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Recognizing the scars of abuse

I hate being right. We should of course start at the beginning, but the point is that I saw something today that made it very clear that a person close to me had been abused. No one else saw it, but I knew and afterwards a discussion in private made me realize that those scars aren’t always obvious to others who don’t know what they are seeing. But I knew, because I lived that too. I hate that there are so many of us out there, it makes me so fucking angry.

I am a mentor, it’s probably one of my favorite jobs to do. I literally get to help shape a person’s career, so I take that very, incredibly, probably overly, serious. I don’t have any power in my position, but I would fight tooth and nail for the people I mentor if something happened to them while they were under my care and I have. So when I say I want to see the people I mentor succeed, I make sure I do everything in my power to help them accomplish whatever it is they want to accomplish (like in this post). Today is another example of why I need, not just want, to take my job as a mentor very seriously.

The story starts like this, over the summer my Co-PI has taken on two new early career (possible) researchers. It’s exciting, everyone loves it, they are awesome. One is a junior in undergrad and is about to apply to PhD/MD programs or possibly just MD programs. She’s fun, super motivated and is working with the postdoc in our lab to do some cool experiments over the summer. We all work together so I see her a lot, but she has her own mentor and project for the summer.

The second student I was asked to take on. I was excited (and still am) to get my summer intern. She is fresh out of high school, like seriously just started a community college program and isn’t sure what she wants to do with herself. I’m thrilled to work with her because the program is incredibly competitive, as in we’ve had med school students for summer interns competitive, yet here she is! It’s awesome and pretty freaking inspiring to see someone who’s barely 18 have herself together enough to find the program and to get into the program.

The problems started shortly after we brought her on. I found her crying and she said she didn’t think she belonged here. She felt like she couldn’t do it, others had their lives figured out, she was just a community college student among pre-meds who attend big colleges and are doing big things! She said she felt stupid. Let’s face it, I feel that way all the time as it is and I know plenty of others can relate, so no harm there. After a long conversation, one I did not share here because so much has been going on, I explained that it is overwhelming for sure! I then reminded her that she was picked to be here because she was a better candidate than someone more senior. We ended on a good note and I just found out today from our other intern that my intern confided to her that she felt lucky to have me as a mentor. Yep, I’m once again a proud mentor.

That isn’t the end of the story though. Today we had an experiment that she was participating in. Things started going bad quickly and they just got worse as we went on so we ended the experiment and the three of us who work in the lab split from the interns and spoke with the lab PI (my Co-PI) about it. That’s when I realized I saw something no one else did and it was only obvious to me because of my background.

I’m an abuse survivor. Those scars never go away and the coping mechanisms are strangely similar across people who have had similar history. So when I saw the look in her face and the way she was acting while others in the lab took it as her being angry or rude, I saw someone hurting inside. I explained to the group what I saw after hearing from the others about what they thought and was shocked no one else caught it. It was so incredibly obvious to me that I had expected the others to pick up on it, but I guess you just have to come from that background to catch it.

Well I went back to my intern and had a talk with her. I explained that I came from an abusive home growing up, that I wasn’t trying to suggest that was what happened to her, but that if she had and needed someone to talk to that I would be happy to listen. She confided in me that I was correct and we talked about some personal things that I will not be sharing here even though this is all pretty anonymous anyway. She was surprisingly open with me about it and before I even finished the, “I came from an abusive family” part of my story, she was already telling me she had too.

The lab had a talk about her not working out with the program because she didn’t seem to want to be there. The issue was to the rest of the lab it looked like she hated the work, when really there was other things in play. I still have a good feeling about her and I suspect she’s going to do great things with her life. My job is just to make sure she knows those roads are open to her if she wants to take them. She will probably never know how close she was to being asked to leave because of a misunderstanding and that is fine by me.

It’s late, I’m tired, and I’m heartbroken that there are so many of us out there we can just come across each other at random like this. I’m thankful that I get to be her mentor and that I saw what was going on before my well meaning lab members did something that could potentially make her issues worse. I think by the end of summer she’ll open up a bit more and have fun with us, she’s just being shy at the moment and she’s just generally uncertain about her place here and us in general.

I wouldn’t be sharing this story if this was an isolated thing, but it’s not. There are countless people who have the same types of trauma response. She was lucky that I could recognize it for what it was, but there are others who may not be so lucky. I’m only one person after all. My advice to anyone who mentors is simple. Know some of the common coping mechanisms for abuse. You don’t (and typically shouldn’t) approach a person who you suspect has been abused and ask outright, but knowing that someone is coping instead of being miserable may completely change the course of their life.

I don’t know what she will do in the future, but as long as down the road she can look back fondly at the summer she’s had with us, I’ve succeeded. The point is not to value the person for their potential, it’s to simply value the person. She’s a person, she was hurting and I saw it. That’s the post, I saw her and let her know I saw her. Because like I’ve said there’s nothing worse than feeling alone. Today she didn’t have to feel so alone.

I’m a proud mentor.


4 responses

  1. I am proud of you as well! Thank you for sharing and thank you for taking time to listen to your student. The world definitely needs more of actions such as this.

    Liked by 1 person

    June 25, 2021 at 8:42 pm

  2. Wren

    Man, I wish I had you as a mentor. I was exactly like your mentee last year, and I’m so glad she has a mentor like you who can make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to her. I felt very alone in my past lab because I was surrounded by people who were very privileged, who very clearly came from happy homes, whereas I was literally still being abused by my mother, who was dying of cancer. Eventually they flat out told me they weren’t going to help me get into a PhD because I was ‘too emotional’ and they didn’t think I actually wanted to be there no matter how much I said otherwise.

    It’s heartbreaking, because I’ve now moved out and my mother died and I’m FREE, but I feel like I’m forever going to be put at a disadvantage because I have this invisible history of abuse and trauma that people who weren’t abused think is just personal failings.

    Liked by 1 person

    June 25, 2021 at 8:56 pm

    • Wow, thank you for sharing your story and I’m so sorry that happened to you. Everyone is different, but… I wish I could tell you it gets better with time. I don’t think it does though, it just goes from being a big ball of pain in your chest to something slightly more spread out. The trauma still hurts just as much, but it isn’t as sharp. You’ll find your way. It won’t be easy, or at least it wasn’t for me, but there are people out there who care and will help you. I’m only here doing this because I was lucky enough to find people like that, so I try to pay it forward.

      Speaking of which, I’m not sure if you’re still looking for a PhD program, but if you are and the field is similar to mine (and even if it isn’t) I would be happy to help you any way I can! Just use the contact us page of my blog. No pressure, I just wanted to offer.


      June 26, 2021 at 10:06 am

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