TWIN VALLEY, Minn. — At 14 years old, Chloe Abraham has already survived more trauma than most people endure in a lifetime.
The bright, amiable teen was just 4 years old the first time she was sexually assaulted. She remembers a 12-year-old second cousin of hers, who was babysitting, holding a towel around her head and sitting her and her sisters all down on the couch. He threatened to kill them if they told anyone what he did.
Other details about what happened that day have been lost to time, she says: “It’s a little kid memory now; your brain just shuts it out.”
The memory of the second sexual assault she survived, however, “That one’s pretty vivid.”
Chloe was 10 years old when it happened. The abuser was a close family member, a person she loved and trusted.
Afraid that the truth would tear her family apart, Chloe kept it to herself. For two years, she told no one about what happened. She kept up appearances by getting straight A’s in school and acting how she thought she was supposed to act, she says. She avoided her abuser as best she could, but lived in constant fear of being left alone with him.
She says she tried to shut out the memory of the assault, to pretend it never happened. But the mental anguish soon manifested into physical problems. She started getting sick, for no reason that her mom or doctors could see. She’d break out in hives, get fevers, hyperventilate. No one really knew why, but they did recognize the signs of anxiety.
Chloe started seeing a therapist. That enabled her to process some thoughts about the first assault, as well as feelings about her beloved grandmother’s three-year battle with breast cancer, which started around the same time as the second assault and deeply affected her.
But Chloe stayed silent about the second assault. It wasn’t until her abuser struck again, this time with a failed attempt toward one of her sisters, that Chloe spoke out. She couldn’t stand the thought of her sister having to go through what she’d gone through.
With both Chloe and her sister’s experiences out in the open, the abuser confessed his crimes and was put into counseling, then prison, where he’ll be until 2023. Chloe, then 12 years old, was brought to the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center in Fargo, where she was put on a path to healing.
‘I am in such a better place’
One of her life mottos, she says, is to “prove people wrong.” It motivates her to be able to do things that people have said she can’t do. To overcome things that no one expects her to overcome.
The horror and heartbreak of Chloe’s past is still with her in the present, but she’s intent on moving forward. She has symptoms of anxiety as well as trauma-related post-traumatic stress disorder and slight obsessive compulsive disorder, and she’s been working with therapists to learn how to cope.
Just talking about it, she says, has made a big difference in how she feels. Revealing her abuse to her family, and seeing justice served to her abuser, were important beginning steps in her recovery.
“Mentally, I am in such a better place,” she says of herself now versus two years ago. “Talking about it and reporting it, and not being the only one that knows about it, is very helpful. It takes off a lot of the weight of keeping this secret.”
Chloe still wrestles with hypervigilance (a state of increased alertness that makes a person feel like there are hidden dangers around them), as well as flashbacks and nightmares about her abuse. She says those episodes, though, are becoming less frequent, and she’s learned how to manage them better when they do occur.
“Two years ago, if I had a flashback, I’d be lying in my bed for a week,” she says. “Whereas now, if I have a flashback, I can pull myself out of that and move on with my day. I can handle it better and process better.”
Her most frequent go-to coping mechanism is breathing. She does breathing exercises to calm herself, and has a soothing mental “safe place” she goes to, where she’s riding her horse down a trail in the fall. She can hear the leaves crunching, and smell the crisp air: “It’s crazy that the brain is able to do that,” she says. “It’s definitely useful.”
She also finds it useful to think about her grandmother, now passed away from breast cancer, who “was such a good role model for me because she was so strong and she stood up for the people she loved and the things she believed in,” Chloe says. “She fought as hard as she could.”
Chloe’s been fighting hard, too, meeting her demons head-on. She’s undergone multiple kinds of therapies, including keeping a trauma workbook, talk therapy, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR.
Rachel Stanislawski, a mental health practitioner at Northwestern Mental Health Center in Crookston who specializes in trauma-based care for adolescents, says EMDR “helps our brains reprocess and refile trauma memories ... so that painful memories lose their impact, the person becomes desensitized to them.”
“If telling my story helps people, or helps one person, feel like they’re not alone; or helps one person reach out for help, that’s enough for me. That’s plenty.”
