Childhood trauma leaves scars. Children of poverty often bear even deeper scars. Not everyone subjected to physical and psychological assault in childhood comes through with heart and mind intact. But some do.
So could many more with proper help and affirmation.
This is the vitalizing message from Seattle’s Rebekah Demirel in her book “Nothing’s for Nothing.” An experienced healer, Demirel shares her journey from early loss and poverty to her found profession as counselor, acupuncturist and practitioner of Asian medicine. Her book is comprised of enticing biographical sketches interspersed with aperçus, insightful psychological observations from her learned hard-won vantage.
A kid from a poor family, she experienced humiliation. She wore a motley wardrobe of second-hand apparel. Because her home was a haven for a clowder of cats, she often smelled of feline pee. She felt ostracized. Yet her resilience and instinct for life provided strength to overcome parlous encounters in adolescence and young adulthood. She readily admits that being White and attractive by our measure of beauty gave her advantages. Still, she says, “Defensiveness has been a way of life for me.”
Psychiatrist Gabor Mate has been an inspiration. For years, Mate has been caring for street addicts in Vancouver, British Columbia. Demirel is sensitive to the plight of those chemically addicted. She had her own risky encounters with alcohol and drugs. She writes of alarming “drug dreams” where she’s back in a pattern of self-destruction. Demirel states, “maybe my dreams are showing me the frightening mess of how I used to live to give me a fresh perspective.”
Mate notes that all of his female patients had been sexually abused, as had a significant number of the men he has treated. Says Demirel: “Brain chemistry is altered, creating vulnerability to seek a substance or behavior that soothes pain … The wounds of invasion dehumanize most when we are sensitive young children. Children don’t know what sex is, but they do know when someone is hurting them.”
Trauma need not be stultifying or pathological. It can lead to growth and “profound realization.” Demirel advises that a skilled therapist can be helpful. Too, self-care can be pursued “like journaling and breathing exercises, to feel more peaceful and grounded.” She counsels that trauma can be soothed and even dissipated with various healthy approaches that can “untangle” knots of distress.
Demirel’s immersion in the practice of ancient Chinese medicine has generated her reverence for the philosophy of Taoism at the root of that healing tradition. “It encourages us to be like bamboo, bending and not breaking, while working to become more flexible and less rigid in our thinking and opinions.” She celebrates how insights of “folk medicine” are commingling with modern science and “how it’s possible for all practices of healing to combine and inform one another in harmony, giving us the best ways to care for body, mind, and spirit.”
Acutely aware of how devastating homelessness can be, Demirel asserts unequivocally that a place to call home is essential for anyone’s well-being. “Housing is healthcare. We all deserve a place to live.”
Demirel’s intelligent offering will reward all who venture into its pages.
Interview with Rebekah Demirel: Heartbreak then forgiveness
Longtime Seattle social worker, co-founder of the Pike Market Medical Clinic and Real Change contributing writer Joe Martin sat down with Rebekah Demirel to discuss her recently published memoir.
Joe Martin: You encountered difficulties when young. A broken family, chaotic household, lots of tension. Your mother left abruptly. You were 3 and brother, Michael, was 6.
Rebekah Demirel: Yes, those problems led me to believe I was inferior, an outcast. When a parent has problems, a child believes it’s their fault. Something they did wrong. Something wrong about them. Mom fled for her life. She tried to take me and Michael back, but that didn’t last. I would not see her again until I was 12, a long time for a child. I grieved and developed beliefs about myself and the world. I thought that anyone I might care about would eventually leave, so it’s not safe to love anybody. Eventually I had to work through all this.
JM: Your parents married young. Your mother came from a prosperous family on Prince Edward Island, Canada. For a long time she kept you from them.
RD: My father was poor. My mother’s father had been a doctor, her mother a society lady. They had servants. Mom’s marriage was a rebellion. It devastated her family. When the marriage ended, she found herself on the other side of Canada. Ashamed, Mom kept her children away from her distant family.
JM: You had two older siblings, Nora and David.
RD: I don’t know why there are so many years between us. Nora is 19 years older than me. David is 18 years older.
JM: You and Nora survived well. David was often in jail, an angry man who would kick in the front door and rage at your father. Michael was sexually abused by your father.
RD: Nora and I don’t recall being sexual abused. Although my father would refer to women inappropriately. I wonder if David suffered what Michael endured. Perhaps my dad was abused. He left his home at 15.
JM:You’ve forgiven your parents.
RD: Forgiveness happened. It’s some sort of grace. I grew up with my father. Despite his parental incompetence, I was more angry at Mom. She left and adapted to not having to care for children. At 15 I lived briefly with her. It didn’t work out. She was ill-prepared. She bragged about the great time she was having with no children around. Now I know she was defending her shame. She was broken by having had her little children taken. I can only imagine how difficult it was. Eventually my heart broke open for her.
JM: Michael has not fared well.
RD: There is more of a safety net in Canada. Michael has housing and welfare. He resides in downtown Vancouver and spends days walking and visiting the library. I don’t think he’s ever panhandled. He likes to read and write.
JM: Your life could have taken a dark turn.
RD: My life is checkered and so is my academic life. I was a homeless teen, drinking and drugging. I had been traumatized and suppressed my feelings. I’ve been lucky. I had a great social worker. I was looking for somebody to show me that I was OK. I didn’t know the right choices to make. He told me I was a good person. I got first aid training and experience as a paramedic. I am now an acupuncturist and clinical counselor. I give workshops. The trauma I’ve experienced has given me resilience. I’ve been able to heal. All emotions boil down to fear and the desire to be loved.
JM: You once converted to Catholicism.
RD: I’m more of a Taoist Catholic. My encounter with East Asian medicine was deeply spiritual. I am so connected to nature. At one time I needed a renewal. The beautiful Catholic rituals struck my heart. I felt it was a path that would help me, and it did.
JM: Your take on the homeless crisis?
RD: I left home at 13 and was homeless for years. Society must change. Everybody needs housing, but in Seattle places for poor people are disappearing.
JM: Did you support the now rescinded Head Tax?
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