Mandy Smith is the author of the new memoir Secrets in Big Sky Country. She is an advocate for the prevention of child abuse. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Q: Your book recounts many horrific events that happened to you as a child. How did writing this book affect you and your ability to move forward?
A: The process of writing a confessional memoir like this was cathartic, yet stressful. The shame kept rearing its ugly head and I wanted to put the memories back in the closet and continue keeping the secrets.
But, as I risked asking social workers, women’s studies professors, and other professionals to read my first draft, the validation I received was overwhelming. Over and over they told me, “You need to publish this—it will help so many people.”
That was instrumental in redirecting my focus. The book then was no longer about me. It had a purpose. Suddenly, I had a purpose--to reach other adults that had been sexually abused as children, and raise awareness in the larger community about protecting today’s children from sexual abuse.
Q: Do you think attitudes about child sexual abuse have changed since your own experiences, and if so, how?
A: Absolutely. When I was a child, there was little support for children [who were] sexually abused. Even if the adults around you knew, it was ignored and kept secret.
As an adult, I found out that familial sexual abuse was prevalent in my family, yet I had no idea as a kid. Child Protective Services--the agency created to investigate abuse cases--wasn’t created until the mid ‘70s. There were no school counselors.
I sat in isolation on the sidelines in elementary school crying--a lot. It annoyed the heck out of my teachers. They told me I’d better stop crying or no one would like me. Today, I still get extreme feelings of shame if I cry in front of anyone.
Today, we have Child Protection Services and child abuse intervention centers, but still, we need more. Thankfully we have some incredible child sexual abuse prevention organizations like Darkness to Light…
Q: You describe your experiences with PTSD. How did you realize you were suffering from PTSD, and what treatment helped you?
A: After reuniting with my daughter who had been stolen from me, which I write about in the book in a piece called “I Saw the Monster in My Daughter’s Face,” I began searching for answers about what it was that was grabbing me by the throat and dismantling my senses.
I realized then I’d been suffering PTSD symptoms most of my adult life. Seeing the man who fathered my baby, a violent rapist, in her face when we met, something I’d dreamed of for decades, made having a relationship with her at the time impossible.
I still struggle with it today. To this day, I can be riding in a car, and with no notice, I’ll feel like cars are smashing into me from all directions. (As you can imagine, it’s unnerving for the driver when I suddenly grab for my door handle or their arm to stop the car.)
Intimacy also triggered PTSD responses. My father’s face usually entered the picture and led to either panic or dissociation.
Anti-anxiety medication helped a lot until I built up a tolerance to it and had worse symptoms than ever. I went to a treatment center for two weeks to get them cleaned out of my system. It was really terrible to go through that, but I knew then I had to learn the tools to deal with PTSD without meds.
Besides exercise and working on improving my physical health, I credit writing as the key to treating my mental health. I blogged through my recovery, and I met wonderful people who also had trauma-related PTSD. Reaching out to others is key to healing.
Q: Have your family members read the book, and what do they think of it?
A: My husband and daughter have read my book, and they are very proud of me for having the courage to tell my story. They are victims of my childhood abuse, too, so they have been amazed at how far I’ve come. I don’t have much contact with other family members, so I don’t know if they’ve read the book.
Worrying about what family members will think prevents most people from writing this kind of memoir, but thankfully, I’ve reached a point that I know I can’t feel responsible for anyone else’s reaction. This is my truth, and it’s a story that I know can help other people.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have several writing projects that I’ve been eagerly waiting to start on-- another memoir, and also a children’s book.
I love the idea of showing how important animals can be in a child’s life. Animals have long been known as healers, even in camps for abused children—everything from horses to hamsters. Sometimes an animal is the only thing a child feels safe talking to. I’m a strong believer in children having a pet if they want one.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Yes! I’m thrilled to report that I have just taken the Darkness to Light training, and I am now an Authorized Stewards of Children facilitator. I will give training workshops to people in the community, professional organizations, etc., and I am very excited!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb