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The effects of child abuse can linger a lifetime. Decades after the trauma, many people still have trouble talking about what happened to them, says a Sebastopol woman who has created a new 12-Step program to help adult victims in their recovery. El Chess said she endured severe abuse as the child of parents she described as mentally ill.

“They were both violent, brilliant sociopaths,” she said. Her father was a mechanical engineer, her mother a housewife and Columbia University dropout.

And yet, even at 71 and after years of therapy and spiritual work, Chess feels the lingering effects of their abusive parenting.

Beginning in the early 1980s, she found help for other life issues through 12-Step programs, based on a set of guiding principles to aid in recovery.

Born originally out of Alcoholics Anonymous, the 12-Steps have since been used as a model for many recovery programs ranging from overeating and narcotics addiction to overspending, sex and social anxiety.

Chess, a life coach who spent years in business, hospital management and real estate, said it came to her many years later that those same principles could help people like herself deal with a pain they had been carrying around since childhood. She decided to take the model and adapt each principle to adults struggling with early childhood pain stemming from abuse.

In July she created a new weekly 12-Step group in Santa Rosa, a program she named Adults Abused as Children Anonymous. Meetings are from 6:15 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. Thursdays at the First United Methodist Church, 1551 Montgomery Drive. This month she is self-publishing a book based on the program, “Adults Abused as Children,” that will be available in hard copy and as an e-book.

Like other 12-Step groups, there is no fee to attend.

“There are no pledges. We don’t take attendance. There is no commitment, and it’s all confidential,” said Chess, who has lived in Sebastopol for 40 years.

“It’s not group therapy. It’s not counseling. No one gives you advice or tells you what to do. You share your own experiences, and you listen.”

Participants are not required to share if they don’t feel like it or are not ready, she stressed.

The program and the book are the fulfillment of a promise Chess said she made as a 3-year-old when her mother tried to drown her in the bathtub.

In what she describes as a near-death experience, she had a vision of an angel who asked if she would come back and tell, and she said “yes.”

“That was when the seed was planted, and the fruit of that commitment was this book,” she said.

Unprovoked violence

Chess grew up on Long Island and in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Her most vivid memories are of her mother ambushing her with unprovoked violence.

“I never knew when it would happen,” she said.

“She attacked. She clawed. She choked. She threw me. I was her slave. I was a 6-year-old cooking for a family of five. Often I was not allowed to eat. I was tied up.”

School was the balancing part of her life, Chess said. She never missed a day, even when she was sick.

She now understands that both of her parents were mentally ill, but there were no support systems in place in the 1940s and 1950s.

“I had no advocates,” she said. “Other adults knew but didn’t do anything, but that wasn’t unusual.”

Over the years, counseling helped Chess heal, but 12-Step programs provided an added dimension, with the emphasis on faith in something greater than oneself.

People are free to interpret that in any way they what. It needn’t be religious or a traditional God.

“It’s spiritual in that it does require a belief in or a reliance on a power greater than yourself,” she said.

“However, that power can be any understanding. It can be nature. It can be breath. It can be the wind or the ocean. A universal spirit or intelligence. Any power. Some use the group wisdom as a power greater than themselves.”

The book, the first of what she hopes will be a series, was more than 30 years in the making. Chess said she heard the voice compelling her to tell her story in the early 1980s.

For a decade she tried many ways to get it on paper. Nothing felt right until the idea came to her to apply what she knows — The 12 Steps — to the emotional recovery from early abuse.

20 years later

It took another 20 years for everything to come together. She needed permission from The General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous, which holds the copyright to the 12 Steps, to adapt them and the ground rules that require confidentiality and anonymity of participants so people feel safe to share.

The book turned out to be more of a handbook than a personal story, talking about child abuse and its long-term effects, and how to use the steps for healing.

It also serves as a manual for others who may want to create their own meeting groups.

Chess said even after a lifetime of processing her dark past, she feels the effects. She said she’s hyper-aware of her physical and emotional safety, and sometimes even benign situations trigger fears.

“I spent so much time as a child trying not to be seen. I tried to be invisible because I didn’t want to be attacked.”

She said she hopes her efforts will help others who were abused, physically, emotionally or by neglect. Sharing with others who walked in those same small shoes as children can be healing, she said.

“For a lot of people, this is the only place they can talk about it. It’s been a secret all these years. Maybe not the fact so much as what it felt like for them,” Chess said.

“To hear somebody else say what it was like can be very validating.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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