— Chloe Abraham
Cognitive behavioral therapy, which is commonly used on children impacted by trauma, focuses on education, relaxation skills and connecting thoughts with feelings and behaviors: “It processes trauma through a trauma narrative that they (the patients) write and create, and then share with their caregivers,” Stanislawski says.
Trauma treatments sometimes involve the patient’s loved ones, too, she adds, especially in cases where the trauma happens within a family and creates secondary traumatic stress for those close to the patient.
‘You’re never alone’
Chloe’s family life has been complicated by the actions of her abuser, and it’s likely things will only get messier after he gets out of prison in a few years. She expects to see him sometimes at family gatherings and events — an uncomfortable scenario she’s trying to mentally prepare for now.
“I’m never going to be able to fully trust him again,” she says. “I can be around him without having a reaction, but we’re never going to be as close as we were before.”
She adds, “Hating people so much drains you, so being able to forgive him and be civil with him, and be able to go to events … with him there and not react in a bad way … I’m hoping, for the sake of my family (to be able to do those things).”
Born and raised in Twin Valley, Minn., Chloe is a freshman at Norman County East School. Her family resides on a rural property with some acreage outside of town, where they keep horses, a couple of dogs and some rabbits, along with the occasional cow or other random animal that they agree to take in for a while if no one else has the room.
It’s a big family that includes Chloe, her twin sister and six other siblings, and her mom and step-dad. It makes for a full house, especially in this COVID-19 pandemic era, when people are staying home more and most schools are closed or partially closed.
Chloe says distance learning has been a challenge for her, as she prefers a strong structure to her days, but she’s still excelling at her schoolwork. The pandemic has affected her involvement in sports, too, but it’s her health that’s been a bigger factor.
Doctors suspect Chloe has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disorder that affects connective tissue and, in her case, causes loose joints and joint pain. She had a surgery on her hip recently to address pain, she says, and, “they think I’ll probably need ankle surgery, too, because my ankles are so loose.”
She says she’ll be getting a genetic test this winter and then a formal diagnosis can be made.
Her doctor advised her to quit all sports because of her symptoms, but Chloe wouldn’t hear of it.
“I told him, ‘I’ll give you one,’” she says. She gave up volleyball, but is still in track and basketball.
Chloe has big dreams for her future after high school. She wants to get out and see the world, and plans to go to college on one of the U.S. coasts: “I’m either going to go all the way to New York, or way west — there’s no in-between,” she says.
She’s thinking about becoming a pediatric physician’s assistant, or maybe a teacher: “I just want to help kids, that’s the biggest thing. I want to change lives and help people.”
That hunger to help is the reason behind Chloe’s willingness to share her story.
“If telling my story helps people, or helps one person, feel like they’re not alone; or helps one person reach out for help, that’s enough for me,” she says. “That’s plenty. Because you’re never alone. For two years, I was the loneliest person in the world and I was surrounded by people. But I didn’t know that I wasn’t alone. There are so many support systems out there.”
More about trauma
Rachel Stanislawski, a mental health practitioner at Northwestern Mental Health Center in Crookston, describes traumatic stress as “our body’s response to an event, overwhelming our ability to cope.”
A traumatic experience can be anything from a natural disaster to sexual or physical abuse, from the loss of a loved one to living in poverty. It can be a one-time occurrence, multiple events, or an ongoing situation. Trauma varies from person to person, in that what one person finds traumatic, another may not.
There’s also secondary traumatic stress, which Stanislawski says “is seen a lot in people in helping professions, like first responders and frontline health care workers.”
A traumatic event doesn’t necessarily cause mental illness, but “a lot of traumatic events can develop into mental health disorders afterwards, and a lot of times they play into” disorders like anxiety, PTSD and addiction, making symptoms greater or more severe, she says: “It magnifies things.”
What are the symptoms?
People who have experienced trauma might display a wide range of behaviors. They commonly have trouble sleeping and experience nightmares. They may have flashbacks. They often exhibit symptoms similar to anxiety and depression, expressing feelings of worthlessness, loss of hope, negative thoughts, panic attacks and self-esteem issues. They may detach from other people, and engage in substance use.
Often, they have trouble regulating their emotions and get upset easily; they tend to be in an alert state and may show strong feelings of anger, fear, sadness and shame.
Kids and teens typically have trouble staying focused. They might develop a self-injury or eating disorder. Younger kids may reenact their trauma on other kids (such as a child who’s witnessed physical abuse throwing a punch at a classmate), while adults may put themselves back into high-risk situations, like returning to an abusive relationship, or show avoidance behaviors like not wanting to get into a car after an accident.
