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Archive for January, 2008

Plant (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Yesterday was a very rough day. I have been waiting a long time to get my son medicated for his Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Hub and I have not been on the same page about this issue from the beginning. The doctor prescribed medication in pill form, which my seven-year-old son is afraid to swallow. Long story short, I could not get him to take the pills, and hub and I wound up in a screaming match with hub “forbidding” me to request another form of medication for our son because we already spent a large amount of money on those pills.

I am sure this is a situation experienced by numerous households all over the world, but my reaction was far more intense than I would imagine most people would react. The problem is that anything involving my kid triggers issues about myself. My husband’s refusal to consider another form of medication (leaving me to try to “force” pills down his throat or forego necessary medication) triggered all of the feelings of hopelessness. It made me feel like I was facing a “Sophie’s Choice” of two unacceptable options. Whenever I feel cornered like this, my need to self-injure by banging my head becomes overwhelming.

Fortunately, this has not happened to me in well over a year. I have become much better about setting boundaries and refusing to let other people run my life. However, for whatever reason, I felt cornered and succombed to the overwhelming urge to self-injure. I was in such a bad place that it was the better alternative to what I wanted to do.

My sister, who also has a history of self-injury, talked me down, and she helped me to see that I do have choices. I withdrew the cost of the medication from my own account (I have a personal account that I fund with my paychecks from writing jobs) and placed it on the table for hub. Now, I will get whatever medication my son needs, and hub cannot complain about the cost because I am paying for it. And if he tries to back me into a corner again, I will come out fighting rather than harm myself again.

I hate that I went to that place again. I hate that I can still be triggered to that very deep, dark place in such a short period of time. I am grateful that I was able to pull out of the nosedive and be okay. I am also grateful that I was able to feel the pain rather than continue to “bang it away.” I probably cried for five hours yesterday, and I feel better for it, although I also feel spent.

It bothers me that I can still be driven to self-injury. It bothers me that the person who mostly has the “power” to trigger this in me is my spouse, who should be my safe place to fall instead of the one making me feel cornered. I have a lot to think about, but for now I am too tired. I just want to recuperate from a very rough day.

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Man facing ocean (c) Lynda Bernhardt

In my last few posts, I have been discussing healing from degrading abuses that generate an enormous amount of shame. One such type of abuse is sexual abuse by an abuser of the same sex. While child abuse is about power and dominating a child, there is something more sinister about experiencing abuse by a member of the same sex.

Sexual abuse by a person of the same sex can cause a person to question his or her sexual identity. This is particular difficult when the child’s body responded to the sexual stimulation involved in the abuse. The person might believe that because the body responded with pleasurable sensations, he or she must have liked it. This is not the case. If anything, having your body respond to sexual stimulation during sexual abuse only makes the abuse that much worse because it feels as if your own body is betraying you.

The human body is wired to respond favorably to sexual stimulation. Whether a woman or a man stimulated your body, your body only responded as it was designed to respond. Just because your body responded to the sexual stimulation from the abuse does not mean that you wanted it or that it was okay. Your body’s response is not “worse” because your abuser happened to be a member of the same sex. Your body’s response had nothing to do with sexual desire. A child’s sexual responses should never have been awakened by a man or a woman.

People who have been sexually abused by a member of the same sex often struggle with additional shame. They fear how others will receive this information. They worry that people will assume that they must have homosexual tendencies because of the abuse. Your sexual orientation is separate from the abuse, and you are not destined to be either heterosexual or homosexual based upon the gender of your abuser.

Many women struggle with abuse by women because they fear that they will not be believed. Society has reluctantly accepted that some men sexually abuse children, but female abusers get very little press. Unfortunately, women abuse children, too. See my series on mother-daughter sexual abuse for more on that topic.

