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Archive for November, 2007

Child in field (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Emotional abuse comes in all shapes and sizes. An abuser might tell a child that he is worthless or say other things that cause the child to feel badly about himself. An abuser might threaten to harm someone that the child loves or, worse, actually harm, or even kill, someone the child loves, such as a beloved pet. Even though the abuser is not laying a hand on the child, he is inflicting significant emotional abuse.

One of the most disturbing stories I have heard about emotional abuse involved a man who would abuse the sibling as “punishment” for perceived misbehaviors by the child. One time, as the abuser was “punishing” the child, his beating went too far, and the child watched his brother be literally beaten to death. As an adult, the abuse survivor had to work through years of therapy to heal from the damage inflicted by this incident. Even though his abuser did not lay a hand on him, watching his brother die for his own supposed misbehavior was severely traumatizing to the child.

Emotional abuse is also a part of any other form of abuse. Even after physical wounds heal, the emotional damage from being beaten persists. Sexual abuse inflicts emotional damage as well. Whenever a child is abused, he experiences many powerful emotions that are not safe to express. Those emotions continue to plague the child long after the abuse ends until the adult abuse survivor focuses on healing from his past.

If you were “only emotionally abused,” you suffered much more than any child should ever suffer. It was not okay for another person to damage your soul through words or by torturing you in ways that left no marks on your body. You deserve to heal just as much as any other abuse survivor.

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Emotional Child Abuse: The Wounded Spirit

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Looking out over ocean (c) Lynda Bernhardt

When people think about child abuse, they typically think about either physical or sexual abuse. Emotional abuse is also devastating for a child. Often the emotional abuse goes unnoticed because it leaves no scars on the body. Instead, the wounds are inflicted on the soul.

Here is something I wrote about emotional abuse before I started having flashbacks about the other abuses I suffered. This writing captures the suffering involved in emotional abuse.

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Everybody acknowledges the wounds of those who suffer physical abuse; nobody grieves for the wounded spirit. There are no made-for-TV movies about those whose spirits are crushed by words day after day. There are no books about the effects of being ignored for 18 years. If your heart bleeds instead of your flesh, nobody notices.

As long as you have food on the table and clothes on your back, people assume that your needs are met. But a person is more than a physical shell. There is a spirit inside that needs nurturing. If that spirit is crushed, then you become nothing more than an empty shell—a body that breathes and eats but doesn’t feel. The person that you were meant to be is stuffed down inside an intricate maze of emotional self-protection. It is a lonely place, and it is as much of a prison as a physical one—even more so, because people in physical prisons get paroled.

This is a life sentence, yet you did nothing wrong. Your sin was being born to parents who didn’t want you, who didn’t know how to love and nurture the person that you would have become. You look out at the world through a thick glass, knowing that you are different but not knowing why. Your head tells you that you don’t deserve this, but your heart screams that there must have been something wrong with you or you wouldn’t have been rejected from the day you were born. And the lonelier you get, the more scared you are to let anybody in. After all, if your own mother couldn’t love you, who could?

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Plant (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Physical child abuse is anything that a person does to a child that involves harming his body. This can be anything from beating a child, breaking his bones, burning his body, or doing anything else to physical harm a child’s body.

Many people believe that physical abuse must leave physical marks on the body, but this is not necessarily true. While many types of physical abuse do leave marks on the body, some do not. For example, smothering a child with a pillow is clearly physical abuse, even though the pillow is unlikely to leave bruises on the child’s face.

Physical abuse is often inflicted as “discipline,” but it is way out of proportion to the child’s “crime.” No childish misbehavior justifies breaking a child’s bones or leaving bruises up and down his back. There is always a better way to handle disciplining a child, even when a child is strong-willed.

Because physical abuse is frequently presented as “discipline,” abused children often wrestle with believing that they are “bad.” If they were only “good enough,” then they would not be suffering the abuse. This line of thinking is actually a coping mechanism because it gives the child the illusion of power: If he is only “good enough,” then he will have the power to stop the abuse.

Unfortunately, the truth is that an abused child cannot be “good enough” to stop the abuse because the abuse is not about his behavior: It is about his abuser’s “need” to offload his self-loathing onto another person. However, to accept this truth is to give in to utter despair, so the continued abuse drives home the lie that the child is “bad.”

