Amy Jo Claffey is a singer/songwriter, wife, soulmate, mom, author, hiker, student, teacher, daughter, and is joyful, weird, grateful, unique, geeky, badass, radical, and empathetic. She is a scholar with a definite thirst for knowledge about the human brain, avid mountain girl, stymied insomniac, dedicated nerd, and brilliant procrastinator. She tells part of her story in three posts, excerpted below.
I am Amy Jo Claffey – Tree Girl, and I write and play my original songs, speak, and sing to help those who are in the midst of trauma, or recovering from trauma in childhood. I experienced trauma firsthand at the hands of my father, who sexually abused me from before kindergarten until puberty. He trafficked me to other men and used me in child pornography. I’ve been to hell. I’ve looked evil in the face and survived. I have a lot of scars, but I’ve worked very hard on my healing, determined to give my brain the chance to recover, and give my inner child and my past the sacred honor they deserve. It has taken me years, but I am relatively sane, emphasis on the relatively. Not only that, but I am currently working on an album, and I’m releasing a four-song EP this summer. I’m also going on a concert tour of the Northwest to share my message of hope and recovery for all of us humans who have been touched by trauma; which is all of us.
If I ever write a book explaining the psychological/scientific side of the effects of trauma on the child’s brain during sexual abuse, the title will be “Kids Don’t Tell”. I didn’t tell my mom even though we had a very open and loving relationship. I didn’t tell her until I was in my 30s. There are so many reasons why kids don’t tell. For one, the abuser is usually a trusted family member or friend, and the child thinks they won’t be believed. (Tragically, many times if a child does come forward, she or he is not believed.) The child always thinks it is her or his fault. The child is embarrassed and ashamed. And the memories fade into repression in almost all cases. Also, the abuse happens in a weird bubble of terror. The next day, everything is normal. The child goes to school, the family interacts with the abuser like he’s really nice. He acts really nice to the child. The family may be dependent on the abuser for their livelihood, as in the case of a father or stepfather.
One February night when my mom had left for Bridge Club, my dad came into my bedroom and dragged me down the stairs. He paused at the front door to roughly shove on my winter coat and my rubber galoshes. I was six years old. I sat in the back seat of our white station wagon where I always sit and did what I always did: I watched the street lights go by rhythmically with terror gripping my heart, my limbs shaking with fear, and a sick pit of dread in my stomach. To this day I can’t drive under street lights without feeling panic, anger, and great sorrow. Street lights have become a trigger for me. A trigger is a conditioned response to a stimuli. You’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s dogs. He accidently conditioned some dogs he was testing by ringing a bell every time he was going to feed them. He was measuring their saliva, and he realized that when they heard a bell ring, whether food was present or not, they would salivate. This is how triggers are formed in the human brain as well. Most people are not afraid of street lights. Street lights are a neutral stimuli. But in my case, they were paired so often with the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse which was to follow, that they became a conditioned stimulus. My conditioned response was the physiological response the human body exhibits when we are in terror. Now that street lights are a conditioned stimulus, when I drive under street lights, I have a fear response. This is what we refer to in the vernacular as a “trigger”. And sadly, the conditioned fear response is the most resilient to being extinguished. All survivors could tell you this, even if they haven’t studied it.