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Animal skull (c) Lynda Bernhardt

In my last couple of posts, Working Through Shame After Child Abuse and Recovering from Childhood Gang Rape, I have been discussing shame that arises out of experiencing particularly degrading forms of abuse. Perhaps one of the most degrading and shame-inducing forms of abuse is animal rape. Most people are too embarrassed to discuss this topic with another person, even with a trusted therapist or friend, because the level of shame and degradation is so great. Even people using anonymous messages boards for abuse survivors often hesitate to raise this topic. If you are a survivor of animal rape, you are not alone, and the shame that you are feeling is not yours to bear.

The wording of what you experienced is important. Some abuse survivors label the animal rape as “bestiality,” but bestiality implies consent. If you were a child whose abuser chose to orchestrate sexual contact between you and an animal, then what you experienced was not bestiality – it was animal rape. What the animal did to you was rape just as surely as if a man had done the same thing to you.

Some people who have suffered from animal rape fear that this is the abuse that is beyond healing. They fear that another person could never look them in the eye again if they knew about the abuse, and they feel as if the shame might swallow them up. Please hear this: Nothing that another person ever did to you – even raping you with an animal – can change the value of who you are. Yes, the animal rape was a huge load of manure dumped on the pile, but even a Mount Everest of manure piled upon a diamond cannot change the value of the diamond underneath. You are still precious and worthy of love. Being raped by an animal did not change this.

I know several people who experienced animal rape as part of their child abuse. These people have been able to talk about it and heal from it. You can, too. The shame is not yours to bear.

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Plant (c) Lynda Bernhardt

In my last post, Working Through Shame After Child Abuse, I talked about how some forms of abuse are particularly degrading. Because of this, survivors of those forms of abuse might find it more challenging to overcome the shame involved from having been a victim of those forms of abuse.

Gang rape is one form of degrading abuse that is difficult for a person to work through. While a child might try to rationalize being raped by one person as that person being evil or insane, having a pack of people rape your body has no possible explanation. A group of people has decided together that you are nothing more than a sex toy to be exploited for their nefarious purposes, and you have no hope of escape. It is as if the people justify their actions as being okay because “everyone else is doing it.”

When a child is gang raped, there is no hope of escape. How can one little boy or girl possibly fend off several adults who could easily overpower the child one-on-one? And yet the child often walks away feeling as if she is responsible because there must be something wrong with her. She is the common denominator in this equation. There must be something so fundamentally wrong with her to incite a group of people to attack her in such a painful and degrading way.

Unfortunately, this thought process carries into adulthood. The child abuse survivor must find a way to come to terms with having been gang raped. This is not an easy thing to do.

If you have survived a gang rape, you are not alone. Unfortunately, gang rapes of children happen much more frequently than anyone wants to admit. You can heal from this pain. The gang rape was not your fault. There is nothing that a child could ever do to be responsible for falling victim to a gang rape. Your abusers are responsible for their own actions.

If you are not in therapy, I strongly recommend finding a qualified therapist with experience in counseling people who have been gang raped. Hearing a professional tell you that the rapes were not your fault is very powerful in helping to overcome the shame. The shame is not yours to bear.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Girl with bucket (c) Lynda Bernhardt

A friend of mine is struggling with feeling deep shame about a particularly traumatizing incident she suffered as a child. While it is so clear to all of her friends that she was not responsible, she is having a hard time working through the shame after this abusive incident.

Unfortunately, this is a common theme among survivors of child abuse. Child abuse survivors who suffered severe and ongoing trauma might label one particular incident of trauma or one form of abuse as even more shameful than the others. For example, a person who was both physically and sexually abused might feel deeper shame about one of the abuses, even though both were traumatizing.

People who suffered particularly degrading forms of abuse might attach even deeper shame to those events. Examples include gang rape, same sex rape, or animal rape. The child abuse survivor might have told herself that she was okay as long as X did not happen. Then, when she has a flashback of that very thing happening, she must face that she was not spared the one form of abuse that she most wanted to repress.

I faced this deep shame about one particularly degrading form of abuse. My sister, who suffered most of the same abuses that I did, asked me if I had recovered memories about this form of abuse. Her question triggered the memories, and I rapidly nosedived emotionally. Fortunately, I had a good support system in place because the urges to self-injure or die were nearly unbearable.

