When The Bullet Hits the Bone: A Story of Survival

Mirah Riben, author and activist
14 min readApr 15, 2023

“Where am I to go now that I’ve gone too far
So you’ll come to know
When the bullet hits the bone
So you’ll come to know
When the bullet hits the bone”
Golden Earrings, 1982

I am Mirah Riben, Survivor.

Survivor is more than a reality game show where people get voted off the island. I am a survivor of multiple, complex and cumulative traumas. I have survived traumas starting from early childhood and continuing into adulthood. I have lived 7-decades with these events mostly in secret — revealing only bits and pieces here and there — but mostly protective of the shame that envelops all of it. Shame that has woven it’s way throughout my life almost since birth. A recurring theme that tears into one’s core creating feelings of unworthiness.

It took a great deal of courage to rip off my mask and reveal all the sordid details of my miss-spent youth and the repercussions. Some of my traumas like an unloving mother or sexual assault, many can relate to. Others are unique to me, obscure and even bizarre. I include them not for the shock value but as part of my continued healing. I do so in the tradition of women — and men — since Barbara Bush who have revealed their dirty little secrets to free themselves and to help others. Since then many celebrities have revealed struggles with drug addiction, and more recently mental illness, all with the hope that breaking the barriers of secrecy will help free others.

Being private and self-protective of certain aspects of our lives and not over-sharing is not lying. But it is a challenge for someone like me who hates secrets and lies and who values and prides myself in being honest, open and truthful .


Trauma #1: Motherless Child

I was born to an ice queen mother who was totally incapable of any affection, compassion or empathy. Not sociopathic; I believe today she’d very likely be diagnosed with Asperger’s or being on the autism spectrum. She not only never hugged or kiss me or my sister, she stiffened up, became rigid and turned away if we tried to kiss her. Unconfirmed rumor has it that my mother had a “nervous breakdown” after my birth. Likely postpartum depression. The mother I knew was vacant. To the infant that was me, it felt like abandonment because it was emotional abandonment.

My father, a travelling salesman, was fun, funny and loving. But he was often away and he was a traditional 1950’s husband and dad: king of his castle. It was his way or the highway, as he told me often. “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out” was a taunting refrain. He was the family disciplinarian and only had to say, ”Don’t make me take my belt off” to get our attention. I only recall seeing him use it once, on my sister, but that was enough.

As I grew up, many acts of affection I had enjoyed with my Dad, like sitting on his lap ended. As I approached puberty, he seemed to push me away, physically and emotionally. I was left hurt and confused. I started college the summer I graduated high school and felt my world crumbling around me. I went to a guidance counselor who sent me to a school psychologist who suggested family counselling. Dad said, “Absolutely not!” He wasn’t going to go to some shrink who would “blame” my parents!

I left home at 17. Greenwich Village, mecca for beatniks and “hippies”, was just a subway ride away. In 1964 at the age of 19, I met a man who was 34. Our age difference being the tip of the iceberg of what made my relationship with this divorced father of three and convicted felon, alcoholic and junkie, inappropriate. We eloped and were married May 5, 1965 in Canton, S.D.

Trauma #2: Shot in the Butt and You’re to Blame

I was shot. It doesn’t hurt as much as you think. I didn’t even realize I was shot at first. It felt like a sharp, stinging smack on my butt, the kind you’d feel if someone twisted up a towel and wacked you with it. The man I had married shot me in the back because I was trying to leave him. The bullet remains lodged in the top of my right femur where the thigh bone meets the hip. Domestic violence is real. I was denied medical care to avoid the required reporting of a gunshot wound.


After living with this bullet in my hip for 58 years, I now need a hip replacement surgery and the bullet complicated getting an MRI without the image being diffused. I had to travel to a speccial imaging facility that had software that blocked the glare of the bullet. And, because of the bullet: 1) I cannot have anterior hip replacement surgery which has a shorter recuperation than the surgery I will have: posterior hip replacment; and 2) the post for the prosthetic hip is inserted into the femur and the bullet may be in the way and may need to be removed but they won’t know until they “get in there.”

My past has truly come back to haunt me.

Xray of my R femur, and the bullet

Trauma # 3: Summer of Love

It was a relatively short-lived marriage. I left him in 1967 and soon discovered I was pregnant. Though legally married, I was alone with no support at a time single motherhood was stigmatized. I knew nothing of welfare and my parents encouraged adoption so I could, “Put it all behind me and start over.” It was the “loving” thing to do, adoption agency staff told me, unselfish. What they didn’t tell me was that I’d be haunted by guilt and regret the rest of my life nor that there was no guarantee that adoption would provide a “better” life. As a single mother in 1967 without family support, I had nothing to offer and I was told it would be selfish of me to keep her. If I really loved my daughter, they said, I’d give her a “better” life with better opportunities.

