if a teacher or administrator notice that something just “isn’t right” with a child, will they report it? Will anything be done? Will the child just be taken and traumatized further? Instead, Chefalo offers brilliant suggestions that are currently being tested and used in our country, offering children a better chance at life.

            And if one child is able to make the choice for themselves, and the choice for forgiveness, then this little girl’s story, with her garbage bag suitcase, will not have been in vain.

            To purchase this story for yourself, click here and follow Shenandoah's blog at http://garbagebagsuitcase.blogspot.com/

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When Sexual Abuse Returns

There are some articles that are easy to write and there are some articles that are easy to read. This, however, is not one of those articles. Chances are, if you’ve clicked on this post upon reading the title, you or someone you love has endured sexual abuse in some way, at some time. This is not the kind of topic that gets a million likes or shares, because the nature of it is so personal – so mortifying in its nature.

And yet, 1 in 4 children are sexually abused before they reach adulthood. Beyond that, every child is exposed to sexual content or contact with another child that has been abused. So when there is a controversial subject that affects every single one of our children, I would be doing a great disservice to you if I chose to take a more “comfortable” approach with my writing.

So, today I choose discomfort. Today, I am also choosing self-disclosure, as much of this topic has affected me, and my family, very personally. But if we’re being honest, it has probably affected you as well. And because of you, I am willing to go to the hard places today.

Shame

            When a child is sexually abused there are numerous feelings that may be attached to that child when he or she thinks of their trauma. Fear. Anger. Guilt. Hatred. Confusion. But the greatest feeling a child who has been sexually abused takes with them for years to come is the feeling of Shame.

            Why, you might ask, would shame be the most significant emotion associated with this form of abuse, especially once the child has been told that it wasn’t their fault?

            The answer may not be something you’re comfortable hearing, but it’s something that you need to know. Whether a child was abused one time or one thousand times, what was done to them wasn’t their fault. That child may even be able to wrap their head around that concept once they’re old enough… but the effects of that abuse are on-going. Behaviors like chronic masturbation, looking at pornography, perpetration, voyeurism, flashing or indecent exposure, engaging in sexual acts at a young age, questioning their sexuality, fecal smearing, problems urinating, bedwetting, seductive play with dolls/stuffed animals/or while playing “house” or “doctor”, self-harm, eating disorders, trouble sleeping, depression….

            Do any of these behaviors have a positive connotation with them? No. Not one. Often times, when we raise a child that experiences these behaviors, we talk to them about what actions are deemed “inappropriate” or “wrong”. And yet, the abused child continues to feel the urge to do these inappropriate and wrong things. The compulsion is so strong that it cannot be helped. So, our children are then given consequences for their “defiance”. Moreover, it then becomes reinforced with the child that their current behavior is more important than their past abuse.

            They may realize that they were not responsible for their initial trauma, yes. But they do feel the full weight of Shame over the obsessions, curiosity, and impulsive actions they experience daily since they were abused. They feel the shame of being considered “inappropriate”, “wrong”, and “defiant”. They question what is wrong with them and take on the full blame of their behaviors – behaviors that would not have been there had someone not violated their little bodies in the first place.

            I have two children that my husband and I fostered and then adopted. We were given very little information about their pasts when they came to live with us, and as time has gone by, they've been able to share more and more glimpses into their old lives – depicting horrible atrocities that would break your heart into a million pieces. And often times, their behaviors are a direct response to the pasts they were dealt.

            And yet I, not having been fostered or adopted, growing up in a safe home, still found myself on the receiving end of abuse from someone outside of my family. I know the feeling of Shame very well, and I can recognize it when I look into my children’s eyes. And even still, I have given out consequences. I have yelled. I have caused further shame by letting my own reactions get the better of me.

            Do you wonder why your child will take a lie to their grave? The answer is once again, Shame. It feels better to lie and not admit to behaviors that you’re ashamed of, to forget that the past ever happened and to refuse acknowledgment that the sexual abuse has, in a sense, returned through your actions.