Even after the physical wounds heal, the emotional wounds remain open and bleeding. The physically abused child grows into an adult who continues to wrestle with feelings of being “bad.” Abuse survivors often loathe themselves and continue to punish themselves even when their abusers stop.

The way to heal these emotional wounds is through learning to love yourself. If you were physically abused as a child, you were not responsible for your abuse. There is nothing you could have done as a child to justify the way you were treated. You should have been loved for being the precious child you were. You deserve to be loved as an adult, and the key to being loved is in learning how to love yourself.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Girl by hut (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Mother-daughter sexual abuse is a particularly vile form of sexual abuse that many people are unaware even exists. In the United States, mothers are often viewed as the self-sacrificing member of the family who repeatedly suffers on behalf of her children. While this description is certainly true of many mothers, it is not true of all.

Women who have suffered from mother-daughter sexual abuse often fear that nobody will believe that this form of abuse happened to them. Instead, they fear that others will believe they are “crazy.” Many people are judgmental of any opinion toward a mother that is not “warm and fuzzy.” In most cases, when a daughter speaks ill of her mother, people assume that the daughter is being ungrateful and does not appreciate all of the sacrifices that her mother made for her. In the case of mother-daughter sexual abuse, the sexual abuse survivor has every right to express anger toward her abuser. The abuser does not get a free pass just because she is her victim’s mother.

I wrote an in-depth article on this topic for Associated Content. In that article, I talked about some issues that are specific to survivors of this form of abuse. I also mentioned a website specifically for survivors of mother-daughter child abuse. The name of that site is Making Daughters Safe Again. The site includes a message board for members only. Anyone who has suffered from mother-daughter sexual abuse can join, but the message board is private for the protection of those needing to discuss the very difficult issues surrounding recovery from mother-daughter sexual abuse.

If you are a survivor of mother-daughter sexual abuse, you are not alone. You can heal from this form of abuse, just as many other women have. I strongly suggest connecting with other women who have suffered from this form of abuse because they understand the specific issues that you are facing. You can do that through Making Daughters Safe Again. Another good resource is Isurvive. While Isurvive does not have a forum specifically for mother-daughter sexual abuse, several members have discussed this topic in the Survivors of Incest and Sexual Abuse forum. You are not alone.

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Spiderweb (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Unfortunately, there are many ways to abuse a child. No matter how a child is abused, the child walks away with a damage soul, repressed emotions (and often repressed memories, too), shame, and self-loathing. The key to healing from any form of child abuse is learning how to love yourself.

Adult survivors of child abuse often minimize the damage they suffered. My therapist once told me that “crazy” people try to convince you that they were abused, and abuse survivors try to convince you that they weren’t. I see a lot of truth in that statement. Minimizing the severity of the abuse is a coping mechanism that abused children use to survive. To recognize the severity of the abuse would cause the child to fall into despair.

Unfortunately, many abuse survivors compare what they suffered to what others have suffered and conclude that they did not have it that bad because it could have been worse. If you were ever abused, even only one time, it was “that bad.” Even “just one rape” or “just one broken arm” is traumatic to a child and is enough to sever his ability to trust.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is a part of every other type of abuse and, in my opinion, is the most damaging component of abuse. Broken bones heal, but the emotional impact of having your bones broken does not without a lot of work. Some people “only” suffered emotional abuse, but their emotional wounds look very similar to the emotional wounds of people whose abuse was also physical. Watching another person slaughter your beloved pet is going to emotionally damage you, even though you were never touched.

Neglect

Neglect is abuse by omission rather than commission. Neglect can include not feeding a child or providing him with medical care.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is any form of abuse that harms your body. Many people think that physical abuse must leave marks on your body, but many forms of physical abuse do not. Suffocating a child is a good example of a form of physical abuse that does not leave physical marks but is physically abusive.

Ritual Abuse

Ritual abuse is abuse inflicted by “experts” in abusing children. While other forms of abuse seem to be “crimes of passion” as an abuser offloads his shame onto a child, ritual abuse is more of a “crime of intent” in which the method of abusing the child is well thought out. The abuser often forces the child to do things that violate his moral code with the goal of breaking the child’s will and dominating him. All of the other forms of abuse are often used to this end.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can be perpetrated by men or women, and it is not limited to rape. Forcing a child to watch pornography is one form of sexual abuse that does not involve touching the child.