“Symptoms can occur right after the event, or years later,” Stanislawski says.
When a person has experienced multiple or ongoing traumatic experiences, those experiences can compound and make symptoms worse.
How to help
If you suspect someone you know has experienced or is experiencing traumatic stress, let them know you’re there for them if they want to talk, and that you’re still there for them even if they don’t.
Be patient; remember that the person is probably having difficulty regulating their emotions, and be mindful not to hold it against them when smaller things set them off. Let them know they’re valued, and that you care.
“I would encourage people not to pressure other people into talking about trauma,” Stanislawski says. “Ask the person how they’re feeling, how you can help; reassure them that you’re there for them no matter what. Above all else, it’s important to listen and hold space for them.”
Conversations about trauma “can be pretty intense,” she says, so be sure you’ve created the time and space for that kind of conversation, free from interruptions, before you approach someone to talk. And be ready to provide some resources they might find helpful.
“Offer to help them find a professional to help, even offer to go to the appointment with the person, if they want,” Stanislawski says. “Sometimes it’s OK to just say that you don’t have all the answers, but tell them you’re there for them, there to listen.”
“We tend to tiptoe around what to say, but it’s really more about hearing what they have to say,” she adds. “Don’t make it about yourself or your experiences, because everyone handles trauma differently. Remember that the experience is unique to the person.”
Another tip: Don’t question the details of a person’s story, or ask why they haven’t talked about their experience sooner -- that comes across as victim blaming.
With children, parents and teachers can help by providing a consistent routine so the child knows what to expect; that helps them feel more in control of their life and keeps them from being caught off guard.
Poems by Chloe Abraham
Hey I'm Chloe.
My words tend to be pretty flowy.
I am fourteen.
I try to never be mean to anyone.
I pretty much like everyone.
I live in a small town in rural Minnesota.
Where I've found it hard to dream big.
But that didn't stop me from being the odd one out like a fig.
I want to move to New York for college.
Some people tell me I need to acknowledge that my mom has 8 kids.
Oh I'm sorry I should probably say more basic stuff.
Like how I like cheeto puffs.
That I'm a twin.
I love the musical Hamilton written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
That my favorite animal is a panda.
As you can see I'm an open book.
You just have to be willing to take a look.
Don’t get me wrong I’ve been through plenty of trauma.
I just keep finding different ways to get along — a way I do is playing sports.
I’m not super short.
I have found a love for singing and writing.
When I get a new idea it's like lighting a piece of wood.
I sit here and think of all the different things I could do with it.
I love to question the world and ride horses.
And when I believe in something I'm a force to be reckoned with.
My pronouns are her/she.
This is me, Chloe!
— A spoken word poem by Chloe Abraham
My anxiety is a strange thing.
She creeps up on me when I’m getting ready to go somewhere.
And says nobody thinks you look good in that, not even you.
She says why even try, you know you’ll never look good enough.
My anxiety doesn’t like other people.
She says they’re just pretending to like you.
They’re probably making fun of you.
They’re only saying you’re good to make you feel better.
My anxiety thinks she knows best.
She tells me that I’m broken and that there's no fixing me.
She says you’ll never be worthy of love or any good thing.
She reminds me that no matter how long I study that I'll still fail.
My anxiety always thinks of the worst.
She asks what if your mom got in a car accident?
What if your best friend moves away and stops talking to you?
What if you get cancer or have a heart attack?
My anxiety loves to bring up the past.
She says “remember that one time in 4th grade when your zipper was down?”
How about in 7th grade when you failed that test?
How about that time you messed up one word in your solo that no one noticed?
My anxiety tells me that she’s the only one I can trust.
She asks who’s been with you since you were ten, me.
She tells me how she’ll never leave me or die like other people.
And how she will never lie to me or break a promise.
My anxiety gets mad when I don’t listen to her.
She makes it hard to breathe and makes my heart race.
She takes all my energy and happiness.
These terrible things she causes me are called panic attacks.
My anxiety is good at manipulating me.
She tells me these many lies and for some reason I believe her every time.
Even though I know she's lying to me.
Like I said before my anxiety is a strange thing.
— By Chloe Abraham