I had trouble looking anyone in the eye. I believed that this particular form of abuse was the one that put me over the edge and made me subhuman. I could not accept that I was an okay person after experiencing this form of abuse. I also could not believe that anyone would want to be around me if they knew about it.

What I came to realize was that nothing that anyone ever does to you can change the value of who you are. I was a precious diamond, and that did not change, no matter how much manure my abusers piled on top of me. I have been able to remove the manure, clean myself off, and I am now just as precious as I ever was. My abusers did not have the power to make me anything that I did not want to be. The power is in my hands, not theirs.

When it comes to child abuse, I have heard it all and experienced most. There is nothing that another person could ever do to you that will lessen your worth. You are a precious person exactly as you are.

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Microscopic View (c) Lynda Bernhardt

One of the most misunderstood disorders experienced by some child abuse survivors is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. The media has presented this disorder as if multiple people are sharing a body. However, this could not be further from the truth. DID is a way that an abused child compartmentalizes the pain, terror, and rage that she experienced while suffering severe trauma on an ongoing basis.

People do not develop DID unless their abuse begins at a very early age. While I have not read about any particular age cut-off from any resource, after informally polling numerous people who suffer from DID, I have found that the disorder generally develops if the abuse begins before age 6. I have yet to meet a person with DID whose abuse began after age 6.

Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori Method of Education, noted that a significant change in development happens when a child reaches age 6. For this reason, she divided classes into Primary (ages 3-6) and Lower Elementary (ages 6-9) so that the lessons for each age group could meet the needs of the child. I find it interesting that the change in development, or “sensitive period,” noted by Maria Montessori coincides with my informal polling of how young an abused child must be to develop DID.

To develop DID, a child’s abuse must be severe and ongoing. One traumatic event does not seem to be enough to cause a child to split her consciousness into multiple parts. The accumulated trauma is so great that one child could not survive the abuse without splitting into parts. This enables the child to compartmentalize the pain and still interact with the world as if the abuse is not occurring regularly.

By creating alter parts, the abused child is able to detach herself from the abuse. She can see the abuse as happening to someone who is “not me,” which becomes an alter part. Most people with DID have trouble accepting that the abuse happened to them because the memories and accompanying emotions feel separate.

As I shared in my last post, Book Review: Myth of Sanity, DID falls on the extreme end of the dissociation continuum. The disorder is a much more severe and more compartmentalized form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Rather than viewing DID as a “freaky” and unexplainable disorder, society should recognize the disorder as an amazing coping tool that enables very young children to survive horrendous abuse. DID is a highly effectively way to survive severe abuse and only becomes maladaptive when the abuse ends.

I am in the process of writing several articles about DID for ehow.com. If you would like to learn about integrating alter parts and other aspects of DID, be sure to check my ehow.com page in about a week.

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Myth of Sanity

One of the best books I have read about dissociation is Martha Stout’s The Myth of Sanity: Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness. I found this book after becoming aware of dissociating quite a bit without having recovered any memories of the abuse. I feared I might be going crazy and hoped that this book would provide me with some answers.

This book explained dissociation to me in a way that I could understand. The author says that dissociation runs on a continuum. On the far left, we have normal dissociation that everyone experiences. An example of this is “losing yourself” in a good movie. While you are caught up in the movie, you temporarily “forget” that you are surrounded by people in a dark room. In the middle of the continuum is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). On the far right is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder. Between PTSD and DID are all of the dissociative disorders that are more severe than PTSD without reaching the extreme of DID.

What’s funny is that I knew that I had a dissociative disorder while still being in denial about having PTSD. Anyone with a dissociative order, by definition, also struggles with PTSD. By seeing this on a continuum, it helped me to understand dissociation much better. Also, the continuum helped me to understand DID in a way that I had not beforehand.

The book shares stories of several patients who have struggled with various forms of dissociation. At the end of the book, the author shares a particularly powerful story about a patient who has healed from her past. The stories helped me to feel less alone and also gave me hope that, perhaps one day, I would be like the lady who healed at the end of the book. And now I am. :0)

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