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Archive for October, 2007

Man under palm trees (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Self-injury is a very common aftereffect of childhood abuse. Most people think that self-injury is synonymous with cutting, but the truth is that there is a wide variety of ways to self-injure that do not involve cutting yourself. Here is a small sample of ways that people self-injure:

  • Banging head
  • Breaking bones
  • Burning themselves
  • Cutting themselves
  • Picking at skin and/or scabs
  • Pulling out hair and/or eyebrows

Even biting your fingernails is a minor form of self-injury.

Why do people self-injure? They do it because it is a very effective way to manage pain. I did not say that it is healthy in the long run, but it is quite effective in the short run.

I used to self-injure by banging my head. While that sounds painful (and it was – I gave myself whiplash more than once), I could not feel any physical pain in the moment. What I felt was immediate relief from my very deep emotional pain. Self-injuring provided me with a way to make the emotional pain stop immediately. When I felt like I was free-falling into very deep pain, I knew I could make it stop as if I was flipping a switch.

Unfortunately, there are long-term consequences to self-injuring. I have experienced whiplash and bruised my face, and I did have to feel the pain for several days afterward. I am fortunate that I never did more physical damage to myself.

For those who cut or burn themselves, they wear permanent scars, even after they stop self-injuring. Those who leave scars on themselves often have trouble expressing their pain. Instead, they carve their pain onto their bodies, so their bodies scream their story to the world while they have no voice. As one survivor friend put it, “My abusers’ actions left no marks. I left those on myself.”

People who self-injure are not trying to commit “mini-suicides.” Self-injury is simply a coping tool, albeit a potentially dangerous one. I cringe when I hear about parents or spouses who forbid self-injury and then do spot checks to enforce the rule. People who self-injure are in deep emotional pain, and they are not going to stop until they develop more healthy ways to manage the pain and then heal the underlying pain that is driving the behavior.

Both my sister and I have found a way to stop self-injuring, and you can, too. There are better ways to manage your pain without harming yourself. Self-injuring does not make you a “freak.” Self-injury is a coping tool you are using to manage your pain. The more you can lean on more positive coping tools, the less you will need to lean on self-injury. See Positive Coping Tools for Healing from Childhood Abuse for a list of positive coping tools.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Multiple Buds (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common aftereffect of childhood abuse. OCD is driven by anxiety, and the OCD symptoms help the anxious person to manage his anxiety.

I used to struggle with a number of OCD symptoms. Some would come and go, such as blowing on my hands. Others lingered for years, such as saying a mantra in my head to reduce my anxiety. Some were just amusing but not harmful, such as having to check the alarm clock exactly three times before falling asleep. As I have healed from my past and reduced my anxiety, my need for these OCD behaviors subsided. I still have some residue, but most are now healed.

OCD is all about taking control. As a child, I had no control over my life or even my own body. So, I sought control in things that did not matter through my OCD symptoms. My anxiety would build and build, but I could release some of it by doing one of my OCD actions. If I had to hold it in for whatever reason, the anxiety would build until it was nearly unbearable.

One secret to reducing anxiety is processing anger. I was unaware of having rage issues because I stuffed the anger deep inside of myself. It was not safe for me to express anger as a child, so I denied it. When you do not express emotions, they become more powerful. It is only in expressing them that they can be released and then lose their power over you.

When you do not express your anger and stuff it down inside of yourself, it turns on you in the form of anxiety and/or depression. Many people who struggle with severe anxiety and/or depression are angry people who rarely express those emotions. As you start expressing your rage, it finally has somewhere to go, and you will feel your anxiety ease.

This is exactly what happened to me. I had accepted that I would always be “weird” with my OCD symptoms. Through therapy, I learned to how process and honor my anger in a safe manner (that is, after I came to realize that I even had anger to process). As I processed my anxiety, my anxiety level went down substantially. Today, I feel very little anxiety, so I have no need for my OCD symptoms to manage it. When I notice that I am feeling compelled to do those OCD things again, I explore what repressed anger might be driving them, express the anger, and then experience relief from the compulsions again.

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Frog Statue (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Many abuse survivors struggle with eating disorders. Eating disorders are a way to manage emotional pain. For many years, the only form of eating disorder that most people acknowledged was anorexia nervosa. However, today we recognize that there are many different forms.

