My name is Bryan Ness and I am a professor of biology. That is only a part of who I am, though. I was also born with a very visible birth defect that has caused both of my hands and feet to be deformed. The cause of these defects is a congenital defect called amniotic band syndrome. As a result both of my hands have shorter, misshapen fingers, with only four fingers on my left hand. It also caused my left ankle to be fused, caused the skin and circulation on my left foot to be impaired, and left me with just three toes on my right foot. These defects meant that I had to adapt in unique ways from a very young age to do the things that come so easily to other kids. It also meant that I was visibly different from other children, which frequently led to ostracism and bullying.

I am also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was sexually assaulted periodically throughout my childhood from the age of 8 and throughout my adolescent and teen years by an adult male friend of my family. He was a person my parents thought they could trust, and I never could figure out how to make my perpetrator stop the continuing sexual abuse. I never told anyone what had happened to me until I was in my 30s, and even then only anonymously in an online support group. Eventually I entered psychotherapy and have made much progress in healing from this early trauma. I also found out later that, as I had feared, my sister was sexually assaulted on a regular basis by the same man.

It is my hope that this blog will be a place where others who have experienced similar things in their lives will find comfort and support as I share some of my struggles and the things I have learned along the way. I have called the blog “Nubs of Wisdom” as a way of reclaiming a derogatory name I was called in grade school by other students. I was frequently teased and bullied with the name “Nubs” because of my shortened and deformed fingers. It took me many years to even be able to acknowledge the name, and now I want to recontextualize it. “Nubs” implies something that is small or less than the usual size. I hope my little tidbits, my “nubs,” of what I hope are wisdom will occasionally be found by others to be inspiring. I hope my “Nubs of Wisdom” will inspire others, who like me, have been through long nights of adversity. May you know and realize you are not alone. Others have travelled this path before you and have survived, and even thrived.

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My story of Being Sexually Abused, With Birth Defects

Of all the parts of my story of living with birth defects, this is the most difficult to tell. Being a survivor of sexual abuse comes with a lot of baggage, not the least of which is actually seeing myself as a survivor and not a victim. Having been sexually abused, I am, of course, a victim of sexual abuse, but to heal it is important to get past seeing oneself as a victim. I now recognize that I am a child of God who is loved by God and I am capable of loving and accepting myself. I am a survivor of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse wounds a child deeply causing feelings of guilt and self-loathing that lead to low self-esteem that can last a lifetime, if healing from these wounds never occurs.

So, why would I want to even share this part of my story? First, because it is a part of who I am, and it shows that surviving and thriving, even after the combined traumas of being born with birth defects and being sexually abused, is possible. I hope that hearing my story and seeing where I am today will give hope to others who have experienced similar things. Second, and related to my first reason for telling my story, is that many people have been sexually abused, making the telling of my story all that more important. Being sexually abused causes deep-seated and unwarranted shame. There should be no shame associated with being a victim, and there should certainly be no shame in being a survivor of sexual abuse. Any shame associated with sexual abuse should be heaped on the perpetrator, not on the victim/survivor. Sexual abuse is a terrible thing, but life does go on afterward, and it can go on successfully and joyfully, in spite of the sexual abuse.

Grades 2-4, With Birth Defects

My 2nd grade year was the beginning of my more difficult school years, where the teasing and bullying because of my birth defects started in earnest and became a regular feature of my school days. In addition to my finger deformities due to amniotic band syndrome (ABS), one of the effects of the amniotic band on my left ankle also became more apparent. The band caused the lower part of my leg and foot to grow more slowly than my right leg, so that by the time I was 7 or 8 years old, there was almost an inch difference in length between my legs. To prevent potential strain on my spine, from walking with legs of such different length, I started to have to wear a special pair of shoes where the left shoe had a 1 inch thicker heal and sole than on the right shoe. Add to that my thick glasses needed to correct my moderately severe myopia, and I presented quite the target for ridicule. I was a four-eyed monster with a limping gait and deformed fingers.

First Grade, With Birth Defects

I remember entering 1st grade with very fond memories. Of all my years in school, 1st grade remains my favorite. I was extremely ready to go to school. I wanted to learn, and I especially wanted to learn to read. Books already played a prominent part in my life. I loved looking at picture books, I loved being read to, and I was ready to learn to do it myself. The second reason for such fond memories was that I was not teased or bullied at all during my 1st grade year. In subsequent grades the teasing and bullying would escalate, but in 1st grade all was well.

My Preschool Years, With Birth Defects, Part 2

During these years I was still frequently visiting the doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital, where they were poking and prodding me, and prescribed an ankle brace that often felt painful to wear. I also had a few surgeries on my fingers and toes, which also caused a lot of physical pain. Oddly, the pain and suffering from these things left little memory, whereas I still remember the teasing from the one little girl in kindergarten. I don’t remember the teasing to be particularly intense, or even all that relentless, but after such positive experiences with the friends I had made in my neighborhood, and the love I experienced from my family, the teasing pushed me ever so little off kilter. I did face much worse teasing in later years, but the shock of the first time it happened remains a bitter memory.

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