            And what’s worse is that our culture reinforces sexual trauma on a daily basis. There are countless commercials, television shows, movies, internet clips, radio stations, magazines, posters, bill boards, and everyday people on the streets that promote the body as a sexual image. For 1 in 4 children, those are daily triggers that violate them over and over again as they face the fact that their bodies are nothing more than objects used to gratify someone else’s desires. For 1 in 4 children, these triggers are reminders of their learned powerlessness over their bodies, over sex, and over the ability to say “No”.

            In a society where we spend more time promoting political correctness that we are willing to expose our traumatized children to cities where it’s become legal to walk around topless, to dressing rooms used for males/females/or whatever gender one identifies with, to ads in search engines popping up to display the latest reality star’s see-through outfit….  We, as a culture, have not only allowed our children, our sisters, our wives, our mothers, and our girlfriends to feel powerless, but we’ve reinforced that the shame they’ve held onto means nothing to the world as a whole.

Where Do We Go From Here

            Perhaps you’re wondering where to start… where do we go from here? If you have a child or a loved one that has experienced sexual abuse, you are dealing with a fragile creature that will do whatever it takes to protect their secrets. And yet, you may also be dealing with someone who has become promiscuous or overly open about their past. What better way to take their shame and turn it into something that is now considered their “choice”, right?

            But either way, the hearts of these individuals are being held together by a string of lies, memories, and lack of power.  And what we need to do, what we have to do, is to love them in whatever form they come to us.

            My children were diagnosed with RAD – Reactive Attachment Disorder. It’s a difficult diagnosis that often overshadows other the abuse that they had to endure prior to coming to our home. It’s often easy to treat their behaviors under the guise of their diagnosis instead of the in light of their abuse. So, these are some things that you can do:

1)      Get your child into a therapist's office as soon as you can. Find a specialist that works with traumatized/abused children, and make sure you choose a therapist that your child feels comfortable with. (For example, your child may gravitate towards a male therapist if a man abused him or her… your child may also greatly fear a male therapist due abuse from a man. Each child is different and you need to make sure your child is comfortable. Even if that means you go into sessions with your child until the fear is gone.)

 

2)      Work to reverse the sense of Shame. Remind your child that their abuse was not their fault and that there is a reason for the feelings and impulses they still face to this day. We don’t use abuse as an excuse to engage in these actions, but we begin to remove the feeling of shame by acknowledging the role of the abuse in these behaviors.

 

3)      Teach boundaries. If your child or loved one is expected to interact with the people around them, then enforcing positive boundaries is a must. Passing on “bad touch” is too often considered normal childhood behavior. But in reality, it is something that then transfers shame onto another child. And that is not something that we should accept as part of a normal childhood. Teach, Review, and Practice safe boundaries. Remind your child that they can say “No” to anything that makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Be an example of modesty and take an active stand against people, places, or groups that threaten the boundaries of your children.

 

4)      Remove sexual stigma. If your child has learned from an early age that their body is sexual, that may be the only way that they see themselves – the only purpose they see in their lives. Remind them that their bodies were created beautifully and perfectly. That there is a function for their bodies that goes far beyond sexual acts. That their purpose is internal and not external, and that they are judged not on their appearances, but how they treat others with love and respect.

 

5)      Empower. And most of all, remind your child that they have power. This may be a feeling that is so foreign to them that it is terrifying. Discuss dangerous situations, prepare them for unwanted advances, safeguard them against temptations. Because the safer they feel at home and in their everyday lives, the easier it will be for them to find the strength to say “No”, to run, or to tell someone their broken secrets – the easier it will be for them to heal.

 

If this article has impacted you in any way, please know that you are not alone in your struggle. You are not alone in your Shame. There is restoration and hope in Truth. There is love and acceptance to be found.

Isaiah 61:1-7 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners… to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair... Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance.

Picture by Chirag Rathod

Picture by Chirag Rathod


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