Overcoming "Victimitis"

by David Pendlum

THRIVEnet Featured Story - Fall 2003

It is actually quite difficult to lay out any given step-by-step process of how I overcame what I like to call "victimitis." The nearest I can come to a "step-by-step" process is by analogy, the grieving/recovery process one goes through in losing a loved one. The process actually began at a very early age, and it took a few decades of life to truly make headway in moving from "victim" to "survivor." So, if I ramble in what follows, please forgive me.

First, there was the overwhelmingly deep, dark well of depression, sadness, grief, and the feeling that there was no light and there never would be light in my life. This step I would describe as being "in the throes" of victimhood, a vicious cycle of morbid sadness and intense anger at the world, and the constant feeling that "nobody loves me or cares, I am an outcast of the human race" that seemed to be non-ending. This is the predominant memory of my childhood years. When I reflect on my own experience, I surmise that most individuals go through a similar type process who are stigmatized by any event/circumstance that is beyond their control. I am thinking of individuals who are stigmatized because of their race, their religion, their dialect, an addiction, etc., etc. My reasoning stems from my very strong identity with minority groups; I feel much more comfort with and have a natural affinity towards non-Caucasian individuals, especially those of unique ethnic and cultural backgrounds, than my own "white" culture. When I reflect on the reason why, I think it probably relates to a deep sub-conscious identity with these individuals and their struggles -- by analogy, I have walked a mile in their shoes, so to speak.

I would have to say the second step for me was denial -- denial that I was born with a unique challenge, denial that I was different from others, denial that I didn't really fit in with the "in-crowd," in spite of endless taunts and mockery by children, and in some cases adults, when I was growing up. Part of the denial process involved the mental-emotional coping/survival process of rationalization. God blessed me with a good mind, and I put it to good use. By the time I reached grade 5, I had read every single book in the elementary school library, and the two librarians and teachers were lending me books from their personal libraries to read. Essentially, I denied my condition and survived the mental-emotional anguish of growing up with a very serious speech impediment and distorted facial features from a cleft palate by hiding myself in books.

I also should add that I grew up on a hill farm in Appalachia on the edge of Daniel Boone National Forest, and another escape for me was Mother Nature. While my siblings and neighbor children were learning the art of hunting, the same animals that would elude them were eating out of my hand because they knew I wouldn't harm them. That gave me a tremendous sense of joy. Yet another survival tool during this period--and throughout my recovery--was an unfailing faith in God that continues to this day. Today, I see my life a series of both small and large miracles, and I firmly believe that Divine Providence intervened repeatedly through the years to ensure I was in the right place at the right time.

Throughout this whole process was a cross-current of intense anger. I was angry at myself for having been born, I was angry at God for bringing me into the world with a physical handicap and for all the years of suffering the taunts and the jeers, the many surgeries to physically correct the birth anomaly, etc. The anger was by far the biggest hurdle for me to overcome in moving from victimhood to survivor. It wasn't until I got through Graduate School and came to work in Washington, DC for the Federal Government that I really made headway in anger management.

I owe a large debt of gratitude to a lady friend who came to work in my office shortly after I did, and I am certain the hand of God was involved here, as well. She is a survivor herself, and we immediately established a strong repertoire and became close friends. One thing true friends will do is tell you the truth you need to hear. She pointed out to me that I was creating my own state of misery by living out my life in "the rearview mirror." I was yet hanging onto my self-image as an "ugly ducking," and was using that as an excuse to stay nestled safely in the emotional cocoon of victimhood. This lady emphatically and repeatedly told me that she was not going to let me get away with the "poor me, ugly duckling" act anymore, and that is precisely the kick in the seat of the pants I needed. I sought and found a therapist who specializes in intense emotional trauma release work, and through this process I began to release 30 years of bottled up anger, fear, and sorrow. Through this process, I realized that I had internalized much of my grief feelings, which had been transformed into internalized anger--the light bulb message was, "I am not angry at others for their transgressions against me, I am angry at myself for choosing to internalize all the grief and anger that I felt as a result of those perceived wrongs."

It was during this self-healing process that I decided to take advantage of the latest advances in medical technology. I sought out and located a highly skilled medical team (oral surgeon, prosthodontist, and orthodontist), who laid out a reconstructive process (5-years in duration: March, 1991, to February, 1996) that totally corrected the physical anomaly. It was a painful process to go through, physically, mentally, and emotionally, but a very enriching one in that I came out on the other end feeling a "whole" person. Several individuals began encouraging me to write a book about my experience, but it never felt "right" to just focus the book on myself. Then, one morning in February 1999, I awoke from a vivid dream in which the entire outline for a book was laid out to me, and in the dream someone was speaking to me, telling me that I had to write this book. I got up, jotted down the outline, and began filling in the content. The experience of writing the book was a very enriching one. It really helped me reflect on what I had perceived for most of my life as "a curse," and to begin to view the whole experience as a tremendous blessing in disguise. I am a survivor, and I wouldn't change anything about my life experience today, because I truly believe God blessed me greatly by providing me a life challenge that was, figuratively speaking, a "trial by fire."

David Pendlum lives in Washington, DC, where he works as a senior government administrator. His book, written with co-author Cyril Svoboda, is: So, Who Do You Think You Are?: Face Your Wounds, Heal Them, and Change Your Life, Greenleaf Book Group, 2000.

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