Monday, September 22, 2008

Interview with an Abuse survivor/Novelist

Yesterday, I had the privilege of interviewing an author, Beth Fehlbaum, of a novel that was published this month. Talking with other survivors who have engaged actively in a healing process always inspires me. Each story is unique, and yet we each have some things in common as a result of our past abuse. I haven't met Beth face to face, but I recognize certain important things about her: she is a survivor, she is courageous enough to face deep pain, she cares about others, she is healing from trauma, she is humble and at the same time is busy learning that she has value and worth regardless of how sinfully a relative mistreated her in her childhood. I hope the interview inspires you in your own journey of healing.

Tanya: Why did you write a story whose main character (Ashley) has been abused emotionally, physically, and sexually?

Beth: Courage in Patience came about, in a way, as a therapeutic suggestion. I have been in counseling for almost four years, dealing with my experience of being sexually abused as a child. About two years in to the process, I had been writing short stories and poems as a way of processing my feelings. One day, my therapist suggested that I try writing a novel. Initially, I was writing it for myself-- and the story as it is did not take shape until about four months in, because it was not until I was able to pull myself out of my head and be an observer to someone else's experience that Ashley Nicole Asher, age fifteen, came into being.

Tanya: What hope do you wish to give other survivors of abuse through this book?

Beth: I want other people who are on the same road that I have been on to know that they are NOT crazy to have feelings like Ashley has, and that they are not alone in their struggle to heal. Above all, I want to give them hope that they can make it through the darkest days of being on the journey to recovery, and come far enough to be able to SEE how far they have come.

Tanya: The episodes in the book that describe Ashely's PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) panic attacks and her skill at disassociating from painful incidents are vivid and authentic. If one of my blog readers were to read your book and its realism "triggered" a PTSD or disassociation attack, what would you like her or him to know?

Beth: That is a great question, and one that I do not take lightly. I will be really honest with you-- I am protective of myself with respect to what I read and watch on TV and in the movies so that I am not triggered-- and I hope that other survivors will also be protective of themselves. I sincerely worried about the possibility of triggering other people when I decided to publish Courage in Patience. At the same time, it is Ashley's story, just as we all have our own stories, and I felt it was important to tell it so that the healing that takes place would be just as true. I would never, never want anyone to be triggered by what I wrote, though, and if it does have that affect, please know that I know where you are in your struggle, what you are dealing with.

Tanya: I love the structure of your novel. The first 1/4 gives us an intense introduction to how Ashley is being abused by her stepfather and the remaining 3/4 of the book immerse us in Ashely's beginning healing process and the healing process of other teens with an assortment of different painful life issues to face. You could have made the book 1/2 abuse and 1/2 recovery. Or you could have done 1/4 Ashley's abuse and 3/4 only about Ashley's recovery (without the other subplots involving the new adults and teens that entered her world). Talk to us a little bit about how the structure ties into the themes of the book.

Beth: In creating the sub-plots, I was guided by this idea: "Nobody gets out of this life without a scratch." Ashley spent her formative years living inside her own head, and becoming an expert at disconnecting at what is painful. It was important to me that Ashley be a witness to other people's struggles and pain, to see that courage comes in all forms, and that all of the victories are realized when the characters lived in the light of the truth. Thank you; I'm glad you liked the structure. I love each of those teenage characters as if they were my own children.

Tanya: Ashley has to deal with not only an abusive stepfather but also a mother who does not believe her when she reports the abuse. I know this happens frequently in real life. Can you share with my readers what you've learned about how someone can cope with this horrible situation of additional betrayal?

Beth: I've learned that it takes hard work, time, the guidance of a skilled therapist, the unconditional love I find in my support system of my husband and daughters.. and that there are days that it still hurts like hell.

Tanya: I was glad that you did not try to have Ashley wholly healed in the three month period of her healing journey that we read about. Healing is a rewarding but slow journey for abuse survivors. What encouragement would you share with readers who are currently stepping out of denial and seeking healing for their battered hearts? What would you say to the reader who has already spent years working through healing issues but still struggles sometimes?

Beth: I am glad you appreciated that there is not an altogether "happy" ending-- but rather a hopeful ending. And, I'm working on the sequel to Courage in Patience now- it's called Hope in Patience. I agree with you-- healing IS slow. For those just starting on the path, I would say, "Hold on for the ride of your life." My therapist described recovery from sexual abuse to me in a few ways. One was, "It's like a roller coaster." Another was, "It's like walking, barefoot, from Texas to Alaska and back again." And, "It's like a walk through hell." I think most people who have been working at it for a while would agree that it feels like all three of those at once sometimes, and other times just one. It's NOT easy. It should be undertaken with the guidance of a competent therapist. You may not stick with the first therapist you find. And your journey may have stops and starts. Mine did. It was only when my life came to a critical point that I undertook the task and did not look back.

A strong support system helps immeasurably. There are going to be times that you feel very alone. But you're not. And that's a big message I'm trying to send with this book. With regard to people who are still working through the pain and still struggle-- well, join the club. As Bev, Ashley's stepmom says, "The side effects of sexual abuse are kind of like chemotherapy. You're going to have good days and bad days."

Tanya: You address self-injury desires and suicidal thoughts in your novel. What would you like to say to my blog readers who struggle with one or both of these issues?

Beth: From what I have learned, the desire to injure yourself and the suicidal thoughts are quite common for people who were sexually abused. But you don't have to act on them. I cannot stress enough the importance of working with a competent mental health professional. Don't try to be your own brain surgeon. This is too important an effort to try to do it, armed with just a self-help book.

Tanya: Courage in Patience includes some ugly portraits of hypocritical, judgemental, and unkind Christians. It is such a travesty when any religion is twisted and misused to abuse others. It leaves deep scars. I enjoyed reading that ZZ's grandmother, who urges mature and compassionate responses to the horrors of racism, carried her Bible into a meeting populated by a misguided group of people being led by a corrupt preacher. Would you like to share something about how faith can be a help or a hinderance in journey of healing from abuse?

Beth: I don't really have much to say on the subject, other than that some of the worst advice I got when I was in my early 20s and trying to start to deal with my "stuff" was given me by a person in a counseling center run out of a church. The advice was "Count your blessings" and "Forgive your abuser." I had not even started to deal with this stuff and I was being told to forgive? Unlike a lot of people, I do NOT believe that forgiveness of the people who were supposed to love and protect a child but did not is necessary for healing to occur. So, I guess I would say, anyone who tries to make that kind of forgiveness into some kind of litmus test for who's going to heaven (or not)-- is twisting religious faith into a toxic thing.

Tanya: What tool has helped you the most so far in your own healing journey? Is it something that is included in the novel?

Beth: Writing has helped me the most, along with a very talented therapist who, along with my husband and daughters, make up what I call my ROCK.

Tanya: Near the end of the book a character says, "I think there are a lot of us [those who were sexually abused as a child] in the world, a lot more than people want to believe. Nobody wants to think that adults force sex on children." What final thoughts would you like to share with those who have carried the shame and fear of sexual abuse and incest?

Beth: Even though it may not seem like it right now, you are not alone.

Tanya: Indeed, you are not alone, Reader. No matter what type of abuse you have experienced or who abused you, you are not alone. Thank you, Beth, for your honest answers.

Readers, if you would like to read Courage in Patience or would like to learn more about the author visit her blog:

1 comment:

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Thanks for the interview! You asked great questions.

Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Ch. 1 & Book Trailer are online!

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