Anorexia Nervosa

People who struggle with anorexia nervosa greatly limit their caloric intake and can become very thin. In most cases, the drive behind the disorder is control. In the case of an abuse survivor, she had no control over her body when she was being abused, but she can control what goes into it today. Many women who struggle with anorexia nervosa also feel a strong drive to be invisible. By becoming physically smaller, they feel more shielded from others. Eating a regular portion of food is very difficult because the person fears losing control and being “seen.”

Bulimia

People who struggle with bulimia compulsively overeat and then force themselves to purge the food they have just eating through vomiting, laxatives, or both. The drive behind this disorder can go in two directions. The appeal to some is the “stuffing down” of the painful emotions. By overeating, they are able to “stuff down” the pain so that they do not feel it. The purging is more of a way to control weight gain. For others, the appeal is the purging aspect. When they purge the food, they symbolically purge the pain so they do not have to feel it.

Compulsive Overeating/Binge Eating

People who struggle with compulsive overeating and/or binge eating have a similar disorder to bulimia without the purging. These people might exercise frequently or eating lower calorie foods to manage their weight because of the vast quantity of food they are consuming. Others might want to be in a larger body because they equate being in a smaller body with being vulnerable to abuse.

A binge is when the person cannot get enough food into her body fast enough. Compulsive overeating is less intense and rushed but still involves eating much more food than the body needs. By binging and overeating, the person “stuffs down” the painful emotions.

Other Eating Disorders

There are many other forms of eating disorders, but all center around using food to manage emotions. The eating disorders can manifest in a variety of ways. Some people starve themselves all day and then binge at night. Others limit themselves to only one type of food for days or weeks at a time. While these forms of eating disorders might not be as well known to the general public, they are a very real struggle to those who wrestle with them.

If you struggle with an eating disorder, you are not alone. Eating disorders are very common among adult survivors of childhood abuse. Recognizing that your eating patterns are not normal is an important first step to healing from them. An eating disorder is a coping tool you are using to manage your pain. The more you can lean on more positive coping tools, the less you will need to lean on your eating disorder. See Positive Coping Tools for Healing from Childhood Abuse for a list of positive coping tools.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Fish by Reef (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Many abuse survivors struggle with some form of dependence or compulsion. The following is a list of types of dependencies and compulsions. The list is by no means exhaustive:

Many people see these symptoms as the problem and try to treat them as such, but trying to heal a symptom without addressing the underlying problem is doomed to failure. While you might succeed in stopping a particular symptom (such as ceasing to drink alcohol), if you have not dealt with the underlying problem that is driving the symptom, you will develop another dependency or compulsion.

All of these symptoms are coping mechanisms that people use to avoid the underlying pain. Because childhood abuse is so incredibly painful, a high percentage of abuse survivors struggle with some form of dependence or compulsion. Many see the symptom as a problem but do not realize that the symptom is being driven by the underlying pain. Until you heal the pain, you are destined to return to some form of coping mechanism.

If you struggle with a dependence or compulsion, be sure to read through my series on Positive Coping Tools for Healing from Childhood Abuse. The more you can use those positive tools to manage your pain, the less reliant you will be on your dependence or compulsion.

Why do abuse survivors turn to these dependencies and compulsions? Because they work! Even though dependencies and compulsions are damaging in the long run, they effectively curb the emotional pain in the short run. When a person is in a lot of pain, he is generally not thinking about the long term consequences – He just wants the pain to end now!

You do not have to stay enslaved to a dependence or compulsion, even if you have leaned on it for most of your life. You can find freedom by healing the underlying pain that is driving the dependence or compulsion. If you no longer have pain to avoid, you will not need to use harmful ways to avoid pain.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Drooping Flower (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Feelings of shame is another hallmark aftereffect of childhood abuse. I have never met an abuse survivor who did not struggle with feelings of shame before healing. While I no longer feel shame, I used to live my life with a cloud of shame hovering over me at all times. I was ashamed of being myself.

The shame that you feel is not yours to bear. What you are actually feeling is your abuser’s shame. When someone abuses you, he offloads his shame onto you, leaving an innocent child to bear the burden.

I had a vivid flashback that captured this point. After my abuser finished harming me, he strutted around like a proud peacock while I, the innocent party, cowered in a corner feeling an immense amount of shame. He was the person who did something wrong, so why was I the one feeling shame?