Other Forms of Abuse

Other forms of abuse do not fall neatly into any of these categories. For example, neither burying a child nor locking him in a box for hours falls neatly into any of these categories, and yet both actions are clearly abusive.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Old House (c) Lynda Bernhardt

My dreams have always been a great way to track my emotional health. For most of my life, my dreams were filled with all sorts of terror. I had recurring dreams that scared the fool out of me. Those turned out to be flashbacks of particularly terrifying events from my abusive childhood.

I have learned that dreams about houses are introspection dreams. Each room represents a different part of myself. The bathroom is the most private part of myself, closely followed by my bedroom. When I analyze the rooms, including colors and what is located inside of them, and combine that with my emotional reaction, I learn a lot about my progress in healing from child abuse.

Last night, I had the most amazing dream that drives home just how far I have come. I went to visit my childhood home, which is where much of the abuse took place. Parts of the house looked like my true childhood home. The basement looked the basement of an abusive family friend’s house, which is where my most sadistic abuse took place. One room looked like a room in my grandmother’s house. The rest of the house was purely from my imagination.

All of the rooms reeked of the 1970’s, which is when I was abused. Everything was that awful olive green, orange, and brown. Yuck.

The dream began with me in the entranceway, checking out the old house. This part did not look like any house I ever lived in. I realized just how beautiful the house itself was if we could just give it a facelift. I imagine what the walls would look like if I painted them a soft green, and I realize that this house could be beautiful.

In the den, most of the toys were suspended from the ceiling, which I thought was a real shame. Why buy all of these toys and not allow a child to play with them? There were some toys on the floor, but most of the fun was still denied me.

I moved to the basement, which is where my most sadistic abuse took place at someone else’s house. The staircase spiraled downward (which is unlike any of the real houses), but I was able to reach the perspective of exactly what the basement looked like when it happened, except that there was a fireplace with a fire in it on top of where the abuse happened. A spark flew out and caught something on fire on a table. I tried to put it out in a leisurely manner. The flame would grow and then subside. My sister got concerned, but I was not – I knew I had it under control. I never got frightened as the flames grew, and then, sure enough, I put them out, just as I knew I would.

I examined other parts of the house and found small windows that I could have used as escape hatches as a child. I found one room that I did not remember. It was in the middle of the house, but my husband told me it was the attic. I do not know what that represents.

We went outside (sister, husband, and me), and I examined the toys outside. There was an old swing that looked ugly (the chains were painted white), but it was still functional. I marveled over how well toys used to be built back then. Alongside the driveway were some swings. I had trouble getting on one, but then I got on another, stretched out on my back, and enjoyed the feeling. I would spin slowly in one direction and then the other, and it felt amazing. I took a last look at the house and said, “It isn’t an attractive house, but I guess I can understand why my mother wanted it.”

I woke up feeling a lot of anxiety, but during the dream, I really was okay. I can definitely see improvement.

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Greyhound

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!!

At this time of year, I like to reflect upon the reasons I have in my life to be thankful. Of course, I am thankful for my son and my sister, who is my best friend. I am thankful for my husband and my other friends. I am thankful for my dog, who just joined our family a couple of months ago but has become an integral part of our household. (That’s his picture!) Most importantly, I am thankful for the person that I have become.

Over four years ago, I made the choice to heal from my past no matter what it took. I started having flashbacks just a few weeks before Thanksgiving 2003. I was feeling completely miserable as the emotions I had repressed for decades exploded all over my life. I was so distraught that I developed acid reflux, which damaged my vocal chords enough to give me laryngitis for over a week. I found it appropriate that the abuse memories caused me to lose my voice because having no voice sums up my childhood.

I had no idea when I began my healing journey that I would remember so many traumatic events. While it was painful to re-live each one, I now sit in awe at my ability to survive them all as a young child. I started to say as a helpless child, but I wasn’t helpless. My very strong will to survive and overcome the abuse prevented me from being helpless.

Four years ago, I hated myself. Today, I love myself. No, my life is not perfect, but I still love my life. I love that I have taken all of the garbage that my abusers threw my way and turned my experiences around so that I can now encourage others to heal as I have healed. I love that I no longer live in fear. Even the fear of death has lost its power over me. No matter what, I know that I will always be okay.

I hope that each of you has a very happy Thanksgiving.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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