I fought for six months but the pressure built. I was told that if I didn’t sign my rights away by the time she was 6 months old, she would be “too old” and “unadoptable” (there was that much of a glut of adoptable babies at that time), meaning she’d remain in foster care.

I fought for six months to keep my baby, but in the end, having no alternative, Isuccumbed to the mounting pressure. Alone, I signed at the adoption agency on Madison Avenue and walked out of there like a zombie, tears streaming down my cheeks. I walked to Times Square and easily found hard drugs to numb the pain.

Trauma #4: I’ve seen the needle and the Damage Done

After 6 mos to a year of scrounging for drugs to keep from being sick, I sought help. I found it in the form of Father Daniel Egan, aka “The Junkie Priest” who I had met previously in Thompson Square Park in ”the Village.” Father Egan got me a hotel room in a bowery flop house to kick cold turkey. It was there that I was forcibly raped by a stranger who broke in, threatened to kill me, and held me captive for 8 hours. In 1967 police procedures were not yet evolved. I was revictimized, not only asked by male cops what I’d been wearing and where I’d been prior to the hotel room invasion and sexual assault, but also asked if I was a virgin! (?) I was ignored when I asked to see mug shots of rapists because my attacker was a serial rapist who told me he had done it before and would do it again.

In 1971 I married a “good Jewish man” who worked hard and didn’t drink or gamble. I settled into suburban life and became an Earth Mother to three kids born in 74, 76, and 79. I was called “Super Mom” in a pejorative, not complementary way, by my family.

Miraculously, I met an adoptee who was reunited with his birth mom. I was shocked. Open adoption was unheard of then and I had been told I’d never see my daughter again. I fantasized about her living a charmed life but feared she had remained in foster care as I had been told was possible (and which she did for a year). Either way, I thought she’d hate me for giving her away.

I went to some of the first meetings of CUB, Concerned United Birthparents and I co-founded Origins, a support group for mothers who lost children to adoption. I wrote two books (in 1988 and 2007) and more than 200 articles (cited in some 80 professional journals and theses) advocating for changes in the adoption system, spoke at adoption conferences and I appeared on some TV shows such as Morton Downey Jr., the short-lived Joan Rivers talk show and Russian TV as an adoption “expert”. While I was very ”public” about being a birthmother, I wrote and spoke about the plight of birthmothers plural and the corruption and exploitation in the adoption industry. While being among the first birthmothers to go public, I held back on my atypical personal story. Neither of my books had anything autobiogrpahical. It was still too shameful, so I compartmentalized and kept parts of me safely protected from scorn or ridicule.

Traumas #5 and #6: Divorce Sucks

I remained married to my second husband, the father of my three surviving children, for 18 years. Sadly, he could only feel good about himself by belittling me. I endured 18 years of emotional abuse and then survived a protracted divorce and custody battle. My husband was a workaholic who worked all the overtime and holidays he possibly could for the overtime and double time pay instead of spending time with his family. In addition, he was a “weekend warrior” in the Air National Guard, which took him away two weeks out of the year. I was virtually a single mother except financially. In the end, he had far more financial resources than I did and was able to keep the house. I wound up losing custody of the 3 children I had breastfed, home birthed one, and was full time, at-home mother to (class mother, scouts, etc.) I couldn’t stop crying and the only thing that stopped me from ending my life was not wanting my children to ever feel guilty about it. In 1989, after an 18-year marriage I left with no alimony to avoid him making good on death threats and to spare my children being dragged into court. I was the lowest point in my life up until then.

In 2011 the court system allowed him to renege on our agreement regarding his pension and use the courts to harass me for another 8 years.

Trauma # 7: Childless Mother

On February 27, 1995, my firstborn child, a beautiful, bright student at Syracuse University, took her life at the age of 27. Contrary to the “better life” I was promised, it turns out adoptees suffer lifelong separation trauma also known as Primal Wound. They are over-represented in substance treatment programs, and all mental health facilities, and are four times more likely to attempt suicide.

Alicia, 1967–1995, memorialized here and here

My firstborn’s tragic death came just a month before my mother passed on March 17 1995 and four months later my father died. Three deaths in nine months. I only cried for one of the three.

I got my first tattoo at 74 years of age in memory of my firstborn.

Living with PTSD

I survived. I survived incidents, choices and behaviors that make me lucky to be alive. I grew tough and resilient. Each of these traumas, especially my daughter’s death, and losing custody of my kids, was very nearly fatal for me. I fought for the sake of my kids. They are all adults now and I have to fight on for myself. I battle the shame. Shame first foisted on me as a child because I was a late thumb sucker and a late bed wetter and was shamed for both compounded by the shame of losing my daughter to adoption and then her tragic death. Losing a child to adoption is a major shame inducer. Society asks: “How could anyone give away their child?” or conversely we are told we we’re “brave.”