When an abuser harms a child, I believe that more is happening than just a physical act. I believe that two souls come together, and the abuser’s soul dumps out his poison into the child’s soul. The abuser walks away feeling relief from the absence of shame (for a while, anyhow) while the child walks away with the burden of very deep shame.

Unfortunately, many abused children grow into adults without ever purging this shame in a healthy manner, and their deep-seated self-loathing permeates every aspect of their lives. They see themselves through their abusers’ eyes rather than through the eyes of truth, and they fail to realize how precious they are.

I compare this to a person heaping a large pile of manure on top of a diamond. The diamond is precious, but if it sees its reflection in a mirror, it will believe that it is worthless. No amount of manure heaped on top of a diamond can change the value or worth of a diamond. We abuse survivors have to find a way to remove the manure (the shame) so that we can clearly see how precious we are. Nothing that anyone ever does to you can change the value of who you are.

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Telling Your Sexually Abused Adopted Child: “It was NOT Your Fault”

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Girl Behind Bars (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Having issues with trusting others is a hallmark aftereffect of childhood abuse. I have yet to meet an abuse survivor who did not suffer from issues with trusting others. Many report the inability to trust anyone for anything, which is not entirely true, but as I mentioned in my previous post, Aftereffects of Childhood Abuse, extremism is the trademark of an abuse survivor.

There are some things in which most people are able to trust. For example, I trust that a waitress will bring me my food after I order it. I might not trust that the order will be correct or delivered in a timely manner, but I really do trust that the waitress who took my order will eventually bring me food. I trust that the mailman will deliver my mail each day. I trust that a policeman will give me a speeding ticket if he catches me speeding. Of course, these are not the relationships that abuse survivors are talking about when they say that they cannot trust.

My therapist helped me to move past the “all or nothing” mindset in my relationships and realize that there were aspects of each relationship in which I did trust. For example, I have always trusted my husband to provide for our family financially even though I did not trust him to provide me the emotional support I needed when I was in therapy. Just because I could not count on him in one area of my life did not make him completely untrustworthy in all areas.

Learning to trust in part was empowering because I could get all of my needs met by trusting different people with different areas of my life. I might not be able to count on my husband for emotional support, but I could trust a friend to do this. I could trust my child to give me safe hugs even when I could not trust an adult to do this. By learning how to trust several people in part, I was able to meet my needs.

Another big part of learning to trust was learning how to trust myself. I have come to realize that the more I trust myself, the less I fear trusting others. Many of my trust issues centered around not trusting myself to recover when another person let me down. As I became more confident in my own ability to be okay even when another person betrayed my trust, I found it much easier to risk trusting in the first place.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Plant in trunk (c) Lynda Bernhardt

For most of my life, I had a lot of things “wrong” with me. I had no idea that these things were interrelated. My life was screaming the profile of an abuse survivor, but I had no idea. I just believed I was fundamentally f@#$ed in the head but did not understand why.

One telltale sign of an abuse survivor is extremism. Many people are aware that a person whose life is spinning out of control might be an abuse survivor, but few realize that the exact opposite – the overachiever – can also be an abuse survivor.

When I was in college, I took a “by invitation only” honors psychology class. One assignment was to write a secret on a piece of paper – something you had never told another person – and turn it in for the professor to read. One-third of those slips of paper said that the student was an abuse survivor, and that did not even include mine!

What does the profile of an abuse survivor look like? The best description I have found is The Incest Survivor’s After Effects Checklist. Reading this checklist was like looking into a mirror. For the first time in my life, I was not alone! My life finally made sense.

Notice how many of the items on the checklist are extremes. For example, one abuse survivor might become a prostitute or porn star while another abuse survivor might become asexual. One abuse survivor might have difficulty expressing anger while another abuse survivor is constantly angry. Both of these survivors might have suffered the same abuses, but their reactions were polar opposite. Both fit the profile for an abuse survivor. The telltale sign is in the extremes.

My sister and I suffered the same abuses, but our reactions were polar opposites. I tried to be “perfectly” good while she tried to be “perfectly” bad. Both of us were in the same amount of extreme pain: We just expressed that pain in very different ways.

For the next several days, I am going to talk about common aftereffects of childhood abuse. As you can see from the checklist, there are numerous aftereffects that I could discuss. However, I want to focus on those that are the most common ones for abuse survivors. Feel free to post comments or e-mail me at faith_amom@hotmail.com if you would like for me to discuss any specific aftereffect in more detail.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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