Losing a child to adoption is wholly unnatural, as is being adopted. Both require mind bending reconciling of reality and social/legal definitions. It’s not a loss that engenders sympathy. No one ever has said, “I’m sorry for your loss” and there are no rituals. Oddly, the death of my daughter brought some normalcy to being asked a simple question that brought dread for 27 years: how many children did I have. I had four; one passed away. Her death turned the awkwardness of an adoption loss into the easier to understand and identify with loss of death.

Awkward moments still prevail, however. And triggers. To this day in my 7th decade, I am subjected to reactions from nervously laughing to inappropriate and titillating questions from doctors and imaging technicians upon seeing the bullet in my hip. I was asked how it got there. One doctor recently asked me if it happened out of the country. Why? How would his medical care of me change depending on my answer? Was the question racist? Would it have been asked of a patient of color? In an inner city clinic? Was it sexist? Am I treated like a freak show oddity because I’m a gray-haired suburban white domestic violence survivor as opposed to had I been a Viet Nam veteran and shot I the line of duty?

PTSD is a chronic illness. There is no cure only coping mechanisms and treatments to ease the pain and as with most all chronic illnesses, there are flares that occur unexpectedly and can wreak havoc with your life — and periods of remissions, or periods of it being on a back burner. It’s never cured or healed, but we can choose to stop being victims and become survivors, even activists. I know this because I have battled painful, crippling Rheumatoid Arthritis (systemic, incurable, degenerative and progressive) since the late 70s when I was in my mid-late 30s, raising 3 young children. It left me with irreversable twisting deformities of my hands.

Stress has long been a known cause of physical illness because when you are in fight-or-flight mode — also known as acute stress response — it triggers the sympathetic nervous system which produces hormones and increases heart rate and blood pressure, effects breathing, can block memory of the traumatic event, and other physiological responses. Autoimmune diseases — I have two (RA and Sjogrens) — are linked to trauma, per a 2018 study (JAMA. 2018;319(23):2388–2400. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.7028), which looked at 106,000 people in Sweden and found an increased chance of developing autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease in individuals who manifest a stress-related disorder, such as PTSD. I have no doubt whatsoever that trauma triggered my autoimmune diseases.

Years of therapy are helping. I’m learning to recognize that when my sadness, anger, anxiety or insomnia are disproportionate to what is happening in the present, it’s likely a result of being triggered back to a past trauma. Recognizing it has helped me cope. I thought EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy sounded hokey and had it not been introduced to me by a therapist I already trusted, I likely would not have tried it. In EMDR your therapist gently guides you to recall the first time you felt the same feeling, pain, shame, grief or whatever “while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements)” which reduces the severity of the emotion associated with the trauma memories. It has helped. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also called tapping, is another therapy for anxiety, (PTSD), and some other conditions. It is also said to help desensitize triggers and patients can learn to do it themselves.

It’s lifelong work dealing with multiple or prolonged traumas. It’s not easy but I can either work on it or be by controlled by it. As I told my daughter recently, I’m still a work in progress, even at my age.

Writing has also always been cathartic for me, even if I never share it. It helps get it out of my head. Writing/sharing about these traumas took place over a very long period of time, untill I got to the point of putting it “out there.” I belong to several online support groups — some for various health challenges, adoption related groups, and some for emotional support. PTSD has been identified, given a name, survivors have not, until now. I am Mirah, CTS, a survivor of multiple traumas. It’s the hard knock life degree I’ve earned. If it applies to you feel free to use it. Decree yourself CTS. I hope it helps. Remember, your traumas are yours. They may be far worse than mine, or seemingly lesser. Weirder or more commonplace. It’s not a competition.

Child abuse, domestic violence, sexual harassment and assault take many forms and emotional abuse leaves lifelong scars without doing any physical damage. I am pushing through my fear to share, not for shock value nor for pity but because I couldn’t keep it all in any longer.

The time had come to open the doors and let the light purge the darkest recesses of my heart and soul. Time to own my “sordid” secrets and conquer the shame that has kept me a prisoner. I’m still apprehensive of the haters and the negative comments even as I write this. But I’ve been told and I believe that courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to push through it, as someone conquers a phobia by immersing themselves into it. And I hope my sharing helps others to combat their demons.

I am taking back my power over my fear and my shame! One day at a time.

My life has not been just a series of crises. I also had a lot of fun and have known a lot of interesting famous and infamous people. Read about it here.

UPDATE: I’d like to share these beautiful words of wisdom from a fellow survivor:

“I am ever changing (you are ever changing, we are all ever changing- which is a good thing if we have the determination to be healthier in mind and body than we were the day before). My past is unable to hurt me unless I allow it to. I can revisit it, analyze it, have compassion for it, and find peace and forgiveness in it and continue to evolve. I am unwilling to allow my past to keep me as a prisoner of my traumas and allow it to seep discord and pain into my present and future life. I ABSOLUTELY REFUSE TO ALLOW MY PAST TRAUMAS TO CONTROL MY LIFE.”